By Scott Martin
In case you’ve yet to read any of my previous posts or don’t know my story, I currently coach a U15 boys select team and assist with Pacelli High School in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Pacelli is a small parochial academy with a roster of 14 on the team.
Last year, we invested playing time and a lot of patience in a backline that consisted of four freshmen. Braeden, Bennett, Cade, and Dakota absorbed numerous concepts which we now use as a base for the current season.
Building a program differs greatly from developing a team, but they do work together. But both depend on the progression of the individual players.
This season, with patience as a tool of progression, I have experienced leaps made by two players. Jacob is a sophomore that saw limited playing time in our midfield last year. Max worked with me on the United select team that I mentioned earlier. Max showed flashes of being an attacking player during our limited time together with United in 2019 and 2020.
Two weeks ago, Jacob was being utilized as a supporting midfield is a 3-5-2 system that promotes forward and overlapping play by the back playing midfielders. During training, he showed creativity that clamored for movement forward. But in match play, he stymied himself — the flare I saw in training was lacking. In my mind, I categorized it as a lack of confidence rather than a lack of ability.
Following a loss in which we saw a total collapse due to injuries and fatigue, Jacob’s father and I crossed paths on our way to the parking lot. I took the opportunity to mention that the player I see in training differs from the one that plays in games. I asked him if Jacob is overly critical of himself at home. “Oh, yes.” he responded with conviction.
Moments later, Jacob came to his father with a pen and paper to provide a note to Nick, our head coach, that he would be riding home with his father. “Jacob,” I said, “in order to be a quality soccer player you need to turn off your brain and play from your heart.” I went on to say. True to form, Jacob, like every player I’ve ever preached that phrase to said nothing but did hold his attention on me.
Patience. Sometimes that’s both the most important part of coaching AND the most difficult. Patience has made me successful.
During the next match, still playing in the supporting midfield role, Jacob began to take on opponents — both as a defender and as an attacker. Something had clicked. I trusted my gut on this.
During training the next day, I approached Nick and suggested that we switch systems to a backline that consisted of a compressed diamond of four (Braeden, Bennett, Cade, and Dak), plus a more traditional three midfielders, and three forwards. The central mid would be Jacob. Nick pondered this as I reminded him of Jacob’s play during our most recent match. “This may be a gamble, but if Jacob’s play is more free-flowing, our attack will be improved.” I stated during my pitch. “I’m sold. He’s a sophomore so we can get huge benefits if it works.” Nick said as he nodded in agreement.
During that same game, Max showed a confidence that had yet to be seen during match play. As a freshman, he’s still growing into his body. He reminds me of a fawn deer. He tries and is successful in juking an opponent, but his body lacks the burst of speed needed to get behind the other player. But in this match, he showed an understanding of how to attack space rather than just taking on an opponent.
Yesterday was a road match for us. As the bus was about to depart the parking lot, I asked Max to sit in the seat behind me for a moment. “You showed something in the last match. Something that I hadn’t seen during our United matches. You’re playing more from your heart.” I said. “Thank you. I have a ball in my room and when I can, I make it do things.” Max replied.
This made me pause. If you read my personal posts, you notice that I end each with “Let’s simplify the game” because I feel that the game has become more about coaches creating soccer robots than allowing them to become creative soccer players. Max had moved into that realm that I am striving for.
The match was on turf, so I went around to each player and reminded them to stay on their feet and avoid stepping into a fake. As did everyone, Jacob and Max matched my eyes and nodded. Basically, that was my only instruction to the players. Nick and I are in the “trust” phase of developing the program. Sometimes, that requires us to hold our collective breath.
As soon as the opening whistle began the clock, both players showed a creative flow and a soft touch on the ball. It was fun to watch. Perhaps they both had learned to turn off their brains and play from their hearts.
At the 25 minute mark, Jacob took a drop pass from Charlie, a senior forward, and placed the ball into the left side netting for our 2-0 lead. It was his second goal in the two matches since our parking lot conversation. There is still much to learn about controlling the flow of play as a central midfielder, but Jacob has set sail and seems to be on his way.
Constantly, Max was attacking the senior left back from his wide right position. But the bulky older player continuously closed in on him after Max playfully moved the ball toward goal. Max too may be growing into a free-flowing attacking player. The ultimate example came in the second half as he received our goal kick at the halfway line from his wide left position, turned, and took on his opponent as Sam, another of our two senior forwards called for a lateral pass. Instead, Max made a diagonal run of 30 yards, leaving three opponents behind before working a wall pass with Charle inside the box, only to have the goalkeeper tip his shot wide right.
Perhaps we have witnessed the progression of Jacob and Max. They’re young enough and eager enough to learn. They’ve experienced playing from their hearts. I believe they’ve bought into it. But the true test will be if they accept the errors that will come with that progression. I’ll be patient.
Let’s simplify the game.