Clearly my life isn’t going to get ‘less busy’, so I need to just start setting aside some time each week to write. I miss it and blame my DVR! (and the new business, and soccer, and more soccer, and having four kids, and so on )
I guess I need to catch you all up on the past year with a few posts. For those of you new to the site, I’m one of those crazy people who coaches a number of teams, most with no kids of my own. One of those teams is a ’96 girls travel team called The Lunachicks. Coaching this team has been an amazing experience because we’ve encountered all manner of things in the few years we’ve been together. I’ve certainly learned a lot coaching them. Last year we struggled with the decision to move up to the next level and in March were seeing some encouraging signs. Click the team name above to see other interesting things we’ve done, like playing in a sandstorm, freezing rain, and so on. Last March was about the time I stopped writing regularly and that’s unfortunate because as a team we went through a range of emotions and as a coach I learned a lot. I’ll admit I felt like it was all my fault and why should I write about what I hadn’t done right or didn’t know. Stupid, I know, but the way it goes. So time to catch up.
The good times we had in March after beating one of the best teams in our division would not last. What should have been a huge boost to their confidence instead was the start of a gut wrenching slide downhill. We never won again after that. We were shutout 7 of our 10 matches. Yet we had beaten one of the strongest teams and when we played what was clearly the best team in our division, we played a great match, lost 2-5, but also hit the post/crossbar twice. It was a very exciting match. Our team was an enigma. The girls were fighting with each other constantly and just miserable. At the beginning of the season, with us ‘moving up’ and getting older, I had decided to name team captains – mainly to help the girls learn how to BE captains – both in practice and in matches (dealing with the referee, etc). It was a disaster. The rest of the girls resented it and made the lives of the captains miserable to the point they wanted to quit. I finally did away with the captains halfway through the season and just had random girls who had exhibited the least drama that season handle the coin toss. Towards the end of our season, we faced what was, at the time, the last place team. They had been shutout every match, giving up 5-6 goals in almost every one. One crazy school night (it was a make up) with a two hour trip each way, an hour delay in starting, and more (no refs, being misled that they were just ‘running late’, etc. – they beat us 2-0 and made us look silly. The only silver lining was the girls all rode to the match in a 15 passenger van and seemed to bond in a way they hadn’t before. Looking back, that van ride was the beginning of our recovery – but we still had a long way to go. We finished the season 1-9-0 with a -22 goal differential. We had played our best soccer against the strongest teams and our worst against the worst teams. As a coach I was absolutely, without a doubt, at my lowest point and had NO idea what to do next.
We had a few post season tournaments, and our first only added to confusion. We played three Challenge level teams (one level below where we played) in our group and beat them handily, allowing just one goal. Our last group match we won 5-0 in what probably was the best match this team had ever played. They played with an insane amount of confidence, moved the ball very well, and played their hearts out. I wish I had video taped it. So we made the semifinals and were facing a VERY strong team from Tennessee. The girls played well, but we let in two bizarre goals (punts that bounced right outside our penalty area and floated in under the crossbar – twice) and never recovered. So the girls were disappointed, but they had played as a team that weekend and the drama, fighting, and bickering had subsided. We closed the season at the beach in a tournament we didn’t do well in BUT got to wear our new ‘3rd Kit’ sleeveless jerseys that the girls loved.
So we closed out a disappointing and difficult season with a weekend at the beach. Their uniforms certainly grabbed people’s attention and got many positive comments from other team parents and players alike. When the sky opened up in our first match, raining so hard you couldn’t see the parents across the field, the uniforms came in handy as they were quite visible. But overall we had a lot of fun despite going 0-3, went to the beach, and closed out a very difficult season.
My main worry was would the girls stick together. Many were grumbling about quitting, going to play elsewhere, or just not playing any more – they could play for middle school the next year. I was heart broken because I had advocated they move up and on the surface it seemed to be a big mistake.
What had gone so wrong? Looking back, naming captains was a HUGE blunder. It created much tension on the team and was a clash of personalities the girls weren’t ready for. Had I moved them to a level beyond their abilities? I still don’t believe so. We matched up quite well to the teams we played, and the stronger the team, the stronger our performance. But we weren’t shooting – at all – and rarely played like we did in practice. We might out possess a team, but let them break away a few times, score, and lose. It was crazy. The girls had skills but no confidence to use them. So what else might be going on?
