What We Say Matters

I love covering the concept of how we speak to the athlete. Like I mentioned last week, positive talk to a horrible player can do wonders. But It’s not always how we say it. Many times it’s what we’re saying that makes the biggest impact.

In one case, I had worked my butt off with no results. I was torn on what to do next. I just wanted to teach the goalie to come off of his line and live a little. But it felt like all the lectures, one-on-ones, drills, and side-line assistance were accounting for nothing. Then a simple 11-word catchphrase, that sounded like a death threat, changed everything.

I realize that sounds too good to be true. 11 words? It is. It wasn’t like I walked up to a talent-less kindergartener (Which there are plenty of…) and spoke the secret of football to him. In my case, I had a solid player, but when I needed him the most, he froze up. He couldn’t transfer his skills at practice to game-day. Then I found a phrase that changed his season in the most unexpected way.

The Goalie

I tried teaching this child how to goalie, though his squirrel-y eyes rarely looked my way. He said “uh huh” and “OK”, but whenever I tried to get him to perform the action I demonstrated to him, he went back to business as usual. This carried on for weeks. I’d talk. He’d nod. And no change happened on the field.

I Couldn’t Communicate With Him.

Coaching sessions and long lectures weren’t working. So, I kicked him off the team and told him that I’d seen baby monkeys who threw their poop better than he could goalie.

Not really.

Instead, I did some heavy reading (before I’d lost weight) and tried trial-by-fire tactics. I also organized a few alternative training situations for him.

First, I put him inside the goalie box with three random players. I threw a ball into the box and told the kids to see who could score first, and I let the winner advance to the “championship” round of the game. I told the goalie, “If you can grab the ball first, then all three of these kids will be eliminated, allowing you to kill their aspirations of being a professional soccer player.”

We saw some interesting trends appear in that simple made-up game. I witnessed our kids develop a sense of defensive emergency. I cried tears of manly-joy as our athletes took the ball from one another in a curiously-violent fashion. And I watched the goalie, wanting so badly to oust three kids at once, diving towards the ground face-first into the middle of a flurry of kicks. It was beautiful. This drill seemed to have helped him become who we wanted him to be.

During this practice, the goalie’s abilities grew stronger and he gained confidence in his new-found skills. Eventually, I let the whole team go into the box with him. T’was intense it t’was. They were mosh-pitting with knees and bo’s trying to score that parent gratifying goal. And occasionally our goalie would forge his way through the crowd, steal the ball and take out the whole team.

He Still Needed One More Thing

Goalies like to see people fail. They thrive on watching the look of success in a shooter’s eyes fade into eternal sadness as their “for sure” shot is swatted away to the ground. This is the bane of a goalie’s existence, and I thought we had finally tapped into his desire to desolate.

Even with the practice that we had put him through, I still couldn’t convince him to step off the line and chase the ball in a real game. So we went back to the drawing board. We tried the standard drills once more. I read another plethora of goalie articles and goalie sections in popular soccer books. But when we would coach them to him. Nothing. I couldn’t teach him. I couldn’t heal him of his goalie-line addiction. He was afraid to leave it during a game. It seemed to be his security blanket.

I was talking with his mom and found out he was also a football player. So, I started bringing a football to practice and trained him a few times with it. I’d throw it up in the air and have him chase it down, but only after it landed. He excelled at recovering a loose ball. You could say, he was “one with the ground balls”.

After the drill had put his skills into a new perspective, I assured him his ability to chase down a bouncing football was amazing. I tried to make the connection that snatching up grounded soccer balls was a lot easier than chasing a fumbling football because a soccer ball was a lot more predictable.

We also showed him how the children his age were terrible at dribbling while running. Sure, they could break away from the pack with ease, but they lacked the dribbling skills needed to keep the ball close. Even though I felt like these words made sense and the training was what he needed, he just looked over my shoulder and watched the traffic milling about behind me.

I didn’t understand how to get him to listen to me. I thought I was giving him some solid advice. But, his distracted eyes didn’t agree. I really wanted to get his attention, so I took a chance and leaned in towards the 10-year-old, and said,

“Goalies who live on the line, die on the line.”

Shock overtook his childish face. Maybe he thought I was going to kill him. He replaced his uh-huh with a puzzled “Huh?”

I fed it to him again, this time with more intensity and a bigger spoon.

(Insert my Batman voice)

“Goalies who live on the line, die on the line.”

He crumpled his face and thought for a moment (or he had gas. Who knows?) and said,

“Gotcha coach.”

It seemed simple to me. But you know what? He did. He “got me”. From that moment on, he became a goalie that would sacrifice his body and soul to rip a goal away from any overly-confident shooter that dared to face him.

The kid turned out to be the best goalie I’d ever coach in that age group. It wasn’t the training that ultimately allowed him to succeed. Sure, he had built up his skills, but he wasn’t using them in the game. He needed something to take away his fear and give him the strength he needed to succeed.

And apparently, it was a death threat.

Well, more like a catchphrase. Something he could say to himself in the tough moments. A phrase or mantra he could remember to get him off the line and into the action.

Over the years our team had a few phrases:

  • “If they can’t score, they can’t win.”
  • (a song about no random kicks)
  • “Who farted?” (This one came up a bit too much. Maybe the goalie really did struggle with gas…)

What about your players? Is there something you wish they had at practice that would make more appearances on the field? Could you develop a catch phrase to help them understand?

Be The Fun Coach That Wins!

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Nate Ballew

Father of four boys, married to one wife, coaching enthusiast, and fiction/non-fiction author.

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