Lay the groundwork for a high school program with one of the most respected high school strength coaches in the country. In this week’s Friday Five, Scott Meier, a strength coach with experience in both physical education and sports performance, reviews what it takes to run a thriving high school strength and conditioning program from the inside out.
“Wait, I know, wait,” she says, her eyes alive with inspiration. “Before warm-ups, we should do a team icebreaker!”
The Scene: April 2018. Del Mar, California. The first spring practice to kick off the Flex soccer team’s second competitive season, with more giggling and oh-my-goshes than quality touches as the players gathered for a pre-warm-up routine of partner juggling. Pair upon pair, each shanking balls off shins and knees due to a combination of rust, social exuberance, and those spring growth spurts that alter a young athlete’s basic spatial kinematics. The introductory icebreaker—pitched by the team’s free-spirited holding midfielder—was equal parts ironic and sincere: The girls needed no introductions and had, after all, just wrapped up our inaugural season two months earlier.
On the other hand, nowadays taking a couple months completely away from a competitive sports team feels like forever and is—as the players recognized—unusual.
“Okay, okay,” she says, waving her teammates into a circle. “Everyone say your name, where you go to school, and your favorite ice cream topping.”
The Art of Juggling
Two years ago, none of the players on the Flex team (introduced in “How One Club Is Changing Youth Soccer”) could juggle a soccer ball. Currently made up of 7th and 8th grade girls—multi-sport athletes who also compete in softball, field hockey, flag football, volleyball, rock climbing, gymnastics, rugby, swimming, tennis, and basketball—the team is fast, physical, and aggressive. Compared to the year-round club teams they’ve been playing the past two seasons, they are also, at times … technically outclassed.
Juggling a soccer ball is one of those simultaneously meaningless/meaningful skills, somewhat akin to mastering a sequence of around-the-back and between-the-legs dribble moves in basketball. The ability to execute that skill, in and of itself, means absolutely zero on the court: If you can’t pass or shoot out of the move, or are too slow, too weak, or too timid to break down a defender, all the slick handle in the world won’t make any difference. But, like ball handling in basketball, the ability to juggle a soccer ball is indicative of key qualities in the sport: first touch, anticipation, body awareness, bilateral coordination, and—most of all—a commitment to self-directed and purposeful practice.
From beginning juggling scores of two or three or at most five, we now have multiple players who can juggle well over 100 and all 16 players on the team regularly expect to reach 15-20 during warm-ups. While learning to keep a ball in the air in the literal sense, the Flex girls are also, metaphorically, learning the same skill in their athletic lives. One of the key lessons is that any dramatic change in timing, pattern, or rhythm can cause the entire operation to go awry.
“The first thing people say is this is great,” said Richard Monette (head of Active for Life), discussing multisport participation and the grassroots campaign to support it in CBC Sports. “And then the second thing they say is that it’s impossible in reality.”
Impossible? No. Challenging? Oh yeah.
During the article introducing the Flex multisport model, I detailed a hard-fought loss early in the team’s first league season. As it turns out, that has been the girls’ only league loss in two club seasons. After starting off 9-1-2 for a third place finish our debut year, this past fall the Flex team won our division championship with a 10-0-2 record—all against teams that have the opportunity to clock far more practice hours than we do throughout the calendar year.Practice hours are not a commodity that can be banked, wherein the player with the most total hours of practice automatically holds a higher active balance, says @CoachsVision. Click To Tweet
Ultimately, there is no magic in the accumulation of volume. Practice hours are not a commodity that can be banked, wherein the player with the most total hours of practice over a year (or years) automatically then holds a higher active balance than a player with substantially fewer. Yes, in both the short and long term, practice improves skill (see exponential improvements in juggling). Practice also equates to experience, and that specific experience on the pitch is an added resource to draw from at the technical, tactical, and psychological levels. But when you put 12- and 13-year-olds on fields as large as 120 yards long and 60 yards wide, competing in an invasion game of angles, anticipation, and space—bigger, faster, and more powerful is still bigger, faster, and more powerful.
Within this, of course, is the basic conundrum of year-round specialization. It works—to a point. Players practicing month after month become demonstrably more skillful, and those observable improvements in turn justify the writing of all the large checks that support this continual practice. But, isolated in open space, athleticism beats skill as surely as rock beats scissors. So, the key question becomes how to develop bigger, faster, and more powerful athletes, while cultivating enough skill to express that athleticism on the field.
