Let’s be honest…it can be a tad annoying. There we are, our team playing out of their skins against stronger opposition. But we are holding on with our soccer defense. Then, with two minutes to go, a long ball is played upfield. We relax. All that is needed is for the centre half to control the ball and play it to a team mate to start another attack.
Surprisingly, he dithers, mis-controls but we are still not concerned. There is time to clear. Yet, in a decision that nobody can explain, he decides to lay off a back pass to the keeper, hits it blind, under plays the ball and a marauding striker bursts through, nicks the ball and the game is lost.
The fact that our centre half is only ten is no excuse. (Well, it is, but doesn’t seem so in that moment). How many times have we seen the team we follow in the professional world lose a game as a result of a similar error? Many, no doubt. Which, of course, means that however hard we work, we will not completely eradicate defensive errors…but we can help to make them less frequent.
Knowing Your Job
Something that is true for every player on the pitch, but especially so for those who play in defense. It is the job of the coach to make sure his team know their roles. Errors come about from game plans that are too complicated. There are some golden rules to which coaches can stick to, and although as the game ascends to higher levels, they may become redundant, at youth or amateur standard they work well:
- Every player knows their role when not in possession – marking a player, covering a space, closing down or supporting. The nearest player to the opponent in possession closes down, then drops back into shape when the ball shifts.
- If space is to be left, it should be wide not central.
- Work hard during transition to regain shape and get behind the ball.
Four instructions, and if defensive players remember these many team errors will be eradicated.
As coaches, parents or players we will also be aware of the changing nature of the game. Few teams will now operate in the old way, where the back four didn’t cross the halfway line, and their job was simply to hoof the ball forward to their more talented teammates. And thank goodness for that. How did players ever improve under such stultifying tactics? So, for example, we will probably expect the centre back to be able to bring the ball out of defence, full backs to bomb forward as auxiliary wingers.
Playing with such a variety of roles makes the game more enjoyable and improves skill sets. The downside is that there are more skills to learn, greater physical and mental fitness is required, and players may find themselves out of position more often when transition occurs.
Soccer is a game built on technique. Get that right, and players will make fewer errors. Their play will improve, they will be more successful and gain more enjoyment from the sport. The positive circle takes hold, and so they improve further. We can never eradicate errors completely. They are an inevitable part of learning to get better. However, if we work hard on all aspects of soccer technique in training, this will translate to better performances when it comes to playing matches.
Physical Fitness Leads to Mental Fitness
Most errors occur at the beginning and end of matches. At kick off, teams may not yet have settled into the pattern of the match, and so an effective physical warm up followed by a short, simple team talk will help players to become focussed quickly.
The end of the game is more difficult. When a play begins to struggle physically, their reactions, decision making, and technique all suffer. Hence errors occur. Therefore, plenty of work on physical fitness will help players to retain their best concentration throughout the game.
This notion of mental toughness – resilience – is something relatively new to sports coaching, but extremely important. Players who are mentally tough make fewer mistakes, recover from them better, learn from them, support their teammates and, crucially, have a higher enjoyment of their sport.
Learning from mistakes is a very important aspect of the list above. Coaches ensure that the atmosphere within their team accepts errors, and sees them as a stepping stone to improvement. That atmosphere is established through positive thinking, words and actions. Thus, we might think we are helping by telling our ten-year-old centre half who just cost us the game to learn from their mistake. We might see that as supportive, and practical.
Really, though, it is a criticism. It is saying to the player, obliquely, that they are at fault and should not be so again. Coaches who develop mental strength in their teams do not need to make such obvious statements. Their players understand that mistakes in a competitive environment are inevitable, and do not carry blame or cause judgements. Also, that they frequently come about through risk taking. And without taking risks, nobody improves.
Plus, mistakes are never completely down to one person. When the keeper lets the ball through their legs, that only happens because the defense allowed a shot to take place, which itself only occurred because another player lost possession. That, in turn, most likely resulted because a teammate failed to support properly. Thus, mistakes are team mistakes, just as goals are team goals. The thirty-yard screamer would have been kept quiet had not a great pass set up the chance!
Mental toughness is crucial in sport. We can train for it to some extent. Visualisation activities, where we plan for difference circumstances by imagining them, can help, as can concentration drills. But mostly, resilience is developed through a supportive, positive and creative environment.
Mistakes Are Inevitable
The crux of this piece has been to show that mistakes are an inevitable part of the game. Certainly, by ensuring players know their job, have good technical skills and are physically and mentally strong they will occur less often. But will sometimes happen. If our defense is making more errors than might be explained by their age, experience or skill level, we should look at these four areas of the game and work with the team, defensive unit or individual who is making the errors, to address whichever of the four aspects they are falling down upon. But we should not dwell upon it for too long.
When our centre half made the poor decision to give a back pass to his keeper, and then delivered an under-hit ball, perhaps we, on the side-line, might look to ourselves.
Why did the young lad (or, equally, international centre back) make that decision? Was it because he was uncertain as to what to do? Why might he be uncertain? Had his job been explained? Was he scared about the consequences of making the wrong call? Did he feel unusual pressure? Had we built the game up too much?
It’s tough being a coach; we have a part to play in every error our team makes.
Then again, we also have the joy of knowing our role in every successful move, brilliant pass, scintillating shot, tremendous tackle and glorious goal. And there are far more of those than there are of mistakes.
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