The Top 5 Qualities Needed in a Director of Coaching

Every sports organization should have a Sporting Director. It is this person’s job to set the direction technically, tactically, and developmentally for each and every player in their organization. This is one of the most important positions within each organization and it takes a unique set of skills to be able to be successful in this role. Below we note the top 5 qualities needed in order to be successful as a sporting director.

Humility: The Director of Coaching needs to be humble in the sense that they must realize that all of the decisions that they make need to be in the best interest of the club for which they are working, and not be made with their own personal interests in mind. It is very hard to find a person that embodies this mentality as most people have personal agendas they are trying to push through. A true leader in this position will take your organization to new levels.

Patience: Change takes time. While there are many things that can be changed immediately, the true technical direction of the club takes a long time for the fruits of your labor to be seen. The true results of any system and curriculum that a Director of Coaching is going to implement will take the better part of 10 years, or when your U8 age group ages out at U18.

Experience: All to often you see people with no sports experience making sports decisions. While certain people may be extremely successful in their areas of expertise it is important to have a Director of Coaching who’s area of expertise lies within that sport. Let’s take soccer for example. You would not want to have a person who grew up playing baseball making all of the soccer decisions for your organization. Your Director of Coaching would ideally have professional playing experience, or at a minimum Division 1 college playing experience. They should then also have many years coaching various genders and age groups within a couple different organizations. If possible some experience as an age group coordinator, assistant Director of Coaching, or Director of Coaching is also highly desirable.

Communication: Communication is one of the most important skills that an organization need in a Director. It is important to be open and honest with all stakeholders at all times. One must be extremely careful to make sure decisions are not felt to be made by one person. This is possible if a Director over communicates all thought and ideas with the board members and families making up the club membership.

Confidence: The Director needs to have confidence that the direction they are steering the club is what is best. In every organization there will be people who think that they have a better way to do things. As the Director of Coaching one must listen to what others have to say, but ultimately make the final decisions about the technical, tactical, and developmental direction of the club.

While there are many qualities that ultimately contribute to the success or failure for a Director of Coaching these five stand out. What other qualities do you thing a Director of Coaching should have?

Why Failure is so Important in Youth Sports

Working in the world of youth sports for nearly a decade has taught me many things.  One of the most important observations I have made is that parents today think it is their job to protect their children from failure.  I have heard the term "Helicopter Parent" referring to someone that hovers over their child saving them from any situation that could result in failure, but I believe the term "Lawnmower Parent" is more fitting.  I envision a helicopter staying a safe distance away, but always watching for the opportunity to swoop in if something happens.  However, a “lawnmower” sits directly above, with arms out, ready to catch their child should they stumble at all.

While many parents believe this is the answer for how to help their child achieve success, they often do not realize that they are actually hindering their child from developing the skills needed to succeed.

"FAILURE IS SO IMPORTANT. WE SPEAK ABOUT SUCCESS ALL THE TIME. IT IS THE ABILITY TO RESIST FAILURE OR USE FAILURE THAT OFTEN LEADS TO GREATER SUCCESS. I'VE MET PEOPLE WHO DON'T WANT TO TRY FOR FEAR OF FAILING."   -JK Rowling

When you apply this theory to sports, it becomes a glaring example of why the United States has not been able to consistently develop world class talent.  

The example that most readily comes to mind is when a player is trying out for a team and gets placed on the second team instead of the first team.  The parent then decides that the coaches don't know what they are talking about and they take their child to another club, trying out yet again to see if their player can make the first team.  This process is repeated season after season, year after year, just so the parent can tell their friends that their child plays on the first team.  

The lesson being missed here is that it is perfectly fine for a player to be placed on the second team.  By being on the second team you are constantly practicing with players that are of equal or better quality, pushing the player to develop at a rate that is going to be most beneficial to their environment and skill level.  They learn that in order to get to the first team they must work extra hard and be extremely dedicated in order to improve their skills at a rate greater than their peers.  This lesson will be repeated many times over in their life in settings other than sports.  