While there is no magic in volume, there is magic in intensity. September, October, November, December: During these four months, the Flex girls prioritize soccer and are on the pitch with a ball at their feet at least three days a week, and in many cases, considerably more. With high sports IQs and solid foundations of speed, explosiveness, mobility, and coordination, the ramped-up fall schedule leads to dramatic technical and tactical improvements.Isolated in open space, athleticism beats skill as surely as rock beats scissors. The question becomes how to develop bigger, faster & more powerful athletes. Click To Tweet
As opposed to incremental gains over a calendar year, that intense regular season period is electric—the players rapidly become more connected to each other and to the ball, the spark of those connections builds confidence, confidence builds momentum, momentum inspires passion, and passion begets peak performance. When the Flex girls take the field at kickoff, they are clearly not a group of girls out playing yet another ho-hum Saturday game in an endless string of Saturdays—they are, instead, unleashed.
During our debut year in 2017/2018, after peaking through the league season and reaching the final of our first post-season tournament in December, the Flex team won our second tournament over the first weekend of January, knocking off an A-level team from the host club in the process (at that time we were classified a C team).
Is multisport participation impossible at a competitive level? No. Hoisting that tournament trophy, the girls realized they could raise their game and compete against anybody. True to Monette’s words, however, a reality check was waiting around the corner.
The Scene: February 2018. Escondido, California. The Cal South State Cup. The Flex girls take the field at Southern California’s marquee, year-ending tournament, an event many of the players have wanted to compete in for years. They are quiet—a silence rooted neither in intense focus nor nervous butterflies. Instead, collectively, they seem out of sorts. Once the ball is in play, they lack cohesion and connection. Anticipation and direct routes to the ball are usually a hallmark of the team, but they can’t find the shape of the game, stuck chasing and reacting rather than attacking and defending. Not only do they appear indecisive and unfocused, for once, this group of dynamic and versatile athletes looks … slow.
Whether juggling a soccer ball or juggling the schedules for multiple sports, a primary challenge is adapting to significant changes in timing, patterns, and rhythm.
A Few Brief Lessons in Overlapping
In order to effectively break the rules, you need to understand the rules in the first place. Out on the field with the Flex team, one of my favorite tactical lessons our first seasons has been teaching the girls to overlap in space. The concept is somewhat mind-blowing for young players who have finally reached the point where they understand all 11 positions in our formation and know the relevant numbers and responsibilities for each. Now that they’ve fully grasped our 4-3-3, here I go, encouraging them to overlap in the attack, where a player in one position advances out of formation at will, taking on the space, position, and responsibilities of a more forward teammate.
There aren’t many analogues to this in the sports these girls play. Sure, the second baseman may rotate over to cover first base on a bunt, but there are no fluid situations in softball where the center fielder simply elects to rush in and assume the shortstop’s space. The libero in volleyball doesn’t just choose to replace an outside hitter mid-point. Admittedly, a fair number of low posts in basketball actually do think they should rip down a defensive rebound and run the fast break from the point guard spot, but their red-faced coach hollering OUTLET THE BALL suggests that their team’s transition attack has been drawn up differently.Players who grasp how to invade a space (and defend space from invasion) can escape the rules of their position and create attacking situations that overload the opponent’s defense. Click To Tweet
For the Flex team, I teach our #2 and #3 (right and left back) to overlap our midfielders and fill wide spaces at speed. We teach our #8 and #10 (left-center mid and attacking center-mid) to overlap our strikers and wings to challenge open spaces and create numerical mismatches. If the players understand what it means to invade a space (and defend space from that invasion), they can then break out of the rules governing their positions and create attacking situations that overload the opponent’s ability to thwart an advance.
In sync, this shape-shifting should be as fluid as a murmuration of starlings; out of sync, you end up with superfluous clusters and vulnerable gaps.
Return to Scene: 2018 Cal South State Cup. After winning our first game—thanks to scoring a pair of transition goals against the run of play—the Flex girls then lose back-to-back matches and are bounced from the tournament in the opening weekend.
January 2018 marked a major season shift, during which a majority of the Flex players launched into the competitive seasons for other sports. They needed to be game-ready for Select tournaments with their softball teams and gym-fit for weekend-long travel tournaments with their volleyball clubs. They had field hockey tryouts to prepare for, basketball games to play, and gymnastics meets to compete in. After four months of learning to play the game like a legit soccer team, the Flex girls came out in February and looked like a mishmash of volleyball players, softball players, field hockey players, and gymnasts, all chasing soccer players around a field.
