In part one, the importance of setting the narrative of a team’s development by the coach was stressed as a key tool in both aiding player development and minimizing the team’s preoccupation with winning and losing. The theory that team development is a crucial component of player development was put forth. The theory that winning and losing at youth level is not important, but can’t be ignored as it could be a hindrance to team and player development.
Every team at every level has a narrative that goes along with the team’s journey. Everyone involved with the team will have a narrative of their own, slightly different to everyone else’s. At youth level you have the coach, the players, the parents and the Club’s directors involved with a team. For a typical 11v11 team then, you could have as many as sixty different people involved with the team in some capacity, and if they are all invested enough to have an opinion on the team, they will all have their own narrative of the team’s journey.
As a coach your challenge is to develop a narrative for the team, which is another way of saying having a vision for the team. Where is the team at in it’s development? Where is it ahead? Where is it behind? Where will they be come the end of the season? How is all of this setting them up for the future? Many, many questions to answer and things to consider. And inside of all that you have all the same questions for every individual in the team, another set of narratives for you to construct.
It’s an incredible challenge to have a firm pulse on everything within the team and to be sure you’re doing what you need to in order to guide the team on the right path. And if you don’t develop a narrative for the team and get the majority of the players and parents to believe you, other narratives from other sources will emerge and what you say and do may lose it’s desired effect, your message may become lost, the players and parents may lose faith in your ability to coach them.
That might sound like a bit much for a youth level team, yes, but it can be amazing to watch a team develop when nearly everyone is agreeable to a well thought out, honest, constructive and brave narrative for a given team. Everyone wants to be a part of something special, something that’s improving, something that’s fun, challenging and truly worth doing. Being the leader of a group that experiences all of that is incredibly rewarding.
In order to have a narrative for your team nearly everyone can get on board with requires a harsh assessment of the team’s abilities, attitudes and ambitions. You need to know early on what the team is capable of in terms of their playing ability, how many players have an attitude in line with yours in regards to effort in training, willingness to learn and enjoyment of soccer. And also, their ambitions, where does this team want to go?
This harsh assessment needs to be done by the coach and kept to the coach. Once you know where they are at, you need to decide how far you can take them in three months, in six months, in a year, in two years. This is why you need to know more than simply, say, how well can the team, as a whole, control and pass a ball with the inside of their foot. You also need to know how willing the team will be to improve on this. Then you can begin to set expectations on how much they can progress over a given period of time.
Setting reasonable expectations after a harsh assessment of the team’s abilities allows you to begin to talk about this with the players and parents. You can let the team know improvement is expected and you should also let them know you are there to allow that improvement to happen. Don’t put it all on them, it’s a “we” type narrative you need to set with the team, you and the players are going to improve together.
There is a big difference telling a group “you need to get better at x, y and z” and saying “we are going to get better at x, y and z.”. It’s the same message, yes, improvement is needed, but by saying “we” and “will” you are expressing more of a sense of being with them for this journey and expressing confidence that improvement will come about.
There are then two ways, at least, to put yourself firmly in control of your team’s narrative and ensure that you can maximize the group’s development in your time with them. Having to battle narratives in conflict with yours that can arise from anyone associated with the team takes away from energy that could be better utilized guiding the team. A parent or two who disagree with your narrative can slow the team’s development down, same for a couple of players not on board, or those who are really on the outside of the team but think they are involved and have an accurate pulse on the team(directors), when maybe they do not.
One simple way to measure development is to literally do just that, measure it. You can’t measure everything, in fact, most development benchmarks for a team would be difficult to measure at youth level with the limited resources available to most coaches. There are though some simple benchmarks you can track for individuals to improve on and challenge the team to improve it’s average measurement for individual tasks.
Juggling a soccer ball is an easy measurement. If you selected one training session per month(last one, first one of the month) to do testing of certain tasks, a five minute juggling test would be simple and not time consuming to introduce. The players would have a five minute period to individually juggle a ball as many times in a row as possible without the ball hitting the ground. Each player would report their highest number of consecutive juggles. You would then revisit this test once per month and track improvement.
This would allow each player to track their own individual development with their juggling ability and you could also challenge the team to improve the group’s average number of consecutive juggles from month to month. This promotes taking time to juggle outside of training time for both wanting to show individual improvement and contribute to the team’s average increasing. This may also be conducive to players commending one another for improving on their juggling, instead of judging one another based on how well they juggle.
In this situation you’re not looking to commend only those who standout among the group but those who show improvement. If Angelina could juggle 23 times in August and 23 times in September and Grace could juggle only 8 times in August but increased to 13 times in September, Angelina is still the better juggler(based on the test, anyway) but Grace showed more improvement from one month to the next. So, good for Angelina and also good for Grace AND also good for the team as this will help their average increase.
This simple test of technique allows you to be able to confidently show the team’s development over time and promote a better team attitude. Going back to the concern over poor results, if the team has lost a couple of games in a row and maybe the team is more glum than usual, positive results for testing at training during the week could help to bring spirits back up.
And this allows you to put the focus on a positive development with the team and show them, sure, maybe we lost the last two games but here we can see progress and improvement in your development nevertheless, so forget about the last couple of games. That mentality also may have the indirect benefit of boosting their confidence levels for the next game and maybe you’re less likely to lose the next game, even though you don’t really care about winning and losing anyways. But if you could pick between the two, surely you’d like to round out the week with a win.
