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One Question

By Tony Earp

Can you play? It is simple question and the most important one. All the evaluations and feedback, opinions about what makes up a great player, and debate about the most important skills a player can possess, all come back to that simple question. The only thing that matters when determining a player’s ability level is if or if not that player can meet the demands of the game. When players are training, focusing on improving different skill areas of the game is very important, but will it translate into the players being effective and better in the game?

As many coaches have seen, there are players who are technically sound, physically capable, understand the game, and work hard, but struggle to be effective in games. They have the tools, but cannot seem to use them when needed. All the pieces of the puzzle are there, but they cannot put them together to meet the demands and challenges of the game.

These players have worked hard fine tuning their technical ability on the ball. With both feet, they are sound in receiving, passing and dribbling with speed and control. Tactically, they understand their role in their position, the principles of attacking and defending, and the coach’s expectations on how the team should play. The player is physically capable of playing the game, and the player is competitive and wants to win. Again, all the critical skill areas to play the game are possessed by the player, but for some reason, the player is unable to use them in the game effectively.

Something was missing in the player’s training. Something very critical. Although the player has learned all of these skills and has these tools, he has never learned:

  1. HOW/WHEN/WHY TO USE THEM.
  2. HOW/WHEN/WHY THEY ARE CONNECTED

Often this occurs when learning of these skills are done in a vacuum, isolated of one another, and not within the context of the game.

Think of it this way… like many people, I enjoy watching the many YouTube videos of people doing crazy tricks and skills with the soccer ball. From juggling, skill moves with the ball and finishing, there are some amazing things people can do. Many may watch these videos and just assume these people must be great players based on what they can do with the ball, but that assumption may be very wrong.

The only thing I know watching that type of video is that the player is exceptional at that one skill. I have no idea if the player is actually an effective player in the game. I know he can juggle, do a wicked (insert Boston accent) skill move, or hit a crazy bending shot, but I have no idea if that player is any good at playing the game.

I am not being critical of those players or those videos. I actually think they are tremendous tool for young players to watch and get ideas to train on their own, spark their own creativity, and expand their understanding on what is possible to do with the ball.

The point is that a player’s goal is NEVER to just get good at a single skill movement or an activity in training. It is not to be a better juggler or be able to do a skill move with the ball. A player’s goal should ALWAYS be to improve their ability to play the game. So when training, or practicing any skill, it always needs to be done in the context of how it will be used in the game.

When training, without the context of the game, or a clear understanding of the application of the skill being worked on, it is possible to develop players who are excellent at training but struggle to play the game. Just like in the classroom, information and skills learned are most effective and useful when applied to their required use when it really matters (in real life).

In contrast, there are players that in training seem to struggle, but when the game starts, they are able to play at a higher level than expected. They may not be as technical on the ball or physically good as we think they should be, but when they step into a game, the player can find ways to be successful and very effective in helping his team. On an evaluation, a coach may have a slew of areas the player needs to improve on, maybe a lot more than other players, but at the same time, the player seems to be more successful than a player who would rate better on a written evaluation.

This type of player shows a clear understanding of several important things:

  1. His own strengths and weaknesses. He understands how to play towards his strengths and hide his weaknesses.
  2. The game. Really understanding nuances of the game, the critical points, that allow the player to make exceptional decisions and anticipate the game.
  3. Competitive spirit. Let’s face it. Some players are better because they just want it more.

The larger point is that all players are deficient in some skill areas comparatively to other players, but that may have little impact on their level of play. Despite not being as strong in some areas as other players, their “total game”, or their ability to be effective in games, is much higher than players who have considerable better technical or physical abilities.

Again, the real “evaluation” or the only “test” that really matters in determining a player’s level is how they do when the whistle blows. I have always been one who believes in player evaluations and feedback, but when we cut through all of the fog of player development and determining a player’s level of play, the only true evaluation is the game. The game is the only real measure of a player’s level of play.

The game is not biased, it is not political, it has no self-interests, and does not care about getting phone calls or emails from parents. The game will always be the most honest person with any player about what they are and are not able to do. Simply, either you can play or you cannot play.

