Practicing on the pitch: A glimpse into a CMU soccer practice
Soccer fans at Central Michigan University see the 90 minutes of action on the pitch between the Chippewas and their opponents, but don’t see the hours of dedication put in by the team’s coaching staff, athletic trainers and 28 players who make up the 2015 soccer unit.
Head Coach Peter McGahey said practices typically take longer to plan than they do to execute.
“One of the things we were working on was twofold,” McGahey said. “One was to continue to imprint the idea of our identity — that we’re going to be a passing and pressing team. Basically we sit down as a staff and we look at what our learning objectives are for the week.”
Weekly practice is where a majority of the team’s fine-tuning occurs. There is only so much a coaching staff can control during the course of a match, so the sessions are all CMU has to be as close to perfection as possible.
Central Michigan Life got a glimpse into what goes into a typical weekday morning soccer practice, from the opening warmup drills to the final cool down and injury-prevention exercises at the tail end of practice.
“It is a matter of now of finding activities from your stable of activities that engage (the team),” McGahey said. “Sometimes it’s a matter of finding the activity that fits with what you want and also the right activity that fits with the team because some teams are just drawn to some games more than others.”
Wednesday, Sept. 30
Players begin arriving at the CMU soccer/lacrosse stadium just before 8 a.m. From there, the team gathers in their team meeting room at the new facility for a quick film session, which is typical for Wednesdays to go over footage from previous matches.
At 9 a.m., the team hits the pitch and begins practice.
A typical practice will begin with what are called “pre-hab” drills. Utilized primarily for injury prevention, these drills on this particular Wednesday were moved to the end of CMU’s practice, which is not out of the ordinary so the team can change things up once in awhile.
Volunteer Assistant Coach Tomás Barrett said the team decided to focus on starting slow, with some light running and stretching which is followed by more running so the players stay loose, especially on a chilly morning where the temperature failed to reach 55 degrees for most of the practice.
“Peter (McGahey) will kind of vary it from day to day,” Barrett said. “We’ll either go straight into something competitive so (the team) will have to get switched on fast or we’ll gradually build it up so they’ll be a little bit of a smaller session before something competitive.”
With there being two home games against Mid-American Conference teams in Miami and Ball State on the ledger for the weekend at the time, the head coach chose for more of the competitive style of practice.
The team then splits into smaller groups to work on fine-tuning their respective skills, whether it’s 4-on-4-on-4 drills, defensive drills or goalie practice, all aspects of practice are important.
An example of a more competitive drill, 4-on-4-on-4 is where a player in the drill wears either an orange, yellow or blue vest over her practice attire. Two teams will then work on passing the ball and keeping it away from those wearing blue vests in what an onlooker might call ‘keep away.’
“Whoever doesn’t have the ball has two teams against them so you’re outnumbered by two when you don’t have the ball,” Barrett said. “You need to work at, instead of just running at the ball, closing the spaces. From a defender’s point of view, because you’re outnumbered you need to be creative in how you close people down.”
At the same time, the goalkeepers on the roster go to one end of the pitch to work on goalie drills in the net with Assistant Head Coach and Director of External Affairs Joe Nemzer.
For the goalkeepers, it has all been about game situations and how to simulate them in a lower intensity environment.
Working with freshman Zoie Reed, and seniors Maddy Bunnell and Kristen Knutson this year has been a positive experience for Nemzer. He said he has seen both of their games improve over the course of the season.
“We build our sessions kind of like a mechanic,” Nemzer said. “You put them in situations where all of the technical issues are at the forefront where you can see them, expose them and really work and fix them. I can point out stuff at a really technical, foundational level.”
Each of the goalkeepers has a different set of skills and a different way of attacking the position. Nemzer said he is proud of how all three of them with how they’ve dealt with adversity this season.
“It’s different because (Reed), for example, is in her first season and her progression has been really good,” Nemzer said. “She’s kind of picking up on my lingo and how we’re working as a group. (Knutson), this is now season number two, so she’s really familiar with the progression of the season and how it works. (Bunnell), in year three, she and I have a very good rapport in regards to what the expectation is in training and what we’re trying to build toward and what we value.”
Simultaneously, another small group breaks off with Assistant Head Coach and Director of Internal Affairs Cassie Weik to work on more of a defensive-focused routine, similar to the one monitored by McGahey.
CMU’s proceeding drill trains the midfielders in linking up with the strikers and then supporting the strikers once they have the ball, as they approach the opposing goalie’s box with hopes of scoring a goal.
Another important preparation tool, this exercise helps to tidy up the communication between players as well, whether it’s on the attacking or defensive side of the ball.
“We’re getting the ball into our strikers’ feet and they hold it up quite well but they need to come and support too because they’re stranded on their own.”
Keeping with the fashion of multitasking, the team’s wide players work on similar drills, only focused on the opposite side of the ball.
“You’ve got the wide players here getting to do a lot of things and then you’ve got the center players getting to do what they actually do in a game.”
Continuing with the theme of putting his players into game situations, McGahey prepares his team for MAC play by training for what they would most likely see against the RedHawks on Friday and the Cardinals on Sunday.
As a team, the Chippewas place importance on having quick transitions so they can press fast and get a shot off in as little time as possible.
Opponents are most vulnerable right when they lose the ball on the attack, so pushing a team fast with possession of the ball and limiting them to five shots is part of the process of working out what CMU’s adversaries will try to do.
“When you’re in your own defending half (in this drill), you need to take five passes before you can start attacking, so basically we’re mimicking what the team will do on the weekend,” Barrett said.
Once the opening whistle blows at the start of the match and given the nature of the game of soccer, few things can be controlled after this point, with the exception of free, corner and penalty kicks.
Highly monitored and scrutinized at professional levels, these drills offer players an atypical lack of control over the game and can provide quality scoring opportunities.
This is a part of CMU’s game that Barrett said the team needs to put a lot of stock into. It is the only time during the course of a match where teams can stop, get into formation and actually have a play ready to go.
“These will be practiced over and over at the highest level and people will be staying after practice just to get these right,” he said. “If you can make the most of those, even to get a shot off. Soccer is a very unpredictable sport. This is the one predictable part you can have-it’s the most manageable part. If you can look after things you can actually control, that’s a big deal.”
On average and depending on the caliber of the league, a team will receive less than six corners or free kick chances per match and next to zero penalty kicks.
The day’s practice begins to wind down, as players regroup and begin their pre-hab exercises, normally done at the beginning of practice.
Injury prevention is key in any sport, but CMU’s soccer program is going the extra mile to ensure its players will be in top shape when it is time to play a game.
Barrett said he has noticed a positive effect on the overall health of the roster in his brief time volunteering with the program. It has worked extremely well in his opinion and was initiated after the ACL injury epidemic from two seasons ago.
“All the technology we have is to help,” he said. “So far so good.”
After the cool down, players receive individual treatment from the team’s athletic trainers and practice comes to a close, only to resume again in 24 short hours.