Starve the Beast

By Tony Earp

There are many benefits of taking time off during the year as a competitive athlete. The obvious ones are mental and physical rest the body needs in order to stay healthy and avoid overuse injuries or “burnout.” The amount of rest needed changes from player to player depending on age, competitive level, and personal needs. In short everyone is different, and so is the need for rest and recovery. But what is the best thing about rest? The answer is the least talked about benefit and the one I found to be the most helpful as a developing young player. In short, REST STARVES THE BEAST, and when the time is right, you let the beast eat again.

Let me explain… I hated taking time off from playing soccer. I had to be pulled kicking and screaming away from the soccer field. I would even go as far as to sneak out to play or lie about where I was going when leaving the house with my friends (sorry mom). My coaches and my mom constantly encouraged breaks and stressed they were necessary, but I was a kid who loved the play and I did not care about what was “necessary” or “good for me”…. I just wanted to play.

I had a coach that finally got me to buy into the “rest” concept with the “Starve the Beast” approach. Simply, he explained that you have this beast inside of you who loves to play and feasts every time you step on the field. He will always eat and he is always hungry, but he can only eat so much at time. He told me that I needed that beast ready to eat every time I step on the field. When I rested, or when I starved the beast, he could eat a whole lot more.

It is not easy to starve the beast. The urge to let the beast eat and go play is strong and it takes discipline to ignore it. But when done right, and at the right time, when I stepped on the field to play again, the beast was hungry to eat more than he was before. In other words, the “beast” was willing to work harder, for longer, and break through any barriers that stood between him and his food. After a break, I learned that my level of play and level of training drastically increased.

As a kid, I did not care or really relate at all to the idea of stopping burnout or overuse injuries. Why? Because I was a kid! Those things did not mean anything to me, and I did not feel it was something I would have to deal with no matter how much I played. Although I could have been negatively affected by those things, it was not going to stop me from playing and training. When this coach explained the “starve the beast” concept, it made more sense to me.

Of course I saw myself as “the beast” (what kid does not want to be a BEAST), so it became something I bought into because I understood it and I related to it. After a break, I noticed the difference in my effort, attitude, and level of play after a break. I recognized how the BEAST responded when I got back on the field. When I stepped on the field, I wanted to show everyone what the BEAST could do, and I wanted to let the beast EAT.

When you have a passionate kid who loves something and pursues it relentlessly, parent and coach request to take breaks is not going to convince the kid to put the soccer ball away. It just does not make sense to the child to do that. The equation is simple… I love something, doing it makes me happy, so I am going to continue to do it. The starve the beast approach is not just fun, it acknowledges the kids passion and drive to continue to do it. It says, “I know you want to play, I know you’re a BEAST, but watch what happens when you cage the beast for a bit and then let him loose when he is rested and HUNGRY.”

My parents made it fun. When my break was up, the question would be asked, “Are you ready to let the beast eat?” I would always answer, “Oh, he’s ready to eat.” Then off to training I would head. Normally to one of my best training sessions I had in a very long time.

Make sure your child takes time to “starve the beast.” Not only will it help prevent injuries and burnout, but it will also set your child up to have more success on the field in the future. In short, breaks are good. They are necessary. BUT, you need to find a way to get your child to accept the need for a break. Just saying, “you need a break” may not do the trick. It may just cause frustration or resentment. Try the “starve the beast” approach, or something similar, and make the time off away from the game something they will welcome.

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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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 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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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