This past year I spent more time watching soccer games than I have in the past. Don’t get me wrong I also coached a lot more and continued reading about the game too, but I dedicated more time to being a student of the game than before. Whether it was watching NPL teams in Northern California or re-watching games from World Cup ’98 or going to the NCAA Division III Men’s National Semifinals and Championship in Virginia, I used more of my free time to invest in myself as a coach. Furthermore, I have now take the time to put my thoughts on paper. This allows me to hash out my ideas and thoughts in an effort to articulate them clearly and effectively.
My current goal is to become a collegiate head coach and with this in mind the NCAA Division III National Semifinals and Finals proved to be the most beneficial. Attending these three games did not necessarily open my eyes to any new tactics or ideas; however, it did reaffirm thoughts and theories I had. In this multi-part post, I will detail my thoughts, opinions, and theories on the characteristics and qualities of champions.
I encourage anyone reading to provide their thoughts or perspectives on these characteristics as well. As a coach and an academic, I believe dialogue is imperative for growth and education.
Identity and Culture
Having a team or program identity is the single most important pillar of being a champion. A team must have clear and defined goals, expectations, as well as an established culture for it to achieve any level of success. This is evident at every level of the game and as the level increases it only becomes more imperative.
Each season is full of trials and tribulations as well as ebbs and flows. Injuries happen. Players are suspended for matches. Players get sick. Family emergencies arise. In each year I have been a coach at least one of these happened. While they cannot always be predicted they can definitely be expected. For a team to overcome these obstacles, individuals and the team must know who they are.
I coached at a school in Southern California and during my time there the program had a very clear identity, of not only its style of play, but team culture in a written document. This document did not detail tactical specifics so much as it elaborated on the expectations and responsibilities of individuals along with that of the team.
This identity must be evident on the pitch and more importantly outside of the pitch especially relating to behavior.
Are players expected to get spend time training outside of practice? How does seniority play a role in the team? Are player’s concerned with their eating habits? What is the commitment level to the team and to academics? Is one more or less important than the other?
With teams only practicing for two hours per day, six days a week, what are they doing with the other 93% of their time? It is important for all players and coaches to be on the same page regarding ‘down time.’
If establishing a program identity is step 1, then defining roles is most definitely step 2 in being a champion. Roles are important on any team. Each individual must know their responsibilities if the team is to find success.
Without any defined roles, teammates begin to start interfering with each other, thus causing overreach or under performance by others and offsetting the equilibrium. Balance in the roles is vital. There needs to be a goal scorer, a playmaker, and a ball winner, to name a few positions. Egil Olsen, or more commonly known as Drillo, the former Norwegian National Team coach behind one of the most-forgotten World Cup upsets of all time (along with some outstanding officiating from American Esfandiar Baharmast) and responsible for Norway peaking at 2nd in the FIFA rankings in the late 1990s believes each team should be composed of players who are excellent at one skill (e.g. excellent headers, excellent dribblers, excellent passers) rather than average at all skills.
But with only eleven positions on the pitch, what are the roles of the other fifteen players’ role? This is much more difficult for the manager to discern. In this case players must be responsible for supporting teammates, being prepared during training, and being willing to help the team in any way possible.
If no one knows who needs to bring water, then the whole team goes thirsty.
As a result of the defined roles, everyone must appreciate the roles of others. Acknowledging the effort, energy, and commitment of players in different roles creates a positive environment and demonstrates a value for all team members.
Lastly, with identity, culture, and roles defined, the last step is to have everyone buy in. Players unwilling to buy in and commit to the team are working against the team.
This past year as I watched the NCAA Division I Women’s Soccer Semifinals and Julie Foudy commented during the USC-Georgetown game that the USC Head Coach Keidane McAlpine didn’t feel his soon-to-be National Champion side to be the most talented or best he’s ever had, rather that everyone had bought into what the coaching staff aimed to do. As a result USC are the 2017 NCAA Women’s Division I National Champions.
What is buying in though? What does it look like? The first word that comes to mind is commitment; however, one could argue commitment is showing up every day and being present. After all 80 percent of life is showing up right? The difference between showing up and buying in is the enthusiasm, embracement, and a positive emotion for the role. There is a difference between enthusiasm and embrace than complacency. Roles for players change constantly depending on the situation at hand. Players must be willing to accept new roles in an effort to succeed; however, if players become complacent with their roles competition suffers, motivation becomes non-existent, and the team flounders.
As one of my colleagues pointed out a few years ago, tactically, whether it is the correct or incorrect decision, if everyone commits to the decision, the team will find success. An example of this would be the direction to force the opponent while defending. When part of the team chooses to force them inward and another part chooses to force them outward,
Finally, buying in involves team building and understanding of motivational psychology. A coach must be able to foster an environment where this is the norm. The Zen Master, Phil Jackson, perfected this. Jackson focused on understanding his players in an effort to reach them in a way demonstrating he cared but also ways that would benefit the team. Soccer is a team sport with 11 players on the pitch. With the size of the pitch and the number of players involved players need to be able to buy into within a structure that maximizes the team’s strengths.
Any team in which all players have bought into the culture, identity, and their roles will be very difficult to beat.