Thursday, October 23, 2014

Patience and Perspective

Under the lights and in the fog during the boys tournament in Taunton over Columbus Day weekend.
Two weeks to go. We are coming to the end of the season and well, it's about time. All that stands between us and free weekends is two games for Matty and a home tournament for Noah… oh, that and 3 more practices each. Still, one more road game up in Lancaster, MA and then everything local until March. I'm not a big fan of indoor soccer as a game, but I am a fan of more relaxed weekends. 

Some observations from nearly two months of soccer.

Players develop at different rates. We have one boy on Matty's team who, in an 8 on 8 game was the best player on the field. For the  U11 and fall U12 season, we'd anxiously await for him to arrive at the field (usually about 10 minutes before game time) because he made such a difference. Then the boys went to a full-field 11 v 11 game. It requires more speed and stamina, and other players have grown into it but he has yet to. 

Parents often lack patience more than kids do. Soccer is such a dynamic sport - it requires so much anticipation and mental focus. Skills that are learned at different rates (see above). It's easy for a 40-year old whose been playing soccer for 30 years to see in his mind how the play's going to develop. Harder for a 10-year-old whose been playing competitive soccer for a year to do so. 

Parents also often lack perspective. Matty's team is playing in the highest level competition in New England. We draw from the smallest state in the country and are playing against some of the best teams in all of New England. It would be unrealistic to think we'd go undefeated as we did in the Spring. Yr

It's obvious when you watch 9 and 10-year-olds in warm ups and on the bench that they are very much kids first, soccer players second. No matter how serious the competition, that's true for 12-year-olds too. Sometimes, they are so big and so skilled that it's easy to forget that.

On a personal note, it's been great to see both boys develop this season. I can see improvement in their play since the season began. Noah is playing more aggressively and enjoying being on the team; he's scored a few goals and is playing with both feet - a goal he set out for himself this year. Matthew's also playing more aggressively and has really improved taking long balls out of the air. He's played at virtually every position (save goalie and center back) and had some really strong games. 

This Saturday is my last game of the season for the house rec league, too. One of the real rewards of this coaching season has been to see the development of one of the weaker players on the team, who in the last two weeks has really shown great progress. Hopefully, he and we all have a good game on Saturday. It may be my last game as a youth soccer coach.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Big Fish Small Fish

Matthew and Noah are both talented soccer players.

I need to say that up front because it colors the rest of this post. But I say that, too, to remind me of that. Whenever there’s been an opportunity to make a tournament team or a top travel team, they’ve been given that chance. But playing for those top teams comes with a cost – not a monetary cost, although there’s plenty of that --  but a lost opportunity to be the star of the team – to be the big fish.

On a team full of all-stars – as their respective teams are – neither one of them is a star. Each is a contributor, a role player, a supporting cast member, a small-to-medium size fish in an increasingly big pond.

This was acutely illustrated for both boys last weekend.  First, some backstory. Matty joined his Bruno club in the fall of 2011. He made a team that was scrounging for players. As the team grew – from getting thrashed that first fall, to winning most of their games in the spring – he grew with it. And when tryouts for the fall of 2012 team, we weren’t surprised for him to make the club again.  Fast forward another successful year, one which included a championship season, a State Cup victory, and competition against some of the top teams in the nation at the regionals, and we have tryouts for 2013. This year, the tryouts were so full of talented kids that Bruno formed two teams for his age group and Matthew was invited to be on the A team.  Others from the last two years weren’t.

This weekend Matthew had the chance to play for both teams. For the morning game for the A team – which plays in the highest bracket in New England -- he looked solid, created some scoring chances and contributed indirectly to the team’s 4-2 win. In the afternoon game for the B team, which plays one notch down (but still at a very competitive level), he made a significant impact, setting up two goals and creating many chances. He played with confidence and ease. Small fish/big fish.

Noah, meanwhile, also had two games. In his house/rec league game,  he was probably the strongest player on perhaps either side of the ball. He was determined, aggressive and at times dominant. The next day at his game for the town’s top travel team,  he was less aggressive and at times content to let others on his team do the work. Big fish/small fish.

I’ve been wrestling with what’s better for the boys. It seems like a trade off between developing confidence and developing skill. Most people will say that to get better you have to play against the best.  But that also means you’re playing with the best on your side of the ball, which means you’re playing with a lot of kids who are used to being big fish. And in a pond full of big fish, it can be hard to find room to swim.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Defining Success

If you measured success by the score, Noah's house team had a rough go of it today. I really don't keep track of scores, but it doesn't take a student of the game to observe that it was a pretty lopsided game, particularly the first half when one of our better field players was in goal -- facing an onslaught -- and two of our other more experienced players weren't there.

