Demystification

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It’s all part of a process; finding out what works and what doesn’t. And there are always going to be speed bumps along the way.” –Ben Olsen, head coach, D.C. United

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One of the many hats I wear in my personal life is that of a youth soccer coach, so needless to say, I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I got the chance to attend a special open practice/coaching clinic event put on by our local major league soccer [MLS] franchise, the D.C. United, this past August.

[Now, bear with me everyone – there’s a trucking tie-in to this story … and a valuable one I think.]

Let me be honest: “good fortune” is an understatement, coming from my perspective. For me and probably a hundred other youth coaches to get an inside “soup-to-nuts” overview of a professional soccer team practice, with an hour or so clinic conducted by D.C. United’s coaching staff – head coach Ben Olsen, with assistants Chad Ashton and Pat Onstad – thrown in for good measure, is like winning the mega-millions lottery.

I mean, here’s my chance (so I thought at the time) to get a glimpse of the true “magic” that goes into crafting top-flight soccer players – to see the “special drills” and “secret” training methods used at the professional level first hand. My only worry, I recalled, centered around whether I’d remember everything so I could at least distill some of it down for the girls soccer teams I help coach.

So just imagine my surprise … no, let me start over. Imagine my utter and total SHOCK when, after the players finish warming up, they start using the EXACT same “small side games” our youth teams use in their practices – especially several variations of the time-honored “Dutch square,” which is about as ubiquitous a drill in soccer as you can get.

I simple could NOT believe my own eyes ... or ears, for that matter, as Ashton explained that the same drills are used from the youth level all the way up through the professional ranks, with the key differences being the pace (how fast the players are expected to work through it), the layers of complexity (in terms of what skill sets must be used), and the objectives.

[That's Ashton's boss, head coach Ben Olsen, below ... a guy who spent 11 seasons as a soccer player himself before becoming D.C. United's head coach midway through 2010.]

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In the end, what I took away from my day with the D.C. United boiled down to this: there is no “mystery” or “magic training” in soccer. You take time-honored training methods, build in more complexity as the players get older/faster/more skilled, make sure they work hard, and above all aim to create a “game-like” feel for each drill, as well as for the overall practice. Because playing a game is more fun – and elicits harder work and more skill development – then just going through a boring routine day in and day out.

OK … so what does all of this have to do with trucking, you ask?

The lesson here, I believe, is in rethinking how the industry approaches recruiting and training new drivers – especially ones with no family ties to trucking.

Anecdotally, almost the very first thing “non-industry” folks I talk to about driving tractor-trailers mention is that they are often intimated by the sheer size of these vehicles.

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This isn’t a bad thing, mind you, for this view often generates a healthy amount of respect for big rigs on the road. But many think, “Whoa, how do I get THAT thing around a corner?” or “Man, I can’t shift six gears well … let alone 18!”

No, certainly, a big rig ain’t no car and can’t be treated as such (especially where sharp turns are concerned). But tractor-trailers ARE vehicles and their operating principles mirror those of automobiles. You steer the same way, you have an accelerator and brake pedal, side mirrors, etc.

The point is, for a new driver, pointing out the similarities between big rigs and cars, and then building training upon them, can in many ways lessen that sense of intimidation … and thus help make the training sink in better.

Let me return to my soccer experience to explain. Rookie youth coaches like me can often get tripped up watching better teams and saying to themselves, “Wow, what are they doing that makes them so much better?” The answer is … well, nothing really. They use the same drills as the rest of us – they just practice harder, focus better on the skill sets they need to develop, work on fitness more, etc.

Of course, the quality of the player – just like the quality of the driver – is what ultimately makes the difference. The right attitude, work ethic, and especially inner desire to improve combine to separate the best from the rest. But you can’t coach that – it’s either there, waiting for the coach to help bring it fully to life within the player, or it isn’t.

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The other key piece here gleaned from D.C. United’s coaching clinic is that the soccer drills themselves are deliberately simplistic. What makes them more complex is what occurs DURING the drill. Much like a soccer game, there is a basic set of rules, but then different variations can be added … mirroring the unexpected things that happen on the field of any sporting contest, much less a soccer match.

What happens over time is that burgeoning soccer player gets grounded in some critical fundamentals first, with specific skills layered in over time. The same should be said of truck drivers as well. Every motorist should be grounded in the basics of “defensive driving” techniques, proper lane change etiquette, speed management due to road and weather conditions, etc., because they stay the same regardless of what kind of vehicle he or she operates.

Thus by “demystifying” the process of becoming a truck driver – by showing how an everyday motorist already grounded in good driving fundamentals can step up and pilot a big rig – more good quality folks can hopefully be attracted to the profession.

It’s just a thought of course … but with the industry predicted to be short some 400,000 drivers in the not-so-distant future, trucking’s going to need every idea it can lay its hands on in order to find some solutions.

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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