Play Better: theory vs. reality
Note: This blog entry is applicable to all talent and age levels through Under 12. However, the context is the lowest rung of grassroots soccer in British Columbia, Canada.
1) There can be a huge discrepancy in the performance bandwidth of players on any team.
2) Under 12 signals the start of the ‘great fallout’.
3) Play Better now connects professional footballers with stakeholders.
4) Play Better is a sensible, fun & effective approach to long-term player and team development.
5) Play Better is wonderfully effective for stronger teams but absolutely vital for weaker teams.
6) Play Better creates a triangle of development within which players find their individual and collective sweet spot of development.
As originally reported in my two-part blog at the end of the 2014 outdoor season, Play Better is a sensible, fun & effective augmentation to long-term player and team development, certainly at the grassroots level. So, after a trial run that far exceeded expectations, I started sharing the concept with other volunteer coaches in my region. While a handful ended up expressing interest, others were neutral or doubtful about the idea. Indeed, in one conversation it was even suggested that the success my boys had enjoyed the year before was primarily due to the fact that I had been blessed with physically strong players. That certainly gave me pause for thought. I had my serious doubts about that, but it was a charge worth looking into. Little did I know at the time, it wouldn’t be long before I was presented with the opportunity to do so…
The Great Fallout & 56 goals
At the first practice in the spring of 2015, it was quickly evident that there was once again a huge discrepancy in the performance bandwidth of the players my new assistant coaches & I had been assigned to. What made matters worse was that this particular group would succumb to the start of what I call ‘the great fallout’ — that age when kids start specializing, while according to reports roughly 70% drop out of organized sport altogether. That left us to work with an average of only 10 players at best, half of whom were well behind the average maturation rate, had cognitive issues or revealed physical literacy deficiencies.
Literally incapable of keeping up with the competition through no fault of their own, our midfielders were consequently unable to influence affairs well enough in the middle of the pitch. In turn that left our back line & ‘keeper constantly exposed and we ended up losing frequently —sometimes by a wide margin — in the first half of the season. Whereas in 2014 we won two thirds of our games and had a goal differential of +28, it was the exact opposite 12 months later. That amounted to 50% fewer wins & a swing of no less than 56 goals!
The bigger picture
By any traditional measure, you could easily conclude that this past season was an unmitigated disaster. Thanks to Play Better, however, we were able to keep the bigger picture in mind. In our role as coaches, we are to guide our players, not control them. And if that means that the players lose periodically, then so be it, for LTPD will always involve losses. It is, after all, a necessary part of the kids’ learning curve. My concern, however, was losing so heavily and so often and what that would do the the boys’ motivation level.
That’s why the players and especially the parents were repeatedly reminded to focus on the agreed developmental metrics that benefitted our dynamic the best. With this particular group of players, that meant desperately needing to learn how to play out of the back in a measured, confident way. Employing positional play and teaching how to pass, move & receive, we cultivated a mindset that concentrated more on those things that the boys could control and strive to improve on, specifically how to win the ball back quickly & what to do with it in possession in and transition out of the defensive third. The kids were rewarded accordingly as before, but this time around former and current professional footballers like Jason DeVos, Russell Teibert and Lauren Sesselmann joined in online to spur them on. And if the encouraging words and microrewards didn’t mean much to our players, they certainly meant more to their parents, which helped keep everyone on the sideline ‘on side’.
It took a very long time, but two thirds of the way through the season the pieces of the puzzle finally started to fall into place. First there was a tie followed by our first clean sheet — the boys were clearly showing increased proficiency & gaining confidence. Then we ended up going toe-to-toe with the best team in our fall group — which had coincidentally spanked us royally only one month before — in a thriller, playing incisive possession footy before ultimately losing 6-4. Not only were the players now excited, so were their parents! By the year-end tournament, our boys put on a passing clinic that exceeded the 200-pass barrier and set up the tying goal with an 8-pass string. Slow, measurable progress across the board was finally being expressed in a single game. The last game of the tournament was more suffering, as we were played off the pitch by a physically & mentally more mature team. But there were no long faces for long, for we had fought like lions and raised over $300 towards our two charities, BC Children’s Hospital and BC Cancer Agency, simply by playing better. And that message was driven home a bit more when the entire team had the privilege of meeting in person a fellow who had been battling cancer since the summer — the father of one of our own players.
We are often told these days — and rightly so — that winning is important, but development even more so. But this past season taught me one other important principle about LTPD:
‘Whereas Play Better is a wonderfully effective way to broaden the focus of the game to include real long-term player and team development when a team is strong, it is absolutely vital to the emotional well-being of teams that are weak or weaker during a specific phase of their development.’
By linking motivation, performance and the charity or charities of the players’ choice, Play Better creates a triangle of development within which players find their individual and collective sweet spot of development. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is also where the boys are protected from three potential sources of destructive feedback: their parents/guardians, their coaches and themselves. As a result, Play Better makes it possible for everyone involved to experience real long-term development and discover or rediscover the joy of the Beautiful Game.
But don’t take just my word for it. This past season a couple of other teams participated in a Play Better pilot project under the auspices of our district association. Below is what the coach of a ‘successful’ girls’ U12 team concluded:
‘Great end to our season. You made Pat and I very proud at the jamboree as you finished the season in style. Grant spent some time standing amongst the parents on the other team who were praising the way our team plays. They made several comments on how cohesive our team was and our ability to pass and move the ball. On top of a fabulous season we raised $126 for our charities. We are feeling proud to be a part of the Cyclones and Play Better which we feel truly united us this season. Have a great winter break and looking forward to 11 aside next season. Thanks again to all the parents for your support and commitment this season. It was a real team effort.’
Now, for the sake of the kids: Go. Play Better