Earlier this week, the 14U girls soccer team I coach had a very unique experience. Lauren Gregg, who served as the assistant coach with the U.S. women’s national team for 12 years, trained them.
Naturally, any time your team can have access to a high-level coach, your players are going to get a lot out of it. But the experience for the girls – and for me -- was even better than I thought it would be.
The session, of course, was well organized. My players were engaged and eager to perform well. They were responsive, attentive and they played well. But there were two things they learned – things I will reinforce for as long as I know them – that will help them far more than any session, drill or experience on the field can. And only someone with the pedigree and status of having coached Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, Kristine Lilly, Joy Fawcett, Carla Overbeck and roughly 30 percent of all the women who have ever worn the USA jersey can give legitimacy to these two points.
What I enjoy most about coaching is the opportunity to have a positive impact on youngsters. Life lessons has become a catch-all term that can include everything from crossing the street, to keeping your shoes tied, to developing a positive attitude and leadership qualities. But they are, in fact, life lessons. The challenge I enjoy is watching confidence build and seeing the meek all of sudden start walking onto a field or into a room like they own it. Or seeing a 13-year-old no longer be deferential, no longer satisfied to take a back seat.
It’s no surprise to me that these two points are important to Lauren. We’ve talked about them over the years. In 1998-99, I co-authored a book with Lauren called “The Champion Within,” an extremely detailed guide to self-coaching, based on her experiences with national team players.
And it’s no surprise to me that both of the points I really hope my girls remember came before a ball was kicked.
Be Proud of What Makes You Special!
This is particularly difficult for girls. Articulating that they are good at something is taboo with girls for a sizeable list of silly reasons. Before we started playing, we got together in a circle and Lauren went to each girl and said, “Tell me your name and what you’re good at?”
Imagine the looks on the faces of 17 middle school girls when asked to answer that horrifying question. The nervous giggles masked dread, and it quickly became necessary to tell the girls they were not allowed to ask someone else what they should say. Some needed prompting, like the one who ummed and ahhed until I needed to ask her what she did in our last two games. “Oh yeah,” she said, finally smiling. “I score goals!” To which Lauren asked, “That’s pretty important, don’t you think?”
When all the players had spoken, the message from Lauren was clear: “Be proud of what makes you special.” That’s pretty important, don’t you think?
The next message could impact players more than anything else they do with soccer. Picture the faces of young players when they hear, “The things we are about to do I have done with the national teams and Olympic teams.”
It’s not the drill that makes you better
Again, Lauren’s message was understood. National team players and 13-year-olds don’t play a different game. National team coaches don’t carry around a notebook filled with secret training sessions. What’s different is the level of intensity and effort the players bring to every single aspect of their game. “Training on your mental and physical edge,” is what national team coaches called it.
The effort level that night was higher than it has ever been. Of course, some of the credit goes to the environment. We had created that perfect storm for girls – that odd mixture in females of wanting to impress and not wanting to disappoint.
Lauren threw a lot at them that night. They got valuable tiny details about angles and body shape when receiving the ball, attacking runs, box organization, engaging defenders, and a whole lot more. I was proud of the way the girls performed.
I’m sure they remember all of it, but they won’t know it until the situation comes up again and they instinctively use it. And I know they will remember those two points I found extremely valuable. I’m know it because I will continue to hammer them home.