Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Delicate Balance

I didn't play team sports in high school. I went to a big public school and, frankly, was to small to be able to play football or baseball (and too old to play soccer, at least in Michigan).

Swimming and golf, though were two sports that weren't particularly discriminatory with regard to size (although admittedly you won't find many 5' 9 1/2" Olympic swimmers). I didn't learn much from my high school golf coach that I've been able to translate to my soccer team (unless it's simply to not be a confrontational, crotchety old SOB like he was), but swimming is a different story.

There were some conventional wisdoms in swimming 30 years ago that, while regarded as gospel at the time, haven't proven to be much more than voodoo or old wives' tales. We used to stretch a lot before meets (as opposed to currently, where static stretching is viewed as inhibiting muscle performance when done immediately prior to an event). We used to "carbo load" the night before big meets (not immediately before, like Michael Scott) which is of questionable value these days. And before and during meets we would eat plain sugar or jello mix because we thought the glucose would give us additional energy.

The one training tool that we practiced in swimming that I believe still has a great deal of validity, and is equally applicable to soccer, is "peaking." The idea was that there were only so many times during the swim season when an athlete could be at his or her best. So, while no one tanked any meets, it was understood that you wouldn't prepare for all meets in the same way (training hard, then tapering your training a few days before). Only the really important meets merited that type of training. Your performance in the run-of-the-mill meet or race may not have been optimal as a result, but that was okay because you had the big picture -- the county or state meet -- in mind.

As an athlete, peaking and tapering made a lot of sense -- maybe just because it meant I didn't have to work as hard at practice during the days leading up to a big meet.  As a coach, however, I find I have to constantly remind myself that I can't expect great things out of my team every game.

The high school soccer season lasts for 20 regular season matches in West Virginia. Add to that the possibility of up to five post-season games (if you make it all the way to the State Finals), and you have a situation where, realistically, your players cannot be as physically and emotionally sharp as you'd like them to be for every single contest.

It's a difficult concession for me to make, that we can't or even shouldn't be expected to play our best every single match. I'm competitive by nature and at any game want our team and its players to perform as well as possible. I find I'm more disappointed with a "bad win" than a "good loss" almost all the time.

But, as the cliche goes, a bad win really is better than a good loss.  After all, the ultimate goal for a game is to win, and for the season is to win a championship, not to look good losing or to win a relatively unimportant game 5-0 instead of 3-0.

Although I'm in my ninth season as a high school coach, I'm still learning better ways of doing things. There's a lot of introspection in coaching, as in legal work -- especially litigation. I find myself often examining the way I approach issues for an audience, whether it's my players, the press, a judge, or a jury. This year, I'm consciously making an effort to be satisfied with an occasional adequate performance, with the understanding that it would be too demanding to expect the team to play at a peak for 25 straight games.

There's still room for improvement in our team, just as there is in me as a coach. As a wise man once said, "when you stop getting better, you stop being good."

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