I was grinning now, too, as I laughed at the language of athletically fat players and coaches who think they are fine; the language of denial.

This is part #3 of a multi-part series covering all aspects of player development.  In part #1, I talked about the development of coaches, because we can't begin to talk about developing players until we, as coaches, focus on perfecting our craft. Last week, in part #2, I talked about exactly how coaches can get them selves going the right direction towards proper player development and perfecting their craft. This week in Part #3, I discuss one of the major impediments to player development and really begin to dive deeper into what that actually means.

 

     Recently I realized I had let my body dissolve into flab. I had worked so hard for so many years to keep myself in “match-fit” shape, now that I wasn’t playing competitively and on a regular basis, I had abandoned the care of my physical condition.  In my new position as a professional coach, I knew I needed to regain as much of that previous form as possible, because demonstration of technique and tactically required activities, as well as the overall ability to play, is pertinent to my credibility and thus, my ability to manage the players whom I coach. The first step to getting back into shape was to realize I needed to change my ways, but the second and equally important step was to identify the obstacles to getting there. What would stop me from getting back into shape? Once I understood those obstacles, I began a process to lose the extra weight, regain my muscle tone and rebuild my fitness. Player development is the same thing. Coaches need to realize there’s a problem, but they must also see what could hinder the player’s development towards success. To truly develop players, you, as a coach, MUST identify major obstacles to a player’s development.  Let’s talk about one that destroys the careers of both players and coaches as quickly and deadly as the Ebola virus. 

     Look in the mirror.  Take a long look.  What do you see? Suck in that gut; hold up your chest and really look at yourself. It doesn’t matter how many angles or poses you take, the mirror is cruel. “Well, I’m really not that out of shape, maybe just a little flabby.” My father used to say that 90 percent of solving a problem is realizing there is one. Focused intensity, life-or-death intensity, is required for you to properly develop your players and of your biggest obstacles is DENIAL. The sad thing is that you can be a mediocre coach in this country, flabby in how you develop your players and still be an average coach. If the truth be known, being average, normal and flabby in your player development is pretty much okay by most player’s and coaches standards. This, however, is simply the cowardice and wimpy way of coaching.  Coaching is not just about winning, but rather about showing your player’s how to really develop and have something.

Don’t Wait to Have DENIAL Knocked Out of You

     For several years I have observed hundreds of coaches hundreds of times to see what they do, how they approach things and what makes them and their players’ successful. Recently, I received an e-mail from a player I knew (we’ll call her ‘Susan’) and coached against while I coaching at one of the High Schools on my resume. She told me that her development as a player really came to fruition after the game placed a call to her in college. She said that she remembers a conversation with me once where I said that “70 percent of players only train to play game to game…” and she had honestly thought that she was in the 30 percent who trained to play session to session. Susan had athletically struck a pose and the pose was denial.

     Choosing to walk-on to a collegiate-program, she thought she was confident and secure in her abilities. The opportunity to play in college seemed awesome. She had played four years of high-level high-school ball and additionally she played mid-level club for several years. She had the opportunity to play for more elite-level clubs, but always chose not too because the club she was playing for was enough to keep her on the team and in the starting line-up for the high-school squad.  Her high-school coach promoted this and her club coach didn’t want to lose her, so he never recommended she play at a higher-level. With this background of, what we’ll now call ‘moderate-level success,’ Susan decided that she was ready and could handle the demands of the college game, so she was anxious to step-out and play at the next level. Somewhere deep inside there may have been some uneasiness, but it was very deep. Finally the day came where she was to step on the field for the first-time as a college athlete. She knew she was going to be fine, they were just other players like her and she knew how training was ‘supposed’ to be. She stepped onto the field, complete with a sense of confidence –or was it a ‘false-sense?’  

     A few weeks into the season, Susan’s coach asked to see her in his office. She felt she was excelling on the field and braced herself for a big “atta, girl” followed by a boost in playing-time. Instead, her coach explained that she was being red-shirted. “For development, you know,” he said. Her heart was cut from her – and all of that time spent ‘training’ – with her coach’s chilling words. Not only was her pride hurt and her college athletic career slowed up, a creeping terror grew deep down inside as she walked back to her dorm room to call her parents. That night there were tears, fears and the sudden realization that she was athletically fat. Suddenly, Susan was facing the possible unexpected end of her playing career and the confidence she previously had developed.

     Susan had seen other players leave their club-teams and ply their trade at a higher level and against tougher competition. She had asked them why they made the move and she had even been encouraged by some to do the same, but she always thought that just other players needed to play at a higher level in order to become better. After all, she had always held her stomach in when standing in front of the mirror. The night after that meeting with her coach was the first night she looked in the player development mirror and saw a fat player. The sight wasn’t pretty – not pushed to her limit when younger, deficiencies in her game never identified and worked on, complacent work-rate, only exposure to mid-level competition and quite simply; never properly developed when younger, but rather encouraged to emphasize the elements of her game she already did well. She saw a fat player.

     When you are physically fat, it is hard to be in denial, because there is the ever-widening belt line. When you are athletically fat, however, you can fake it and look good for a while. Your friends, family, teammates and unfortunately, even your coaches will participate in your fantasy/denial, which makes you believe you are doing just fine. One of the major factors that keep players from striving to improve their game is not realizing they need to. Sadly, some of the most dramatic developments in a player’s overall game that I have seen, have been by players who had the game smack them so hard they got the denial knocked right out of them, like Susan. If the game isn’t smacking you around at the moment, you are in greater danger than Susan the night after she met with her coach. You are a real candidate for coaching mediocrity or even a major crisis brought on by denial and you have to see the need to make dramatic changes in how you develop your players. If you are apathetic because everything seems, “just fine,” then you will be unwilling to make the huge changes needed to get the huge results.

