Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Diary of a Soccer Coach: Week 1 - Getting the Players Attention

As I enter my fourth season as a Soccer coach, I can't help but reflect back on the previous three years.  There have been a lot of kids I've had the opportunity to work with.  The prior three years I coached the 'instructional division' as it was first called to me.  In essence I've had the honor of coaching up kids ranging from Pre-K  through Kindergarten age.   I've coached the same level for three years now, and again this year I am stepping up to do the same.

In some ways its hard to be a coach to the youngest in the league.  Some of them are already quite athletic, but lacking in coordination, some are squeamish about falling down, or running into someone else.   Some don't quite know what to expect from this their first athletic endeavor.   It isn't always easy on the coach either.  Sometimes we just barely get a season to get to know the kids before they begin to bloom and are ready to play up to the next level.  Some only get the one year, then are moved up with the other kids their age.   In essence each season is like starting over fresh.  There are always a few faces you remember from the previous years, and you may recognize the growing boys and girls practicing on a field not too far from your own teams, but your focus is now on the next group.

For companies like my current employer, where professionals might work on multiple projects, or bounce  between roles and wear different hats within or between teams as the needs become evident, to a team leader, it can seem quite a challenge to start from scratch with a team.  It can also be a challenge to get the new people involved and fully engaged and invested in the project.  

For the first session of the Soccer season as with any team, it is imperative to set the ground right.   The first practice always starts with a quick introduction and brief overview of the most basic rules of soccer.  Then we quickly transition into a couple of warm up exercises.  They aren't typically long exercises, but are designed to get the players moving, loosened up, and in the mind of being at practice.  Warm-up exercises could be great for team building, or for helping to transition a new team member into being part of the esprit de corps.    Having transitioned to several projects in my career, I feel that many of these warm up exercises did a lot to help smooth my transition into the team.

Of course, practice does not end with these warm-ups, nor should it be the end of the team building process either.  As Michael Larsen (@MKLTesthead) so eloquently put in describing the stages of team development in his emerging topics talk on teams and the EDGE method employed by the Boy Scouts of America - The team is still forming, here, it hasn't even begun to play soccer, nor has the new team or hire really progressed to a state of being fully in tune with the team's software development process.

So the next step of practice, is the first of many drills.  For soccer in the introductory division, the most basic of drills typically involves dribbling, around a pair or square of cones, emphasizing technique for controlling the motion, the tempo of the dribble.  For software teams, tempo, and pace are something that teams struggle to achieve, and hold once they have it.  The same is true for Soccer, and our instructional division is no different. The secret you see to these kids, and I'm betting many other youth organizations, is to keep the meeting or practice as active as possible.   

So we run them through a drill for five, maybe ten minutes, and then may start another.  This gets the players used to moving around, and focusing on one type of task or another.  However, at some point the kids need a break, so we give them a bit of time to run to the restroom, and get a drink before having our mid practice huddle.  More on these huddles in a later entry, but suffice it to say, the kids almost without fail come back refreshed, and ready to do more, but it is still the First practice, and i its important to temper our expectations with that in mind.  

With software teams, the same is true.  Each member needs down time to assimilate lessons learned, to rest from exertion of the mind, and for testers, to de-focus or refocus on whatever the next task may be.  Without this crucial down time, tasking begins to run right into the other so quickly that one may begin to lose sight of where one testing objective ends and the next begins.   It also presents a danger, because as creatures of habit establishing routines that are unhealthy will inadvertently result in inattention blindness, and as tempo and feel for how the project flows is learned, the risk increases that things move at a certain pace simply because they've always moved at that pace, whether the process or project are really at a achieving and sustainin velocity or not.

For my players in their first practice of the season, I see them in the scrimmage we typically run at the end of each practice.  They chase the ball without any rhyme or reason, with out any strategy or objectivity.  They believe the goal is to get the ball, and that to do that they must run to the ball.  There's just one problem.  someone else has that ball, and is accelerating in a different direction. so each player changes their angle to try and chase the dribbler down often from behind.  

At times it can look like  a swarm of honey bees, buzzing to one corner of the field, then changing course and quickly buzzing to another all around and trying to catch the ball each time, and inevitably these kids will trip, fall, or bump into another.   We haven't yet taught these kids how to move laterally, or even backwards when necessary, nor have we shown them the strategy of picking a place between where the ball might go to cut it off, rather than trying to chase it as if chained to the player with the ball like a rail car.  Inevitably the first practice always looks like this.  The older kids may not run into this scenario, as many have years of soccer under them by the time the season has started again, but for these new boots to the field of play, or to their team in the software world, they're a blank slate practically and in need of mentoring and guidance.  

The question you have to ask, is how can I influence them for the better, and help them see their role as more than just chasing the ball, as chasing this bug or that bug, when they may be leaving square feet of the field uncovered that could give them an advantage?   For me, it is important to remember that this is the beginning of a long journey we take together, and for better or worse we are here as part of a team striving to create that which our client needs.  However, even us experienced software professionals can occasionally trip over someone else's toes and fall flat if we aren't careful.  So trod carefully in those first days on a team, until you have a good picture of the terrain you must climb.


  1. Great post - I used to coach soccer to kids so this brought back a lot of memories. I also think that the coach can learn a lot of lessons from doing the coaching.

    Good luck with your season

  2. Yes I agree, any teaching/mentoring/coaching relationship can be just as beneficial for the mentored as the mentor. Ask some of the people who have lead Weekend Testing, BBST Foundations, etc. Whether its a testing mentored environment, or even something as detached from the profession as coaching a sport, there are analogs and lessons that can apply to any exercise involving a team environment.

    Thanks for the comments.