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Our popular OnDeck Newsletter is back for April in its soccer and baseball/softball editions. Articles by Tony Earp, Brian Gotta, Jeffrey Rhoads along with lots of important sponsor offers make these a must-read.

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Cues: Part Two

By Tony Earp

Scoring a goal is one of the most difficult things to do. Player’s who have a “nose for the goal” are some of the highest paid players in the world. Are these player’s just natural goal scorers? Were they born with a gift? Maybe it is a gift, but it is wrapped in cues.

Great goal scorers use cues to find the easiest way to score goals. A player’s decision to score a goal needs to happen before or right as the opportunity is created. Players who struggle to score goals will seem indecisive or unsure around the goal and when they have a chance to take a shot. Although they may make a good decision and create a good chance to score, it happens just a little to slow for it to work. The goalkeeper or a defender has enough time to get in a good position to stop the shot or win the ball.

A goal scorer uses cues, without knowing it, to make decisions on how to score goals. Messi’s genius around the goal, and why he is arguably one of the best goal scorers of all time, has obviously something to do with his skill, but I think it is more about how quickly he reacts to cues in the game. Many of his goals look effortless as he lifts a ball over a goalkeeper or quickly deflects the ball into a seemingly defenseless goal?

When a player has an opportunity to score a goal, there are cues that need to be recognized that will affect how and when the player strikes the ball. A couple cues a player may consider is where the goalkeeper is located, is the goalkeeper moving and in which direction, and how is the goalkeeper standing (or is the Gk standing). This should influence how the ball is struck by the player to try to score. Again, this needs to happen quickly and without much thought. The action of striking the ball needs to be a reaction from one or more of these cues.

When players are coached on how to score goals, normally the coaching points are limited to “stay over the ball, be composed, lock the ankle, and follow through” and other technical points (all which are very good). But do we teach players the cues on when and why to strike the ball to score? The cues to how and why to strike the ball are even more valuable for a player than just the technical aspects of striking the ball. Should the player strike the ball with their laces, inside of the foot, outside of the foot, or the toe (yes, toe)? Should the shot be low or high, how much speed does the ball need, and should the player try to bend the ball? Obviously this is a lot to consider in a fraction of a second, so this is not something players can really consider. It needs to be something done as a reaction to learned cues from years of playing and proper instruction.

A couple more cues…

When and where to make a run into the 18 yard box to get a cross from a teammate?

A very difficult thing to teach a player and coaches can get frustrated by players making runs too early or too late and in the wrong area in front of the goal. A cue for when an attacking player should run into the 18 yard box would be the player with the ball pushing the ball out from under their feet and picking their head up. This is a simple cue that tells other players that their teammate is about to cross the ball. Where and why do the players make their runs? The cues for this would be where the defenders and goalkeeper are standing (or where are they not standing), where is the player starting the run into the box, from what area of the field is the ball being crossed (closer to the end line or farther out from goal), and will the cross swing towards or away from goal.

On the defensive side of this situation, the same cues for the attacking players indicating the ball will be crossed are the same cues for the defensive players for them to react and position themselves appropriately to defend the cross.

Should the player pass the ball to a player’s feet or play the ball into space?

First, how is the player who wants the soccer ball standing? If the player is moving towards the ball, facing the player with the ball, and maybe pointing at their feet, these cues indicate the ball should be played to feet. If the player is moving or facing away, pointing into space, or is being closely marked, then the ball will need to be played into space. Often when these cues are missed, you see players playing the ball over a teammate’s head or a ball played on the ground behind a player running into space.

There are many more cues in many situations that players need to learn so they can produce a reactive, or instinctive, response to them during games. Learning and understanding these cues is an invaluable part of a player’s development during their younger years. As the game becomes faster and more complex, these simple cues need to be automatic as there is little time to really think about them during the run of play.

It is critical coaches teach these cues along side technique and tactical aspects of the game to their players. This will allow the players overtime to associate cues in the game with the technique and tactical elements of the game being taught. Ideally, players will begin doing the right things automatically without much prompting from the coach or teammates. The players will be using the cues that the game presents to them to react and perform quicker and at a higher, more effective level.

Tony Earp directs SuperKick/TeamZone Columbus’ Soccer Skills programs. Tony has a Masters in Education from The Ohio State University. Tony was a standout player both academically and athletically at The Ohio State University, earning multiple honors both on the field and in the classroom. He can be reached at tearp@superkickcolumbus.com

Fifteen Coaching Tips

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck

On the field for another season? Here are fifteen brief coaching tips to help you get the most out of your players and better enjoy your own experience.

  1. Take five or ten minutes after every practice and ask each player what they learned during that day’s session. Not only does this help you as a coach understand how well you communicated, but it serves as a great reinforcement and reminder of what was just covered.

  2. Show, don’t tell. Instead of simply telling a player he needed to do something differently, ask him to show you how it should have been done properly. If he can’t show you, you show him.

