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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Hope Solo, leadership and being a true team player

It’s usually unfair to try to assess, from a distance, whether an athlete is being a good teammate or a good “leader” on their particular squad.  That may be especially true in what I am posting about today.

Well-known United States soccer goalie Hope Solo recently voiced her displeasure with comments from Brandi Chastain, herself a former U.S. national team player.  As part of her job as a TV analyst, Chastain had commented on the play of one of Solo’s teammates at the Olympics- now ongoing in England.  A minor furor ensued after Solo went after Chastain via Twitter.  For her part, Chastain stressed that she was simply doing her job—to speak honestly about what she was seeing on the field.  Solo did not back down from her comments, even though her coaches reportedly spoke with her about the situation.

In the case of Solo and the notion of being a team player and leader, we are talking about one of the best women soccer players—certainly one of the finest goalies—ever to compete for the United States  Yet Solo seems, at times, to create controversy—at the very least distractions—that may be OK for her, but may well have a potential negative impact on her teammates.

The question then becomes, what is more important?  The right of the individual athlete to express themself openly and freely (and honestly), or for athletes on a team to say and do nothing off the field of play that could in some manner negatively affect their team?

An Associated Press reporter, much closer to this situation than most of us are, posted on the subject with an excellent piece available here on ESPN.  I recommend that you have a have look at the article.

It’s a difficult balance.  Athletes are often criticized for providing robot-like answers and pre-programmed messages when interviewed.  These sanitized discussions shed little light on what an athlete is really feeling.  Yet, when an athlete does step out and say things that aren’t in the athlete “handbook” of things that are safe to say, their comments are scrutinized- sometimes unfairly so.

With regard to Solo's most recent outburst, the debate will likely continue as to whether she placed herself above the team in some fashion, by taking to Twitter—albeit while “defending” a teammate who she felt had been unfairly criticized by a TV commentator.

My view is simply this:  teammates can support one another in a lot of different ways.  A private chat, for example, or a subtle pat on the back on the field of play when things are not going well for a teammate can demonstrate genuine support.  And yes, sometimes a strong, supportive public statement can be part of being a leader and being a really good teammate.

In this instance, my sense is that Solo could indeed have handled things a bit differently and still been true to herself and been a supportive teammate.  But she could have done so without bringing attention upon herself and creating consternation within the team—if that was indeed the outcome of her “tweeting”.

Perhaps if the American team wins the Olympic gold, all will be forgotten.  If not, there will likely be even more scrutiny than there otherwise might have been, with people looking for the reasons why the team did not rise to the occasion- together.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Some media folks are missing the real value behind Long-Term Player Development

Reading a column in the Toronto Sun recently was eye-opening. It demonstrated that there remains a lot of resistance to the Long-Term Player Development (LTPD) initiative in the soccer world in Canada. 

It is understandable that if those commenting on LTPD only do a cursory overview of what this initiative is really about, they might come to the conclusion that “competition is being destroyed” and the sport is just trying to make kids “feel good” as we forget about keeping scores and winning or losing.

Of course, youngsters eventually need to learn about competition and winning and losing.  But is this necessary at the age of 9?  Or is it indeed more important to ensure that kids learn the game,  really develop their skills and are allowed to play in a relatively stress-free environment so they can actually enjoy the soccer experience and, yes, have fun while learning?

The truth is the new LTPD model is not about killing competition—not at all.  In fact, there will be plenty of competition, especially as the players go through the system.  The Ontario Soccer Association (OSA) will be launching (in 2014) a new league for elite players called the Ontario Player Development League.  But rather than a focus on promotion and relegation—which enables too many coaches to forget about developing their players and instead look to “poach” the biggest, oldest, fastest players from other Clubs that they can lure to their teams—coaches now will have to have high-level certification. They will need to understand how to run effective practices (not just “scrimmage” constantly) and how to teach, train and develop all of their players.  Instead of worrying about promotion and relegation, local Clubs can instead work toward ensuring they meet high standards in coaching and player development—and not just building up their “trophy case”.

Importantly, LTPD will work for those youngsters who simply want to have fun and stay in the game because they love it and also for those who aspire to a future in the game. Sometimes the same commentators who complain that Canada is “not good enough” at the international level also criticize LTPD, which, ironically, is in fact whole-heartedly supported by a host of top players and soccer coaches from some of the best soccer-playing countries in the world.  These supporters are not simply “academics” or, as the critics would like to suggest, “do-gooders”.  These are the sharpest minds in the sport, individuals who know the game  and who have simply come to realize that the way we have done things in Canada for too long is, simply, backwards.

Most of the top soccer countries in the world have been doing this for so long they don’t even have a name for it.  It's just the way they develop their players.  Check out the current literature in the United States.  The Americans, who have jumped far ahead of Canada on the soccer field in terms of “winning” when it actually matters, are big believers in LTPD.

Throw in the fact that some of Canada’s current and recent former stars, like Jason DeVos, Dwayne De Rosario, Kara Lang and Diana Matheson have all said publicly they wish this approach had been in place when they were young, and maybe we should listen to those who have been there and are still in the game now—and can see first hand what Canada lacks.

And what we lack is time on the ball.  Touches.   The ability to play calmly under pressure. 

You don’t learn to play under pressure when parents and coaches scream at 10 and 12 year olds for “making mistakes” in a game, when the only barometer for success is not if your players and your team played smart, technical soccer, but whether you managed to win a game.

You learn to handle pressure when you are allowed to to master the ball and can get comfortable with the ball at your feet when pressured on the field.  That can’t happen when parents and coaches are yelling at young players to “get rid of the ball” and “just kick it” down the field with no purpose.

Parents and coaches yell that kind of thing constantly because they don’t want to see their team lose.  Forget whether the youngster is learning anything.  Just get rid of the ball and we may not give up a goal and God forbid, lose this important game—at the age of 11, or whatever.

Kids have to learn to make “mistakes”—and be allowed to make mistakes.  They need to be allowed to be creative and take what they learned and tried out in practice on to the soccer pitch.

If we train our coaches better (and that’s a big element of LTPD), we will make soccer (and hopefully all youth sports who are also following this path) more enjoyable for all the kids out there, while also creating an even better “elite” player who can compete well at the international level.

And just maybe we will finally begin to give even more aspiring youngsters a shot at a future in the sport, whether that is playing at the collegiate level in Canada or the United States, playing professionally in North America or elsewhere, or playing for their country. For too long in Ontario, a “select few” were chosen at an early age for extra training and provincial or national teams, and many “late-bloomers” were ignored and missed.

Is winning and losing important?  Of course—but all in good time.

LTPD will provide lots of competition.  But in the short term, it may also help parents (and many coaches) begin to understand that winning games at the age of 8, 9 and 10 doesn’t really matter a whole lot.

So let's save the winning and losing and the valuable life lessons that "losing" hopefully teaches us (though you’d never know from watching some parents on the sidelines) for when wins and losses will really matter.  For  now, the really important "outcome" is making sure our kids enjoy- and get better.