Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Let’s Simplify the Game

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By Scott Martin

While driving this morning, I heard a discussion about “old school” versus “new school” coaching baseball on MLB Network on SiriusXM. As the co-hosts bantered about the use of statistics today and how managers rely heavily on matchups between the pitcher and hitter and aligning the field players to defend against certain hitters, one of the show hosts laid it out simply by telling the story of playing baseball as kids at the neighborhood diamond without coaches. “Players have lost their instincts of how to play the game. They’re over coached!” He blurted. In regards to soccer as well, I couldn’t agree more.

The discussion regarded baseball, but it made me reflect on what we all saw from Brazil during the 2014 World Cup. During qualifying and in the tournament they no longer played a style reminiscent of “the beautiful game”. They lacked creativity. They stopped dancing with the ball. They played with too much structure. We saw much of the same from Argentina in 2018. Italy and Netherlands, two historically significant creative teams failed to even qualify for that World Cup. The days of Dutch “Total Football” seem long gone.

I left coaching college soccer to become a full-time father of what ended up being five adopted children from Romania and Ethiopia. I remained involved with the game as an administrator and youth coach for my kids at the recreational level. I was taught that, because we had been players, we owed something to soccer. We were expected to pass on our knowledge and love for the game.

A few years ago and once all my kids were either in college, the military, or settled into high school, I returned to coaching at the select youth level. I was jonesing for some competition. I was hired by a club that paid quite well, but also charged a lot for kids to play. The club home site was nice and the equipment was quality as were the training kits and match uniforms. The game had certainly changed during my nearly 20 years away from the competitive level.

When I arrived at the facility with its green fields, I noticed something different about my surroundings. It wasn’t the bleachers, lights, and scoreboards that surrounded the new artificial turf fields within the fenced area and the numerous grass fields that surrounded the clubhouse. It was the regimentation that I witnessed within the white lines of the fields that made me stop my stride.

Growing up with soccer in the 1970s we dreamt of fields like this. My mouth dropped open as I carried my backpack that had everything I would need for my first training session inside toward my assigned field. All around me were disc cones. Sure, in my bag were two sets of 25 white and blue discs that I use to designate lines (white) and either spots or grids (blue). What I saw scattered on these fields reminded me of a Jackson Pollock abstract expressionist painting. Blue, green, red, yellow, orange — all the colors of the rainbow and a few more from a 64-pack of Crayolas. “How the hell do the players understand what’s going on?” I thought to myself after I stopped to absorb one session. It seemed like the coach had laid out a maze within which his mice were to dribble the soccer ball from point A to point B and so forth to somewhere after M in the alphabet.

I smiled, shook my head and continued to my field where more than half a dozen of my players were knocking around their soccer balls 20 minutes before our session was scheduled to begin. No discs. Just each player with a ball. “Now that’s more like it” I happily thought. Once I arrived inside the center circle, I removed my cell phone from my bag and linked it to my portable speaker (I like music during training sessions — more on that in a future entry). By the time I removed my discs and two sets of six yellow and red pinnies, all the players were ready to begin. It was time for some “old school” training.

My point? We need to allow players to provide their input. As coaches, we need to keep our remarks brief and stop building robots. We need to promote creativity.

Let’s simplify the game.

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