2015 Varsity Season – Early lineup challenges

The 2015 season will represent my 5th season as the head coach of the varsity girls’ soccer program at the Manhattan school that I teach at.

While I think I’ve done reasonably well so far and picked up what I needed quickly, I know I have a long way to go to reach a level that I’m genuinely happy with.  I’ve decided to spend some time in the coming season reflecting on the diversity of the moving parts that make up a team, as well as my own role as the facilitator of the growth of the program.

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We’ve not even made it to the end of the 2014-15 school year and there are already challenges developing with the lineup for next season.

Some of the issues were anticipated given that this is the largest graduating class I’ve had since I started four years ago.  I’ve been very fortunate to never lose more than three players to graduation in a given season prior to this.  I had a roster of 15 in 2011, and only three of those were senior.  Of those three only two were starters.  I graduated three of 22 in 2012, and three of 21 in 2013.  With incoming freshman classes being five or more, and player attrition for other reasons usually being no more than one or two players per year, we’ve been basically building a very cohesive team for years.

Our 2015 squad is losing seven players from ’14 to graduation, including three girls who were four-year starters, and four players that run right up the spine of the team.  I knew it was coming, but it certainly is a hit to the squad.  And with only one freshman on the squad in ’14, that leaves us with 13 returners.  During last season we worked hard to bring younger players into places on the field that were going to be vacated in the off-season, but that is not a 1-year process any more than teaching those previous players the system was.  I expect a bit of a step back next season for this reason alone, but I have confidence in the girls who are returning to keep playing at a high level.

Another major challenge is at the goalkeeping position.  I’ve been working on grooming a goalkeeper across the last three seasons.  She was new to the position as a freshman, and struggled with some of the basics.  But over the last two seasons she’s really come into her own, and been a standout player on our squad.  She struggled with injury in 2014, but still played 8 games, with a 0.75 goals against average.  Unfortunately her injury problems followed her into a different sports season, and she tore knee ligaments playing basketball.  After surgery it is extremely unlikely she will return in time for next year.  There is the potential for a freshman goalkeeper to come in, someone I’ve spoken with, but that is far from certain.  The number of potential additions to the team next year is a complete unknown at this point.

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If we choose to keep our system, a 4-4-2 variation that plays more like a 4-3-1-2, this is how I project us setting up.  The numbers are all 2014 numbers.  It is worth noting that this projection includes several girls playing in new positions, including the attacking midfielder, and the left center back.

Of course there is always the option to adapt the system to the players we have, something I’ve done before, but right now our team not only knows this system the best given that we started it when most of the will-be seniors were freshman, but also doesn’t readily lend itself to a different one at this moment.  Preseason may bring a fresh perspective.

The main concern in formulating a line up that I think will be successful is the lack of a true center or defensive midfielder.  I helped the last girl ease into that role over a couple seasons, and would be more than happy to start that process again, but the girl that lends herself most readily to that position is needed elsewhere on the field, and there aren’t any ready replacements for her there either.

As I said before, preseason always brings a fresh look at the squad, and new things stand out to me as girls grow and progress, but I do usually give some consideration to where the squad is at as we shuffle from graduation each year.

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2015 Varsity Season – Setting the schedule

The 2015 season will represent my 5th season as the head coach of the varsity girls’ soccer program at the Manhattan school that I teach at.

While I think I’ve done reasonably well so far and picked up what I needed quickly, I know I have a long way to go to reach a level that I’m genuinely happy with.  I’ve decided to spend some time in the coming season reflecting on the diversity of the moving parts that make up a team, as well as my own role as the facilitator of the growth of the program.

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I’m starting this reflection now in March because, although the bulk of the season takes place from August to October, Feb/March is when I begin my preparations in earnest.  This is the time of year when my athletic director and I begin discussing the schedule for the coming fall and putting games into place.  This is an ongoing conversation as we decide how to supplement our short league schedule with teams outside our league that can both challenge us and help us grow.  By my count most competitive teams in our area play between 14 and 18 games in a full season, counting playoffs and preseason scrimmages.  I have been pushing for a 15 game schedule since my first year with the team.