Another example is when a player is wondering why they aren't getting as much game time as they would like.  A common scenario is when the parent then goes to the coach asking why little Johnny isn't getting as much playing time as Jimmy.  The coach gives an explanation that no matter what the parent isn't going to like, and the parent then reacts by rallying other parents on why the coach is terrible, ultimately getting rid of the coach.

The lesson to be taught here is to make the player responsible for his or her performances and have them approach the coach to ask why they aren't getting as much playing time or developing as fast as they would like.  This teaches the player to speak to their superior and learn how to deal with direction and constructive criticism while keeping a level head.  The parent should encourage the player to continue following up with the coach as he or she puts in the hard work.  

The real moral here is that players need to be able to enjoy their successes and learn from their failures as youth athletes.  Protecting players from failure does nothing to teach them about perseverance.  Ultimately, their resilience is what is going to make them successful, be it in sports or beyond the game.

How Long Should a Player be a Multi-Sport Athlete?

Parents want their child to excel and want to know at what age I stopped playing other sports and focused on soccer.  The answer to this question is much more complex than you might think.    Parents only want the best for their children.  They want them to succeed at everything and give them the opportunities to find what they are passionate about.  When it comes to sports they will put them in every sport under the sun and see how it shakes out.

By the time each child is 11 or 12 it is safe to say that they have their favorite sports.  This is where it becomes complicated. Now, we all know that in a perfect world each child would like only one sport and decide that that is all he or she wants to play, but we know better than that.  I was a child who knew that all I wanted to do was be a pro soccer player.  I played every sport there was while growing up, but I had the most fun playing soccer.  This was because I had some natural talent, but a lot of it was because of the people that were on my team.  I played for Los Gatos United from the time I was 9 years old until I went off to college.  Most of the players that were on my team when I was 9 were the same as when I was 18.  I was one of the lucky few that had a great situation.

When it comes to your child, however, the first priority is to narrow down what sport he or she is most passionate about, and what sport he or she has the most fun playing.  Then there are a couple questions you have to ask yourself:

1.  How old is your child?  If your child is 8 years old, then you don’t even need to be reading this post.  I do not think that this is something that you, as a parent, have to think about until your child is 11 or 12.  Until then it is important to have them try out a number of different sports and activities.  Only after trying many of sports can your child really know which one he or she is most interested in.

2.  What do I do if my child can’t pick one sport?  I tell the parents of the kids that I coach that I don’t mind if they play other sports, but I expect them to never miss a soccer practice or game because of having a conflict with another sport.  In other words, I expect them to miss other sports events in order to be at any soccer event that they have.  Soccer comes first.

In conclusion, your child can be a multi-sport athlete as long as he or she likes.  They just need to set priorities so that they are are meeting the expectations of their teammates and coaches.  In their minds they must value one sport over another, and as a parent you must help them make the decisions about which one to pour the most effort into.

How to Choose Which Club Team is Right for Your Child

One of the most common questions that I have come across while coaching in youth soccer is from parents wondering which club team their child should play for.  This is a very tough question that depends on a number of factors.

1. How old is your child?

If your child is young (8-12) then you should be looking for a club that isn’t as results oriented as it is development oriented.  At a young age it really doesn’t matter if they win or lose.  You want them to develop.  Most parents think that the team that wins the most games is the best place for their child to be.  I can assure you that this does not matter.  You want your child to be in an environment that focuses heavily on developing the individual skills of each player.  While these teams may lose a large number of games at a young age, but when they get to an age where results start mattering they will be equipped with all of the technical skills they will need in order to execute the tactics of the game.

If your child is a bit older (13-18) you want them to be in an environment that is competitive.  I am not saying that they have to be on the best team, but that they need to be on a team where they are going to get a lot of playing time and be challenged.  It is much better for a player to play 90 minutes every week on a team that goes 500 than to play 35 minutes on a team that wins every game.

