Albeit the quote above is by an American Football Coach, but ladies and gents, it’s relevant. As I continue to expand my coaching portfolio within this country, I am beginning to notice some reoccurring themes. Themes which I am starting to lose sleep over. Before I start my rampage on the US Club Soccer circuit, let me preface this by saying I am not championing my own ability, nor am I going to rip into every club soccer coach in the US, but if you read this blog post and think “Nah, I don’t do that,” the chances are it’s you who I am talking to. If you read this, analyze your sessions and work in infinite detail immediately, the chances are you are doing terrific work, and I implore you, despite the crappy pay, the politics and irritating parents, please continue to make whatever difference you can.
I make a point to arrive at my sessions over an hour early. This way I get to set up entirely before the kids arrive allowing my session to flow seamlessly, but more importantly for me, I get to watch every other session going on at my club. I love watching other people coach, good, bad or indifferent. There is always something to take from watching other sessions, both positive and negative. I have done this both at clubs I have worked at, at school programs I have worked at, and I have even gone to training fields of multiple other clubs that I have no affiliation to, solely to watch the “education” being given to young players in the area. Allow me to be diplomatic for a moment and say that I am not exactly blown away. For me there are a few issues that stand out.
Firstly, the lack of care and time put into a session by the majority of coaches is miniscule. Your team’s session should not be something that you “have to do tonight.” This is a craft. If you have multiple teams, this is also your living. Coaching is a artform and just like with anything else, the devil is in the detail. If you do not care about your work and the impact that you can have on so many young lives, not only in their ability and decisions within the game itself, but how they feel towards this game, then it is tough to ask the kids to care, let alone perform to the levels you hope for. If your heart is not in this and it is just a job, please, I urge you, find another job. The pay will probably be greater and less lives will be impacted. I see too many coaches in California especially arriving late, using time within the session that they are paid to coach, to “set up”. I see multiple coaches training multiple teams at the same time, meaning each team is not having it’s individual problems resolved. and time with each player is diminished. Coaches with multiple teams training back to back to enable them to have a couple of nights off during the week, usually resulting in the quality of the second session diminishing. This is not a taxing a job. The average session runs for an hour and a half, two to three times a week. That is maximum four and a half hours work. Let’s say you have two teams, nine hours a week. In a working week there are 120 hours, and we have hundreds of club coaches across the country who cannot work extremely hard and put their heart and soul into their work for 7.5% of that time. It is a real shame. Take care, take pride and maximize the time you have making an impact on young lives in the game we love.
Secondly, the content of the average club session is insufficient more often than not. I once witnessed a coach spending forty minutes with his boys team working on indirect free-kicks inside the box. Now I am 25 years old, and in my life I have probably seen 6 of these occur, and played or coached in probably 4 games where this has happened. That’s one every two and a half years of my life. Then Saturday and Sunday roll around and the team can’t keep the ball and the coach berates them at half time because they can’t keep possession. Well yes coach, technically you’re right. But why can’t they keep possession? Have you spent any time on it? Have you worked on their touch? Have you worked on their off the ball movement to enable the possession? Have you worked on their decision making? Have you set the team style and philosophy, and preached it to them over and over again so that their decisions are ingrained? I doubt it. The average club game mirrors the average club practice. It is random. The ball bobbles around in a human pinball machine until the biggest, fastest kid breaks free and bundles the ball into the goal. Call me snooty, but this is not developmental soccer. Coaches the “we just talked about this,” is not good enough. Work on it, spend time on it, show them, then you can expect results. If you berate the players and threaten them with running, all you will do is end up having the fittest players, with the worst touch, with the worst decision making capabilities and who are scared of every touch they take for fear of enduring another public dressing down or another grueling run. Encourage them, players make mistakes at the top level everyday, it will be okay, just correct the mistake for the next one.
