Re-print Courtesy of Soccer Journal
A young George Karl about to embark on a career in coaching calls his mentor, the legendary college basketball coach Dean Smith, to seek advice. Coach Smith offers a few thoughts for young George, one of which stays with him forever: “When your team loses, it’s your fault.”
Nearly 1,200 wins later, good for sixth most in the history of the NBA, Karl knows all too well what Coach Smith is saying, “As the coach, the buck stops with me and I am responsible for the team’s performance. Secondly, it means I haven’t prepared my team enough.”
“I am responsible for the team’s performance.” “I haven’t prepared my team enough.”
The two thoughts seem obvious in coaching – ownership of process, teaching, rigorous preparation, leadership. But, when spoken out loud, these two sentences illuminate how extraordinary, and rare, these qualities actually are in the modern culture of coaching, the world of soccer, and in particular, youth soccer.
The Theater of Youth Soccer
There are many reasons for this, but two come to mind. First, top soccer coaches are now rock stars and celebrated on par with the world’s best players. Pep, Jurgen, Jose, the list goes on, are one-named icons and viewed the same today as when the 1980s ushered in the era of celebrity CEOs – Welch, Gerstner, Iacocca.
The second reason is the professionalization of youth soccer.
- It’s become a big business, estimated as a $5 billion annual industry.
- Youth soccer is the foundation of our soccer system. Every national team player, MLS player, college player, and high school player starts somewhere at one of the 6,000 youth clubs in the United States.
- There are more jobs, and now a real pathway, for professional coaches. The landscape is expanding and changing before our eyes with the growth of professional academies, elite national leagues and clubs doing everything possible to win their share of dollars in the market. This creates an environment for professional advancement for a soccer coach never seen before in the United States.
- Youth soccer is now a landscape where jobs, economic livelihood, professional advancement and turf battles are being contested on a weekly basis. There are more trophies now than ever before based on the many leagues that exist regionally and nationally. Winning is an arbiter of success in the American culture. Trophies equal prestige in the market, which equals interest from families, which equals success for a club . . . and success for a coach.
- Between the growth of academies, the important role of the college game, and as the world of soccer gets flatter with more American teens moving overseas every year, there has never been more interest in youth soccer in the US.
These factors result in today’s theater of youth soccer, which is sure to get richer and even brighter moving forward.
Add it all up, and here we are: a culture of youth coaches who pursue their craft not in the traditional sense of teachers and builders of young people, but rather, as professional managers who operate like English Premier League managers.
Moreover, the bigger issue may be that no one seems to mind, and we accept that youth coaches operating like EPL managers is either okay, or it is what it is. Meanwhile, the cost to American soccer is incalculable. Whether the lens is elite player production, competitive player improvement, recreational player participation, or every player enjoyment, the mentality of youth coaches behaving like managers is a cultural crisis. The issue is not individual, one coach to another. The issue is cultural. Culture is “who you are”, and if this who we are as a system, it’s a real problem that no one is talking about.
Yes, there is some fantastic work being done that teaches players “how to play soccer” and inspires players to push themselves to be the best they can be. This good work often results in teams that illustrate the over-talked-about, but infrequent reality of playing attractive soccer that wins. But, these examples are largely episodic and random, mostly depending on “who the coach is”. What is more systemic, however, is the youth coach and their clubs whose pursuit of outcomes over education creates this culture of managers versus teachers.
Managers versus Teachers
To highlight the difference between a manager mentality and a teaching mentality within youth soccer, consider the chart below.
A soccer teacher loses sleep at night because their team is not grasping a concept and it’s not presenting in their play: “we’re not offering enough support around the ball and we’re relying too much on 1 v. 1 duals” . . . “we’re not breaking the first line cleanly enough against better pressing teams, and we have to create more space in order to get out consistently.” Similarly, a group of soccer teachers spend most of their time together sharing ideas and discussing how to best teach their principles and what works and doesn’t work. Soccer teachers grind over, and enjoy most, teaching players “how to play soccer.”
A youth manager loses sleep at night over results and decisions that influence a game: “I should have changed the formation to deal with their pace up top and also changed the personnel to better match up” . . . “We should have gone bigger in the midfield to counter their skill and make it hard for them to dictate their style of play.” Similarly, a group of youth managers spend most of their time together discussing how to best move around players and creating formations that suit the moment. Youth managers grind over, and enjoy most, thinking about personnel, formations and other in-game factors that could impact game outcomes.