When training, keep this in mind. Your goal, whether on your own, with your coach, or with some friends, is to get better at playing the game. Find ways to train yourself to be more effective in a game, when it counts.

Skills are necessary, juggling is important to improve your touch, YouTube is fun, but the game cares very little about how many “views” your last video post received, how many times you can juggle, or how crazy your skill moves look. It will only ask you one simple questions once the whistle blows… Can you 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

Train the 90

By Tony Earp

In business, an “80/20 rule” is often talked about in regards to productivity and profits. It is believed that 80 percent of a company’s revenue/success/profits comes from 20 percent of its activities. Now, when thinking about soccer and what helps a player be successful on the field, how does that translate? This stat made me think about the way I train players and where do I focus their energy during training sessions. What activities and game situations do I put them in to help them improve their level of play and be prepared for the game? Over the years, it has changed the way I approach my training with players. I decided to spend the vast majority of my time with players to “Train the 90” during my training sessions, not the 10.

I believe high level players are high level because they can do the basic and consistently used skill movements the game requires of them at an extraordinary level (the 90 percent). Both the speed and effectiveness of their ability with those skills makes their level of play beyond the common player. Simple tasks in the game are done with very few errors, and are performed without much thought… almost subconsciously.

If you watch a professional match, you see all players doing the same things 90 percent of the game. Receiving the ball, passing over different distances, dribbling, moving off the ball, and defending are the most common activities of each player on the field. When players are excellent in these areas, they can do what the game requires of them 90 percent of the time. Often progress and development in these areas comes in three forms:
  1. Speed in which these skills are executed.
  2. The less time and space needed to execute them.
  3. Recognition of when, where, why, and how to use them.

During training sessions, I tell players all the time that if they can do the simple, every game activities, with consistency and speed, they can be a higher level player. I tell them to “Train the 90” on their own as often as they can, and spend less time on the 10. Frankly, when the 90 can be done at a high level, the 10 is much easier to learn and perform when needed. Unfortunately, with a generation of YouTube watchers and street soccer style moves, the players tend to spend more of their time on the 10 when training on their own. I believe all practice with the ball is beneficial, but what type of training is the most effective? What gives the best return on your time?

Think of it this way… if you go to the gym, that is obviously better than not going. But when you are there, do you make the most of your time and effort to see the results you want?

Now, as I said before, I think many of the YouTube channels with crazy skill moves and trick shots do serve a great purpose for players. It provides players with ideas and spurs imagination and creativity with the ball. Although, many of the activities are overly complicated or require a lot of expensive equipment to do on your own, and I think it has re-focused players on training and practicing the 10 percent (or sometimes 1%) of skills they rarely ever use in a game.

Why do I say that? I have worked with players (and played with players) that can do some crazy tricks with the ball, but lack the fundamentals. They struggle to receive and pass or even run with the ball at speed while keeping it under control, but can dazzle you with a couple juggling tricks, and fancy lift, or one “sick” skill move. All while their passing and receiving, two areas that are critical for a player to have success, are not at the level required to play the game at an average level. Although the tricks are fun to watch and impressive, it does not make up for how often the player loses the ball.

In short, when the whistle blows, it is not a YouTube trick competition. It is the game, and if you are not prepared to do what the game requires you to do, “The 90”, the game will expose your lack of ability in the fundamental areas of the game.

I know the basics are not as much fun as the fancier skill moves to do in training, but then again, you have to consider what you are training and practicing to do. Are you training to be able to perform tricks or are you training to improve your level of play? It is not always the same type of training.

As coaches, our goal is to help kids play the game at a high level. It is not to help them perform training activities at a high level or be great on video clips. With that goal in mind, what do our training sessions look like? Are the activities all about improving skill areas and movements commonly used in the game? Does the activity look and feel like the game?

As I tell players all the time in training, I am not trying to get them to improve their ability to do a training activity, I am trying to help them improve their ability to play the game. Within each activity, I ask them not to focus on the activity, but play the game within the task. Nothing is done in a vacuum in the game. Every movement and action in a game leads into another movement, has a consequence, and requires adjustments (constantly). This is how I ask players to train. It is always about what is next, what was the result of their action, and how they can adjust when needed.

