A Stronger, More Flexible Approach For Our Soccer Girls

IMG_2913_2I’m struck by something Pediatrician, Dr. Lenna Liu wrote recently at On Being.

“As a yogi and an acrobat we practice the paradox of holding strength and softness at the same time. When we have structure we also have the capacity to expand and flow.”

That’s one of the challenges for youth sports and for those of us who work with developing young athletes; creating structures that develop their capacity to expand and flow – to unfold and discover their potential in healthy ways. Often youth sports feel chaotic; highly organized yet lacking a coherent structure that really serves the kids. Those of us who work with strength and conditioning can be just as much a part of the problem, encouraging kids and parents to add one more thing to the mix.  Camps, tournaments, league play and clinics, activity stacked on activity hoping something good will emerge. And, sometimes it does. It’s less about intention and focus though and more about the roll of the dice. A lot of potential is lost along the way.

Development CirclesThis summer we’re working with our U14-17 girls soccer athletes in a slightly different way creating a more personalized approach to their over all development and summer training. It’s based on our 4 Circle framework that helps us look at the overall development of the player. It’s also built on a structure that provides consistency and flexibility from session to session and week to week. Sessions will be designed weekly by the coaches and players, working together to look at schedules, goals and needs. If you stop by the gym or the field you could see six or eight players whose workouts or activity all look very different. There will also be days when we’re all on the same page or maybe we’re just playing a game of ultimate frisbee because recovery is the order of the day.

It’s a natural evolution and much of it comes from the way we’ve approached our work with our college players for the last few years. We’re fortunate to have a number of players who have been through our middle school or foundational programs and are ready for this next step. We’re excited to get going on it; to provide what, for us,will be a new structure we believe will serve our players better.

If you want to know more please contact us and we will fill you in. Click on the video below if you want to see how Dr. Liu is working to create structures that help address childhood obesity and diabetes. There’s also a short clip of what acro yoga looks like as well if you want to see what holding strength and softness looks like in action.  Oh, one last thing … acro yoga will not be part of our training … not yet.

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/50392495″>Walk the Talk: People and Institutions Can Do It</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user710078″>Mapping Voices</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 


How Taylor Fixed The Squats

Hockey Player Turning on IceWe were walking from the gym to the rink with our hockey players last week after a dry-land session when Taylor Hardy, one of the assistants, told me he had noticed something. We had been working with some of the younger groups – 9 and 10 year olds – on getting in and out of an athletic postion, squatting and jumping. They were pretty good at finding an athletic position; hips, knees and ankles flexed, chest up, back straight. Squatting though was a problem. Lots of bending at the waist, heels off the ground, heads down. The typical stuff.

But, Taylor noticed that when they jumped they came down in a good position and from there it was only a few more inches to the squat. We had also had success teaching the young players by emphasizing the eccentric motion, lowering themselves slowly over three counts rather than trying to get down quickly.  (everything nine and ten year olds do they want to do fast)

Taylor experimented with putting those things together. Have the kids get into their athletic position, squat jump, land in position and then lower themselves into a squat.

It worked. It didn’t get everyone into a perfect position but it got most of them there or much closer. And, it was a more athletic way, a more natural way to get there.

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Two things stood out:

1. The body has a way it wants to work. That’s going to be a little different for each of us but there is a wisdom to it and if we take a moment, pay attention and work with it we can often get a better result than when we take a diagnostic / prescriptive approach to developing physical literacy with young athletes.

2. Creativity is key. Steve Jobs had a quote about creativity that made a lot of sense to me.

” Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it. they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

While Jobs was talking about the computer industry he could have been talking about coaches. We can get pretty linear.  What Taylor did was notice some things and put them together in a way that got us better results. He noticed the dots and saw a different way to connect them. Others have probably discovered the same thing but for us, it was out of the box,  outside the frame we were looking at.

What dots are you seeing that aren’t connected that might be. How can you expand your vision, see more of the dots? How much time do you spend noticing and thinking about what you are seeing?  Food for thought. Have fun playing with the dots. And, way to go Taylor!


The Power And Benefits Of A Goal

IMG_0650Are you helping the athletes you work with set goals? If not you might be missing an important opportunity. A paper from Robert Weinberg at Miami University of Ohio looks at the research surrounding goal setting in sports and some practical ways to do it. It’s worth the read. You can check it out here.

What caught my attention were the benefits he listed.

