A “Sometimes” Player

By Tony Earp

With over 15 years of working with players, regardless of ability, I have found the most distinctive difference between players is whether or not a player is an “ALWAYS” player or a “SOMETIMES” player. Always players are exactly what they sound like. No matter the day, time, activity, game, or any other circumstance, they ALWAYS give a maximum effort. They do not take breaks or choose when to compete and work hard. There is no compromise or variability to their approach to training or games. It does not mean that every performance is their best, but they always give their best effort.

Then, there is the “SOMETIMES” players, and they are exactly what they sound like. They give their best effort and work hard sometimes. Not always, but when it is usually the easiest or most convenient for them. Or even worse, only when they are certain it is in their own best interest.
Here are some situations where “SOMETIMES” players shine, and the different approach of the “ALWAYS” players:

“It is Fun”

Of course. It is easier to give a good effort when we are having a good time. To work hard when it is not your favorite thing to do, is much harder. Ironically, the things we enjoy doing the least, often are what benefit us the most. I have trained players that completely change their work rate and attitude as soon as the training session consists of something they find fun and enjoy.
In contrast, an “ALWAYS” player does not require it to be fun for the effort to be given. Although they like certain things more than others, they do not let that affect their drive to play or miss an opportunity to improve.

“They Can Do It”

These players love to show people what they can do, but are scared to be seen struggling at anything. When they can do a task and do it very well, then they are willing to give a good effort. But, when something is hard or just out of their reach, they stop working hard for it. They find it easier to believe they could not do it because they did not CARE TO DO IT. Not that they were not able, but they just convinced themselves it was not worth it, it was below them, or just marginalized the importance of the activity. This approach helps them feel better about not being able to do it, and does not make them look vulnerable struggling to learn it.
On the other hand, “ALWAYS” players like the opportunity to do things they do not know how to do. They embrace the struggle and will not be discouraged or embarrassed by failure. They have learned that for each moment of struggle comes a lifetime of rewards.

“They Will Win”

These players play hard and with confidence when they are NOT in a fight. When they know they can easily walk over an opponent and get the result they want, you can see their energy level rise and often this is when they are at their best. On the flip side, when the opponent is tough, or they are completely outmatched, they shut down. They disengage from the game, begin making excuses, blaming others, faking injuries or fatigue, or anything else that excuses them from taking responsibility of the result. Often after or during this type of situation, the player will seem apathetic about the result or his performance.
The “ALWAYS” player always tries to compete at his best level. Although he will have “off and on” days, it is never an excuse for a drop in effort and his competitive level. Normally, as the opponent gets tougher, this type of player uses it as fuel to push beyond his current level or drives him to train harder in the future. He learns from the experience, does not make excuses for himself or others, and does not blame anyone. Not even himself. He just goes back to work so he can fight even harder next time.

“Playing with a Friend”

There is a social aspect of the game and it is important. Although it is a lot of fun to play with friends, there will be times when that is not possible. I see this a lot in training sessions. If certain players are not paired with who they want to play with, their effort drops considerably. If they do get paired with who they want to play with, then their level of play is much higher. When they are not on their friend’s team, the body language changes drastically, head drops down, and I know the players is going to give half the effort he normally would.
An “ALWAYS” player may prefer to play with certain kids, but he never lets it show. No matter who he is playing with he will do everything he can to support and play with the other players on the team. Regardless of level, this type of player gravitates towards being a leader on the field and knows success is a group effort. He relies on the other players and they rely on him. He knows not giving his best effort is an insult to his other teammates on the field.

“Coach/Parent is Watching”

For me this is the most common example of the “SOMETIMES” player but the most subtle form of it. When a coach or their parents are nearby, I can see a distinct increase in their level of play and energy. For people watching, this looks like an “ALWAYS” player, but if you can sneak peaks of these types of players training when they do not think anyone is watching, that is when the “SOMETIMES” is exposed. This can be the most self-destructive form of the “SOMETIMES” player. When kids learn to only work hard when people are watching, it will be very hard to achieve anything, on or off the field. Most of the things earned in life are worked for when no one else is around or when no one is asking you to do it.
An “ALWAYS” player does not care who is watching or not. Often, their effort is even higher when they are alone. They are not doing it for anyone else. It is not about pleasing or gaining approval of another person. It is about making sure they never let down themselves or others who rely on them when the whistle blows. They have set an unbelievable expectation for themselves to meet. Higher than anyone else could ever put on them. They hold themselves accountable to never falling below those expectations.
“SOMETIMES” players grow into “SOMETIMES” adults. “ALWAYS” players grow into “ALWAYS” adults. This is an important lesson to teach kids from an early age as it will play an important role in the rest of their lives. When we help players become “ALWAYS” people, they not only have a better chance of succeeding in soccer, but in even more important aspects of their lives.

