The Corona Effect - Silver Linings
Silver linings, that’s what is on my mind today. Every cloud has a silver lining. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed many problems with youth soccer in the United States. We’ve addressed a few key defects in prior posts. Clouds. But the shutdown has also revealed exciting possibilities for greatly expanding the role of the youth club in the education of youth players, specifically in the area of tactical theory, game models and playing philosophies. Silver linings! In many ways, this revelation is poised to be a primary differentiator between the extremely small minority of youth soccer clubs that truly educate players and the overwhelming majority that do not.
Time and Space
The coronavirus shut down traditional youth soccer training almost overnight. Leagues shutdown, tryouts were canceled and team trainings were pushed into a virtual realm. Youth club executives and directors across the country faced the challenge of keeping an outdoor team sport relevant and engaging not only in an indoor individualistic environment. Suddenly we all had massive amounts of time on our hands, and time creates space for developing creative solutions and just getting things done.
The reflex for nearly every youth club coach was to move quickly to virtual individual training. By necessity, this meant solo technical training such as juggling, dribbling through cones and taking shots on goal. Some existing businesses like Techne Futbol were perfectly positioned to capitalize on the demand and support individual training needs. Zoom meetings became a critical tool for coaches focused on keeping players connected and bonded through virtual workouts.
At Eagleclaw, our coaches and players did all of these things. We quickly realized, however, that we might have an opportunity to go even further, much further. What if we could design a program to give our players a deeper education about our club’s specific playing philosophy and game model? Of course, we already do this for our coaching staff as part of our club’s commitment to provide critical education that is not taught in U.S. Soccer or United Soccer Coaches license courses. But could we create and deliver tactical classroom-type content that is consistent with the club’s playing philosophy and game model, yet accessible to young players? Would the players enjoy it? Would it be too abstract or mental overload for them?
As is often the case at Eagleclaw, we just did it. We began an ambitious effort to design a multi-part educational series of tactical study sessions to be delivered via Zoom. Under the title “What Makes Us A Positional Play Team”, the content was designed to be accessible to kids while at the same time staying faithful to the club’s curriculum. We wanted to go even further, though. A key goal of the series is to connect curriculum to methodology. In other words, we wanted the players to learn why and how Eagleclaw training sessions and exercises are designed as they are to teach our Positional Play philosophy and game model. For example, a 4v2 rondo or 4v4(+3) positional game has concrete tactical relevance to our philosophy and game model, but rarely are young players taught in a systematic way why that is or taken on a deeper dive to truly understand the connection.
Sketching out the flow of the content was a fairly easy process. We simply followed the club’s existing Positional Play curriculum and Training Methodology. There is a very satisfying symmetry in the idea of teaching our players the same things we teach our coaches and in the same way. To make the content accessible to kids, we certainly had to simplify it but we also emphatically rejected the conventional wisdom from US Soccer and US Youth Soccer that tactics should not be taught to young players. Soccer mad kids are already steeped in tactics! Talk to any kid who plays EA Sports’ FIFA 20 and you will see that right away. The worst mistake we can make as coaches is to underestimate the voracious appetite of young players for learning, especially a subject matter about which they are passionate. We've written about this before. So we greatly simplified the content, made it visually appealing, but we did not dumb it down at all.
To create a pedagogical trail the players could follow, we established a skeletal outline based on position roles and responsibilities. For example, if the lesson topic is how our teams play out from the goalkeeper, we would focus on the roles and responsibilities of the two center backs (#4/5). In this way, we cover key tactical concepts, automatisms and positional decision-making in a context that makes it personal and relevant to players.
We also made a conscious effort in every lesson to include the common coaching and tactical language used by all Eagleclaw coaches. After all, shared language is a vital component of culture. For example, our coaches often speak of "lines of pressure", zones of play and other referential structures that are important to the framework of our playing philosophy and game model. On the field, we can certainly teach players many of these concepts and how to recognize or visualize them. We are finding it is better to also teach this to young players in a classroom setting, including a virtual classroom session. We are already seeing that this kind of tactical classroom instruction is critical for making team film review sessions more effective It is significantly easier to analyze game film when players and coaches are on the same tactical page and are viewing the game through the same philosophical lens.
