When was the “game the best teacher?” Maybe it was when kids played in the neighborhood with older kids who played at a higher level and knew more about the game than the younger ones. That sure isn’t what happens now. Maybe it was when kids watched older ones and then practiced what they saw and improvised from there…those kids repeated the moves and touches over and over again until they “got it”…and then embellished it to make it their own! Perish the thought…they drilled themselves until they had control of whatever. Dirty word “drilled.” Sorry about that.
* Does this type of development happen now and if so how often?
* Who encourages this type of repetitive technical practice and where are the kids who are working for mastery of a technique on their own?
Our system rewards wins. It rewards wins at every level. Wins justify fees. Wins get the kids scholarships? Wins mean the players are “good” and ready for the next level? Wins save coaches their jobs.
I watch professional, collegiate, high school, club, and even a few U12 games and practices at every level every year. As a country, we’re technically ignorant and ill prepared. We’re nowhere near where we need to be right now.
When was the last time coaches went somewhere to hear more about teaching the side volley? Goalkeeper coaches seem to be the only ones always looking for new ways to improve technique. Maybe that’s why our goalkeepers do better at high levels than our field players in Europe. Everyone has been looking for the “magic tactic” that they can employ that their competition might not have an answer to. That will equal more wins for their teams. Small-side games are frequently created to teach decision making. Endless amounts of small-sided games are supposed to equal mastery of the tactics and techniques. What happens when the players can’t do the exercise? More teaching goes on about how to do the exercise than correction of the technical errors that create the confusion about how to do the exercise correctly in the first place. Add to that the need to do it faster and faster to approach match speed and what have you got going on for the players?
I’ve been around the game for a long time now, and I keep forgetting that the game is the best teacher so long as the coach recognizes the teachable moment and implements the proper steps to correct the technique issue the coach sees. However, what happens if the players can’t make the passes required? That’s a simple one…change tactics because we aren’t teaching the techniques to make the passes happen. The game was the best teacher when younger players played with older ones who were willing to help the younger ones “get it.” Where does that happen today except on a basketball court in New York?
Now everyone assumes that the teaching of techniques and basic tactics should have gone on before they get the player. If the player doesn’t “get it” immediately, they’re a “throw-away” item and the coach looks for a new player.
How can we take advantage of the coolest tactics and formations ever devised by coaches when the players are the product of a system based on a throw-away development process?
Players at every level are expendable. They come to us at every level because they think, and we think, they can move up. We teach tactics and decide their future based on how well they execute the tactics. How much work is put into the development of pure technique and then raised to the level of skill? I maintain that there is so little emphasis on this idea that the technical ability at every level is woefully lacking…and it’s our fault as coaches.
When are we, as the coaches, going to “get it?” You can’t take full advantage of a tactic if you can only play comfortably with one side of your body. Time after time I watch players make unrewarded runs, not because of some subtle defensive move but because of a lack of confidence or outright lack of technical competency to make the pass, especially if they are longer passes. When we are finally fed up with these players, we throw them away…and we get new ones we hope will make the better technical moves demanded by our latest tactics. We blame their lack of development on the players themselves and the people who coached them earlier.
If I were a professional league coach the pressure to win and salary cap maneuvering would make approaches to the problem different, up to a point. If the player isn’t getting it done, does it make sense to have a technical coach work with the player to have a chance to improve so that the player is ultimately better for me plus worth more on the market later? That can’t happen currently because unlike every other major sport in this country, we don’t have technical coaches. Either we’re much smarter than the other sports are…or we flat out don’t know much about teaching technique so we mask it with smoke and mirrors tactics that hide the weaker players. So many players are being switched to opposite sides of the field to compensate for the relative ineffectiveness of the “weak side” of their body or the weakness to come inside of the players who normally play wide. It is destroying the concept of creating total players while killing off positions and style.
When you’re watching a game, did you ever notice how often the teams seem to choose to counterattack and penetrate on the side of the field that the attack against them just occurred? Unless the opponent concedes some space, they don’t switch the point of attack very often, and when they do, the relay around through the backs is so slow the other team gets to shift over and re-balance itself. Oops, another mistake on my part…they all over shift to more than half way across the width of the field offering the team all the excuse it needs to keep going in against their increasing numbers! I’m so out of touch with the modern game, I guess; that I keep thinking that the defense is begging me to switch the point of attack to the other side of the field…but that would take someone with the skill to drive a ball knee high across the field. That would also take mastery of a special technique through repetitive practice in order to do it with both feet. That isn’t how to train players these days because they get bored with that kind of practice and besides it shows the coach is out of touch with the players and the newest training ideas?
The basic laws of the game seem no longer to apply, of course…
* or we wouldn’t counter into a defense that out numbers us on a wing side of the field,
* or we wouldn’t allow the cross,
* or we would get immediate pressure on the ball and not allow players to look up and pass wherever they like,
* or we would defend with one more than they have up front.
But of course I’ve been around so long I think that the basic laws of the game do still apply!