I am not demonizing the teaching of tricks and complicated skill combinations as I teach those as well. BUT, and this is important, I think these items should make up a very small percentage of a training session. Let’s say about 10%. When you consistently “Train the 90”, the things your players will repeatedly and consistently be asked to do in the game, they will be more prepared than players who spend too much time on the 10%.

Now if you are training the next generation of YouTubers, than spend more time on the 10%. But if your goal is to help develop the next generation of high level players, you should be focusing on the 90%. “Train the 90” and make sure your players are prepared for what they will be asked to do when they step on the field to 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

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Five Questions to Ask Your Coach

By Tony Earp

One of the things all players need to do more is ask questions. I challenge every player I coach to ask questions during training sessions, before, during, or after games, and any other time they are not sure about anything. Unfortunately, we live in a culture where most people, including youth soccer players, do not like to appear like they do not have all the answers already. Especially when around their peers, kids are very hesitant to ask questions in fear of being judged by the other players, or even the coach. More often than not, players (all of us really) would rather pretend like we understand than ask a question to get help we need to perform at a higher level. Our fear of being seen as incompetent outweighs our desire to improve.

So during the season, I would challenge all players to ask questions of their coaches when anything is unclear or to get a deeper understanding of an aspect of the game they feel they already know. All of us, coaches, parents, and players, should always be seeking more information and knowledge to help us make good decisions and elevate our level of “play” on the field and off the field.
Here are 5 things a player should never hesitate to ask your coach:

1. What are my weakest areas as a player? Be ready for the answer to this question. Often people ask for feedback and they only want to hear good things. Too negative of a response and we do not take it well. As a player, one who wants to be great, you WANT to hear the negative. The positive does not help a player improve, but it makes them feel good and build confidence (so it is important to). When a coach is very honest with a player about what he needs to improve, it is the most valuable information the player receives. Listen intently, make sure you understand, and then go to work making it a strength.

2. What are your expectations of …. ? All coaches are different and no two have the same views about almost anything. Each will have a different opinion about how the game should be played, players should act, and what makes up a great player. Although I hope a coach would make this clear before the season, it does not always happen. There are a lot of assumptions. A coach assumes players know what he wants, and the players assume they understand what the coach expects. Often, both are wrong and it is a key reason for confusion and misunderstanding. Find out what your coach expects from you, and work hard at exceeding those expectations.

3. What is my role within the team? Coaches see every player in some type of role within the team. For the team to be successful, each player must play their role so the team can reach their goals. You hear coaches say, “Know your job.” On a soccer team, a forward, midfielder, defender, and goalkeeper can play very different roles and have very different “jobs.” Each coach will ask those players to play those positions very differently. Players will assume that playing forward for one coach is the same as playing for another coach. It is not. Within the system the team plays, your role can be very different. Make sure you know your role on the field (know your job) and execute!

4. What did YOU do as a player? Coaches need to know their players in order to coach them effectively. But, players should also know their coaches in order to play for them effectively. Understanding a coach’s background, playing experience, coaching experience, and how they played the game, often gives valuable insight to why and how the coach teaches the way he or she does. We are all influenced by our past and experiences, and a coach is no different. Coaches often reflect the way they were as a player in their approach to teaching the game. As you learn more about a coach’s playing past, habits, successes, and failures, it is easier to anticipate what the coach will do or say before the coach says it or does it.

5. Why? As a coach, I love this question from players. After explaining something during a training session or during a game, I appreciate when a player asks why. For me, this is a clear sign that either player wants to learn more about what I was talking about, or the player does not understand why I am asking them to play a certain why. Players often understand what I am asking them to do, but often do not know WHY they are doing it. As a coach, I try to explain the why, but I know not every player gets it or maybe even agrees with it. By asking why, a player can not just know what they are doing, but can understand why they are doing it and how it relates to the game. This is probably the most important part of the education piece of coaching. When players do something without understanding why, the slightest change in any aspect of the task will leave the players left unsure about what to do. When the WHY is clear, a player can make appropriate adjustments to any changes in the game or in a training activity. They can take the same principles of the WHY and apply it to any other situation to make a better decision.

