Happy Holidays from CoachDeck!

We’d like to wish you a magical and happy holiday season. And please accept today’s OnDeck Newsletters as our holiday gift to you! You’ll find tons of great information about youth sports in both issues and you can sign up here to receive them via email every month!

The Better Team Lost!: Exploring Soccer’s Phases of Play

By Tom Turner

Introduction
Anyone who has been around soccer for any length of time will appreciate that the better team doesn’t always win. In no other sport can a team dominate possession, dominate the number of scoring chances, dominate the number of attacking restarts, and yet fail to secure a worthy result. In soccer, goals count, meaning inferior or tactically disciplined teams can often find ways to succeed against steep odds.

When the soccer match is over, knowledgeable fans and participants will offer their judgments on the quality of play and how lucky, unlucky, or deserving their team was that day. But how subjective are those opinions? While the unschooled observer will barely see beyond the final result in qualifying the value of a contest, the more sophisticated pundits will take the ebb and flow of the game and the quality of the tactical choices into account.

Soccer, like all invasion sports, can be objectively broken down into “phases” of play, with the team that demonstrates competence in most of these phases, by and large, having the better opportunity to emerge victorious. By definition, a phase of play involves at least two lines of a team, such as the defensive and midfield lines, or the midfield and forward lines; very often at least part of all three lines are involved.

The purpose of this series is to explain the phases of play. The intent is to help coaches, and any others associated with the game, appreciate how soccer can be systematically dissected; and, ultimately, how players can be helped to value and participate in a more constructive game. Inherent to the discussion is the assumption that players have achieved a level of technical competence that allows the coach a range of strategic (big picture) choices in his/her selection of tactics.

In the reality of soccer, the transition between phases can often occur very quickly and many times untidily, particularly when the technical level of the participants is not conducive to keeping possession. Soccer is a game of mistakes, and result-oriented coaches often employ tactics designed to reduce the risk of conceding goal scoring chances. In the extreme, this mentality results in a form of “soccer-tennis” with both teams playing the ball as far forward as early as possible in the hope of cashing in on defensive errors. This style of play is both basic and frenetic, and invariably hard on the eyes of the soccer purists who savor a more cohesive tactical landscape.

It is also true that a team’s strategic choices may minimize or eliminate the utilization of one or more phases. For example, a team that “presses” is unlikely to also “bunker;” and a team that routinely punts the ball from the goalkeeper is unlikely to risk building out of their own end.

When the savvy soccer-watcher offers their opinion on whether the “better” team won, or not, they are consciously or unconsciously evaluating play as a reflection of their appreciation for the phases of play. Naturally, not everyone sees the same game in quite the same way, so, even for neutrals, deciding upon the “better” team can be very much a relative decision based on personal bias and an appreciation for the success of any chosen match strategy. For example, while Greece’s victory in the 2004 European Championships was begrudgingly applauded as a triumph for defensive organization and counter-attacking soccer, Red Star (Crvena Zvezda) Belgrade’s castigated 1991 European Cup penalty shootout win over Marseille following 120 minutes of bunkering defense could only be appreciated by their own supporters.

For the purposes of this article, a “good” team is defined as one that demonstrates a high degree of tactical organization, one that plays with controlled changes of rhythm in both attack and defense, and one that displays tactical versatility. While there is no such thing as a “perfect” game, good teams have the ability to efficiently and effectively change their tactical stripes to meet the demands confronting them.

The Phases of Play
In the interest of clarity and flow and to help the reader clearly distinguish between the different phases of play, the information  will be discussed in three parts.

Part I: The Attacking Phases
Attacking and Building-up
Transitioning From Build-up to Attack
Building-up in the Defensive Half
Building-up in the Opponent’s Half
The Moment Of Transition
Counter-Attacking
Part II: The Defending Phases
Defending Against the Counter-Attack
The Pressing Dilemma
Defending From Behind a Line of Confrontation
Bunkering
Part III: Restarts
Restarts

Next issue: Part One: The Attacking Phases

Tom Turner is a U.S. Soccer National Staff Coach, Region II Boys ODP Coach, Ohio North State Director of Coaching. He can be reached at coaching@oysan.org.

The 4 Biggest Problems in Youth Sports Today

By John O’Sullivan

When you run an organization such as the Changing the Game Project, you hear many youth sports stories from parents, coaches, and players. Some stories are absolutely heartbreaking, others inspiring.

Recently I encountered the absurd.

