Setting the Standard

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A couple of months ago, I wrote an article about how your perspective might be holding you back in the gym. I’ve considered writing on a similar topic within soccer for some time now, but feel obligated to write about my experiences, in part, because of last night.

Setting Expectations

At the moment, I referee a couple of indoor futsal games during the week. The age groups are young – U10 and U12- but overall I would say the level of play is good, and seems to improve every week as the kids become accustomed to the rules and flow of futsal. There is a team I referee each week that is excellently led by two coaches- one in his 20’s, and the other- perhaps in his 40’s. The team consists of mostly Hispanic players and they are easily the best technical team I have ever seen play at the U12 level. While I am not a scout, I do know a good player or group of players when I see them.

But what is most interesting about the group of players is how they are coached. At the age of 12, most of the kids I referee with are bombarded with positive coaching cues, advice and motivation. Good this, great that, unlucky this, next time etc…you get the picture. Not so say it doesn’t happen with this team- it does- but the differentiation between this team and most other teams is the level of expectation that is pushed from the coaches to the kids. The coaches expect them to win, they expect the kids to move the ball fast, and they expect the kids to accept their criticisms and change their style of play.

For example, this team was winning 3-0 last night within eight minutes of the first half. In futsal, each half is 20 minutes in duration. Their younger coach called a time-out, and in an attempt to further raise the standard, implemented a simple team rule: the team must have 5 successive passes before they could shoot.

I was close to the parents’ side, and could overhear parents’ complain about this ”stupid rule”. They insisted that the kids need more shooting practice..and spoke with each other about hoping that the rule didn’t backfire.

As a side-note, the score is kept in the games by game officials (me) but it is not reported post-game…meaning that there are no league standings. The purpose of the league is to develop players fundamental skills and get them ready for their outdoor season which starts in early March.

Ironically enough, the parents of this team want their kids to win…but they want the win to come comfortably. The team is a good team, but for the coaches good is not enough, they want to be great.

The game finished 6 – 6. It was the first game that I refereed with this team where they didn’t win by a considerable margin.

As I’ve already mentioned, the team is a good team- probably one of the best in the area. In the next couple of weeks they will play teams in their region, and not just city. I spoke with the older of the two coaches after the game last night- they anticipate that the region games will bring better opponents, so they see local games almost as training sessions.

He spoke about his desire to have his players pass faster, move into space better, and create more opportunities for themselves during each game. These are goals that I would say perhaps 99% of coaches want for their players. Almost everyone wants these goals, but how many U12 coaches do something about it?

By implementing a passing rule, it took the players out of their comfort zone. Most were able to adapt to the new requirements, but a couple of players really struggled. For those players, the easy option would have been to continue playing their old way…and finish the game up with a score of something like 10-0. But that’s rarely how players improve.

How Players Improve?

Players improve the most by a) setting high expectations of themselves and b) when their level of competition is high or c) when coaches set high expectations.

I have often wondered at what age should coaches really push team expectations and criticize players?

Scene 1:

When Tom Brown Speaks, You Listen. (Furthest right)

I remember being truly challenged as a player when I was 13. I played for Waterford U-13 in the Kennedy Cup. But before the Cup, we had several months of training. We would get together on cold Sunday mornings after already playing a game on a Saturday and train for about 2 hours. I really looked forward to training each weekend, but I still remember how they difficult the sessions were. They were grueling, both physically and mentally.

The coach had high standards. He had an idea of how he wanted his team to play, and he wasn’t afraid to set lofty expectations. His age group (U-13) were almost always one of the top four teams in Ireland each year. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t win the tournament…but we did finish in the top four.

Looking back at it, I realized that I thrived in a competitive environment. I excelled when expectations were high. I went from not starting in any games as a U12 Waterford player to playing in every game as a U13 player.

Scene 2: 

Waterford United U-20 2010 (2nd from top left)

When I played U20 with Waterford United in 2010-2011, we played an away game against UCD. In the league, UCD were unbeatable. They were the team that everybody feared, and the team that nobody wanted to play.

During the weekly build-up to the game, we trained a couple of times as a team. I recall that almost everything we did in training related to UCD. Our coach would say ”UCD do this, UCD to that“. All of our drills were set-up to counteract UCD.

We lost. I think the score was 4-1- but I do remember that we got destroyed.

But what I remember most is that I was playing left-back. The right midfielder dribbled past me on the outside and attempted to cross the ball into the box. Luckily for us, he miskicked the ball and it went sailing about 10 yards over the crossbar. I didn’t think too much else of the situation until I heard their coach say, in no uncertain terms that it was f&@#%@g s**t and that he was taking off the player if he did that again.

I thought to myself that it was only a cross, and that it was no big deal…not a big mistake. My experiences seem to have shaped that belief though. If it were my team, or me with previous teams, the likely response would have been hard luck, let’s get the next one. But with this team, that certainly wasn’t the case.

A simple cross can lead to a goal. A single goal wins a game. Therefore, the coach was right. The team had missed an opportunity and that was unacceptable.

UCD went on to win the league, and have been known to produce some of the best underage talent in the League of Ireland in recent years. Is it a coincidence or is it because players improve the most by a) setting high expectations of themselves and b) when their level of competition is high or c) when coaches set high expectations.

Of course when expectations are raised and criticism is openly shared by teammates and coaches, a sense of fun or enjoyment diminishes for some kids. This then leads to a high drop-off rate by youth athletes. Kids often leave the sport because it’s no longer fun…but is this a necessary evil?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

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