Tactical Regurgitation

By Tony Earp

What is most important? Teaching young players individual skills or a tactical understanding of the game? It is a debate many coaches have, and often a stark contrast you can see between two teams when they play against each other. Although both sets of coaches want their players to be successful, there may be a difference between WHEN they want their kids to have success and the type of “tactics” being taught.

So, what is more important? Simply, it is not one or the other. The answer is both are important, but too often, it is the “tactics” that takes precedent over skills.

It is critical young kids develop necessary skills to play this game in order to be successful later on. If you cannot control the ball, you do not have a mastery of the skills, you cannot play this game to your full potential. With that said, as you are teaching young kids the skills to play the game, you also teach the ability of how to use those skills in games.

When you are working on 1v1 skills, it is not just how to beat the player, but WHY and WHEN? Is it best to dribble or pass in that situation? When working on passing and receiving it is not just the technique of how to do it, but WHY and WHEN did you take a certain type of touch in a certain direction with a certain foot, or why did you play that pass, at that angle, at that moment, in that direction, with that speed or with that texture.

When playing and training, you talk about finding space, and helping them see what is going on around as part of the skill development and ability to use them and that is learned over time. The biggest complaint I hear about coaches of older players is not about the players’ understanding of the game, although it can always be better, but their lack of ability to do the simple things well enough, all the time, to play at a speed that is necessary at higher levels of competitions. Their control touch and competency on the ball is not good enough to deal with the high speed, unpredictable, pressures of the game.

With that in mind, and I think this where some coaches of young players make a huge mistake, sometimes a false or “rehearsed” type of tactics is taught to young players trying to learn to play. Players only move and stay exactly where the coach asks them to, not having to think, make decisions for themselves, or respond to what is happening in the game. It cosmetically looks great when you watch the team play, and it is often assumed that the players have a great understanding of the game. But the understanding is shallow, it is only on the surface, as it does not show a strength in competency, but rather a demonstration of the players ability to follow instructions. The players cannot solve the problems of the game. They can only do what the coach asks.

It is like teaching a kid that 2 + 2 = 4, but that is it. You never teach the child why, so he has no idea why that is the case. The kid has no idea about the actual value of each number, or that you are adding up its value to get to 4. So if you phrase the question differently, “If you have 2, but you need 4, how many more do you need?”, the kid would not know the answer. All the kid understands is the statement that 2 + 2 = 4 because that is what he was told.

At times, coaches with young teams will teach the skills needed only to play the way the coach wants them to, and only allow the players to do exactly what the coach wants. But what about when the coach is no longer the coach, and the next coach asks them to do more? Or what happens when the game evolves, and there are more players, playing in different positions, more decisions to make, and the speed of the game is increasing? In the moment, a very well organized U8 year old team can have a lot of success in terms of results, but how many of those players have the same type of success later on as circumstances change and the game gets harder?

Helping players use space properly and how to make decisions on the field can start at an early age, but it cannot be done in a way that limits players options and ability to explore and learn the game by trial and error. Simply, neither skills or tactics can be taught in a vacuum, and both need to be done at a cognitive level that is both appropriate and promotes growth.

As kids move up levels, coaches will continue to look for important qualities in players. Do the they have the skills required to play the game? Are they intelligent players who understand the intricacies of the game? Can they make decisions on their own? Can they learn from mistakes and make adjustments? Can they compete and mentally handle stresses of the game?

The goal is for any player who is willing and works hard enough to have all those things by the time he is in his competition years (15+). All the years before that are part of the process in getting there, so nothing can be skipped or prioritized in the wrong order for short term results, UNLESS the coach’s end goal is different.

Long term development is not everyone’s goal. And if it is not, then that process does not have to be followed. Since only less than 1% of kids will ever play at the highest level, many would argue that it is more important to just make sure the kids are having success and winning. Give them the best chance to win now. I understand the logic, but do not agree with it. I believe you teach every kid like they will be a professional because we have no idea who that will be, and I do not want a kid to miss the chance because of something I did to meet my own short term goals.