Many of us have seen the news about a volleyball player from Washington DC who was taking her playing time issues off the court, and into the courts. The article, which originally appeared in the Washington Post and can be read here, detailed the story of Audrey Dimitrew, a 16 year-old from Virginia whose family sued the Chesapeake Region Volleyball Association (CHRVA) to force them to let her move to another team in the league. It seems she was not getting the “promised” playing time at her club and she wanted a change, but the league would not allow it.

The article has elicited all kinds of opinions on parenting, spoiled children, bad coaching, and ridiculous rules and regulations in youth sports leagues. It brought up talk of the Philadelphia dad who was suing for $40 million because his son got cut from the track team, and the Dallas father who brought a racketeering suit against a lacrosse camp. They are a reflection of so much of what is wrong in youth sports today.

But can all these wrongs finally make it right, and encourage the sensible people stand up and be heard?

This situation in Virginia brings to light four major problems that are destroying youth sports and must be dealt with. They are:

Problem #1: Parents who won’t let the game belong to kids

Why did mom and dad bring a lawsuit? Because they wanted to get their daughter noticed by college coaches. Well, mission accomplished, every college volleyball coach in the country now knows who your daughter is…and I bet the majority just crossed her name off their recruiting list.

You don’t sue and waste precious taxpayer time and money because your child is not getting playing time. Your daughter says she isn’t even sure she wants to play college volleyball! Mom also wrote to the coach, “It is important that she plays, and plays the position you offered her of setter as that is the position she plays in high school.” Really? You don’t get to tell a coach where your kid plays. Just be a parent, let the coach be the coach, and let the game belong to your child. The parents in this case have taken a teachable moment and ruined it. As Bruce Brown of Proactive Coaching says, “Release your child to the game!”

Problem #2: Athletes need to OWN their decisions, both good and bad

We need to put an end to the helicopter and lawnmower parents, those who mow down all the obstacles for their kids, and give ownership to the athletes. This is a case where a player made a poor decision on team selection. Many athletes make bad decisions or face trying circumstances, but then choose to live with their decision and get better because of it. While I believe every athlete picked should have the opportunity to play, that does not mean an athlete cannot ask himself “what is good about this?”

When players quit a team solely over playing time or position issues, they lose an opportunity to learn. Even without getting playing time, a player working with a great coach should be improving every day in practice. She could be pushing herself to get better, and earn playing time instead of expecting it. She could find other ways to contribute. Don’t just walk away because the going got tough.

Great athletes love the game, work hard and improve everyday, and the rest takes care of itself. College coaches recruit players because they are good players, good people, good students and good teammates, not because they happened to see you in 10th grade.

Problem #3: Coaches who fail to respect the kids and the sport, and ignore the massive impact they have on athletes’ lives

Sadly there are many coaches who do not belong working with children. I am not saying that is the case here, but it is the case in many places. Winning does not make for a great coach. Being a great role model and leader for your young athletes, teaching character and life lessons, caring about your athletes, and coaching a child not a sport, those things make for a great coach.

sad basketball kid in locker room croppedOne of the most destructive forces in youth sports are coaches that take huge rosters of players for financial reasons, and then don’t give kids playing time. I firmly believe if you pick them, you play them! When we take people’s money and then sit them on the bench, it destroys love of a sport, and drives out the late bloomers. I don’t care that this is competitive volleyball; if the coach cannot find playing time then she should not have been picked. Far too many teams fill their rosters NOT for the benefit of the players (who get less playing time or none at all) but for the bottom line of the club.

To be fair to this coach, it seems he did try to make amends. I know firsthand that honest mistakes can be made in tryouts. You have limited tryout time, tons of players to choose from, and multiple teams offering a kid a spot. You are forced to offer spots with no opportunity for additional evaluation or to get to know a kid. I have been in that situation as a coach, and I have made mistakes in player selection. Clearly in this case, the coach made a mistake in selecting the player, and was willing to fix it and let her transfer to another team, so kudos is due for that. But this was not allowed to happen because of our final issue…

Problem #4: Youth Sports Organizations that Serve Adults, Not Kids

There are far too many clubs and sports leagues that are putting their own needs, values and priorities above those of the kids. Youth sports has become a business that serves them, and thus creates barriers to play for too many children.

“Should CHRVA allow players the ability to move teams when they are unhappy with the amount of playtime they are receiving, we would be overwhelmed with requests to change teams,” a CHRVA official wrote to the Dimitrew family.

