When my travel team moved to the next level to try and boost their intensity and development, I said I’d keep you all updated on their progress in our player development experiment. So now that we’re just about halfway through our regular season, here’s how they are doing.

We started out our season in early January with some VERY cold practices. We were supposed to play in a tournament February 7th and then start our regular season February 14th. The girls were still clearly freaked at being a Classic team now, but they were practicing MUCH harder then they had. So that was encouraging. Then we found out that the tournament didn’t have enough teams to form a division for our age group, so we scrambled to find someone to play in a friendly before the season started. Trouble with that is we’re a new Classic team – most teams know we played Challenge before, and likely didn’t appear to be a formidable opponent. But at the last minute, we got a nearby team to offer to play us. This team was a strong team that had played in 1st Division in the Fall but had been relegated after a series of very close losses. Not exactly the ‘easing into it’ I was looking for, but hey – might as well go for it.

The girls played a VERY solid game against this team and held them to a 1-2 score. The parents and coaches of our team were ecstatic. Maybe they had gotten over their fear and believed they could play at this level.

Nope. Their first match was against a team from a cross town rival league. They played very flat, bickered and argued with each other the entire match, and lost 0-2. Neither parents or coaches were very happy, mostly because of how they were frustrated and fighting amongst themselves. Then we played another team the next weekend and were still flat, losing 0-3. No bickering, but just playing with zero confidence. The girls were even saying “See? We told you we weren’t ready for Classic!” I was beside myself. They were playing horribly and had so convinced themselves they weren’t ready, they were playing like it. So we kept pushing them in practice, telling them they were good enough, but that they had to prove it to themselves. I told them they had to stop psyching themselves out so much and just PLAY.

After we got completely washed out last weekend, we had two matches this weekend against two of the stronger teams in our division. The weather was in the mid 70’s and the sun was shining. It was gorgeous. As we got ready to take the field Saturday, the girls were very quiet and pensive. I told them they were acting like they were at a funeral or wake. Why the sense of impending doom? I told them yet again, the only way they could beat teams like this was to believe they could win. They had convinced themselves they weren’t good enough to play Classic and it was ridiculous. 

So they took the field and before I even sat down on the bench, BOOM, our opponent scored seven seconds into the match. The girls were just shell shocked. So they restart and BOOM, get scored on 43 seconds later. They had just allowed two goals in the first 50 seconds of the match. I couldn’t believe it. Then I look at our defense – and our left footed back is playing on the right side and our right footed back on the left. What the heck? Yes – my girls STILL struggle to think about left and right during a match. I fixed the lineup problem, but even so – I’m in a panic mentally. I can see our team getting completely blown out and never recovering for the rest of the season. They were crushed at what had just happened. So like any coach, I implored them to snap out of it and just play. To my surprise they did. Their opponent moved the ball VERY well and had overlapping runs down cold. Our defense stepped up and shut them down even though they were dominating possession still. They hadn’t scored again. So at halftime, we went to chat – and they were still very dejected.

I was going to talk to them about how they had to snap out of it and just play. They were only down two points and so on. Then I heard a giggle – that type of giggle from a young child that is from pure joy. Over in the goal near us, the younger sister of one of our players was playing with one of our team dads. She was chasing a soccer ball and playing keeper. She’d dive on the ball, giggle and laugh, and kick it back. Most of my players were watching her, so instead of trying to get their attention, I told them all to look at the goal for a minute while the little sister had the time of her life, giggling and laughing the entire time. Then I got their attention and said something along these lines:

“You see that? That right there is a girl who is having the time of her life kicking a soccer ball around, because she loves the game. All of you here have played soccer for years because you love the game. Stop feeling sorry for yourselves and convincing yourselves you don’t belong here. You do. So you made a couple mistakes in the first minute – big deal – you’ve held this team scoreless for 29 minutes. So just go back out there and have fun. Stop worrying about the game, the score, and whatever else is going through your mind and just play soccer like you know how to play. Walk off the field in 30 minutes knowing you played your best and had fun doing it.”

And that was that. The next 30 minutes they played with a renewed sense of intensity. They had a few solid chances to score, but weren’t able to. But despite constant pressure from their opponent, they held them scoreless. So when the match was done, I pulled them together and held up the match report in my hands. “What does this say?”. “2-0” a few of them said. Exactly, I told them, they lost by two points due to a couple very early mistakes. Big deal. They had just held a very strong opponent scoreless for 59 out of 60 minutes, and that was something to be proud of. They were still bummed, but I think this sort of perked them up. So we went home. I had noticed some encouraging changes in their play, but nothing to get too excited about. We still had to face a team the next day that was undefeated, in 1st place, and had not been scored on yet after three games. I didn’t tell the girls this – I just figured we’d do what we could do. The good news was it was our first home match and the girls always seem to play better in their home yellow.

During warmups Sunday afternoon, I explained to the girls that they had made significant progress. The previous match showed signs of promise and they had to build on that. They had to stop waiting for the ball, play with confidence, and take control. The first half was an intense half of soccer. It was windy and our opponent struck first with a long ball that the wind lifted up and it sailed into the far corner over our keeper’s hands. But the girls seemed to sense that the match wasn’t one sided. They were defending well and were getting chances to score. They tied the game on a beautiful shot from our left striker and you’d have thought they’d won the World Cup. It was like a switch had flipped. They started to increase their intensity. But with the 1st half running over time, they let in a fluke goal when the ball slipped out of our keepers hands on a hard shot and our opponent drilled it in. 

At halftime I explained they had held one of the best teams in our division to a one point match and were doing well. Continue to attack free balls and don’t give them a second alone with the ball. They were surprisingly upbeat even though they had let a go ahead goal in right at the end of the half. So they took the field for the second half and what followed was one of the more exciting halves of soccer I’d seen. Every few minutes the girls seemed to get more energized and ratcheted up their intensity. Our opponent was not backing down by any means, but we suddenly were starting to take control of the game. When we drilled in a free kick after a foul from far outside the penalty area, the girls finally started to think ‘hey – we can do this’ as they were now tied 2-2. I was thrilled – a tie against this team was huge. The girls were tired and a bit banged up, but soldiered on. Then with 90 seconds left in the match, our center grabbed a free ball in the middle and sent a cross to our left striker. She got pressure immediately, so she turned, got open, and sent a cross in front of the goal. Our fastest striker flew in, and slide kicked the ball into the net for the go ahead goal. I couldn’t believe it. 90 seconds later, the girls had a 3-2 upset victory.

All I could tell them after the game was that they had just had a VERY big win. They had proven beyond a doubt they DID belong at this level and if they didn’t believe it now – they never would.

As I was driving home, I got a text message from one of my players saying ‘Thx coach – now I believe”.

I have no idea what will happen going forward. One match does not make a season. They played well, but it wasn’t the best soccer they’ve ever played. It was, however, some of the most confident and intense soccer they had played. I think the girls finally believe they can play at this level. The trick is how lasting that confidence boost will be. We were on the ragged edge of disaster for a while there. I really did underestimate how much the girls had convinced themselves they weren’t good enough and it was a rough few weeks as we went scoreless over three matches. I really didn’t know if we’d ever be able to get the girls to pull themselves out of their self imposed funk. But they did.

Will this be the turning point of their season? Too early to tell, but I’m looking forward to practice tonight. We may not win another match – who knows. But the girls will remember this win and hopefully most of them finally believe they really CAN do this.

I’ll keep you all posted!