But my definition of success, I think the team had a great day. Even when the score was the most lopsided, they worked hard -- probably even harder  (Satisfying rule #1: Play Hard) and outplayed their opponents in the second half. And because we only had one sub, everyone got a lot of playing time and probably more touches on the ball than they would when our full team was there.

More importantly, regardless of the score, no one was griping at each other or pointing fingers and assigning blame. (See rule #2: Play Fair.) In fact, if we had any problem today it was some of the players taking too much responsibility for things that were beyond their control.

Equally importantly: when I ran into some parents later in the day, they offered up how much fun their son was having on the team. (See rule #4.)  And most of them even listened to their coach today (rule #3) Okay, we still have to work on that, but they are 9 and 10-year-olds after all.

I think their coach (that would be me) has to work on less direction from the sideline. It's easy to be quiet when you have 5 out of 6 kids in position and knowing where to go and you're scoring goals at will. But when you have only 2 of them in the right position most of the time and watching your goalie take volleys off his chest, it's harder. Still, one of my goals is to coach when they're not playing and encourage while they are playing. It's a work in progress.


Thursday, September 11, 2014


John Tomlinson, the director of coaching for Matthew's premier club gave his annual pre-season talk to the parents (and kids) and among the pearls that he dispensed, my favorite was: perspective. 

He also advocated for kids not having digital devices in their rooms, but as he was speaking to a group of parents of 12- and 13-year-old boys, the topic of perspective came up often I'm told. (I wasn't there this year, but heard of the talk from a very reliable source... not my 13-year old.) 

John's given this talk before and it's so important for parents (see last post) to remember perspective. I don't have the illusion that Matthew is going to play pro soccer, or even college ball. I hope he plays in high school and continues to be involved in the sport as long as he loves it. But it's hard not to get caught up in the emotion of the game and not to share some of his devastation when they have a bad result. Yet in the end of the day, a bad loss or game doesn't and shouldn't linger in the mind or heart of a 13-year-old.  And sure enough, after Sunday's loss, less than 24 hours later the boys were laughing and joking at the end of their Monday practice. 

The way it should be.


p.s. Although he may not play in the BPL when he grows up, that doesn't prevent him from looking like a pro. Chelsea FC jersey courtesy of his Aunt and Uncle; Chelsea FC football courtesy of birthday money.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Parents Behaving Badly

As the boys get older, both the quality of play and the physicality of play increase. And as that happens, the parents get worse. We are two games into the U13 season and unless the parents get it together, there will be a parent altercation before season's end.

Yesterday's U13 game had some backstory going into it. Both teams are RI-based and compete for players. Two of our Bruno players left Bayside to play for us. The Bayside goalie (more on that) was our back-up goalie least year. Our Bruno team won the State cup last year. So I think some of the parents and players were amped up going into it. And  after a relatively close first half turned into a lopsided affair (for them) in the second half,  the play got a little rough. Some hard challenges, some shoulder-to-shoulder collisions, and a couple of yellow cards. But no one was playing dirty; no one got hurt, and most, if not all, of the kids were real good sports. But the parents -- particularly from the team that was leading 8-2 -- were screaming bloody murder. Both sides were yelling at the ref on almost every call or non-call.


Much has been written about youth sports rage among parents and it's way too easy to be caught up in the emotional wave that washes over a competitive game. But 12 and 13-year-old-kids should be able to look to their parents for an example of sportsmanship and behavior. Too often, it's the other way around. As we left the game, players from both teams mingled with siblings and parents and made their way to their minivans to toss their soccer bags.

"Nice game today, boys," I said to a couple of Bayside players. They politely acknowledged the remark and we moved on.

On a more personal note, it was a tough one for all of our defensemen, including Matty. They were left vulnerable all game from a midfield that couldn't keep up with Bayside's attack. And all of our defenders were burned individually on different plays. It happens. I could see Matty getting frustrated and angry and he never gave up when he was on the field, playing with energy and commitment. But after he came out, he didn't want to go back in at defense. We talked with him after the game and suggested that he talk to his coach about his reluctance to go back in on defense yesterday. No one likes to lose. No one likes to be outplayed. But when you sign up to play for a team, you sign up to play regardless of the score.

