The Soccer Poet is none other than Dan Blank. His bio is at the bottom of this interview where you can find out more information about him. I am very confident that after you hear his insights on the game of soccer, you will definitely want more of his knowledge bombs. After reading one of his books called Rookie: Surviving Your Freshman Year Of College Soccer, I told Dan "if only I had read it before entering my college soccer career, it would have saved me so much frustration and agony". Let's dive in, not on a tackle, but into the wisdom of the Soccer Poet.
1. In your book Rookie, I really liked your discussion of the "bubble" and how players don't often realize how they were the big fish in a small pond until they play at the next level or venture outside of their immediate soccer community. What would you say to the player who loses their fire and passion for the sport when they realize they will no longer be the next superstar or play at their desired level?
There’s so much in life that we can’t control, but we can always control our response to whatever circumstance we face. If you’re not getting enough playing time to make you happy, you have to choose your response. The ideal response, from a coach’s perspective, is that you dig in and try to make a long term investment in becoming a better player. The problem is that many players have grown up in a world of instant gratification where any obstruction to their happiness has been instantaneously vaporized by their parents, so seeing past the next game is virtually impossible. The phrase ‘long-term’ is irrelevant.
When choosing a club or a college, I think players (and their parents) have to be realistic about their abilities and their chances to play. Everyone is happier playing soccer than watching it, so picking a place where you’re going to legitimately compete for playing time can save a lot of heartache.
As for a player that has lost her passion for the game… That’s a sad situation because at its core, soccer should be fun. That’s why we stick with it. But there’s no getting around it – college soccer is a job. You have to commit a lot of hours to it and that means sacrificing some other activities that might interest you. If you can’t keep finding joy in the daily grind, you’re going to struggle emotionally. If you lose your passion for playing, maybe it’s time to step back from the competitive grind of a varsity program and check out a looser structure like intramurals or the club team or even pick-up games.
2. You mention that players going into a college season should consider hiring a personal trainer to address their strength and conditioning. Can you please discuss the role you feel strength training plays for the soccer player?
Strength and conditioning has been probably been the single most noticeable advance in sports over the past 30 years, not just soccer. Go watch video of the 1982 NCAA men’s basketball final between UNC and Georgetown. That game featured future NBA rock stars like Patrick Ewing, James Worthy and Michael Jordan. If you watch that video, the first thing that jumps out is how skinny those guys are compared to today’s Div. I players. They look like today’s high schoolers.
I’ve been coaching women since 1991 and today’s players look a whole lot different than they did back then. Today’s players grow up in a world where strength training is expected of them, particularly if they plan on playing at the college level and particularly if they plan on chasing a scholarship. Once they’re at college, strength training is mandated. It’s part of the time commitment of being a college soccer player.
College soccer used to be almost entirely about what you could do with your feet. The strength and conditioning industry has changed all that. Coaches are all looking for bigger, faster, stronger athletes because soccer is a physical sport, not just a technical one. To stay competitive, strength training has to be a part of a player’s training regimen.
3. The Man U fitness test, consisting of hard runs of 105 yards has been referred to as "grueling". I believe you use it on the first day of preseason. Some coaches prefer to smash players from the start of preseason and see what kind of fitness levels they came into camp with, whereas other coaches choose to take a more cautious approach and gradually ramp up the training volume and intensity. What would you say your approach is and why?
I’m a big fan of fitness, but not of repetitive fitness testing. Some coaches use preseason to administer a battery of tests, and I used to be the same way, but my outlook has changed dramatically. A fitness test is exactly that – a test. You use it to determine a player’s level of fitness. Once you have that information, what’s the point in testing them over and over? Preseason is already grueling enough because you’re on the field twice a day fighting for a spot, and it’s usually hot as heck to boot. If you overdose on fitness, you’re going to end up with injury problems. If my team comes in fit, I’d rather spend preseason working on soccer things.
When preseason starts, I think there should be a test so a coach knows where his players are physically. It’s also a fantastic way to hold players accountable when they’re away for the summer and it gives them a goal to strive for in their summer training. I’m a big fan of the Man U test because it’s challenging, but it doesn’t really discriminate against the slower players. You don’t have to be fast to achieve a good score on Man U, you just have to be fit.
