It is a common question made to youth soccer coaches, both from experienced coaches as well as people unfamiliar with youth soccer. Why Do You Coach? For me there are a number of reasons, but I think I can say without hesitation that there is one reason above all others: When the players on the team ‘get it’. Not individually, but as a team. That doesn’t mean they have to win, or play fantastic, or have a few individuals play like Pele.
No, when a team ‘gets it’ – they begin to implement what they’ve worked on for so long on their own AND begin to discover new ways to play as a group in ways they never have. Things just ‘click’. It seems to often happen in the Spring, but not always. I had just such an experience this weekend and while I try not to write ‘hey one of my teams did great!’ posts very often – I can’t help myself this time.
Regular readers know that I currently coach a rambunctious group of U11 girls named The Lunachicks. They were a brand new Challenge team this fall, with all but one of the players coming from Rec soccer. They had a rough opening, allowing 23 goals in their first four matches. Ouch! Well, the girls have worked VERY hard and were only allowing a couple of goals per game later in the season, but the wins were few. We had a lot of ground to makeup against players who had been playing travel soccer for 1-2 years already and most of the Fall was spent working on technique, footwork, soccer moves, etc. with a smattering of basic tactics, etc. And thankfully that has started to pay off.
The Lunachicks have played seven games so far this Spring, have allowed only 5 goals, and are 4-3 with each loss being a very close 0-1. But it’s not the wins or losses we’re excited about, as most of these matches could have gone either way, but for a wide shot or defensive breakdown resulted in a goal.
No, what has the coaches of our team so excited is what they did this past weekend. They played a tough team that finished in the middle of our division last season (we were 13th near the bottom) that they had faced twice before, losing both times. They played a very intense match, generating a lot of opportunities, but we struggled to finish – something we’ve known and are working on. We broke down on defense once – and they scored – thus our third 0-1 loss. But the girls played smarter than we had seen. It was a good competitive match.
On Sunday, they faced a team that was also a strong, mid-division team that they hadn’t played before, and they played the best soccer they ever have. Hands down. This team we faced was very good – fast attack, sharp passing, and a couple players who had very good shots. When I say wins/losses aren’t indicative of anything because matches can go either way sometimes, I mean it, as one direct kick from the right of the penalty area bent around our wall and slammed into the crossbar near the far corner. One of the best shots I’ve ever seen a U11 Girl take.
What gave the coaches, myself included, chills at halftime was the way the girls played. As balls hit their feet, they were looking up. Defenders were working to maintain possession and work the ball upfield instead of just kicking it. We went through about a 10 minute stretch at the end of the first half where they pressed the opponent’s goal repeatedly. The wings were going into the corners and sending the ball back towards the 18 for the waiting mid-fielders to take shots. Our midfield was working to control play and send balls repeatedly through to sprinting forwards. Players who normally were held back by a lack of confidence played with abandon and we had one player earn her first goal – which she threaded between the goal post and the keeper’s leg. We scored on a well executed pass from the middle to a wing who one touched a throughball to our center forward who flew in to score. It was textbook. Our biggest problem was most feed passes were too hard and outran our forwards – but the girls knew something was different and they were a bit excited. Not unusual.
It was some of the best soccer the team had ever played because they were making so many smart decisions about what to do. Was the execution perfect? Nope. Did we score a ton of goals? No (remember the ‘trouble finishing part? – Still working on that). But as a coach, when you see the girls start to play with confidence across the board – every player – it’s so exciting. Wings fighting for the ball on the touchline and managing to turn towards the goal with a defender at their back repeatedly. That was the kind of thing that just gave us goose bumps as coaches. When the game ended with a one point win, the girls and their parents screamed like they had just won a tournament championship instead of a regular league match, not because they won – but because they knew how well they had played.
And that is why I coach. The games where your players just ‘get it’ – win or lose. Will this continue for us? There’s no telling. All this time I figured that the girls would need a ‘breakout win’ with a reasonable point margin to reach the next plateau. I was wrong – in a match we won by one point, that we easily could have lost by one point or tied, the girls gained a huge amount of confidence and it was breathtaking to watch.