On a happier note, Noah's travel team kicked off their season with a convincing 6-0 win. I only saw a quarter of the game, but most impressive to me was the speed and commitment with which Noah played. I think his rec league game from Saturday, in which he was one of the more dominant players did wonders for his confidence.

Let's hope that the reverse isn't true for Matty.

One of the lowlights of the game was when Bayside, already leading 7 or 8-2 at that time was awarded a penalty kick, and their coach instructed their own goalie (who left Bruno to play for Bayside) take the kick. It's an odd, odd decision and they had a lot more talented ball strikers than their goalie to choose from to take the kick. He hit it right at our keeper who made the easy save and then had to sprint back downfield through a maze of 20 players to get back into net. Not the most sportsmanlike move from the Bayside coach.


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Calling All Volunteers

The first games are in the books, and we survived.  In fact, the boys had great games in both their house and Matty's premier travel game.

One of my favorite parts about game day is the chance to catch up on the sidelines with friends and parents who I haven't seen in a while. When I was coaching both rec league teams, it was hard to do. I would talk mostly with my co-coach and get the kids warmed up; then it was game time. And when I'm coaching, I can barely keep track of the subs, let along carry on a conversation.

This year, for the first time, I'm coaching without a co-coach, just not enough parents offered to coach (more on that later), but I actually found it easier than working with a co-coach. I didn't have to worry about whether he and I agreed on subs, or formations or anything. It was a lot more efficient. And that made it a lot easier for me to be relaxed.

I'm trying to give a lot less instruction when I'm on the sidelines. Instruct at practice; encourage at games. I'm doing a lot better following that maxim. In the past, I've had games where me and my co-coach were constantly shouting directions to the kids. Add to that whatever they're hearing from their parents on the sidelines, and it's a lot for them to process. Too much. Again, another reason why it's good to have only one coach.

My directions today were almost exclusively trying to get out-of-position into position -- mainly my defense. Watch a lot of U9 and U10 games and you'll see this: defenders hanging out in the penalty box talking to their goalkeeper while the action is about 30 yards away from them, and an opposing player is barely in earshot.

But the thing that I'm left with from today is a conversation I had with a parent about the lack of volunteers, not just in soccer but in all youth activities. We have six U10 teams. That's at least 60 sets of parents and yet the league had to send out repeated emails  begging for coaches. Beyond soccer, there are no second-grade girl scout troops in the entire town because no one would step up to be a troop leader or whatever it is scout volunteer parents are called.

I get that parents are busy with multiple kids in multiple sports; and I know that not every parent knows or likes soccer. But our organization -- for all its board member egos and pettiness -- does a really good job of giving coaches the help they need to run a team. Over the years and the 20+ teams that I've coached, I've had tons of help from many parents. And many others help and support the organization in ways off the field. But if we're going to ask our kids to join a team, and we're going to ask them to honor that commitment by going to practices and games; then we shouldn't have a hard time finding 12 people out of 120 parents or so to commit to 2-3 hours a week for two months.


Friday, September 5, 2014

Dine and Dash

See this. This is a crock pot. Also known as dinner for the next 8 weeks. Well that may be a bit of a stretch, but it's certainly going to be dinner for the next eight Wednesdays as we try to find a way to eat either before, or after soccer practices.

We have a love-hate relationship with the crock pot. Fortunately, at least three of us love it and two of those are our soccer players. But if anyone knows of good slow cooker recipes, we're all ears.

One of the biggest stresses of the soccer season isn't the time spent at the field; it's not the drives to the new fields, or finding the right uniforms, or finding clean uniforms, or cleats that fit, or, now that we also have a soccer ref in the family, a watch that is still running. The thing that always threatens to drive us over the edge is finding a way to get meals -- not on the table, let's be realistic -- but at least get them into people's mouths.

And it's not just dinners. Our season begins tomorrow with one of our busiest weekends of the season. Matthew starts with back to back referee assignments at 8 am, followed by a rec game here in town at 10:30, and then he rides up to Lancaster, Mass for 1:30 warmup for his premier game. Gives a whole other meeting to the phrase Dine and Dash.

* * * * *

Tonight was also my first house team practice -- it's a U10 team made up of six boys who play town travel at different levels, 1 boy who plays premier travel, and 3 boys who play rec league only. We had five kids at practice -- which was just about the perfect number. The boys all got lots of touches on the ball, there was no standing around, and I could keep them mostly under control.  We've also had one practice with our Challenger coaches - paid coaches who come over from England for the season to work with our town's program. We had six out of 10 there.

Tomorrow is the team's first game, which should be interesting, given that half of the team hasn't even met the other half.