Player Development Step #3 - The definition of “Creative Coaching” is “Too Lazy to Develop Players.”

This is part #8 of a multi-part series covering all aspects of player development. 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. Then 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. In Part #6, I began with the first-step in Player Development.Last week, in Part #7, I discussed the next-step in Player Development. This week, in Part #8, I start to come full-circle about player development.

     Close your eyes and think about what it will be like when you reach this Baby Step.  Most gazelle-intense coaches will arrive at the beginning of Baby Step Three in around eighteen to twenty weeks.  When you reach this step, your players are technically sound enough to, at the least, be competitive and they have the technical foundation to be able to work on more advanced tactical concepts.  You have pushed with such focused intensity that the fire is now burning and you have momentum on your side.  Again, close your eyes and breathe in.  Think about what it will feel like when all of your players are technically able to solve problems on their own, get out pressure with a purpose and compensate for athletic disadvantages with their superior technical prowess.  Did I see you smiling?

     You are beginning to see the power of being in control of your largest Player Development tool, YOU! Now that you know what your doing, how to do it, why you do it and when you do it – then teach all of that to your players, Baby Step Three should come quickly.

Baby Step Three: Use the Player Development

     When you train your players based upon a foundation of technique, it will take about three to six weeks before your Technique Fire shows some flames, as opposed to red embers.  I comparison, what would your players’ accomplish and be able to execute in three to six weeks, if you did not focus on technique and build a Technique Fire? Coaches like myself have used this rule of thumb successfully and it has served my coaching career well.  You start with a foundation built solely on technique and then you add a different technical element on top of each other as your players’ begin to master each one.  What would it feel like to have such technically sound players, that they possessed the ability to solve problems on their own and get themselves out of pressure with a purpose, especially when it rains?

     Remember what I said about emergencies in a previous blog entry? (THE MAN IN THE MIRROR: Guide to Player Development – Step #1: Walk Before You Run)  It will rain; you need an umbrella. Don’t forget, a recent study by Santa Clara University says that 78 percent of soccer coaches will have a major unexpected event within the next 10 weeks.  When the big stuff happens, like one of your key players getting injured or the flu-bug running rampant through your team at the same-time, you can’t depend on tactics or fitness or athletic ability.  If you use tactics to cover emergencies, you have backtracked again.  Coaches with well-designed player development plans will find themselves walking out of emergencies unscathed.  A strong foundation on technique will afford your players/team a “catch-all” to be used just for emergencies.

     I’m going to bang on this drum again because it is vital if your coaching change is going to be permanent.  The worst time to ‘step-away’ from technique is when times are bad. If there is an injury to your top goal-scorer and you have a tournament style elimination match coming up (read, “where are the goals going to come from now?), you don’t want your players to panic, right? In a recent Gallup poll, 56 percent of professional (re: paid) coaches across all sports said they would forgo technique if a rainy day came and it wouldn’t be difficult.  I agree it wouldn’t be difficult because these types of coaches are no better for their players or respective sports than a dog is to a dead person, but that doesn’t mean it is smart. What would be difficult is to have faith in your players’ technique and allow what they have learned (been taught by YOU) to carry the day.  Half the coaches in the game of football (soccer) have virtually no buffer between “losing” and “winning.”  Here comes Murphy!  Remember how we discussed that problems seem to be (and I believe actually are) less frequent when your players’ game has been built upon a foundation of technique (THE MAN IN THE MIRROR: Guide to Player Development – Step #1: Walk Before You Run).  Don’t forget that technique actually acts as Murphy repellant.

     So what is an emergency anyway?  An emergency is something you had no way of knowing was coming, something that has a major impact on you and your team if you don’t cover it.  Emergencies include losing a playing unexpectedly to injury, illness suddenly ravishing your team, weather turning bad, etc…  All of these are emergencies.  Dealing with a team that is faster than you is NOT an emergency.  Preparing for a team that is physically bigger and taller than you is NOT an emergency. “I want to play this style because it’s what most of our opponents play,” is NOT an emergency.  A championship game is NOT an emergency.  A rival opponent is NOT an emergency.  A tournament or any sort of elimination style game is NOT an emergency.  Be sure NOT to rationalize the use of technique for something that you should prepare in advance for.  On the other hand, don’t be afraid to play more open, direct and less technical if it has rained all-day and you think the field is too sloppy to play an effective technical style game.  If you’ve gone to the trouble of developing your players on a foundation of technique, make sure you are crystal-clear on what is and is NOT an emergency.

