If youth soccer, as in life, we are constantly balancing what is fair with what is expedient. And as we receive treatment which is less than fair, we have the opportunity to choose our reaction.
In the Viking Upper House league, where the Hammer plies its craft, there are not enough teams at the U13 and U14 level to maintain two separate divisions. So league officials blended them together. This means that my boys like Brandon at 12 years and 10 months of age might play against a boy two years older. At this age two years can mean a foot of height, 80 lbs., and all the accompanying speed and power you can imagine. For the first time in two years of coaching, I find myself shaking hands post-game with boys taller than me, and I’m 6’ 0”.
Is it possible to play against a team of older boys and win? Yes, but it is pretty rare, especially at this age. That’s why youth teams are grouped by age. Some class three teams operate in a two-year band, for example combining U13/U14 players on the same team. But when all your players are U13 and all the other team is U14, you’re going to struggle. It is also dangerous; David had to be carried off the field two weeks in a row. Proving the Mark Twain adage, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” David made two outstanding defensive plays, stuffing a long pass in one game and making a last-ditch sliding save of a goal in the other. For his trouble he collected a severely sprained wrist and a twisted ankle.
Yesterday we started like gangbusters against an older U14 team from St. Mary’s Park in the Mission. We ran, closed down, and passed the well outstandingly well. We surprised ourselves when Byron latched on to the end of a cross and scored from a tight angle to go 1-0. Five minutes later he did it again and we were winning 2-0. Then the fairy dust started to wear off as St. Mary’s started to hit the through ball behind our back line and outrace us to our goal. We had no answer for their superior foot speed and came off at half 2-5 down.
The boys were glum at the interval, as if they had found a puppy and then lost it to its rightful owner. I did an experiment for the second half, putting my fastest players in the back and playing to eliminate the through ball and having them not set up as high as before. This was somewhat successful; the second half went 1-2 and the game finished 3-7. I talked to the St. Mary’s Park coach and he complimented our team, asking if we were U13s. He was acknowledging that we did so well he wasn’t sure if we were really a year younger. I replied we were and he gave a little smile and said, “The same thing happened to us last year.”
Is it an attribute of soccer in the Mission that this coach understands you have to go through a tough year sometimes as part of your development? Not really. I’ve been in touch with a coach from a different team (U13 like us) because we are trying to reschedule a rainout. His team, the Gators, is actively trying to cancel all its remaining games against U14 opposition, because his players get defeated so badly that “the parents don’t understand” and complain. It’s not fair, they get discouraged and have no fun. Why even play?
This is where the Positive Coaching Alliance’s concept of “redefining winner” comes in. PCA understands that worshipping the scoreboard drives unproductive behavior in coaches. A team is not good because it’s won, nor is it bad because it’s lost. There are so many factors that are outside the coach’s control that it becomes critical to look at other measurements to assess the team’s performance. While good teams do win games, and PCA coaches like winning as much as anyone, you have to be prepared to take a beating or two along the way. This is why we focus on “a mastery, rather than a scoreboard, orientation” We set controllable goals as our measure, such as effort and learning: did we play our hardest? Did we learn anything today? If we can answer “yes,” then we’re winners.
A final example: last week we played two games on Saturday. We lost 3-7 to a U14 team, then beat a U13 opponent comfortably by 3-0. Our best play was in the second half of the first game. It had to be, we were fighting for our lives. In the second game, we coasted.
The boys agreed that the second game was more fun, but when I asked them where they learned more, we all agreed it was during the first game.
This is where I think the Gators may have lost the path. As coaches, we have to create the dialogue and shape the mindset of our players and their parents. The purpose of the game on Saturday is to train and improve. It is a training session, just like Wednesday and Friday afternoon. The only difference is we play an opponent in a game setting, but the purpose is to give effort, make mistakes and learn. The purpose of the game is not to provide entertainment for the parents or to let them see their kids beat someone else’s week after week. It’s to test ourselves against opposition and see where we need to improve. As long as children play sports, they have to bring an approach of mastery to their efforts. If you’re not losing, you’re not learning.