Multi-sport athlete is not multiple sports at the same time… #LTAD
— Jeremy Frisch (@JeremyFrisch) January 30, 2019
One of the keys to overlapping is that as soon as the tactical advantage no longer exists, the overlapping player must hustle back and resume their original position.
During the fall and winter months of the league season, the Flex players had overlapping practices for other off-season sports at times, but soccer was the sport they practiced and played at the most intense, competitive level. In January and February, many of the Flex players directed their energy and intensity toward different teams in different sports.
In this case, the issue wasn’t one of overuse or fatigue, with players prepared to play but lacking the physical readiness to demonstrate their abilities. Instead, due to the limits of time in a school week and the disruption to their established practice and game pattern, their overall preparedness to play began to trend downward.
Within weeks, after dispersing to play sports with different physiological demands, observable de-training effects set in. The Flex girls also began playing sports with substantially different tactical and psychological demands: One of our top goal-scorers was a defensive specialist on her volleyball team, our goalkeeper a flame-throwing pitcher. That’s not simply shifting fields of play, that’s taking on completely different attacking and defending mindsets, and completely different athletic identities (all amidst a developmental phase in life that’s complicated enough as it is).
For a six-week stretch, between our tournament win in early January and our State Cup appearance in mid-February, we played no real soccer games, while the girls were playing competitive versions of their other sports. Multiple players regularly missed our practices due to schedule conflicts, and the resulting short-handed practices lacked the connectedness, passion, and purpose of our regular season sessions. Scrimmages were listless, with the girls’ competitive fire being expended elsewhere. Momentum was clearly trending in the wrong direction.In the big picture, that natural shift in energy & changing of the seasons—that falling back to position after an overlap—makes these players who they are Click To Tweet
Or, perhaps, not the wrong direction. Sure, for our immediate competitive purposes relative to a season-capping tournament it was the wrong direction; but in the bigger picture, that natural shift in energy and changing of the seasons—that falling back into position after an overlap—is what makes these players who they are.
The High Press (or Tag vs. Keep-Away)
“First, we’d like to congratulate our opponents. Their coach has taught them to play a … very aggressive style, with lots of energy.”
The Scene: December 2018. Mira Mesa, California. The Presidio Cup. The head coach of the Hotspurs offers a backhanded compliment to the Flex team during his trophy acceptance speech. After playing in the Presidio C-League for the regular season, the Flex team entered the A-Division for the round-robin post-season tournament. During pool play, we had dominated the run of play against the Hotspurs but lacked our finishing touch and ran out of time in a 0-0 tie. Re-matched in the final, we lost 2-1 on a last-minute rebound goal as both teams were making their final subs to prepare for PKs.
Though the intent was dismissive, the coach’s remarks were true: We play the game differently. While we have not been competing at the highest level here in Southern California—our club has a highly accomplished Girls 2005 team that plays in the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) and two other Girls 2005 teams that have been competing in more challenging regional and local flights—our girls play a frenetic, high-pressing style that is rarely seen by our opponents.
Because club soccer at younger age levels is something that originates with parents signing their kids up to play—rather than an organic and earned process of natural selection—youth soccer coaches often have players who have the parental support and encouragement to meet their commitment to the team, but they’re not naturally all that fast, powerful, or elusive. Their parents see the “pay to play” system in genuine transactional terms, believing that the head start from all that extra coaching and practice will carry their kids forward in the sport.
With kids who are not athletically dominant, the trick is then to make the ball and the dimensions of the field do the work instead. Consequently, many youth soccer coaches use the asset they have (time) to compensate for the resource they lack (athleticism) by teaching a version of the game that does not depend on speed, size, or elusiveness.
In short, they teach keep-away.
Keep-away happens to be a fantastic warm-up activity and a perfectly fine game for developing first touch, passing accuracy, composure, and a respect for the value of possession. The game itself, however, is non-directional and non-goal-oriented—and because kids are energy-efficient and don’t like to run in circles, keep-away tends to inspire a reactive defensive strategy rather than one defined by direct pursuit angles and on-the-ball challenges. As a result, players in a keep-away-based system become accustomed to waiting for a mistake rather than creating that mistake, because there is no specific space in the keep-away game in which a turnover is more advantageous than any other.
On the soccer pitch, however, if you can press in the opponent’s back third and create a giveaway via a tackle or steal, you have already succeeded in your invasion of the opponent’s territory. With a single athletic act, one player can accomplish what the opposing team is trying to generate via a complicated sequence of 7-8 passes spanning the entire field: get possession of the ball close enough to goal to create a scoring chance.
