Vancouver Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie eyes the MLS Cup
Martin Rennie wants to win the Major League Soccer championship. That goes without saying, which is why the head coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps doesn’t feel the need to verbalize his desire for a league championship as a motivating tool for his team.
For Rennie, reaching the MLS Cup will only happen if his players pay very close attention to the small details he’s set out for them as they begin their new season March 2 against Toronto FC at B.C. Place Stadium.
The 37-year-old, starting his second season on the job, wants the ’Caps to build on the positives they accomplished last year, when they became the first Canadian MLS entry to qualify for the playoffs, making eventual champion L.A. Galaxy sweat in a hard-fought opening-round defeat. But Rennie is clear that when it comes to setting goals for his players—and, ultimately, for the organization as a whole—it’s far more important to start with small building blocks and work to something much larger.
“You want to score 20 goals; you want to play every game; you want to be on the all-star team—that has very little value, that’s basically just a list,” Rennie tells the Straight in a telephone interview from a preseason tournament in Charleston, South Carolina. “I think [that] in soccer, as in life, it’s really important to set goals that you can have an impact on.”
That’s why Rennie and his staff work closely with players to establish meaningful, tangible targets that will benefit both the individual and the group. Much of what the coach has his players aspiring to centres around training and practice habits rather than what happens once the referee blows his whistle and the game begins.
“You can be motivated by the idea of scoring 20 goals—and that would be something great and something that could happen—but it’s much more beneficial to focus on the things you can have an impact on,” Rennie explains. “You can control your attitude; you can control your work rate; you can control your eating habits; you can control your sleeping habits; you can control how much extra practice you do; you can control your visualization; and you can control how much belief and confidence you have. Those are all things you can spend time working on. If you do those things well, you’ll often find that the outcome is positive.”
Rennie has been around the game long enough to know the downside of goal-setting, too. He’s seen teams torn apart by players following their own agendas in pursuit of individual glory or players who set such lofty goals that they have no realistic chance of reaching them.
In those situations, the coach has to deal with players who feel they are failures when, in reality, they never gave themselves a chance to succeed.
“If a young player says, ‘I want to play 25 games,’ he has no control over that because I may not select him to play any,” Rennie says. “But if he says, ‘I want to put in extra sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays; [and] on Wednesdays I want to work on my finishing and I want to make sure I’m in bed at the right time every night,’ then even if he only plays two games instead of 25, he’s in a far better position than he was before.”
By taking the nucleus of last year’s team and adding more talent (including the recent signing of English Premier League veteran Nigel Reo-Coker), Rennie is hoping to create internal competition for jobs and playing time that will force players to work harder in training. The more players push themselves to prove to the coach that they want to get on the field, the better the options for Rennie and the Whitecaps.
The coach isn’t opposed to players verbalizing their goals, because it helps the staff determine the forces motivating each individual on the roster. But in the end, it’s a team game, and Rennie’s players have to understand that the only way any one of them will achieve individual results is with the full support and assistance of those around them.
And in the days leading up to the new MLS season, that’s a message the coach continues to drill into his squad. Rennie is well-aware of his role in helping his players grow and come together as a group in order to head for North American soccer’s promised land. But to make that happen, he requires motivated individuals prepared to pay a price.
“For goals to be achieved, three things have to happen: you have to really, desperately want to reach that goal,” he says of the players’ role in winning a championship. “You must be the kind of person that can achieve that goal, which means you have to have a self-confidence that allows you to believe it’s possible. And you have to take the steps necessary to reach that goal, which comes back to the hard work and the factors you can control that will allow you to achieve your goal.”
Rennie is as excited as anybody to get the new MLS season started. He knows exactly how he wants it to end; however, you won’t hear him say it. For the head coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps, the joy of the job is in the day-to-day details of motivating his players and pushing them to be their best. If he does that, the Whitecaps might just be the last team standing when the MLS Cup is awarded in December.