The One Area Teams Always Feel They Need to Improve
The players jog over to the sideline, grab their drinks, and settle in for a conversation.
The coach takes the lead. Rather than giving a list of the top 10 things that annoyed the bejesus out of him, he puts the initiative on the players, asking them for three things they are doing well and three things they can improve upon.
Can you guess which one thing the players always believe they need to improve?
Hint: the scoreline doesn’t matter. It could be 5-0, 0-5, or 0-0.
Finishing is popular, but that’s not it. I’ll give you a silver medal if that was your answer.
The one area of their performance that comes up nearly every halftime is communication. Players inevitably believe the is the need for improved communication is a must. And it doesn’t matter if they’re communicating well in the match or if their exchanges are par for the season.
Maybe it’s just a default answer to throw something into the mix and contribute. Maybe there are genuine breakdowns in the lines of communication or the team is more reserved on the pitch.
While there are probably some elements of poor communication that the side is rightly acknowledging, a decade of team talks has led me to another opinion.
Communication = Transfer of Ideas
When teams struggle with communication, it’s not the act of verbalizing that’s an issue…it’s the quality and clarity of the thoughts conveyed.
Communication starts with a thought.
Speaking to a teammate on the pitch is no different than speaking to a family member, significant other, friend, or coworker. At its core, communication is the act of transferring an idea to another. I have a thought to share with you and can use a variety of modes to transfer that idea from my mind to yours.
*CARTESIAN TRIGGER WARNING*
In a sense, we’re participating in a shared reality, interpreting sensory data, deriving meaning from our perceptions, and constructing ideas. In the context of a soccer team, players and coaches are interpreting the context of the game, identifying opportunities and threats, and fluidly finding the balance between their team’s prematch tactics and the new problems they must solve.
Circling back to those team talks, one of the challenges facing the coach and players is to specify what they mean when they speak of a need to improve communication. At the heart of the matter, what the two parties must realize is that communication is the transfer of ideas. If there’s a need to improve communication, the first issue is likely a need to better interpret the game, identify opportunities and threats, and solve the problems at hand.
Ultimately, it’s not a need for more words and gestures, but for an improved understanding of the game.
As the tactical and soccer IQ sides of the game improve, so does communication. It’s not that the quantity has improved, but the impact and clarity of ideas have. Improve understanding and the communication follows.
Defensive Action Terms
Positioning oneself between the ball and the opponent you’re marking. This helps to take away the passing lane.
Reduce the space between you and the opponent.
1) Feet in an “L” shape with the front foot pointing at the ball (to either poke tackle or push off to run with the opponent). 2) Knees slightly bent, 3) feet shoulder-width apart, 4) chest over the front knee, and 5) arms slightly out for balance and to initiate contact.
First Contact Point
In 1v1 duels, initiate a high first contact point, using the hands, wrists, or forearms to slow the opponent and establish positioning. Mind you, full arm extension is a foul, but these high points of first contact are generally legal if the elbow remains bend. Basic principle: go high instead of low in most tackles to keep balance and power through the contact.
Positioning oneself between the goal and the opponent you’re marking. This helps to contest passes played into the space behind the backline.
Taking responsibility for a nearby opponent.
To win possession of an opponent’s pass.
Remember 1st/2nd/3rd attackers? Same thing on the defensive side of the ball. The 1st defender is the “pressure defender,” meaning they’re the player directly engaged with the opponent on the ball. “Cover defenders” are the 2nd defenders, offering protection to the first defender. If the pressure defender is beat, a cover defender transitions into a first defender role. Balance refers to the remaining players in the team’s defensive structure. Note that with cover defenders, more than one player can offer coverage.
Recover and Backtrack
A recovery run, or backtracking, is the run from an attacking position high up the field back into the team’s deeper defensive shape.
*Don’t encourage stabbing* Lunging forward with one foot in an attempt to tackle the ball. Transferring weight to the front foot leaves the defender off-balance and unable to further contest the attacker. The attempt at a low point of first contact sacrifices balance in the defensive stance, making it an easy approach to beat.
Tackle - Block, Side Block, Poke, Slide
Block tackles use the foot to block the forward path of the ball. A side block tackle funnels the opponent to one side before using the hips and shoulder to block their path to the ball. Shoulder and hip charges/contact offer physical resistance in side block challenges. Poke tackles look similar to a stab, but balance is maintained throughout the tackle. Rather than transferring weight to the front foot, a player’s balance remains on the back foot while the front foot quickly pokes forward at the ball before returning to a balanced defensive stance. It’s the best tackle to use when an opponent tries to cut across the defender’s body. Slide tackles involve sliding on the ground to cover greater distance in the tackle, typically out of desperation.
In set piece situations, walls involve players lining up side-by-side to limit the shooter’s ease and angles to goal.
Training athletes isn’t much different than teaching a child to read or onboarding a colleague for a new role at your company. The endpoint is competency (the ambitious might aim for mastery), but even in talking about an endpoint, we’re acknowledging a process. That process is filled with trial and error, success and failure, and innumerable steps along the path to proficiency. The process develops a skill set that allows the person to contribute to his community in a meaningful and productive way.
The language we use in our team talks and performance on the pitch should be a reflection of the work applied on the training ground. Culture, be it national, regional, or local, can also play a role in developing the language of the game, but behind every verbalization is an idea of how we play.
Next time your athletes talk about a need to improve communication, let’s reframe the conversation.
Ask them which ideas the team needs to identify and share. That’s communication.