2. How committed are you?

Many kids at a young age play many different sports.  Whether it be basketball, baseball, hockey, or lacrosse, all of these sports take time and commitment.  Personally I believe that children should play a number of sports to figure out which one they like most.  If they do decide that soccer is the sport for them it doesn’t mean that they have to stop playing all other sports, just that soccer will take priority over all other activities.  This is relevant to deciding which club to play for because not every club is ok with having their players play multiple sports.  Some clubs and coaches believe that playing other sports takes the focus off of soccer which in turn makes the players struggle to perform at their highest potential.  The solution to this is to have a conversation with the coach and figure out if this is something that is going to be acceptable or not.

3. What is the reputation of the club?

Certain clubs have a reputation for being all business.  What I mean by this is that they do not care about how they win, just that they do.  This relates back to the first question in that you always want to be at a club that values development.  It is perfectly ok, especially as players get older, to strive for perfection, but you need to have a coach that teaches the players after a mistake has been made.  I know that this might sound a little ridiculous, but I have seen too many coaches that will yell at a player and pull them out of a game after making a mistake without ever explaining to the player why.

In conclusion, each player’s situation is going to be different.  As a family you must have a conversation and get your priorities straight, then look at all of the options and make a decision.  Personally, I always value a teacher over a dictator, and believe me I have seen my fair share of both.  In youth soccer you want someone that is going to develop your child not only as a soccer player, but as a person.

Why a Tiered Structure is Necessary for Development

Do you remember what playing competitive sports was like when you were a child? Let me give you the overview. No matter what sport or organization, every age group had one team. You either made the team or went to play for a different organization. This approach was common practice for a long time, and many organizations still use this model (or an adapted version of this model). While there are some positives such as team camaraderie, there are to many negatives to make it successful. The main negative is that if you only have one team then how are you going to keep adding to the talent pool if you have no place for players to improve?

The most effective way to address the problem of development is by implementing a tiered structure for your organization. What this means is that players are placed on teams based on their current skill. For example, your best players would all be on the “A” team, while your next strongest group would be on your “B” team.

Let’s look at a club like Real Madrid for example. Real Madrid’s youth academy is commonly referred to as “La Fabrica” or “The Factory.” They have six different tiers within their academy starting with Prebenjamin, Benjamin, Alevin, Infantil, Cadete, and Juventil. Within each of theses tiers there are A and B teams. In certain tiers there are also C teams. Youth players must aspire to progress up the ladder if they wish to make an appearance for the first team. Real Madrid has even gone so far as to design their training center, Valdebebas, so that players must literally raise their level to get onto the next level of playing field.

kellygraysports-real-madrid.jpg

The first team trains on the highest field so you must climb the steps in order to get there.

Developmentally this allows the coaches to place each player in a situation where they are going to be challenged. For example if a player on the Cadete A team is doing well the coaches can make him simply climb the steps to the next pitch to train with the Juventil C squad. This same format can be repeated at any age. What is important is making sure players are challenged at all times and are able to grow in experience and confidence. With such a set up players are able to stay with one club for an extended period of time.

This structure translates to all sports and all competitive clubs. The main issue that most organizations will need to focus on is that the result of the teams is not what is important. What is most important is the development of each player individually. That is a hard concept for many people to grasp. Coaches ego’s need to come from looking at how many players they develop to reach the next level of the game, not how many wins and losses each team has. If a coach is doing their job properly then their team will eventually start winning because they have been taught the correct technical skills and tactical awareness.

How the USMNT Will Win the World Cup

 

It all started back in the early 2000's with US Soccer’s push to win The World Cup by 2010. We saw the emergence of programs like Project-40 which was designed to sign the best and brightest players to professional contracts with MLS so that they could continue to develop at an accelerated rate compared to all the other players their age playing college soccer. While there is no question that this is a great program to develop these elite players, this only addresses a small group of players that could flourish at the next level. What MLS and US Soccer failed to recognize was that while they were picking the top few players to turn pro, they were neglecting the masses, and that is where the real opportunity lies. The problem can be summed up in one word: Money.

The United States is the only country that has managed to turn the world’s poorest sport into a rich kid’s game.

There are 5 million youth soccer players in the United States. Are we so naive to think that only producing a handful of professional players is not a massive failure? Five million people is more than the total population of some countries in Europe who manage to churn out top professionals year after year. The problem in the United States comes down to money. 