This could be said another way: “We don’t want to put in the time or energy to make rules or run a league that serves the needs of the players, even in situations where all parties agree that a change in team is in the best interests of the child.” They had a coach willing to let a player leave, a player who wanted to try another team, a team willing and able to take her, and a policy that would have allowed it to happen. What they didn’t have was a dose of common sense.

If they think this will open a floodgate of player transfers due to playing time issues, why not make a rule that allows a player to transfer midseason only once in her career? Do not allow teams who release players to add new ones, to prevent continuous roster shuffling. Why not have guidelines over playing time so there are no playing time issues? There are so many solutions here.

What are we to do?

These are four of the biggest issues I see in youth sports. In this particular situation, I think every party involved can shoulder some blame. The athlete should have toughed it out, the parents should have found a better venue to deal with this, the coach should have known better, and the league could have done more. I am sure there are many sides to this story, and I have only read the one article. I am also sure there are many good people involved here who are getting dragged through the mud, which is sad.

But that is not why I wrote this article.

There is something much bigger at play here.

We all are to blame for this mess, including me, and every one of us who is reading this. Why?

Because we have stood by and allowed youth sports to become professionalized, adultified, and stolen from our kids. This is not a sin of commission; it is a sin of omission, a failure to act.

Too many of us coach from the sidelines and make the car ride home the most miserable part of the youth sports experience.

Too many of us treat youth sports as an investment in a future scholarship, and thus push for more and more at younger and younger ages.

Too many of us have our children specialize early in spite of the preponderance of evidence that it is physically and psychologically harmful, and has a detrimental effect upon their long-term chances of athletic success.

Too many of us allow our kids to participate in sports clubs that make cuts and form “elite” teams at 7 years old.

Too many of us ask our kids after a game “Did you win?” instead of “Did you have fun and learn a lot today?”

Too many of us have deemphasized free play and replaced it with organized activities governed by adult values, needs and priorities.

The list could go on and on.

We are to blame because as a collective we have done nothing about this, even though the great parents and coaches are the majority.

There is a huge majority of parents and coaches whom do not like the current situation, the toxic sidelines, the over the top parents, the bully coaches, the politics, the specialization, and the fact that college coaches are recruiting middle school athletes these days. We don’t like the costs, the travel requirements, or crazy commitments that make us choose between the 7th tournament of the summer or grandma’s 90th birthday celebration. If you are reading this, you are likely one of the great parents and coaches.

Yet we do nothing. We say nothing. We do not demand change. We simply complain. And then we watch our kids burnout, dropout, and quit.

It is high time that the sensible people, the silent majority, take over this conversation. We must stand up to the parents, coaches, clubs and leagues that are failing our children. If 70% of kids quit school in 7th grade, we would make radical changes, yet when they quit sports, we just shrug. No more!

If your sideline has an over the top mom or dad who yells at referees, coaches players, and creates a toxic environment, don’t just complain about it. Please get together with the coach or club directors and fellow parents and confront the behavior.

If your school or sports club does not have core values, or a proper ongoing parent and coach education program, demand that they be implemented.

If you can get great competition for your team within a 1 hour drive, sure, go to an out of town tournament once in a while, but not every weekend!

If your child is trying out for a team, look beyond the wins and losses and look for coaches of positive significance, and organizations that value human beings, not simply athletes.

Maybe the absurdity of this lawsuit is what will wake enough of us up. Maybe all these wrongs will be the spring board for making sports right again.

We don’t need the judicial system to fix our youth sports problems. We need every one of you who has read this far to share this article, to join our project to reform youth sports, and to read about reform initiatives promoted by Project Play and others that are trying to change youth sports.

We need you to stand up and be heard, so that the next time there is a youth sports dispute, it can be settled by the athletes on the court, instead of the adults in one.

John O’Sullivan is the Founder of the Changing the Game Project, and author of the national bestseller Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports back to Our Kids. He is a longtime soccer player and coach on the youth, college and professional level, and a nationally known speaker on coaching and parenting in youth sports. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Soccer America, and SoccerWire.com, and he recently gave a TED talk on “Changing the Game in Youth Sports.”

Separation (Part 3 of 5)

By Doug Bernier

During the separation stage of the baseball swing, you should feel as if you are in your most powerful stance before the violent assault happens on the baseball.

Separation (stage 3) is the portion of the baseball swing mechanics when we stride and separate the movement of our hands from our stride foot in order to create torque, in a strong balanced launch position.

Separation is essential for bat speed, and bat speed directly translates into power and distance. Separation also…

Starts at the completion of our load
Is finished after you stride, when your front foot makes contact with the ground.
It is during this phase that you will first see the ball out of the pitchers hand.
In this position you should feel as if you are waiting for the ball in the most powerful position you can be in before the violent assault happens on the baseball.

