During the offseason, I’ve been trying to come up with ways to help take my U10 kids ‘to the next level’ this Spring. They had a very successful season in the Fall and I wanted to give them some extra incentive to improve and work harder this Spring since they face a tougher division. My team is also very diverse. We have a sizable number of skilled players, but also have a few who are still learning the basics. I wanted to give them some incentive to work harder and feel like they’re accomplishing things along with the other kids who may score a few more goals than they do.
You’ve all probably seen the helmets on collegiate football players, covered in stickers. These incentive stickers are handed out to players for extra effort, heads up plays, etc during practice and matches. You sometimes have to wonder, however, if each sticker means that much to the star players who seem to have an entire helmet full of them.
I liked the idea, but not the execution. I wanted to have something rare enough that the kids would covet them, but also make them accessible to everyone on the team. On a whim, I typed in ‘soccer award patches’ into Google and found exactly what I was looking for.
A company called SoccerHelp.com has a selection of small 1″ soccer ball patches in various colors. So I went ahead and bought a pack of 150 of the original colors, giving me six different colors to ‘award’. The patches came with handy instructions for both application (iron from inside the shorts/jersey onto the back of the patch so it takes less heat to melt the adhesive) and a sheet of ideas about how to use them. Now all I had to do was come up with what they would stand for. Easier said than done. So using that sheet as a starting point, I started thinking about how I’d use these during the season.
After thinking about it a bit, I decided that I would only award one patch type per player. I didn’t want my stars walking around with 20 while my developing players had 2. Instead, I decided I would setup a system where each player could earn one of each type of patch and while the general criteria would be the same, it would still be relative. I would expect my stronger players to do something a bit more complex than my developing players to earn a given patch. Overall as a coach, my intent is for just about every player to get their full set by the end of the season. Some might get them earlier, but I would stress that EVERY player could earn every patch if they worked hard enough. I’ll freely admit one of my intents with this is to give more incentive to my developing players to try something unexpected instead of feeling like they’re in the shadow of the stars. We’ll see if it works.
Coming up with what each patch would stand for wasn’t easy. Soccer Mom and I debated it for a while over pizza and finally came up with the following. I’m sure we’ll tweak these for the Fall season, but for now, we’ll see how it goes. One of the reasons I’m writing about it is to get other ideas from you all.
The 1st Goal Patch: The idea sheet discouraged the use of patches to reward goal scoring, noting that kids who score goals get enough positive reenforcement from the cheers, parents, and fellow players. I agree with this. However, I want every player on my team to try and score. We came VERY close last year to having all 11 players score at least one goal. So I figured a little incentive to score that first goal would be worthwhile, while avoiding the encouragement of the stars to be ball hogs to load up on patches. So you get this patch when you score your first goal of the season. Our team already played it’s first match and two players scored our four goals. My son wasn’t one of them and that bugged him. Actually he did score, but they called it back, claiming he’d gone out of bounds on the touchline. I didn’t want to give it to him under those circumstances and I’ll admit he was upset that night. But he quickly decided he’d still earn his patches by working harder and playing smarter in the upcoming matches. At least in his case – so far so good.
The Denied Patch: This patch is awarded for heads up defensive play, but is not limited to defenders and keepers. The ‘criteria’ for this is you managed to prevent an obvious goal scoring opportunity or were ‘a wall’. A forward who takes off after an opponent breaking away and manages to prevent the shot. A defender, faced with a 3 on 1 manages to break things up. A keeper who makes a heads up smart play to deny what should be an easy goal. All too often you’ll see players who will ‘give up’ the chase because they figure the person breaking away is going to score and they can’t do anything. I want them to pressure and chase until the ball is either blocked or in the net. It’s not limited to breakaways. Defenders who go above and beyond during a match – being ‘the wall’ if you will. Keepers who make an inordinate number of saves or a single spectacular one. Stuff like that. I’ve made clear the criteria for these is fluid and up to me as coach which gives me lots of flexibility to award them, while still giving the kids overall areas to work hard in.
The Maradona Patch: This is a fun one. I know many coaches will say at 9 and 10 years old you should stick to the basics and for the most part, I agree you shouldn’t spend lots of practice time on ‘moves’. However, I think it is absolutely appropriate to spend SOME practice time on various moves. I’ve got U8’s who can do a scissors or a step over and I believe every one of my U10’s can do it in some fashion. Some of my stronger players can do a helicopter. This is about fun right? So we work on various moves during practice, but most of the kids are scared to try them during a match. I have a hard enough time getting my strongest players to use the outside of their foot in a match, yet they’ll practice for an hour using nothing but the outside of the foot. So this patch is meant to encourage them to try stuff during matches. You’ll get your Maradona Patch if you successfully use a move in a match. You don’t have to score, but you do need to fool your defender. Now in the spirit of allowing all my kids to earn it, a developing player who uses a step over or scissors would earn one while my stronger players will be encouraged to do something more creative to earn theirs. It’s not what move you do, it’s how difficult it is for each player to do and do properly. $10 to the first one of my kids who realizes that the color of this patch is significant.
The Hustle Patch: This patch was originally going to be the ‘Coach’s Prerogative’ patch where I could award it for whatever I wanted to. But that took something away from using them as goals or concepts the kids would strive for. Instead, I decided to award it for hustle. It seems trite because everyone runs in soccer, but all too often you’ll see kids walking when they should be running. ‘Your heels should never touch the ground’ is a common mantra from my sideline. So players who play an entire match running and hustling into position will earn this patch. I have a few players specifically who tend to walk until they absolutely have to run that I hope will hustle a bit more to earn this. The player who got this the first night was one who didn’t hustle much the previous season, and being his first season playing soccer, is still on a steep learning curve. This season he’s been working very hard. During the match he hustled into position AND called for the ball often. Almost every time the ball came to him, he struggled to control it. Don’t care. He never gave up and kept trying. He almost scored his first goal ever because of his hustle – missed the post by a foot.