This is somewhat of a tall order though.  It’s not as simple as just scheduling 15 games in our area.  It is very difficult to find field space for a game as there’s a lack of available fields, and additionally the fall season is the shortest season of the year by far.  A typical season for us runs about nine or ten weeks from the beginning of preseason until the week of playoffs, assuming we qualify.  The league sets their schedule, and then my AD and I try to fill in the holes.  Since there’s only seven teams in our league (actually nine, but two schools drop their girls soccer season due to lack of players in most seasons) that leaves a lot of ground to make up to create a competitive schedule.

When considering dates to put games on we look at trying to avoid three games in a week where possible, or at least avoid having that for more than one week in a row.  We also avoid putting games on Tuesdays, because that’s the one day each week we’re guaranteed a permit for practice space at the public field.

Here is a look at the preliminary schedule we have for the 2015 season.  Dark blue dates are confirmed games, and light blue dates are suggested game dates:

Nonspecific schedule for post

The beginning of preseason and first day of school are still not confirmed at this time, so that may be adjusted in the coming weeks, but the game dates and days off school are definite at this point.

As you can see only two of the confirmed dates are non-league right now, which leaves us with at least five or six holes to fill to round out the season.  This particular year, if it comes close to this, would be the most games we’ve played in my tenure.  We are still looking at who to play, mostly considering teams we’ve played in recent years, but also looking at school size and recent results to determine who else might be a good addition.  It’s important to choose teams that are good enough to push us, but not so big as to beat us out of hand.

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I expect that the schedule will be mostly set before we end school in June, but even before it’s finished I will have to consider our summer workout plan.  At the end of each school year I gather the returning players and discuss getting fit in the summer.  That’s something I’ll go into in a future post.

2015 Varsity Season – The Program

The 2015 season will represent my 5th season as the head coach of the varsity girls’ soccer program at the Manhattan school that I teach at.  I’ve learned the ropes of coaching largely on the fly as I’ve never really been an assistant anywhere.  My previous coaching experience has been that of a counselor at soccer camps of various ages, from 3rd – 12th grade, across various years, and one season of co-coaching a varsity coed team in the DC beltway area.

While I think I’ve done reasonably well so far and picked up what I needed quickly, I know I have a long way to go to reach a level that I’m genuinely happy with.  I’ve decided to spend some time in the coming season reflecting on the diversity of the moving parts that make up a team, as well as my own role as the facilitator of the growth of the program

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First, a little background on the program I run.  The school is a private school in Manhattan.  It’s a preK-12 school with about 650 students total, about 250 of which make up the high school.  They have no sports facilities of their own aside from a very tiny gym in the high school building, but rent gym space from a local church at a nearby site, and use local public fields for outdoor sports.  These public fields require permits for use.

The girls’ varsity soccer team is now eight years old as of the completion of the 2014 season.  The previous four seasons were all lead by the same coach, but the team was not in a league, so each season was comprised of around eight or so games against an ever changing group of schools.  Before the girls got their own team the school had a coed team for a few years, and before that it was strictly a boys team.  The only championship in school history was won by a boys team in the early 90s.  We compete in a small league that is comprised of private schools in the New York City area, most of which are in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

I typically have around 20 girls each season, although my first season was less than 15.  The commitment level was lower then, and things like practice and preseason were more optional than mandatory.

In the last four years we, meaning the girls that have joined the program in that time and I both, have turned the entire tenor of the team around.  Whereas I was lucky to get seven or eight players out for the first week of preseason in the past, this season we had 17 girls, with the other three joining us in the second week.  Practice attendance has risen from about 60% to about 90%, with almost a quarter of the team attending every practice.  Given that I’m working with girls who are under tremendous pressure to also be successful students, and who have numerous commitments in a school that offers them a tremendous number of opportunities, I’m pleased.

