The New Form of Specialization: The Multi-Sport Athlete

By Tony Earp

There has been a lot of research and articles about the dangers of kids specializing in sports too early in hopes for a future career in the sport or scholarship opportunities down the road. Outside of physical and mental burnout, risk of more injuries, and the “fun” being removed from the game, many players deal with pressure from adults to excel on the playing field. The game becomes more about the adults than it does about what is best for the kids. The good news is that it seems parents are taking note and kids are doing other sports or activities throughout the year. The problem is that it seems an important step was skipped. Now instead of doing just one sport, kids are “specializing” in multiple sports. In other words, we forgot to take anything away, and we just keep adding on to the problem.

The idea is correct. It is important for players to play and experience different sports and activities as they grow up. Outside of developing better athletes, it helps prevent overuse injuries and creates well-rounded individuals with a more diverse youth sports experience.

The move away from early specialization and its benefits relies a child playing multiple sports or activities, but not necessarily multiple at the same time. This is the detail that was overlooked by some and now kids are not specializing in just one sport, but are specializing in many sports. In some cases, the situation has gone from one extreme to the other.

With this comes a new kind of burnout and over-scheduled kids who are training 4 plus hours a night in multiple sports. They run from basketball practice to soccer practice, or lacrosse practice to baseball practice, or track to volleyball. Parents do their best to try to manage the schedules and avoid overlap as much as possible so the kid can avoid missing a game or practice for both sports.

The demands of one practice, workload, intensity, what is physically or mentally targeted, is not at all coordinated with the other practices and game schedules. One practice may be a walk through before a game or recover day after a game, and the other practice could be a physically intense session with a lot of fitness oriented activities. In this case, both coaches, are trying to do what is best for their players, but since it is two separate sports with two different schedules, one practice can be very counter productive to the other. In short, it is much harder, and almost impossible, to manage the player’s mental and physical well being due to their being no collaboration between the coaches and sports.

This is not the coach’s fault as most run their teams and seasons in relation to just that season and team. It would be a tall order for coaches to manage their teams and players based on everyone’s extra sports or activities. It falls on the responsibility of the parents and the players to manage their schedules to make sure there is a good balance between both sports and life outside of sports.

Some players who do this are not playing sports on two “competitive” teams, but instead, are playing with one competitive or travel team while the other team is more recreational. Obviously the demands of recreational sports and competitive sports is often very different, but when combined can still create a situation where a child is over-scheduled and not getting the proper rest throughout the week in relation to one sport or the others.

The other issue arises when the athlete is very good at both sports. Often, it can become inappropriate for a player to play at the recreational level of a sport because of their level of play. It can lead to a negative experience for the player, his teammates, and other teams in the league if a player has clearly outgrown this level of play. The player can be seen as a “ringer” and does not belong due to running up high scores or clearly dominating even the next strongest players.

If a player is good and loves to play multiple sports, and they overlap in seasons, then what do we expect the parent or player to do? Pick? This could be an impossible decision for both. Playing at the recreational level at any of the sports is not fun for the player or really that appropriate, and playing competitively at both sports is not appropriate for the physical and mental health of the athlete. It becomes a very tough decision, so it is understandable for the player to try to do both even though it could be too much.

To help with this problem, sports need to offer competitive options that are not yearly or multiple season commitments. This would give players more options to play and train at a level that is appropriate for them, while not having to stack the same sports in the same season. Coaches and programs would need to allow flexibility for kids to play just for a single season or not train in the “off-season” without it being seen as a lack of commitment or dedication to their sport or a lack of drive to improve.

Instead, it would be supporting the multi-sport platform and the benefits that come with it that have been well documented. There will still be players who just participate in a single sport and train more than others, but that does not mean that those players will necessarily have an advantage over the kids who do not train year round. But, it also could mean that they do, but that is ok, because that is how it goes sometimes.

Every player is different and every situation is different, so players who want to, and do, play multiple sports, need to be handled according to what is best for that particular player. With that said, it has to be recognized that there are additional dangers with kids playing multiple sports that overlap in season. Just like a player who specializes and is just playing one sport without rest, a player with multiple sports and no rest could be in an even more developmentally inappropriate situation that can have more negative effects than just playing one sport. There can be additional wear and tear on the body. In reality, the training and time has just doubled… along with diversifying the experiences. The real goal would be to diversify in sports without drastically adding to the number of hours/time spent training and playing to create the most developmentally ideal and safe playing experience possible.

In short, there are issues with specialization, but there can be even more issues with playing multiple sports at the same time. It is all about balance which is what the original push against specialization was based on. Although you want to be careful not to paint everyone with the same brush. What is right for one person is not right for another. Although, most agree that a proper balance needs to be struck between sports and other aspects of life. Especially when the push to play one sport or multiple sports is coming from adults with goals of making higher level teams, scholarships, professional contracts etc, there are a lot of adverse effects to the child.

We do not want to acknowledge the dangers of specialization, but at the same time, have kids stretched thin between multiple sports and only point to the benefits. The benefits of being a multi-sport athlete can quickly be diminished by the overwork and fatigue placed on the body. We want to be careful we do not move from one extreme side of spectrum of youth sports to the other.

