I made an interesting discovery as a coach recently related to kids, their perceptions of themselves and the game around them, and an aversion to risk. But first a little background – making this a fairly long post – so bear with me. I know coaches don’t always face decisions like this, but if you do, perhaps this will provide some insight. This story is part of why posting was so light on the blog during the offseason – there was a LOT going on.

Long time readers know that I coach a spirited group of ’96 girls for our local soccer league known as The Lunachicks. A year and a half ago, we started out as a new U11 travel team playing at the ‘Challenge’ level – North Carolina’s entry level to travel soccer. Beyond that is Classic, which is the top level of play for travel soccer teams, though within Classic there are also multiple levels (2nd Div, 1st Div, and Premier at older ages). While Challenge could certainly be viewed as ‘3rd Div’, the step between Challenge and Classic is massive compared to the step between 2nd Div and 1st Div. At least in the eyes of parents, players, and some coaches. In terms of actual team ability, on any given day the top 50% of Challenge teams probably could beat the bottom 50% of 2nd Div Classic teams. It’s mainly a perception. Keep that in mind.

As a fairly new league, our numbers at older ages are small, but grow every year. We call it ‘the wave’. Each year we field stronger teams as we have bigger and bigger player pools to choose travel teams from, but it is a gradual process. The ’96 players are at the front of this wave – the first group of kids to start playing soccer in Mebane at 4 years old when our league first formed. So our new team was formed from all of the girls who came to tryouts that first year, some unsure of what this whole travel soccer thing really was. They weren’t alone. This would be the second year our league had travel soccer teams, having just gotten state approval to field them. We took all 14 girls onto our roster because we wanted to develop as many as we could – knowing in a few short years we’d move to 11v11.

We walked into a buzz saw for our first match, playing the eventual division runner ups and losing 0-9, followed by a match against the eventual division champs, losing 0-6. Ouch. But the girls soldiered on, had a lot of fun, and showed improvement as the season went on. They finished 2-6-2 and lost most tournament matches they played in, but were now losing matches by a point or two instead of many. The Spring season was different, with the girls finishing 6-2-0 and having some good runs at the tournaments they played in. The parents and coaches knew the girls had come a long way. We lost a couple of players and picked up a couple along the way, but most of the team is from that original group.

So when our U12 season rolled around, we expected they would finally have the confidence to play like an experienced team instead of a ‘new’ team, and at first, it seemed like they would. Halfway through the season they were 5-0-0 having scored 21 goals and only allowing 3. As their coach I was thrilled at their success, but was also very worried at their style of play. They were TOO confident. Not arrogant, but aloof. They knew within a few minutes of each match if they had a very strong chance of winning, and if so, they coasted. Not all matches were like this and there absolutely were strong opponents in our division, but the range of abilities from top to bottom was sizable. So more often than not, we’d be sitting on a 1-0 lead at halftime with girls mostly going through the motions. They’d wake up with five minutes left and win 5-1. Made for VERY exciting soccer for those five minutes, but as a coach, I was nervous. What would happen when we faced stronger teams? How could we get the girls to play hard from the opening whistle?

We found out soon enough. We played in a local ‘mid-season’ tournament and after winning a nail-biter against a team we would face in the regular season the next weekend, we tied and lost our next two matches against teams that passed the ball better than most of our opponents had. The girls went into that tournament thinking they would finally reach a tournament final and have a shot at winning, only to end up losing in the semi-finals. Then the wheels fell off. We went 0-3-2 the rest of our season. We scored 6 goals and allowed 13. Our last match was an utter capitulation as we lost 1-6 against one of the strongest teams in our division that should have been a battle. The girls were upset, fighting with each other, and floundering. As their coach – I admit I was in a bit of a panic because I may have helped start their slide…

