the Hard Road or Easy Street?

“Why didn’t we get more of the players from the (top) travel team in the off-season?”

“Why didn’t we sign any of the big kids from tryouts who are 5′ 8″ and taller?”

“The new guy we got is still learning how to play.”

Losing 1-2 to our club rivals lead to many questions yesterday. I have made a few decisions that seem counter-intuitive. Working with the club director’s we knew that the other team had a greater need for players than we did. When we made the two teams , my squad ended up being the more talented, committed roster of boys. So we let them sign up the majority of the travel team players (one for us, two for them) in the hopes they would close the gap. Why would I want this? Because in order for us to improve we need to play strong opponents. I tell my players, “to make a sharp knife, you need a hard stone”– the harder our opponent is, the better edge we develop for ourselves.

Playing in a U13/U14 league is very tough. The difference in a kid’s size in that 24 – month window is scary. Some boys are pre-pubescent, high voices and 5′ 4″, while others are 6′ 2″ and at their full adult height. But every time I see a grown kid playing here, I wonder how it is helping his development. His size and strength get him out of many problems without learning technique or good decisions. Most are awkward on the ball, as they haven’t mastered their new bodies. And many who are “big” now won’t big the big ones when they head off to college, and they will be left dreaming about their Glory Days when they were 13 years, 11 months old dominating boys who were 12 years, 1 month old. Picking a kid because he’s big now fails to consider where he will be down the line and what his potential is to become a good high school player.

Every decision I make reflects what Toby Rappolt calls the “academy” mindset. Our squad is made up of students. Our games are opportunities to learn and experiment. To do this, it is important that we are not the best team in the league, with the best players. If we were, we should move to a tougher league.

I picked a new kid who is not up to the skill level we need yet. He’s small and on the young side. Why did I select him? Because he is a great kid from a great family and I wanted to give him the experience of being on a good team. It was not about what he would do for the team; it was about what the team would do for him.

When I see other teams methodically scout, poach and sign the best players possible I wonder what they aspire to. When I see a team with giant kids up the spine while other, more skilled boys languish on the bench, I wonder what they want to create. Winning today is easy. Signing big players doesn’t require a coach, it just needs someone with a tape measure.

I know I’m taking the hard road, but I’ve gone down easy street and have found there’s nothing there at the end.

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