Verb: to bear or hold up; serve as a foundation for.
Noun: a person or thing that gives aid or assistance.
A few weeks back I had a conversation with a longtime friend and LUSC volunteer coach where he raised the question of what does it mean to be a great teammate. This wasn’t intended to be a soccer specific question as much as a life skills question. Coaches often talk about being a great teammate, and most of us can all remember kids that we’ve coached or played with that were great teammates, but it’s hard to pinpoint what made them so. I don’t believe there is a universal definition of what a great teammate is. My friend and I said that we’d give the question some thought and then reconnect with some specific answers, but as the season gets into full swing daily tasks can often take priority and discussions like this tend to be tabled.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time this fall observing soccer games as the club DOC, pro coach for multiple divisions and a father of three boys at various stages within the club, and consistently wonder how to improve the game performance on the Saturdays. Why doesn’t it look better? My default response is that we need to improve the spacing. Players either chase the ball all over the field or they stay disconnected from their teammates to a fault. They overly congest the space or they remain too far removed to assist a teammate in possession. How do we fix this? We can place restrictions on players during training to temporarily create the spacing we are hoping to observe. Example, these players MUST stay on their side of the field or no goal counts unless EVERYONE (with the exception of the goalie) is over half field. Restrictions although well intentioned are inherently limiting and potentially stifle the decision making process and therefore the players’ development.
Soccer is a team sport and spacing IS an issue that needs to be addressed for the team to function cohesively on game day, but maybe our approach to addressing it needs to change. Perhaps, we need to consider what it means to be a great teammate instead of being preoccupied with the spacing. Maybe it’s a life skills question rather than a tactical answer. If we teach our players to be great teammates first maybe the spacing will correct itself at a more sustainable level.
Teams are made up of a collection of individuals. Individuals are unique, but all individuals have a common yearning to be supported. The level of support needed or provided can vary based on the individual, the circumstance and the situation. A great teammate considers: how do I best support my teammate in any given situation?
Does my teammate need me to come close to provide support or would the best form of support be withholding it and providing space instead? The answer could be different depending on the teammate. When we provide close support, we run the risk of crowding out our teammate. When we remain disconnected, we run the risk of isolating our teammate. The best teammates are the ones that can make these decisions in the moment. No restriction a coach can place on a player can aid in developing these decision making skills.
Does the support I provide come in the form of being a pillar that props a teammate up or does the support come in a more reduced role? Do I provide “cover” for my teammate that allows him to take risks that stretch him as a player? Do I provide a safe environment for my teammate where she knows it’s okay for her to take chances where she may fail and still be valued and supported?
A great teammate, also has the maturity and confidence to be willing to ask for support and to specify what type of support they need most. The best relationships are interdependent and symbiotic, not one-sided and dictatorial. Developing one’s voice is a great way of self-support.
Although most of the examples of support that I highlighted had a tactical component to them, I hope it wasn’t the only way you read the piece. One can be a technically and tactically excellent player, but a poor teammate or one can be an average player but a great teammate. As mentioned previously, people have a yearning to be supported. This isn’t limited to athletes or kids. Emotional support and compassion aren’t sports skills, but life skills. If this higher level of support is lacking within a team the experience suffers far more than when a player, or collection of players, lack the ability to provide proper tactical support. Our first responsibility is coaching people, not players.
From my blog piece Teach them to Read the Book I concluded:
The development of the player IS the foundation of the team. This can be a frustratingly slow process that requires a great deal of patience, but if the foundation is not set properly, cracks in the surface develop over time. These cracks may be patched up temporarily, but they never become whole again. Let’s let the foundation settle and harden before building upon it. During the first window (8 to 12 years old) the team should serve the player, there will be plenty of time down the road for the players to serve the team. The youth soccer highway is littered with once “talented” young players that are left on the side of the road due to a poor foundation being set where windows of development were sacrificed in an effort to win games. As coaches, it’s our duty to educate the players properly even if it temporarily compromises the result. Let’s “teach them to read the book” so they become readers for life.
In hindsight, the only alteration to be made would be to substitute “person” for “player” in the first sentence.
When a parent registers their child for youth sports, one of the strongest aspirations of their participation is to develop life skills. It’s hard to imagine a more necessary life skill to teach then being a great teammate. Playing a team sport is complex, but its wonderful preparation for the complexity of the world they’ll be joining when a parent’s (and coach’s) support takes on a more observatory role. Restrictions are limiting, support is foundational. Let’s support our players to become better teammates and provide them the space to make decisions, fail, and learn from the failure and to grow. Better teammates, make for better games and better games have better spacing.
Thank you for supporting the kids!