Developing young talent is a fundamental aspect to any collegiate sports program.
The Massachusetts men’s soccer team has been forced to do so right away, as many inexperienced players have been asked to step up and produce due to injuries and the absence of last year’s graduate seniors.
UMass coach Sam Koch said that young players have a difficult time developing the mental toughness necessary to succeed at this level, which is one of the many obstacles they must learn to overcome.
“Control the things you can control,” said Koch. “You can’t control a guy hitting the best shot of his life, but what you can control is closing him down and making it hard for him to do it.”
A player with little experience may have trouble questioning himself instead of trusting his natural abilities and playing with confidence out on the field. When a “green player” – a player Koch refers to as inexperienced – gets caught up in all the pressure, they begin to overthink the overall objective and start playing a step behind.
“When you simplify it, then you have better chances for success,” said Koch. “Learning that is probably the biggest change for a lot of guys.”
The Minutemen (1-7-0) have encountered injuries during the season that have forced Koch to turn to his bench to fill the lineup, notably Wednesday’s match against Hartford when senior Andrew Henshaw and sophomore Brett Canepa were sidelined.
Fortunately for UMass, many of the team’s young players are starting to emerge.
Freshman defender Matt Keys has stepped in and started from day one for the Maroon and White. The Norfolk native has shown great promise in his play thus far, as Koch noted that the Minutemen “haven’t missed a beat with him in there.”
Fellow freshman Josh Schwartz has seen significant playing time as well, starting six of the first eight games of the season. The forward has played very well at times, but has also struggled, which Koch attributes to a lack of confidence.
“There’s no question [that] he’s going to be a very, very good player for us, but right now he’s not sure [of himself],” said Koch. “Some of the things he was able to do before, he can’t do now at this level and so I think he’s questioning himself.”
Freshmen Zach Miller and Jake Murphy have also stepped in and contributed in their first year with the program.
According to Koch, sophomores Nigel Negm, Dan Sangster and Josh Gosselin have been given crucial roles on the team, despite the fact they entered the season with no game experience for UMass.
Grooming young players is a process that involves obstacles. But some players are better suited to adapt to the college game quicker than others.
Koch acknowledged that experiencing the game on the field is an important step in the maturing process for a young player. However, he tries to do so at an opportune time so as not to jeopardize the success of the team.
“You try to do the best you can to keep the team winning and focused on winning and get the freshmen in where they can learn and not have an effect on the outcome,” said Koch.
Other players that have been with the program for years have been given greater roles on the team.
Junior Hellah Sidibe has started every game for UMass this season at the forward position after starting twice in his sophomore campaign.
Despite the lack of experience, the Minutemen are not about to make excuses for their slow start to the season.
“[The] bottom line is we’ve played enough now to know what we’re doing and we’re just not doing it at the level we need to for the time needed to get the results,” said Koch.
As the season progresses, UMass’ “green” players will attempt to work out the kinks and erase their mistakes as the schedule turns to Atlantic 10 play in two weeks.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at email@example.com.