Spreading out players

Whenever I conduct a coach education course, one of the most popular questions I am asked by the candidates attending is, “How can I make my team spread out? They are always bunched up and follow the ball.”

This is a familiar pattern with players that are U8 and below, which should be expected. At this young age children are just learning the concept of sharing and in the majority of team sports the child wants the ball. Even if you were to throw or hit a baseball into the outfield the likelihood is that more than one or two children will chase it down.

As these young players mature they will gain more understanding of the game, but as coaches we can help them gain a better understanding of team shape and field awareness at an early age. Children can sometimes take your word to the extreme. We throw different terminology out there that has no meaning and the players get lost, consequently the sessions will lose all purpose.

I observe coaches during games or practice session instructing their team to spread out when the ball is out of play. A young child can take this in any context, which leads to players running in any direction in anticipation of receiving the pass; consequently the team fails to really obtain any shape or position. It may be a quick fix to the problem, but as soon as the ball is returned to the field the players will revert back to chasing the ball.

Building from the basics should always be a priority when planning your season, meaning a majority of your practice time should focus on technical issues. Although team shape may be considered a tactical topic, it is an issue that needs to be covered.

The best time for a coach to work on team shape and field awareness should be during the final Match Condition activity. Remember this is also a time for the players to play without too much instruction, so keep all your points sharp and simple starting with Goal-Keeper or back line building through to your strikers.

Whether the final player is a Goal-Keeper or a Defender, their first outlets have to be looking for a teammate in a wide position. The Majority of the youth soccer players do not use the full width of the field for fear that they may not even receive the ball. This is a false understanding as they are more likely to receive the ball without pressure.

The opposing team will probably have been instructed to remain compact by remaining centrally positioned, therefore allowing the receiving player more time and space to move forward when they receive the ball.

If the opposing team becomes wise and moves out wide to stop the players receiving the ball, this will open up space down the middle. Once this space has opened up it can be filled by midfielders or strikers, but it is important that these players have also created their open space by going wide and deep. Once the midfielders have created this space they can check back into this area with pace, still providing them more time to receive the ball without pressure from their opponent. If you are coaching a team with older players, there may be times when you don’t want your midfielders to go wide.

Depending on the style of play your team plays, you may have the midfielders remain in the middle allowing the wide defending players to overlap into the attack. If the midfield players are wide and remain in this position, it can also allow the opportunity for the strikers to check back in to this area.

Young players who like to play as a striker are very blinkered and continuously look for the ball over the top. Encouraging them to start in a deep position can help break this habit as they are then forced to come back and receive the ball, allowing the midfielders space to go in behind them. There will be times when your team will lose their shape, especially when they are not in possession of the ball, but when the ball has successfully been regained, continuous positive reinforcement of encouraging them to regain shape and utilize the space by going wide and deep will help your players understand the concept more.

If you can effectively work with your team to utilize the space by going wide and deep at an early age, you will find it easier to build on this concept as the players mature. Teams that are effectively coached to play with better shape and use the full width of the field are very difficult to beat and more enjoyable to watch.

Adrian Parrish is the Director of Coach & Player Development for the Kentucky Youth Soccer Association. He is responsible for the Coaching Education Program and the management of the Olympic Development Program. A native of Louth, England, Parish currently possesses a USSF “A” License, UEFA “A” License (Pending), and the US Youth Soccer National Youth License. He can be reached at adrianparrish@kysoccer.net

Coaching etiquette

As a coach of a youth sports team, there will be situations when you clearly have the game in hand and it is time to “call off the dogs,” to avoid embarrassing the opponent. And there may be occasions when you find yourself on the wrong end of a blowout. When a coach doesn’t seem to know or care that he’s allowing his team to pile on, the result can be frustration, hurt feelings and anger.

When do you know enough is enough? Clearly there is some amount of judgment required. I have coached baseball teams that had sizable leads, but we still didn’t feel comfortable because I’d seen us give up big innings in the past and knew that it could happen again. We left in our best defense or scored again when we could have held back. It is very likely the other coach didn’t see it from my standpoint and assumed I was just trying to run up the score. In these instances I would usually try to have a chat and clear things up after the game. Sometimes my counterpart would assure me he was not offended in any way. Other times I could tell he was sore.