Kids can play one sport, or play multiple sports, but parents and coaches need to be constantly monitoring the player’s physical and mental condition. The player must be enjoying the experience and growing within that experience. It should be self-driven, and not externally driven. The player has to want it, not just the coach and/or parents.

As a child who loved one sport, I understand what it is like to have a passion for something and pursue it relentlessly. It has sacrifices and struggles, but I never did it for any other reason except that I loved it. I do not think that is right for most kids. And, what about the child who is truly passionate about multiple sports or activities? Do we deny the opportunity to pursue both? I think that is a hard thing to do.

In the end, we do not want to push kids in specializing in one sport because we think it will help them achieve more, and we also do not want to push kids into playing multiple sports because new research shows it is better for them and many high level athletes played multiple sports. The common ground there is the word PUSH. It is the PUSH from adults and coaches that make either scenario inappropriate for the child.

Know your child. Know your players. Make decisions based on what is best for them and what they love to do and are passionate about. Do not make decisions or push one way or the other out of fear your child or team will be left behind or will lose opportunities to be successful.

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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Soccer Parent Landmines

By Tony Earp

Being a parent is difficult, but being a parent of a soccer player poses additional challenges that can put a lot of stress on parents and the child. The soccer community is not the easiest to navigate, and it can be overwhelming, especially for parents with kids going through the process for the first time. There will be a lot of things that go on throughout the season that can distract parents from what is most important; their child having fun and learning the game. With all decisions a parent must make, it is important that the result of each decision is in the best interest of the kid and it helps make their playing experience better. There will always be bumps in the road, but those bumps can quickly turn into large sink holes that can torpedo a season and child’s enjoyment playing the game.

It is not just the kids, but the parents, who feel the pressure of the club soccer experience. All want to be doing what is right to help their child have success on the field. The heart, I believe, is always in the right place, but the pressure and culture of the competitive environment can lead parents to act or get involved in the process in a way not originally intended.

Based on my experience in youth soccer and working with parents, here are some tips for getting through the season that makes it enjoyable for everyone.

Do Not Reward Performance to Motivate Kids

There are parents who decide to motivate their child through “rewards’ for good performance on the field. With the goal to try to help their child have more success on the field, work harder, or “play better,” the child is offered something in return. Now, do these rewards work to help a player work a little harder, focus more, or maybe score a couple more goals? Sometimes they do work, but only in the short term. This type of reward system begins to make playing the game about getting something in return; not playing the game because it is fun or it is something the child wants to do. Once the excitement of the rewards wears off, the child’s desire to play the game will also diminish or a bigger reward will be required to reach the same level of motivation.

Outside of that, it can affect performance in a negative way. For example, a player who is being incentivized to score goals may start playing differently or making bad decisions in order to try to score more goals that do not help the player improve. What if the player does not score a goal but has a great game, works really hard, and played very well? Even though the player had success on the field, the player will still feel like they failed because he did not score and will not be rewarded.

Should kids be rewarded for great effort and doing their best? Absolutely! I am not advocating otherwise, but parents need to be very careful about using rewards to try to get the child to play differently or enjoy the game more. In short, you should go out for ice cream after the game to celebrate having a fun day at the soccer field, but you do not take that away or hold it over a child’s head based on their performance. Quickly, what was meant to make a player want to play better will turn into a reason why a player will not want to pl

Avoid the Drama of the Parent Sideline

The sideline of a soccer game or practice can be a tough place to sit in peace and just enjoy the game or watch your child play. Parents are constantly faced with the uncomfortable conversations or the “soccer gossip” from other parents who are “in the know” or are frustrated about… whatever. As you are watching the game, you will hear parents talking about other parents, the coach, other players, or other teams. It will start with, “Did you hear?” and end with, “So..what do you think?”

NEVER ANSWER THAT QUESTION. Well, you can, but I strongly suggest avoiding it. It can lead you down a road you had no intention of being on.

Although I think all of us are somewhat drawn to conflict or at least enjoy hearing about it, I would do everything you can to avoid getting sucked into these types of conversations. The conversation may be prefaced with “just between you and me” but that is not how it will stay. It will always get back to whom it may concern, and then it will work its way back to you. Something you really did not care much about to begin with, will quickly become something that totally consumes you. My suggestion is avoid the conversation or change the subject when someone tries to have this type of conversation with you.

There is a fear of not being “in the know” so sometimes parents feel the need to seek out this information, so they are “informed” and can help make decisions to help their child. The one thing I will say about that is these conversations rarely consist of accurate information. In the end, you will not be more informed, but you will feel you are and that will lead to additional issues.

If through the course of the year, you feel the need to address a concern or discuss an issue, only do it with the person who it concerns. If you want to be informed, go to the source. Whether it is a coach or another parent, address all concerns and issues directly with that person. If you choose to “gossip” about it with others, eventually the person whom with you have the concern with will hear about it, but not in the way you would want and not told really what you said. Or worse, you will think you are informed and you are not, and you make a decision or choice that will affect your child adversely using bad information.