To use another school analogy, it is the same reason why you teach kids letters and sounds, and then teach them how to create words, that can be used to make sentences, and then can be used to write paragraphs/stories. It is a progressive process builds on itself. You can instruct a young kid to copy a long sentence down, and show that to someone else and say, “look what this kid just wrote”, but the kid has no idea what the letters, words, or sentence means. They are “just copying” what they have been asked to copy. What might look to be impressive is really not. It is just regurgitation of what was asked of them to do, and does not show meaningful understanding.

So in short, skills are critical to be taught at a young age and the game should be fun. It has to be fun or the kids will not play very long. Within that context, the kids can be taught how to play with other players and work as a team. In smaller numbers at the younger teams (pairs), then progressing into threes, and then into larger numbers as they get older.

An older player with great skill but no understanding of how to play will struggle just as much as a player who has a great understanding of the game but lacks the skill to execute a decision.

I have heard an overemphasis of “tactics” at a young age defined as teaching “smart” soccer. I am not sure how you teach “smart soccer” without teaching skills required to play that way. “Smart soccer” with the youngest teams translates to “mistake free” or “paint by numbers” soccer where little learning and development is taking place. Just a regurgitation of rehearsed soccer from a practice where kids spent most of their time listening to instructions and walking through set plays versus actually playing or practicing (or learning). Like rehearsing for a show, the kids go over their lines each practice and are asked to stick to them when they get to the game. Any deviation from their scripted roles is punished.

Now, I have heard a coach use the term “Brain Ball” with his players. This is something completely different. He asks his players to make choices in the game based on what they see. He asks them to solve the problems of the game using their brains and the skills learned in practice. For me this is “smart” soccer because the coach is asking the players to think for themselves, make mistakes and learn from them, and use all the skills learned in training during the game. The result? Players with the skills needed to play the game and ability to think for themselves when they are older. The players will not be like many who have no idea what to do unless they are told. The players will not be those who can regurgitate tactics when it is clearly defined for them, but have not idea how to apply them on their own.

Unplug the joystick and the player will stand idle.

I will end with this though… there is no set formula/timeline. Coaches will constantly debate the delicate balance between the time spent on skills and tactics in training, and debate is always good. It usually breeds new ideas and innovation in pedagogy. But in the simplest terms, at the youngest groups, if they are learning good habits in training, the skills needed to play the game, having fun, and at each practice and game learning a little more about how to play, the players and coach are on the right path.

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

Big Money in Youth Sports

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck

It is billed as “the premier sports vacation destination, catering to the travel sports family lifestyle”. Is this a lifestyle? As someone who had four kids play travel sports, who substituted typical family vacations for out-of-state youth sports tournaments, I guess I have to admit it is. But looking at this place I wonder how far we’ll go.

It could be anywhere in the country and if you view the website’s slow-motion fly over of the baseball diamonds, stadiums really, four joined in a perfect north, south, east, west axis, you can’t help but be impressed. Maybe even a little intimidated. Fields for softball, soccer, football are nearby. The facility is home to several restaurants, hotels, gymnasium and aquatic facilities. And more.

The site offers corporate naming rights opportunities. And advertises itself as the place where the best amateur baseball, softball and soccer in the country are played. ‘Scouts and recruiters will be able to view each field from one of our state-of-the-art scouting towers, located at the center of each quad. The scouting towers feature live video feeds from every field so pro and college scouts will not miss a single minute. With pro and college scouts at every major tournament, next-level dreams are realized here. Our tournaments and showcases attract the top talent in America.’

Clearly, there is a market for this kind of high-profile, high-intensity tournament play. And I’m sure all of my kids would have thought it a dream-come-true to compete in a facility like this one. For many, it will probably be a positive, once-in-a-lifetime experience – something they’ll never forget.

And if the venue itself leads to more kids playing a sport outdoors, there is no downside. But I wonder if even more hype and more money equals more pressure. And are some kids backing away from sports because of too much pressure? Do some parents and coaches want this type of environment more than the kids do?

In today’s world, high school basketball and football games are being telecast nationwide. Eighth graders are committing to major universities in those sports and not long after in others. None of this would have been imaginable twenty-five years ago. What else is in store in the next quarter-century?

As parents and coaches it is important we provide the equilibrium for our children. We must be sure we aren’t pushing youngsters into situations they’re not ready for, and are continuing to emphasize things like fun, skill improvement, teamwork and camaraderie.

