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Are You Prepared to Coach the Biggest Game in your Life so that YOU WIN?

One of the biggest jobs that a coach has involves making decisions.

Coaches of younger players have to decide what skills to teach and how to teach them. They must decide when to introduce individual and team tactics and how to accomplish that.

Coaches of older teams need to decide when to teach systems and strategies and how to communicate them to players. At more competitive levels, they must decide which players to choose and which to let go of. They also have to determine what positions are best for their players and teach them how to play those positions.

Of course, there are a host of coaching courses to help coaches make these decisions. But as the game gets more competitive, quick in-game decisions can become more important in the overall scheme. At the top levels, a decision can decide whether your team wins or loses.

A key decision in a key moment of the game can decide the fate of that game. The coach has to read the situation and then decide on various things that can affect the game’s outcome.

A lot of what coaching is all about is about making decisions

Will you be prepared for this moment should it arrive?

You see, coaches are constantly making decisions when it comes to others. They make decisions on their players or athletes and their teams. Still, some are somewhat lax when deciding on the most important game of all—their own life, in do-or-die situations.

It’s shocking how often people, we’ll call them coaches if you will, especially men, make some of the worst decisions and have the poorest judgment in times of crisis regarding their health. I’m talking about when it comes to their heart. Unlike many other ailments, nothing kills as fast as a failing heart. One minute, things are fine, and the next, it’s over. I want to make sure that you are prepared to win!

I almost blew it and made the same crucial mistake that many others make in my situation that would have cost me my life.

I was in Sarnia, Ontario, close to Detroit, Michigan, running my Golden Goal Scoring Course for the Sarnia Girls Soccer Club over a weekend in April 2022. The girls were doing well, and we were on the third day of the course. We started the day on the field, and I was working on scoring from angles.

In the activity I designed, the players would alternate shooting from the right side of the goal and then the left side as though they are receiving a through ball that puts them 1-on-1 with the keeper.

Although I don’t use actual goalkeepers, I have a parent coach and myself play as a keeper by coming out towards the shooter to present a barrier without expecting much from them. Invariably, what often happens, too many chances are not converted into goals. This allows me to make key points that connect my classroom sessions to my field sessions and tie all my psychological points together so that players will start scoring many goals later in the session.

After the girls, aged 14-18, had missed about 11 or 12 scoring attempts in a row, the next shooter came in on my side. I wanted them to continue not scoring so my points could be more powerful. Because of that, I was prepared to make a save if needed. It was a beautiful day, and the grass was nice and soft. As the next shooter shot to score, the ball went low to the near post. I went down to my left to make a nice save, “if I do say so myself,” as if I was still in my twenties and not in my sixties.

It felt good to make that save as I popped right back up as if I was a young lad. After another 3 shots that did not score, another low try to my left was headed for the near post, and again, I went down to make a save and deny a goal. A few shots later, without a goal after 19 clear scoring attempts, I went down for a third save, low to my left side. After twenty 1-on-1 scoring chances, none of which resulted in a goal, I stopped the session to bring the girls in.

I explained that players might not get 20 quality scoring chances like was presented in an entire season, yet they scored no goals. Of course, I went on to explain how to score by reading the motion of the keeper. As laid out in my book, The Last 9 Seconds, I want to change the player’s mindset to convert many more of those chances into goals.

Players may not get 20 quality scoring chances in an entire season, yet NO GOALS were scored!

I did another unique exercise I developed to help players understand what the keeper can and cannot do to stop them from scoring. I’m not going to give away any secrets here. Still, after we went back to the drill 40 minutes later, goal-scoring went up dramatically.

But more importantly, right after I made those three saves by going down as if I was still in my twenties, I said to myself, ‘what was I thinking? This is going to come back to bite me later. My body is going to make me pay for this!’

 But at the time, I felt great and young again.

The next day, I had a regular training session with my regular team back in Toronto and still felt great. In fact, I almost wanted to play goal again that night, but common sense prevailed.

At around 5:00 am the following day, I had to wake up to visit the washroom, and at the time, I felt a slight pain in my shoulders and upper back. I convinced myself that my body was starting to pay me back for pretending to be in my twenties again by diving to stop several shots less than 48 hours prior. The pains increased as I returned to bed, adding my chest area to the sore muscles. At this point, I assumed that my body was paying me back. I told myself that I needed a cold shower to reduce the muscle pains, but for a few seconds, I also felt as though I was going to vomit.

Nonetheless, I took a cold shower and remembered what had happened to one of my best friends, Jeff, only two short years ago. He was a casual golfer, and after waiting out the winter months in Canada, he went out to play golf on the first weekend when the golf courses were opened again in the spring. He went to a driving range, shot some balls, and then played a round of golf on Saturday and Sunday.

That evening he felt some muscle pains in his shoulders and upper back and thought the pains were only muscular pains due to his weekend of golf. His wife suggested they go to the hospital, but Jeff was convinced that it was due to golf, and he also didn’t want to go near a hospital due to Covid. Later, he got up in the middle of the night with the same pains and decided to go downstairs to lay on the couch. He told his wife that he would be fine. When his wife got up a couple of hours later and came downstairs to check on her husband, she was shocked that he had no vital signs. It was too late; Paramedics could not save him.

