Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 10/12/2009

Coach Your Way to Fitness

I started coaching my daughter’s soccer team last year, as I wrote about here. I’d never been a head coach before, in any sport, and had no confidence in my ability to do it. But I plunged in, and learned enough about the game on the fly to teach bits and pieces of it to the kids. We had a really good fall season, followed by an okay spring season.

For reasons that I think made sense at some point, I decided to move the team up to a travel league this year. We’re getting crushed on the field, but the kids are working hard and enjoying themselves, giving me hope that we’ll be a little more competitive in the second half of the season.

This past weekend, we played three games, all on Sunday. I entered our team in this particular tournament because it promised a “C” division for our age group. Before signing up I made it clear to the tournament director that we have a new team, with a mix of U11 and U12 players — fifth and sixth graders. I wanted to make sure we weren’t signing up to get blown out, like we do in our league games. She assured me that the C division was exactly what we were looking for.

The three games weren’t close, but if nothing else I learned how other teams assess their own abilities. We call ourselves a B team because our organization has A teams for U11 and U12. They’ve been playing together for years, and rarely lose against other A-division teams. Our group is a mix of kids who either got cut from those teams, chose not to play on them because they weren’t able to make the commitment, or had little interest in travel soccer until I formed this team.

What I learned is that other organizations will field one team per age group, but call it a B-division team if they don’t think they’ll be competitive in the A division. The three teams we played were competitive against each other — all their games were decided by a single goal — but were way above our level.

The first game was an unmitigated disaster. Our opponent was a premier team — that’s a level above A-division travel — that had been placed in the C division because they’re a U11 team. You can tell you’re up against a premier team when you see the row of black chairs lined up on their side of the field. That’s where the coaches and subs sit during the game. Travel coaches stand while our subs sit on the ground.

So we were beaten by the furniture before the game even started.

Fortunately, we had a long break in between games, and after eating lunch, I got the girls onto an unused field for an impromptu practice, coming up with a drill on the spot. I had my starting defense — four fullbacks and the goalie — go up against one player: me.

I’m not a real player, of course, but I am faster than a typical preteen girl. (Maybe I should put that on my resume.) One of the big problems we have as a team is that our girls practice against each other — which is to say, against other girls at our own level of skill and experience. Then we go out and play against kids who’re stronger, faster, and more skilled, and have been playing together longer.

So what I did in this practice was impersonate a stronger team’s offense. I dribbled the way they would dribble, and I passed to open spaces where they would typically have a player waiting. There was nobody to pass to, so I’d have to sprint to the open space to receive my own pass. When I was out of breath I’d stop play to explain to my defenders how to position themselves to stop the kind of passes I was making.

I think it worked. Our girls were much more competitive in the second game than they’d been in the first. We still lost 4-0, but it was against a team that lost by a single goal to our other opponents. And I don’t think I’m being delusional when I say the game was much closer than the score indicated.

We still got blown out in the third game, but I expected it. We had no subs by that point, and several of the girls played every minute of the three games. Their legs were dead, and I think they were emotionally spent after their season-best effort in the second game.

But it wasn’t a lost weekend, for them or for me. For the first time all season, they feel like they can compete against travel teams, even if they aren’t yet good enough to win. And as their coach, I gave myself the best workout I’ve had in weeks.

I’m already paying the price, with sore legs to go with a face that’s wind-burned and pocked with mosquito bites. (The bites form almost a straight line across my forehead; these were disciplined, well-coached, A-division bugs.) But I’m not complaining. Few things are more satisfying to a fitness geek than sneaking in a workout when you didn’t expect one.

  • Hey Lou,

    When I was younger and competing in martial arts my instructor once paired me (14 year old green belt) up against his younger son (17 year old nationally competitive black belt). He then left us at the back of the club to go at it for about 30 minutes.

    Needless to say I got creamed. I had bumps and bruises for a week, but I still remember to this day all the lessons I learned from that single match.

    I concretely believe that competing against those that you cannot possibly beat can sometimes be a truly valuable lession provided you keep your head in the right place. I’m glad to see your girls were able to compete even though they didn’t necessarily win.

    In my book, the fact that they played with such intensity (an no subs) makes them all winners. Good post! I wish you (and them) all the best for the rest of the season!

  • Thanks Mark!

    In my limited experience, it seems that teams can learn from getting crushed if they understand why they got crushed.

    Going into the tournament, we had two great practices with Staci Wilson, who was an all-American at North Carolina and played on the U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal in ’96.

    (I know Staci through the International Society of Sports Nutrition. She just moved to PA as an assistant coach for the Philadelphia Freedom, the new women’s pro soccer team.)

    So I think they were starting to get what they need to do to play better soccer, and I think they knew they’d played below their potential in the first game, which was a mess for all kinds of reasons that aren’t worth describing here.

    But that second game — that was a product of pure determination. For a couple of the girls, including my daughter Meredith, it was the first time all year that they really stretched themselves. They left nothing in reserve.

    I guess we’ll see if they take away the right lessons from the experience.

  • Qaiser Waraich

    Just saw this Lou and it parallels my experience coaching my son’s tackle football team. This is my first year coaching tackle football and I learn something new everyday. Yesterday, I impersonated a tailback to get the d-line used to a bigger faster back coming through (they don’t get to hit me though – I have no pads). I’ll often move like a d-back to teach our running backs during cutting drills.

    I’m finding that, at this age (10,11, 12), the difference between a good team and a great one is often proportion of older kids (one more year of experience and growth under their belts is huge) and having one or more ‘stud’ players. But mostly, it’s execution – everyone does their job and the chances of winning go up dramatically. Getting 11 players on the same page is difficult though.

    Ultimately, at this age, they are still growing and so it should still be fun and experience. A lot of coaches just don’t get that.

  • Interesting, Qaiser.

    I agree about the age/stud ratio. Even a team with otherwise average talent can win a lot of games with a couple of older and more skilled players.

    I think the biggest issue for us is being a new team, with 8 of 12 girls playing travel for the first time in U12. The other teams all went through this in U9 or U10.

    So even if the soccer gods gave me a couple of stud players, we probably wouldn’t win any games this fall. We’d score more and come closer, but I don’t think we’ll win until we get better execution as a team.

    That said, if the soccer gods have any spare superstars sitting around …

  • Boy, I’ve been there, too — coaching young soccer kids where all the other teams have coaches who know what they are doing and bigger girls with more experience. As futile as it can be, I did take great pride when one of our kids would have a breakout game or simply do the right thing, especially when they realized it and you caught them smiling.

    (But I never had to go up against any teams with their own furniture!)