There are certainly players who, even at a young age, thrive on pressure and intense competition. They dream of playing at the highest level and can’t get enough travel, tournaments and big games. To them, that is what’s most fun. And there are other kids who would rather play in a rec youth league game and then hang out with friends after. While our culture seems to be evolving to cater to athletes in the first group, here’s hoping there will still always still be room for kids in the other one.

Brian Gotta is a former professional youth baseball coach and current volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels which can be found at www.booksbygotta.com. He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com

Load – Stage 2 of the Baseball Swing.

By Doug Bernier

The load is the energy behind an explosive and powerful swing. What is the “load” of a baseball swing?” In baseball batting, the load is where we gather our momentum to our backside to prepare for an explosive swing.

It’s like a snake coiling to strike, or pulling back the string of a bow and arrow.

Why is the load important? Use it as a timing device and a continuation of your rhythm. Getting your weight back helps you wait to explode on the ball.

No matter if you load with a leg kick, a toe tap, normal stride, or no striding and just picking up the heel, you have to make a move back before you can go forward. This small move helps to make your next move (weight shift) rhythmic and not jumpy or fast.

In depth description of the load:

The Starting Point. To start, our legs are distributing our weight almost evenly, between our front and back leg.

Timing. As the pitcher starts his load (leg lift) you want to start your weight shift by moving a portion of your weight on your back foot.

Weight distribution. If you started somewhere between 50/50 and 60/40 weight distribution, after loading you should be at least 60/40 (to your backside). Some hitters will get all of their weight on their back leg, cock their hips, and try to get all they can into the baseball.

Athletic Stance. But, as you shift your weight to your back leg, don’t let your back knee get outside of your back foot. Make sure your knee stays on the inside of your foot. It allows better balance, and is a more athletic position.

Hands. By pushing your weight back in your legs, your hands will also load and move back towards the catcher. This gets them to the strongest position to fire your hands to the baseball. It’s the same idea that the pitcher needs to get momentum going back before he delivers the ball, or someone trying to deliver a serious punch.

The size of this movement depends on who you are as a hitter.

Someone with a little more power may try to get a little extra weight going back before he explodes.
But a batter that hits line drives for average may use a significant smaller load so he has a shorter, more compact swing.
Direction of Movement. As you start your load, keep your body in a straight line towards the pitcher.

If you start to coil and turn your back to the ball, your swing will be more rotational and your bat will be in and out through the strike zone quicker than it should be, thus making it more difficult to consistently square up baseballs.

Next: Separation

Doug Bernier, founder of Pro Baseball Insider.com, debuted in the Major Leagues in 2008 with the Colorado Rockies, and has played professional baseball for 13 years. Most recently, Doug signed with the Minnesota Twins in 2013, where he logged time at every infield position except 1st base in 33 Major League games. Currently Doug is with the Twins’ AAA team in Rochester, NY

Happy Thanksgiving from CoachDeck

Best wishes for a safe and enjoyable Thanksgiving with food, family, friends and football! Happy Turkey Day!

Three Things That May Hurt Your Kids’ Confidence

By Craig Sigl

If you truly want to give your kids a boost to success, the first thing you need to do is stop doing these three things that hurt your kids’ confidence so let’s get right to it with #1.

1. Giving your kid encouragement, praise and cheers ONLY when they do well out there.

Most of us adults have forgotten what it’s like to be a kid. If I didn’t see them for years now, I would have too. Here’s what you need to understand:

When the young performer does well, and you cheer and praise you are giving your approval of what they have just done.

When the kid does not do well, and looks over at the bench at you, and sees your disappointed face and body posture, the child gets the message of Disapproval.

As sports fans and audiences, we are conditioned to cheer when things go right and go “Awww” when they go wrong for our team. Now, this is totally fine when you’re watching your favorite pro sports team. Those players are not your children and they can take it. But not your kids. They subconsciously take it, literally, as a form of rejection, and there’s nothing worse for a kid than getting that from their parent.

What you need to do is be passionately positive even when nothing exciting is happening…but especially when the child has a poor performance of any kind. You do not want your child coming away from a game, meet or match with the idea that your approval is dependent on their performance.