The United States is one of the most diverse countries in the world. There are people from many different cultures, religions, ethnicities, beliefs, and philosophies. The one thing that all of these groups have in common is the game of soccer. It is the world’s unifying game. There are massive groups of people in this country who grow up with a passion for the sport that many Americans do not. We see it primarily in the Hispanic community. Hispanic players grow up with soccer as the #1 sport in their household. They are brought up to understand and feel that passion that comes with supporting your team, the sadness that comes when they lose a game, and the jubilation of each victory. A typical American player is brought up with Sundays being the big day in their house because that is when NFL games are played. They usually do not discover soccer until they are older, and only because their parents signed them up because all of their friends were doing it too.

My point about the above is that at the young ages of youth soccer the difference in these two upbringings is extremely apparent. Socioeconomically challenged players and teams completely dominate other teams that are comprised of mostly socioeconomically privileged players. Most of the challenged teams are coached by one of the player’s fathers who do it for free, while most of the privileged teams are coached by professional coaches who get paid by the parents.

This is where the money comes into play. Because of the American pay-to-play model many of these players end up getting lost and have their development halted because they cannot afford the high price of professional coaches. 

Challenged teams will dominate most other teams until they are about 12 years old. At this point the players tend to understand the game more than their parent coach. This is the turning point. This is the moment when a professional coach is needed. A typical privileged team will have had a professional coach all along who will be able to continue the player’s and team's development well beyond that of a parent coach. 

Professional coaches cost a lot of money and a typical challenged team will not have the funds to  hire a professional on a consistent basis.

The Answer

Make soccer free. It is as simple as that. 

Now I know this is a ridiculous statement because professional coaches still need to get paid. So the question becomes, “How do we pay professional coaches without charging parents any fees?” We will get into this a little later. First let’s start with what the affects of this change would be.

  1. Players would be under professional instruction from a very young age.
  2. At the turning point age that we currently see, all players would be given the opportunity to continue to develop under the guidance of professionals.
  3. More players would stick with the game because they will be able to see a future within it.
  4. Higher rate of development of the masses driving a much higher level of play at the highest levels in this country.

Now let’s get back to the question of expense. How are we supposed to pay for this system. The most obvious answer is to have the professional teams pick up the cost of the programs within their areas since they will be the ones to most naturally benefit from the increased level of development in their area. This will not work in our current system because the only way that this is a true benefit is if the clubs can gain the rights to each player. Under the current labor laws in the United States players under 18 are not able to be owned by a club. If a team was able to own the rights to all of the players in their area then with each player’s development the club would be able to either promote them to the first team (homegrown contract) or sell them on the world market (like every other club in the world). Without this changing there is no way that the MLS owners would ever float the bill for this proposed structure.

So what is the next option? Corporate sponsorship. We see corporations dump billions, yes with a “b” into sports each year with the hope of turning them into a fan of their product. Most of this focus is put on football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. The world market for these sports pales in comparison to soccer. It would be much more beneficial for corporations to be dumping money into youth sports on both the developmental and marketing fronts. We have seen more money being put into soccer more recently as TV deals have made soccer more of a household sport, but we have not seen that money trickle down into the youth market.  

Clearly there is no easy answer to this problem. I would love to hear your comments on this and see what proposals you have for how to fund the continued growth and development of soccer in this country.

Please leave comments below...

The Slow Death of the #10

 

The title of this post relates to the fact that the United States has failed to develop thoughtful, creative, dynamic, attacking minded soccer players. Now I know that this is a very bold statement. We have seen players like Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Christian Pulisic, and many more. I don’t want to take away anything from these players, and I rate them all very highly, but the reality is that they were developed outside of the American system. Dempsey and Donovan were before the USSDA (United States Soccer Development Academy) was in existence, while Pulisic started in it and jumped ship to Borussia Dortmund to continue his development. None of this is really the point though. I believe that this issue goes much deeper than a few players on our national team. I believe that the true fault lies within the philosophy that we are teaching our players from a young age.

