Can a parent-coach be a professional soccer coach?

224637_1070321326696_8617_n***Note on this blog*** I realize now after writing this that I have wanted to get this out for a while.  This is a bit more personal than my usual entries, but these ideas have been banging around my head for a while.  I would appreciate your feedback. ***

I have been coaching soccer for many years.  I, however, never played professional soccer or even college soccer.  In fact, I did not even play high school or club soccer (my town and school did not have it).  I am a trial lawyer.  What business do I have coaching soccer kids?  What business do I have being paid to coach soccer teams?

I get this some time.  I am paid to coach so, in coaching speak, would be considered a “professional” coach — not to confuse that with a coach for a professional team.  Here are a few questions I would ask as a paying parent:

1.  What constitutes a professional coach?

2.  Why would I want a coach who did not play professional or college level soccer?

3.  If Clint can do it, why can’t I? (a lot of people assume if they see a “parent-coach” coaching they should be able to as well or that they are qualified too)

I.  A Professional Coach

I guess you could define a “professional coach” a couple of ways.  Most people I ask assume it means (1) they are paid to coach, (2) it is their full-time job, (3) both (1) and (2), or (4) a former professional player (or near professional player) coaching.  While I can see value in all the choices, I do not think any of them does service to the term “professional coach.”

To me, to be a professional is more about how you do your job than either your background or how your are employed.  A “professional coach” is “professional” because he or she treats the coaching job as a professional.  How so?

1.  Coaching education.  Your coach is professional if they are constantly educating themselves in the art of coaching.  This means staying current with coaching courses, badges, and engaging in coaching dialogues with other coaching professionals.  Courses and licenses are great assets to network, collaborate, and learn.  They are offered through U.S. Soccer Federation (http://www.ussoccer.com/coaching-education/licenses) and National Soccer Coaches Association of America (http://www.nscaa.com/) among other sources.    It means the coach immerses herself in material that will help her be a better coach.  Books, magazines, etc.  In law and medicine, two “professional” occupations, we regard working in either field as “practicing law” or “practicing medicine.”  There is a reason for that.  It is because to be a professional in those fields requires upkeep.  The same, to me, is true in coaching youth soccer.  A “professional” coach is an educated one.

2.  Preparation.  A professional prepares before a session, before a season, before a game.  If your coach is treating the job as a professional, she will have planned her sessions ahead of time — for the week, for the month, and for the season.  She will use that planning to prepare herself on how to communicate the ideas for the day, week, month, and season to her team.  She will not “wing it.”  A professional coach is a prepared one.

3.  Communication.  A professional learns how to communicate ideas.  I love the quote that the biggest illusion about communication is that it has taken place.  To me, the biggest challenge for soccer coaches, especially former players who do not have children, is how to communicate ideas to youth players in a manner that they understand the concept. Do not assume because you told the kids some complicated soccer expressions and they nodded their heads that they understood.IMG_0506

Proper communication does not mean blaming the kids or team because “they don’t get it.”  It means changing your concept of how to use words to communicate ideas. It means seeking out phrases and word choices, by trial and error and preparation, that resonate with your team (whatever their age or sex).  If coaches do not work on phraseology, and think about it in their preparation, to me, they are not professional coaches.

Again, in the practice of law, we study and consider the use of words.  What words can we use to communicate a certain idea?  We consult psychologists, consultants, and the like, to assist us.  Many may not know this, but Dr. Phil got his start by being a jury consultant for Oprah Winfrey’s beef trial in Amarillo.  He is an expert in communication.  Soccer is no different.

Just because you played soccer does not mean you know what words to use to convey your knowledge to a 10-year-old girl.  A professional coach spends time considering that.  Some examples:  instead of the vague coaching expression “spread out” try “where can you find space?” or “how can you make the field bigger?”  To help a center midfield player who doesn’t know where to go — try “move to the ball” (since, for youth, most of them will runaway from the ball and turn into a forward).  This will be discussed in a separate blog.

4.  Studying the game.  A professional coach studies the game.  He watches soccer and is aware of current trends in the game.  This is helpful for a lot of reasons but one big one:  if you want to inspire your players in a love of the game, incorporate professional games into your sessions.  Encourage the players to watch soccer.  Talk to them in breaks about saves made, goals scored, in matches that are televised.  Talk to them about your local professional team and encourage them to support the team.  See if you can incorporate a moment from a match they know about in your session.  Help make them lovers of the game.  Does your coach do that?  You want your kids to improve – they need passion and love for the game.

5.  Inspire/Motivate.  Along with the ideas above, a professional coach inspires players and motivates them to do improve.  Objective feedback is critical — it cannot always be positive — but at a young age it needs to be around 70/30 (70% positive, 30% critical).  Motivate and inspire them to do better.  A professional is enthusiastic about her job.

6.  Teacher.  A professional soccer coach is a teacher.  Combining all of the above with the most important below, you have to teach to coach youth soccer.  If you think that you are just a coach — then you are not a professional soccer coach.  If you think youth soccer “coaching” is about game management, you are wrong.  It is about teaching.  Teaching the concepts of the game.  Teaching techniques on how to touch a ball.  A teacher tells why you are setting an offside line, not just to do it.  A teacher tells why we generally play the direction we are facing, not just to do it.  Why.  Why.  Why.  If you are not interesting helping with the “why” because you only want to “coach,” to me, you are not a “professional coach.”  You are a remote-control coach.