  3. When players make mistakes, your reaction should be tempered by the player’s effort. If he didn’t try or wasn’t paying attention that is one thing. But if a player was giving 100% and just did not make the play, he should be encouraged and praised for the effort instead of scolded about the result.

  4. If you promise something to your players, follow through. Kids don’t forget.

  5. Make sure every child has been picked up by a family member before you go home.

  6. What’s best for the team is not always what’s best for the individual. It is important that all players and parents know that up front. If they can’t subscribe to this philosophy then maybe they should do an individual sport like tennis or swimming or track and field.

  7. Players (especially young ones) should call the coaches either, “Coach”, “Coach (first name)” or “Coach (last name),” not just by a first name.

  8. If you are coaching really young players, kneel down and get at eye level when talking to them.

  9. Safety first! Check your entire practice area and imagine the worst. Try to envision anything that might trip a player or that someone could fall onto going for a ball. Store equipment so that it can never come into play. Get any player who is not participating safely out of the way of those who are.

  10. Make every attempt to treat each player equally. It is natural to like some more than others, but your behavior should not reflect those feelings.

  11. Look for something each player did well and make a point of mentioning it before they go home.

  12. Occasionally before a practice, go around and ask your players what they think the team should work on today. Almost without fail, the things you planned on covering will be suggested anyway, but this creates a feeling of ownership in your players that is invaluable. And it helps you to see which players are really thinking about how the team can improve.

  13. End every practice or game with solidarity. Everyone gets together, puts their hands in and says, “One, two, three, (TEAM)” at the end.

  14. You can overcome a lot of deficiencies with enthusiasm. Even if you’re not the greatest coach or don’t have the best talent, if you spend every minute on the field encouraging and exhorting your team, even when you’re way behind, your players will want to give their best and their parents will love you.

  15. Enjoy every moment. You’ve been given a rare privilege, and it goes by too fast.

Brian Gotta is President of CoachDeck LLC (www.coachdeck.com). He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com.

The Positive Coach: 3 Teaching Qualities to Look For in Your Child’s Youth Coach

By Jeffrey Rhoads

Ideally, your child’s coach is a good teacher; someone who both understands the sport and how to communicate his or her knowledge. This coach not only teaches sports skills, but also conveys the game’s values. The coach’s kids also have fun.

But how does a youth coach achieve these ends? Most experts believe that a “positive” approach to coaching is the best way. It’s the one that provides the greatest benefits to the largest number of kids.

So what defines a positive coach? Here are three qualities that parents should look for:

1. Believes in kids-expects improvement. For each child under his or her tutelage, the exceptional coach sees opportunity for growth. This coach does not accept the child’s ability as fixed, but instead recognizes the areas in which the child may eventually excel. He or she can see how certain attributes (size, quickness) are compensatory-providing success in areas other than the ones in which they present a more obvious weakness.

This coach sees the entire spectrum of ability, both existing and latent. He or she finds small ways for each child to succeed. The exceptional coach believes in each child and the child’s potential to find joy in playing the sport. And most important, each child begins to incorporate this belief into his or her own sense of what’s possible.

2. Uses positive language to sandwich criticism. Whenever possible, a coach should use the “sandwich” technique while instructing. A coach should first encourage the player on what he or she was doing right; next, state the problem; and finally, indicate what action or behavior the player should have taken [what was done right – the problem – best action].

For absolute beginners, struggling younger players, and children with more sensitive personalities, a coach can soften the criticism and emphasize the positive. Older, more experienced players, on the other hand, respond well to constructive criticism-especially when they understand that their coach appreciates their talent and has higher expectations for them.

3. Frames difficult situations as either an opportunity or lesson learned. Practices and games in youth sports are filled with failure. Overmatched beginners, players having less athletic ability, and teams missing key components, will all struggle against superior opponents. From a purely win-loss perspective, there are lots of losers.

But a positive coach breaks down each contest into smaller ones, finding opportunities to foster relative success. By reframing the goals of participation, this coach can still teach important lessons no matter the outcome.

Here’s a simple example. During the basketball season, I will occasionally have my players run a “Suicide” race where each player progressively touches lines further down the court, always returning to the starting baseline. I don’t use this race to get my kids in shape or to punish them for poor performance. Instead, it’s sometimes useful to regain their attention or to simply have some fun. (Many enjoy the challenge of the race even though they’ll moan and groan about it.) But here’s the problem. On most teams, there are children of different ages, sizes, and athletic ability. There are always one or two children who will win the race and a couple of other children who will usually finish last.

Although this drill may appeal to the fastest ones, it’s not inherently fun for the slower ones. But by shouting words of encouragement to these children, giving attention, and casting the race as one against another player of similar ability (or even themselves), a coach can get these players’ best effort. Although they lose the overall race, they still strive to do their best. They work hard; they persevere; they learn to take pride in their effort. A race lost from the start is “framed” to achieve a positive result.