Be the Parent Not the Assistant Coach

It is important that your child has their parent waiting for them when they leave the soccer field and not an assistant soccer coach. Ask your child about their practice and show an interest in what they learned or if they had fun, but avoid giving tips and advice on how they could have played better or what they need to do next time when they are on the field. Leave that for the coach. That is the coach’s job, and you can always ask the coach questions if you need to about those things, but your child just needs you to be their parent and show you care about how they did and you love to watch them play.

Again, because all parents want to help their child have success, it is hard to stop from doing this when your child comes off the field. You might have seen something that you feel can really help them play better or have more fun, so again, I believe parents are just trying to help. But do your best to let that information come from the coach. If your child asks you how you think he did, do not be afraid to answer his questions. Dodging the question or acting like you are uninterested would not be beneficial either, but be careful when answering to try not to correct the issue for the child. Be more general with your statements and allow the coach to correct the finer points. Encourage the player to discuss it with the coach. The key is let the child ask you. Let the child determine if it is something he wants to talk about.

We all have our opinions of how things should be done, and as I said before, if you ever have concerns or questions, the best thing to do is ask the coach directly. The worst thing you can do is undermine the coach and tell your child to do things differently than what they are being asked at the soccer field. It just confuses the child, and it will cause conflict in the relationship between the player and the coach, and in the relationship between you and your child.

Avoid Emotional Public Responses

I do not like to be the bearer of bad news, but there will be things that happen throughout the season that upset you. Even the best coaches and parents, will make mistakes and say or do something that you have a real, and legitimate, issue with. Often, a bad situation can become much worse than it needs to be by a knee-jerk emotional response… especially in public in front of others.

Whether at practice or in a game, something will happen or be said to you or your child that will light your fuse and ignite your natural parental response to protect your child. Again, completely understandable, and I have seen a lot of situations where it is justified (but still not appropriate).

Although before responding or making a very public response and embarrassing scene for your child, I would suggest digesting what you see and take a more thought out and reasonable (not emotional) approach to responding to what happened. Why? First, what may have happened or what you heard may not be an issue if you completely understand the context behind it. Second, usually what is said out of an emotional response, even if justified, is not what you wish you would have said after the fact.

To ensure a proper and pragmatic response to negative events throughout the year, gather all the necessary information, examine it, and then proceed how you see necessary in the best interest of your child and yourself. Again, the soccer field, especially during games when competition is tough and emotions are running high, situations occur that do not have to be a major issue but are exacerbated by an emotional response from a parent (or coach).

Do Not Make Decisions out of Fear

This is the most important piece of advice I can give a parent, and the one that will make the biggest impact on your child’s experience. When deciding anything for your child, the decision should be based on what is best for your child to have a fulfilling, fun, and appropriate experience on the soccer field learning an awesome game. Decisions made out of fear will lead you and your child down a road you really do not want to go. 10 teams later, thousands of dollars spent, and many relationships burned, you will wonder how you got to that point?

A common fear parents have, and make a lot of decisions based off of, is the fear of their child being left behind. Something currently happening or missing in their child’s soccer experience creates a fear that their child is not progressing as fast as he should. Parents make decisions to change clubs/teams, force kids to train or practice more, or do not allow their kids to play for certain teams in trying to make sure their child does not fall behind their peers. The first sign that their child is lagging behind his peers, a decision is made to make a change. The parent will try to change the environment in the hopes of finding a better one will help their child have success and advance their skill.

With a decision based on fear, often all the facts are not taken into account and the actuality of the situation is skewed by the fear. The bigger and long-term perspective is not considered. With these types of decisions, we only look at a small and possibly insignificant piece of the puzzle. An “issue” may have nothing to do with the environment, the coach, or other players on the team that a child is falling behind. It can be for a lot of reasons that are out of the player’s control (developmental changes – both physical and cognitive), or possibly a losing interest in the game which will happen with some players (like with anything). Granted, there are definitely situations that kids should be moved off certain teams and moved to others, too many to mention here, but too often the move is not really necessary or appropriate. Often a change is an emotional reaction to the first sign of any type of obstacle or struggle for the player.

Most kids will not play this game at a “high” level. Moving kids from club to club or team to team to try to improve their level is not the best way to do that. Forcing a kid to train or practice more than he desires is not beneficial either. Yes, the proper environment to develop and extra training can help improve skill level, BUT ONLY WHEN IT IS SOMETHING THE PLAYER WANTS TO DO. Change does not help if the kid does not want it or a change does not address the real issues.

**Final thought… ** the one thing all of these items have in common is focusing on doing what is best for your child. Making the experience completely about them, and making it very little about you or the other adults along for the ride. When parents get distracted by all the other things that happen over a course of the season that cause a loss of focus on the real reason your child is playing, the experience quickly turns negative for everyone involved. Soccer is a game. We sometimes forget that. It is best to sit back and let your child discover the game, learn how to play it, and decide where he wants to take it. Avoid these soccer parent landmines, and you will not have to spend your child’s soccer season rummaging through the debris of the aftermath of these types of situations.

