Team Chemistry and Communication
Interview with Adam Creasey
Adam Creasey played semi-professionally for the Colorado Rapids Reserves team, in the PDL league. He went to the University of Northern Colorado, playing on their club team and getting a degree in kinesiology and a master’s degree in business administration. Before that he played club and high school soccer. He has the USSF B and Y licenses. He has been a full time staff coach at two clubs, working with the recreational (4-10 year old) players and coaching competitive high school teams.
How important is team chemistry when you are selecting players at tryouts?
I think it’s very important. It only takes one or two players who aren’t on the same page as the rest of the team to really break things down. I look at it as being like a tumor that starts small but inevitably grows bigger and I end up spending too much of my time dealing with those players who aren’t bought in. At tryouts it is critical that you look out for those kids early, but the hard part is identifying them. Hopefully you have some history with the team – you’ve talked to the previous coach and asked what the chemistry was like. I’ve definitely cut players who might have been more skillful when I knew that they were going to negatively affect the team chemistry.
Is it always the players you look at or do you consider the parents too?
It’s a combination of both. You always want to give the kid a fair shake, but ultimately the parents pay the bills and they should be an active part of the team, so if they aren’t bought in either it is going to be a long season. I believe that all coaches try to treat the kids fairly but not all parents will see it that way and it is better to nip that in the bud at the start.
What are the first steps you take to develop cohesion between your players?
I like to have a team meeting with the players and parents to tell them my philosophy and what our initial goals are for the season. I meet with the kids again later to let them put their stamp on the goals though, to help buy them in to where we are going. Ultimately I am still the coach so I’ll make the decisions but they feel more empowered when coaches bring them into the conversation about where we are going. When I was a teacher we had SMART Goals and I try to incorporate those in order to make it clear to the players what we are working towards. If they don’t work on them I can then go back to what we have in writing and ask them what’s going on? I try to meet as often as I can with players individually and let them know that I am here for them. This is their team, not my team, which I think is where a lot of coaches fail. We are a very small piece of what they are doing and our job is to facilitate the environment.
How do you set the SMART goals?
For goals I try to make the specific and attainable. Teams tend to be too broad (“we’re going to do our best”etc.) and it is very difficult to achieve them or target how they would. We have a set methodology for how to achieve them, broken down to individual practices. I want our team to know when they are progressing by achieving specific benchmarks along the way.
How often do you have meetings with the parents? Do you talk to them at any other times?
I send weekly emails to them, not only with the administrative information but also to let them know what we are working on that week. They like to know what is going on with their kids and whether they are actually learning something. If they show up to practice they would then know what is going on. I also do bi-weekly check-ins with the parents through email or calls to see how they and their child are doing. It is tedious at times but the reality is that the parents love that you are taking the extra time to do it. I like to communicate with parents and I think it is important customer service. Once the parents are roped in the season becomes that much smoother.
How about communication with players?
After games or practices if a feel like a player did well I will not only praise them but I will do it in front of the parents. They will then go home on the car ride with the feeling of accomplishment. I try to be specific with the praise (not just “you played great”) like I love the way she went into tackles today. It is clear she has been working on that in practices. A lot of coaches just do the paintbrush and say it to everyone but by being specific it shows that it comes from the heart and that you mean it. I’ll also talk to players before practices or games if they are having a good week to encourage and reinforce that the hard work they are putting in is getting noticed.
Do you have a code of conduct or expectations that are laid out for players at the start of the year?
There are some non-negotiables in there but every team is different and I want it to be a living document so it isn’t the same from one year to the next. I take their information and try to make something that is true to that team. If I just dictate to them it might work for a while but long term you do better when everyone is committed to something they contributed towards. A 5th level team won’t have the same expectations as the 1st level team. Players have to be on time to practice or let me know if they will be late; they have to be prepared for games and practices; they don’t cuss at officials or other players; I don’t allow negativity between players or behind their backs; and I have the 24 hour rule for parents talking to me after games. Those are the non-negotiables but other than that we create the rules together.
If you see or hear players being negative to each other, what do you do about it?
Sometimes you have to jump in there immediately and use it as a learning tool for the whole team. You have to come down strong to show them that you are the boss and that what happened was a mistake but you are going to use it as a moment to bring everyone together. Sometimes they are more sneaky about it though and I will call or text them to arrange a meeting before the next practice to talk about it. I try not to do that in front of the group because it doesn’t sound good to be singled out. Lastly if it is really bad I will sit down with the parents too, but that is usually if it is a pattern of behavior. I’ll bring in the club too, to support the coach. If you have the code of conduct established early you can then mention it in the meeting.
Have you had to deal with cliques or specific bullying on teams? What do you do?
