As an avid Soccer fan — be it as spectator, player or coach — skill is something that is always wonderful to see from players, especially in the game environment. With the UEFA Champions League resuming play it’s a great opportunity to see many of the most accomplished players in the world showing off their skills at the highest level. Players like Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Lionel Messi (Barcelona), and Robin Van Persie (Man Utd) are perhaps the more recognizable names we identify with when it comes to skill but these players – along with many others – can be used as a visual aid for our youth players to strive towards in terms of skill. At the highest level we see not only skill, but more importantly players performing at pace, whilst under pressure and showing great balance throughout. As an active coach for players from the youth through collegiate level it is often the case that our players have ‘skill’ and show this in training at a comfortable pace, but when it comes to the game environment it is not always evident. The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States booklet states “The most fundamental skill in soccer is individual mastery of the ball and the creativity that comes with it”. To that end the focus of developing youth players should be to ensure our athletes have a sound technical base to allow them to apply the specific sports skills in the game environment. To give our players the best chance to succeed and perform in games, we as coaches should ensure every training session is well structured and follows suitable progressions whilst challenging our players to perform outside their ‘comfort zone’. There are a variety of coaching styles and methods, and it is important that a coach creates an environment that works for him/her and the players on the team. David Beckham was perhaps the most recognizable name in the professional game in the US in recent years and was famously quoted saying “I still look at myself and want to improve”. Hopefully we can encourage our youth players to have the same attitude and then enjoy the moments of skill that follow and celebrate them with our players.
As we are lucky to be witnesses to this incredible era of tennis we need to realize that it is more than just “great players” competing. Through modern sports science, psychology, training techniques, nutritional practices, and equipment, today’s players are reaching new heights. Even more important is the dedication, hard work, and commitment that they put into their profession.
In the 1980s John McEnroe stated that he did not enjoy practicing; in fact, he used his doubles play as his “practice.” He was one of the greatest doubles players in the world but in today’s game we see very few of the top men playing doubles. Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl began the era of physical conditioning which coincided with other sports improved training methods. Sport specific training has been continually evolving and allowing athletes in all sports to compete at incredible levels. In the Australian Open we saw some amazing matches that included Djokovic’s almost 5 hour win over Wawrinka and Ferrer’s marathon match over Amalgado (not to mention last year’s historic matches which included Djokovic over Nadal in the finals in an almost 6 hour match after a grueling battle in the semis against Andy Murray).
During his press conference, Djokovic said,
“I mean the people who don’t know tennis, who have never been in those kinds of situations would not truly understand what the player has to go through, not just when you prepare for a Grand Slam but also during a Grand Slam,” Djokovic said. “After five hours of match, you need to really put a lot of time into recovery, different kinds of recoveries.
“As I said, I understand that many people have many different views and opinions, and I respect that. But I’m doing everything that is legal, that is correct, that is natural that I can, possibly can, in my power. And it’s working well.” For Djokovic Recovery is the Routine, NY Times.
In addition to the physical toll that a match like this takes, one cannot underestimate the focus that is required to endure a 5 hour competition at that level. Tennis, in particular, is a unique sport in that there are no teammates to lean on or coaches to give you a mid-match game plan. Even the other individual sports do not compare – golfers have a caddy with them and boxers have their trainers in their corner.
Preparation requires more than just “hard work.” It entails working hard correctly and managing one’s time. An athlete needs to be committed but should also have the right people advising, training, and coaching them to optimize their hard work and make it efficient as simply “putting in more time” doesn’t cut it anymore.
It could be argued that the true student-athletes have an even more daunting task in balancing their commitment to their sport with their academic responsibilities. And younger children also need to find the right balance for their lives (and their families’ lives). However, the lesson of preparation that can be instilled in athletes of all ages is critical. It is something that can be transferred to every aspect of life. The bigger picture here is that we can teach work ethic to our young athletes in addition to helping guide them to a healthy lifestyle through sports. The “event” – match, game, tournament, test, report, project, etc. – requires time before, during, and after to achieve success.
With the New Year and new seasons upon us and many of us making resolutions or goals for the year, it brings me to the question of expectations in sports. In professional sports, the expectations are very clear – WIN. There is no higher level to achieve and therefore winning the championship whether it is the Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, World Series, Wimbledon, etc. is the goal. While some will consider anything less than the championship a failure, the reality is that only 1 player will win the Australian Open that starts today and 127 players lose; similarly, only one of the teams in the NFL will be the Super Bowl Champion on February 3rd while all of the other 31 teams are left to try again next year.
When it comes to children in sports, I think one of the most important things we as coaches and parents can do is create the “right” expectations for our children/players. However, this will need to be constantly adjusted and is probably different for different children on the same team. I also believe that children at most levels should focus on their own expectations and then it is not until they reach a certain level of competency that the “team’s” goals become more important.
Schools in our society have been differentiating instruction successfully and we must strive for this in all forms of youth development. At the early stages of a player’s introduction to a sport, it should be fun and the kids should learn the right way to play. As soon as competition is introduced, it is critical that the games be relatively close with all participants being on par with each other. A team or player that is put in the position of losing too often or being “blown out” in a game is going to get discouraged and not enjoy the sport and experience. Similarly, if some form of success is not achieved, then the child will again be discouraged and potentially lose self esteem. We as the parents and coaches must look objectively at our children to find the right “fit” for our child. While it is very difficult to be completely objective as a parent in evaluating our own child (often being too critical or overly optimistic), we must listen to the coaches who can provide the appropriate objective feedback. And the coaches must be honest with the parents, even if it means moving the child to a different program or a different coach.
It cannot be said enough but every child is unique and children look at the world differently than adults.
What are your goals for this upcoming year for each of your children/players? Are the parents’ and coaches goals aligned? Are the goals realistic while being challenging enough?