By Scott Martin
Note: This post was written before COVID-19 changed everything.
Actually, the title of this post is one of my Principles of Play at number nine. As I begin writing, this is either going to be a long or short entry.
In an earlier post, I referenced former coach at the University of North Carolina and the U.S. Women’s National Team, Anson Dorrance. Before focusing solely on building the women’s program at UNC, Dorrance also coached the UNC men. He once stated that, in regards to self-confidence, the men needed to be knocked down a notch, and women needed to be built up. Having coached boys high school and girls and women at the high school and college levels, I agree. But BOTH have a difficult time LEARNING to turn off their brain and ALLOWING themselves to play from their heart.
Without going far backward in time, I can point to my return to coaching after taking nearly 20 years off to raise my five kids. My first competitive team was a group of 12-year-olds within a large club in Washington. Having been away from soccer for such a long period I was given the C-team, the players that failed to make the top two teams in the age group. These were the castoffs, the kids that the selecting coaches saw as lacking technical skills, physical ability and size, and tactical awareness.
I saw it differently. I saw players that had been built into robots through coaches that used too many discs in training and gave far too much direction in match play. I saw soccer rats that just needed to be allowed to develop.
At our first training session, I too laid out discs. But mine were to create three 20×20 yard grids within which included three yellow pinnies and one soccer ball. I told the boys to divide into groups of six and play 3v3 keep away. I then slowly walked to my gear that rested in the center circle and cranked up the volume of my Bluetooth portable speaker and let the deep Blues sounds of R.L. Burnside create an ambiance. Not surprisingly, most of the guys stood clueless. I turned down R.L. a bit and gave one simple instruction: “Just play!”.
It took most of the summer to get the kids to move past Phase One: Turn off your brain. Playing from their male ego, it was easy to motivate the boys to prove themselves against the top two teams of the club. While the top team refused to play us, during our first scrimmage against the second team, we lost by five. It took two weeks to take a lead which we lost. And it took six weeks to finally hold a lead. At the same time, this group of castoffs or Soccer Rats as I called them, went from failing to qualify for the playoff round of a tournament to making the Final. It was the end of summer but they had finally learned to turn off their brains and simply “play”.
We lost 1-0 in that tournament Final. It was one of THOSE matches. You know, hit the post four times and the crossbar another two while the opponent had one shot — scoring on a 30-yard free-kick. I gave the boys a week off as the school year started. But before we began training for the upcoming state league schedule, I met with each player and their parents individually to provide an honest evaluation of their summer play. At the end of every meeting, I asked each player how the tournament final loss felt. Each and every player used the same words in response: “It hurt”. Many had tears running down their cheeks as they spoke. That’s when I knew the boys were ready to move on to Phase Two: Play from your heart.
Here’s an opportunity to shorten this entry . . . The boys went on to win the state league undefeated.
I’ve learned to shorten the learning curve a bit since that group of 12-year-old soccer rats. Last Fall, I assisted with a boy’s high school team and started with my current U14 boy’s select team. It was a busy Fall but it was also very rewarding.
As the assistant with the high school team, I was in charge of the goalkeepers and backs plus providing match analysis and tactical schemes. I started with a junior center back, Sam, and an inexperienced group of freshmen as we began down the difficult path of getting them to turn off their brains. Technically, they were rough and they lacked confidence. Because our attack was built around one player, opponents began to shut him down and we faltered. But there was a creative, attacking player coming out of Sam; he had learned to play from his heart.
With one-third of the season gone and a sub .500 record to show for it, we made a bold move by sending Sam up top and handing the reins of the defense over to the four freshmen. The conversation about making the change was like sitting at a high stakes poker table in Las Vegas holding a pair of fives while calling after being raised three times. I had to get those young players to buy into what I was selling. The first match was a bit ugly, but because the head coach and I didn’t openly waver (privately, this wasn’t the case), the young backs went on to a goals-against-average of a bit over 1.0 and a winning record.
Now with my U14 boys: All winter during our indoor training they’ve heard me preach “It’s okay to make mistakes.” and “Accept your mistakes in training.” plus “If you’re not making mistakes during training, you’re not training properly.” into their heads. I believe we’ve worn off a bit of their male ego and they now understand what it means to “Turn off your brain and play from your heart”. I know they’re champing at the bit to return to training and I can’t wait to watch them play in their first match. But, I also know that they’re going to take a step backward in order to make their next two forwards. They’re not soccer robots. They’re creative soccer players.
Let’s simplify the game.