Last November there were a pair of topics on recognizing and finding "the good coach". Drawing on the collective wisdom of the Forum I put together the following presentation for a group of parents of 8-12 year olds. The parents ran the gamut from almost clueless about soccer and the dynamics of youth sports to those who've been on the front lines for years. Written for the least knowledgable, and reflecting our bias toward training that is hugely weighted toward the technical for players those ages, it seemed to be well received along all parts of that continuum. (There was actually applause.)
Thanks to all those who contributed to those topics, notably Paulee, Chroniciguana, Ironman, AFB, mzbrand, colinbell, Ev, Goal150, and DwayneBarry. There would have been significant omissions without their input. Mr. Martin provided a great list. Words from Baldilox have been used verbatim. Ditto from the superb contributions of Coach Kev, whose influence extends even to the inclusion of a list that is probably way too long.
Finding The Best Soccer Situation For Your Child
There’s one question we get over and over again, usually posed something like this: “How do I find the best team for my child?”
Our answer is invariably the same, and it’s pretty simple: “Find the best coaching available.”
Then comes that pesky follow up: “How do I do that?”
The answer to that one is nowhere near so simple.
First let’s define what we consider to be the best coaching. To do that we’ll “start with the end in mind”, what we would like to see in an athlete in the long term.
Often overlooked is that the primary purpose of youth sports is what former NBA player Bob Bigelow says is “to develop better people.” Jim Thompson, founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance says that the most important outcome from youth sports is developing “stronger, more responsible and confident individuals who will be successful in life.”
Think about it. The life lessons, for good or ill, learned through sports will be more enduring, and are therefore more important, than anything these athletes will learn about a particular sport.
Children learn what they live. If a coach or club demonstrates fairness, honesty, loyalty, fair play, a sense of adventure and willingness to be “spontaneous and daring”, that’s most likely what athletes learn there. On the other hand, if what’s demonstrated is questionable ethics, a lack of loyalty, a willingness to tolerate play at the gray edges of fair play and sportsmanship, that’s most likely what athletes will learn there.
Now let’s consider the soccer side of things, again from a longer term perspective. “Developing Great Skills provides keys to an athlete’s success at higher levels of soccer and to that player’s lifelong enjoyment of The Game.”
There we have two longer term goals. To achieve them most effectively developing the individual player must come first. Recently, April Heinrichs, former captain and then coach of World Champion Women’s National Teams, pointed out what’s most needed in the development of American players: “Technique, technique, technique.” Another coach puts it another way: “Players who do not get a thorough grounding in The Game’s essential skills at the younger ages are being cheated out of their futures in the game.”
There are two barriers to this sort of training. For openers, many coaches – including those who may have strong skills – have not learned to teach them effectively. U.S. Soccer has recently revised the state level programs for licensing coaches (the “F”, “E” and “D” courses) after discovering that candidates for the National Coaching License couldn’t teach skills.
But another barrier, and maybe the more significant one, is related to increasing pressures to win more and more at earlier and earlier ages. This easily leads to the trap of “winning today (at the sacrifice of tomorrow.)” Here you see training that prioritizes team organization over player development and team environments where the fear of mistakes – because a coach believes that mistakes can make you lose - stifles boldness and creativity.
In other words, the failure to teach skills comes from those who can’t or won’t teach them. It’s often a mix of both.
Experience counts: True proficiency in all things requires thousands of hours of intense preparation and practice. That includes coaching. A great player will rarely be a great coach as a novice. It’s one thing to be able to do it, something quite different to teach it. Yale once had a swim coach who produced national championships but who was a danger to himself and others if he was in the water. And some coaches with 20 years of experience are mostly repeating the first year for the 21st time. But most coaches have a Teachable Spirit and want to continually learn and improve. Experience is a great teacher.
So now we have the parameters: experienced coaching that will provide positive character development and a solid technical foundation for playing the game at higher and higher levels for a long as the player wants to do so and is willing to make the effort to improve. At its very best, coaching will inspire developing a player’s willingness to work hard to eliminate weaknesses. But it will also involve developing strengths, soccer strengths and strengths of character, the things that make some players special, which set them apart, which define what coaches call the “personality player”.
We’d love to tell you that you have lots of those kinds of choices. You don’t. Just on the soccer side, we don’t see any club that is fully committed to a model where the first priority is the development of skillful and creative players.
There are coaches, however, who have that priority. Interestingly, you might find them with a club’s “B” and “C” teams. (We’ve even heard of a U11 “A” team coach who’s frank about it – “I don’t develop players: that’s what the “B” team is for.”) Without the pressures to win, coaches of “B” and “C” teams can feel more freedom to put a greater emphasis on individual development.
But we don’t know all of the coaches either. So let’s look at what you can do to find that kind of coaching. Here’s where it gets hard.
