Coaches: Feed Your Star, Players: Keep Your Head In It

Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney were both clearly frustrated in their World Cup exits.  Tactics could have been the cause for both.

Should Rooney have been played alone up top?  Should Crouch have played more?  Considering the goal, should Defoe have played more?

With Portugal…well, if you saw their matches, you know their tactics.  I’m not sure there’s a word for offense in Portuguese.

What brings me to write this though is I had a similar experience during my Wednesday game and I have a tip for both players and coaches.  Before I get into that, I just want to mention that I try to use my own experiences as well as those people see on TV because I want us to have a level playing field for knowledge (TV) and I assume most people reading this blog aren’t professional athletes or coaches and I want to make sure you know analysis of the big boys applies at all levels (to varying degrees, of course).

Last week I wrote that I had 4 goals.  They weren’t amazing, but they went in.  This Wednesday, no goals, no assists.

The game started off poorly for me…well, sorta. I stole the first or second pass of the opposing team (that’s fantastic, no?) and immediately fired a shot to try to catch the keeper off guard.  Problem was, I was still in the midfield circle.  Brilliant if it works, minor if it doesn’t, except in this case I wasn’t set at all and it had me second-guessing myself early.  I pride myself on not putting the ball over the bar.  As a natural keeper, sending it over the bar is my best friend.  It wasn’t pretty.  It got to me a bit, but no biggie.  Later, I sliced the defense and put one off the far post on what shouldn’t have been that difficult of a strike.  I was glad I made the chance though.  I then had a corner where I probably should have biked the ball.  Instead, I didn’t even get a shot off.  At this point I was still in it mentally and thought my chance would come.  I mean, I was making chances, after all.

I suppose it was just the straw that broke the camels back, but I later beat a defender with some solid ball work and pace, then sent in a good cross only to have the keeper make a nice save.

In hindsight, it *wasn’t* *all* my fault.  Last week the defense played a high back line and I was able to get in behind them.  That’s what I do best.  Not only was I able to get back there, but I was able to play the ball through to people that would eventually give me the ball back on a cross.  This week the back line was deep and we were crowded up front.  Now, the midfield probably could have done a better job staying out of my way, but at the end of the day, the through balls were leaving me with very little room to operate.  I did end up dropping back, which is probably what I should have done with the midfielders crowding things, but that took me out of my game and in the end I decided to go play in my natural position, the goal.  Whether me playing in the goal or not helped the team I’m not sure, but my confidence was shot up front.  In most case players don’t have the luxury of deciding when they play a certain position, so make sure you stick it out.  Losing mental focus can lead to missing chances when they come and also nasty challenges that not only could get you sent off or booked, but also could hurt someone.  Last week I probably would have stayed up because I wasn’t that worried about my performance and maybe had I done that this week the goals would have come.  Impossible to tell, but knowing I’m the best keeper on the team, I can’t just feel I’m being a waste out in the field.  One of these days I’ll set up a camera to see how my attitude reflects reality, but that’s not happening for a bit.

Often commentators talk about building a team around a player and that’s the type of player I’m talking about here.  Often high schools and even club teams are at the mercy of their local talent and a coach can’t build a squad out of what s/he wants.  As a coach, you have to play the draft tactic of “pick the best player available.”  National teams have this problem to an extent, but the footballing powers usually have the luxury of doing what they want.  Dunga wanted to play defensive and despite their quarterfinal exit, Brazil did that.  Let’s not kid ourselves.  No own goal and no red card and Brazil wins that game.

The dynamics of each game are different and thus “building a team around a player” can be different each game.  If you have a player that can play on both sides of the pitch, pair him/her against the weaker back.  If a team is crowding the back, you might shift your players more to one side to give more room to your star.

While pairing someone on a weaker side might not work as well in any other sport as the sides are more fluid in American football, hockey and basketball, finding ways to get your star in the game early is still important.  What separates a Jordan or Kobe from a Rooney or a Ronaldo is their ability to stay in the game and not get frustrated when the going gets tough.  We’ve all seen Kobe frustrated but when it came to game 7, he focused and found a way.  Not everyone can do that and if your top receiver or your star center (basketball or hockey) isn’t getting the ball, talk to the offense on the sidelines, call a timeout or talk to the line on the bench to make sure they know what needs to happen.  Making sure a team knows the star without hurting the confidence of the others can be tricky, but if you can convey that it’s a team effort even if you do have a big play guy, then you should be fine.  Let your players know that Jordan needed Pippen and Kobe needed Gasol (and Shaq before him, of course).  There are examples of this in every sport, so there’s no need to belabor it.

Even if right and left do not mean as much, giving your star space to operate is still important.  The clear out in basketball and having a receiver split to one side with others opposite are both example of giving a star space.  One might think of getting runners on base for your big hitters as a similar baseball strategy.  Put your star in a position to make big plays.

One last note: don’t make a star out of someone who isn’t.  If your team doesn’t have a big hitter, manufacture runs with base running.  If you don’t have a play-maker, wear teams out with solid defensive play.  Coaching a team without offensive weapons is a topic for another article, but I didn’t want to leave people thinking the clear out was the only strategy I am promoting.  Doing different things and keeping teams off-balance is key…unless you are Spain and are just so good you can keep doing the same thing until the other team cracks, but that’s yet another article. 🙂

Still need to get some South Africa pics up on flickr, but a lot of them are up now.  Once I get them up, I’ll get that article posted.  World Cup isn’t over yet, so a World Cup article is still pertinent, no? 🙂

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I played four varsity sports in high school (gridiron, track, football and basketball). I went to states with a relay team in North Carolina and made the state semi-finals in football (soccer). I also coached travel football for TFC ( and worked for Eurosport/ I graduated from the University of New Hampshire School of Law, where I study intellectual property and sports law.

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