As the team was notching up wins in the early part of the season, I had started to think about their future. One year ago when we were just starting out, all we cared about was getting them improved so they could hold their own. But as we got into our U12 season I noticed the girls were getting complacent as I noted above. It carried over into practice as well. The girls had an AMAZING attendance record, with all 14 girls at practice almost every night, but the effort just wasn’t there. In that first six week stretch of the Fall, they knew they were winning. So why bother killing yourself? At the time I wasn’t really worried about it and was thrilled at the success the girls were having. So much so, that I contemplated having the girls move out of Challenge into the Classic league to play better teams for the Spring season. We were 5-0-0 and given the rest of our schedule, probably could finish with 8-10 wins. So the first day of that midseason tournament, after our morning win, I talked with the parents and players about the possibility of us moving to Classic in the Spring. We had to make a decision by mid November, and since we had everyone together at the tournament, we talked about it so they could think about it. The parents were mixed on the idea, but the real surprise was the girls. They freaked out. The idea of playing “Classic” scared most of them silly. 

And from the moment that we talked about it – we never won again in that tournament or the rest of the regular season. Talk about Classic faded away as everyone felt that the team just wasn’t ready for Classic and should just continue on in Challenge. There was just one tiny problem.

Back when we were flying high, I had been looking into post season tournaments. The girls love playing in them because everyone gets to hang out, see new places, teams, complexes, etc. So on a whim, I decided we should enter the girls into a Classic bracket for one of their tournaments. This would give them a chance to face some Classic teams and see how they stacked up. As any coach knows, tournament paperwork is turned in months in advance, so when the wheels came off, we had long since paid and registered. There was no going back. Then right as the season was ending and we were licking our wounds, the schedule for the Classic tournament came out.

Karma is a cruel mistress.

When we applied, I had noted we were a fairly successful Challenge team looking to get some experience playing some lower level 2nd Division Classic teams. I distinctly remember saying lower level. The schedule comes out and we had been placed in the top U12 Girls bracket and within that bracket, what arguably was the toughest flight. Two of the three teams we would face had 6-3-0 records and were, at that time, in 3rd place in their respective Classic divisions. I was flipping out. But what was I going to do? We couldn’t withdraw, but I was also worried that we’d go to our first real ‘away’ tournament and get absolutely hammered. I’ve been blessed with a GREAT group of parents, but I knew that would test their resolve and patience.

So we laid out practice plans for the two weeks we had before the tournament. We also clued the parents in to what we faced but specifically asked them NOT to tell the girls. We simply told them we were playing in a tournament against some tough teams we had never played before. This would be our first big ‘overnight’ tournament, so the girls were excited and knew they would face new teams. Thankfully that helped them get psyched up in practice and they practiced well as we pushed them hard. But given the season we had had, I was extremely nervous the girls would get blown out. So we headed down to Charlotte, took the field Saturday morning, and by the end of the day, were amazed at how well they had done. They knew on Saturday night that they had played two strong Classic teams and had done very well – heck they were this close to beating one. Sunday they regressed against the weakest opponent in our flight, but that’s another post! The next weekend we traveled to a Challenge tournament and played very well, though we still didn’t manage to get to the finals.

After that semi-final loss, I explained to the girls that despite what the referee had done (loooong story), we had yet again lost to a team instead of being beaten by them. We hadn’t done what needed to be done to overcome the three goals they scored off questionable foul calls. But that loss aside, the girls had played very well against strong teams. I asked them if they wanted to play strong teams all the time, and they said yes without hesitation. Then, as if on cue, a couple of our strongest players said ‘But not in Classic’. I was dumbfounded.

So we wrapped up our season and I had absolutely no idea what to do next. I played over the season in my mind, trying to figure out what had really caused the meltdown, why the girls had regressed. Was it the idea of moving to Classic? Laziness? Something else I was missing? I also thought about the Charlotte tournament and slowly came to a realization that had eluded me but the parents had picked up on…

One major concern among parents and players was how ready the team was for ‘the next level’. We have a variety of players with different skill levels. Some parents of less skilled players were nervous their children would play less (not my coaching style) or learn less because of the increased opposing pressure in matches. THAT had some merit, I thought. But the girls proved us wrong. In both end of season tournaments, we faced tough opponents. Unlike some of our regular season matches where two or three girls could control much of the possession and score, that wasn’t possible. The wings who liked to hide near the touchline at times? They couldn’t do that any more. Everyone realized it, and to our surprise, those players stepped the heck up in those matches AND the stronger players realized they couldn’t win without them. For the first time in a while, our team was playing as a team with everyone involved for most of the match. Now I had explained this to the girls many times before to make sure everyone was involved in matches, but until it’s a reality in a match, they didn’t believe it. Now they did. The entire team stepped up and proved they could play toe to toe with any of these teams.