The majority of teams we play line up in a 1- or 2-striker set, since keep-away coaches love to pack 4-5 midfielders in their formation to foster diamond passing patterns. Those target strikers sit high at the midline, waiting for service out of the back—in transition that striker may offer token pressure, but they’re out on an island and many backlines are accustomed to being able to patiently build out with moderately contested passing combinations.Keep-away, the game, does not resemble a sport. Tag, on the other hand, does—it features attacking, defending, transition, and a clearly defined objective. Click To Tweet
Taking advantage of the asset we have (athletes), on the Flex team we blitz a rush of big, fast, and powerful attacking players. The moment possession changes and the opposing defense has the ball at their feet, our three forward positions ambush first balls like third basemen charging a bunt or field hockey players brandishing a stick, because that’s what they are. In the midfield, then, our shortstops and center fielders lie in wait to take an angle on the hurried second ball, disrupting the point of attack.
Keep-away, the game, does not resemble a sport. Tag, on the other hand, does—it features attacking, defending, transition between the two, and a clearly defined objective.
I also coach softball, and with my baserunners the goal is to create chaos. Run and run and run, forcing keep-away players to play tag and make throws they don’t normally want to make. My baserunners become accustomed to it—what appears to be chaos begins to make sense to them on a fundamental level of attacking and defending—but to opposing coaches it tends to look like a very aggressive style, with lots of energy.
As a high press coach, not only do I encourage an aggressive style of play on any field, but when momentum is heading in the wrong direction (as it was leading into the 2018 State Cup), the natural default is to press harder.
For multisport athletes, however, that approach doesn’t work—at certain phases on the calendar, the hours and energy are simply not there for them to play harder. Sure, some players need a push in the right direction from time to time to reach their full potential, but others need to be let go, trusting that when they come back, they’ll be stronger, faster, and energized by their play on other courts and other fields.
Rather than pressing harder and “grinding,” when dealing with these multisport athletes I’ve learned to:
- Individualize Attendance Expectations. Over the summer I received my US Soccer D-License, and in one of our classroom sessions the two-dozen other participating coaches shared their attendance policies, all of which revolved around playing-time based consequences for missed practices and non-compliance. When I said that I have 16 different, unwritten policies for 16 different players, the other coaches (and the course instructors) unanimously shared the opinion that I had completely lost my mind.
- But it works. My players write down short-term soccer goals, long-term athletic goals, their own ideas for what they can do to be better teammates, and how they plan to achieve these various goals. This season, the girls shared their goals with me and one other teammate—and those goals create the expectations I hold them to. If a player has to miss practices or a game due to a conflict that keeps them on course to achieve their long-term athletic goals, that is acceptable. If a player misses team activities for reasons that I see as roadblocks to their long-term soccer or athletic goals, that is a different matter and they will hear it from me.
- Individualize Training Intensity. This can be done in overt or subtle ways. The first time one or two players are held out of sprints or a high-intensity activity because they happen to be in the midst of a demanding training week for another sport, their teammates will complain. Loudly. For those who complain, I offer to take them out on their off-day from soccer and push them through a workout comparable to that of their teammate who was excused from sprinting, after which they too will be excused from certain practice activities. No one has yet accepted that offer.
- The athletes who might need a break, however, very rarely want it—they’re wired to go, go, go. So, practice intensity can also be individualized in a number of ways that go completely unnoticed. It could be a simple matter of grouping them in relays or activities where 90% will suffice and they won’t have to dig as deeply into their reserves.
- There are also practice activities that involve server or bumper players who do not have as intense a load. There are ways to manipulate numbers or formations in small-sided activities to boost the intensity for players who need it and reduce the intensity for players who don’t. And there is always an ability to adjust rotations, times, and numbers in ways that account for the different weekly loads that multisport players face.
- Set a Culture Where We Rest When Hurt. It’s a rough, physical, demanding sport. We’ve been fortunate thus far to have very few games lost to non-contact injuries (a rolled ankle here, a tender calf there), but there are always the bumps and bruises accumulated from playing an aggressive style (with lots of energy). We treat injuries and pain as something to STOP and recover from, with the big picture in mind that all the games the girls will play in the future are more important than today’s contest.
- This is part of empowering the athletes to understand their bodies, know their limits, and speak up with agency. The question is not can you play? Of course, they can. They can play on one leg and with an arm hanging off. That question is an unfair test of “heart” and the willingness to make the sort of sacrifices someone who knows better should prevent them from making.
