A while back I alluded to the challenges we had faced with our U11 girls in terms of getting them motivated in practice, but hadn’t had a chance to expand on that until now.
Our U11 team is a great group of girls, but it’s also on a steep learning curve. Very diverse personalities, varying levels of athleticism, and all but one is entirely new to this whole ‘competitive travel soccer’ thing. My assistant coaches and I knew we would be a bit behind, as all but one had played Recreational soccer as U10 players last year. We knew the season would be a learning season in a variety of ways beyond just soccer skills/footwork, so we gave the girls a fair amount of leeway in the early months. Water fights were common after August (and once in a while November!!!) practices. Pranks were played. Stuff like that. We were there to learn soccer, but we also wanted to form a true team, and a big part of that was the girls getting to know each other and bond.
But with that freedom came a somewhat unexpected side effect and that was motivation. The girls were all REALLY excited when they made the team in May. Yet practices seemed to be less intense than we had hoped as the season progressed. We tried various ways to motivate the girls to put 100% effort into the drills, but they lacked focus. Part of this was probably due to our desire to get them to bond, but that wasn’t the only thing behind it. Even in matches, they played hard for a while, but often you could sense that they just didn’t ‘want it’ bad enough. Free balls were surrendered all too often in the last few steps. As players drove towards the goal, instead of doing whatever they could to advance, you got the feeling they would push forward up until they met a certain level of resistance, then back down a little. The burning desire to succeed and do their best just didn’t seem to be there. We even tried implementing a variation of the incentive soccer patches that worked so well with my U10 team. The girls loved them, but I couldn’t say the chance to earn a patch was pushing them to improve or work hard in practice. We had to do something different.
We pulled our hair out over this. We tried a variety of things with our practice plans. We tried to subtly nudge a couple of the girls to assume the ‘dominant role‘, though we figured they were a bit young for that dynamic to happen yet. We agonized and strategized via cellphone after lackluster losses to try and figure out something to do. Too many times the team ‘lost’ a match vs being outplayed and beaten. How in the world could we get them to want to play their hardest in practice and during matches?
We spoke with a number of people and discovered we were not alone in this predicament. Many coaches noted that they had years where it was all they could do to get their teams focused on improving and developing as a team. But what finally made a light go off was talking to a local girls Classic coach. He noted that when he introduced more ‘competitions’ in practice where the girls tried to outdo each other, they worked harder. He noted that he would be more upset with ties than ‘wins’ or ‘losses’ when it came to these practice competitions because it meant they were trying to finish ‘together’. He wanted them to compete at all times.
It was an interesting concept and conversation for sure. So with that we set out to see what we could do for the rest of the season.
As it stood, our regular season was over by the time we had talked to enough people and finally figured out what we would try. But we still had a post season tournament a few weeks after our last match, which gave us two weeks to experiment. We decided to implement a two team setup at practice. We split the girls into two teams, Orange and Green (our pinnie colors – don’t ask), so they were reasonably balanced in terms of player ability. We explained that most drills in practice would be setup so teams could earn points by ‘winning’ a drill. Random ‘good job’ points would also be awarded at our discretion. Lack of focus, not paying attention, fooling around, etc. would result in points being taken away. No, we don’t take away points if they make a mistake – this is more of a focus and intensity thing. We decided there should be some tangible reward for the ‘winning’ team, so we told the girls that whichever team had the most points after the last practice would start in the Saturday tournament matches. Since the teams were balanced – it was no problem starting either team, and the girls have this obsession with starting. Yet we said nothing about any increase in playing time – just that they would start. That was enough. We setup some drills as races, some as ‘most to finish within this time’, etc. It took some creative thinking, but we managed to have almost all the drills and such be worth points. Scrimmages would be between teams and the score would count as points.
All I can say is WOW. The practice we introduced this at was probably the most intense practice we’ve ever had. After the first drill (a dribble/passing relay), all the girls were gasping for air. We moved to other drills and the intensity was unreal. A few times girls said something, fooled around, or weren’t paying attention and points were taken away. That got everyone’s attention quickly. And so it went. One of our assistants was skeptical before the first practice, but was convinced by the end of it. The girls worked very hard.
By the end of the end of the two weeks, the girls were practicing like they never had before. As coaches we discovered the power of ‘a point’ and were able to use them to encourage supportive behavior, and other things like that. Nobody fooled around wasting time, and if any even hinted that they might, the rest put a stop to it in a hurry. As our last practice was progressing, the teams managed to tie the score at 52-52. So the last thing we would do before the tournament was scrimmage, with the winners starting on Saturday. I thought I was going to have to call an ambulance. I had never seen the girls play with that much sustained intensity, even in a match. Every point scored was huge. The natural impulse to criticize teammates was there, but we used the threat of lost points to tamp that down and encourage constructive encouragement. Soccer moves and heads up plays were rewarded.
It was a delicate balance, but in the end it worked very well. The girls practiced at a level they never had before. We hoped it would carry on into the tournament, and for the most part it did. The girls played hard, but mental mistakes got the best of them. It was clear that our intent focus on footwork and skills development meant they lacked some of the more tactical knowledge the other teams had, and it showed. But that’s what the Spring season is for.
So was the competitive practice setup a success? Absolutely. We’ll continue it in the Spring, mixing up the teams every few weeks during the regular season. We learned a lot as well. Crafting drills so they can be ‘competitive’ was a challenge, even though we knew that some drills just wouldn’t be scored. That is one very nice feature of the CoachDeck cards – they include ideas for making most of the drills into games. There really was only one downside. Anytime two groups are competing for something they both want, mistakes are often magnified and the person making them is yelled at. We had to stamp that out quickly and the girls responded well in terms of encouraging their teammates vs tearing them down, but we had to keep a sharp eye out for glares, dirty looks, whispering, etc. The intensity helped keep things running quickly, with the risk of lost points keeping fooling around to a minimum.
I have no idea if this will work for an entire season, but based on how hard the girls worked when we did it, I’m willing to give it a try. I’ll post an update after the Spring season!