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

Play, Learn, and Create

By Tony Earp
When coaching soccer, it is easy to get caught up in all the technical and tactical aspects of the game that you want your players to learn, and all are skill areas I am sure the players need to know very well to have success on the field. We know we want the players to learn those skills, but how do we approach teaching it to them, or a better question, how will the kids approach learning those skills? It is the approach that kids take to learning new skills that we need to pay attention to so we know how to teach it to assist in the process of learning. During a training sessions, I know the kids will want to play and that is how they will learn. How will I know if they picked up the skills? They will demonstrate a strong understanding, a mastery of those skills, once they are able to create things I did not ask them to do on their own without any direction.
Play is a great word because it can be used to describe so many different things. It can be used describe almost any situation or activity in which an individual, of any age, is doing what they want, when they want, and enjoying it. It can be done alone or in a group (small or large). Usually play involves very little structure or rules, but it still usually always has a distinct goal or purpose. Often one of the goals of “play” is to get better at whatever is being done. This is true even though someone playing would not probably point to that as being the reason, which is a great thing, and why play is so valuable.
For example, when I was a kid, we built ramps and rode our bikes off them in the street. Now we were playing, and definitely having a lot of fun, but at the same time, there was this internal push to get better at jumping off that ramp. Once we could go over one ramp and land it consistently without falling, then we wanted to go off an even higher and steeper ramp, even when we knew we would fall much more often and fail the first time we tried. If we kept going over the same ramp, at the same height, over and over, it would eventually get boring and we would not want to do it anymore. As kids, we did not think of it this way. We just did not want to be bored, and it is fun to be challenged. Even though we were not consciously doing it to get better, each time we reached a certain level, we tried to do a little bit more. It made it more fun, and it helped us get better. The fun usually can be found just outside where we are comfortable.
At the same time we were making ramps higher, just going over them and landing was no longer all we wanted to do. We could do that…now what? Well, how about a twist of the handle bars, or try to spin around in the air? I am not saying we never got hurt, but we were playing, having fun, and without anyone pushing us to do so, we were trying to get better… and we got better.
Think of a kid’s video game. If they completed a level and then just had to repeat it again, they would probably not want to play it very long. Although the game itself is fun, it is only fun because there is another challenge around the corner. When do kids stop playing a video game, usually when they have beaten every level or there is nothing left to accomplish.
Play is a critical part of a player’s development because it is the foundation of how we learn anything. It is nature’s coach, and the way we were born to discover our limits and surpass them. We did it as kids, and still might do it as adults in some aspects of our lives. When you think of a training session, play must be involved heavily within the session for kids to learn. We need to create that experience within each session to ensure the same sense of enjoyment and internal drive to try new and challenging skills is present as it is essential for learning and growth.
Now, when you play, there is a process in which you take to learn. You learn what works and what does not as you fail and succeed at the task. Let’s go back to my experience jumping over ramps on my bike as a kid. We fell off our bikes, got bruises, and were too scared at times to try something new. We would “inch” into new jumps or more challenging tricks. We failed a lot more often than we succeed. We “wrecked” the bikes and our bodies… at first, but than we landed more often on two wheels rather than our face. But after each fall, we thought about what went wrong, tried to fix it,and tried it again. This was the benefit of the “play.” There was no one there to say, “Don’t do that” or “Don’t try that again.” There was also no one there trying to talk us out of trying something. Trying to convince us we were not good enough or it was too risky. We determined what we were going to try again, how we were going to do it, and when we were ready. This is how we learned.
At practice or in a soccer game, it is the same. Things do NOT work a lot more often than they do work. The worst thing as coaches we can do is take the “play” out of the game, and tell kids not to try difficult skills, things just beyond their current level, again, and again, and again when they play. After each failure, we need to be the voice that helps them correct the mistakes, as well as the voice that tells them to try it again. The same fear free environment that we all are part of when we play needs to be created by coaches on the soccer field. It is the natural way the players learn new skills. We cannot expect players to play just beyond their current abilities while at the same time criticizing and chastising them after every mistake. The mistakes should not just be expected and welcomed, they should be a sign to both the coach and the player, that learning is taking place and development is in the process. The play is being used to learn. Frankly, when kids come to practice and expect a mistake free day, or focus on not making mistakes, they are no longer “playing” and that key element needed to learn is lost. It becomes more of a scripted environment, a staged reenactment of playing soccer, and the kids are just trying to memorize their lines to avoid any “boos” from the crowd (a coach or parent).
Now, once the learning is happening, and the skills and confidence are improving, players will then feel comfortable to create with their new knowledge and skills. That is the evidence that every coach should be looking for to see if their players truly understand the concepts being taught. Once the players take those skills and start doing what they want with them, things that the coach did not even ask them to do, the players are demonstrating a strong understanding and confidence with those skills. Their competency is on full display.
Don’t believe me? One of the most common things I hear coaches say is (me included), “The kids did great with this (skill/concept) in training, but never use it in the game.” Well, this is exactly why. In a scripted controlled environment, they can repeat what you are asking them to do. But in the unpredictable environment of the game, the players do not really have enough understanding to create using those skills in that environment. This is why games are the key times for coaches to observe what the players are doing and not doing, what has been learned or not learned. A lack of a skill used in a game that was the focus of training the week leading up to the game shows a lack of competency in those skill areas. I would suggest more “play” in training to help deepen the understanding.
This is the natural progression of getting better at anything without really thinking about trying to get better at it. We play. Through our playing, we consistently try to push our abilities by doing more difficult or challenging things that make the play more fun. We explore the unknown possibilities of our actions. It is where excitement and fun reside, and where learning finds its home. As the learning takes hold, and the knowledge and skills deepen, we enter into the best part of play… the ability to create. The ability to create starts the process over. It provides a new way to play, new things to learn, and then new things to create.. and the cycle continues.
If there is a training session format that I could recommend to all coaches, this would be it. It is the most natural, it is the most effective, and it is the one that we all enjoy. Let the kids play to learn, and then let them create with what they learned. In a training environment, the coach is the facilitator of the play, and does not have to be an inhibitor of it when teaching. While still giving instruction and providing correction, you allow the kids to play and challenge themselves beyond their current abilities. Then, you can sit back and enjoy watching them create beautiful pictures on the field on their own. Through play, your players learned, and now they can create when they 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