Losing a game is a failure-but it also represents a great teaching moment. If a coach frames the loss as a lesson learned, and practices to overcome the problem, the players will also view the loss as a necessary part of growing and becoming better players. Likewise, when playing a superior opponent, a coach can cast his team in the role of the underdog-and emphasize the opportunity for his players to play their best. An opportunity to relish the challenge of possibly upsetting their more talented opponent.

When you’re considering the merits of your child’s youth coach, keep in mind the above three qualities. In most instances, your child will benefit from a knowledgeable coach who uses a positive approach. Besides providing skill instruction, these coaches engage your child in a way that builds self-esteem, confidence, and a joy for the game itself.

Jeffrey Rhoads has coached youth sports for over 25 years and worked with all levels of young players. He is the author of The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the Best Youth Sports Experience for Your Child. His blog, Inside Youth Sports, can be found at: http://www.insideyouthsports.org.

Proper Fielding Technique for Bunts

By Dave Weaver

I explain to my students that the fielding of bunts requires the same skills that fielding a blocked ball does. When you master the skills you will be making yourself ready to make the play in either situation. The obvious difference in technique being you start from your crouch for bunts and you start from the ground for blocks. The proper fielding of a ball on the ground begins with the understanding of 3 main premises:

1. I will never make a better, more accurate throw then one made when I am balanced, under control, and have my momentum going towards my target.

2. I will approach the ball and get my feet set and my left hip towards the target before I pick up the ball.

3. Until my front foot is set my hands never go below my knees.

Before discussing what I believe is a good way to field these balls I want to remind us of what happens when bad technique is used. I believe one of the main reasons for bad throws by catchers after fielding is that the catchers pick up the ball before being set up and aligned properly for the throw. Then, when they have picked up the ball the brain kicks into “throwing mode” and they make the throw regardless of how they are aligned to the target. Or maybe they try to align themselves as they are throwing. However it is done, the throw is usually off target, and an out is lost. I break the skill into 2 distinct parts.

a. Approach and setup
b. Pick up and throw

A. Approach and set up

The basic concept here is that in the first part of the skill we are approaching the ball as quickly as we can, and getting ourselves set up over the ball aligned towards the target. The first description will be for the bunt out in front of the plate.

We come out from behind the plate and take a route that follows a curved path to the ball. I tell the players that the path is a banana shaped route that starts out going to the left of home plate and curves back around to the right so we end up coming into the left side of the ball with our left hip towards 2nd.

As we approach the ball we set our back foot first, then set our left foot so we are positioned directly over the ball, our left hip towards the target. Our hands are out from our sides to keep them clear from our view, and to help keep them from going to the ball too soon.

We are over the ball, balanced and in control, our weight evenly distributed across the bottoms of our feet. As I said in my original premise only now that the front foot is set can my hands go down to the ball.

B. Pick up and Throw

At this time both of my hands head towards the ball. I “rake” the ball into the throwing hand using the glove and throwing hand.. At this time I begin to raise up, exchange the ball into throwing hand, hands and arms separate, and I make a strong, balanced, controlled throw to 2nd. Since my hips were already set towards the target as soon as I pick up the ball I can put all my effort into make a good strong throw, knowing I am properly aligned.

Whether a bunt or blocked ball, I use this technique when the ball is out in front of the plate. If the throw would be to first then I would adjust my approach to swing slightly wider so I come into the ball so my left hip is pointed towards 1st.

For a bunt right down the first baseline the technique has some variations. I’ll describe when the throw is to first base.

A. Approach and setup

When the bunt goes down the first base line we must still take a curved path to the ball when the play is at first. We again swing slightly wide again as we approach the ball. We set the right foot first then the left foot, with our hips pointed up the line to 1st.

B. Pickup and throw

Just as before we now bend down and rake the ball into our glove and come up with hands still together. We now have the problem of having the runner directly in our throwing path to first.

To compensate, we take a drop step backwards with our right foot. It is important that this foot go straight back, not up the line at all. The straighter back that step goes, the greater the throwing angle we will create for ourselves. If we make a slide step up the line so our right toe passes directly behind our left heel we will not get off the base line far, and will not create much of a throwing angle to first. At this point we are ready to make the throw. We begin by driving off the right leg towards 1st, hands separate at same time, and we make a strong throw to 1st.

Common mistake in this play is to use a slide step up the line instead of a drop step and not get enough of an angle to first base.

Dave Weaver founded The New England Catching Camp in 1994 after realizing that instruction for the toughest position on the diamond was generally unavailable. Weaver teaches at numerous facilities throughout New England and conducts group clinics, team workshops, coaches clinics, and private sessions with catchers of all ages. Dave has coached athletes in a variety of sports for over 30 years, and has been a coach for catchers from youth through professional levels.