We did not stop there! We went even further by teaching the historical and cultural underpinnings of our playing philosophy and game model. We want our players to know that Positional Play has its origins in the Dutch philosophy of Total Football, the importance of Johann Cruyff's effort to bring that playing philosophy to Spain and the role Pep Guardiola and other Spanish coaches have played in evolving Total Football into the philosophy of Positional Play. La Salida Lavolpiana is a positional tactic for playing out of the back, but its history is important. We want our players to know it is an innovation of Argentine coach Ricardo LaVolpe who coached in Mexico and that Guardiola learned of it while playing professionally for Mexican club Dorados de Sinaloa. This kind of education brings culture and context to the way we teach young players about how Eagleclaw teams train and play, and is perhaps the most important benefit of the entire course. All education occurs in a cultural context, so why should it be different with football education? This is even more important for a club like Eagleclaw with an authentic Spanish culture that infuses every aspect of the club's operations, from playing philosophy and game model to our crest and our unique partnership with Valencia CF.
Delivering the Course
The initial course structure and schedule turned out to be on target. Since we are doing everything on Zoom, we planned to deliver each lesson in a 1.0 - 1.5 hour format with three parts.
Tactical Study Session - 30 min
Player-led core workout - 20-30 min
Player-led individual technical workout 20-30 min
Players are required to be dressed in their club training kits before they log into the Zoom meeting. This is important as we are trying to maintain connection and unity of purpose. In addition, players are expected to turn on their cameras and be visible at all times during the meeting. This is a team training session so it should be approached with the same expectations we would have for a regular team training session outdoors.
For the Tactical Study session the coach teaches the individual lesson in a dynamic, interactive format. Players are expected to have notebooks and take notes during the lesson. Questions are encouraged during the lesson and we never tell players to hold questions until the end. Players are told to jump right in if they have questions or comments. The objective is to have an interactive discussion with the players and not just run through a bunch of slides.
For the workout components, they are player-led and each player is assigned a day to lead the session. In this way, the sessions not only develop understanding, strength and technical skill, but also leadership and accountability skills. The core workout is provided by the club and follows a Tabata structure so it is high intensity and demanding. For the technical component, we allow the player-leader to select exercises from the menu of exercises available on Techne Futbol. We've been using Techne Futbol to facilitate our players' individual technical trainings, so the players come to the sessions already familiar with the exercises, making it easy and efficient for the player-leader to guide the session and provide demonstrations. Throughout the session, the coach remains online, checking exercise form, providing feedback to the players. All in all, it has turned out to be an extremely effective session format.
IGNORE THE FEDERATION - BUILD YOUR CULTURE
The coronavirus pandemic has given us the time and space to go further in building our culture. Likely, we would have done all of this anyway, but not this quickly. Silver linings! As busy as our coaching and technical staff is, this kind of work could have taken a year or more. Instead, we used the concentrated time we had in lockdown to educate our players and strengthen and deepen their connection to our club. Maybe it just comes down to being industrious. We certainly had no inclination to waste the time given. But our primary motivation was, as it always has been since the club was founded, to continue building our unique culture.
If you are inclined to do the same at your club, I strongly recommend it. There is still time. With the recent reports of spikes in coronavirus cases across the country, it seems likely we still have time on our hands. Take advantage of this time to spread the message about your club's philosophy, game model and unique culture. Of course, all of these things - philosophy, game model, culture - are critical prerequisites. Does your club have a concrete philosophy? Can you articulate it in one sentence? (e.g. "Eagleclaw is a Positional Play Club.") What about a game model? Do you have a thoughtful and published curriculum and training methodology? Is it available to your coaches on-demand? Is there a cultural underpinning to your club, perhaps American, Irish, Mexican, German, French, African, Dutch, Spanish etc. If so, does it infuse every aspect of your club? (Hint: "We win tournaments/leagues" is not a culture; it’s a statistic!) If your club does not have these prerequisites, then use this time to really work on those and get them done. Define and build your club's culture. Once you've done that work, you'll be able to start the process of truly educating your coaches, players and families.
Don't let US Soccer or any other federation tell you that classroom-type tactical education for young players is inappropriate. It is perfectly appropriate! Tactics are for kids as well as adults. Coaching is not a priesthood. Coaches are not oracles or keepers of secret wisdom. We are teachers. We are educators. And there are many ways to teach and many valuable outcomes to achieve from effective teaching. More importantly, don't settle for teaching kids what US Soccer teaches in license courses. It doesn't work that way. Federations don't teach how to build authentic club cultures, so why would we expect them to provide the philosophical or methodological underpinnings for an authentic club culture? Understand that federations provide a homogenized, lowest common denominator type of education. It is valuable education, no doubt, but can often be a cultural straitjacket. As consumers, we need to absorb what US Soccer and other federations teach, and then discriminate between what will help us build our club's culture and what won't. Then it is up to you to fill the gaps. You need to set the cultural agenda for your club. You need to define your club's culture, authentically, and then teach your coaches, players and families. And don't leave out the kids. They desperately want to to understand your club's philosophy and how and why it drives the way they train and play. They deserve to know!