With that memory and remembering that nausea is also a sign of a potential heart attack, I rushed out of the shower and told my wife Rita to call 9-1-1.  At this point, I knew it was not muscle pains.

I almost blew it but pivoted quickly to make a decision that saved my life. And let me tell you, I could have made many decisions that would have resulted in a loss instead of a win! The decision to call 911 saved my life. A, let’s say, coaching decision that won me the biggest game of my life; my own.

“I pivoted very quickly to make, let’s say, a coaching decision that won me the biggest game of my life.”

Minutes and seconds matter!!!!

If I hadn’t remembered what happened to my friend Jeff, I might have held off calling Paramedics. That decision would have been fatal. I wasn’t out of the fire just yet as I arrested in the ambulance, which increased my chances of survival after a cardiac arrest from about 8% to about 40%, which is still under 50%. CPR (Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation) with a defibrillator to shock me was vital, not to mention all the work needed at the hospital from the nurses and doctors to bring me back to life. I was out for over 24 hours before I revived. Five stents were inserted into my clogged arteries. My cardiologist told me that it was a miracle that I survived the event virtually unscathed.

We don’t give enough credit to Paramedics for their work in saving lives. Not only do these heroes have to act quickly but under extreme stress, with lives in their hands. It’s much more stressful than making a coaching decision. I investigated and found that the heroes that saved my life in that ambulance were Sam Dominato and Aaron Fernandes. I didn’t realize that once they drop off the patient at the hospital, they don’t often hear back as to the results of their efforts. When I tracked them down, they were happy to hear that I pulled through, and both thanked me and wished me well.

After my event, a former teammate, Wayne Sheppard from my U18 Wexford team, called me to see how I was doing. He’s a retired Paramedic and told me that one of the biggest reasons heart attacks and heart disease is the number 1 cause of death in men in North America is that they are often in denial and wait too long to call 9-1-1. It’s a simple decision that so many people make incorrectly.

Coaching soccer, or any sport for that matter, is exciting, rewarding, and fun because coaches generally like to help their athletes and help them succeed on and off the field. But all of you reading this must remember that you are all coaches of your own life. Decisions will have to be made quickly regarding the heart. Please consider my experience to help you make the right decision for your life.

You literally don’t have much time to make the correct decision because nothing kills faster.

According to a handout at the hospital on the question of causing any harm by administering CPR to someone in cardiac arrest, the answer was no because the person in Cardiac arrest is already clinically dead. Imagine that, barely 1-hour after I started feeling the muscular pains, I was clinically dead! If it weren’t for the heroics of the paramedics, doctors, and nurses attending to me, I would not be writing this article. Not many other diseases work so fast to cause death naturally. Many other ailments give the patient time but not heart attacks and cardiac arrest.

I want to spread this message to all of you and add a couple more things. I had virtually none of the usual signs you would expect for your typical heart attack victim. I’ve never smoked, don’t drink much, and do not have diabetes or high blood pressure. My cholesterol levels and my diet and fitness are generally pretty decent.

But there is one thing that went against me that I didn’t think was as significant a factor as it is. That’s a family history of heart disease. My father, Danilo, had a heart attack at 50, then a quadruple by-pass at 64, and then stents on two occasions after that. He’s still around at 92 and always made the correct decisions when he was not feeling well.

My dad’s only brother, my uncle Tony also had a major attack and survived. He was the fittest guy; you could imagine having qualified for the Masters Olympics for the Canadian National Swim Team. His heart attack occurred a week before the games were to begin.

I didn’t expect that heredity played such a huge role. Almost all of the other cardiac patients I chatted with in the cardiac department at the hospital had a family history of heart disease. As I have sent my message, I have convinced a few people to get checked out.

My younger brother Danny went for a check-up last week. His cardiologist told him that he has mild heart disease and has been put on cholesterol medication.

My other brother Mark was sent for a nuclear stress test after getting checked. He’s waiting for the results.

If I can save a life with this article, it’s been worth it. Please look after yourself and your loved ones. If there is heart disease in your family history, please get checked out regularly. I got checked out 2 years ago, and things looked fine. Heart disease can develop faster than many expect.

My two main points and the reason I wrote this article are:

  1. Don’t ignore family history and
  2. Simple muscular pains that seem firm in the shoulders and back can be much more than that.

Act fast, don’t take chances, call 911 and make sure you win the most important game of your life, your own!

Thanks for reading,

John DeBenedictis

Executive Director of The National Soccer Coaches Association of Canada has contributed to FUNdamental SOCCER for decades. Author of the best-selling book "The Last 9 Seconds: The Secrets to Scoring Goals on the Last Touch." and offers a course called "Secrets to Goal Scoring." Goalkeeper for York University, National Title winner in 1977. Semi-professional in the National Soccer League with Toronto Ukrainian and co-ran camps with former English International goalkeeper and Canadian National Team coach Tony Waiters.