To be fair, every coach’s job involves building a roster and coming up with a way for their team to have success in their games. Yes of course, these are all things that are natural to a coach’s duties. Furthermore, this is not a binary situation where a coach is only one or the other, as there are many coaches who do a great job of teaching the game, while also managing to produce results. But, put simply – ask yourself: “how many coaches do I know who I respect for their ability to teach the game? How many coaches do I know who get more out of their team than the make up of their individual players? Do I see more ‘youth managers’ or do I see more ‘soccer teachers’ in youth soccer today?”
An Alternative Way
Whether you are a coach who seeks to build a foundation for your player’s long-term success, or a coach in search of trophies, or even a coach who wants both, consider an approach that could lead all groups to their respective objectives. Also, to be clear, these observations are offered with the full acknowledgement that winning matters and everyone wants to win. None of this is seeking to naively convince people to sacrifice winning in pursuit of trying to play pretty soccer. It is accepted by the author that no matter the level, and whether it’s professional ego or organizational standing in the market, winning matters and that’s just the reality of the world in which we live.
The focus on winning is not a bad thing by the way, as the need to win raises the bar for those who focus on teaching and want to get results at the same time.
These thoughts are offered based on observing coaches who have success getting the most out of their teams and individual player ability, and seeing common denominators in how such coaches approach their craft.
A Coaching System
Consider a simple coaching system focused on the following three concepts:
Mike Krzyzewski, Nick Saban, Bill Belichick – all three coaches who have had sustained success over decades attribute their results to an unwavering commitment and focus on a process – which then leads to results. This is nothing new and we’ve all heard this many times. Everything starts with a process and while this sounds simple, ask yourself, “do you have a coaching process, and how clearly can you articulate your coaching process?”
Consider a coaching process based on the following four components:
It is important to note that concepts such as vision and implementation could very well be authored by a club hierarchy, and that’s fine. Whether the ideas and philosophy are your own as a coach, or they are passed down from technical leadership, it’s important to understand that these steps as a way of teaching soccer, versus focusing on who authors philosophy or methodology.
This process is about clarity, purpose and intentionality, and not who has ownership of the ideas.
(1) Vision – The “What”. This represents “what” you are trying to get your team to do and how you are trying to play soccer as a team. You may think of this as a game model or a system of play or even principles of play, and that’s fine.
As an example, the Vision I lay out for our groups of pre-high school ages is a simple model
which we use of “Win, Keep, Search, Go”. Win the ball immediately. Keep possession, establish possession. Search for an opening with our movement on and off the ball. GO – when we find an opening. The “Go” moment could be after breaking the first line, or it could be higher up the field – no matter, when we’ve created time and space – LET’S GO. The ethos of the model starts with having tenacity on the front end to win the ball, having patience and skill to create time and space, and then ending with urgency to exploit the time and space immediately. So, in addition to a stated model, there is a cultural ethos that exists as well. Some players respond better to the stated picture, while others respond better to the “feel” of the picture.
Whatever your Vision, whether it’s intricate and complex, or decidedly simple, have a picture of what you’re seeking as the starting point.
(2) Understanding – The “Why”. This represents creating clarity and understanding of the Vision and the rationale behind the Vision. Almost every coach takes pride in talking about their game model or desired system of play. That’s great and we all enjoy exploring each other’s ideas. However, when the follow up question is asked, “how well do your players understand your game model?”, most conversations come to a screeching halt.
To be clear, you might have the best Vision in the world, but if your players don’t understand it, there is no possible way they can implement it. And then, what good is it?
How often do we experience situations across all areas of daily life where it is not clear what is expected of us or how we are being assessed? It sounds simple, but if you ask a group of players to articulate how their coach has set them up for success in playing soccer, most times you get very generalized statements – “press high and win the ball”, “play on the front foot”, “play possession soccer”, “play the [insert club name] way”. These statements don’t exactly inspire confidence of a strong pedagogic foundation. They are cliché at best and worthless at worst. If players don’t understand what they are trying to do, there’s a good chance it’s because no such picture actually exists. Or, what they are being asked to do has not been sufficiently communicated and ingrained. Either way, ensuring that players clearly understand your picture and why you want to play the way you desire is critical to providing the team with the ability to be successful.
(3) Implementation – The “How”. This represents your effort to get your team to execute on your Vision. An example in training involving two different coaching interpretations of a run of play where the player gets stripped while under pressure and loses possession:
Youth manager: “Jimmy! Play faster!!! Two touches only!!!”
Soccer teacher: “Jimmy, the pass wasn’t on a great line, so can we change our body shape before the ball arrives to still receive with our back foot, so we can still ‘receive & play’ to keep things moving quickly there?”
