Maybe it’s the drills

As I refereed a college soccer game last weekend, I heard a coach speaking to his bench:

(Paraphrased from memory) “How many bad passes have we made? How many simple balls have we not controlled? When we do these basic drills and you look at me, this is why.”

To expound, the coach was frustrated that his team lost possession too easily. His comment occurred directly after a player went to trap the ball on a slow, 8-yard pass, and somehow missed completely and allowed the ball to go out of play.

His contention was that they practiced these simple skills in practice, and my inference was that the players did not take the drills seriously or practice with sufficient intensity and concentration, at least by the coach’s standards.

I, of course, had two thoughts:

First, maybe the problem is the drills. Sure, the drills probably included passing and trapping the ball, but if they lacked the game context, did they practice the correct things? If a post player does not catch a post entry pass as he wrestles for position with a defender, does standing across from a teammate and throwing and catching stationary chest passes fix the problem? Sure, the problem occurred with the pass or the catch, but was the problem an inability to throw or catch or did the defense have something to do with the mistake?

Second, maybe the drills practiced the correct skills, but the lack of context decreased motivation and consequently concentration. Yes, a coach could yell at players every day to concentrate more during the drills. Or, the coach could change the drills.

When players fail to see the connection between the practice and game, they lose motivation for the drill. When they lose motivation, they decrease intensity and concentration. Now, at this point, coaches tend to blame the players. The drill is important; I did the drill when I played; great coaches use this drill. It is your prerogative as a head coach if you want to yell at players to concentrate or to punish players for lack of concentration, but neither is helping the players improve the skill. Why not find a more motivating drill that increases concentration and intensity?

Whether the drills were incorrect because of the context or because of the lack of motivation, it sounded like the drills were the problem. Maybe the players deserve some blame because at some point, a college athlete who wants to be a great player will make the most of the drill; I don’t want to absolve the players completely. However, too often, coaches immediately blame the players for the failures without examining the practice design.

If a coach finds him or herself repeatedly saying, “We practiced that, and they still don’t do it,” at what point does the coach look at the practice design, feedback, and instruction rather than blaming the players?

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