Danny Jackson coaching his youth team
Danny Jackson on Preparation and Execution
Words of wisdom from someone who knows what it takes to be a professional soccer player. When it comes to practice vs. games – and how to achieve the optimal mindset for when your cleats hit the field in a big match – the adage that works best for me is: Prepare with fear, Execute with confidence.
Daniel (Danny) Jackson is a former Major League Soccer (MLS) star and captain of the Seattle Sounders. SN is pleased to bring readers Danny Jackson’s new column with insights into the professional world of soccer. So many kids dream of going pro, few accomplish this and fewer become team captains and then go on to become youth coaches.
When it comes to practice vs. games – and how to achieve the optimal mindset for when your cleats hit the field in a big match – the adage that works best for me is: Prepare with fear, Execute with confidence.
It’s a motto I’ve used successfully throughout my career – from youth soccer in England to professional play with the Seattle Sounders. And now, it’s my foundation for coaching and my business career.
I wholeheartedly believe that if you go into a game prepared, you go in confident. Many people think game day is stressful – the pressure to perform in public can be immense. But stress comes from a lack of preparedness, which in turn creates performance anxiety. Stress comes from knowing you didn’t work as hard as you should have before the performance. If you’ve done your work in practice and at home, treating your workouts and drills seriously, game day is fun. But you can only execute in a game if you’ve laid solid groundwork.
That’s why it’s called practice
Some athletes and coaches treat practice more casually than games. That’s a mistake. Practice is tough and should be hard work. Preparation is the real challenge, when you repeat drills and work through stubborn plays until they’re right.
In competitive soccer, every time you’re on the field, you have a responsibility. Competition is ever-present and practice can be intense. Recreational soccer is not as pressure-filled, but players will still get more enjoyment from games if they plug into practice. True enjoyment comes from mastery and from working hard and trying your best. If you work as hard as you can, you’ll reap the reward.
From a coach’s perspective, practice is where your energy is best spent. That’s where I do my teaching and that’s where I command and instruct. (Too often you see coaches on the sidelines at games screaming and shouting, but then it’s too late. During games, screaming conveys anxiety and panic and can negatively affect players. Be animated and demanding at practice and let the game unfold peacefully. Game time is when I relax, hoping my players will use what I’ve taught them to execute successfully.)
Practice is for honing in on a specific focus and repeating your message. Maybe you’re working on a technical skill or tactics – communicate your message in different ways and environments, structured through various exercises. This conveys a greater understanding of what is needed and expected, without being monotonous. Players will perfect their positions over time through repetition, and coaches should assess and get to know their players individually so they can extract the very best performance from each person.
Coaches should prepare for games in ways both mundane and cerebral. It’s important to arrive early, with plenty of time for warm-up. It’s important to make sure your players drink enough water. And it may also be important to communicate with everyone – parents and players – prior to games, sharing your plan. This may be focused on playing time, and how you will be more strategic in player selection during more competitive games. If you are upfront with everyone, you will experience less frustration and backlash after games.
Helping players prepare mentally is crucial. Players need to know your expectations. And they need to understand the process; that they can work hard, but there will always be mistakes. Unlike some other sports, which have time-outs and very structured plays, soccer is reactionary, unpredictable, on-the-fly. That’s what makes it so fun, interesting and challenging. But coaches should emphasize with players that success is not guaranteed or instant. Create an environment where players can try new things and make mistakes, without fear of being lambasted. Of course, give them guidance and discuss areas of the field where they can be expressive. Central defenders trying out their one-on-one skills 20 yards from their own goal is probably not the best place for creativity.
Youth goalie: a study in communication
The position of goalkeeper on younger teams provides an interesting example of the importance of preparation and communication with both players and parents. Goalkeeper is a stressful position; sometimes a young player will embrace the role, but many avoid and fear it. It’s hard to be the last player in front of the net, with the added pressure of letting their teammates down.