Just ask questions….that is all I am saying. Too often, players are passive onlookers in their own development. Players should take control of their development, own their development, by asking important questions to coaches throughout the year. As a coach, I have learned a lot from my players asking questions about training activities and the way I ask them to play the game. In answering, I feel I helped them become a better player and student of the game, and it challenged me to fully understand my coaching approach and philosophy.
Simply, when we stop asking questions, we stop learning. When we stop learning, we stop growing.

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

When A Coach Promises Scholarships

By Tony Earp

Run. No, seriously, run as fast as you can in the other direction. Like a late night TV ad on how you can get rich quick if you follow a simple 3 step plan, you NEED to change the channel. One of the most ridiculous things I hear around youth sports is a coach promising a better chance to receive a scholarship to play in college if a player plays or trains with that “coach.” What is even more frustrating is that some parents actually believe it. As a player who did receive a scholarship to play in college, I want to say that NO COACH, I EVER PLAYED FOR OR TRAINED WITH, EVER PROMISED ME, ANYTHING! Scholarships are not given. They are earned. Great coaches know that, and I had great coaches. That is why none of them EVER talked about scholarships. They only talked about what I could do to get better. Why? Because that is all that matters.

First, receiving a scholarship to play college sports is very rare compared to the number of kids who play sports. If you’re curious, it is around 2% (according to CBS sports). Some stats may vary some, but I think you get the idea. There is about a 98% chance your child will not receive a scholarship to play college sports. Your kid should be focused on academics to get themselves into college. Sports is not going to be the vehicle that gets them there.

With this in mind, it seems ludicrous for a coach, trainer, or organization to dangle scholarships as a selling point for their program. If they are going to lie to people, why stop there? How about they offer a winning lottery ticket or some ocean front property in Kansas? In terms of trying to sell their ability as a coach, and to help a player improve, those type of “selling points” mean just as much. In other words, they tell you nothing about what your child should expect when playing and training with that coach. A scholarship promise just tells you that the coach is pretty confident in his ability to make promises he or she cannot keep.

Scholarships are earned by the player. They are earned over years of hard work and dedication. It is something that is mainly influenced by the player. It does not matter how good a coach is if the player is not willing to put in the time and effort to train that is required to play at a higher level. In terms of earning a scholarship to play, that is a completely different commitment level, effort, and sometimes….luck (right place, right time) that goes way beyond the amount of work needed to just play at the college level.

A player has never earned a scholarship because he trained or played with me. Any player who I have coached who earned a scholarship did not get a scholarship because of me. I have never used a player who has earned a scholarship as a sales point for other players in an attempt to try to convince them to play or train with me. Why? Simply, it is wrong. Doing that completely takes credit away from the person who earned the scholarship, THE PLAYER, not the coach. It is trying to boost yourself up on some else’s achievements.

Coaches should be proud of their players’ accomplishments, celebrate with them, be happy for them, and continue to help them achieve great things, but they should never take credit for it. That is not what great coaches do. Great coaches do not want the accolades. They do not need the spotlight. They work hard to put their players’ goals and ambitions in front of their own, and when their players achieve great things, they let those kids have the stage to themselves. Although coaches play a big part in a player’s development, we are only one of MANY guiding forces and factors that lead kids down their chosen path.

If it was just the coach, if the coach was really the only key difference maker, than every player who worked with a certain coach would all rise to nearly the same level. But, we know that is not the case. Even in the most prestigious training academies around the world, where they have tried to get development down to a science, most players never make it all the way through to the end.

In the end, it is very disingenuous to use scholarships and hopes of playing in college as a recruiting tool or selling point for any coach, team, or program. It is simply something NO ONE can deliver on. What you can sell is who you are as coach, how you train, your core beliefs about player development, and who you are as a person. These are the only things any coach can control, and the only thing a coach can ever promise a kid who plays for them.

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

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