Guest Post: The Importance of a Coaching Philosophy by Justin Neese

Welcome to SoccerThought to Mr. Justin Neese!   Justin played competitive soccer throughout his youth and played four years of college soccer at an NCAA Division III institution, earning a bachelor’s degree in 2003 and a master’s degree in 2005. Since then, he has been coaching as a full-time profession on the collegiate and youth levels (3 years as a head coach at two different DIII institutions, and 3 years as a DIII assistant at two different institutions). He holds an “A” license from US Soccer in 2008, a Premier Diploma from the NSCAA in 2007, and a National Youth License from US Youth Soccer in 2003.  He has been an age group coach within the North Texas Olympic Development Program, a member of the North Texas Coaching Education Staff, and a member of the State teaching staff for the NSCAA.  He currently is the Assistant Manager of Soccer Programs for our hometown Houston Dynamo.

“No one looks in awe at the gaping hole that is dug, or the concrete laid for a building’s foundations, but in order for a beautiful and majestic building to rise, the solid, but unseen, foundation is necessary. If the game on the highest levels demands free-flowing and spontaneous decisions by the players, the question is what foundations are you laying?”

Developing a Coaching Philosophy as a Youth Soccer Coach

Gary R. Allen, US Youth Soccer National Staff


I was doing some reading today to prepare myself for some of the coaching courses that I am going to help instruct this summer, and I came upon this paper thanks to the USYSA’sCoaches Connection, which is a great regular email and archive of coaching materials for USYSA members.

Here, Allen discusses how important it is that we, as youth coaches, develop a well-founded and thought through coaching philosophy to inform and direct us in our coaching and stewardship of American youth soccer. For Allen, a coaching philosophy is “the driving force that guide us as coaches and players, and ultimately manifest [itself] in our continued love for the game” (page 2), and he points to the current culture and climate in American youth soccer (a culture that exalts immediate “success” as necessary and desirable, that under trains and over competes its athletes, that holds to a “more earlier is better” worldview) as evidence to suggest that most youth coaches have not done a very good job of developing a coaching philosophy that is based on “underlying values or the ‘driving forces’ that will really help each of [our] player’s development as athletes” (page 4) and as people. This is a stunning point and I think that it absolutely rings true to my observations and experiences at almost any level of coaching that I have been involved in, and it certainly agrees with most of what I have seen with regard to coaching younger players.

However, I think that one could poll a randomly selected group of coaches at a local recreational or competitive soccer event and ask them questions about their values in coaching (about whether they would win today or develop players, about whether they would prefer to teach “soccer” or a “kick and chase” game, about whether they value teaching and modeling the ethics of the game, etc.), and you would probably get the “right” answer more often than not; I really don’t think that too many right minded people would openly and legitimately say that they subscribe to any of the above negatives. In on sense, then, programs like coaching clinics, messages from USYSA, US Soccer, and other like minded groups, etc. have done a good job of changing the coaching conversation at the youth level. But, as Allen points out, though many of these people might be talking the talk, their actions demonstrate that they are not walking the walk. This means one of two things: That coaches are willful deceiving the people asking the questions and they are coaching for their own selfish ends; or that we, as a soccer nation, have not done a good enough job of educating ourselves and our coaches as to why it is that they should be making certain choices as a coach and as a leader, why they should be focusing their time, energies and attention on developing the building blocks of later success instead of on “winning the league” or “keeping their bye,” whythey should be more obsessed with what ought to be rather than what is; we have not done a good job of providing our coaches with the “driving forces” behind the “right” decisions, with the education, the information, and the structure to make informed decisions as to how they ought to be conducting themselves as coaches and as guardians of the game. In my opinion, the fault for this lies with some of the more rigid outlooks on coaching education that I am sure that some of us have experienced, with those of us who are fortunate enough to occupy something like “leadership positions” in our own soccer communities, and with those of us who care about the evolution of our game: It is our task to ensure that the people who are coaching and impacting youth around us have the background information, education, structure, experience, and resources to allow them to make informed decisions as to their coaching practices with our most fragile of players.

