Every professional coach is striving for an undefeated season, every season. Their jobs are dependent upon winning games so it makes sense that their goal would be a perfect record.
The possibility of an undefeated season also entices plenty of youth coaches, even Balanced Coaches. I recently completed my first undefeated season in almost 20 years of coaching youth sports. After experiencing this, I wanted to share some of the observations I made from this past season.
Let me set the stage with a bit of background information. The team I was coaching was a 10U boys soccer team in the AYSO program. Our league splits the season in half between Fall and Spring.
Our league sets the Fall game schedule randomly, but uses the Fall win-loss records to set the Spring. They do this to help ensure evenly-matched games in the Spring.
My 10U boys team this year ended their combined Fall / Spring season with a final record of 20-0. They also won the end-of-season tournament out of a field of 34 teams.
Most of these boys I’ve coached for several seasons since they were in 7U. And while they won a lot of games this year, that has not always been the case. In our first two years (7U and 8U), we had pretty dismal records often losing games by large margins. When they hit 10U that changed significantly.
The first year in 10U, they did very well. They had a winning record and even won the tournament at the end of the season in a penalty kick shootout. This year, in 10U again, they came back and had a completely undefeated season.
I have to give a lot of credit to the Balanced Coaching Philosophy for the change from 7U to 10U. I focus on developing skills and strategies while having fun and that kept these kids interested in the game. That, in turn, has turned them into a winning team.
The Fall Season
I started the Fall season not knowing what to expect. We had just come off a great first year in 10U. We we won the majority of our games the first year, including the tournament championship, but we were a far cry from being undefeated.
Going into this season, I’d lost many of my players from the prior year as they had moved up to 12U. In fact, I only had seven kids on my roster in an age division that played 7-v-7. That meant I had no subs to give kids a rest and no buffer if someone was gone.
On top of that, only four of my seven players were returning from the prior year. The other three were brand new to the team or to soccer in general.
Our First Wins of the Season
Needless to say, I was bit nervous when we showed up at the field for our first game of the season. We walked away with a win and a nice start to the year, but I knew one game didn’t make a trend.
I still didn’t really know how we stacked up against other teams. It was possible we played an easy team in our first game. It wasn’t until our second and third wins that I realized we were capable of competing with the other teams. But even then, I hadn’t been thinking about an “undefeated season”.
Once we had about five wins under our belts, the boys realized they hadn’t lost yet and started talking about it. After a game, they’d comment that they were still undefeated. I tried my best to keep them focused, but being undefeated was always in the back of their minds. After a certain point, I have to admit, it was on my mind as well.
When we finished our Fall season, we hadn’t lost any games and the boys were very excited to point this out. It came up numerous times during our post-game chat. They also made a pretty big deal of it to their parents, siblings and grandparents.
Of course, I congratulated them and praised them for their outstanding effort. But internally, I was a bit worried about how the Spring season might go.
The Spring Season
When Spring practice started, the first conversation the boys had was about their undefeated Fall season. I worried that they may get cocky or even complacent. I knew that the Spring schedule would be more difficult due to our Fall performance.
The first game of the Spring season showed me that I was right to have some worry. We played a good team in a very tight game. We ended up winning by scoring a goal in the final minute of the match.
However, my most important observation in the first game was how the responded to difficult game situation. This was the most pressure they’d seen from another team and they didn’t take it quite as well as I would have liked. Yes, they ended up winning the game, but their approach left something to be desired.
When the other team tied the score, I could see a change in the eyes of my team. They were worried they might lose (or tie) and ruin their perfect record. They started playing more wildly and forgot about our game plan. Some of the stronger players tried to do everything themselves and showed a loss of trust in their teammates.
When the other team tied the game up, there were even some tears shed. My boys started playing with their heads down almost as if they were accepting defeat. After they scored the final goal and won the game we talked about what happened out on the field. Several of them said they had been worried about losing their undefeated record.
I knew I needed to make some changes if we were going to survive the Spring.
I realized the first thing I needed to do was to reiterate that being undefeated was not our goal. We wanted to be competitive and to win games, but also wanted to get better at soccer and have fun.
We talked about ways to find the good and fun in every game – even a defeat. This was my way of trying to help them understand that winning, and a perfect record was not everything. I reminded them that if they listened, played hard and had fun, I’d never be disappointed in the outcome of a game. They needed reinforcement to know that it would be OK if they lost!
We also talked a lot about how we play as individual and as a team regardless of the score of the game. We talked about keeping our heads up and having a short-term memory. If something negative happens while playing, you have to forget about it and keep playing your game. This discussion seemed to resonate with the boys.
Our second and third games were much easier and we won handily. But there were still harder games to come including the playoffs.
Focusing on the Present
As we continued to win our Spring season games inching closer the the playoff, the kids put a different kind of pressure on themselves. Not only were they trying to stay undefeated, but they wanted to go home with first place trophies.
I too wanted them to win the playoffs, but new we had some more mental work we needed to do to get there.
The reminders of how to handle tough situations on the field had gone a long way in some of our harder games. Even though it too more reminders, the boys did a much better job of playing through adversity when it occurred. That said, while we did see a couple tougher leading up to the playoffs, we had beaten each one by at least a couple goals. So their mental toughness hadn’t been tested too much yet.
Our test came in the first game of the playoffs. My team was coming in undefeated with the expectation of winning. I was concerned they were focusing too much on the future and possibility of a championship. So before our first playoff game, I started a new mantra for our team:
“One game at a time, one goal at a time”
One Game at a Time, One Goal at a Time
What does that mean? First, it meant the team shouldn’t be thinking about what’s going to happen in future games. They needed to concentrate on the task at hand.
Second, it meant that the team needed play the game one step at a time. If the other team scored against us, I didn’t want my team thinking about the number of goals they needed to regain the lead. I wanted them thinking about only one thing: the very next goal. One of the two teams would make the next goal and we wanted it to be our team.
I repeated the mantra multiple times during warm-up and pre-game discussion as well as at quarter breaks. It seemed to work really well for my team and helped them stay focused on the task at hand.
In our first playoff game, we actually found ourselves losing at one point. This was a pretty unfamiliar territory for the boys to be in. Using our new mantra of “one goal at a time” and keeping our heads up, we were able to come back and win that game.
Ending the Undefeated Season
The team was able to win all their playoff games including the well-contested championship game. They ended their season with a first place win and a perfect 20-0 record. They were elated with the outcome and I was extremely proud of their growth along the way to getting there.
Like them, I learned a lot from this experience. Being undefeated is great, but it caused us problems in a couple different ways. First, the team felt a lot of pressure (self-imposed) to continue their winning streak. Second, their winning streak caused them to focus too much on the future.
I reduce the pressure on them by reminding them any game outcome was OK if they played hard. I also saw a lot of benefit in repeating our mantra of “One game at a time, one goal at a time” to keep them focused on the present.
Hopefully, this can help you if you find yourself in a similar situation with a team on a run for an undefeated season.
Leave a comment below if you’ve had any other helpful tips on working with an undefeated team.