Player Development - You can get anywhere if you simply go one step at a time

This is part #6 of a multi-part series covering all aspects of player development.  In part #1, I talked about the development of coachesIn part #2, I talked about exactly how coaches can get themselves going the right direction. In Part #3, I discussed one of the major impediments to player development. Last week, in part #4, I started talking about truths and player development. In part #5, I finished setting the stage to begin to dive head-first into player development. This week, in Part #6, I begin with the first-step in Player Development.

     Baby Steps,” the premise of which that our players’ can do anything if they do it one little step at a time.  As coaches, we must take the same approach when teaching our players.  I have developed my Baby Steps as a coach over years of training players one-on-one, in small groups, with teams and by answering the many questions I entertain.  The term baby steps comes from the comedy What About Bob?  starring Bill Murray.  Bill plays a crazy guy who drives his psychiatrist crazy.  The therapist has written a book called Baby Steps. The statement “You can get anywhere if you simply go one step at a time” is the framework for the movie.  I’ll use the Baby Steps to take you through the steps to properly develop your players. Why do the Baby Steps work? I thought you would never ask.

Eating a Hippopotamus Gives You Energy

     The way you eat a Hippopotamus is one bite at a time. As a coach, you should spend time evaluating your players to best determine the top priority at this time that they need to focus on in order to continue to develop.  If a coach is unable to properly evaluate and identify these areas, then they MUST seek help in doing so.  Otherwise, they are not ready, as a coach, to develop players.  Once you identify an important aspect of your players’ game that needs work, attack it and do so with vigor until it is complete; then and only then do you move to the next step.  If you try to do everything at once, you will fail.  If you woke up this morning and realized you needed to lose 100 pounds, build your cardiovascular system and tone your muscles, what would you do?  If on the first day of your new plan you quit eating, run three miles and lift all the weight you can lift with every muscle group, you will collapse.  If you don’t collapse the first-day, wait forty-eight hours for the muscle groups to lock and the cardio to go crazy and you will be bingeing on food shortly thereafter. 

     A wise trainer, like a wise coach, won’t try to kill you the first day.  Not even by the second week will your trainer be pushing the envelope, because he knows that you have to create some muscle tone before you can hit harder workouts.  You walk before you run.  Developing players is the same way.  Developing players’ is an art form and takes time and patience.  It is not an over-night phenomenon. Too many coaches move from one thing to the next so quickly that their players don’t master the previous point of emphasis and thus aren’t ready to master the next. 

     If you try to do everything at once, or even in one pre-season…or even in one full season, your players will become overwhelmed and frustrated with their inability to do it all.  If it takes you an entire season to get your team to master the proper technique of receiving a ball across their body and opening-up to the field, then that should be your primary focus for EVERY training-session that season.  Isn’t it better to have 18 players who can open-up properly when receiving the ball, than having only a couple that can, a couple that can sometimes and the rest that can’t?  Don’t toss out the argument that it’s the small group that gets it who are the future and we need to advance to other things for their sake, even if it means leaving other players behind.  I call “Bull-Crap!”  Wouldn’t your team be so much stronger, and the game so much better, if ALL your players were able to master the same skill-sets, instead of just a couple?  Imagine your team with all 11 players on the field opening-up properly with an intelligent first-touch every time they receive the ball.  That would be impressive to watch, but also difficult for the opposition to deal with.  Now, compare that picture to the painting where only a couple of your players can do that and your team’s rhythm keeps getting disrupted when the ball comes to one of the player’s who can’t…hhhhhhmmmmm…pretty simple when you look at it that way, huh?

     The power of focus is what causes our Baby Steps to work.  When you try to do everything at once, progress can be very slow.  When you change the focus daily, weekly or even monthly, you dilute your efforts.  Because you attack several areas at once, you don’t finish any of those areas you started for a long-time.  That makes your players feel as if they aren’t accomplishing anything and you scratch your head with wonder as to why your players aren’t transferring what you went over in training to a game.  If your players feel that nothing is getting done, they will soon lose energy and the desire to allow themselves to develop and be developed altogether.  The power of focus is that it works.  Things happen.  You check things off your list.  Coaching gives you an “attaboy” in the form of actual visible and tangible progress.

     The power of priority also causes the Baby Steps to work. Each Baby Step is part of a proven plan on how to properly Develop Players. The steps build on one another; therefore, if done out of order, they do not work.  Think of a 350-pound person beginning to train for a marathon with a quick ten-mile run.  The results of not building up to that run could be total frustration at best and a heart attack at worst.  So do the Baby Steps in order. Walk around the block and lose some weight before going on a ten-mile run.