The Challenge Patch: This patch, conveniently enough, matches the color scheme of our Challenge teams (known as Select or travel teams elsewhere). This patch is awarded for Leadership and Sportsmanship, qualities any player hoping to play at the next level will need to exhibit. However, this patch can be awarded for all sorts of things. Congratulating opponents who score, helping teammates or opponents out on the field or filling the role of ‘field general’ during a game. But beyond that, one of the key ways to earn this patch will be selflessness in setting up scoring opportunities by passing, crossing, etc. I work to instill in my players the idea that a goal scored by anyone benefits the team. An assist is more important than actually putting the ball in the net, because at this level the assist is usually what sets up the sure thing. I want my players to score, but I also want to break some of the more experienced players of this idea that they can razzle dazzle past 3 or 4 defenders and score. Because they can, but not consistently. So I want them to realize that when they see three opponents in front of them, that means some of their teammates are wide open. Players that show heads up play during a match via assists, set pieces, talking to their teammates, etc. in addition to showing leadership and sportsmanship will earn this patch. It will likely be one of the hardest to earn, especially for the players on my team who already play on Challenge teams True story. My son, who plays Challenge, tells me this morning “Dad, I had a dream last night where I earned all my patches!” He sure seems stoked about it. We’ll see.
The Blood Patch: The name for this patch is great and came straight off the Soccer Help idea sheet. This patch is for toughness, bravery, and plain old grit. I don’t want my players to play hurt or to hurt someone else. I make that very clear. This patch is for players who get knocked around on the pitch and keep on going after the ball. One of my girls blanched when I explained this patch. “Why do I have to bleed to get this patch?” That’s not the point, but in a few cases, blood will be involved. It’s the nature of the sport. A perfect example. During our league tournament, one of my girls who used to duck when the ball flew at or near her, got hit hard by a ball and her nose started to bleed. A lot. So we sat her down on the bench with some ice and tissues. I figured she wouldn’t want to go back in after that, but before I needed to sub players in (when I would have asked her), she was already telling me “Coach, I’m ready to go back in”. She wasn’t seriously hurt, but went through a scary experience and was ready to play some more. Blood Patch. This patch will be the hardest patch to get. Though, we did award one during our first match. Our keeper at the time took a cleat to the cheek and went down. Luckily he didn’t get cut and just had a nasty scrape on his cheek, but it was clear it hurt a lot. I was ready to sit him down, but he insisted he was fine and we didn’t see any serious problems (blurred vision, unsteadiness, etc.) so he kept playing. Again – I’ll never make or encourage a player play hurt, but if they exhibit bravery or toughness in a situation like the above. They get the patch. And it doesn’t have to be the result of injury. As I noted in my post about our trip to the NCYSA State Cup:
One of our girls swore up and down this season that no soccer ball would touch her head. The one time we worked on headers and I got things started gently bouncing the ball off her head at 6 inches away, tears welled up in her eyes. Heading was NOT her thing. During our last match, a ball got cleared towards her and it was a good 15+ feet in the air. She stepped right under it and BAM! headed it right back towards the goal. The parents went crazy.
That kind of bravery and toughness earns The Blood Patch. The kids love the name.
One common question is where to put them. Many put them on the sleeve of their jersey or on their shorts leg. Baseball caps, soccer bags, etc. are other common places. However, I believe as a team you need to settle one the same spot to put them. Our league gets most of it’s uniforms from local business sponsors, so the uniforms are generally turned in after each season. In our case, our uniforms have been discontinued and can’t be replaced, so our kids will get to keep them. We decided to have them put the patches on the right leg of their black shorts. They stand out a lot and are easy to see. If other teams start doing this, one idea is to have parents buy the shorts to keep since they aren’t very expensive, while the rest of the uniform stays with the team/sponsor. Other teams get new uniforms every year, so it’s not a huge issue.
Another question is what age level to do this in. The idea sheet from SoccerHelp had some coach comments and one talked about how much it had motivated his 2nd graders (U8). I have a U8 team, but I’ll admit that I’m not doing it with them yet (though I bought enough for them). First, they can’t put them on their uniforms – our sponsor got beautiful uniforms, but expects them to be returned. What fun are the patches if you can’t show them off? I considered maybe getting arm bands like captain bands they could wear during matches with their patches. But even beyond that, I’m not sure my younger players would get it. Of course, my older ones do, especially those who have siblings on my U10 team! I probably will get most of my older U8’s in U10 this fall, so I’ll keep hinting that they’ll be able to earn patches in the Fall if they play for me. But of all the concerns/questions, this is the one I’m on the fence about – doing it for my U8s.
I’ll admit this is an experiment. I’ve heard from other coaches who do patches and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. But it is easy to see how it could discourage some kids if it’s not handled properly. My goal is to try and strike the right balance between making them achievable and still making them desirable. We awarded about 5 after our first match and I’ll likely award patches retroactively in certain cases after I’ve had more time to go over a match in my head. If everyone earns them all, I have 66 patches to award in 8 matches (though I might be able to award a few in the tournament matches). The hardest thing about doing this is keeping track of the match, the score, and noting when I or my assistants feel an award is justified.
I’ll keep you posted on how it goes and am eager to hear any ideas you may have or experiences if you’d tried this.