One Question

By Tony Earp

Can you play? It is simple question and the most important one. All the evaluations and feedback, opinions about what makes up a great player, and debate about the most important skills a player can possess, all come back to that simple question. The only thing that matters when determining a player’s ability level is if or if not that player can meet the demands of the game. When players are training, focusing on improving different skill areas of the game is very important, but will it translate into the players being effective and better in the game?

As many coaches have seen, there are players who are technically sound, physically capable, understand the game, and work hard, but struggle to be effective in games. They have the tools, but cannot seem to use them when needed. All the pieces of the puzzle are there, but they cannot put them together to meet the demands and challenges of the game.

These players have worked hard fine tuning their technical ability on the ball. With both feet, they are sound in receiving, passing and dribbling with speed and control. Tactically, they understand their role in their position, the principles of attacking and defending, and the coach’s expectations on how the team should play. The player is physically capable of playing the game, and the player is competitive and wants to win. Again, all the critical skill areas to play the game are possessed by the player, but for some reason, the player is unable to use them in the game effectively.

Something was missing in the player’s training. Something very critical. Although the player has learned all of these skills and has these tools, he has never learned:

  1. HOW/WHEN/WHY TO USE THEM.
  2. HOW/WHEN/WHY THEY ARE CONNECTED

Often this occurs when learning of these skills are done in a vacuum, isolated of one another, and not within the context of the game.

Think of it this way… like many people, I enjoy watching the many YouTube videos of people doing crazy tricks and skills with the soccer ball. From juggling, skill moves with the ball and finishing, there are some amazing things people can do. Many may watch these videos and just assume these people must be great players based on what they can do with the ball, but that assumption may be very wrong.

The only thing I know watching that type of video is that the player is exceptional at that one skill. I have no idea if the player is actually an effective player in the game. I know he can juggle, do a wicked (insert Boston accent) skill move, or hit a crazy bending shot, but I have no idea if that player is any good at playing the game.

I am not being critical of those players or those videos. I actually think they are tremendous tool for young players to watch and get ideas to train on their own, spark their own creativity, and expand their understanding on what is possible to do with the ball.

The point is that a player’s goal is NEVER to just get good at a single skill movement or an activity in training. It is not to be a better juggler or be able to do a skill move with the ball. A player’s goal should ALWAYS be to improve their ability to play the game. So when training, or practicing any skill, it always needs to be done in the context of how it will be used in the game.

When training, without the context of the game, or a clear understanding of the application of the skill being worked on, it is possible to develop players who are excellent at training but struggle to play the game. Just like in the classroom, information and skills learned are most effective and useful when applied to their required use when it really matters (in real life).

In contrast, there are players that in training seem to struggle, but when the game starts, they are able to play at a higher level than expected. They may not be as technical on the ball or physically good as we think they should be, but when they step into a game, the player can find ways to be successful and very effective in helping his team. On an evaluation, a coach may have a slew of areas the player needs to improve on, maybe a lot more than other players, but at the same time, the player seems to be more successful than a player who would rate better on a written evaluation.

This type of player shows a clear understanding of several important things:

  1. His own strengths and weaknesses. He understands how to play towards his strengths and hide his weaknesses.
  2. The game. Really understanding nuances of the game, the critical points, that allow the player to make exceptional decisions and anticipate the game.
  3. Competitive spirit. Let’s face it. Some players are better because they just want it more.

The larger point is that all players are deficient in some skill areas comparatively to other players, but that may have little impact on their level of play. Despite not being as strong in some areas as other players, their “total game”, or their ability to be effective in games, is much higher than players who have considerable better technical or physical abilities.

Again, the real “evaluation” or the only “test” that really matters in determining a player’s level is how they do when the whistle blows. I have always been one who believes in player evaluations and feedback, but when we cut through all of the fog of player development and determining a player’s level of play, the only true evaluation is the game. The game is the only real measure of a player’s level of play.

The game is not biased, it is not political, it has no self-interests, and does not care about getting phone calls or emails from parents. The game will always be the most honest person with any player about what they are and are not able to do. Simply, either you can play or you cannot play.

When training, keep this in mind. Your goal, whether on your own, with your coach, or with some friends, is to get better at playing the game. Find ways to train yourself to be more effective in a game, when it counts.

Skills are necessary, juggling is important to improve your touch, YouTube is fun, but the game cares very little about how many “views” your last video post received, how many times you can juggle, or how crazy your skill moves look. It will only ask you one simple questions once the whistle blows… Can you play?

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

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