When we take on this task, we must be careful not to believe that education is built on dogma and on orthodoxy, as Paul Gardner points out in this article. Rather, we must remember that (coaching) education is about sharing “best practices” with coaches, both novice and experienced, so that the cumulative experience of those who have spent time learning and studying in the game, those with experience and results, as well as solid educational, physical, and psychological science can have an effect on the game at every level in our country; it is about the dissemination of information, of science, of experience, and of ideas and a coaching or teaching culture to a national or international audience. Of course, there are always going to be some absolutes in coaching education (such as the proposition that playing small sided games at the youngest age groups provides our youngest players tremendous technical, tactical, emotional, and physical benefits that serve them well throughout their athletic careers), but coaching education should always be about making the information and practices that our coaches have and utilize better so that we can make the game better; it is not about positions, dogma, or ideologies. Education is meant to free one’s mind, to ignite a passion rather than to extinguish it, to enliven a debate rather than to silence it, to welcome mentalities that question accepted truths in search of real truth rather than to exclude them. Education is meant to make us better (as coaches, as players, as athletes, as people) because it take us on a journey away from servitude and toward freedom, a journey away from the staus quo and towards the ideal; education helps to make us who we were always called to be.

As Allen says, a well founded “coaching philosophy will determine whether you are willing to spend the time required, and whether you will be patient enough, to provide a decision-making environment for players, to will allow them to gain the experience needed to overcome the unpredictable” (page 5), but it is our job, as soccer leaders, to make sure the our coaches have the requisite resources, experience, structure, and values upon which they can build their coaching philosophies; it is our job to make sure that their foundations are strong and sturdy so that the future of our game can be vibrant and enthralling.

US Youth VISION Statement

I recently attended the National Youth License course.  It was an incredible experience.  The quality of the instruction was superb and the curriculum outstanding.  I can write more about it later, but I wanted to share a document that was passed by Sam Snow, the US Youth Soccer Director of Coaching Education.  It is called a Vision Statement and covers the idea behind the training model directed by US Youth Soccer.  I am attaching the document for your review.  Vision Statement

Dr. Tom Fleck – “We must work to create an environment to develop the American player’s growth and development! In the past we have tried to train the Dutch way, the Brazilian way, etc. We can and will together create the finest players in the world if we understand the growth, development and specific characteristics of our youth. Distributing the body of information from the “Y” License is the first step.”


Do the US Women Pass too Much?

I enjoy watching the US Women team play.  They are the top of the heap of soccer for women.  And, being American, it is nice to be able to always be the favorite — even when you are playing European teams!  At the same time, I think there is an argument that they could be even better if they handled the ball more.

It was impressive to see the US Women start the New Zealand game with the amount of pressure they applied.  Everywhere NZL went, the US pressed them farther.  That stood out.  What also stood out was the speed of movement when we had the ball — I am not referring to the movement of the players, I am referring to movement of the ball.  Generally speaking, the USWNT exercise one-touch passing.  While all directions are explored, the only real areas they seem interested in are forward and wide.  Almost every pass played backwards is followed by a long ball up.  The right back, for instance, played it long the following times she had the ball played back to her (I only charted the first 33 minutes):

10:34  drop then long ball led to loss of possession

11:19  drop to right back and sent up (long) – maintained possession

19:00  right back played another long that led to loss of possession

21:43  right back played another long that led to loss of possession

27:33  right back turned the ball over again

I only started charting at the seventh minute – in the note on the 10:34 entry, I note that it was the fourth time the backs had played long resulting in loss of possession.   This is all interesting, but not the real point of the blog tonight.  I just wanted to point out that  there is no such thing as playing the ball out from our backs.  And, as I have written before, the argument between territory and possession, I prefer possession unless you can have a shot off the long service.

Getting back to dribbling, there were several instances in the first 1/3 of the game where a player had the ball and space.  Given that situation, why pass?  If the pass is a killer pass, it makes sense, but what if it is not?  What if the player has the ball and space in mouth of the goal (but outside the box)?  At the 16:34, Abby has just that situation.  Rather than press the ball into the throat of the goal (allowing a teammate to cut in behind the defense or allowing a shot), she immediately sends it wide to Rapinoe.  In this particular instance, Rapinoe crossed it immediately back in and it almost resulted in a goal (to be fair).  But, if you have the ball and space, why not require the defense (in front of the goal) to commit to you?  Abby does that at the 28:45 mark – opting to dribble instead of throw the ball wide.  The result was a fantastic through ball up the middle, in front of the goal, rather than away from it.

