As we close in on Winter, the gloomy expectancy of freezing temperatures, frozen fields, and impossible playing conditions becomes very real for most of us in the USA. The game itself becomes much more difficult to play if pitches are frozen, if there is snow on the ground, or if there is anything making the playing conditions not ideal. When conditions become less ideal, the likelihood of excuses to be made for bad play, lack of success, or the game being unfair become more likely from players. A sense that they were cheated somehow or they were the victim of an unjust situation becomes the easy answer when they ask themself why they were not successful on that given day. At every level, soccer is a game where flexibility is a major part of being successful, and one of the best lessons young players can learn is to not become frustrated when conditions are not perfect for them to possess the ball, dribble 1v1, or execute whatever tactical strategy the team is trying to implement. Really good teams have players who can find success through various pathways when facing a different obstacles and challenges that the game may throw their way.
Soccer has a very unpredictable script. Sometimes you can predict the outcome of a match based on the teams involved, current run of form, past results, ect, but to predict a 58th minute red card, a torrential downpour in the middle of the game, a bumpy pitch or any other aspect of the game which may affect how a player plays is nearly impossible. Conditions and scenarios can sometimes change instantly, and players have to be ready to adjust to fit the current environment on the fly. Young players may become shell shocked by a referee error, a sudden change in the weather, or an awful field that makes it difficult to connect passes due to the unjust impact they feel something out of their control has on their personal success. I will forever remember being substituted as freshmen in college after a mid game downpour occurred, and four very unsuccessful attempts at playing a first time passes on a slick turf surface. Players have to learn to adjust to the given situation, and always be assessing the scenario, a lesson that is very tough for one player to learn, let alone eleven players all at the same time.
Olympic divers prepare for their event in a routine way that tries to ensure they are consistent with their techniques on the diving board. One wrong step or a misplaced hop and the diver could be sent for a Youtube worthy disaster as we saw from the Filipino team this past summer at the Olympics in Rio. Are the best divers 100% flawless every time with their techniques and diving board routine? They are pretty close, but the best divers in the world separate themselves from the rest of the pack by being able to adjust when they take a wrong step on the board. They learn how to have great dives when they make mistakes, they learn how to dive successfully from every spot their foot may land on the board. There is no putting it up to the statistical chance that they get it right, they ensure that they are prepared to take on whatever may happen during the event. Any failures come down to them not preparing properly or being flexible enough to succeed given the situation. From this preparation, a confidence develops in these athletes that ensures them they will be successful in any given circumstance, something every athlete should strive to achieve from sports.
You can look at the league champions from the last few years in almost every major European league, and pinpoint a game where the odds were against them to get a result, and they somehow pulled out three points. Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson were masters at winning games late, no matter what the deficit was going into the last ten minutes you always knew they had a chance to win the game. Teams tried every strategy against the great United teams of the past, but they had a way of adjusting to any tactic used against them, the tools to punish teams if they left themselves vulnerable, and the grit and determination to win any time a team tried to turn the game into a punch up. Great teams have players who they count on when the game becomes more of a test of will rather than a duel of skill. Wilson Palacios for Tottenham Hotspur in the 2009-2010 added the steal and energy to a very quality, but posh and pretty Tottenham side that struggled to beat the more direct and physical sides in the league in previous seasons. The midfield destroyer sent Spurs to their first ever UEFA Champions League qualification and counterbalanced the likes of Luka Modric, Van Der Vaart, and Gareth Bale in the squad.
You see time and time again teams that struggle to be successful because they only know of one way to be successful. When I played I dreaded playing the teams that relied solely on long throw ins, corner kicks, and free kicks to score goals, and had what seemed like 4 Frankenstein looking defenders who stood on halfway and kicked the ball 50 yards every chance they got. A missed clearance, a bad foul given away in your half, or a lost mark in the box against a team like that could mean a very long and frustrating afternoon. But sooner or later those teams come up against a team that is able to possess around them, or beat them at their own game by being bigger and better at being direct and counter attacking. Their lack of flexibility and inability to be successful in any other way during matches almost always lead to their demise.
Teams that are very direct and physical will be successful if they meet a more skilled team on a bad field, or in horrible pitch conditions if the more skilled team is not ready to work hard, stand up and win fight that is about to take place. The game is not always a beautiful artistic masterpiece most fans make it out to be. Skillful players tend to struggle when asked to flex down to these levels of the game, demonstrating an inability to flex to the given situation. Spurs and Arsenal teams of the past tended to break during games like this where their flare and possession were ineffective against determined opposition in not ideal conditions.
Coaches play a pivotal role in the assessment of the conditions and should understand what their squad is capable of adjusting to easily and quickly in order to accommodate the scenario. Coaches sometime make the mistake of changing formations, lineups or putting players in situations where they may not understand the role and expectations of the new assignment they have been given. I am sure everyone knows a coach who changes formations regularly to adjust to what the other team is playing, and most of the time to very little success. Coaches give young players too much credit at times when it comes to their understanding of different formations, the roles of the players in these formations, and how difficult it is sometimes to adjust positions and playing styles on the fly. Trial and error is involved in all of this, if coaches want to be successful at adjusting formations and tactics on the fly, they must prepare their team the best they can for these situations prior to their matches. The more simple the adjustment the easier the team will be able to make the change successfully, changing from a 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2 before a game may lead to confusion and an unsuccessful adaptation to the current game scenario.
I wrote a few weeks ago about driving resilience into young players by not allowing for them to make excuses for their lack of success. By learning to be successful in multiple ways a player becomes a well rounded effective weapon for any team they play on. The ability to think and assess the situation needs to be taught at a young age, and players need to understand what caused them to fail so they can work to become better at that facet of their game. The young players I coach see the game at times as gentleman’s game that should be played at a country club, rather than a gentleman’s game played by hooligans. They lose games often when they play on anything but pristine surfaces against bigger and more physical players. The sooner young players learn to adjust their play to the field conditions, the weather, and the environment the referee is upholding, the quicker they can work on become well rounded and ready for absolutely anything that may happen on the field.