You may just be showing your disappointment in empathy for them but that’s not how they are taking it. This is a huge confidence killer.

2. Telling your kid how they could have done better on the car ride home.

Or otherwise giving unsolicited advice at any time right after a poor performance or a loss. Most often, the best thing you can do as a sports parent, is nothing.

If you ever watch little kids play in the sandbox together and one of them upsets the other, there’s crying and finger pointing for a few minutes and then after a short time, the kids are right back in the sandbox playing again like nothing happened.

Kids have a much greater natural ability to let go of difficult events faster than us adults. We learn how to hold on to things as we get older because we have all this complex thinking that requires full mental resolution on things.

Kids don’t have that yet and can develop resiliency through difficult events, if allowed to. That’s what we should want for them for their participation in sports, life skills like resilience.

To do that, Kids often need the space and freedom to express, if they want to, and then process the difficulty in their own way. Let them. If a kid is holding on to the loss or poor performance and it’s effects for more than a day, then you can jump in and ask if he or she would like to talk or would like some help with their game to improve on the problem.

But, stop jumping in and saving your kid or teaching them how to do it right next time at the worst time, right after the event. That’s what we have coaches for. Resilience is the foundation for confidence.

3. Stop Delivering typical sports cliches and trite sayings that mean nothing to a kid like:

“You just have to believe in yourself”
“When you’re out there, you have to be focused”
“Stop overthinking”
“Just go out there and have fun”

This is my personal pet peeve having worked in this area for so long, and youth coaches are the worst offenders. Think about this, can you explain to a kid HOW to believe in themselves? Can you give them the steps to “Stop overthinking?” Or how about that vague command to “Get focused or get your head in the game?.”

They don’t know what any of that means, let alone HOW to do what you are telling them. And so what happens? You create confusion, uncertainty, worry that they “Aren’t doing it right” and will ultimately disappoint the adults giving them the advice.

So, instead of the kid just playing in the present moment with their body, which they do naturally and don’t have to be told HOW to do, by the way, we teach them with these silly cliche’s to get in their head and their useless fear-based thoughts.

Also, you might think that telling them to “Just go out there and have fun” is good advice and it CAN be…but, it is a risky move and here’s why:

The whole culture of youth sports is organized around winning and how well the kids perform. There’s no question about that.

Coaches, parents in the stands cheering good play and being disappointed in poor play like I already mentioned…and other messages constantly coming at them like:
Did you win?
How did you do?
Did you start today?
Did you score?
How many points? etc.

If that isn’t enough, Kids base their identity on whether or not they get playing time, make the team, get to the next level and even their friendships are centered around this. These messages are constant and everywhere…

and then you go and tell them to “Just go out there and have fun.” They hear that and at best, they forget it after 2 minutes and slip back into the whole performance-centered mentality they’ve been overwhelmed with. And at worst, subconsciously destroy their confidence in advice from you because of the mixed messages.

The irony of of it all is that the parent or coach is giving the advice with the hopes that it helps their performance when in actuality, it hurts it.

Craig Sigl’s work with youth athletes has been featured on NBC TV and ESPN. Get his free ebook: “The 10 Commandments For a Great Sports Parent” and also a free training and .mp3 guided visualization to help young athletes perform under pressure by visiting www.mentaltoughnesstrainer.com

Women’s college soccer tournament in full swing

While we feast on a, um, feast of great sports events this time of year, (college basketball, college football, pro basketball, pro hockey, pro football), there’s another exciting sporting event that might be under your radar. The NCAA Women’s Division 1 soccer tournament is full of exciting action between powerhouse schools you’ve heard of from other sports. Take a look at who’s still left and vying for a spot in the Final Four.

What to be thankful for

In this week of Thanksgiving, we may want to reflect on some of the many things as sports parents we have to be thankful for. Like having to get up on Saturday at 4:00 AM to be able to make out-of-town drive to the tournament venue since your child has the 8:00 AM game. Or seeing your plans to get home Sunday evening in time to relax a little before a new work week go astray as games back up and the start time for your last game keeps getting pushed back farther and farther. Because though neither of those things seems to be thanks-worthy, when those years of youth sports are over, we’ll miss them.