First, do the homework. Before anything else, be clear about your own family’s expectations. Each season parents should consider the following questions: Why do I want my child playing? What will be a successful season for me as a parent? What are my goals for him or her? What do I hope she gains from the experience? What do I think his role will be on the team?
Once you have done that, find a quiet time to ask the athlete the same questions. Ideally, the answers will be in sync with yours. If they are not, you’ll have to decide whose expectations the athlete will be asked to pursue.
Now let’s go outside the home.
Next, ask questions. Last year, we produced a list of 12 Questions (forum folks can do a search) that you can use to explore the Player Development philosophy of a coach or club. We understand that those questions are being asked at the meetings where the next year’s programs are being presented. The answers aren’t always what we might prefer, but the message is getting out there that more and more a parent is becoming, as the commercial says, “an educated consumer” and might have expectations that are not solely focused – or even much focused - on what the scoreboard shows on any given Saturday.
Those questions are making a dent.
But that’s not enough. To really be an informed consumer takes legwork, and not a little of it. You need to watch several practices and games of a prospective coach to get a sense of the style and substance of the coaching and the environment in which that happens.
At this point, many parents will say, “How can I do that? I played Football (or Field Hockey, or no sports at all). I don’t have a clue about soccer.” So, with the help of dozens of contributors to a website for coaches we’ve put together a list of things to look for – and recognize - even if you feel hopelessly clueless about soccer. You will have a clue about these things.
Watch a coach’s practices (you may need to see 3-4 to get a true picture of the training environment.)
1. How are players greeted? Is it warm, positive, confident?
2. How engaged is the coach throughout the session?
3. How much time are players doing, rather than stopped and listening?
4. Is everyone on the team being coached? Is there coaching that appears directed to increasing individual player strengths as well as eliminating weaknesses? Does the coaching seem to inspire players?
5. “Correction is a compliment.” Is correction given in a positive manner that conveys the message both that I want you to get better and believe you can?
6. “What gets rewarded gets repeated.” How much recognition, using players’ names, is given to positive moments?
7. Is effort and boldness getting positive recognition (and encouragement), or just the outcomes that succeed?
8. “Doers make mistakes”. Mistakes can make you better. Are those kinds of mistakes praised or criticized?
9. Do sessions seem well prepared? Are activities set up before the session starts? Are players moving with a ball at the designated starting time? Is there good flow from one activity to the next? Does the session end on time?
10. Watch how many soccer balls are in play. At younger ages, a fair amount of time should be spent “everyone with a ball” or “a ball for two”.
11. What % of sessions includes some form of 1v1 play? (All should.)
12. If working on shooting, does it include working on technique or just shooting games?
13. Overall, does the session seem to be focused more on developing better players or organizing the team for the next game?
14. “Juggling makes every other touch better.” Does it appear that learning to juggle is encouraged?
15. Is there any emphasis on exterminating “Useless Weak Foot Syndrome?”
16. A clue to player engagement: is the practice noisy, or is the only voice that of the coach? Do the players appear to be enjoying their time together?
17. Watch players’ faces. Do they seem to be enjoying it? Better, do they have that scrunched-up-face look that comes with total focus and involvement?
18. What’s the tone of the end-of-the-session summary? Does it efficiently sum up what was done and why?
19. When it’s all done, do the players look satisfied with what they’ve experienced? Do they leave with smiles and happy chatter?
20. Does the coach leave the same way?
And now, attend a couple of games.
1. Whose game is it? Games should largely belong to the players. Does the coach largely “Train and trust” the players or is there a constant stream of instructions that micromanages play on the field.
2. Is the positive/negative environment of the team the same as at practice, regardless of the score?
3. Even if you can’t hear what the coach is saying pre-game, half-time and at the end, how would you describe the tone?
4. What are parents saying/doing on the sideline? It’s amazing how much parental sidelines reflect the influence of and respect for the coach.
5. Is the post game summary “quick and done”? It takes everyone, including players, time to process a game, so the in-depth stuff should wait until the next practice. (A timely reminder here that one of the things players most dread is the PGA - Post Game Analysis - which happens most frequently on the CRH - C _ _ R _ _ _ H _ _ _.) Does the coach’s summary end on a positive?
Finally, let’s consider one other item.
Youth soccer commitments are year-to-year. There’s often a large turnover on rosters between selection for U11 teams and the first game at U12. (A question about those numbers will be added to the Twelve Questions list.) This reflects the flaws in tryout processes. But it can also reflect an inability to develop the players selected. Too often, the grass is greener elsewhere and teams will look there for a replacement rather demonstrating commitment to those they’ve chosen. If that happens where you are, just keep in mind that nobody ever owes more loyalty to a club or team than that club or team exhibits to its athletes.
But it’s also important to reexamine your child’s situation each year to assess whether his or her development is satisfactory. It can be hard to switch teams, but as we tell the players getting a poorly sent pass, “You don’t want to turn one bad ball into two.” Remember that the answer to the original question is, “Find the best coaching available.” That quest, however, will be worth the effort.