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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The Ball is a Toy

By Tony Earp

With the competitiveness and pressure around sports, it is easy to forget that every sport is just a game. Not much different than jumping rope, tag, or hide and go seek, soccer (like other sports) is a game to be played for fun. There are winners and losers, but the goal is to play, get exercise, and enjoy the time with the friends. It is sad when sports moves from this view into more of a “job” or work, both in which a game was never intended. Even when players play a sport for a living, for the most part, the best at the game still play it because it is fun and they love it. Like most games, when the game was invented, I am confident the “creator” did not do it so one day those who play this game at the highest level will get paid to do it. This means, at the heart of every game, every sport, and in soccer, the things used to play the game should be seen as toys.

Ask a kid to show you his toys. What do you think he will point to? Most likely, the child will point to a video game system, maybe some board games, an ipad, dolls or stuffed animals, but I highly doubt that most children would point to their soccer ball. To me, this is a very sad thought. As a kid, my soccer ball was always in my “toy bin” in my room. That is exactly how I saw the ball. It was not something I would go “train” with or use to “practice.” It was just a toy, and something I would go to have fun and entertain myself. It was no different than my Atari, Pogo Stick, or Voltron action figures (I will pause and allow for Google searches).

This is a change that needs to occur in the youth soccer culture. The soccer ball cannot be seen as a work tool, or something that is only used when asked by an adult or coach. That is not how toys work. Think of anyone who is amazing at what they do (an artist, writer, programmer, mechanic, architect, etc… ) and I bet those people see the “tools” of their profession more as toys they get to play with everyday, and that is the reason why they are the best at what they do.

When it comes to toys, what do kids do with them? Well, for one thing they tend to use the toy in way that it was probably never intended, or in other words, they find creative ways to use the toy. When it comes to soccer, this is a key thing that is missing with kids and their relationship to the soccer ball. Many kids will only do what they have been told to do with the soccer ball. This is rarely the case with something a kid sees as a toy. If anything, parents often, and even to the point of frustration, have to keep reminding a child what a toy should be used for. For example, I was constantly told, “Your sister’s Barbies are not Frisbees.” Although I think I proved my parents wrong by successfully throwing them over the house to my friend.

If we want players to be imaginative with the ball and creative when they play the game, they need to view the soccer ball as a toy, not just at home, but at practice and in games. It is something they play with and needs to be treated accordingly. It should not be something a child dreads to have during a game, or something they are asked to get rid of right away. Frankly, they should never be discouraged from “playing with it” for too long. This is why I think the soccer ball should always be part of activities during practice and the player’s should be around it as often as possible. No one likes waiting their turn in a line to play with a toy.

As adults, we forget how to play with toys. We tend to use things exactly for what they are designed for and use them how directed to make sure we do not break them or use them incorrectly. Unintentionally, we sometimes force kids to share our same way of thinking when they play. We ask them to see the soccer ball, or the game, through our eyes and share our views, but is that what we really want for the kids? Do you really want the kids view and understanding of the game limited by your understanding and view of the game? I think most parents and coaches hope kids discover the game in their own way, and their understanding and joy to play it surpasses their own.

The only way for this to happen, for kids to regain their freedom and enjoyment of playing the game, is for them, and all of us, to view the soccer ball in its purest form… as a toy. As such, parents will allow a kid to interact with the ball like it is a toy, and the child will play with the ball like it is a toy. This will unleash the player’s love to play with the ball and unlock the possibilities of what the player can do with the ball. Like with any toy, once the imagination becomes involved, there is not much a kid cannot do with it.

From now on, when a parent tells their kids to go play with their toys, hopefully the soccer ball (or the football, baseball, bike, skateboard) is considered to be in that category. Yes, it may still take a back seat to the PlayStation or Xbox, but maybe the players will consider playing with it if the power goes out.