      Before you make the decision to forego some technique, back up from the situation and calm down.  I would never stray too far away from our technique base without first consulting with my coaching staff.  The entire staff should discuss it and be in agreement.  I also would not stray too far away without ‘sleeping’ on the decision, if at all possible.   If time is of the essence, then I would always find a way to separate myself long enough to really think it through.  The agreement, taking the time to think it through and a cooling-off period will all help us determine if the decision is a rationalization, a reaction or a real emergency.

     Not taking the time to make this decision doesn’t seem too wise to me.  Honestly, it doesn’t sound too ethical to me either.   As a coach, YOU are powerful; no one wants to be “penalized.” When emotions take over, your players rely on you to “think” and not just “react”, so you don’t make a bad decision.

     Sometimes, even after I’ve explained all of this, coaches still ask about different situations where they think technique should be forgone in place of tactics, etc… they are missing the point.  Again, tactics, fitness and weights will not make your team and players’ better.  You will get other kinds of return on investments into these aspects of your players’ overall game, but the benefits of those elements will not in and of themselves alone make your players’ better.  The mission statement for the use of technique is to protect you against storms, give you peace of mind and keep the next problem from becoming a Player Development killer.

How Much?

     So, how much time should you spend on technique alone before introducing more advanced tactics? I said that it will take between three to six weeks before your players begin to show improvement in their technique, but should you plan for three or six weeks?  If you think about the purpose of technique as your foundation for Player Development, it will help you to determine what is right for you.  The purpose of technique is to absorb risk, so the more risky your situation, the more time you should spend on technique.  In other words, the better the technical foundation of your players, the less ‘risk.’ While less technical ability leans towards a higher level of ‘risk.’  For example, if you have a young team or a team where the majority of the players are weak technically, you should plan for six weeks. If you are a new coach to a program and don’t know much about your players, you should use the six week rule.  If you coach a “second-team” or a “junior-varsity” or “reserve” side where your roster is open to change from day to day, you, too, should lean towards six weeks.

     If you have a team with a good technical foundation or you have been training the majority of the same team and are familiar with them, you could lean towards three weeks.  A new coach to a new team or club should plan for six weeks and a veteran coach with the same team or players might be able to plan around three weeks.  Customize how much time you should solely focus on technique before moving onto more advanced tactics to your situation and you (and/or even your players) deal with the feelings of risk.  Many times coaches and players deal with this subject differently.  Technique is for actual protection of continued Player Development and peace of mind for both the players and the coach, so whoever wants or needs to spend more time on technique (either players or the coach) wins.

     We use three to six weeks of “technique” instead of three to six weeks of “coaching,” because the idea is to focus solely on technique from the beginning and not move forward until your players begin to master each element of technique.  If we were talking about “coaching,” then everyone would be all over the place and we’d basically be in the same situation we are now.  If your team suffers an injury, another player needs to have the technical foundation to replace them without the team losing too much of their stride.  Of course, the replacement player may not have other attributes to their game as the injured player (i.e., speed, strength, savvy, etc…), but if they have been trained based upon the same technical foundation, they will be able to step-in and do the job.  Of course, when you first begin this plan, you may not have players to replace others.  Later, when everyone is on the same page, you can survive an injury without having it become a season-killer.

Use All Available Resources

     In Baby Step Two, I instructed you to use all available time and resources to get the Technique Fire burning.  Focus on technique and nothing else until your players begin to master the technique.  If you focus on technical development to the point of saturating your players so that it becomes ingrained in their playing personality from the beginning, you will be able to accomplish so much more in the long-run.

     Remember, YOU should ONLY focus on technique if YOU and YOURSELF are in agreement about what it takes for Pure Player Development. Gazelle intensity, your experience, discarding bad habits and overall total commitment to the plan are the only way that focusing on technique makes sense.

     This would be like my wife saying she wants me to lose weight and then baking homemade sugar cookies every night.  She would be saying one thing and doing another.

     I don’t suggest you give-up on technique if you don’t really believe in it.  However, if you can’t convince yourself of it, then don’t even try.  I also don’t suggest you bounce away from teaching technique if you are planning to be in Baby Step Two (Start the Technique Fire) for more than 5 weeks.  You must be patient and allow it all to work. However, few of you will be in Baby Step Two very long if you go gazelle-intense and follow this plan to the letter.  If your team is exposed to an emergency, having technique between them and failure is fine.  In that case, be patient and really focus intensely on developing your players’ technique. This will accelerate the Technique Fire.

