In August of 2015, I was offered the Head Coach position for the U14 SMC Star USSDA team. I was excited to coach in the Development Academy but was told it would be VERY difficult as our team lost several key players from the previous season, all of whom would have started this year. These players would be replaced by non-starters and many U13 players. During our pre-season team meeting, we addressed something very important: How will we define success? Answer: Individual and collective development. We will not focus on the scoreline because there is a good chance we may not win a game. However, with the opportunity to train hard 4x per week, plus one very challenging weekend game, we will experience significant growth.
After a couple weeks of training, we had our first scrimmage against Ballistic United. We lost 20-1. It was as if my team was 2 divisions below the level of play. One thing was clear: we needed to work extremely hard and fast. Two weeks later, we played them again, losing 11-1. Even though the score was tough to swallow, the boys could see the difference and left with a positive feeling of improvement. We committed to focusing on one thing: believe in the process of improving.
Throughout the fall season we stayed focused on our developmental plan, improving each week and testing our progress on the weekend. Throughout each cycle we focused on specific topics. For example, building out of the back, possession in midfield, etc. Once we felt we understood and implemented the topics during the games, we would move to the next topic. Sometimes it was necessary to stay in a specific phase for 2-3 weeks.
By the end of the fall season, we tied one game and lost the rest. However, everyone remained in positive spirits as we could see and feel our growth. Every player left excited to return to the spring, knowing we would turn a corner.
Our first few spring games were very competitive. The boys started seeing the light. Most importantly, we started to actually dominate the game through possession of the ball, increasing our confidence. We knew we were close and might actually start winning games, while playing our style of play. I say our style of play because we could have easily sat in our own half and countered for short-term results. If you choose to do that at 13-14 years old, you will not develop the right way. So we always pressed high, and played no matter what.
Towards the end of the season we were playing a competitive game and went down 1-0 after 15 minutes of dominating the play. We stayed positive, picked each other up, and scored 3 beautiful goals to win 3-1. I was very happy for the boys but most impressed by the way in which we played. Possession based, attacking-minded soccer no matter what.
In our final game, we played Ballistic, the same team we lost to 20-1 and 11-1 during our first two games. We lost 4-0. They were definitely the better team but we had plenty of clear chances to score and dominated parts of the game through possession. The boys were shocked. The opposing coaching staff complimented our progress, noting we aren't even the same team. They said one key point, "The main reason your team has improved so much is because you commit to playing. Most teams sit back and defend to stay competitive, so they only get better at defending, not actually playing with the ball."
I've always preached development over results, especially with youth players. This particular season was unique in that we clearly defined development as our measuring tool. When we would lose 5-0 on the weekend, the boys would come to training excited to learn and grow. I came fully prepared with clear objectives for the sessions inside a weekly plan. Due to this mentality, we experienced growth we didn't think was possible. I was most impressed by the players' training mentality. Even though we had a terrible record, the boys trained harder than any team I've ever coached. This is why we improved so much. These experiences will hopefully last a life time for these players.
I can't wait to see what this group of players will accomplish over the next two years...