I’m not one to make excuses and know there are decisions I made that season that weren’t ideal. But I also started to think back to some of the other travel teams we had that had recently gone through U12/U13, and every single one had ‘drama’ in a certain season. Our league’s first U12 Girls travel team had a miserable Spring season – the girls and parents fighting, the coach suspended, and just general chaos. Was there something to that ‘Spring U12’ season? I’d heard other coaches talk about it, but it didn’t register. Then one of the coaches of the boys teams talked about his Fall U13 season, where the boys were so out of control, he laid his coaching jersey on the ground and told them all ‘I’m DONE unless you all start to respect me and each other’. My son’s team, Fall U13, same thing. Kids bickering, fighting, miserable and not playing well. Multiple players quit or threatened to. What was going on?
Yes, I know it’s obvious when you lay it all out like that, but I’ll admit I was completely unprepared for it. We jokingly call it the ‘Season of Hormones’. For our girls teams, it was Spring U12 and for the boys, Fall U13. That jives with common knowledge that girls start to mature 6 months or so ahead of boys (and that was quite apparent the first time our team scrimmaged the same age boys team in the Spring – they towered over the boys – my son looked tiny. The next season the boys shot up in height and size. But I digress.
I guess the key thing to take away from this is if you haven’t coached U12/U13 kids at a competitive level, you may not be prepared for what happens. This was a year ago for me and to look at the team now compared to a year ago – the difference is amazing. I’ll touch on those differences in a future post. But moving the girls up to a higher level the same season they started to deal with hormones and growing up was a perfect storm.
When the season was over, I caught significant heat as the coach. My team was ‘out of control’, they ‘lacked discipline’, they ‘did not work hard enough’, and more. I’ll admit I made some choices that didn’t help, but addressed and corrected them as quickly as I could. The weeknight trip in the van helped the girls bond and get past some differences, but I was at a loss as to why things had gone so horribly wrong. The knee jerk reaction was “they weren’t ready”, but skill wise they certainly were. Only after a year of reflection and noticing what other teams of the same age had gone through did it hit me that maybe some of the issues we faced weren’t just who we were as a team.
I believe as coaches of teams this age, you have to be prepared for the U12/U13 year in terms of the emotions and mental state of your players. You also need to clue the parents in. Don’t use it as a crutch, but certainly let them know that they’re in for a heck of a ride. Striking a balance with your players can be tough – come down too hard on them and they’ll quit. Give them too much freedom and they’re likely to be out of control at best or very divisive to the team at worst. I’ve seen teams this age torn apart or lose some of their best players because the hormone storm got out of control because the coach didn’t know what to do or ignored it as ‘boys will be boys’. I consider myself VERY lucky as there was a risk the girls would just go play elsewhere last May. In the end they all came back except for one who chose to play travel basketball. So what exactly did I learn that they didn’t teach me in D Class?
- Be prepared for it. It may not happen at exactly the same time, but one or two of the four U12/U13 seasons will be tough for your team.
- Balance being strict with being understanding. If you’re too strict, the kids will quit in frustration. If you’re too lenient, you risk alienating others on the team.
- Be understanding – the kids will lash out at times. Control it or even better try to intercept it. But if all you try to do is contain it with discipline, be prepared to lose players.
- Keep the parents in the loop and let them know you’re doing your best to mitigate the issues, but having them on the same page – your page – will help. Even just preparing them for it will help – otherwise you’ll have some parents resenting others as proxies of their kids who may be struggling with their emotions.
- If you coach girls, be prepared for Jekyll and Hyde. One day a player will be happy, the next, in hysterics because a teammate said something to them during a game. With boys the same situation exists, but they tend to lash out vs show their emotions. In short – expect the unexpected.
- Don’t think just because a player is being quiet or stayed out of the fray that they aren’t struggling. Some will just ride out the storm and be fine, while others will be internalizing pressures and at some point will have to release it.
- Be very careful how your actions are interpreted – talk to one player too much and suddenly you’re playing favorites. That can be true at any age, but at this age, players are very sensitive to it. Naming captains when I did was a huge mistake.
- In larger leagues it’s easy to brush aside the drama as troublesome players, etc. because they can easily be replaced if they quit or are encouraged they “aren’t ready emotionally” for competitive soccer. That’s not fair to the players – sure some MAY be troublesome and not a good fit. But in U12/U13 there is MUCH more at play and you risk alienating kids who may end up as team leaders or top players down the road.
- UPDATE: Another aspect of larger vs smaller leagues is the kids can count. In small leagues where there’s only one team per age/gender group, the players know they aren’t likely to lose their spot if they misbehave or don’t put in effort. In larger leagues, the risk of losing one’s spot is always there. It’s a strong motivator.
Do I have all the answers? Hardly. I expect I’m a few years away from coaching another team through U12/U13. We’ll see if goes a bit better. I’d love to hear from other coaches who have coached competitive teams through these years. What did you encounter and what worked for you or didn’t?
The good news is, a year later, the team is still together and playing better than they ever have. But that’s one of many future posts.