Need More Than One Club In Your Bag

By Tony Earp

When working to improve a player’s finishing, the most important part is helping the player choose the right shot when going to goal. Although striking the ball well, with proper technique, power and accuracy are all important, a brilliantly struck ball with great technique, power, and accuracy can still not produce a goal. Finishing is not just striking the ball harder. It is more about striking the ball SMARTER. Just like a golfer cannot show up at the golf course with only his driver in the bag and expect to do well, a player cannot hit every shot on goal with just power and expect to score. Like a great golfer, you need a lot of different clubs in your bag to hit the right shot, at the right time, when the game demands it from you.

Watch a highlight reel of some of the best finishers of the game. Is every goal a laser hit from outside the penalty area into the side netting? I would bet that most of the goals are not scored that way. If you study the world’s best goal scorers, most goals are scored by the player being very aware of his surroundings and then taking the RIGHT shot to beat the defenders and the goalkeeper. Sometimes this type of shot is hit low and hard to the corner, sometimes it is a chip over a goalkeeper’s head, or possibly a ball hit with some bend to move outside of the goalkeeper’s reach and into the side netting. In all of these scenarios, the player made a decision about what type of shot he was going to hit based on what was going on in the game. Picking the right shot, at the right time, can create a moment of brilliance when the player finds the back of the net in an unexpected way.

Players who are not as savvy around the goal, probably would have just pulled out the driver and just hit the ball as hard as possible at the goal. By trying to strike the ball hard, the player will either miss the mark completely, or the ball’s path makes it easy for a goalkeeper to cut down the angle and make the save. A well positioned goalkeeper is very hard to beat by just hitting the ball hard.

Like a great golfer, great goal scorers look at the shot they need to hit, pick the right type of club (part of the foot/position of the foot), decide how hard they need to swing, and if they need the ball to be low, high, or curve the ball left or right. Then they try to hit that shot. A soccer player needs to do it in a fraction of a second while the golfer has some more time to think about it, and often, both do not hit the exact shot they would have liked. Even the best in the world, golfers and soccer players, miss the target more often than they hit it. Although they get a lot closer, more consistently than anyone else.

When working with players on finishing, this is what we are really trying to get them to learn. Not to just strike the ball hard with great power and accuracy, but to also pick the right shot at the right time to give themselves the best chance to score. A technically perfectly hit shot with great power and accuracy can still give the player little chance to score, but a well hit shot that makes sense in relation to where the player is to the goal, where the ball is in relation to the player, and where the goalkeepers and defenders are standing gives the player the best chance to have success.

Most players do not have the discipline from close range to use the inside or outside of the foot to slot the ball past a goalkeeper in the corner. Even from 10 yards away, the player steps in to try to hit the ball with an incredible amount of force that often causes the technique to break down. It is completely unnecessary to get that much power, but most players fail to see that causing them to miss easier goal scoring chances.

I get it. Hitting the ball hard is a lot of fun, but there are no bonus points for how fast the ball is going when it hits the back of the net.

On the flip side, when players are farther from goal, they need the ability and courage to not just step in and strike the ball hard, but try to aim at a part of the goal and hit the ball with more power. From distance, the goalkeeper has much more time to move to the ball, so a shot needs to have the right path, velocity, and be aimed at a target on the goal that keeps the ball as far away from the goalkeeper’s reach as possible until the ball crosses the white line. Most players are afraid to miss the target, so they hit a straight shot at the middle of the goal giving them little chance to score.
It is my preference for a player to give himself the best chance to score by aiming away from the goalkeeper rather than just hitting it somewhere on frame. I would rather see the player miss the target trying to give himself a chance to score than hit the goalkeeper in the hands with the ball because he is afraid to miss. I am not looking for a shot on goal. I want a player to try to score. Those are two different approaches.

On top of this, finishing is just another form of ball striking. It is the same as passing. All throughout a game, players pick their teammates out from different distances, often with incredible accuracy, when passing and moving the ball around the field. But when they get the chance to score, the mentality changes. A player who can drive a ball 30 yards to a teammate and hit him in the chest without the player having to move cannot hit the side of the goal from 10 yards away. Does that make sense?

Often in training, I will stand in the goal and tell players, “Pass me the ball.” One after the other, the players step up and play an accurate ball to my feet or drive a ball into my chest. Strange, those “passes” would all be brilliant finishes going to goal. What has changed? The approach and mentality of the player.