The intersection of progressive education and athletic coaching

I had an odd moment this morning while I was running around in the cold moving the car.  I was walking back from having parked too far away from my building.  As I am prone to doing, I started kind of talking to myself.  The topic this morning was thinking about what I’ll say at the end of the year athletics banquet when I have to get up and give the remarks about this year’s season with my girl’s soccer team.  I started thinking (talking about) the challenges I faced, the girls I have on the team, and how we made it through another season by accomplishing things together.  But my area of focus the longer I talked (it was a long walk) was the challenge I faced trying to mesh my ideals as a progressive educator and my ideas of what it means to be a soccer coach.

When it comes to soccer I come from, but am not necessarily married to, a bit of the old school.  When coach speaks, you act.  Practice is priority one, and is not to be missed.  Being a part of the team takes precedence in all the best ways.  There is no question about effort level: always the max.  Teammates are like family.

This list, and more, are what drove me in competitive sports growing up, and to some degree still do.  I believe that competitive sports offer something that few other things can, and in a way are a microcosm of real life cause-and-effect that few other settings can replicate as accurately.  The ball will do what the ball’s going to do.

And this is increasingly true as we struggle to figure out what it means to educate and develop a human being.  I feel like people used to see education as a more black and white issue.  Students were buckets, and teachers filled them.  And discipline and conformity were job one for the student.  As we have learned that those things might not be as true as we thought, especially for the changing world, the world of “school” is trying to adapt and change.  Students now are growing up in a very different world than the one their grandparents and even parents did.  I’m sure this is true of most generations to some degree, but the ideals I mentioned for sports are some that aren’t being gotten in the same ways as they were when I was in school.  Of course, this may all just be one aging man’s perspective, but I don’t see as much overlap as I did when I was in high school and college and at the peak of my school/sports crossover.  The attitudes of students/players aren’t the same as the ones I encountered then.  Both school and sports seem to be more of an afterthought to them.  I’m not saying this is all bad, mind you.  I think my players are more well-rounded as human beings and much more independent thinkers than we were as student athletes.  It’s just different.

But I think that emphasizes the importance of each arena separately now.  School offers something different than the sports team, and vice versa.  There are differences that I, even as someone who has experience in both arenas, am just now learning.  Here are a few that I  have noted:

1) The concept of team – In the classroom we use cooperative learning, but the focus us still on individual outcomes.  Sport is one of the few areas where individual outcome is truly secondary.  Your role in a play lasts split seconds.  Your sum total role in a game will most likely be a tiny fraction of the minutes played.  Outcomes are judged almost solely on team achievements.

2) The physical nature – A physical action is different from a mental exercise.  There are many different ways to achieve the thought process behind many mathematical operations and still achieve the same outcome.  The perfect shot or pass has a narrow range of kinesthetic forgiveness to be correct.  Repetition and observation are vital to getting that right.  It’s not really a “do it whatever way makes sense” kind of thing.

3) The power to poison the well – Players are like apples: one truly bad one can destroy everything.  A player’s attitude and approach are everything, and they all have to be in synch to make a team hum.  In a classroom this is true to some degree, but you can remove a student from the environment and get back to work.  Individual outcomes are key after all.  But even a few weeks into practice, a team dynamic comes to rely on all the talents and personalities in it.  Even bench players have a massively important role in dynamic.  If you remove one player it sends waves of messages and losses that can affect the team, and it takes time to reestablish identity even if the move was for the best.

And so it is with these things in mind that I am trying to bring consistency to my approaches.  It wouldn’t make sense for me to do everything the same, no, especially not after having said what I did about the differences.  But at least a consistency of belief.  If I see them as independent thinkers and individuals in the whole sense, rather than just buckets to be filled, I can’t treat them that way in the classroom and then expect them to just be good little soldiers on the field.  “Do what your told” goes against my beliefs as a teacher, so it would be hypocritical of me to use that approach as their coach.  I’m still figuring it all out, but it was a big focus for me this season.  I’ve still got a lot more improvement to make, and a long way to go both as a teacher and a coach, but here’s a few things I’ve come up with.  These are a mix of similarities and differences that I think are all notable in making me the best, and most consistant, teacher/coach combo I can be:

1) High expectations in the class and on the field – Expectations do not determine pedagogy.  Just expecting a lot out of my students and my players doesn’t determine if I take a traditional approach or a progressive approach… authoritative or authoritarian.  The actual methodology can be many things, but expectation comes first, and must be clear.  I want my players to be giving maximum effort and taking maximum pride and benefit, the same way I want my students to.  I cannot and should not back off on expectation just because I’m afraid of drifting too far into an authoritarian approach.  Conversely, I cannot allow myself to be convinced that having high expectations is a sign of a traditional or authoritarian approach by outside sources.  That’s just good coaching…and good teaching.