Most youth sports organizations try to legislate etiquette into their programs. Some soccer leagues do not allow their teams to win by more than a certain number of goals. Most baseball programs have a “run-rule” limit that ends the game after a minimum number of innings any time a team leads by too much. When one team’s advantage in Pop Warner Football exceeds twenty-eight points they can no longer pass the ball, and coaches may be subject to a review to determine if they were trying to light up the scoreboard unnecessarily. Yet, beyond these written guidelines, coaches should also try to use common sense.

The key, I believe, is to be able to put more than just your own team’s interest at heart. A couple of years ago I was coaching girls 12U softball. In one of our first games of the season, due to a combination of illness, injury and outside commitments, my team only had seven players for the game. We had the option of simply forfeiting, but I wanted the girls to play, so we sent out a standard infield and just one outfielder. The girl we asked to pitch had done so only rarely, and we had no one who had ever played the toughest position: catcher. I talked a reluctant girl named Shelby into putting on the gear and she promised to do her best.

The opposing manager was one of our league’s board members, Joe, originally from England. It was clear he was only learning the game in the past several years. Their team was scoring at will because our pitcher didn’t throw many strikes and Shelby had a very tough time stopping the wild pitches. As the game got more and more out of hand, Joe seemed to get more and more excited coaching third. Because our league rules capped the number of runs a team could get in an inning, there came a point when it was mathematically impossible for us to come back and even tie. Yet with every passed ball he exhorted his runners to steal, including going home to score more runs. Shelby was in tears by the end of the game.

When it was over, after the teams shook hands I stopped Joe, who I know is a good guy, and explained that I didn’t think he had been intentionally unsportsmanlike, but that in baseball and softball once a team clearly has a victory in hand, it is customary to stop stealing bases. His response was, “Oh, we were just having fun.” I replied that it hadn’t been fun for our girls and in fact, our catcher was in tears. I got the feeling he didn’t appreciate being lectured. However later that evening, apparently after reflecting, he sent me an apologetic email.

What all this means is that if you coach at the recreational level yes, you have a responsibility to prepare your players to perform at the highest level possible and to ensure that they have lots of fun. But it doesn’t just end with your team. It is up to you to do your best, through good sportsmanship, to be careful you don’t ruin the experience for the kids who are also trying to have fun on the other side of the field.

Throwing bullpens

By Dan Gazaway, Owner of The Pitching Academy

Bullpens give you a chance to regroup as a pitcher and allow you to throw with a purpose.  Avoid the “throwing just to throw” mentality; even if you are just playing catch with your friends.  Every time you pick up the ball you need to work on something like hitting your spots, off-speed pitches, pitching mechanics and so on.

What do you work on when you throw a bullpen?

There are a variety of things you can do to spice up your bullpen sessions.  Perhaps the first and most obvious one is spot work.  This means you pick your five target areas (inside high and low, outside high and low and low middle) and keep track of how often you are hitting the zone.

I number the targets one-five like this:

1 – Inside Low

2 – Inside High

3 – Outside High

4 – Outside Low

5 – Middle Low

You can number them however you want, but the most important thing to do in bullpens is keep track of your progress.  Start off throwing about 20 fastballs in whatever order you like.  I like to throw 4 fastballs to each location. Then throw curveballs, changeups and whatever other pitches you like, working on spot work.  Don’t throw more than 50 pitches at each bullpen session.  Especially if you are on a 5 day pitching rotation.  Two bullpens a week is sufficient for most pitchers.

To make bullpens more exciting make a game out of it.  Every time you hit your target add a point; when you miss your target take a point away.  When you throw right down the heart of the plate take away two points.  Games like this keep pitching exciting and it allows you to actually compete against yourself and see your progress each bullpen session.  Most importantly, it helps you hit your spots.

Bullpens are also a great time to work on off-speed pitches allowing you to get a “feel” for each pitch.  It’s important to know what it feels like to throw your best curveball and become more consistent with it.  I know no better way to learn this process than utilizing your bullpen time for this.  With that being said, most of your bullpens you are not going to be throwing 100% velocity.  When you are practicing your other pitches, to get that feel, it is best to slow it down to 70-80% of max velocity.

