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Good Soccer

17 Mar

As a former coach, I have been fascinated watching both Aidan (U9) and Evan (U8) play their matches this spring.

Evan’s Future Academy group has transitioned from playing 3v3 soccer last fall into 4v4 (including a goalkeeper) this spring. The coaches have placed a heavy emphasis on shape, playing out from the back and using back passes to help open space.

When I coached Aidan in U8 last spring, we spent a lot of time trying to get a basic shape established and get the players to see that straight ahead wasn’t the only direction to play the ball. With Evan still two months shy of seven years old, he has learned to maintain shape, play the direction he’s facing, and work with teammates in a pressure and coverage defensive scheme.

Game days are also a dramatic change from recreation soccer experience. Parents aren’t screaming the whole game to shoot and pass. The kids talk on the field. Far less time is spent out of the game waiting to substitute. Even probably spent 60 minutes playing yesterday and 10 minutes waiting to play. Most recreation soccer was a 50/50 playing and sitting mix.

Aidan and his team have really shown improvement as well, both since the start of play last summer and the tournament a month ago.

One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in Aidan is also related to shape, timing and placement of runs. Adan has become stronger at knowing where space is open and looking to be open for the pass.

He’s also taken up a leadership role on the field – looking to ensure that opponents are covered on throw-ins and other dead ball situations. It’s all been really great to see in him.

His level of confidence with the ball has increased versus fall as well.

Academy soccer has been a great experience so far. Both our sons have developed a lot of skill, and become smarter in play. Consistency in training groups and teammates also has allowed them to extend friendships with teammates. More often when they return home from school, they are outside with a ball playing instead of inside on electronics.

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Approaching the Finale

10 May

Saturday marks the final matches of our U6 and U8 team schedules.

Last Saturday showed some big improvements in our team versus prior performances. The team is continuing to play calmly and many of the players have progressed in their skills.

Most of all, everyone has acquired a new level of confidence.

One more player scored his first goal of the season. Another player who was on my teams going back to U7 last spring had his best game and came within a post’s width of scoring his first goal.

It’s shaping up to be a good season in retrospect.

We have one training session and 48 minutes of game before my coaching career comes to an end with the U8 team.

I’d really like to sit down Saturday and let the game happen. I want to give the players more freedom than usual Saturday to play the game.

I’m excited and sad for the end of the season and coaching. It’s time to move to the other sideline and enjoy watching my kids play.

When Players Can Stay Calm, They Can Succeed

30 Apr

Two weeks ago we played a match and got caught up in the other side’s game of booting the ball as hard and far as possible.

Saturday morning was the opposite – while our opponent often sent the ball far down field, we managed to keep composure and play the soccer that we wanted to play.

Post spring break, our lead scorer had seen a change in his playing behavior.  While earlier in the season he had been a great dribbler and used skills to beat defenders, after the break he had a tendency to pull the trigger much earlier and was shooting from just inside of midfield (albeit with power).  The result was the ball going high over the goal or wide of the goal.

Saturday I focused my pre-game preparation with them on playing possession (keep-away) and then gave them some specific roles on the field.

Our Goalkeepers and Defenders need to make a smart pass to a player in open space.

Receiving players need to carry the ball up the pitch until they encounter resistance.  When they meet resistance they need to work on finding a teammate or beating the opponent with a good turn or move.

Shots should be taken closer to the box and then followed to pick up rebounds.

Our forward needs to pressure the ball in our offensive half when we lose possession.

But more than anything, I tried to emphasize staying calm and taking your time on the ball.

One of our parents this week brought a portable bench – and I took a seat as the game started and talked with our substitute player during the first quarter of the game.  I’ve always tried to say less specific instruction during the game – but perhaps being seated with a player took this a step further and relieved some pressure from the players on the field.

We put two goals in the net in the first quarter through using skills and persistence on defense.  The second quarter went by scoreless and then we scored three more in the second half.

We kept a clean sheet for the first time this season (and the first of any team I’ve coached).  There was good luck involved in that – one of their shots bounced off of the post – but we also kept them out of the box and our goalkeeper was rarely hung out solo in the back with the defender beat by a move.

We had two players score their first goals of the season!  That brings a total of five different players on our team that have scored this season.  This is a better ratio than I’ve seen on any of the U7 or U8 teams I’ve coached over the past fourteen months.

We have two matches left this season – I’m hoping we can continue what we did Saturday into the last two weeks of the season.

Consumers No Longer

24 Apr

In the Fall, I noted that my sons were living on the edge of being consumers and participants on their soccer team and with soccer in general.

Both were in a place with soccer that they didn’t pick up the ball between practices and didn’t work on their skills for their Fast Track training regularly enough to improve.  They enjoyed practice, and they enjoyed their match – but they were not investing time in playing away from the confines of the team.

With three weeks of practices and matches left in our Spring season, I can stay that both have moved themselves solidly into participants and often are creators.

Evan (soon to be six years old) has been really well engaged with improving himself in Soccer – or just playing more, even if it’s by himself.  He will go outside with a ball and work on dribbling and juggling, or find me to play 1v1, passing or any other skills he can think of.

Aidan has also improved himself.  We worked on Saturday afternoon after his game – he wanted to help me prepare for my match on Sunday.  He came up with some drills for us to run.