So up until the tournaments had ended, I hadn’t really given the Classic thing much thought. We would play Challenge again in the Spring and that was that. But I also knew that we likely would have another moderately successful season as we coasted, winning what we could, losing a few we should have won, and getting knocked on our heels by a couple. I just couldn’t see how that would help the players or the team.

So I went all in.

As the deadline for mid-season changes approached, I drafted a LONG email to my team. Our league required that all parents agree to any mid season move from Challenge to Classic, so I had to convince all of the Lunachick Fringe that this was a good idea. Here is an excerpt of what I sent them:

In my honest opinion, as the coach of the Lunachicks, I believe we have gone as far as we’re going to go at the Challenge level. I don’t believe the girls will somehow wake up one day and decide to put forth lots of additional effort in practice and suddenly start winning these matches we (and they) know they should. Some of you will say I just need to be a bigger ‘bad guy’ as coach and get them to work harder, but we tried that and it didn’t work. I simply do not believe I can change their work ethic/intensity enough through threats/encouragement/pleading/etc without also alienating some of them and making them like soccer less. They have to choose to work harder on their own and I believe when their ‘peers’ on the opposing teams are better, their motivation in practice will be higher. Even within the team, this peer leadership shows rarely in practice, but often on the field in a tight or hard fought match against a strong opponent, it fires ALL the girls up. Playing down to an opponent gives them no such motivation. I’ve wrestled with this for the past three months and know I’ve bored many of you to tears talking about it – but I really had no idea how to fix this. But the last few weeks have helped bring some clarity to this and I hope you’ll approach my suggestions with an open mind.

First, I don’t think there is ANY doubt that this entire team is ready skill wise to play at the next level. While there may be a few players who individually might not stand out as ‘ready’ – as part of this team, they are. I don’t mean because they’ll be carried along by others. I mean I’ve seen many of our players try new things and play harder than they have once we started facing tough opponents recently, and not just our strongest players. These past two weekends we saw some of our more tentative players play with an intensity we hadn’t seen during the regular season. In arguably our toughest matches this season, these players realized they HAD to step up as part of the team effort and in doing so, gained some trust from the rest of the team, and hopefully some confidence. That’s exactly what we want to happen – given a prime opportunity to be frustrated by a strong opponent – nobody shrank back. The more tentative players stepped up and the more confident players realized they could not ‘go it alone’ and had to use their teammates to advance/keep the ball. As one player’s Mom noted this past weekend ‘I saw you fight for the ball, run hard, and take shots … all in one game!!!’ It was funny but also very true.

Consider this angle – in games where we coast, our more tentative players CAN be tentative and the team still wins because the stronger players can move the ball upfield alone or in pairs. In a hard fought match where the team is tired, fighting hard, and clawing to get every goal they can, the tentative players can’t hang back – they have to step up – they WANT to step up and their teammates know they have to involve them to succeed. Recent matches have shown this to be the case. That’s development, and that’s what this is all about. My overriding objective as a competitive soccer coach is to help the players *develop* to the best of their abilities while still having a good time. So perhaps a better way of putting it is I believe the entire team is ready to DEVELOP at the Classic level. If you want an analogy – then consider the way birds learn to fly – we can’t be afraid to let the girls fly on their own at the next level. What’s the worst that can happen? We lose a lot and end up back in Challenge in U13? I don’t see that as likely but if it happens, soccer and the Lunachicks will go on and the girls will have gained an enormous amount of confidence and experience.

I don’t believe as their coach that I can get them mentally ready with just practice.

