Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Regression and the Male Ego

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By Scott Martin

Note: This post was written before COVID-19 turned life upside down.

I get ideas for training sessions and now blogging about soccer when relaxed. That can be in the shower or while watching a mindless television show. This one came to me during my morning ride on the stationary recumbent bike. I wish the title of this entry would be “Regression OF the Male Ego” but perhaps that will be the title of an entry in the Spring after we’ve concluded our indoor training and prepare for league and tournament play.

Living in Central Wisconsin, the winter months force training to be done indoors. Without a dedicated indoor soccer facility in our community, we use school gymnasiums. This is the first year for these ’06 players at the select level. Having gone through tryouts, these boys stood out for their speed of play. There is some true talent here. During our first month together, they became even faster, both in their footwork and as a group tactically. Their scrimmage play has progressed from 3-4 touches to a comfort level of 1-2 touches as we continue to focus on aggressive group attacking. 

Part of training in school gyms is being forced to take time off due to basketball and music recitals scheduled in the gym that we use. Last week was one of those times that forced us to skip a session and it showed. Though the little things that the boys can work on at home such as jumping rope and messing around with a ball in the basement remained consistent, their scrimmage play took a full step backward. 

I’ve seen this many times before during my 40 years in coaching. These kids will be okay. Last night, I saw this regression as a learning opportunity. Notice that I didn’t state “teaching opportunity”. That’s because I follow the credo “My mission is not to teach you but to put you in a position to learn”. Halfway through their 4v4 play, one of our most creative players, Andrew, missed an opportunity to release pressure by tapping a simple backheel pass. Shortly after that Cole hesitated on taking a shot and Max did the same moments later. 

The learning opportunity grabbed me by the throat as I popped from my position off the floor. “FREEZE” I yelled. As I slowly paced onto the playing area and scanned to catch all eyes, I nodded to each of the three players in question and stated the contrast between their previous creativity and lack thereof here. “When you show up to training . . . when you step into our scrimmages . . . and by God when the whistle blows to start a match . . .” I used pauses between my points to increase impact. I went on “You MUST accept mistakes in training. Mistakes are part of learning . . . IF you want to improve.”

As coaches, we have to expect both progression and regression. You know, taking two steps forward after taking one step back. Coaching, much like parenting, is a crazy ride. Sometimes we need to drop the convertible top, crank some Tom Petty, put the foot on the gas and hit it. 

And as coaches, we need to end our training sessions by tying loose ends. My tailored statements during scrimmage play were part one of a two-part series. After our final “first goal wins” of the evening, I quickly brought the boys together to tie those loose ends. “We’re taking a chance by training to increase our speed of attack.” I started. “By applying pressure on you, you become vulnerable to self-criticism when you make errors. You MUST accept failure as being part of your learning. You MUST not allow your male ego get in your way . . . You MUST leave your ego out of your training.” Whether or not my point hit home will be learned in the coming weeks.

Coaching legend at the University of North Carolina and architect of the USWNT, Anson Dorrance, actually started his career working with both the men’s and women’s programs at UNC. In regards to the ego, he described the difference between coaching men and women clearly by stating that men need to be broken down and women need to be built up. I believe he referred to males tending to be overly confident and females lacking a bit in confidence. That was written more than 20 years ago and society has improved in promoting women in stronger roles. But there is a long way to go.

Though both male and female athletes tend to shy from situations where they do not excel, I have found it takes more for males to venture out of their comfort zones for fear of criticism than females. That all too tough of a facade often stops the male athlete from moving forward. They often become robotic and less creative. 

This is where I am with my ’06 male select players. I need to chip away at their tough outer shell and get them to buy into the mindset that mistakes are part of learning. All of us learned to walk by accepting failure. We stood, we fell. We stood, took a step, and fell. We stood, took two steps then fell and continued the process hundreds of times. Coaching can be the same. I must accept failure as well.

Let’s simplify the game.

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