Players who focus on process or performance goals experience

1. Less anxiety

2. More confidence

3. Greater satisfaction and concentration

4. Improved performance

According to Weinberg the research shows that goals are effective because

1. They direct and focus our attention

2.They help us mobilize effort

3. They enhance our persistence – help us stick to it

4. We develop new learning strategies – we learn to adjust, adapt and make progress

Too often in youth sports we either assume the goals are apparent and that every kid wants the same thing or we just assign them to the players. We’re missing a great opportunity. A goal is really just the aim of an action. It’s easy to generate lots of activity. But without an aim it’s unlikely I’ll hit the target. Helping players set goals empowers them by teaching them how to chose their target, set their sights, take their best shot, and then learn, adjust and stick to it. I think we call those life lessons.

I’ve started taking a deeper dive into the goal setting process with our 15 – 20 year old athletes and here is what I’m finding. What’s good for the players is good for me as a coach.  I experience the same benefits: less anxiety, more confidence, greater satisfaction and focus and I do a better job of helping them meet their goals.  In addition, clear goals are helping me zero in, increase my energy,  be patient with the process and be more creative in adapting to new challenges. That seems good because one of my goals is always to become a better coach.

As the Masters is upon us here is a glimpse into the power of a goal.


Steering A Better Course For Young Athletes

images-4I was having dinner with an old college football friend a few weeks ago. One of his daughters played and is now coaching at the Division 1 level in college. A second daughter is in the middle of the process of making choices about where to continue in her sport after high school. She’s just a sophomore. It’s an intense experience. He shared that when his first one went through it he tried to resist some of the pressure in the process and keep it sane and healthy. In the time between them things have changed, the process is even more intense and he feels more like he’s being pulled along in the wake of some enormous ship doing his best to keep up. The question keeps coming up, who’s got the kid’s best interest at heart?

I came  across an interview with sports performance coach Kristen Dieffenbach in the Frazier Cycling Newsletter last week. It was an insightful and helpful look at the process of athletic development and working with teenage athletes. Dieffenbach who is also a professor at West Virginia University makes  a number of strong points. And, while the interview was about development in the world of junior cycling her conclusions apply to any sport. Here are a few  things that stood out.

1. Our current models of development for junior athletes ( 15 – 20 years old ) too often functions on what she calls, “a faulty adult model of sport that is about dollars/achievement and not about true development, improvement and enjoyment.”

2. As she points out about her own sport of cycling, ” the irony of this is that true talent development actually will foster a system that will also allow for more young riders to do extremely well in racing.” It’s true in any sport whether it’s basketball, soccer or hockey. The guys at Breakaway AAA Hockey in Minnesota are proving this on a regular basis

3. Real development focuses on fostering the total individual psychological, physical and social growth of young men and women in a way that helps them become the best they can be both now and in the future, in whatever they choose to pursue. It’s about the whole person, not just their role as a competitor or athlete.

4.The emphasis in many programs is on immediate outcomes and elite teenage athletes ( which is a bit of an oxymoron as Dieffenbach points out). We look for the next champion or D1 player rather than trying to develop potential.  As she says, ” Trying to find the random talented needle in the junior athlete haystack is a poor and ineffective use of resources ( not to mention a poor indication of adult potential in many cases.)”

Dieffenbach offers some ideas that might help those of us who are coaching or in leadership think differently and change the model.

1. If you are going to coach teenagers ” know that you ARE taking the responsibility to be part of a young person’s holistic development whether you like it or not.”

2. Take the responsibility seriously and learn about the ways a coach can help ( or hurt ) the growth and development of a young person, not only into a good athlete but more into a quality person.

3. As a coach or director skip the self promotion; the “come race, or play or train with us” as the first area of interest. Put the young person first. Ask yourself, ” Are you only interested in those who show “podium” or “elite” potential? Is that your only view of development?”

IMG_3016I found the interview helpful and I encourage you to read it here. It’s short and well worth a few minutes of your time. An athletes’ development is an unfolding process circling around regularly to the fundamentals and basics. A coach’s development isn’t any different. It’s good to reminded of what’s important and challenged to look at how we’re applying it. Just like my friend it’s easy to get pulled along by the current. Dieffenbach’s thoughts might help us get our paddle in the water and steer a different course.


Train To Make Your Contribution

An important part of the training process is setting goals. A goal is simply the aim of an action. It answers the “so that” question.  I am doing this so that …. . I’m getting stronger so that I can hold my postion better. I’m developing my endurance so I can play harder longer.

We set goals to help with our personal development. Clear goals grounded in things that matter to us focus our attention, move us to action, help us stick to it, and challenge us to learn, adapt and grow as we meet challenges.  The process of setting individual goals provides both the ignition and fuel for our development.

In addition to our personal accomplishments there is a larger context for our effort that often gets lost or forgotten – CONTRIBUTION.  It’s another way to answer the “so that” question. I’m working to develop my potential so that … .  Personal accomplishment and mastery are important and necessary for our well being but if they are the only reasons we train or compete we are missing something vital.