7.  Pays attention!!!  I saved this for last because I think, of all the items listed, this is the most important.  A professional coach pays attention to his players.  He is constantly evaluating each one — looking to identify weakness and strengths so that he can build exercises that overcome the former and improve the latter.  A professional coach needs to be a “careful observer.”

***A note on humility*** Many people confuse confidence for arrogance.  I am totally fine with a confident coach.   I think it helps to inspire and motivate.  An arrogant coach, on the other hand, has a hard time being a “professional” because it takes humility to be 1-7 above.  It takes humility to educate yourself because you have to admit you do not know everything.  It takes humility to get badges because you are faced with failure and criticism (nothing like watching yourself coaching on video and listening to criticism from your colleagues and superiors in front of everyone!).  It takes humility to prepare because you have to acknowledge you need it.  It takes humility to work on your phraseology because you have to acknowledge you need help communicating.  It takes humility to teach “why” because you may not know the answer.  It takes humility to inspire and motivate because you are lifting others, not yourself.  It takes humility to pay attention because you have to accept that they deserve it. To me, humility is a defining characteristic of a professional coach.  Give me a confident but humble coach and we have the makings of a true professional.

I look back at my coaching past and have had the privilege of training some of the most advanced players in our area and even our state.  None of these kids, by the way, had any experience playing soccer.  Our town did not have a youth soccer club.  We all lived North of town and, one year, made a team (2006).   Early on, my sessions were, by my standards now, not well-organized.  I lacked experience.  I never played.  I was not educated.  But here is why those horrible sessions worked — and those girls improved — and they stayed playing soccer:

1.  They happened.  We practiced a lot!

2.  I cared.  Probably too much.

3.  I educated myself — books, courses, conversations with other coaches.  I was constantly searching for information and help.  I was not afraid to ask for help and welcomed any perspective of advice that was offered.

4.  We had fun.  During all the experiences, good and bad, we had a good time.

5.  Most importantly, I paid attention to the girls.  I was willing to dedicate energy and focus to each of the girls.  This is different from showing up and running a practice.  It is more active.  I considered each players’ needs and tried, with some strange exercises, to help them improve.  It means, when you are preparing for your session and when you are at practice, you do not have your cell phone.  You are not talking to other trainers.  You give the players your full and careful attention.

Interestingly, for a group of girls in a town without a soccer club, they are now juniors and sophomores and freshmen.  They all still play.  I coached them for between four and five years.  Several will play college soccer.  There is still no club in our town.

I have been asked advice before on how to coach a team by someone who lacked experience.  I always say the same thing – just pay attention and you will be fine.

II.  A word about former players and professionals

I work in the soccer field and most of my colleagues are former players.  I think it is great.  They offer a wealth of experience that, when accessed, is invaluable.  They have been in thousands of training exercises and can recall, if they put the effort, ones that they really liked or helped them learn a difficult concept.

By their presence, they can inspire young players.  But, a prior playing career is no excuse for an apathetic approach to coaching.  In other words, just because a coach was a former “professional” player does not, in my mind, make them a “professional” coach. I have seen countless former professional players struggle mightily or organize a training session, to communicate ideas (sometimes great players don’t necessarily know how to communicate those ideas to youth players).  I have seen former national team players completely frightened by the prospect of coaching six-year olds in a soccer session.  Most importantly, I have observed former professional players violate the most important rule above — not giving the players their full attention.  There are not shortcuts to being a professional coach.  It takes effort, education, self-evaluation, humility, focus, and a willingness to adapt.

III. Parent-coach Trap

I work in a small club and my kids also play in the club.  While I coach teams that my kids are not on, I also coach my kids too.  In fact, I am always coaching.  Our family plays soccer all the time – in the back yard, on Sunday evenings with our adult team, in our living room.  It is part of our life.  Some people see my involvement and assume that they can do the same thing because they are a little league baseball coach or have coached a soccer team in the past (in recreation).  Please consider this: all of the above standards on professional coaching apply to you just as they do to the former professional.  If you are not willing to educate yourself, collaborate, prepare, work on your phraseology, study the game, and inspire and motive young players, teach (learn the whys of the game), study,  you are not a professional coach.

My experience is that, generally speaking, parent-coaches are biased towards their children.  Show me a parent coach, and 90% of the time their kid is the forward.  If you listen to them coach, 90% of the comments are directed to their kid.

At the same time, I obviously think you can be effective as a parent-coach.  If you qualify as a professional coach (as listed above – not whether or not you receive wages — that is not my definition) and you can set aside bias, you may be a great asset to a team your child is on because you are already invested in it.   It can also provide a great opportunity to connect with your child and spend time together.  In the long run, as a parent, soccer coaching is not worth it if disconnects your from your children.  So, being a round them in a soccer climate can be wonderful and strengthening.  As long as you are willing to share that focus and attention (and even love!) with the other players, it can be a positive.