There are other tests you could come up with to track progress over time. One idea would be a challenging passing pattern, maybe one the team has struggled with that breaks down a bit more often than you would like. The challenge here would be for the team to keep the passing pattern going without any breakdowns for as long as possible and you put them on the clock. Give them 3-4 minutes to run through the pattern and then give them three chances and take the best time. Comeback in a month’s time and run the same pattern again and see if the group can improve.
This does a great job of fostering cooperation between the players and will also allow leaders to emerge in the team. The players now will be judged as a group, no individuals, they will fail or succeed in their task as a team. This is a great way to get a team that doesn’t communicate enough to start communicating more.
Simply telling players to communicate more doesn’t always have the desired effect, especially in overly simplistic technical work where no communication is actually needed. If players are passing a ball around a square to their right and following their pass, there is no need for them to call for each pass because it’s painfully obvious where the pass is going. Why should they do something in a situation they don’t need to do it? To practice for when they need to? That’s silly, don’t expect players to communicate for the sake of it. Put them in a situation where good communication is required and they will communicate!
In this passing pattern you are testing them in make sure it is doable given their level of technical ability and make sure the challenge lies in the timing of their movement, timing and type of pass, alertness and communication.
This is also an excellent way for the team to use peer pressure to rein in players who often are caught not paying attention during training. Now instead of you the coach having to always be the voice asking Lily to pay attention, her teammates will start to get onto her if they discover the pattern seems to breakdown every time she has the ball played to her. If she doesn’t want to let her teammates down, her focus level will increase and the team will see the power their own influence can have on the team, it doesn’t just have to be the coach.
Players generally like to be challenged in the above ways and as these examples have shown you can foster technical development, individual development, attitude improvements, boost moral and have tangible proof your team is developing. These also provide ways to boost positive competitiveness within the team, as opposed to only increasing their level of competitiveness by pitting them against one another or hanging punishment through fitness over their heads. Instead of using the fear of push-ups or the impulse of wanting to better one another, put the team up against tangible targets for them to reach, together.
To go beyond the tangible and track the team’s development in terms of their style of play, how well they attack, how well they defend, how well they build possession out of the back and so on requires the coach to have a well defined vision for how the game should be played at the level they are coaching at. Getting your team to play in a way that represents your vision is a massive challenge.
First, you have to have taken the time to develop one in the first place! This takes years of studying and learning the game from as many angles as possible, books, coaching courses, videos, watching games, talking to fellow coaches, observing training sessions, writing and then implementing all of that into your coaching, keeping what works for you and discarding what doesn’t. If you’ve not done all that, it can then be tough to have a real vision and near impossible to implement this vision into your players.
Let’s say you do have a well thought out vision, you can visualize how you want your team to play in any situation you can imagine because you’ve imagined it or seen it played out in front of you many, many times. You know what your vision looks like and you know how far from that vision your team is at the moment. The fullest implementation of your vision, your Utopian playing model, will probably never be achieved, but you strive to get as close as you can with each team you coach. The next step then is to reduce this grand vision of Utopian soccer into several key concepts.
Tim Palmer, an excellent writer who focuses on Australian soccer(being Australian and all), wrote back in June that the then Australian men’s team coach, Ange Postecoglou has both a motto for the team and eight key principles for the team to live up to. Below is an excerpt from Tim’s post on Postecoglou’s coaching process(and the inspiration for this post as well, thanks Tim!):
Our motto is never take a backward step and this is incorporated in everything from our preparation to even our style of play. It is also distinctive to us as a nation
‘Never take a backward step’ translates into some of the following key principles as evidenced in any of the 40+ games of his regime.
- Play forward
- Verticality in possession
- Create midfield overloads
- Combination play
- Penetration in wide areas
- Pressing to win the ball back quickly
Taking his vision and putting into these eight terms allows for two objectives to be accomplished, one the team has a clearer understanding of what is expected of them and two, the team’s play can be assessed in these eight areas in each game and over time. If you as a coach of your youth team had four or five key principles for the team you would also see these same benefits. Everyone involved with the team, all sixty of them, would have a clearly defined idea of what the team will be focusing on in training and where you will be looking for improvement.
This can help shift attention away from winning and losing and have the players and parents looking at more than just the final score on the weekend. It’s also not an easy safe out for you as the coach, you need to be sure you can follow through on training the team in these areas and seeing the progress in games in these areas as well. It is much more than just using the blanket cover of saying you’re focused on vague objectives like “player development” and “possession”.
This will be a challenging task for you the coach and you need to be confident you have both the time and ability to take this task into your coaching. Unfortunately, many coaches at youth level don’t have this amount of time due to other commitments or being overloaded with administrative work by their Club.
If you have the ability and the time, it’s a task worth trying with your team. Providing benchmarks and putting your vision into achievable principals for the team fosters a good environment for both individual and team development, it lets the players and parents know where you see the team and where you want to take them, it lets them see you believe in them and you’re there for them, not to prop up your ego. The more players believe in you and trust you, the more they will give in their effort and attitude towards the team and allow for everyone to have a positive narrative about their team’s journey.