Soccer Legs…or…Frog Legs? 

      Years ago, in a motivational seminar by the master, Zig Ziglar, I heard a story about how mediocrity will sneak up on you.  The story goes that if you drop a frog into boiling water, it will sense the pain and immediately jump out.  However, if you put a frog in room-temperature water, it will swim around happily and as you gradually turn the water up to boiling, the frog will not sense the change. The frog is lured to its death by gradual change.  Our players can lose their touch, vision and speed of play, gradually, one day at a time.  It might be a cliché’, but that’s because it is true: The enemy of “the best” is not “the worst.” The enemy of “the best” is “just fine.”

     I find that too many players and coaches will ramp-up the level of their training-sessions in preparation for a ‘big-game.’ However, as I discussed in a previous blog (The Game Before the Game; pre-competition preparation), a ‘big-game’ cannot get your players’ prepared. Raising the focus and intensity of sessions before ‘big-games’ and approaching them differently than any of the regular sessions might make you feel as if you’re doing your job as a coach, but it is dangerous because you are treating only the symptom. I mentioned earlier that ninety percent of solving a problem is realizing there is one. So, for your own good, the good of your players and their future, grow a backbone. When something isn’t right, stand up and say it isn’t right, don’t back down and work to fix it.  Otherwise, your coaching is no different than needing a washer and dryer and just heading on down to the local rent-to-own sore instead of actually investing in one yourself. It looks like a great deal initially, but in the future you’re paying out the wazoo for something that not longer has much value. You have to see the need to make dramatic changes, because so few people actually have the courage to seek out change. From my experience, I would be quite confident in making an educated guess that 80-90% of graduating high-school soccer players are under-developed and ill prepared for the next-level and they don’t even know it.

The Pain of Change

     Change is painful. Few people have the courage to seek out change.  Most people won’t change until the pain of where they are exceeds the pain of change. When it comes to player development, we coaches can be like the toddler in a soiled diaper. “I know it smells bad, but it’s warm and it’s mine.” Only when the rash comes will we cry out. I hope Susan’s story and the others like it that you have undoubtedly experienced in your career will make you unwilling to stay where you are. If you keep training your players the same way, you will keep getting the same results. You are where you are right now as a coach due to a sum total of the decisions you’ve made to this point. If you like where you are and how your players’ are developing, keep it up. Keep in mind, however, the reason you are even in this profession in the first-place?!?!?!  Deep down, do your players’ have that same uneasy feeling that Susan had, but it wasn’t addressed until it was almost too late? Are you really looking for something more from your players? If so, I’ve got great news. Your plan will work! However, you will have to break through the temptation to keep your players in the same situation and opt for the pain of change before the pain of not changing searches you out. Don’t wait for a heart attack to show you that you are overweight. Cut the carbs, the fats, the sugars and lace up your running shoes now.

     The good news about Susan was the soccer heart attack she experienced made her address her deficiencies in her game and her training habits.  Being red-shirted was a wake-up call and the end to denial. After an off-season, spring season and her freshman year (eligibility-wise) of very hard times, Susan was able to find her place on the field again. Only this time, when she was faced with an obstacle, she attacked it head on and was developing as a player. Every training session became an exciting event because she was learning.  She was athletically losing weight and toning up.  It wasn’t a quick process, but after putting in the work over time, today she is really playing and winning.

     The night Susan e-mailed me; she was two-years into her college career – and smiling. She told me that she earned her first collegiate start in the middle of her sophomore season and that by the end of that campaign, she was seeing quality minutes in every match. She had broken through her own denial, but she made her old high school and club coaches uncomfortable because she refused to train like everyone else.  Albert Einstein said, “Great spirits have often encountered violent opposition from weak minds.” Susan’s old club teammates had made fun of her for continuing on and said they would quit if it happened to them.  Her former coaches cursed the college coach for his ‘…apparent ineptitude and inability to recognize talent when he sees it…’ Once Susan had realized she was the emperor with no clothes, denial was no longer an option. She also realized everything she had been doing was to impress others – but no more.

     You could hear the chuckle in her words as she told me how she used to think:

I must be doing well; I’m playing all the time, scoring goals, getting assists and my team is winning. If I’m doing all of these things, I must be okay because, otherwise, my coaches wouldn’t want me on the team, more-less play me as much.  Besides, I attend almost every practice. How could I be in any trouble? I can afford to not train as hard some days if I’m still going to get on the field. 

I was grinning now, too, as I laughed at the language of athletically fat players and coaches who think they are fine; the language of denial.

     As she closed her email that night, Susan told me that while she hoped she would never again have to go through an experience like being redshirted unexpectedly, she was ready if she did. “I no longer am living a lie. I know what type of player I am, I know what type of player I can be and I know how I am going to become that player,” she said. She concluded by adding she wanted to send me a gift for inspiring her. I responded to her email with one short, precise phrase – that was all that was needed:

Susan,

You have already given me the greatest gift.

I’m proud of you,

Coach Scarlett.”

 

This is part #3 of a multi-part series covering all aspects of player development.  In part #1, I talked about the development of coaches, because we can't begin to talk about developing players until we, as coaches, focus on perfecting our craft. Last week, in part #2, I talked about exactly how coaches can get them selves going the right direction towards proper player development and perfecting their craft. This week in Part #3, I discuss one of the major impediments to player development and really begin to dive deeper into what that actually means.