Dan Gazaway is Owner and Founder of The Pitching Academy. He has instructed over 2,000 pitchers in the last seven years and received a Bachelor’s Degree as a Health Education Specialist at Utah State University. He is a motivational speaker for topics ranging from attitude, goal-setting and leadership and be contacted at contact@thepitchingacademy.net.

Confidence is king!

By: Christopher Stankovich, Ph.D.

With the fall seasons approaching, Dr. Chris Stankovich provides his advice for young athletes wanting to reach their full potential, gain confidence in their abilities, and have fun playing.

Confidence & why it is important!
Confidence, also known as your degree of self-efficacy, is the belief you have about yourself when attempting to perform a task. Interestingly, your past athletic success (or lack thereof) is far less important than your personal belief about what you can achieve in the future! In other words, regardless of what happened in the past (even yesterday), the only thing that is truly important is how confident you are about your abilities today.

Overcoming fear is the first step to improving confidence. When you stop to think about what you are afraid of in sports, you will discover that almost all of your fear is irrational fear. Real fear is the fear of death – or even a serious, permanent injury. The good news (and reality) is the odds of those things happening are incredibly slim. The fear most athletes deal with is fear of failure or fear of embarrassment – pretty harmless stuff when you think of it!

Once you begin eliminating irrational fear, your confidence will begin to immediately increase. Even better, as your confidence grows, so will your athletic ability!

Why confidence works
Confidence is vitally important for several reasons. First, confident athletes also develop a positive emotional mood state – and research has shown this helps athletes get “in the zone” more frequently. Confidence also helps with skill acquisition, memory, and conditioned, automatic athletic “muscle memory” responses. Confidence also helps you focus on what you need to pay attention to (i.e. the next play) – as well as block out things that don’t matter (the crowd booing).

Confident athletes play to win – not to avoid losing. Confidence also helps prevent burnout, as well as break you out of slumps. Perhaps the best thing about confidence is that it is 100% under your control! No matter what anyone says about you, or how terrible you may have played recently, you have every ability to redirect your thinking and attitude toward the future and how successful you can be by continuing to believe and work hard!

How to use confidence

  • Remember how important confidence is every time you go out to compete. Confidence and positive self-beliefs lead to peak athletic performances!
  • Forget about bad games, and remember that tomorrow is another day. Your confidence will begin to immediately improve the moment you make this decision.
  • Only you can increase – or decrease- your self-confidence level. Choose wisely and you will go far!
  • Keep a journal of your athletic successes and re-read your entries often. Train your memory to think of the good plays you have made and are capable of making again in the future.
  • Get rid of irrational fear! Who cares what anyone else thinks of you – those people are not perfect and have made their fair share of mistakes, too. You are human and will make mistakes in sports, so chalk them up to learning experiences and quickly move on to the next play!

Dr. Chris Stankovich is a national expert in the field of sport & performance psychology and has assisted thousands of athletes reach their full athletic potential. He is the Founder of Advanced Human Performance Systems, and is known as “The Sports Doc” for his weekly segment on Ohio News Network (ONN). Please visit www.drstankovich.com for exciting, easy-to-understand Peak Performance videos, audios, assessments, and feature articles!

Injured San Diego high school baseball player recovering

Conrad Murphy, a high school baseball star from Valley Center, CA was driving to his team’s practice when a pest control truck crossed the center line and hit him head-on. Left in a coma with severe brain injuries and given less than a 50% chance at survival, Conrad has battled back and has finally been released to come home. He still has a very long road to recovery ahead and the family’s insurance might soon run out. For more about this remarkable, courageous young man and information on how you can help, click here.

Heat and hydration

With no relief in sight for this summer’s record heat wave in the US, it is a good idea to refresh our memories on the importance of hydration and taking precautions when outdoors, especially during strenuous activity. This information provided by the US Soccer Federation could save a life.

Good luck, ladies!

Team USA goes for the World Cup in a little over two hours. Good luck!