     I know that even if you and yourself are onboard, gazelle-intense and there is a plan, what I’m suggesting here still scares some of you.  Good.  Don’t you think one of the things that make the gazelle intense is fear?  For a short period of time, while you stoke your Technique Fire and begin to use the technique your players have been working on in Step Three, use that fear as a motivator to stay focused and keep everyone else moving.

Gender and Emergencies

     While this is a whole other topic for a whole other day, the sexes do view coaching football differently.  In general, men are more task-oriented and women are more security-based. Guys like to know what you “do,” so some of us don’t understand the idea of spending so much time solely on technique.  Most female coaches I meet smile when we start talking about having technique between them and the rain.  Many of them say the benefits of technique and the advanced tactics it allows them to teach are the best parts of this system.

      I already told you that I was failing miserably as a coach and almost gave it up.  My spirit was broken, I crashed and was at the bottom, and so you can imagine that this subject is a little sensitive with me.  I have to admit that it was totally my doing: it was my arrogance that rode me down that path. One of the wounds that still remain unhealed in my coaching personality is the issue of security.  My emotions can revisit the fear of standing on that sideline, in the freezing cold with nothing but “what ifs” and “should’ve-could’ves” bouncing around in my head.  That is a sensitive place in my psyche and with good reason.  I was losing matches because I didn’t prepare my players to win them.   Part of the salve on that wound is that I eventually had no option, but to look at the MAN IN THE MIRROR, face him and refocus on developing technique.  If I even begin to move away from technique in my coaching (or even observe other coaches doing so), I cringe.

     Being the experienced and ‘creative’ (remember this word for later) coach that I am, I could certainly find other ways to win without focusing on technique.  Or could I?  Remember, Developing Players is personal.  I have come to realize that my players’ piece of mind bought with technique is a great return on the investment.

Technique Can Turn Crises Into Inconveniences

     As you coach over the years and your focus on Pure Player Development changes your coaching habits, you will find yourself using less and less time to teach technique; without sacrificing anything.  I haven’t flinched about technique in several years.  When I first started coaching, everything was an emergency, but as you crawl off the bottom and your Players’ Development begins to take effect, you’ll have fewer things that you can’t cover with technique.  At the start, though, you’ll be like I was – everything will be an emergency.  To show you what I mean, consider two different stories of coaches at two different places in the Baby Steps.

     Dina was a twenty-three year-old head coach at a small college program.  She recently started her focus on technique with her college players.  She was behind on keeping herself current about the game, not on a Player Development Plan and barely getting more out of her players because her coaching was out of control.  She lost her top-returning player because the player couldn’t afford to attend the school.  She laid out her first plan for the upcoming off-season and within two days she had tossed it in the trash. Since this was her first year with this program, the damage wasn’t all that bad, but she still recognized the problem. As Dina looked at me through panicked tears, that first year might as well have been her tenth.  She hadn’t even started on Baby Step One.  She was trying to get current on the game and now she had these other hurdles to clear before she even started. This was a huge emergency.

     Several years ago, Robert was in the same place. He was a new head coach of a college program and his career was sputtering.  Robert fought and scraped through his coaching makeover.  Today he is one of the more successful men’s collegiate coaches in the game.  His players leave his program with such a solid technical base that several of them have moved up to play at the next-level.  Robert has grown as a coach, personally, his career has blossomed and he now is able to recruit players with a higher-level of technical ability than before in order to closer match the level of his current players.  One day, in extra-time of a national tournament match, his top shooter from the penalty spot was injured in a hard tackle and would be out for the rest of the match and penalties, if it came to that.  The tenseness of this situation would’ve ripped Robert’s mind apart several years ago.   However, I think you can see that Robert will just rotate another player into the injured player’s spot without skipping a beat, while Dina will be dealing with her wreck for months.

     The point is that as you get in better shape, it takes a lot more to rock your world.  When the injury occurred, Robert’s hear-rate didn’t even change (from a coaching perspective), but Dina needs a Valium sandwich to calm her down.

     Those true stories illustrate the fact that as you progress forward, the definition of an emergency that is worthy to be covered by stepping away from technique changes. As your players become better technically, you will have fewer things that qualify as emergencies.