When passing, players, like a good golfer, are more concerned with getting the ball accurately to the target. With that in mind, players are more likely to “to pick the right club” and the right pass of the ball to get it to a teammate with pace and accuracy. When passing, players tend not to just blast the ball in the direction of their teammates hoping it gets there. Instead, they are much more calculated, and their consistency and accuracy are much better.

If players can take the same approach to finishing, realize they have more than just “one club in their bag”, it will make them much more efficient at putting the ball in the back of the net. Instead of the players only taking out their driver in front of the goal, they will utilize the other clubs in the bag to hit the correct shot to give themselves the best chance to score. As stated above, most players already do this in regards to passing and moving the ball around the field to their teammates, so the ability is there.

Like a great golfer, great goal scorers can hit the shot they need, when they need it, during a game to give themselves the best chance to score. Helping players become great finishers is not just about striking the ball harder or more accurate. It is about helping them to hit the ball SMARTER and picking the right shot, at the right time, that can create a brilliant moment when the ball hits the back of the net.

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

A Team of One

By Tony Earp

Spending some time at a soccer tournament this past weekend and watching a lot of youth soccer games, mainly U12 and under, I noticed something very interesting. On many teams, the same player was being called on to do almost everything on the field. The same player always took each direct kick, goal kick, corner kick, or any other set piece for the team, and the team tried to get this player the ball as often as possible. You could probably guess which player this was? Yes, it was the player with the strongest kick, was the fastest, most skilled, and who could give the team the best chance to score or have success. The player was a Team of One. The team relied on this player to help secure a result in the game through taking all the set pieces and having that player be the focus of the team strategy. The player rarely came off the field and was asked to do almost everything on the field. To quote from one of my favorite movies, it is a “Pass it to the Italians” type of approach to the game.

What about the other players on the team? If this is truly a team sport and we are trying to develop all the players on the field, why would we not give other players on the field the opportunity to be the player over the ball in those situations? How do they learn what to do with the ball, how to strike it, where to play it, if never given the chance? A coach might say, “Well, the other players cannot do it or play the ball where we need.”

Two things here: 1) A coach’s job is to teach and help kids learn how to do things they cannot already do. Simply deciding a player cannot do something is not coaching. It is giving up. 2) If a player knows he or she will never be asked to do something in a game, the player will never take the time to try to improve that skill area. There is no reason to practice something the player will never get the chance to do.

The other players on these teams are being deprived of opportunities to “be the player” the team relies on in these situations. Not matter what the result, each time a player gets a chance to take one of these dead ball situations or play in a certain position, the player learns something new and it helps them grow as a player. If the games are just an extension of practice at the younger age groups, all players on the field need the chance to practice being involved in all situations of the game.

It seems logical to have players practice a skill they have not learned how to do yet as it is the only way to get better. In a training session, I do not think a coach would allow the players who are good at dribbling to be the only players who dribble, and only players good at passing to pass, and the players good at shooting are the only ones allowed to shoot. I am pretty sure all players need practice in all of these areas. A game is no different. The players all need opportunities to do work on not just their stronger skills but the skills they need to improve on. This means all players need to be put in situations in the game that the team relies on them through the run of play and in set pieces.

Now, if you think games are different. Games are not practice. The games are for competing and getting a result.  If this is how you feel, then having the same player take all the set pieces and dead ball situations in a game because it helps your team be successful does match up with your coaching philosophy. Getting that player the ball as often as possible throughout the game, as it will help your team win, makes a lot of sense based on your goals for the game.

On the other hand, if you feel the game is about ALL the players on your team developing and learning how to play the game, getting all the experiences necessary to continue to grow, then having the same player do everything on the field does not match up with your coaching philosophy and approach. Instead, players should be given opportunities to play important roles within the team and asked to do various things on the field, not the same things over and over. This does not mean giving other players these opportunities ONLY when your team is already up by five goals and the result of the game has been determined.

Yes, older teams, college and professional, have players who take a majority of the set pieces or are relied on to do much more than others based on their position and role within the team’s system of play. But I am not talking about that age group or level of player. I am talking about youth players, at the younger ages who are still learning and developing their skills. If we do not know which kids will grow up to continue to play this game, or how players will physically, mentally, or technically develop, I think it is important that all young players get to experience all aspects of the game. If not, then we need to hope that our strongest players at 10 years old are still our strongest players at 18 years old. This seems like a big gamble on only a small percentage of the kids who start out playing the game by only giving a select few most of the opportunities to develop.

I have seen teams that allow whichever player is closest to where the ball is to be the one to takes a free kick. A defender does not come up from the back to take the corner kick because that player has the biggest leg. Instead, the player playing in a position closest to where the kick is to be taken is the one who is given the chance. To do this, kids would need to be rotating positions as well, but in short, the kids know if they are near the ball, it is their responsibility. This means all kids need to know what to do in all of these situations so they are prepared when given the opportunity. Again, this gives all players the opportunity to practice these skills and they will learn what to do when in these types of situations. I think educating each player and giving all the players a chance is a better approach to a team sport than just allowing one player to do it all.

