Well, I signed up to coach Riley's soccer team this spring.  It's been fun so far, but the same issue I dealt with every season in the past seems to be rearing its head again -- how to do substitutions.

Every season, I think that I would like to concentrate more on the live game than having to deal with the substitutions, and if I could have someone else take care of that task, I'd have less on my mind during the game that I'd be able to participate/encourage/coach the players more.  Alas, I have not been able to accomplish that.  Still, I have spent a lot more effort this season trying to keep my head off of the bench and in the game.

When you've got parents instructing their own kids from the sidelines, kids on the bench begging to go back in at positions that they can't play (after 7 seasons of coaching, I swear that any player that asks to play at striker has no business doing it), and a live ball in the game, trying to keep track of who's at what position and who's been subbed where is a living nightmare.  It's absolutely the worst part of coaching soccer, in my opinion.

I used to use this app called Soccer Dad, which is pretty neat, but isn't always the easiest to use on the field.  It actually does a lot that would be great if I could concentrate on only that instead of that and the game, like keeping track of scores and assists, and tracking time played along with substitution data, and aggregating it for the whole season.

My main problems with Soccer Dad are not obvious.  You'd think the drag-n-drop features of the app would be easy on the field, but they're not.  To access who is subbing where is a bit of a chore.  If you want to work the game a little different than the app expects, it can resist what data you're entering, which is not what you want while everyone's screaming and the opponent has the ball.

With 14 players playing 9v9, there's just no way to juggle 5 kids on the bench without some kind of aid.  And so, as is typical with me, I've come up with a design solution.

I want a way to do a number of very basic things, and so I have this list of requirements:

  • The entire plan must fit on a 3×5 card.
  • It should be easy to start a new game with starting positions.
  • It should be obvious what players play well in what positions so that they can be subbed into the correct place.
  • There should be a way to indicate alternate starting positions in case some intended starting players don't show up.
  • It should be possible to see at a glance which player is currently in a particular position.
  • It should be possible to see at a glance what position a player is currently playing.
  • The card should indicate the frequency with which a player is subbed so that they don't spend a lot of time on the bench.
  • The card should be fully operable with a pen/pencil.
  • There should be room on the card for parent phone numbers in case of an emergency.

I want to be able to run the entire game from a single card, and not have to think too hard about where a player can best play or who they can sub for (based on their time on the field).

Initially, I created a card with a simple grid.  Players were listed down the left side, and I wrote in their positions in the grid boxes.  This proved inconvenient, because you couldn't tell at a glance who was in a particular position.  As I subbed in players, I couldn't update the card fast enough to keep it accurate, and the whole thing became useless before the end of the first half. There was also no obvious way to keep track of how many times a player subbed, or where a player on the bench best fit into the game, and thinking about these things cost me precious time in the game.  (Seriously, I've missed many major plays because I had to mentally negotiate which player to put in where.)

My current iteration is a bit more thought through.  Instead of a freeform position entry, I've created a full grid with the positions as labels across the top.  Since we play 9v9, we usually set up as 3-3-2, so there are only 2 defenders and the goalie.  There will be cases in the future where we'll need to play 3-2-3, so I'll probably need to update the design a bit, but I'll save that until after we've tested this design.

Each player and position cell has six sub-cells.  This is merely to keep things organized as the game progresses.  In those cells, I write in an "O" to represent the player playing that position.  When the player leaves that position, I cross off the "O" with an "X".  If a player is on the bench, they get an "O" in the "B" column.

To set up the game, I simply put an "O" in the first box of every green cell.  These are the marked starting positions for the game.  If one of those players doesn't show for the game, I can cross off their row, and replace their position with one of the players from the bench.  This is done by playing the benched player in the green outlined cell instead of the bench.  This may take a little mental work, only because the missing player may not have a specific benched player that replaces him.

When the game is in play, I can scan down the "B" column for who is on the bench, then across to the positions that are colored in purple.  These are positions that the player has shown competency in.  I can see which players in those positions need relief or hadn't yet been subbed out by seeing how many marks were made in their row.

Before our throw-ins, when I need to decide who from the bench is going in where, I can set this all up by writing in the "X"s and "O"s for where I want players to go, then tell them who they're going in for and at what position.

My only concern right now is playtesting this design.  I'm anxious to have a non-rain day to try it out.  I'm a bit worried that having to make four marks in different places on the sheet might be too much to do during the game, but I'm hoping that the ease I'm expecting this to enable when figuring out substitutions will be worth that time.

Soccer is upon us again, and I'm coaching Abby's team.  This year, I've decided to sign up as head coach, which is a big step in my head, but probably not much more than I've done in previous seasons.  Conceptually, I wanted to be able to run practices and games in a way I see fit.  It's not that prior coaches didn't do a good job - we took the field - just that I have some changes in mind for how to run things.

