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Coaching from Strength

I just finished the summer “College ID Camps” circuit.  I saw hundreds of players who want to play in college and talked to scores of coaches.  One topic repeatedly came up with the college coaches…the lack of intensity of the players.  When the players were tired they stopped running; when it was hot they stopped running; as the game wore on they stopped running.  There was no intensity.  There was no change of pace; no defending; no running and no movement off the ball.  I spent the summer watching underwater soccer!

When I got back to the office I conducted a very unofficial and unscientific e-mail survey of many college coaches.  I asked what the number one problem with the incoming college freshmen was each year.  The answer:  the players don’t know how to work hard over a period of time… there is no intensity!!!  Some feel that the main cause is a lack of fitness.  I am not sure.  The players don’t have any idea about the definition of intensity.  This is from the coaches of college soccer at all NCAA divisions and NAIA.

We have a problem.

The young players in this country do not understand the demands of the game of soccer.  Or, if they do, they cannot translate that understanding on to the field.

Soccer is game “that is meant to be played when you are uncomfortable; when you are tired and when you are in pain”.  Good soccer players understand this and keep on playing.  Bad soccer players stop playing…there are more bad soccer players than good ones!

But who is to blame for this uniquely American dilemma?  The players?  The coaches?  Maybe both, but the real problem may be the American soccer system.

  • There are too many games in too short a period of time at all levels of soccer in this country. Youth, high school and college soccer all play two or three games (sometimes more) every week.  Soccer is not meant to be played that often.  Too many games means players “save themselves” for the next game; it means there is not enough time to prepare to play physically or mentally and it means that there is limited recovery time between these games.  So, when the players get tired in these games they stop running.
  • There are too many tournaments in youth soccer. Playing four, five or six games in a thirty-six to forty eight hour period is a huge problem.  By subjecting players to this type of schedule we are condoning and, in fact, teaching our young players that it is acceptable to “conserve your energy”; and “rest on defense”.  After playing in these tournaments over a period of time we train the players to play in an unrealistic manner.
  • We may have too many substitutions. When we play many games in a short period of time, substitutions are necessary.  We should have limited substitution IF we can reduce the frequency of our games.  By limiting games each week; or mandating a recovery period between games we can put fitness back into the game.  The founders of the game limited substitutions to make fitness a part of the game.  Fitness is one of the “four pillars” of soccer that we all know from the coaching schools.  Right now if a player gets tired he/she either stops running or puts the hand up to come out!  No need to work hard!
  • There is a lack in fitness and conditioning training in youth soccer (sports). There may have been a time when the players came to training sessions with some level of fitness.  In those days young boys and girls actually played outside after school.  They ran, jumped and played with peers on the streets.  Times have changed.  Those days are gone…long gone.  Today kids don’t play UNTIL they arrive at training.  They don’t engage in any physical activity unless it is organized.  Coaches only have a little time for each training session.  Having fitness training will take away from technique and tactics.  The fact is youth players are not fit and don’t get fit.  That means they stop running when they are tired…and they get tired very quickly
  • Special youth players receive special treatment. The exceptional young soccer player is not required to defend, or run, or maybe even train.  They are allowed to rest until they get the ball…then they work…and then they rest again.   When they reach a level where players are compatible and they are no longer a stand out, they struggle because they are not fit!  How good would these talented players be if they were fit?  If they ran?  If they defended?  But these players never learn to play through pain or discomfort.  They never learn how to play soccer.

Old friend Bill Beswick has described the complete player as follows:complete player – mental skills:

  • Highly motivated and welcomes challenge – a competitive “animal.”
  • Strong self-concept; sees himself as a great player.
  • Great confidence in all situations; positive self-talker.
  • Can change negatives into positives. This is the key to championship teams!
  • Can handle the “dips” and recover from mistakes.
  • Has mental toughness; can be trusted to stay disciplined. Approaches every game as a 90-minute battle.
  • Handles stress well.
  • Constantly self-references and adapts; a learning player. The key to building character is for players to take ownership of their pluses and minuses and then be able to take ownership of their own progress.
  • Highly focused and never distracted.
  • Has great work ethic and persistence – even when it hurts.
  • Brave enough to want the ball – and make things happen even when the team is losing.
  • Copes with criticism – fair or unfair.
  • Clever enough to take care of his body. Can find time to relax and recover in equal amounts.
  • Has the games-playing and social intelligence to be part of the team performance.
  • Understands the need for social cohesion within the team.
  • Never loses the enjoyment and fun part of playing football. When all other incentives are considered, love of the game still remains the key to player commitment.
  • The cplete player-physical readiness:
  • Look good, feel good, play good
  • The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego
  • No doubts about fitness, strength, energy potential.
  • No lifestyle problems – diet, rest and recovery.
  • No injury concerns.
  • No potential burn-out concerns – “a game too far.”
  • he complete player – personal responsibility:
  • Personal and team goals to be achieved: Is the goal the correct goal? Is it realistic? Examine this process carefully.
  • Good work ethic and prepared well. Have you put the work in?
  • Courage to face the challenge; break out of the “comfort zone.”
  • Commitment – “excellence is a choice.”
  • Willingness to keep learning.
  • Coping skills; deal with change, pressure, and criticism.
  • Resilience; can change negatives into positives.
  • Accountability; accepts ownership of the outcome.

 We, as coaches, know the demands of the game.  It is our responsibility to teach our players what the demands of the game are, and more importantly, show players in training how to cope with these demands.  Coaches must expect more from their players in training and in games.  Coaches must insist that the players continue to play when they are tired and sore.  Coaches must train players technically and tactically AFTER fitness training so the player understands how to play when tired…how to perform when tired. We must find ways to improve the intensity of our players.

We, as coaches, must address this issue NOW!!

Dr. Jay Martin

Editor: United Soccer Coaches, “Soccer Journal” Author: Recently published his first book, “Lessons from a Great Coach: Develop a Winning Team Culture That Lasts!” Head Coach: Ohio Wesleyan is the winningest coach in NCAA men's soccer history with 749 wins, making him the first men's soccer coach to reach 700 wins. Heading into the 2023 season, he boasts a 749-158-80 record and a career winning percentage of .799, ranking 14th all-time in the NCAA. Under his guidance, the 2022 Bishops were NCAC tournament champions, and the staff was named NCAC Coaching Staff of the Year for the 10th time. In 45 seasons, Martin's teams have a 297-30-24 conference play record, winning 26 conference crowns. Martin led Ohio Wesleyan to NCAA Division III national championships in 1998 and 2011 and has reached the NCAA Division III semifinals nine times. His teams hold records for playoff appearances (43) and victories (65). Awards: 16-time NCAA Regional Coach of the Year. Inducted into the United Soccer Coaches Hall of Fame in 2020. Beyond soccer: A successful lacrosse coaching career and has turned out 61 All-America and 214 all-region or All-Midwest players in both sports. He served as president of the NSCAA and spent six years on the NCAA Division III selection committee. Martin, a professor and former athletics director at Ohio Wesleyan, has also been a color analyst for the MLS's Columbus Crew for nine seasons. Learn more about Dr. Jay Martin at Super Soccer Camp at Ohio Wesleyan University.

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