     To start the Baby Steps, we will work on one important step to the exclusion of others. Patience! We will climb the whole mountain, but not until we first have a strong base camp. You’ll be tempted to short-circuit the process because you are more concerned about another area where your players need improvement or another area of developmental need, but don’t do it.

    The Baby Steps are your proven plan to Proper Player Development and they are in the right order for everyone, the order you decide they should be in.  For example, if you coach a team with several less-experienced players, you may be tempted to jump forward to a more advanced topic before these players are ready because you are scared about not being prepared for the next match.  The paradox is that by shortcutting the process, you are much more likely to fail your goals for that match anyways.  Failure could also occur when you focus on your more talented players.  If you have players who want to play in college, you may be panicking that you aren’t able to properly prepare them, but…still…don’t do your Baby Steps out of order, under any circumstance.  You will have to address the problems that you will run into at each stage when they happen, before moving onto the next.  There will be even more problems that you don’t even know about yet, if you get things out of order. I know, because I have seen and experienced most of them. You MUST focus exclusively on the Baby Step you are on, even though it seems to be a temporary detriment to other areas that need development.  Things will be fine if you don’t focus on these other areas for a while, as long as you can kick them into the stratosphere once you get to them.

Your Team’s Name is “YOU.”

     This blog entry is about the first Baby Step, but before we really discuss Player Development, we need to look at some basic tools you will need to teach your players and some ongoing things you should be doing as you go. The dreaded “T” word enters the picture here.  You MUST work on TECHNIQUE, doing it as fast as possible, at every session.  This series of blogs is about a process that will enable you to develop players that will win you games, a process that other coaches have used successfully and I assure you that virtually none of these successful coaches I have seen won without first focusing on ‘technique.’

     It must be understood the importance of technique as the foundation of Player Development.  If you played for a team that was named after you and you made the personal choice to play for the team that is named after you, wouldn’t you expect you, as the coach, to develop you, the player, properly?  If you, the player, weren’t getting the training you needed and wanted would you keep you, as a coach, as the coach and would you even stay on the team? Players have to keep telling their bodies what to do or what their bodies already know what to do will leave.  Building a solid foundation on properly executed technique is your goal.  Coaches who succeed at developing players may even have written goals.  Goals are what you are aiming at.  Zig Ziglar says, “If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.  Technique won’t behave unless you tame it.  P.T. Barnum said, “Technique is an excellent slave and a horrible master.” You wouldn’t build a house without a blueprint, so why do you spend your time with your players without a blueprint?

     Brian Tracy, motivational speaker, says, “What does it take to succeed on a big scale?  A tremendous God-given talent? Inherited wealth? A decade of post-graduate education? Connections? Fortunately for most of us, what it takes is something very simple and accessible: clear, precise goals.”  According to Brian Tracy, a study of Harvard graduates found that after two years, the 3 percent who had focused goals achieved more than the other 97 percent combined!

Agree On It; Agree with Yourself

     If you really claim to be a coach, then you must agree on your goals and Player Development plan – with YOURSELF!    This one sentence requires a book to describe how, but the bottom line is this: if you are working against yourself and not trusting yourself, it is almost impossible to win.  Once you decide what the need of your players’ are and how you are going to approach them, don’t second-guess yourself BUT agree with yourself.  Put it in a written contract with yourself, pinky swear with yourself and spit-shake with yourself that you will never deviate from what you have evaluated, identified and recognized as developmental needs.  This agreement with yourself should be the boss of your coaching and you are the boss of that.  However, you have to stick to your plan, or it’s just an elaborate theory.

     If something comes up in the middle of your plan that causes it to need changing, call an emergency meeting with yourself and patiently and realistically look at the situation.  You can change your plan (and how you are training your players) only if you do two things.

1.)  1.) Both of you have to agree with the change: you and yourself. 

2.)  2.) You must still train your players to master the techniques that they may have had to step away from due to the change.  You must come back and work on these when the need to change your Player Development Plan has come and gone.  If you increase your focus on a more advanced technique, you must allow time to continue working on the previous technique that you left, even if it is a small amount.  Too many coaches have these great plans and implement them, but as soon as an issue arises, they break away from their great plan and never return.  They feel as if they have run out of time. What?  You’ve run out of time to PROPERLY and FULLY develop your players?  Then what are you even doing in this profession, or more less why are you still reading this blog?!?!?!  Ridiculous!

     Sometimes I see it as laziness in coaches in not wanting to go back.  Sometimes I see it as impatience in wanting the next-step or higher level of play yesterday.  This process of midcourse adjustment is a VERY Big Deal and you can do it, BUT BOTH GUIDELINES MUST BE MET!


     Before we get to Baby Step One, you will have to do one other thing.  You will have to be current on the latest philosophies and concepts of the game.  If you are behind your coaching peers, the first goal will be to become current.  If you are far behind, do something quick like attend a seminar, clinic, convention, course, etc… to bring your mindset current with the newest trends and developments in the game of soccer.  Only when you are current with the game are you really in the mindset or do you really posses the tools to begin properly developing your players.

     Focused intensity is required to win.  I can’t stress enough that coaches who have done what I’m talking about, as well as players all over the world, got mad.  They got sick and tired of losing!  They said, “We’ve had it!” and went ballistic to change their coaching, development and overall game.  There is no intellectual exercise where you can academically work your way to the next-level as a player or a coach; you have to get fired up.  Play the music from Rocky in the background and think about Rocky’s cry; “Adriaaaaaan! I did it!” Go get em’ coach! There is no energy in logic; this is behavior and motivation modification and it works!

     After you are current, have an agreed upon plan, have the obstacle course behind you and are focused and intense, you are ready to follow the right priorities. Here we go.

Baby Step One: Technique – Your Umbrella

     It is going to rain.  You need a rainy-day plan of action. You need an umbrella. I read an on-line article this week while I was waiting in numerous airport terminals  [unable to find it again to cite the source, sorry] about soccer coaches that stated 78 percent of football coaches will have a major negative event effect them, one of their players or their team in a given ten-day period of time.  A family crisis at home, a player gets injured or just simply bad team chemistry (ouch, that’s a bad one).  There’s an unexpected injury: “We were going to rely on him to stabilize the center of the park.” It rains hard.  The field is ragged and choppy and uneven. Your one keeper can’t play for some reason at the last second.   Life happens.  Soccer happens. So be ready.

     Bill Beswick, one of the top Sports Psychologists in the game and who works with some of the top players and clubs once said, “Football is the most beautiful and enjoyable game ever invented.  But, it is also the most evil.  It is a 40-minute, unwavering, consistent attack on a player’s self-efficacy.  It is unrelenting and the risk to reward ratio is so lop-sided in favor of risk that reward would almost never seem foreseeable. Yet, that is the single, solitary reason the game is loved the world over.”

     This is not a surprise. You need a safety valve, an old-fashioned Grandma’s rainy-day fund.  Some people tell me I should be more positive.  Well, I am positive; it is going to rain, so you need an umbrella.

     No cheating. Do you know who Murphy is?  Murphy is that guy with all those negative laws, such as, “If it can go wrong, it will.”  For years I have known coaches who felt that Murphy was a member of their team. They had spent so much time with trouble that they think trouble is an assistant coach.  Interestingly enough, when a coach builds what they do on technique, Murphy leaves.  Developing your players on a foundation of technique is no guarantee of a trouble-free career, but my observation has been that trouble, Murphy, is not as welcome on teams that have an umbrella.  Building everything you do with technique as your base foundation is Murphy-repellant. Skipping technique for any reason seems to attract ol’ Murphy to lace up his boots, suit up and join your team.

     Unfortunately, there are too many coaches who resort to using their player’s athletic ability and tactics to catch all of coaching’s “emergencies.” Some of these so-called emergencies are events like a rival opponent.  A rival opponent is not an emergency; it doesn’t sneak upon you.   This opponent was always on your schedule, no one moved it; therefore it is not an emergency. Players will have “off” days and in this game, sometimes the ball just won’t go in.  These are not emergencies, but rather elements of the game that you have to be prepared for.  If you don’t develop your players based on technique, they will feel like emergencies.  There are some quality coaches whom at times sacrifice the foundation of technique for what are actual emergencies; a last-second personnel issue, sudden change in weather, etc…and yet again, these are all reasons to have technique as your umbrella.  BTW, a championship match is NOT an emergency!

     Whether the emergency is real or just poor planning, the cycle of dependence on athletic ability and tactics has to be broken.  Players developed with a good foundation of technique will be better prepared to deal with the truly unexpected and break this dependence on athletic ability and tactical plans.

     The first major Baby Step in Developing Players is to begin with technique.  It may seem like a small start, but without technique, you will not be able to properly develop your players in the manner they need and require. So, stop everything and focus!

     Since one of my pet-peeves are player’s who don’t know how to play out of pressure with a purpose, I’m often asked why I don’t start with that as Baby Step One. I used to do that when I first started coaching and teaching, but I discovered that coaches would stop their whole Player Development Plan because of an emergency – they would feel guilty they had to stop working on ‘playing out of pressure’ to win.  It’s like stopping your whole fitness program because you get a sore knee from a fall while running; you’ll find any excuse will do.  Your center back gets injured and that ruins the whole plan because now you feel you have to work on stabilizing your defense.  If you resort to using athletic ability or new tactics while sacrificing technique, you lose the momentum to keep developing your players with technique. It is like eating seven pounds of ice cream on Friday after losing two pounds that week.  You feel sick, like a failure.

     So start with technique to catch the little things before advancing to more advanced elements of the game.  It’s like drinking a protein shake to fortify your body, so you can work out, which enables you to lose weight.  Technique will keep the game’s little Murphy’s from turning into major issues while your players are mastering technique.  If a real emergency happens, you have to handle it with technique.  No more cheating your players! You have to break the cycle.

     Whatever you are doing, if you’re not basing your training on technique, then stop where you are, refocus and begin again – this time with technique as your foundation.  It is not too late. It is never too late for your player’s sake.  Most coaches should already be on this step, but unfortunately teaching technique is becoming a lost art.  Regardless of where you are in training your players, do a u-turn, if needed, but somehow, someway, as quickly as possible, get focused on technique!  You are way too close to the edge of falling off a major coaching cliff here.  Remember, if the Joneses (all of the losing coaches) think you are cool, you are heading the wrong way.  If they think you are crazy, you are probably on track.

Don’t Hide The Technique; Let it Flow like Liquid

     I know some of you think this step is very simplistic.  For some coaches this is an instantaneous step and for other coaches this is the first time they have ever had enough control over the Man in the Mirror to focus on technique.  For some coaches, this is an easy step. For others, this will be the step that will be philosophical and emotional basis for how they Develop Players.

     Becky was such a case. Her first head coaching gig, after several years as an assistant; had her struggling for several years to raise the level of the program.  Becky knew technique, as she had played the game at the collegiate-level with honors.  Never-the-less, she had been ripped off in her coaching experience by spending too many years working under a head coach whom was about as well equipped to coach this game as my right-hand is to pick my left nostril. She had done everything she could as a coach, but unfortunately, she was only limited to the way she was coached and worse; what she learned from the imbecile she had worked under for eight years.  Success seemed like such a fairy tale to her that she had long ago lost hope of being able to teach the proper technique.  When I met Becky she had already looked at herself in the mirror and realized that she needed to change what she was doing as a coach, if she wanted to continue coaching this game that she loved.  After hearing me teach the Baby Steps at a convention, slightly over a year later she dropped by another speaking engagement to give me an unsolicited report.

     She caught me in the lobby after my presentation; I looked up and saw a huge grin.  She asked if she could give me a big hug and say thanks.  How could I turn that down?  As I looked at her, tears began to run down her cheeks as she gleefully told of fighting through what she had been taught coaching should be like and refocusing all of her player development on technique.  She told me of years of struggle.  Then she laughed and everyone around us (now fully engaged) cheered when she said that players she began to develop based on technique where playing at higher and higher levels and surpassing other players whom at one time where considered better.  This is the first time in her coaching career that she actually felt as if she was doing her players and the game of soccer justice.  This is the first time she has had technique between her and Murphy.  Her coaching friend, Megan, who was with Becky that day, told me that Becky was a different coach already. Megan said, “Even her face has changed, now that she has peace.” Don’t be confused; it wasn’t technique only that did all that. What caused Becky’s liberation was her newfound hope.  She has hope that she never had before.  She has hope because she has a sense of power and control over the developmental rate of her players. Doing what’s best for her players has been an enemy her whole coaching career and now that she has tamed it, technique is going to be Becky’s new career coaching companion.

     How about you?  Now is the time to decide.  Is this theory, or is it real?  Am I a simpleton kook, or have I found something that works?  Keep reading and we will decide together.


This is part #6 of a multi-part series covering all aspects of player development.  In part #1, I talked about the development of coachesIn part #2, I talked about exactly how coaches can get themselves going the right direction. In Part #3, I discussed one of the major impediments to player development. Last week, in part #4, I started talking about truths and player development. In part #5, I finished setting the stage to begin to dive head-first into player development. This week, in Part #6, I begin with the first-step in Player Development.