Finally, the dreaded word, recruitment. The top teams constantly recruiting the top players. Something that is rife amongst the MLS academies. For any of you reading this as parents of talented kids. Before you ever make a decision have your kids train with both teams on more than one occasion. Go yourself and watch the sessions, listen to what is being taught and instructed and think about which coach is going to give your child the best development. Not which team is better, but which is better for your child. Who will your child learn from the most. That is where you should remain. If you want your child to play at the next level, nobody will care that he was on a team that won U11 State Cup or that he was the unused sub on the NY Red Bulls Academy winning team. However they will care if his technical skills are up to scratch, they will care how his brain analyzes the game, what decisions he makes, not how many childhood medals sit on his bedpost in his parents’ house. For those of you who are coaches and are reading this and thinking the parents will never make the right decision, that they don’t know anything, well most of the time you’re right. A lot of parents have never played the game themselves and are unsure of what is right and wrong in the game. It is our job to educate them as well, not exclude them and berate them to other coaches for being uneducated within the sport. Help them too. If you are concerned about what they are yelling from the sideline. Share with them your philosophy, what you are trying to teach. I send a copy of every session I do, complete with diagrams and notes to all my parents the night before, and I urge them to stay at practice, to listen, in essence, to learn. Pretty quickly you will have everyone on board. Parents know what you want, they have heard your points, seen your demos and corrections, seen what you worked on in sessions and come match day they support you, not contradict. If you want the situation to be different with your own team, work to make it different. For me, the “running of your kids” and the recruitment side of the game is merely papering over the cracks of poor coaching. If your team performs below par, ask why, it is not just because they are poor players. Ask why they are poor players, are you maximizing every piece of potential you can as a coach? Have you put them into a system or position that suits their ability and individual strengths and minimizes individual weaknesses? We can always do more, we can always learn more as a coaching community.
However, it is not just those toiling away in the club scene that are facing these issues. It goes all the way to the top. The people who are supposed to set the bar for us as coaches. Fox Soccer released an article today on the “scouting system” of US Youth National Team Soccer. How great it is, how it’s grown, how they are finding the right players. Wonderful news right? Wrong. If you are telling us, the adoring soccer community in the United States, that you are finding all the talented players, that no stone is unturned, then why are the youth national teams failing? Why is there still no success? What are you doing when you get all these great players? What is being taught? Who is teaching it? If you can preach to us that you have all the tools, which I actually agree with, having frequented all the youth national team camps for years now, then why are you not achieving anything? There is talent here, a lot. I see it every day. It gets attention from top clubs and leagues all over the world every single day. The USSF can release it’s smoke and mirrors articles through Fox Soccer every time there is a youth national team failing, but the underlying message is that they have the talent but they don’t know what to do with it. The US youth national teams are crying out for an overhauling the coaching staff. The English team have had a quite frankly embarrassing summer at the youth level, and the English FA have recognized there needs to be a change in the quality of coaching. They need better educators. Stuart Pearce has already gone from his u21 position, and it is expected Peter Taylor will lose his role as u20 coach. Back here Richie Williams has kept his role and is expected to continue with the new residency intake. There are no whispers of Tab Ramos leaving his role at u20 level. The players move on, their instructors remain. The US needs coaches put in place that match the potential playing ability of the wonderful array of natural youth talent in this country.
As I mentioned at the beginning, it is not all coaches, on the national team staff for example Hugo Perez is a shining light. For those who followed the u20s pre-Toulon until the present day, you will have noticed a considerable upturn in style of play since Hugo joined the u20 staff as an assistant coach. Caleb Porter runs wonderful sessions and implements a very clear philosophy with his players, striving for excellence. In a US Open Cup game when 4-0 up at half-time he kept his centre backs on the field to clear up discrepancies in their play. Every detail is important and he strives for excellence, and thus his Portland Timbers side are taking the MLS by storm, not just with results but the manner in which they are achieved. I see a handful of coaches in SoCal whose sessions I love to watch, whose kids are getting wonderful education. Coaches who pour their soul into their sessions. For the people at the top, the MLS Academy Directors, the USSF Youth National Team staff, if you are recruiting multiple players off the same team or same coach, ask yourself why? What is he or she doing that is making these players so desirable. Go and watch their sessions, listen to them, because it may just be the value is not in the players at all, but who is behind it. These maybe the very individuals that we need at the top of the game to make the difference. I have regularly heard the phrase, “There is no better teacher than the game.” There is. A great coach, with great sessions and great man-management is the teacher we should all strive to be.