OK, so those here know I am a lawyer. And, as a lawyer, I am actually a trial lawyer – the ones that go to court, object, cross examine, etc. I love a good question. One thing I loved about the National Youth License is the concept of “guided discovery.” (@nealellis @samsnow!). As a lawyer, I love well-crafted questions so this was right up my alley.
So, after coaching youth soccer for more than a decade, and studying the game, other coaches, learning with the players, etc., I have discovered what I think is the “best question.” I have to say, a lot of the lessons I have learned, sharpened, and developed started with a group of girls in a pasture by my house. That was my first 5 years. One of those girls is an early-enrollee at Texas Tech on a soccer scholarship. I still think about Macy when I coach and, along with the other girls, her affect on the game and on me. One of the things that defined her as a player, and it is now my test of an elite player, is she made the players around her better. I have spent 12 years trying to create more Macys. How do soccer players make the players around them better?
Definition of an Elite Player
It is their spirt, their effort, technique, creativity, ideas, concepts of the game, willingness to fight through mistakes – theirs and their teammates – their spirit of competition. It is their HEART. It is their WORDS – what words do they use? What words do they avoid (that may be as important)? I am very picky about this. I do not want to hear negative words on the field toward anyone – not the referee, other team, and especially not their teammates. It means that when their teammates make mistakes, they lift them up with their words. It is their DEEDS. It means they lift their teammates up – literally – if they are down. It means that when the team is down, they stay up. It means they never quit. It requires sacrifice. It requires a willingness to deal with failure, not accept it. It requires constant positive body language. These things infect those around them – for good.
I appreciated our Athletic Director in Vidor, Jeff Matthews, who works hard to develop this in atheletes. He would come and support the girls soccer and verbally comment on the value of leadership and what it means for the game. One of our captains last season spent a lot of time rallying the troops – she used words and positive body language. While she might not have been fastest, most technical player, she used positivity to be leader on the field. And, her AD and head football coach called her out on it. As coach, don’t forget to praise these things. Don’t spend time picking low hanging fruit. Nourish instead with specific positive feedback.
Confident, Not Arrogant
It requires a ton of confidence with equal measures of humility. It does not need arrogance. Confidence and arrogance are strangers to each other – people get confused on this. Confidence requires humility to accept responsibility for yourself and, even better, for those around you. An arrogant player blames others. An arrogant player makes excuses. An arrogant player is hard to teach. A confident yet humble player strives in adversity; works through failure; is teachable. A confident player spreads confidence to those around her. An arrogant player brings players around him down. An arrogant coach does the same. I am passionate about this – just writing this paragraph tells me I need a whole post on this.
The Macy Test
My first 5 years doing this shaped my perception of elite players. Macy Chilton helped me form those ideas. They apply to all sports. They apply to coaches. Macy never felt that she was too good. I watched her play high school – on the field surrounded by players that made mistakes she didn’t. What did she do? What did she say? Nothing negative. No negative body language. No assessment of blame. No excuses. No throwing hands up. No arguing with teammates. That is the essence of greatness – they inspire those around them through positivity – not by fear, blame, and bullying. Not by making players who are not at their level feel that way; rather, players gained confidence as hers spread to them. She elevated the play of those around her. I apply the “Macy Test” to all my players. That is what I am looking for.
When her teammates made mistakes, she worked to cover them. When she lost the ball, she fought to win it back immediately. She risked much – dribbles, passes, shots – she failed plenty – she kept going. She got better. Players around her improved. Players around her gained confidence. She smiled. She never dwelt on defeat or mistakes. She moved on. Yes, she is agile. Yes, she is fast. Yes, she is quick. But none of those things define her.
She learned the game in a pasture with lines made with gasoline. She moved from the pasture in Vidor to a country team from Jasper. From Vidor to Jasper – that is her pedigree. She moved to Houston at a top club only after those years. She had access to great instruction – some better, some worse. I can tell you this – she never made me feel as a coach that I was inadequate, that she was too good for our team. Unfortunely, I have seen that attitude from less talented players and their parents in years since. It is sad. The same parents who so badly want their kid to be elite get in the way or give their kid the wrong roadmap. I never heard Jeff or Rebecca complain about any of their coaches. I never heard Macy. (And I have seen her plenty since she moved from our little squad – they live across a pasture from us).
My lens may not be perfect. And certainly there are elite players that are a different flavor. But, for me, this is the standard. It is from this that I rate players. Sometimes, my evaluation differed markedly from another coach. And I am not saying it won’t change in the next 10 years, but the truth is, I don’t think it has changed in the last 10. I just now can express it in words better. For the last 5 years, I have run 4-6 90 minute sessions/week. I have coached hundreds of games. I have expanded my coaching vocabulary with experience and education (and a lot of failures along the way). But I still look back to the pasture.
For Coaches, It Means Not Coaching the Mistake
It applies to coaches too. There are lots of pieces of “low hanging fruit” during a session, during a game. You really want to pick it. You know those moments – a failed dribble; a poor touch; a mis-timed tackle; a poor passing decision. I know we want to coach the mistake – to get on to them. Why? I used to do that. Somehow I was offended that they screwed up – like it reflected poorly on me. When I had those moments, I realized I was making it about me. –Take a step back, Clint. It is not about you.– I am just much better at it now. Rather than pick the fruit, let it hang. Nourish the roots instead – watch what they do after that moment. Praise the willingness to fight back. To rise up.
We are Americans. That is what defines us. It is why Rocky is iconic to us. Rocky gets knocked down a lot – that is not what defines him. It is what he does next. He gets up. My teams (all of them) share this motto: “Get Off the Mat.” I am looking for the moment after, not the moment of. I am not interested in picking the low-hanging fruit – the players know what just happened. In other words, as a coach, I judge myself by the same standard – “what am I doing to help my players play great?” If you are honest with yourself, you know that picking the low-hanging fruit is not the answer.
The Best Question
But, 12 years in, I think I have found the perfect question. I am introducing it to my 05s. I use it with 03s. It applies to high school kids. It applies to me as a lawyer with my trial team. The low-hanging fruit is to get on to someone for screwing up…does that help? I have learned that the most important thing is not the mistake – we all make them – it is what you do after that that defines you. I tell the boys – “if you are willing to deal with adversity, not accept it, and fight through mistakes, you will be great individually and as a team.” I am proud to say that I don’t coach the mistake any more – I praise the effort after. I look for it. I celebrate it. I specifically mention it to the boys. (In trial, that is what we call “squeezing the orange.”).
And, before my players step on the field, and when they step off, they have to ask themselves this question: “What have I done to make the players around me better?” “What have I said? What have I done?” That is it. At halftime, we review it. Then ask I use: “Can you do better?” Answer, EVERY TIME, “yes coach.” And then, the best follow-up: “How?” There is your half-time talk. There is your post-game talk. And your players leave feeling like a million bucks. `
I love doing this. My wife thinks I spend too much time on it. I love it as much trying cases (just finished a trial last week). I give coaching the same amount of dedication, work, and focus I do my cases. It is a brilliant game with brilliant opportunities to teach lessons about life.