October 6, 2009
You Are Who You Watch by Ian Sawyers
When I was growing up a soccer-mad youngster in England, the way we truly learned to play was by copying the game we watched. Whether it was on television, or for those lucky enough to soak it up at a live match, our “lessons” came by going out to the streets, and in informal kick-rounds, attempting to copy the professionals we had seen play the game.
My wife, Hall of Fame soccer star Julie Foudy, tells a different story of her childhood. It includes her early memories of the only available athlete role models she could find — professional American football and basketball players.
It’s true that in the past in this country, it’s been difficult to find the top players to imitate, especially for girls. But the new Women’s Professional Soccer leagues, and teams like Sky Blue FC, are a positive step in the right direction. Now, you can complete the pieces of your soccer education with the third and vital part, of the equation: train, play, watch.
Why watch the game? There are a lot of reasons, but as an educational tool it’s simple: you can’t do what you can’t see. Soccer is a visual game and a lot of young players are visual learners.
Establishing mental images by watching my heroes play provided me with a road map equal to watching a TV re-run. I knew what was coming next in a given situation as I felt I had already seen it and lived it, and all I had to do was copy the movement.
A sports psychologist and old friend of mine once told me “the brain cannot differentiate between what is real and what is imagined.” This has helped me a lot in my coaching career to try and encourage a constant use of mental imagery and “creating good pictures” in the soccer brain. It is said that the best players have good vision — the seeming ability to see the entire field and anticipate potential movement. Sure, this comes from playing experience, but this experience also includes the careful attention to the skill of experts and role models and thus the formation of “positive pictures.”
There are many ways to watch the game, each of them valuable and interesting. Watch with an eye toward different aspects of play. Isolate your watching experience. Start with the warm-up, one of the most essential parts of the game, and often overlooked by youth players. The warm-up of a professional entails many parts. It has a progression; it is physical (what they do); emotional and mental (How they act and feel. For example, do they chat with teammates? Are they silent and focused on their effort?). Imagine what would work best for you in a warm-up, or for your team.
During the game, try focusing on a player in your position, and then, switch focus to another aspect, such as movement off the ball. Most people watch the obvious — the action with the ball — but it is the activity that goes on all around that sets up that pass or shot. Consider this: on average, a player runs between 5 and 6.5 miles per game, yet the distance that player covers with possession of the ball is only 2 percent of that, about 200 yards. So obviously, there’s a lot to learn by watching what goes on all over the field.
Finally, watch the game because you enjoy it. What happens on the field is just a part of what WPS will offer you. Game days are also opportunities to celebrate your sport, and to share an exciting and fun experience with family, friends and teammates. It is also one of the rare opportunities to be with them in a relatively relaxed atmosphere, without the stress of usual of competition with your club or school teams. And, too, you will share that sense of pride when you look out at the greatest women players in the world and think: I play that game too. And I can dream to become one of those players.
Ian Sawyers is the general manager and head coach of Sky Blue FC , the NY/NJ franchise of Women’s Professional Soccer.
Check back next week for another great article.