Rather than asking only what we will get as a result of our hard work we can also ask what we will be able to give.   Imagine going to tryouts focused on making your biggest contribution to the process while you strive to give your best performance. There is a level of meaning that contribution provides that personal mastery and accomplishment don’t. We need a balance of all three.  So, another question to ask when we’re setting goals is, “What will developing your physical or technical abilities allow you to contribute?”  Every athlete knows that the fastest way to move the ball or the puck is with your teammates.

Soccer great Lionel Messi frames it this way: I prefer to win titles with the team ahead of individual awards or scoring more goals than anyone else. I’m more worried about being a good person than being the best football player in the world. When all this is over, what are you left with? When I retire, I hope I am remembered for being a decent guy.

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Trust The Players And The Process

I found myself frustrated at the end of a training session last week. The session didn’t go the way I had planned it. The players were struggling to learn new movements.The energy level was low and their focus was a little off. I couldn’t fault the effort but the results weren’t what I was expecting.

The group came back at the next session and it was completely different. Technique and mechanics started to come together. Energy was high, and the things we had worked on for a few sessions started to seem like second nature

IMG_0710Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience.- Emerson

The process of planning is essential… andpeople are always bigger than the plans we make for them.  An athlete’s development is a natural process not a mechanical one. It’s about unfolding and growth, not construction. I was reminded again last week that when I find myself frustrated by the pace of things, or because they aren’t working according to my plan it’s good to pause, allow a little space and be patient. We create the environment, provide the stimulus and trust the process and the player. New growth happens when the time is right not because we put it in the schedule.

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Eight Things I Learned This Year

calendarI’ve been working on a lot of professional development over the past year; attending more conferences and clinics,  doing more reading and taking part in a lot of webinars. It’s been great to hear the really big names and leaders in the field speak and in a few cases even sit down for an hour or two over coffee and pick their brain. The old adage holds true: The more I learn the more I realize how little I know.   A few things have emerged as consistent themes.

One – Keep it simple. As Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough.” Working with the younger athletes constantly challenges me to get to the essence of the movement. Having to explain it simply to a 9 year old makes me a better coach with a high school or college player.

Two – It’s about how you move. It’s not about the exercise or drill or program. Can you start and stop, change speeds and directions? Can you push and pull, squat and lunge?  Can you jump and land? How long can you do those things efficiently and effectively in the environment you compete in.

Three – There is a hierachy to skills. Physical skills precede sports skills – always. Just like a pianist is limited if they can’t play their scales so is an athlete who can’t move well. The problem with your daughters jump shot may be that she can’t jump not that she can’t shoot. That doesn’t mean the young athlete shouldn’t shoot the ball anymore than the young musician shouldn’t play songs until they’ve mastered every scale. But, we can only build sports skills as far as physical skills allow.

Four – Work with the whole person.  I’m not coaching speed, or strength or agility or fitness. I am coaching a person who is trying to develop those characteristics and qualities to play or peform or stay healthy doing something they love to do. That person comes as a whole, not in pieces or parts. Mental, physical, spiritual, social, and I need to be aware of and pay attention to the whole. As one of the experts said, “If  you just broke up with your girlfriend it may not be the best day to throw at Nationals.”

Five – Everyone is a unique individual with their own optimal way of moving. Vern Gambetta calls it a movement fingerprint. Shawn Myszka calls it movement signature. Dan John says the same thing in another way when he says ” We were not all born to squat deep.”  When you realize we’re working with unique individuals who are each at a unique point in their development and unique moment in life – you see that one size can’t fit all.

Six – Make it athlete centered. The athlete is in charge of their own development even that 9 year old hockey player. They make the choices, do the work and get the results. As a coach I am a servant not a manager. I need to manage my choices actions and plans – and create an environment that’s both challenging and safe. An empowered athlete at any level makes intrinsic adjustments that expand their capacity to do more.

Seven – Have a framework. While they didn’t say it, I observed it. They all had a framework that they had developed over time that allowed them to focus their work with an athlete. They were not moving from trend to trend or fad to fad. And, both their humility and their curiosity keep those frameworks flexible and open. They are alive and evolving not fixed and set.

Eight – Be generous, humble and curious.  “I wonder what I’m not seeing that I don’t even know I’m not seeing”, one of them said to me. This coach has a Ph. D.  over  forty years of experience, consults internationally and is a former national coach of the year. His latest project was trying to shadow a physical therapist or a few months to see what he could learn about movement from that perspective.It’s comforting and inspiring to know that we’re all still learning and we’re all in it together.

I’m grateful for all the learning this past year and eager to discover more. I’m also eager to  build on it in our coaching as we go forward. Ain’t it great to be a work in progress.