It is estimated that 5 million youth players are active at some level every year in the United States. Out of these 5 million players every year one would assume that we would be able to produce a consistent group of players to compete at the highest levels of the game. To put it into perspective 5 million people is about half of the population of Portugal, the 2016 European Champions.

Who is Making the Decisions

The highest ranks of US Soccer are held by people who have never really played the game. Sunil Gulati, an economics lecturer at Columbia University, and now Carlos Cordeiro, a former Goldman Sachs parterre in charge of creating the environment needed to create world class players.  How does this possibly make any sense? 

We are Copy Cats

US Soccer has a history of simply trying to copy the ideas of others to find their own success. In 1988 France opened a national training center, Clairefontaine. France wins the 1998 World Cup. So what is the US response? The opening of the US Residency program in Bradenton, Florida. Spain wins the 2010 World Cup with their signature tiki-taka style of play designed around a 3 man central midfield within a 4–3–3 formation. The US response: require all teams in the USSDA to play a 4–3–3 with a focus on the tiki-taka style of play. Germany wins the 2014 World Cup. The US response: US Soccer hires the german company Die Mannschaft to audit each youth academy in the USSDA.

How can we expect our players to be creative when we cannot be creative enough to come up with our own path for development of our players?

Does Winning Really Matter?

Being American is a disadvantage in the argument about whether winning is everything. The American culture of competition teaches us from a young age that the only thing that matters is winning. In the words of Ricky Bobby, 

“If you’re not first, you’re last!”

While this was said in a very satirical way it is only funny because we all know the truth: we are all brought up to believe this. Most of this is fueled by parents who failed to reach their own athletic goals so they push their children harder and farther so that they can try to relive their failed glory through their children.

This is the first part of how creativity in youth soccer has died.

What is the Role of US Soccer?

There is no question that US Soccer has a role to play in the development of youth players in this country. My question is this, “What should their role be?”

Right now US Soccer is in charge of the USSDA for both boy’s and girls. They believe that it is their job to develop the next US National Team superstar. What I find questionable about this is that USSDA is a league that has teams from all of the MLS organizations in it. US Soccer grades each Academy on things such as formation, style of play, number of players signed to homegrown contracts, facilities, training sessions, and many more things. While I do not disagree that a scale by which to grade an academy is a needed service, why is US Soccer doing the grading? If you are an MLS academy shouldn’t you be designing your training sessions for the sole purpose of developing players for your first team? If they find themselves on the National Team that is great, but the main job of any academy director is to place players on the first team.

This is just a scratch on the surface on this discussion so please leave your comments below.  The point of this is to spur discussion.  Please be respectful in your responses.  This is the only way that change will occur. 

 

Just Let Them Play: Why Parents Should Stay Out of Youth Sports

When I started working on the management side of youth sports I quickly adopted a saying,

Kids just want to play, and parents ruin everything.

Anyone who work is in youth sports understands this statement, and probably gives a little chuckle as they read it.  This is because their mind goes directly to one of the many situations that they have been through where this statement holds true.

The perfect example of this is an experiment that has been replicated numerous times.  The experiment goes like this:

The Setup

There is a group a children out on a field.  In scenario 1 a ball is introduced and there are no parents around.  In scenario 2 the ball is introduced and there are parents present.  Below are what the outcome are:

Outcome 1  

  • The players then make goals, split into teams, and start playing a game.  
  • If the score becomes too uneven then the players rearrange the teams to make them more fair.  
  • The players then play for hours without interruption.

Outcome 2

  • A parent is present.
  • The parent tries to control the scene.
  • The players stop playing.

Unfortunately for today's youth scenario 2 has become the norm.  It is very rare that players are left alone to simply play.  Parents always try to interject and control the scene to assure that there is organization and no conflict.  If players get out of line then the parent will discipline them.  The problem with this is that children do not learn how to handle these situations because the parent is always handling it for them.  Many of the conflicts that arise during a sports game are the exact conflicts that will arise in many other aspects of their life off the field.  

When parents try to handle each conflict for their children they think they are helping them.  The reality is that they are failing to prepare them for the real world and hindering their social development.