After coaching at the same club for most of the last five years, my time there has come to a close. The past few weeks have naturally been filled with reflections on my experience. I wouldn’t say I have regrets (I owe much of the understanding I have now to the mistakes I’ve made), but if given the chance to speak with a coach just beginning in a similar role, there are a few things I would advise him/her to do.
1. Begin by helping players learn how to learn.
It seems simple – a coach explains what players need to do and the players do it. But a good coach will spend less time giving the players the answers to every challenge they face and more time helping them learn how to discover the answers – both individually and as a group. Directing the players to perform what appears to be the best action in their current situation means that you will need to update those directions each time the situation changes. Depending on the specificity of the instructions, a change in player positioning, speed of play, opponent behavior or any other constraint could mean that the player’s “learning” no longer applies.
On the other hand, players who understand the principles of skill development, can reflect on and adjust tactical decisions, and actively seek out ways to improve their communication with their teammates will require less intervention as they gain experience. Descartes explained that “Each problem that I solved became a rule, which served afterwards to solve other problems.” Players need to be given that opportunity to solve problems and develop their own rules.
The first problems will need to be simple and the coach may have to guide players through the problem-solving process. One of the toughest skills to develop the ability to assess your own performance and decide what changes should be made. A simple way to start could be to watch a younger team play and practice identifying and evaluating some of the decisions made, before comparing them to their team’s decisions in similar circumstances.
2. Account for the environment players are coming from.
It took me too long to understand that new players can’t be treated as having a “blank slate” of knowledge, ready to accept the new ideas I wanted to share with them. Past experiences have molded them into the people that they are and form a large part of their motivation for playing. Far too often, I would explain why an action or a principle was good and leave it there, without explaining why it was better than what they had been taught to do in the past. I tried sharing examples (mainly videos) of high-level players or teams, but when a player’s primary motivation was not making it to a high level, the effect seemed limited. More time should have been committed to demonstrating the difference between how different behaviors affect the team, not just displaying the better one.
Once new ideas have been shared, players also need to be prepared to defend them. The vast majority of players will be encouraged by and ride home with well-meaning, positive parents who have no idea how to define or describe the type of play we are striving for. Many of the behaviors I want left behind will be those consciously or unconsciously taught by parent coaches at younger ages, and their feedback may steer players back. A player will have embraced a new idea when she can understand it, interpret how to use it in a game, and explain its importance when questioned on it.
3. Have a vision for the future and share that vision.
That vision will not emerge unchallenged from being shared and questioned. My idea of a great soccer club has certainly shifted during the last few years. But if that vision isn’t shared, people will have no future goal to work and build toward. So much effort and energy was wasted because coaches, parents, or club representatives focused on the short-term and what was easy to see (wins and losses, standings, which player is the biggest) instead of who players should be when they leave the club and how to create a path to help them arrive there. My biggest failure was prolonging this situation by offering “solutions” for the short-term issues to coaches and parents rather than convincing them to help plan build programs based on the long-term.
The details of the long-term plan should be adaptable or “drawn in pencil”, but the objectives cannot be compromised. Once the desires of adults and the inertia of “the way we’ve always done it” trump what should be the guiding principles of youth sports, leadership has let the athletes down. Be willing to do the right thing while thinking ahead to who that player will be in ten years and sacrifice present success if necessary.