When they get together, they’ve started playing more 1v1 against each other.  I sometimes join them as a neutral player that they can pass and receive from.

It’s a really positive step to see both of them take.

I think there’s a wide range of contributing factors that have helped move to this step.

Pickup Soccer through the winter months and during Spring break was a big step for both of them.  It removed each of them from the “spectacle” of youth sports and placed them into an environment where neither was a dominant player but that both could learn from older players.

The interest that the Premier League and Champions League matches in recent weeks have brought to our home has also been a factor.  While both have been watching at least parts of matching, it gives a lot of inspiration to dreams and conversation.  Just like my brother and I would play the World Series when we would play baseball as a child, my kids are playing Chelsea versus Barcelona (Drogba versus Messi) in the front yard.

Finally, I think both see themselves in some shape as a leader on their soccer teams.  In both cases, they are among the leading scorers on their teams.  Evan has taken to helping some of his newer teammates on his U6 team with skills work.  Both have a firm understanding of the sport’s rules and during practice take on a leading role in scrimmages for restarts and disputes.

As a Dad, and a Coach – it’s rewarding to see.  It gives me a lot of confidence that they can move on to be coached by others and even participate in our club’s Academy to higher success.  While I don’t claim that either will be the most talented player on their team – they are already taking steps to convert work ethic into on-field performance.

We Played Ugly Soccer

14 Apr

We played a team that played ugly soccer, and we reflected their style after the first twelve minutes.

Both of our teams were back in action today after a two Saturday hiatus for spring break.  Going into the break, we had played both days of a weekend and then took two Fridays (practices) and two Saturdays off.  Friday night we practiced and this afternoon was our game.

I wouldn’t say our U8 team is great by any definition.  We have a mix of players – but in the last couple games before the break, we started to show signs of playing intelligent football.  Our goalkeeper and defender distributed the ball to the rest of the field players well, and we generally did a good job of defending and closing down the opponent’s space.  My goals with our team though have been to emphasize playing under control, maximizing dribbling times and making controlled passes as a decision versus instinctive deep kicks.

Within the first twelve minutes, I could see that our opponent didn’t have these goals in mind.  The defender’s first touch sent the ball deep, and the other team regularly knocked the ball out of bounds when trying to close down an attacker.

In U8, it’s not necessarily a bad style of play if you consider the outcomes.  By sending the ball deep downfield, you get instant penetration and you might be able to regularly achieve a 1v1 situation with a defender plus the goalkeeper or even 1v1 against the keeper.

Our team was easily influenced by watching our opponents play this way – and I think our parents as well.  We came off the field after the first twelve minutes for subsitutions tied at one – their goal the result of a throw-in that the other team moved past our cluster of players to open space on the opposite side and our one goal the result of intercepting the ball in the midfield, a good dribble and shot.

But the opposition moved a bigger-legged kid to defender in the second quarter – and he regularly blasted the ball downfield on first touch (there were a few that bounced once before going out of bounds on the opposite end.)  The crowd cheered every time the kid blasted it away.

And soon our kids were seduced to the dark side.

We talked at half time about it.

I asked our team, “How many goals did they score in the second quarter from all of those big kicks?”

“None.”

“Do you think they work to help score goals?”

“Maybe.”

“How?”

Silence.

I encouraged the team to return to playing with our eyes, ears and heads in the second half.

When the third quarter hit, our defender’s first touch had the same crushing impact – the ball rocketing downfield before going out of bounds.  After a few minutes, ping-pong set in and I knew we were done for the day.

I sat down for several minutes rather than say anything more.  My words were lost versus the cheers from the parents sideline.

Our opponents scored one more in the third quarter, and then we pulled even in the fourth.  Another member of our team scored his first goal of the season.

We did have some positives this week – most notably on throw-ins.  While we still had problems with making legal throw-ins (as usual in any U8 match) we found a lot more open space this week on throws and regularly chose not to throw the ball into a cluster of the other team.  Progress!

Next week I’m hoping to address the ugly play in practice though – I just need a plan of how to get there.

Optimism

9 Apr

My son Evan, all of five years old tonight asked me how Barcelona FC found Lionel Messi.  I explained to him in a short way about scouts and the youth academy system in Europe.

He thinks for a minute.

He then says to me, “Dad, I think I need to go to Manchester City instead.  I don’t know many Spanish words.”

It is fabulous how the mind of a five year old dreams, isn’t it?

Cultivating Love of the Game

27 Mar

It’s amazing the speed at which enjoyment of the sport can turn into a love of the game.

Evan started playing team soccer about nineteen months ago.  At that point, I didn’t know if he would enjoy it.  He enjoyed playing it in U5 and became successful quickly.

But in the past seven months he’s gone from enjoying playing the sport to having a passion for everything about soccer – the culture, the gear, playing the game on Wii and watching the matches on Television.  This morning when the television came on during breakfast he watched several minutes of Fox Soccer’s highlight show.

His favorite player: FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi.  I think that comes from his shared uniform number (10), Messi’s domination on the FIFA 12 game, and probably an allegiance to a similarly sized player to him.

It’s fascinating to watch the games with him, but I would love to see it through his eyes.  I’m hoping in the next few days he can express what he sees and what it’s like for him to play and experience soccer.