The youth manager gives general, commoditized feedback, which often times is not helpful due to lack of specificity. A soccer teacher actually teaches players “how” to do it with tangible, actionable suggestions.
A common theme observed in coaches who teach and implement well involves two concepts:
(1) Focus on details and (2) steady diet of a few principles versus tackling too much at once. Details are critical in helping create “the big picture.” The more “parts” that can be conveyed and taught, the greater the “whole” will appear. Create the dots and then connect the dots. Secondly, taking on a few principles and really focusing on those helps create mastery of a concept. Master a few principles, or get close to mastering a few, and then move on to others.
Conversely, coaches who react to the game over the weekend and focus their subsequent week largely on the shortcomings of their weekend game, are reacting to results and there’s a good chance that there is no structure or process being followed. The result is an episodic education that fails to connect from point to point and in the end results in chicken salad – a little bit of everything, but proficiency in nothing.
A good illustration of Implementation struck me when I had a chance to visit one of the top youth academies in the world. In touring their locker rooms, they had something I’d never seen before. There was a bulletin board with some material on it, and the most prominent was a sheet listing six things they were working on and trying to emphasize individually and collectively. It really struck me. The simplicity of a list. The clarity of a list. The value of simplicity and clarity, all wrapped up on a single sheet of paper. Every player knew what the focus was. Every player knew what was expected. So simple. I realized when I saw it, there was Vision, Understanding and Implementation all being executed on this one sheet of paper.
(4) Assessment – The “Report Card”. This represents an open and honest account of how the process is going and having the confidence to make adjustments along the way. Too often, we fall in love with our ideas and when things don’t go well, we believe that our players aren’t doing their job of implementing our ideas. In reality, it could be all kinds of factors ranging from poor fit of age appropriate material, or quality of players in relation to complexity of ideas, or methodology which does not appropriately teach our ideas, or a million other things. Either way, coaches who can get input from others and make changes and adjustments to their process have a better chance of giving their teams the ability to be successful, versus coaches who are more loyal to their ideas over the practical progress of their players and team.
Lastly, the Structure outlined here is meant to apply to both the collective team unit as well as each individual player. The individual player benefits from the same concepts outlined in the Structure – “here’s how we want you to think about your game . . . let’s make sure you clearly understand how we want you to play . . . here’s how to actually do the things that allow you to become the player we believe you can be . . . let’s review how it’s going for you.” The Structure applies both for the team as a whole and each individual player.
It’s easy to go in many different directions when it comes to focus, so let’s go with two simple themes that apply to every soccer coach. It is commonly accepted that there are two roles in coaching soccer: (1) the technical aspect and (2) man management. Both themes represent ways to improve a player, player performance and therefore team performance.
- Technical = Teaching Soccer – For our purposes, let’s simplify the technical aspect of coaching soccer and use this as a broad theme for “teaching” how to play soccer. The components that go into this will vary obviously depending on the age, and competitive level. At younger ages, it may be developing a basic framework for understanding the three lines of the team and how to think about playing in each area of the field. At older ages, it could be more tactical interpretation of how to play against a certain style of play. Either way, let’s consider “teaching” as a broad reference to the technical aspect of coaching soccer.
- Man Management = Player Motivation – For our purposes, let’s simplify the concept of man management and use this as a broad theme for “motivation” of each individual player. As youth coaches, the context of motivating a player will be very different based on age and competitive level, just as the teaching element. At the younger ages, motivating a player could involve making soccer fun to where the player develops a passion which keeps them playing. At the older ages, it could be more traditional man management where the focus could be on how to unlock the individual personality that results in playing their best when it matters the most. Either way, let’s think of man management here as a proxy for inspiring and motivating a player.
The Case for Teaching and Motivation as a Focus Set:
- It’s simple. And both concepts apply to every player.
- Some players will respond better to being taught the game. Others will respond better to personal motivation. Every player should benefit from both.
- Teaching never ends. As an example, consider the comments from Bobby Boswell, a 10 + year veteran in MLS, on when he first arrived at Atlanta United and played for Tata Martino. In a well-known thread on social media, Boswell offered the following: “When I was traded to Atlanta . . . we trained for 24 straight days . . . we worked on playing out of the back. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY it was a ridiculous amount of exercise in possession out of the back in Atlanta. The concept of moving into space that is not occupied is taught daily. I had never seen anything like it in my career.”
- This is a player who played professionally for a decade, and he’s learning and seeing new things he’s never seen before – at the last stop in his career! Teaching soccer and learning soccer never ends.