In the Olympic Edition of Sports Illustrated (August 6, 2012), Megan Rapinoe is profiled.  I had not read this article but as I was telling my wife about what I observed, she recommended it.  Rapinoe was one of the few Americans who at least held the ball at times.  While her moves in the first 1/3 of the game were limited to cuts and turns out wide, she at least handled the ball.  Interestingly, she is viewed as an “un-American” player.

“Truth be told, Pinoe is the most un-American player in the U.S. women’s soccer, and that’s a compliment.  For decades that U.S. has thrived on strength and speed more than skill…Rapinoe relies instead on clever dribbling, fluid movement and visionary passing…The key to her creativity, she says, was playing under Danny Cruz, her club coach at age 13 with Elk Grove United in Sacramento.

‘I don’t think he ever really told me how to play. . . He was really good about letting us make mistakes and play free. . . There are a lot of really bad coaches in the U.S. who maybe don’t focus on the right things. Sometimes creativity is stamped out at a young age.'”  (Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated, August 6, 2012)

Funny thing — Sam Snow, US Youth Director of Coaches, says the same thing — we are coaching the game out of the players!   Do we give our players the same opportunities?

Back to the game against NZL, the first goal was created after an excellent ball through the defense (from right to left, diagonally) with which Alex Morgan held onto it.  She challenged the defender to the left of the goal, in the box.  The defender had to retreat, giving Alex space to send a superb cross (shorter range).  Abby finished it.  This was in the 26:28 minute of the game.  Alex’s challenge to beat the defender 1v1 created her space to send the cross.

And, to answer the question about passing too much.  The default in soccer, I understand, is that if there is an open teammate, we should send the ball there.  We should stretch the defense with width (and length).  But, watching Pirlo play for Italy in the Euros, there is something to be said for at least “carrying” the ball (not necessarily beating people off the dribble, but drawing defenders to you then distributing is en effective way of managing the midfield.)  If you pass the ball too quickly, it may have the opposite effect on the defense — they do not have the time to commit so they just stay in place.

We used to use a similar strategy in basketball.  At high school, while our basketball team was above average, we competed at the highest level of Texas basketball (5A).  Our coaches’ philosophy was to play zone – we usually played a 2-3.  We allowed the opposing team freedom of ball movement anywhere outside our zone — we used it for breathers.  At the same time, penetrating dribblers challenged our defense – requiring us to commit and move.

I hope that, going forward, as a new generation of soccer players are developed, that we do not default back to the strength and speed philosophy.

Dribbles per Game, Germans, Tiki-Taka, and Overhead Slams

What role doees dribbling have in the modern soccer game?  Watching the US Women play New Zealand today in the Olympics reminded me of how we can teach and coach dribbling right out of the game.  Every licensing course I attend the instructors lament the lack of creative, playmaking ball masters, while at the same time we seem to assembly line produce one touch passers.  And now, since Spain and Barcelona’s success, everyone assumes it is the style of game that is the most successful.  In fact, if you ask most people to describe the Spanish or Barcelona style of play, the one word that you would hear most is passing or Tika-Taka.  I can think of a few more (movement, pressure).

At, you can sort stats for teams and individuals in offensive and defensive categories.  One of the categories is “dribbles per game.”  The date is collected by Opta Sports.  They define their dribble state as follows:


This is an attempt by a player to beat an opponent in possession of the ball. A successful dribble means the player beats the defender while retaining possession, unsuccessful ones are where the dribbler is tackled, Opta also log attempted dribbles where the player overruns the ball.’s-event-definitions.aspx

So, at the professional level, what teams succeed at this category?  Surprisingly, of the top 10 teams, 9 of them compete in the Bundesliga,  Only Barcelona, number 9, is ranked in the top 20.  The Bundesliga not only made of 9 of the first 10, but only one other team made it in the Top Twenty.  Here is the list:

R Team Tournament Shots pg Shots OT pg Dribbles pg
1 Hamburger SV Bundesliga 13.2 4.8 16.6
2 Hoffenheim Bundesliga 13.4 4.3 16.6
3 Werder Bremen Bundesliga 14.9 4.6 16.4
4 Bayern Munich Bundesliga 15.7 6.3 15.7
5 Schalke 04 Bundesliga 13.7 5.6 13.9
6 Mainz 05 Bundesliga 12.6 4.4 13.9
7 Borussia Dortmund Bundesliga 16.6 6.3 13.4
8 Bayer Leverkusen Bundesliga 12.9 5.5 13.4
9 Barcelona La Liga 16.5 7.6 13.2
10 Freiburg Bundesliga 12.1 4.3 12.9
11 Hertha Berlin Bundesliga 11.1 3.8 12
12 Hannover 96 Bundesliga 12.2 4.1 11.9
13 Nurnberg Bundesliga 12.6 4.1 11.9
14 Augsburg Bundesliga 11.3 3.9 11.9
15 VfB Stuttgart Bundesliga 13.9 5.7 11.8
16 Kaiserslautern Bundesliga 12.6 4.1 11.7
17 Borussia M.Gladbach Bundesliga 13 5 11.3
18 Wolfsburg Bundesliga 12.4 4.8 11
19 FC Cologne Bundesliga 8.9 3.3 10.6
20 Lecce Serie A 11.3 3.6 10.3

When I first saw this, my first thought, cynic that I am, is that they must be keeping better stats in Germany.  Or maybe they are more consistent with their record keeping.  But, assuming the statistics accurately reflect what is going on in the game, it seems apparent that their are more one on one dribble challenges occurring in Germany.  Notice the one team that makes it in the Top 10 – pass-happy Barcelona.

The German trend is also reflected in the individual stats.    Like the team stats, I sorted these according to the dribbles/game column:

R Name Team Pos Apps G A SpG KP Drb
1 Gökhan Töre Hamburger SV M(R) 16(6) 6 1 1.9 5.3
2 Lionel Messi Barcelona AM(R),FW 36(1) 50 16 5.5 2.5 4.8
3 Ryan Babel Hoffenheim AM(CLR),FW 28(3) 4 2 2.1 1.2 4.2
4 Franck Ribéry Bayern Munich AM(L) 27(5) 12 12 2.2 2.1 4
5 Jefferson Montero Betis AM(LR) 26(6) 1 3 1.9 0.9 3.6
6 Juan Guillerm… Lecce D(R),M(R) 32(1) 3 2 1.8 1.2 3.4
7 Raffael Hertha Berlin AM(C),FW 30(1) 6 8 2.2 1.6 3.3
8 Andre Schürrle Bayer Leverkusen AM(CLR),FW 30(1) 7 4 2.2 1.4 3.1
9 Marco Reus Borussia M.Gl… AM(CR),FW 32 18 9 3.2 2.3 2.9
10 Joaquín Malaga AM(CR) 19(4) 2 3 1.2 2.1 2.9
11 Roberto Firmino Hoffenheim AM(CL) 26(4) 7 1 2.1 1.5 2.9
12 Jonathan Biab… Parma M(CLR),FW 27(11) 6 4 1 1.1 2.8
13 Claudio Pizarro Werder Bremen AM(C),FW 28(1) 18 8 2.9 1.8 2.7
14 Jefferson Farfán Schalke 04 AM(CR),FW 19(4) 4 8 1 2.7 2.6
15 Daniel Caligiuri Freiburg AM(CLR) 18(7) 6 4 1.5 0.9 2.6
16 Ashkan Dejagah Wolfsburg AM(CLR),FW 24(2) 3 7 1.6 1.3 2.6
17 David Hoilett Blackburn AM(CLR) 34 7 5 1.9 1.3 2.6
18 Stevan Jovetic Fiorentina AM(CL),FW 27 14 3 4.5 1.4 2.6
19 Julian Draxler Schalke 04 AM(L) 21(9) 2 3 1.1 1.2 2.5
20 Ezequiel Lavezzi Napoli AM(CL),FW 25(5) 9 5 2 2 2.5

While  not all the players on the list are Germans, many of the non-Germans play in the Bundesliga.  Interestingly, Leonel Messi is ranked second.  Combined with Iniesta (not far out of the Top 20) and Xavi, they make up the heart of the Barcelona squad.  I have stated on here before — it is not pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, shoot for Barca or Spain.  Rather, it is pass, pass, pass (lots of off the ball movements), penetrating dribble, pass, carrying dribble, shoot.