You are never going to get around cliques because kids will gravitate around certain friends on and off the field. It could just be that it is a strong friendship and they are not necessarily trying to be cliquey. I will do a lot of is teambuilding exercises where I am breaking down those barriers. When I partner people up I will find ways to partner with new people, not always with their friends. I’ll also create training environments where players are working with their positional partners – maybe the back four working together – to help them tactically but also to break up the friend groups.
I’ve had two situations with bullying on a team. The first one I took notes of examples of the bullying, took the kids aside and got individual interviews of what was happening then brought in the parents to have a meeting – saying that we need to handle it now and not let it go through the season. That was hard, first meeting with one set of parents then with both sets together. We had ground rules for the meeting as they can get very contentious. We’re not here to accuse, we are just letting people know how we feel and we want to make a good situation for the kids. Luckily this has worked pretty well. I had a high school experience too which was dealt without the parents and that also worked out well.
How often will you do activities at practice or outside of practices that help with cohesion?
Pre-season we will do a few of them: probably one each week. As the season progresses we will do more games during practices, maybe a fun activity during the warm up that helps them work together and develop team spirit. We will review our goals throughout the season too. For the parents we don’t do a lot of teambuilding activities as such, but we will try to include them on our team functions. Early in the season we might do miniature golf or pizza and they will be included on it. During the season after games we will go as a unit and bring the parents with us. I am a big believer in getting the parents to know each other to help develop a team culture. We always have a team party at the end of the season too.
So during practices what kind of activities will you do?
The games might not have anything to do with soccer. We might have them all sitting back to back with their legs out and have them try to stand up together; or maybe they have to hold a ball between their hips and see how far they can go; sometimes they will juggle together and call out how many they can get as a group; and tag games too.
Do you meet with players/parents individually?
At the end of the season I meet with both the player and the parent. I give the parent a sheet that breaks down the four pillars of the game – showing where the player is in comparison with the rest of the team. I go through it with the player and parent then. The parent is there to help relay the message and to help them keep working on specific things when they go home. Also many of the parents are not very educated on the game so bringing them into the meeting will help them to learn what the player needs to work on. I think we struggle with getting everyone on the same page, and bringing both to the meeting helps with that.
What do you say to your players during games? How do you read the emotion of the group and direct it?
I think every kid is a little different so you have to learn how to interact with each one. I try to keep things upbeat. When a coach tells the player they did something wrong but doesn’t give feedback it is frustrating to me. At the competitive level kids know when they made a mistake so they don’t need to be called out. I would prefer the coach to explain how they fix it for next time rather than just complain. My approach is either complimenting them on a good play or giving specific feedback. When I do sub players I will pull them aside and give positive feedback first before letting them know what they can try to work on. A don’t overwhelm them though – just a few little things to think about while they recover.
Some coaches pull players off the field when they make a mistake, which I don’t agree with. Sometimes they haven’t even been on the field very long either. I think it sends the wrong message when they don’t know what happened and when they fear making mistakes or taking risks.
What do you say at halftime?
I think it is important to let the kids decompress a little bit so I don’t get on them right away. I let them get their water and chat for a minute or two. Then I’ll take them on to the field, away from the bench area and I try to give 1-3 points that I think we are doing well, then a couple of adjustments – starting with the defense and working up through the team. Sometimes I’ll bring out a certain player in front of the group if they are playing well. For criticism I don’t call out players at all – I make it more about the team.
What do you see as the major factor that stops coaches being good at team social management?
They don’t know what to do. No one has ever taught them how to deal with parents. I stress the importance of developing a culture and team spirit. Some of the coaches have played the game and understand the tactics but they don’t understand the emotional component and the relationship with families. Unless you have been put in the situations where you might begin to understand how the parent is thinking about that child you don’t know how to deal with it. For a lot of coaches they are not parents themselves and for those who are they might parent differently than others so they don’t necessarily handle it the right way.
We need to expose coaches to a variety of situations but we also need to give them tools to help them along the way. Just as important though is being willing to go out there and learn how to do it. If anything this is more important than even some of the technical and tactical learning if you want your team to survive and succeed. A lot of players become coaches because they like the game but they fear or avoid the coaches. It is important that they are proactive and try to improve the relationship rather than shying away from it.
Where do you think you got your experience and approach to it from?
I was a teacher at a public school for 11 years so I had to deal with a variety of parents – from the calm ones to the very needy ones. Some had high or no expectations too. I taught P.E. so had to learn how to help kids with different ability levels too. Also though I am a father of four kids and they are all different, so I have had to learn to handle each in a different way. As a player I played at a high level, so I know how to deal with the expectations and can adjust my communication to fit their needs in those situations. Clearly there are different needs from a top team to a 4th or 5th team so knowing and recognizing the differences between those can be very important.
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