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

The Difference that Makes the Difference

By Tony Earp

Over the years of training players of many different age groups and a range of abilities, one of my goals is to always make the training session challenging and enjoyable for the players. It has been my experience that when players find the activities challenging and are having fun, the players show the most amount of effort and focus. The difficult part of building a training session is combining both of those elements in a balanced and effective way. Challenging can mean a lot of things, and it is not hard to make any activity challenging. The hard part is making an activity APPROPRIATELY challenging for the player. The same is true for the enjoyment. It is easy to make a session enjoyable. Play “World Cup” with the players and they will be smiling ear to ear. Fun is necessary for development, but fun does not always mean that development is taking place. The difference that makes all the difference in an outstanding training session and development opportunity is challenging the player appropriately and making it enjoyable for the players without a loss of purpose.

Optimal learning occurs when an activity is just outside of a player’s current ability level. Meaning, the player is going to have to stretch his limits slightly to accomplish what is being asked. If the task is out of reach and completely not feasible due to current level or age (cognitive ability), then frustration will firmly take hold and the players will shut down. If it is too easy, there will be a lack of focus and players can develop poor training habits and technique.

Think of it this way… if your friend was an expert mountain climber and he asked you to go climb with him, what do you think a reasonable approach to teaching you would be? If he wants you to immediately take on an inverted cliff that is only for experts, it will probably be something you decline to try and you will not enjoy yourself. If he underestimates your ability and you spend the day walking up a slight incline on the side of a hill, you may find yourself bored and a little insulted by your friends opinion of your capabilities.

If he brought you to a climbing area that is appropriate for your level, and a little challenging, you will not only be willing to climb, but you will also learn more and enjoy yourself.

If a training activity is not going well and the kids are struggling with it to the point they begin to shut down or stop trying, there is a chance that I asked them to do something that is either too far out of their reach or possibly too easy. Coaches often mistakenly just take it as the kids being lazy or there is a lack of focus, and the coach may attempted to be corrected it through running or yelling. The kids could be having a bad day and not really focusing, but more often than not, the reason for a lack of effort is due to the appropriateness of the activity.

All activities can be tweaked to be more difficult or more simple to make it more appropriate for the players. When the challenge is appropriate, the players’ work ethic will improve. A challenge being appropriate keeps success in reach which keeps kids motivated to achieve the goal of the activity. When it is too easy, the goal has already been achieved. When it is too hard, the goal looks miles away with no clear path to get there. Keeping the activity appropriately challenging shows the path keeps the goal in sight and a guided path on how to get there.

The benefit of the activity being appropriate challenging makes it enjoyable for the kids. They have more fun trying to learn the skills, even if they fail at first, because they can see they are not that far off. I have used the example of video games before. If a level was impossible to beat, it would not be very fun to play. When a level is difficult but the kids make progress and keep getting closer and closer to beating it, they cannot wait to try again after they fail. Not to mention, they are probably having a blast. On the flip side, if the level was really easy and they beat it on the first try, I am sure the kids would think that level was boring. If the entire game was like that, they would probably stop playing.

Since enjoying training is part of making it optimal for learning to make that key difference in development for the players, the coach has to make an effort to make the sessions fun. Part of that, as already has been explained, is the activities being appropriately challenging. The other part of it is making sure the environment, while being competitive, is a place where the kids can feel safe to compete.

Fun is a slippery slope at training, as it can be in any situation. All coaches want their players to enjoy training, but it needs to be done in the context of the learning goals for the session. For example, a coach can have their team just “scrimmage” all session. Although there are some things developmentally good about that, and the players will have fun (at first), does that help the players reach their individual and team goals? Players would have fun at first but if the coach continuously just had the kids play at practice, and did little else, even that will eventually become boring for the players.

More importantly, although the activity is a lot of fun, how is it helping the players move closer towards their developmental goals? When kids play, they want to get better. When they come to training, they want to be challenged to move beyond what they currently do. Fun can quickly cause players to lose focus due to being too distracted from the task at hand or become bored as the “fun” has no direction.

Fun is important, but it has to add focus to the session. Not take it away. When the coach can make activities competitive and fun for the kids, while being appropriate challenging, the coach has created the best possible learning environment for the kids. The most enjoyable training sessions kids participate in are ones that fit this criteria. The coach challenged them, encouraged them, had fun with them, and provided an environment that would help them get better.

When designing your training sessions, do not create a session that is too complicated and far beyond your players’ ability levels. Also, avoid creating a session that is just nothing more than a series of Knock Out and World Cup type of activities. Although they are fun at times, they should be used as part of a means to the end, or in other words, a way to help players get to their next development level. It is easy to make a practice too hard or too easy. The difficult part of coaching, where the skill of craft resides, is being able to develop training sessions that make players train just slightly beyond their current level and they do it with a smile. That is the difference that will make all the difference for your players.

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