Monday, June 8, 2009

Win or Develop?

Youth coaches always have an interesting choice to make as they prepare their teams and players. As Americans, we're culturally driven to win in competition, and coaches do play some determining factor in those wins and losses. As parents, we're anxious to get the best possible instruction for our children, and to see them develop in the most advantageous circumstances. But if we're honest, we'd also prefer that happen in a winning environment.

Dozens of coaches and educators have blogged about the tension between these goals. Try a google search "winning vs developing", and you'll see what I mean. In soccer, where I have a long (inglorious) background, the debate rages fiercely. Coaches at the high school, college, and national level all decry the win-at-all-costs mentality of youth coaches, and the resultant scarcity of skillful players.

Then of course, those coaches turn around and try to win at all costs. They know that is their level at which development must now take a back seat to winning.

Personally I bring eighteen years of coaching youth players to the debate. That's more than some, less than others, but probably seems a lot of time to many of you. (That's because you are young, and I am old, and yes, I resent you for it.) Anyway, I don't think of myself as win-at-all-costs guy, but those of you that know me, know that I am conscious of the scoreboard, and that I am trying to win, to some degree.

In the spectrum of the win/develop debate, I happily straddle the fence. I'll shoot you a few examples, describe my position, and sum it all up with my reasoning at the end.

Consider the issue of playing time. The choices at the extremes are
  • Play everyone the same amount of time (a development-oriented choice)
  • Play the best players the most possible time, and lesser players the least possible time (a win-at-all-costs approach)
We split the difference. I will play developing players well over the minimum required, but quite often not as much as the top players.

Another pro-development strategy is to move kids around to play every position in a single season, or even in a single game. The other extreme is to give a kid one position for the entire season - or his whole career.

Once again, I'm down the center. Our players almost always have two to four positions at which they play. In football that's pretty easy with offense and defense, but on our team they will actually play both sides of the ball in nearly every game. In soccer I found it a little harder to have every kid play multiple roles in a particular game, though some could manage it. But most of our kids did change positions from season to season and year-to-year.

In training you can focus on skills or fundamentals (development) or you can spend time on tactics and strategy (win the game.) We, as you might expect by now, try to do both. We do let our boys know what type of defense they will be facing in the coming game, and what, if anything, we know about the other team's offense. But we also work every practice on simple, fundamental things like blocking, tackling, center/qb exchange, handoffs, pitches, etc.

Those are just a few examples, and there are probably other decisions I make that are similarly waffled. You may criticize this approach as preventing our team from winning as much as it might - you'd be right - while at the same time impeding the development of players. You might be right about that, but I don't know if anybody knows that for sure.

Nevertheless, I happily accept that criticism, because it is true. My number one focus is not winning. And my priority is certainly not to try to make some kid an NFL player either, even if I thought I could. My number one priority is that kids have fun when they play.

The eighteen years of coaching has helped me get a feel for whether or not a kid is having fun. Kids that make progress, and do things better, and accomplish things can have fun. Kids that get to play have fun. Kids that play on a team that wins have fun, no doubt. They like winning.

Some in the debate claim that this desire to win comes from mom and dad, and shouldn't be the case, but I'm not going to join that refrain, because I like to win too. There is a scoreboard, and I prefer to have a bigger number on it at the end than the guy coaching the other team.

That's probably my parents' fault, so we can all blame them.

Here's the thing: If a kid feels like he contributed, and he made some progress, and he got some recognition, and his team competed, and his team even won some games - well, he probably had a pretty good time. And when the season is done, I hope he had so much fun and learned so much that he wants to play again next year.

But I'm also very conscious of this, and it weighs on me all the time. Some kids might be playing football (or soccer, or whatever) for the very last time in any particular season. Whether that is because they find a greater interest in some other activity, or they move away, or the time has simply come to hang them up, I still want them to have had a great experience.

I will never believe that focusing on development, to the exclusion of all else, can create the kind of memorable and lasting team experience that I remember from my own youth. And conversely, I've seen way too many kids be run off from win-at-all-costs teams to be comfortable as a parent with that approach.

Sometimes development-oriented coaches will make the strong case that they're doing what's best for the kid. But I'm always cynically suspicious of that, especially if that same coach is paid, as is often the case in competitive soccer. And win-at-all-costs coaches will clearly keep, cut, and use players in ways that engender no love for either the sport or the team. And I think that is tragic.

So we will firmly trod the middle ground. We'll develop players athletically and mentally because it is great fun to love and enjoy the game and your team. And we'll try to win because that's really fun too. And if we've been even remotely successful at achieving those goals, my guess is your kid can't wait to get started this July.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Recognizing Defenses, Part II

In Part I of this two-part series, I described five standard ways to categorize defenses. We call them 7 Even, 7 Odd, 8 Even, 8 Odd, and Goal Line.

All of those categories ASSUME that the defense will line up in a balanced formation. That is, we expect the defense to have the same number of defenders on each side of our center.

But what if we don't see that? What happens in the case of a 5-2 Monster, where the defense shows up as a five man line, with two central linebackers like an Oklahoma defense - but just one safety? That defense has a player called a Monster, that moves around to any spot on the field. Often times, youth defenses will use that extra player on the wider side of the field.

Here's a picture of our flex formation lined up against a 5-2 Monster:

The M player represents the Monster, this time lined up on our left side of the field. Note that there are five defenders to the left of our center, and four defenders to the right, with the nose tackle and safety lined in the middle.

Our first inclination is to call this defense an 8 Odd. And for our option plays, it still will be! Our option plays are well-suited to run against a Monster defense aligned this way, because we can run to either side with no change to blocking rules for any of our players.

For plays like sweeps, belly, powers, or trap, we will probably try to change the play at the line to run away from the Monster. That's not because we can't block him - we can and do against balanced 8 Odd alignments. We check to the other side against a Monster on those plays in order to gain a numerical blocking advantage on the short side of the field.

We change to the other side in our offense with an audible at the line after the players have set their splits. Some words mean 'right' as in 'run the right-side version of the play' while other words mean 'left'. Other words are false alarms, and we ignore them. So if the key word "Ringo" that day means "right", a Power 25 would become a Power 36, and we would run off right tackle instead of left.

Sometimes we will even call a 'check-with-me' type play in the huddle. "Ringo Lemon Power" would tell our players that our play will be either a Power 36 or Power 25, depending on whether they hear "Ringo" or "Lemon" at the line. As they go to the line, they don't know to which side we're running the play.

We will also often do this type of check-with-me in cases where the defensive formations are ordinary, but the individual defenders have unbalanced themselves along the line. For example, if we are trying to run a Midline Option, but the nose tackle is lined up in the A gap between our center and guards within an otherwise balanced defense, it is pretty simple for us to call a run to the opposite side at the line.

We started doing this last year, in the second week of the season, and I was absolutely amazed at how effective our 3rd graders were at understanding that the direction of the play would entirely depend upon what our quarterback saw and called.

Each time we did it though, it was because the coach in the huddle asked the QB to read the defense and react at the line, and our players were prepared beforehand for the 'check-with-me' audible. This year we will try to build on that, and give our quarterback the opportunity to change the side of the play at any time.