Years ago I watched a famous American professional soccer player practicing left-foot side volleys. He couldn’t get consistent service. How do you groove a stroke if you don’t get consistent service? Once the mechanics of the stroke are under control then, of course, one works to achieve match levels of execution. Not one coach had a thought about how to give him consistent service other than to kick it in to him. When he was struggling to get the ball turned to goal, not one coach walked up to him and told him how to get his foot over the ball or how to get his hips re-positioned to make the movement easier to control. Where was the technical coach to help him? If he were a professional golfer his swing coach would have been working with him.
How often do you see evidence that we learn from successful training programs in other sports? Every major professional team in this country… except soccer…has technical coaches for their players. We only see it for goalkeepers in soccer but not for field players. Coerver is a training system for a player that breaks the dribbling training issue into steps that, once learned, enables anyone to teach their players.
We should have been developing training of all the techniques in this format years ago. How much do we study how our sister American sports teach technique? Do we learn from them? Other nations have looked at our basketball’s multiple defenses very carefully. Do we see anything to be gained from employing their tactics and street smarts in our game? Certainly, the Europeans will evolve their game faster than we can play catch-up. We always talk about an “American” style but inevitably we copy the Europeans.
Years ago in a meeting with the chairman of the NASL’s Competition Committee, in answer to the question of how to speed up the development of our players, I proposed using circular TV and holographic images to increase exponentially the exposure to quality opponents of our players. When will we utilize the technology to allow us to get our field players caught up? If our technical ability was up to standard and we had an American style, the Europeans might be chasing us for a change.
All this assumes that as coaches we actually know how to teach technique and then elevate it to skill in a match. If some of the college coaches think that the players today are less technically competent than they were 20 years ago, then whose failure is that?
Of course this may all be academic if today’s coaches are a product of the “throw-away” system themselves, are they going to turn to the NSCAA for technique training or do they think they are beyond that? Maybe they believe technique training should be done at a lower level than where they are coaching, leaving them free to be seeking the “magic tactics” that will equate to wins…and that simply continues the downward technical spiral!
Winning certainly matters at a lot of high schools, at most colleges, and at all clubs; and all professional programs. Yet when we look at those levels of the game:
* where are the imaginative tactics?
* where are the players with flair that can lend excitement to the game?
* where are the games that aren’t like watching reruns?
I saw a few…and they made the blood rush!
We can’t even tell how good our coaches actually are because the players probably can’t execute the imaginative tactics that our coaches can envision…so we blame the coaches for mediocre performances at all levels.
* Are the players to blame at all for this mess? I don’t think they are exempt from criticism either. How many come to the coach eager for more ideas on how to improve themselves as players? How many are looking for new techniques to master? Most are getting to the next level after years of hearing how good they are. When they get to the next level, and I’m thinking of college now, it is their first experience with playing in an open age group and playing with players to whom they have to prove themselves.
Many even show up believing that they are beyond needing technical training and think that a coach who is trying to improve their technique is out of touch. If they fit into the program they may get 10% better but how many really blossom into something special? Is that the coach’s fault or the fault of a soccer system that doesn’t value the technical coach as part of the system at any advanced level of the game?
* What complicity lies with the parents in this mess? It lies in the idea that if their child plays for the club with the most wins, and costs the most to join, that somehow this will lead to their child having a scholarship. They frequently leave clubs that were trying to give the player a solid technical foundation for a club that wins more. The parents don’t even think about whether their child actually learned all there was to learn from the coaches that made them attractive to other clubs.
Who nurtures this attitude in them? Is it the clubs and their PR programs? Is it the colleges who don’t make any clear statements that programs that produce the best technical/tactical players don’t always have to win to get their attention? Many parents are obsessed with reducing the stress and frustration that is often required to meet the challenges that produce players that are better skilled and stronger mentally. How many parents want to see their child technically challenged repeatedly and hardened to the point that they can compete with people who play to eat?
* Are referees complicit in our failure to develop better technical players? Yes…however, I do not believe it is intentional at all. We need our referees to be more protective of the players at all levels so technical flair can be nurtured and on display. Increasingly, the game is getting more rugby-like. Aggressiveness is being substituted for defensive 1v1 skill. Physically threatening play when they’re young is down to ineptness. Overly physical play when they’re older is down to style and, after all, they’re grown ups. To some degree, referees should be the guardians of the beautiful game as much as enforcers of its laws.
We have a few oases in this technical desert where the premier clubs and high schools are focused more on technical development and believe that winning will come. Only the most secure clubs can afford to tell a parent that they are going to focus on technical development and not worry about their winning until they are U14 and up, and if they don’t get it, they should take their child somewhere else.
Until we find a way around the complexity of this mess we are going to continuously look at coaches who have to work with what they can get, and then take the blame for the mediocre level of the game…some of which they deserve and some of which they don’t.
Of course, there is a relatively simple partial solution:
* Create more technical coaches and use them to improve the players we have now and those we will get in the future.
* Technical coaches are the first step.
* Position coaches are the second step.
* Use the technology we have in the USA that we pioneered.
* UEFA is a step ahead of what we need first.
Think about this…If the “game is the best teacher,” then all I have to do is play 3,000 rounds of golf and I would be nearly as good as Tiger Woods!
Written by Guest blogger Gary Avedikian. Gary is the former Head Men’s Soccer Coach at The Ohio State University, NSCAA President and is an NSCAA Master Coach.