This season we'll be using incentives for the players on the field.  I've acquired a bunch of little soccer ball patches to give out to the kids that perform well at practice and games.  I hope this will give them some incentive to do their best, whereas in seasons past, I feel like they haven't all given their best effort for lack of it feeling like it meant much to participate.

I'm slowly constructing a training schedule.  I think this is one of the more important changes this year.  With only three training sessions before our first game, we need to fit in some quality training time.  And that's a distinction I'd like to make on the first day: We're running training sessions not practices.  Practice is what you do when you repeat the same things every day to get better.  We won't practice every day, so I'm going to be doing something else.  I'll show the players what they can practice at home, but focus our training on how players should work together during the game.

By our first practice I will have our team mantra finalized.  I know what I want it to consist of, but not how to shorten it into something memorable and effective.  Essentially, the idea is that every player is playing the game mentally all the time.  On the field, you need to be thinking about what you're going to do with the ball even when you don't have it, so that when you get the ball, you don't need to think.  I think this will effectively address some issues we've had in the past like players kicking the ball away and multiple players running to the ball instead of just one.  It should keep players looking up at their surroundings and engaged during the entire game, not just when they have the ball.

This season I want to encourage the team to become a passing team, with as many one-touch passes as possible.  I want them to grow to intuit passing routes, which I think will be my teaching focus for the season.

I'm currently planning on breaking up my three training days into basics, attack, and defense days.  Our first training session will help us get a feel for the players' abilities and how we can position them on the field during a game.  We'll drill heads-up dribbling, sprinting to the ball, shooting, down-field passing, and throw-ins.  We'll also need to identify a keeper, which always seems difficult.  I don't think I want to let the slowest kid volunteer for keeper like we have in seasons past, at least, not for entire games at a time.

One of the more challenging aspects of coaching is finding succinct ways to convey information to the players, but the same thing can be said, and is probably even more true, of conveying information to parents via email!  If I don't reduce the message to its essence, they don't bother trying to understand.

We're already seeing how fall soccer is an extra sport to keep some kids warm between other fall sports, which is kind of depressing.  Some players won't be able to attend soccer matches because they've got practices for other sports at the same time.  Why did they sign up for both?  I don't think it's fair to the kids that show up every game to have to sub out for kids that show up when they feel like it.  I realize this is just rec league soccer, but for some kids (like Abby), it's all they do, and these multi-sport kids that don't really care about soccer are taking away from those kids.  I'm sure I need a different perspective on this, because it simply seems inequitable.

I got a set of 6-foot goals to use at our training, and a set of pinnies to break the team into three small groups for some of our drills.  We've got balls from the league.  I need to check if we have cones or not, which we'll need on our first day.  Apart from the cones, I think we're good for equipment.

Here's looking forward to a good first session.

Over the summer, I signed up Abby for GEYA Soccer, based on the appeal of her experience in their spring soccer program, which she really enjoyed.  I didn't realize what we'd ultimately be getting into.

The fall soccer season is apparently not a popular one among "sporty" types.  The sporty kids seem to rotate their sport experience each season.  I'm not sure what the girls play in the fall, but they seem to leave the soccer field either for other sports or for other pursuits.  A similar thing happens to the boys soccer program in the fall, since a good number of boys leave the soccer program to participate in fall football.  The end result is that not enough players were signed up for fall soccer to have separate leagues for boys and girls at Abby's age group, and so the leagues combined for co-ed teams.

The co-ed teams were not so bad.  There were so few boys playing that between the five teams, each team was only allocated 3-4 boys.  Still, the aggression in the boys' play compared to the girls was apparent on the field, and at least for the first half of the season, the boys and girls avoided being near each other on the field during play, resulting in some humorous moments.  One referee explicitly told one of our girls, "I won't call it if you trip a boy."  That kind of thing.

Another downside of a diminished roster besides the small number of teams was the lack of coaches.  I assume that most of the "sporty" kids have "sporty" parents who follow them to whatever sport they're playing and help coach those teams.  Just before the onset of the fall season, the league sent out an email to all parents suggesting that if nobody volunteered to coach, then the five teams would be reduced to four, and that would be bad for the team sizes.

Thinking that I'd really like Abby to get a real chance to take the field, I replied to the email and volunteered to coach a team.  Yeah, crazy like that.

Luckily, (since I don't know anything about soccer) another parent with soccer and coaching experience volunteered to coach the team, too.  I think the reason they needed more coaches is because (as seems reasonable) not every coach can make every game.  And if there's only one coach, it's hard to field a team when the coach can't attend the game.  Anyway, I ended up not doing much, but simply helping out where I could -- running drills, herding kids, setting up cones, etc.