So…what role is the dribble in the modern game?  Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, the future of England, is a dribbler. So is Jack Wilshire.  Both are flexible and can play lots of positions.  Better yet, what are we doing in youth soccer to encourage this?

This is where we get to Overhead Slams.  I grew up playing tennis.  I played competitively in my youth and had the benefit of some instruction. When you are taught the overhead slam in tennis, you are not taught it the way we all love to hit it — slamming it straight down, watching the ball careening high into the air.  Rather, you are taught to hit it deep.  Hitting overhead slams deep requires more skill, timing, and practice than just slamming it straight down.  It also makes life difficult for your opponent.  The idea is that if you learn the harder approach, you can always slam.  The same is true for passing.

If you can dribble real well, you usually can control the ball too.  Kids that excel at dribbling usually do well at juggling and receiving the ball.  And, if you want to teach passing, you have to teach reception before you can pass.  In the book The Spanish Soccer Coaching Bible, Vol. 1, Laureano Ruiz (2002), Mr. Ruiz talks about “contiuning to dribble” in his chapter “Reaching a Higher Level, 14-16 years old.”   He states:

“Although I am constantly telling the players that soccer is all about passing, at this age they are encouraged to make individual runs,practice dribbling, feints and dummies. Remember, only the most outstanding players are able to influence a match by performing individual skills or moves. . . I know some soccer coaches will be asking: ‘Can soccer be played without dribbling?’ I do not think it can. When the opposition has closed down all the space, when it is impossible to play triangles, when the opposing team is pressuring intensely, then the best solutions are dribbling feints and dummies. These should also be used near the goal in classic one on one confrontations.”  Page 180-181.

Those instructions above are for 14-16 year olds.  If you spend the time to learn to dribble, passing comes much easier as effective passing requires not just proper weight, angle, and vision, but it also requires ball control.

As I have quoted here multiple times, here again is a quote from the book Arsenal: The Making of a Modern Superclub: ”Their (Barcelona) Academy coach Carlos Rexach reveals … ‘Above all what we are after is a boy who is good with the ball and then we hope he becomes strong physically. Other academies tend to look for athletes they can turn into footballers. Most coaches, when they see a kid who dribbles a lot they tell him to stop and pass the ball.  Here (Barcelona) they do the opposite. We tell them to continue so that they get even better at dribbling.  It’s only when the kid develops that we start teaching them the passing game.’”  (Page 68).  In other words, they teach ball mastery and encourage dribbling first, passing second.  Do we?

As Ruiz states, the advantage to dribbling is that it puts the defense under pressure.  I think teams can sometimes move the ball around too fast.  Quick ball movement player to player may not force a defense to adjust.  By contrast, a player with the ball and some space who challenges the defense, requires the defense to react to her.  This reaction can cause a domino effect throughout the defense.  To add even more advantage, if the dribbler is able to beat a defender with the dribble, then she has eliminated a player and created space for her and her teammates.

Out motto for our teams is “take him on.”  This is a quote from Peter Kirkley, who has been with the Wallsend program in England, a top youth academy,  for 40 years.  He noted that the junior club was not formed to create professional players but to “give local lads and lasses a game of football, help them grow and love the sport.”    The club emphasizes punctuality, politeness, and discipline.  And, what they teach has been referred to as the Wallsend Way — love of the ball.

“I was involved in Newcastle’s youth set-up for years, and I don’t think any kid they signed at eight has ever made it through to 16, never mind the first team. I go to academy matches and all I hear from the coaches is ‘pass, pass, pass’. I long to hear someone say: ‘go on son, take him on.’”

So…are Germans the most advanced dribblers now?  What part of Tiki-Taka is dribbling?  And, if you learn to dribble, you can then learn to pass (or slam you tennis ball straight down!).