For that reason, I recommend rotating this position on younger teams, so everyone experiences it. This accomplishes a few things. One: all players develop an appreciation for the difficulty of this high-profile position that will serve them throughout their soccer career. Two: no one kid gets “stuck” in goal for too long. Three: if and when a player does end up in goal, he or she has experience there. And four: a player might unexpectedly love the position and become very comfortable there. Again, players will be prepared. And preparation decreases stress and fear.
As a coach, you can flip how this position is perceived and make it about how many goals are saved. We always celebrate the players who score goals, so celebrate players who make saves! This is equal to scoring and you can reinforce this by thanking and praising your keepers after games. You can also add status to the position by making your keeper team captain. In addition, kids who aren’t getting as much playing time can be offered time in goal, as a way to both help their team and increase their time on the field. Being on the field as a GK is a lot more fun than sitting on the bench. These tactics can make a feared position less intimidating and more desirable.
Of course, in youth sports, players aren’t the only people a coach needs to prepare for games. Parents also need communication, especially on the hot topics of positions and game time.
All parents want their kids to play striker and score! Most parents don’t want their kids in goal, and may even yank them off a team if they play there too often. Coaches must communicate their goalkeeping strategy to parents, especially if they are rotating players. Parents often express concern about playing time and should be prepared for how much time their children will get. If coaches take the time to communicate with players and parents during practice, everyone’s expectations will be addressed and game day will go a lot more smoothly. (The last thing a coach wants on game day is an angry parent on the sidelines!)
Prepare for the worst
Coaches must also help their teams prepare mentally. It’s important to go into each game expecting tough competition. A team should never be over-confident; that’s when mistakes happen. The first 20 minutes of any game are vital and if you fall behind, chasing the ball for the rest of the game is frustrating. Momentum can be crushing; it’s hard to scramble uphill against a mudslide. Even a less technically-gifted team can take you down through pure effort.
I learned that early, first as a youth player in England and again in college. Our University of North Carolina team was rated number one in the country, but we approached every game like it was a championship. I’m a positive person, but I believe fear in the unknown is healthy. As a defender, I always believed the other team’s striker would be the very best. Fast. Strong. Skilled. This helped me ready myself mentally, because I never took anything for granted. Expect the hardest game, the greatest challenge, and you’ll be surprised by how prepared you are. I am proud to say that in college, we always played hard against smaller, lesser-rated teams. And in four years, we never lost a mid-week game.
Losing provides the toughest lessons. But if you prepare and give it your all, it’s a little easier to swallow. The criticism you don’t want to hear is that you could have done more.
When you thoroughly prepare – through physical practice, mental positioning and clear communication – game day is pure execution, pure fun. Games are naturally filled with pressure – there is an audience and an official score, after all – but games are the prize for practicing, something to enjoy, not dread.
In the bigger picture, the teachings of a wise coach will live in players’ minds long after practices and games are over. I still use what I learned about preparation and execution as a youth player in my adult life – now as a coach myself and a businessman. Instilling these values in our young soccer players is a goal worth aiming for.
At the recreational level, coaches are motivated volunteers, driven by their love for the gand wives. That they prosper in their family and professional lives and that some part of their success is rooted in lessons they learned on the soccer field.
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Daniel (Danny) Jackson is a former Major League Soccer player and was captain of the Seattle Sounders
for five seasons. Jackson, the Colorado Rapid
’s first round pick in the 2002 MLS draft, recently retired from professional soccer following a successful career in which he led the Seattle Sounders to two USL
National championships. At the University of North Carolina,
Jackson was a multi-year All-American, team MVP, and three-year team captain. His UNC
team won a National Championship in 2001, and he was named Soccer America National MVP
and National Championship MVP the same year. Danny was awarded the 2002 Patterson Medal
as the UNC Student Athlete of the year
Danny Jackson's recent coaching experience ranges from youth soccer at Eastside FC and the Sounders FC / ODP youth development program and speaks to high schools and youth clubs regarding the far reaching impacts of youth sports. Danny also is serving as the Director of New Business for Korrio.