I have to admit, attending the games was something I looked forward to most for the past couple months.  Our team had some really good players; some willing, but inexperienced players; and some unwilling and inexperienced players.  We tried to encourage everyone to play their best and get them all playing well together.

The thing I'm most proud of in my coaching experience is something that seems pretty trivial, but it's more than what it seems, and it makes me happy:  I was able to remember all of the kids' names.  I thought it would be much harder.  I think my ability to remember all of their names indicates my own commitment to participation.  I find it hard to explain, but in spite of our team's record (I think we won maybe two games all season), it was an oddly rewarding experience for me.

How did Abby do?  Abby started out the season pretty strong for her experience level.  Being in the middle age of the range (6th-8th graders) gave her a slight leg up this season, having been on the young side for her spring soccer team.  Unlike the spring, Abby frequently played ball for the whole game, many times as a mid-fielder, running up and down the field like a madman.  I think last season and running in the summer really helped her performance this year.

Toward the end of the season, it seemed like she was waning a bit.  There are obvious ball skills that she has yet to master.  Too frequently, she'd run full-speed to a ball only to miss kicking it entirely and having it stolen from her.  Sadly, this is the kind of thing that she'd be able to improve on with practice; practice that the team didn't have time for -- the season was two practices at the beginning, and then entirely games.

Abby did do soccer clinic on Friday afternoons through the season.  They practiced ball-handling skills for an hour.  This was not part of the team exercise, but something that she signed up for separately.  It helped a bit, but regular practice with the team would have been more helpful.

There were a lot of things that the team needed to work on that seem to be a recurring theme with soccer players at this age and skill level.  The biggest thing that they all needed to work on was the concept of "one to the ball", meaning that only one player should play on the ball. We were constantly telling the kids to "spread out".  They'd all stand next to each other and wonder why there was never anyone to pass the ball to.  Of course, getting some of the kids (particularly the boys, who often seemed to think that the girls were just some moving obstacles for them on the field) to pass the ball at all was a trial.  Setting up and discovering passing lanes, shooting the ball at the far post, and dribbling/ball control were also things that everyone needed to work on.

Abby and I went to see one of Paige and Sienna's games in the middle of Abby's season. Watching those two girls and their team work was an enlightening experience for us both.  I would love to encourage Abby to the point were she could play soccer like that.

Abby is certainly going to play soccer in the spring, and we've already signed her up for a winter indoor clinic.  The big question at this point is whether I will sign up for coaching again.  In the spring, there are bound to be more competent coaches available, and the teams should be all-girl as the boys return from football to the spring soccer league.  I think it would be a lot of fun to continue to coach, even to take some classes of my own on coaching and soccer, just so I can better learn how to bring the team along.

In all, it was a fun experience.  I think the only real downside was that the season conflicted significantly with Riley's baseball games, which I would have liked to be more involved in. Since Riley's team only had one official coach, it would have been nice to commit to helping out his team with a sport that I have actually played before and knew well enough to teach. We'll see what Riley wants to do in the spring, whether baseball or soccer (he's wanting to sign up for the same winter soccer training program as Abby), and maybe decide what to do from there, since as with fall vs spring soccer, baseball tends to be more popular in the spring as well, bringing with it more experienced and enthusiastic coaches.

Today was Abby's second soccer game.  Ever.  She's almost 12 (her next soccer game is next week, on her birthday) and she's not played any organized team sports before this year. 

The league is organized through Glenmoore Eagle Youth Association (GEYA) which offers a bunch of sports in our area, similar to LYA when I was a kid.  The league is for girls in grades 6-8, at which Abby is in the lower end.  The coaches are very friendly, and they've been very supportive of Abby and all the girls playing on her team who are not as experienced as some of the other players.

Abby's first game was after school last week.  The team was a bit disorganized because they only had three scheduled practices prior to the game day, and the last of those practices was rained out.  As a result, the girls didn't really know anything about field positions or where they would be playing.  It was a little chaotic, but they took it in stride.

Abby's team scored one goal early on, but the other team - made up of more 8th graders - was able to come back and score three goals by the end of the game.  Abby seemed a bit bewildered by the rules of the game, and the effort required to play well.  I think she enjoyed it, nonetheless.

We've started interval training in the early mornings to get her endurance up.  "No more couch potato," as she says.  We've been running/walking around the development before school, and now even having only done the interval twice (prior to that, I was sick and we only walked), it seems to be making a difference.  If we keep it up, we should be able to run the 5k at Good Neighbor Day this year without embarrassing ourselves too much.

In today's game, Abby was keeping up with the other girls and playing less afraid of the ball.  She still has some work to do in figuring out how to best position herself when she doesn't have the ball, but she's getting better at it.  By the end of the season, I think she'll have a good idea of how the game is played and what she needs to do it well.

Plus, they won today, 2 to 0.