Re-print Courtesy of Soccer Journal
Playing soccer in the early 70s, the coaches were almost all dads and moms who had little to no knowledge about the game and volunteered to coach for the sake of their children.
Fast forward 40 years to today and soccer in the United States is in a vastly different place. We are in our third generations of American-born soccer citizens and when combined with ongoing immigration which has brought millions of knowledgeable and passionate players, coaches and fans from every continent to our soccer community, our fabric as a soccer nation is strong, dynamic and growing.
Additionally, the demographic maturation of American soccer is bringing on board hundreds of thousands of former players each year eager to continue in the game, or re-engage with the game, but this time under the auspices as coaches – and in the case of most of us with children now playing the game – volunteer coaches.
- In 1974, there were 103,000 registered youth soccer players. By 2000, there were 3.0 million.
- In 1970, there were approximately 500 men’s and women’s college soccer programs. By 1999, there were over 1,500.
These data suggests we’re in the early innings of this demographic wave as these former players cycle into coaching, through parenthood or otherwise. With this waterfall of players who had great experiences playing the game, we are exponentially increasing our base of qualified volunteer youth coaches.
It’s logical to believe that a player who played as a youth and through college is better positioned to coach kids than a father or mother, circa 1975, who had no knowledge of the game.
On paper, more qualified youth coaches should result in a systemic improvement in youth development. But, is this actually happening?
Are we as volunteer youth coaches improving the system? Or, are we as a group actually underachieving?
And even worse, are we underachieving, but believe we’re excelling?
Over the past seven years serving as a volunteer youth coach I’ve noticed some common themes that I believe hold us back from making the systemic impact we could otherwise have on American soccer. Here are some observations and thoughts:
- Invest in Your Coaching Experience – Teaching soccer to young kids in a cogent and effective manner is easier said than done. Take advantage of coaching sessions offered by your club, the NSCAA or any other worthy group offering professional instruction on how to run training sessions. You will also find an unlimited universe of articles, videos, blogs and other resources covering everything from technical drills to how to communicate and convey messaging. You will not regret it and you’ll be surprised by how much you will learn from the resources out there.
- Our Shelf Life is Short, But Important – Most youth clubs have a policy of only using club staff coaches starting at U11. So, while we get put out to pasture pretty quickly, those early years are critical to laying the foundation for a player’s entire soccer experience. Bruce Brown of Proactive Coaching points out: “80% of kids drop out of organized sports by age 14. If you’re coaching kids up until U11, you’re responsible for an enormous portion of that child’s experience as an athlete. You matter. And the environment you set will be a huge part of whether your kids continue to play as
they get older.” Think about that for a second.
From a technical standpoint, similar to how math and English teachers work to build core skills during elementary school, in soccer, we’re the teachers responsible for building their foundation which will allow them to have success later in their careers. It’s not their U15 coach that’s laying that foundation for our players. It’s us, at the U5 through U10 ages.
Claudio Reyna and others frequently cite the importance of having the best coaches focused on the younger ages. While he and others aren’t necessarily referring to the age groups of volunteer youth coaches, the idea is the same – we have to get to our players earlier. And who touches players first? We do. We know that having a quality first touch is critical to playing good soccer. From a coaching perspective, we’re their “first touch” and we have the ability, and even the responsibility, to shape them the right way.
- “Development Over Winning” – This has become the fashionable and trending phrase of late – with due reason, but less in practice and execution. If there is any group within American soccer that should be espousing, and actually practicing, the ethos of Development over Winning, it’s us as volunteer youth coaches.
We should ask – What are we playing for? What does winning get us at our level? Nobody likes to lose. I get that. At the same time, what really matters?
I recall vividly a game involving my son who was a U6 at the time. On kickoffs, the opposing team would touch it gently to a player who would first-time toe it on goal. When it resulted in a goal, despite no actual play of soccer, their coach and parents would cheer loudly thinking they were successful. I thought just the opposite. These kids have been robbed of the opportunity to play soccer because they’ve been coached to toe it immediately on goal off a kickoff!