- Motivation may be the most powerful tool of all. Many in soccer believe that coaches and clubs do not develop players, but rather, only the player can ultimately get the most out of their ability. Whether the player gains motivation from personal circumstances, or other forms of motivation, it’s very possible that players, and not clubs or coaches, control who they ultimately become. What if one’s entire focus as a coach was to motivate every player to push themselves to be the best they could be? This is taking it to the extreme, but it’s possible that this would produce far superior results than the approach taken by many coaches today. Regardless, the ability to inspire and motivate a player should not be overlooked as it may just well be the most effective form of coaching one could offer a player.
Lastly, it may be the case that teaching and motivating are the two most simple concepts that apply to every player and if one did nothing other than focus on these two concepts, there would be considerable fruit resulting from their coaching system. To put these two focus points into context, consider the chart below which puts one’s ability to teach on the Y axis and one’s ability to motivate on the X axis.
Consider asking your players two simple questions:
- On a scale of 1 to 10, rate my ability to teach you how to play soccer.
- On a scale of 1 to 10, rate my influence on your motivation to be the best player you can be.
Every coach, every director, every club would learn a lot about their team, programs and club as a whole, by asking these two simple questions.
To put this chart into context, consider the following: If you are a coach, what would this chart look like for your team? If you are a director, what would this chart look like for your program? If you are a senior director, what would this chart look like for your club? Lastly, as citizens of soccer in the US, what does this chart look like for youth soccer as an entire system? For youth soccer in the US as a whole, which quadrant of the graph would be the darkest?
It is commonly understood and accepted that great culture is powerful, and that “culture eats strategy.” However, consider thinking about culture in the context of youth soccer a little differently. Creating great culture is hard. In youth soccer, where rosters change every year and coaches change every year, it’s really hard to have transformational culture within an individual team context. This is more possible at the overall club level, or some larger soccer ecosystem, but that’s another topic for another day.
Instead, consider simplifying the cultural aspect of coaching by using environment as a proxy for culture. Everyone buys into the importance of environment and it’s less daunting than trying to create game-changing culture. How do you want players to “feel” in your environment? What’s the “soul” of your team? How much of your environment comes from the natural personality of your players versus your personality and what’s important to you? Only the coach can answer these questions, and while there are a lot of things coaches don’t control, a coach 100% controls the environment of their team.
Secondly and staying with the theme of simplicity, consider the power of one. When Paul O’Neill became CEO of Alcoa, in a shocking move for a company with many financial and strategic challenges, he prioritized workers’ safety as the focal point for the Company. Analysts and investors were flabbergasted. Fast forward 13 years later when O’Neill retired, and workers’ safety improved 9x and profits were up 5x. As outlined in The Power of Habit, O’Neill tells Charles Duhigg, “I knew I had to transform Alcoa. But you can’t order people to change. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.” Focusing on safety habits was his one thing and it created changes across other areas that impacted the entire culture of the company.
Given the transient nature of youth soccer and the value of creating a character identity separate from a soccer identity, consider focusing on a single value that represent who you want your team to be and work to make it authentic.
Despite operating as a $5 billion industry, it’s well known that participation in youth soccer is going down. While the pie seems large today and even offers false appearances as growing, in reality the engine that drives the pie is actually shrinking.
There are many reasons for declining participation, but some of these reasons may deal with lack of success, lack of improvement and lack of fun for players on a personal level. It could be that when you add up the time, money and emotional energy spent in youth soccer, what kids get out of their experience just isn’t worth what they and their families are putting in.
Whether the environment is the highest level or the recreational level, the coach is the single most influential figure in the experience and growth of every player in youth soccer. The coach controls youth soccer at the molecular level. All the things EDs, ADs, TDs, DOCs and others are trying to do to create a great organization – all these things can evaporate in thin air – based on the individual coach. This is both frightening and invigorating at the same time (mostly frightening).
Still, it’s an exciting time in youth soccer. There is some very good work being done by many coaches and clubs. But, ask yourself – how are we doing as a group as a whole? It’s not good enough, and most everyone would agree.
Coach education is the single fastest way to improve soccer in America and specifically, youth soccer, which is the very foundation of our entire soccer system. Within coach education, changing the mentality of coaches to focus on teaching and motivating versus acting like managers and evaluators represents the biggest opportunity within coaching education.
Outside of the systemic benefit of all boats rising resulting from having more soccer teachers, the reward for individual coaches is immense. There are more jobs and better jobs in soccer in the US than ever before, and it’s only going to get more interesting from here.
Coaches who can authentically teach players “how to play soccer” and inspire them to push themselves to be best they can be, will be noticed. Trust me, you will stand out in the crowd. You will be unique. You will be valued. You will be wanted.
We need more of you!