2) When you have to achieve together, sometimes you have to fall in line – As I’ve pointed out, in the classroom the emphasis is on individual outcomes.  If a student’s group is sabotaging that individual’s ability to achieve, or if the group is poisonous to achievement over all, sometimes one student can either take that group on their back and do the lion’s share of the work, or they can withdraw and complete something that shows that they’re still achieving.  While the group won’t have been as successful, that one student will still succeed and learn.  An athletic team has to grow together, or not at all.  I can’t make the right run or the right pass, have everyone else do the wrong thing, and still wind up with a positive outcome.  Sometimes there are moments of individual brilliance that benefit the team: a great individual shot or dribble ending in a goal, a beautiful individual defensive play that saves an otherwise dragging squad, a heroic goalkeeping effort that turns a game on it’s head, but a team can’t achieve on the back of those kinds of moments alone.  Sometimes the MVP is what’s crippling the team.  In order to make any kind of growth and achievement as a team sometimes the individual needs or wants have to go by the wayside.  You may not feel like practicing today, but if you aren’t there then the dynamic for your team will be completely different then what you’ll see on game day.  The team can’t practice the right scenarios to grow.  In a classroom it’s individuals working at max capacity that makes a group strong, but you walk away with different individual levels of success.   Teams live and die by the team.  Individuals work at max capacity to make the team strong, but you walk away with the same outcomes.  The team has a right to ask your individuality to take a bit of a back seat where it doesn’t step on you as a person.

3) The experience factor – In both classroom and on pitch we who are in charge of the education of these young people are trying to develop them in the best way possible to be competent in what they do.  But we are coming at it from a perspective of vast experience in these fields.  I’m currently 32.  I’ve been playing soccer since I was 12.  That’s 20 years of experience and knowledge about this game.  When I’m dealing with a 15 year old player, or even an 18 year old player, it can be hard for me to realize that the concept I’m trying to teach them has developed in me over a long period of time.  They’re not going to get it to the same depth I have in that 2 hour training session, and probably not over the 8-10 week season either.  Possibly not even in the 4 seasons I’ll have most of them.  But it’s easy to get over zealous in trying to convey information.  It’s also easy to mistake mimicry for mastery.  i.e. – If they can make the good pass that splits the defense in practice those few times when I yelled at them to see it, they can now read the game and see it on their own, they’re looking for it and understand when to attempt it or not.   The same holds true in the classroom, but I think teachers tend to be way more patient than coaches.  I will give a student multiple classes, multiple weeks, sometimes even months, to demonstrate that they are starting to master a concept, and then it’s much easier (I feel) to keep in mind that they will continue to build on this their whole lives.  We’re trying to recreate for them, in both settings, our vast experience and expertise.  But you cannot create experience without patience.  Experience by it’s definition, by it’s very nature, takes time.  They go hand in hand.  And not surprisingly, it seems to go hand in hand with failure as well, and I mean that in the best possible way.  Failure is an important part of experience, which is the best teacher.  In the classroom this is easy to set up and understand.  On the field less so because we are waiting for things to click.  When they don’t it can be frustrating because it means more repetition, and that’s hard on our attention spans.

Good coaching, I think, balances repetition and focus.  And doing that, while respecting your individuals but getting them to fall in with the team’s objectives, and holding everyone to a high standard, is the essence and beginning, I believe, of being both a progressive educator and an athletic coach.

If you stumble across this and happen to have read this far, please please feel free to comment and give me your thoughts on this subject that I’m immensely interested in and yet still seeking my own thoughts and best practice on.  I am open and interested in all view points on both education and coaching.