How we incorporate separation into the baseball swing:

Starting point.

This movement should start when the pitcher starts making his move towards home plate.

Hands.

At this point we want to have our hands back and in a strong position (from our load), usually around shoulder height.

Stride and Separate.

You will stride forward in a very controlled and soft movement, while using your shoulder and outside oblique to pull the top half of your body in the opposite direction.

Movement.

Our goal is to keep this movement slow and in control. This is important, because it will keep your head still so you can see the ball better.

Tension.

Once your front foot hits the ground and your hands remain back from where the load took them, this will create tension in your front oblique area.

This tension is like a stretched rubber band that will allow for a violent action toward the baseball. The more stretched tension you create, the more bat speed you can create.

Weight distribution.

At least 60% of your weight should be on your back leg
Your front toe is softly placed on the ground
With your heel on the same (front) foot in the air
Feet.

Your feet should be in line with each other out toward the pitcher. At this point of your swing, your stride should not be open or closed.

Bat.

Your hands are still back – at or above the height of your back shoulder – and your bat should be at a 45 degree angle.

Eyes.

This is where you pick up the ball as quickly as possible and determine what pitch is being thrown, and if you are going to swing.

Final thought on swing separation:

The separation portion of the swing allows your load to turn into momentum to help create as much bat speed as possible. The separation is probably the most difficult part of the swing to consistently repeat.

Next: Weight Shift

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

You Can’t Teach Instinct

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck

I was watching a college basketball game on television and saw a player make a play that did not warrant any ‘oohs” and “aahs” from the commentators, and it was not shown on replay or on any highlight shows the next day. But it struck me because I realized that no coach had taught this kid to make this play. And it got me thinking about the way most youngsters today are learning their sports.

On this particular play, the player was heading toward the basket full-speed when he received a pass from underneath. Without even dribbling he went up for a fake shot, then made a perfect pass back underneath for a layup. He had less than a second to process where he was, where the defender was, and where the basket and his teammate were. He simply reacted. There was no time for thought.

No coach could have possibly taught him that move. I can’t imagine a scenario where a coach would slow practice down and work on this exact situation so that a player would have that in his repertoire. Rather, that came from years of trial and error, probably playing pick-up games for hours on end.

Do our kids get enough of that? Of course, there is a place for structured practice. The fundamentals need to be taught through various drills. There is value to private, one-on-one lessons for those who can afford to send their kids. But if you had to choose, would you want your kids to have the best technique, or the best instinct?

Kids should be encouraged to play on their own, away from structured coaching. This is not only good for their athletic instincts, but for their life skills as well.

My boys were lucky that there were three of them, pretty close in age, and they had a cul-de-sac that they could use as a wiffle ball field. They drew bases in chalk and had tournaments against each other that lasted weeks. They made up their own rules, settled their own disputes, but most importantly, they played and learned. Learned when they could take that extra base. Learned how to make a fake throw and tag someone out.

When I ran practices, “Live Situations” was always part of the plan. We’d essentially play a live game in a controlled environment where we coaches could stop the action and praise something a player did right and explain to the team why and how he did it. We could also correct mistakes. It was like a scrimmage but with a pause, rewind and play button.

I’m thinking of all the boys and girls my children’s ages who spent countless afternoons alone with some private instructor honing their mechanics. Many of them had and are having success in their athletic careers so I’m not criticizing it. But I wonder if they’d have had as much benefit or more from just playing.

Now, as I’ve written before, I understand that in this day and age it isn’t as easy as it might have been thirty years ago to tell grade-school kids to just go down to the school and to be home at dark. But imagine if ten families, each paying for their child to attend individual private lessons at various locations, instead, all paid one tenth of the amount to one coach who would simply supervise them play against each other at a field without saying a word. That sounds kind of radical, but why? What if, in lieu of coaches, parents all rotated and took a day to do the same thing, and let the kids organize it all?

This may just be a fantasy of mine, but I don’t see how anyone could argue the benefit. Again, there is a time and a place for structured coaching. But if you want to see your young players really learn how to “play”, that’s exactly what they’ll have to do.

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

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Your NFL weekend

Playoff races are heating up. And in case you forgot, Christmas Day is Sunday, the usual day for the NFL schedule. This year there won’t be a full slate on Sunday. Here, courtesy of CBS Sports, is a list of where you can find all the games this week.