- So, after any sort of knock, collision, or injury, the question instead is can you play at 100% full speed? If the answer is yes, then okay—show me. And if the answer is no, I think maybe 75-80%, then that player is allowed the time and space to recover until they are 100% and it has nothing to do with team commitment or will—it’s simply a neutral performance metric that must be met.
Play Short to Play Long
While I don’t care much for keep-away-driven passing in the midfield, I do love attacking patterns based on playing short to play long—purposefully drawing defenders closer in order to then exploit the new space created behind them.
Unlike the tight combinations of a keep-away game, where teammates deliver crisp passes to each other’s feet, this pattern relies on delivering a speculative ball to where their teammates should be. It requires a sort of second-order thinking and a shared goal—knowing the object is to invade the opponent’s territory, several high percentage short passes are made to pull in defenders and offer the appearance of being contained, after which a longer ball is then played into the open space where we wanted to be all along.
Heading into our third year with the 2019-2020 playing season, the Flex team has evolved. Nearly half of our players start high school in 2019, a number of whom plan on trying out for their high school teams for the winter 2020 season. The two largest high schools in our area are among the top 50-60 programs in the state and thinking about a future on these teams would have been inconceivable for our players just a few short years ago—they were not on any sort of track that would have made that a possibility.
That goal is now within reach because they’ve been given the space to keep playing.
Following our first season, we lost two of our original 16 players: one moved out of state (where she now plays on a top club soccer team and runs cross country); the other dropped soccer to focus full-time on club volleyball (her volleyball coach was very much a non-believer in the Flex/multisport mindset and treated that athlete like a cheating spouse any time her soccer activities infringed on her court time). After our second season, we again lost two of our 16 players: one younger girl transitioned to a team her own age at the club, and another tried out for and earned a spot on one of the club’s year-round teams that plays in a higher-level league.
Three years in, and 19 out of 20 of the 12- and 13-year-olds who have participated in the Flex model are still playing soccer (with the lone exception competing in a different sport). Statistically, these numbers aren’t significant enough to prove anything, though they are worth chewing over in the context of national trends for youth sports participation and attrition rates, particularly for teenage girls.3 years in, 19/20 of the 12- & 13-year-olds who participated in the Flex model still play soccer. In the context of national trends the numbers are notable. Click To Tweet
The Scene: February 2019. Del Mar, California. The Cal South State Cup. The Flex girls come out hungry. Opening against a polished team from Temecula (who we’d played to a 1-1 draw a month earlier), the Flex girls high press, overlap, and work short-to-long combinations on the way to a dominating 3-0 win. As opposed to the prior year, where the Flex girls took the field at State Cup looking like a team that didn’t quite belong, this time they outplayed all three of their opening opponents, deservedly winning their opening four-team bracket and advancing to the round of 32 (out of 72 teams entered). Moving on to the next round in San Bernardino, CA—expecting to win and keep winning—they knocked off an undefeated top seed with a 2-0 victory before finally losing 1-0 in overtime to a very good team from central Los Angeles (who then advanced to the Final Four).
A lot of things. Their goals as athletes have changed. Soccer may not be something they’re devoted to 365 days of the year, but they are all now seriously invested in playing the sport at a high level. Additionally, their skills and connection to each other have stabilized by staying together and continuing to play. Relative to the season overlap, another contributing factor has been the heavy storms hitting Southern California through January and February, stalling the onset and flow of the competitive seasons for their other sports.
Our overall approach this January and February has also changed—partly by rain-caused necessity and partly by design. Instead of using practices this month to cap a late-season phase and scrambling to work in set pieces and key tactical plays, I’ve instead approached these training days like the beginning of a developmental push for the high school tryouts way out on the horizon in November. We’ve done far more off the ball than we did at this time the previous winter, putting effort into speed development, change-of-direction games, explosiveness in space—priming the athletic qualities that make these girls who they are on the field.
The girls will, again, take a post-season break, though a shorter one so that we are able to fully prepare our older players for the challenge of making a high school roster. While using the spring months to focus on further developing athleticism and technical skill, we will not put on jerseys and play a competitive game again until July—the majority have other games to play on other fields, and for all of the Flex girls, their most important games are still those that will happen some time in the future. We’ve drawn them in with the short ball: Come play on this multisport team, we’ll make it work with your schedule and it will be fun. Now, the long ball is an open option for those who choose to play it.