4. You discussed the love/hate relationship a lot of top athletes have with sports. It reminds me of a similar quote a movement teacher who gets amazing results with people and is known for being pretty demanding named Ido Portal says: "it doesn't have to be fun to be fun". In fact, our motto at Fresno State was "serious fun". Other than motivating me to train harder and often put in extra time on my own, in most cases an emotion like anger has been a self-destructive for my performance. Can you please elaborate on the love/hate relationship with soccer and shed some light on finding the right balance?
Part of the quote I used in ROOKIE is, “People don’t play sports because it’s fun. Ask any athlete; most of them hate it, but they can’t imagine their life without it.” I think anyone who has played a college sport can relate to that sentiment because there are definitely days that make you reconsider your decision to be a student-athlete.
College soccer is like a marriage of sorts. It’s a serious commitment, it consumes a lot of your time and it dramatically changes your social life... and there’s going to be days when you question whether or not it’s worth it. If you’re not absolutely in love with the sport, you’re going to struggle because you’re giving up so much to be a part of a college soccer team. What keeps you from walking away is that even on those days when you hate it, you still can’t imagine your life without it. You can’t imagine not being there the next day with your teammates. In your heart of hearts, you know that your life is better with it than without it. So you just put your head down and keep moving forward, grinding out one day at a time because soccer isn’t just a sport, it’s a part of who you are.
I’ve always believed that soccer practice should be the favorite part of a player’s day, that she should look forward to it when she wakes up and be a little bit sad when it’s over. That’s how I want my sessions to make them feel. That’s why I always tried to keep sessions up-tempo, competitive and challenging. That’s the best recipe I’ve found for fun. But the bottom line is that each player has her own goals, own priorities and own agenda, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for getting everyone to enjoy college soccer on any given day.
The simplest formula I know for finding the right balance is to give your very best each and every day. There’s so much you can’t control, and at the top of that list is playing time. But if you focus on what you can control and give your best to your teammates and coaches each and every day, you’ll finish your career with no regrets… which leads me to another quote I’m fond of: “None one ever regretted giving her best.”
5. Toughness both physically and mentally is a huge part of the game . Do you feel the two generally go hand in hand? Have you found that your toughest athletes are also the most disciplined people and most successful off the field?
I believe the two often go hand in hand on the field but that those qualities may have absolutely nothing to do with a discipline level off the field. There are so many definitions of toughness that it’s impossible to apply the same criteria to every player, but I think that toughness is ultimately a player’s ability to exist outside of her comfort zone. If I gave you three of the qualities I would consider in the definition of toughness for a soccer player, I would say work-rate, courage (willingness to risk their bodies) and pain tolerance. But I don’t know that there’s a direct correlation between that type of toughness and off-the-field discipline. I’ve coached a lot of extremely tough players who showed almost no discipline off the field. Maybe it’s because that level of courage makes them feel bulletproof or something. I really don’t know.
6. In Soccer iQ you discuss "playing from a spot" and talk about killing the ball with the first touch as opposed to a big touch forward that gives defenders a better chance of winning the ball. Are there instances in the game where you want players to take their first touch into a space?
Absolutely! There are many, many times when a player should explode forward with their first touch. The problem is that too many players take their first touch forward directly into pressure without even considering the idea of keeping the ball close to them. The best example I can think of in terms of a player who regularly played from a spot is Paul Scholes. Watch his Youtube video and you’ll see tons of examples where he kills the ball dead and then pings in a brilliant 30- or 40-yard pass. His long distribution is phenomenal and a lot of times it gets set up by keeping his first touch close to his body.
7. What do you love most about coaching the game of soccer?
I used to think I loved coaching because I loved soccer. One day I realized that although, yes, I absolutely love soccer, I love being part of a team even more. I love being on the field with the players. I love the teaching. I love the never-ending project of building the best possible team. And I love the relationships.
8. One of your books goes into detail about things that many coaches are afraid to tell female players because of their gender. What are two of the most common things you find coaches hold back and what is thecost/benefit of doing so?