     What used to be a huge, coach-altering event will become a mere inconvenience.  When you are focused on technique and aggressively investing the time and resources into properly developing your players, taking a few weeks to focus solely on technique will win you matches you shouldn’t win down the road. When I say technique is Murphy-repellant, that is only partially correct.  The reality is that Murphy doesn’t visit as much, but when he does we hardly notice his presence.  When my coaching career was on the rocks, I lost a series of matches that we should’ve won.  It was a huge, hairy deal.  Recently, I lost a match that I should’ve won and I hardly noticed.  I wonder if the stress relief your Technique Fire provides will allow you to coach longer?

Let Me Be Perfectly Clear

     There are some Baby Step Three clarifications.  One coach (we’ll call him Joe) asked me recently if he should put out his Technique Fire – Step Two – if he feels as if he didn’t start with the right technical foundation. Another coach (Brad) has lost several of his better players to another team and his team’s overall level of technical ability has dropped accordingly. Yet, another coach (Mike), got several new and very talented and technically sound players added to his team recently (no, they were not the same players that Brad lost), which raises the level of technique on his team.  Should these coaches continue going forward and building their Technique Fire or go back and reestablish their technique foundation?  All three should evaluate their current situation, put out the Technique Fire and go back to Baby Step One and start building again on the basis of technique because we can see distant storm clouds that are real. Once the storm passes they can relight their Technique Fire and resume from where they were before.

     Resuming the plan for Joe means that once he feels comfortable with how he has started his players’ training he can build a brighter and hotter Technique Fire.  Resuming for Brad means that once he gets his remaining players on the same-page, he’ll do the same. Mike should step-back to Step One and rebuild from there.  The sooner he can get the less skilled players up to par with the newer, more talented ones, his team will be so much better and it will have a huge impact on how hot his Technique Fire burns.

     Sometimes coaches think they don’t need to teach technique because it should be a given. I met a coach recently that had retired from full time coaching, but still helped out with the game whenever he could.  He didn’t think he or any other coaches should teach technique because he thought the players should either already have it or learn it on the fly.  If they didn’t, then he felt they weren’t up to snuff and should be left behind.  It’s ironic that he never won any sort of championship during his whole coaching career and I’ve been told he had a high attrition rate among his players.  Even if the overall technical ability of your players is quite high, you still need to focus on technique.  Large, unexpected emergencies that can’t be planned for do come up and will require the cushion of solid technique to absorb the fall.

If You Don’t Deal With Tactics?!

     I love football and I really love the tactical side of the game, but do not introduce tactics until you finish this step.  A technically and tactically savvy team is a blessing, but if you move to quickly into training tactics, Murphy will set-up residence in the center of your midfield.  I believe in the correlation between great technique and great tactical awareness, but I have known many stressed-out young coaches who rushed into tactics before they or their team was ready.

     Many coaches are worried about having enough time to each tactics, but let the players’ tactical knowledge be a blessing rather than a curse.  It will be a curse if you train them tactically without them having the technical foundation to execute the tactics.  There are all sorts of coaches who are eager to be the next “Mourinho” and “tactical genius,” but the definition of “Creative Coaching” is “Too Lazy to Develop Players.”

Next Stop: Serious Player Development

     Well, you have made it.  You are now benefiting from your Players’ Development.  You focused on technique.  Your Technique Fire has blown up into a forest fire.  Getting to the end of this step if you are gazelle-intense will allow you to stand on that sideline and watch your players excel and play the game the way it was meant to be played.  Close your eyes one more time and let your emotions and your spirit visit that place.  Wow, I know I see you smiling now.

     I am very demanding and very passionate about following these principles and steps precisely because I have seen coaches (like the ones I have mentioned) win by doing such.  I have heard every excuse, every whining reason and every rationalization as to why you are different  and you have a better way, but trust me, you don’t.  The good thing about principles is that they make coaching easy. I have heard it said that when a coach basis what they do on principle, 99 percent of their decisions are already made.

     Once we have covered these basic steps and laid a foundation, the time has come to start winning some matches.  Remember, that is why we started this whole thing.  WE WANTED NOT JUST TO DEVELOP PLAYERS, BUT TO WIN WITH THOSE DEVELOPED PLAYERS. Then you will be experienced enough to show younger coaches the way, train your players with dignity, leave a lasting impression on the game and have some fun. Seeing your players grow is fun, but winning is even more fun.  Stay tuned for some big fun!


This is part #8 of a multi-part series covering all aspects of player development. 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. Then 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. In Part #6, I began with the first-step in Player Development.Last week, in Part #7, I discussed thenext-step in Player Development. This week, in Part #8, I start to come full-circle about player development.