When teams are really committed to helping all players learn how to play the game, the coach and organization gives all players on that team the same opportunities. If not, than it is not a team. Instead, it is a group of players who rely on one player, or a Team of One. The success of all the other players relies on the skill, strength and talent of one player. This is normally the approach taken by teams with a “win first, teach second” type of environment. The more professional and developmental approach is creating a team of many, all of whom are given the chance to contribute in the same ways to the team’s success during games. Creating a Team of One is a very recreational approach to the game, and no better than a “Pass it to the Italians” approach to coaching.

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

Cheer for More

By Tony Earp
At the soccer field, you probably hear the loudest cheers and yells when a goal is scored. All goals should be celebrated, and parents should let the kids know how proud they are of all their efforts that resulted in a goal. Scoring goals is one of the hardest things to do in the game, and it gets harder as players get older, and it is the moment of the game that all the near misses, great plays, and hard work lead up to for the team. When a goal is scored, it allows everyone to unleash all the emotion that has been bottled up waiting for that goal to come.
Are there other things that coaches and parents can cheer? There are a lot of things that need to happen to lead up to a goal. A tremendous amount of effort and outstanding play, both individually and by the entire team), occur throughout the entire game. There are moments we are missing that deserve as much, if not more, applaud and cheer from the sideline. This is especially true for the youngest age groups who are just learning to play the game. Developmentally there are many things the coaches want the players to attempt during the game, many of them are risky, and that often do not get much attention.
If we could recognize and celebrate the moments below more frequently, it would give players more motivation to do the things in the game that are beneficial to their development and the success of the team. If players know they will be recognized for the following actions, like when a goal is scored, they will be more likely to try to repeat those actions. Cheer for goals, cheer loudly when someone scores, but let’s get out of our chair and clap for the other important moments in the game.

1) Consecutive Passes
 – Have you ever counted how many times your child’s team connects more than a couple passes together? It is rarer than you think to see a team connect five or more passes together in a row without losing possession. When teams are able to string together more than just a couple passes and keep possession, moving the ball from one side of the field to the other, poking and prodding the other team’s defense looking for ways to get to goal, it should be something celebrated. Seeing a youth team do this is probably rarer than a goal being scored. Next time your team connects more than five passes, let the kids hear you on the sideline! Let the kids know you recognized the very difficult task they just accomplished as a group.

2) Successfully Playing out of the Back
 – Normally when a goalkeeper or field player gets the ball around their own goal the immediate reaction is to kick it away, out of bounds or up field, immediately without much thought or attempt to look at another option. It is something special to watch a player get a ball under pressure, around the goal, and with poise and confidence, keep possession of the ball by dribbling or passing out of pressure, or a goalkeeper to pass the ball to a teammates versus just punting it up field. It is an incredible risk, but a much higher level of play. This is what we want out of our players when they play the game. We want great confidence and control on the ball, and we want them to remain calm, not panic, and find solutions to problems. When you see a player, start an attack out of the defensive end of the field near the goal, especially under pressure; make sure that player is recognized for that level of play.

3) Courage and Creativity on the Dribble
 – This is a great one, and I have seen this happen more and more at the soccer field and it is a fantastic thing for players. Great coaches ask their players to try skill moves in games and to take players on with the soccer ball. At the younger age groups, it is instills confidence in players to have the ball at their feet, not panic under pressure, and be willing to be creative and courageous on the ball. When you see a player perform a skill move on the ball, taking a player on 1v1 or trying to protect the ball to keep possession, cheer for them when they do it. I have seen kids’ faces light up with joy when they do a step over and the parents cheer for them. The players get excited to try it again, and again, and the player’s confidence grows. The player is rewarded for trying something that is difficult, and could cause them to lose the ball, during a game. It helps players use the skills worked on in practice in games because the parents and coaches are saying, “It is safe to work on those skills here too!”

4) Movement or Run that Creates Space for Teammate
 – This is the most unrewarded, but very important, aspects of the game for players. In order to build an attack, create space to play through to get to goal, the movement of players off the ball has to be consistent and well-timed. We often think of moving off the ball to be able to receive the ball from a teammate. Yes, this is one type of movement, but moving off the ball to create space for someone else to receive a pass is an even higher level of movement. Many people miss this, as the player moving to create space for another player, does not get the ball and is not directly involved in the play. It is an “off the ball” skill in a game that is very important for the team to have success moving the ball up field. This might be harder to see, but when you do, make sure you let that player know you saw what their effort created!

5) Sprinting Back to Cover for Teammate
 – When teams attack, they commit players forward to create numbers up situations around the goal. A defender or midfielder can get caught up field trying to support the attack when possession is lost. Many players will stand and not recover when there is a turn over, but some players will immediately sprint back to help defend, and at times, work back into areas of the field that should be covered by another player. The recovering player will recognize his teammate is too far up the field and will not be able to recover in time, so the player recovers back for the player out of position. Instead of saying, “that is not my responsibility”, the player makes it his responsibility to help the player who cannot get back and the team keep a good defensive shape. Again, an act that often goes unrecognized, but should be applauded from the sideline.