Scoring more goals, and said more directly, winning, was more important to this coach than actually teaching his players how to play the game. Why and for what reason?
- It’s Not About Us as Coaches – I believe a large part of the answer to the question of why winning matters to so many youth coaches is because of personal ego. We live in a competitive society, and for many youth coaches that had success as former players, it’s more natural to use winning as an arbiter for success. Therefore, we engineer our play, our rosters and our approach to win games. Even at the U5 – U10 ages. These attitudes manifest at the club level also, “we need to win because that will show that we’re a better club than other clubs.”
Ego is killing our growth as a soccer nation.
- A Good Coach – My college soccer coach always told us, “there is no greater compliment than the recognition and approval of your peers.” I’ve seen some really good coaches as a volunteer coach and these are some qualities that impress me:
- Commitment to technique – There is a wide range of technical ability within our age groups, but seeing players trying to play with technique and purpose is an exception versus abandoning technique in favor of convenience and comforts of habit.
- Playing different positions and playing time – Good coaches playing players in different positions to provide broad exposure to the game and resisting the short-term pleasure of winning games through keeping the best players in key positions. Similarly, giving equal playing time to all players provides the opportunity for each player to grow. There will be plenty of opportunity for them to fight for playing time as they get older.
- Consistency – Nothing is more fun than to see a group that has a lot of solid players. This typically happens because C players have been turned into B players and B players have been turned into A players. The ability to impact a wide number of players is perhaps the best indicator of a good coach.
- Effort – Whether the most technical on a team or least technical, how hard players play says a lot about a coach. Because the concept work ethic is transferrable to all pursuits of young people, it may be the most important quality coaches can teach players.
- Fun – It is well documented that keeping it fun is the most important aspect of coaching at our age groups. It seems almost guaranteed that when you see a group of players having fun and playing with enthusiasm, they will be a good soccer team as well. For me, the most useful coaching ideas involve nuggets of information that promote a fun experience for the players.
If we as volunteer coaches can deliver a pool of players who (i) love to play soccer and (ii) have a strong technical foundation for continued growth, we’re heroes. Imagine if we engineered everything we did solely around these two simple goals? How much better would we be as a soccer nation?
- We Have an Important Role – In addition to coaching our players, we have a voice in the system. We can set the tone for expectations and philosophy with parents, our clubs and most importantly, our players. If we can serve a steady diet of espousing a focus on individual player development, making it fun and playing for the long-term, we’ve played a huge role in helping shape our overall soccer community.
- Measuring Ourselves – Believe me, when our volunteer coaching careers are over, we won’t remember any games our teams may have won. What we will remember, however, are the players we coached who have gone on to play in high school, college, and who knows, maybe even beyond. Like great coaches who look at their results over a long period of time, we as volunteer youth soccer coaches should expand our own time horizon when assessing our work. Don’t look at your last game or even the past season. Look back after several years and ask: Are my players still playing? Do they play the right way? Do they love the game? Will they propagate the values we taught them as players and individuals? Will they go on to coach a group of their own one day and do it the right way? The answers to these questions will represent your legacy and impact as a coach. Not the score from Saturday’s game.
Somewhere in here is a Malcolm Gladwell story. It’s visible and easy to see: Through demographics and the maturation of a soccer nation, there are more qualified coaches to teach kids at the youngest levels how to play the game. We teach them the right way by building technical foundation and inspiring a love of the game. The kids are better prepared to develop as they mature and consequently, there is a substantially larger pool of high quality players. This leads to transformative player development results that manifests at every level of the game – youth, college, professional and international. Along the way, American soccer becomes the soccer nation we always wanted to be.
Is all this possible from the grass roots levels of volunteer youth coaches? We won’t know for the next
twenty years, but more importantly, we won’t know if we don’t try.