Last weekend, I was the assistant referee for an u16 state cup semifinal game in which the #1 seed lost. This was the third time that I had refereed the losing team, and they had won 9-1 and 18-0 in the previous games. In the 18-0 game in February, their striker played all but the last five minutes as a striker and scored 11 goals. Their goalie never left the penalty box and touched the ball twice in the entire game. Players never switched positions or tried something new. They scored and scored and scored again.
In the semifinal, the goalie twisted her ankle early in the second half with the score 0-0. She did not leave the game because they did not have another keeper on their bench. The striker had a tough game and missed her only clear chance, hitting the post on a tough-angeled shot after rounding the keeper. Listening to the parents, she did not play like herself. She had an off-game. However, she never left the field.
Early in the season, when they destroyed over-matched opponents, they did not substitute; they did not develop versatility of positions or style of play. They played one way, and dominated most teams with their talent. Players played their designated positions and filled their designated roles.
In contrast, an old article about some young Americans playing for the Fulham FC Academy described a philosophy based more on player development than winning each and every game.
De la Torre trains at Motspur Park each weekday, eats most meals there and plays games on Saturdays with Fulham’s U-18 squad. Their results are recorded, but in games contested by younger players the scoreboard is irrelevant. Instead, coaches set targets for individuals. If a right-footed defender spends his week working on dribbling and passing with his left, he’ll play left back in that weekend’s match – even if it costs the team.
Personally, I believe that learning to compete and learning to win are valuable skills. I watch club soccer teams, and I imagine the emphasis is on individual skills, because the teams lack basic knowledge in terms of team defending. For instance, when teams play a high line or an offside trap, they almost always move behind the attacker and keep him or her onside rather than taking one step forward to catch the player offside. By playing them onside, and facing forward, when a long ball is played, the attacker has the advantage, as he or she starts even with the defender, and the defender must turn around and chase.
Teaching this tactical skill that is designed to help a team win could be viewed as a Peak by Friday strategy. I disagree. That is defending. Nobody would suggest that basketball players should dedicate all of their time to shooting and ignore help rotations on defense because they might help a team win. That’s crazy. The fundamental skills – technical and tactical – that ultimately lead to wins are the ones that need to be developed in a long-term model as well.
Winning is not a bad thing. However, as with the Fulham Academy, there is a time to focus on development by playing players in different positions or encouraging them to try new skills. When every game is played like a championship game, there is not an environment to try new skills. A center never dribbles the ball because he is a weaker dribbler than the point guard, and the coach wants the stronger dribbler to dribble to maximize the opportunity to win. That’s the difference.
A team can play the game to win, but encourage players to step outside of their comfort zones. This may ultimately lead to mistakes and losses, but will enhance skill development. When the point guard twists her ankle in the playoffs, other players will have developed their dribbling ability to fill in.
Skill development is more than shooting and dribbling. Learning to perform tactical skills under pressure are fundamentals too. These should be practiced, and all players should learn these skills. By encouraging players to use these skills in games, a team may lose a game here and there because of mistakes, but there will be ultimate benefits in player and team development.
Who knows what would have happened if the coach of the #1 seed had tried players at other positions or employed a different style of play when ahead by several goals? Maybe the game would have played out the same, and the one amazing shot would have been the difference. Maybe the game played on any other day would have turned out differently. Who knows?
I suspect that the constant emphasis on winning and dominating eventually caught up to the team. A philosophy based more on development throughout the season may have helped them in the semifinals in terms of skill development, versatility, and mentality.