The only way this team becomes stronger is to face stronger teams every time they step on the pitch and KNOWING they will. How many times have we said “if only we had played how we know we can, we’d have beaten that team” I’m so tired of saying that. I’d much rather have the girls come off the field, beaten and exhausted, knowing they played their best, but losing because they encountered a better team. They may not be happy about it – but they certainly will have learned something – and that is the key. Besides – the girls are miserable after matches we lose knowing we should have won – so how much worse can it be?

I don’t ask this of you lightly. I know many of you are concerned that losing at a higher level will hurt the girl’s confidence. That may be true, but I don’t think so. The 2nd half of this past season, where we went 2-7-5, would on paper seem like it would suck the confidence out of any team. But as their coach I believe the girls gained more confidence in the last two weekends than at any other point this season – and that is when we faced much stronger teams. It was the losses to the weaker teams that really had the girls upset. I know this seems like a huge step – but it really is not. Looking back in May, we’ll have played a regular season and tournament matches just like always. 8v8, size 4 ball, 18′ goal, 11-12 year old girls. Same rules, same uniforms, same team, same coaches, and many of the same complexes we’ve played at before. We’ll just have played teams that overall have better skills than what we currently face.

Will we have a lot of work to do? Sure. But if we all truly believe in developing this team, physically AND mentally while still having lots of fun (and hey – it’s the Lunachicks – there’s always fun), we really need to do this. In the end – this is about the girls and you as their parents doing what you believe is best for them. As their coach, I believe playing at the next level will be best for their development. I want to share what one of the parents told me when we were talking about this as I think it sums up in four lines what I’ve spent four pages trying to tell you: “If the girls REALLY want to focus on soccer and develop as soccer players, this is the direction we need to go. If it is not their goal or the goal of the parents, then we stay where we are. If that is the case though, we cannot hold a higher expectation than what we saw this season. That is not fair to the girls as players or to the coaches. It’s either stay where we are and let it ride or push them to do better, dealing with any confidence issues as they arise. Maintaining the status quo will NOT move us forward at this point.”

I’ve never been more sure about that than I am now after the past two weekends. So this decision rests in your hands.

A few days later every parent agreed to moving the girls up. Some were enthusiastic, some were hesitant, some were extremely skeptical but felt as their coach I had made a compelling case. So we turned in our paperwork to move up to the next level in the Spring

You often hear people complain that too many teams play Classic just to ‘play Classic’ and that it dilutes the divisions. I don’t want to be seen as one of those teams. We did this not out of ego, but to challenge our players to step up. So we’ve embarked on what only can be seen as an experiment. As a coach, this is a huge risk. If we crater and get hammered every match, the parents will resent me because I was an advocate for this. Same with the players, who absolutely were NOT in favor of this. This, without a doubt, was a case of parents doing what they thought was best for their kids. But if we hold our own and the girls develop more as players, it’ll be worth it. Will that happen? I have no idea.

So what now? Our season is just starting, so I’ll keep you all posted as it progresses. We’ve been practicing since early January and the girls seem to have accepted the change with minimal freaking out. They’re nervous, but the intensity level in practice HAS gone up. Will it last? Not sure. But now that the decision is made and they ARE a Classic team, they’re pushing themselves. We played a friendly against a team that had just moved down from 1st Division, arguably one of the toughest opponents we had ever faced, and the girls played fantastic – one of their best performances to date, and lost by one point. But the season is long and our team certainly has a Jekyll & Hyde personality. I’ll be sure to keep you all posted on how it goes.

So that’s how I spent my offseason. What do you think? Smart move or fool’s errand?

ADDING: I’m not advocating that teams jump up levels just to get better. You need to make an honest assessment of your team’s ability. There is a problem with teams and players being thrust into levels they don’t belong, which can be worse for their development. You see it ALL the time. But if your team is strong in it’s current level of play and seems to lack the desire to put in the effort to reach the next level, giving them a push might be what’s necessary. The idea is you certainly don’t need to go undefeated to prove you’re ‘ready’ for the next level. Instead you may be ready to develop at the next level.