6) Saves by Goalkeeper
 – Goalkeeper is an incredibly difficult and unrewarding position. A lot of the good things they do go unrecognized, but their mistakes are very public and costly. Throughout a game, a goalkeeper does a lot, even when they are not making saves, to prevent the other team from scoring goals. A lot of this is their communication and organization of their back-line, coming off their line and cleaning up balls served over the top and into the goal area, and starting the attack when they get the ball. When a goalkeeper is called on to make a save, it is expected a save is made. There is not a lot of praise when the goalkeeper stops the ball from going into the goal, but plenty of constructive criticism when a goal is allowed. Even “routine” saves, are very difficult, although goalkeepers make them look easy, and those moments should be cheered and celebrated. It does not have to be a diving save, tipping the ball over the bar, on a shot heading for the upper corner of the goal. All saves are crucial for a team to have a chance of being successful. As the least understood position on the field, a lot goes into every save a goalkeeper makes and it is time to recognize it!

7) Incredible Sportsmanship
 
– In a time when you often see the “bad side” of sports on Sports Center or your local leagues, seeing great sportsmanship during a match is becoming a rare occurrence. Games, where there should be healthy competition, can quickly turn into a disappointing display of disrespect among the players on the field. It seems it is hard for players to compete, aggressively with one another, without it becoming a personal conflict between the players. When a player demonstrates sportsmanship and class on the field, especially in situations when it is hard, that behavior should be reinforced by the crowd with thunderous applaud. I have seen players correct a referee’s call saying, “No, that was out on me. It is their ball.” I have seen players help a player up who they knocked down and fouled. I have even seen a player who was fouled get up, and say, “No worries, just part of the game.” It seems strange, but great sportsmanship like this allows players to compete hard and learn how to react positively to negative situations in the game. It is better than emulating the players they see on TV blow up on another player each time they are touched or are always trying to get a cheap call from the referee.
In short, there are many aspects of the game that can be celebrated from the sideline by parents and coaches. Yes, the goals are what will always get us out of our seats, but let’s show the kids that we recognize other moments in the game when they do great things that are not easy and just as important for their development. Let’s cheer for more!
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

Things My Mother Never Said (Part 2)

By Tony Earp

As a soccer coach, I hear a lot of things said by parents to me or their kids that my mom never said to me growing up. Below is a sample of comments I hear all the time. As a coach, I cringe every time I hear them. Maybe because I never heard them growing up from my mom.

“My child should play in a different position.”
I came home from a game when I was 13 and told my mom that I think I should be playing forward. Up until that season, I had always played forward and did very well. This coach however felt I was better in the midfield. When I expressed my frustration to my mom, she politely listened but did not give me her opinion or express concern about me playing the new position. My team was having a hard time scoring goals and I was certain I could make more of an impact playing as a forward where I can score more goals versus playing in the midfield. I added the fact that I did not feel as comfortable in the midfield as I did as a forward.

When my mom got tired of hearing me complain about my position with the team, she said something that I will never forget. She cut me off in mid-complaint and sternly said, “Are you a good player?” Stunned by the question, I stuttered, “y-ea.” She moved to eye level with me and said, “Then it should not matter where you play. If you are really that good, you can be great anywhere on the field. If you can’t, then you have more work to do.”

Again, my mom took my complaint that I was being cheated out of playing my best by my coach’s decision and turned it right around on me. Her point was not subtle and quick to the point. I was an upset teenager by my mom’s lack of support and apathetic attitude towards my displeasure with the team, but deep down, I knew she was right. Although not easy to accept and it meant more work for me, I was ultimately in control of how well I played. With a slight change in my attitude and a refocus back on what I can do to improve, I did what was necessary to find success in the new position.

It should be noted I played center mid in college.

“My child should have made that team.”
There were several occasions when I was a youth player that I was not selected for a team. There were times I know I did not deserve to be on the team, but there were other situations where I knew the coaches made a mistake or I was overlooked in the process. Although the disappointment was tough to bear at times, I know it helped me deal with adversity later on in life.

When I would vent to my mom, she was a great sounding board and she allowed me to get out everything I needed to say to let out my frustration with not making the team. She was very supportive and always tried to make me feel better. But, she NEVER told me I should have made the team.

My mom would tell me I am a good player and I worked very hard during training, but she never told me that I got looked over, it was not fair, or some other player was wrongly selected over me. All she told me was “next time, do more to make sure they HAVE to take you.” Again, although deep down she may have felt I did get over looked or it was “political”, she never let me know that. She felt it was more important for me to view it as a challenge to work harder the next time around and continue to get better.

My mom could have complained to the coaches and pointed out how her son played for this team or was much better than this player. My mom could have accused the coaches of taking players they “liked” or “knew” from their own teams. My mom could have never let me tryout again in protest to the gross injustice suffered by her son. But my mom never did any of that. Was she unsupportive? Was she not sticking up for her son?

In actuality, I think my mom was looking out for me. She wanted me to learn how to deal with disappointment and respond in a way that would help me not just in soccer but with other challenges I would face in my life. As we all know, life is not fair and at times we do not get what we probably deserve. Many respond by just pointing blame and deciding not to every try again because it will most likely end up with the same result. Others decide to work harder and use what they learned from failing to their advantage the next time around. Which one are you? If you are the latter, you should probably pick up the phone and thank your parents.

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