A few days ago I got an email from a guy who read Everything Your Coach Never Told You Because You’re a Girl. He loved the book but he was stunned that someone actually came out and said all that stuff. But that was exactly the point of the book. Coaches censor the way they talk to female players and that censorship means we hold females to a lower standard than males. Don’t misunderstand; when I say ‘censor’, I’m not referring to obscenities. I don’t think coaches should be swearing at girls or boys. I’m referring to the intensity that we would naturally demand of boys that we often forgive in females.
I don’t think coaches hold back on soccer knowledge or even physical work, but we tend to censor ourselves about the effort of competitiveness and things like taking a physical risk. I’ll give you an example that I’ve seen a zillion times. A player watched a ball roll out of bounds when she may have been able to keep it in play if she slid, and the coach says nothing. How is that acceptable? If you can keep the ball in play at the risk of a stinkin’ raspberry, then get your butt on the ground and keep it in bounds! We’d never accept that lack of courage from a boy, but because we’re coaching girls, we just grin and bear it.
I think a lot of coaches struggle with getting girls to hold their teammates accountable about their effort. This isn’t a problem with boys because they’re constantly screaming at each other, but that’s not what I’m talking about either. I’m talking about demanding maximum effort from your teammates because that’s what you’re entitled to; and that’s what they’re also entitled to from you. That’s probably the main reason the team I wrote about overachieved on such a grand scale; they were wholly committed to one another and they weren’t afraid to hold a teammate accountable for the slightest dip in effort. That made every training session fiercely intense. As far as I’m concerned, that was our magic bullet.
9. Soccer iQ was your first book and has been the best-selling soccer book on Amazon since 2013. Why do you think it's so successful, and did you expect the response?
Soccer iQ is successful because the material is genuinely valuable and it's presented in a really easy-to-read fashion. It's very straight forward and the chapters are brief and sometimes it's a little bit funny. When I was writing it I sort of knew that I was onto something with massive potential. I realized that I was writing a book that coaches would want their players to read, and that's a pretty good business model. Word-of-mouth has been great, which is really helpful because I've literally put about 3 hours of a marketing effort into it. I like writing books, but I have no interest in doing the work to sell them. It's nice when they catch fire all by themselves.
The response to Soccer iQ continues to amaze me. Every week I get emails from people telling me how much they enjoy it and how it has helped their kids or their team. I can't ask for better than that.
10. How has reader response been to Everything Your Coach Never Told You Because You’re a Girl?
It’s been phenomenal! I’ve gotten emails from girls, women, mothers and coaches, and so many of them talk about how the book has inspired them. A lot of the moms are reading it together with their daughters, and that’s really cool to think that I’ve given them something to bond over. I’ve gotten emails from two separate women, both in their 30s, who long ago retired from soccer, and both said that this book has inspired them to dust off their cleats and start playing again. It’s amazing to have that kind of impact.
Friends who read the early drafts were convinced that this book would be bigger than Soccer iQ and I think they may be right. This book has so many applications that go way beyond soccer. The book centers around a soccer team, but the lessons are really about life, and that’s why so many readers are drawn to it.
Dan, thank you very much for answering my questions. I am sure anyone who reads this will walk away with things they can implement in their own relationship to soccer immediately.
Mat-Thanks for the interview! Those were some seriously good questions. Made me get my thinking cap on.
Dan Blank has over 20 years experience coaching college soccer, most recently at the University of Georgia. He holds an ‘A’ License from the USSF and an Advanced National Diploma from the NSCAA. His book Soccer iQ was named a Top 5 Book of the Year by the NSCAA Soccer Journal and has been the best-selling soccer book on Amazon since 2013. His other books include:
Soccer iQ Volume 2; Everything Your Coach Never Told You Because You’re a Girl; ROOKIE – Surviving Your Freshman Year of College Soccer; HAPPY FEET – Everything the Coach, the Ref, and Your Kid Want You to Know; and POSSESSION – Teaching Your Team to Keep the Darn Ball.
Find out more about Dan's great books by clicking on them below: