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.

6 thoughts on “Can a parent-coach be a professional soccer coach?”

  1. Clint,
    your insight is very impressive. Your observations, insightful. You seem to have this insatiable desire to learn about this incredibly beautiful game. Simplicity, I agree with you, is one of the keys to coaching players effectively. No concept in soccer, then, if presented properly to any audience the correct way, be it a 6-year-old player or a semi-professional, should be complex. The training session below is not just simple; it’s extraordinarily efficient and effective.

    The Team Training Session Focused on Player Development

    Coaches have asked me what an ideal practice looks like if player development, as opposed to team development, is the primary objective. It looks today, as I practice it, just as it did as practiced by Coach Schmetzer–my former youth coach–the most successful coach in developing players to excel in ODP since its inception in 1977. He didn’t coach elite players; he coached ordinary players who became elite.

    Before the days of “super clubs,” Coach Schmetzer, a master at player development, who did no recruiting, produced, from a single U18 boys team, the Seattle-based Lake City Hawks,six Washington State U18 ODP team players. Of those, three made the regional team. Of those three, two –at 17 years of age–played for the U19 youth national team. Three of his 18 players turned pro, all before age 21.

    What I, who didn’t start playing competitive soccer until U15, learned from him allowed me to represent our country in international play at 17 and play this amazing game professionally at 18.
    ,:
    His brilliance was in his simple approach, as demonstrated here is his typical practice, which can–and should–be used with children as young as 10::

    First, before any player arrives, set up the three following areas with a total of 12 cones, 4 for each area:
    1) 20yds X 20yds, the “juggling box”
    2) 5yds X 20yds, the “skills rectangle”
    3) U-12-U-14, 35yds X 35yds or U-15 to U-19, 40yds by 40yds, the 9 vs. 9 “keep-away square.”
    These three separate areas should be close to each other.

    Second, place practice bibs in a pile in your “rest break” area.
    Note: Every player is to have brought his or her own soccer ball, so there’s one ball per player.

    Third, when players arrive at practice—even if early—they are to go immediately to the juggling square and juggle.
    The first fifteen minutes of a two hour practice is spent juggling.

    Fourth, players pair up and go to the skills rectangle. Players are lined up on one side, 5 yards opposite their partner..
    Instruct players to do 1-touch passing, back and forth between the two partners. When you estimate each player has made 200 passes, change the drill.
    One player tosses the ball to his partner, who traps it with his thigh and then does a trap-pass, using the inside of his foot, back to his skills partner. When each player has done about 30 traps, move on to the next drill.

    Tell players that in 60 seconds, they—the pair— are to try to get as many volley-catches back and forth as they can. They’re to count. You tell them you’ll see which pair gets the highest number of successful volley-catches. To start, the players with the ball, in hands, lean over the ball, drop it lightly and, using the instep, volley it to their partner, who attempts to catch the ball with his hands. Each time a pair does this successfully, it counts as one.

    Next, the players, with partners standing about four feet from each other, are to head the ball back and forth as many times as they can without the ball dropping.

    In the drill that follows, one player, with the ball in hands, tosses it up about 15 feet, and out about 20ft. His skills partner sprints out to the ball, trying to catch up with it to do a trap, using his feet, to turn back toward his partner; once trapped, the ball is passed to the partner who tosses it. This player sprints to the line and his partner tosses the ball again. This drill, which incorporates fitness training, is done for one minute. Players do these as fast as they can.

    While this is just a sampling of skill drills, you continue the skills training for 45 minutes before taking a 2-3 minute break, during which time you randomly hand out the nine practice bibs to players who are to put them on before returning for more skill drills. At this point, you are an hour into the two-hour practice.
    Fifth, you resume skills training and, again with players pairing up, continue for another 35 minutes. What’s most important for you is to know why such skill training is so effective.

    1. First, it’s very efficient. Players arrive at practice and immediately go to the juggling square. During the 15 minutes of juggling, each player will get an average of 600 touches on the ball. Also, by having players do skill drills in pairs—not two lines of nine players
    with sixteen standing, watching and waiting to pass the ball—you maximize players’ touches on the ball.

    2. Second, you introduce competition (i.e., get as many headers back and forth as you can), and time restrictions (i.e., you are to trap, turn and pass back to your partner, doing these as fast as you can for the next minute), both of which require players to perform at game pace, or as close to game pace as is possible. Thus, players get accustomed to trapping etc. under pressure. Furthermore, you are incorporating fitness into skill drills.

    3. Third, it’s effective. In the 1hr and 35-minutes of practice so far, your players have likely gotten at least 3,000 touches on the ball, more than some players get in three or four of their club team practices.
    Sixth, without taking a break, take your players over to the 9 vs. 9 “keep-away” square. Be sure to take 10-12 balls with you in the event some are kicked far away during the game. Your players spend the last 15-20 minutes of practice playing 9 vs. 9.
    22.
    Here are the instructions:
    One team starts the game, anywhere in the square, with a free-kick. No opposing player or teammate may be closer than 10 yards to the player taking the free-kick (a “start” of play or “restart’) at any time in the game. The game is 2-touch soccer. If a player touches the ball more than twice, you blow the whistle to stop the game and the opposing team gets a free-kick to restart the game. Teams score by completing four consecutive passes. If a team gets a point, blow your whistle to stop play. The team that just scored gets to restart the game with a free-kick.

    Any time the ball is intercepted (possession is gained) by the opposing team, blow your whistle to stop play. That opposing team, whose players just intercepted a pass and gained control of the ball, now restarts the game with a free-kick. Any player taking the free-kick must, before making a pass to restart the game, look around and behind him (360-degree view). If he fails to do that before making the restart pass, blow the whistle to stop the game, say ”Didn’t look around” and the ball goes to the opposing team for a restart free-kick.

    Also, if any player during the course of the game does not know where he is going with the ball before he gets it, then blow your whistle, stop the game and say, “didn’t know where you were going with the ball,” and the opposing team gets the ball for a restart free-kick. If at any time the ball goes out of bounds, a throw-in restarts the game.

    Note: While at first there are a lot of stoppages, you will be amazed at how quickly your players pick this up. Plus, as you will see, you are quick on the whistle, which gives players no time to daydream. It’s intense, exceptionally fast-paced and challenging for players.

    Once teams are getting four consecutive passes frequently, bump the requirement up to five, then six, seven and eight to score a goal. Once your players have mastered the 2-touch and 8-pass requirement, it’s time for one-touch soccer. Start with three passes equals a goal and follow the same procedure you did for 2-touch, bumping up the requirement of the number of consecutive passes to get a goal.

    We Lake City Hawks played 9 vs. 9 one-touch keep-away during the last 15-20 minutes of every single practice, after 1hr. and 35-minutes of skill training, for four years. In my thirty years in the game as a player and coach, I have never seen any single training drill that does more for player development (“game play”) than this one. How?

    1. It teaches your players the most important facets of the game: to think one step ahead, to consider their options before the ball arrives; they realize the incredible efficiency and effectiveness of 1-2 touch play, so they don’t hold onto the ball too long; they gain an appreciation for the importance of excellent vision, getting the 360-degree look to see the whole field; as they are in such a tight space and have limited touches on the ball, they are forced to make excellent supporting runs for teammates. Furthermore, this game requires a very high level of focus and concentration. It all carries over to actual game play.

    2. Also, in 9 vs. 9 keep-away, your players are playing at faster-than-game pace, in an area much smaller than the actual playing field. So when they do get to an actual game, they will have more time and space in which to play.

    3. Your players don’t pick up bad habits. The rules and restrictions of the 9 vs. 9 game (and your quick whistle) don’t allow for them. In contrast, in a scrimmage with unlimited touches, full field, etc., players invariably pick up bad habits and these, unfortunately, carry over to the game.

    4. In addition, your players will play “purposeful possession,” being patient, smart, willing to play the ball in any direction to maintain possession. There’s no “reckless race” the opponents’ goal.

    What’s the Next Step You Can Take for Your Players?

    I encourage you to use game time for player development. I have a recommendation that has proved very successful: Impose a 2-touch restriction during actual game play. Before you do, ensure your players have mastered 1-touch play during 9 vs. 9 keep-away. Also, the first time you do this, select any 20-minute segment of play for the 2-touch to start any time after the first ten minutes of the game. Players, of course, can use 1 or 2 touches to play the ball.

    Furthermore, tell your players during your pre-game instructions that they’ll be playing 2-touch for that specific 20 minutes you’ve chosen. And all that you ask of each player during that time is that she knows where she’s going with the ball before she gets it. Add that the only time a player may use more than two touches is if she is in the opponents’ penalty area—this should, but it doesn’t always, take care of the inevitable question at least one player asks, “But, coach, what if I’m in front of the goal and need to dribble to take a shot?”

    Also, tell your players you’re setting a team goal of six consecutive passes. Why six? They’ll achieve this goal and, regardless of the outcome (score) of the game, will feel a sense of achievement and be eager to try 2-touch again the next time you ask them to. Plus, they quickly become believers of the efficiency and effectiveness of 1- and 2-touch play.

  2. Great thoughts Clint. I learned a lot reading it and identify some areas where I need to improve. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Love the post. I read it just before going on a trip with my daughter to visit a soccer school, so it was the perfect time to reflect on her experiences and how it relates to your post. The college coach sat down and told us why he was recruiting her. “She has courage on the ball…she plays creatively…she wants to control and possess, which is our style….” This school we were visiting is ranked in the top 10 in the country, and I couldn’t help but pause and think of how she developed these skills that got them to notice her. She has only played at the ECNL level for two years. For the rest of her career, she was “parent coached”. She was given the creativity to “make something happen”. She was challenged to take a player on. She was never afraid to make mistakes. She was taught a concept called “magic” where you could give the ball away…run to space, and it would magically come right back. (That is now a style that defines her.) She learned soccer in an environment that was rewarding in every way…which includes socially and psychologically. It was the right amount of focus on winning/developing. It had the social elements the right environment (sometimes low pressure…sometimes more pressure) that must exist in order to avoid player burnout by the time they get to high school. Her parent coaches had an almost obsessive desire to learn more about “the beautiful game”. The coaching never got stale. There was always something else to master…a new skill or formation or style to learn and try out. It was always exciting to her…always like playtime.

    In my opinion, professional is a term that indicates ability/effectiveness as a coach. I think listening and paying attention and then knowing what to do with the information is the first step. (I listen and pay attention, but I don’t know what to do with that information. I look at skill and technique, but I don’t pay attention to the game as a whole as well as a professional coach. My brain doesn’t work that way.) My oldest daughter’s piano teacher couldn’t play that well…so he said. I don’t know. I never heard him play. But he would listen with his eyes closed, and then stop my daughter and correct her again and again…the same measure over and over. Until it was perfect. He was a genius at listening and paying attention to the details. At times, he wanted my daughter to hear the piece played, so he would bring in his wife to play it because he couldn’t…then he’d go back to teaching. He was a brilliant teacher because he paid attention to every single detail and then knew exactly what to do with that information.

    Enthusiasm and ability to motivate the young kids, especially when the newness is over and it is hot and you might be loosing…or when a player isn’t as good as they want to be (or think they are) …that’s tough. A professional coach can do that. They can keep the kids engaged and willing to work day after day. They can keep the intensity up in practices. They teach the kid to “compete”…an invaluable trait in a soccer player. It is easy to do that the first season…but what about the 10th…or longer. It is a long journey—a marathon. You have to know when to sprint and when to jog, and even when to rest… When to push and when to back off. It is a skill that requires an ability to understand people—kids in particularly. You have to push them hard, but still delicately at the same time. You have to be able to get them to listen to you…to want to make you proud of them. They have to think, “I can’t let my coach down.”

    Humility and hunger to learn: A great coach has to be confident but also have a desire to learn from the experts. When they feel that their player/team needs more, they need to bring in the help. Both of my daughter’s “parent coaches” were continually seeking out the experts to run special sessions. There were so many. They were like master classes. A “professional” coach will soak up new information and then get excited about passing it on to the player. They will learn new drills and teaching methods that allow for maximum player development. They are not intimidated by those who know more and who are better. They are in fact drawn to them.

    Not every parent can be a professional coach. I can’t. I have the enthusiasm and love for the game. I could watch it all day every day. I can identify talent and appreciate a great play. But I’m not a coach. I have one or two of the necessary elements (such as a love for the game), but not enough of them. You have to have a coaches mind. You have to see the game in a way that is at a different speed/level then others. Coaching is a talent that combines a certain combination of several skills, and when someone has it, you know it. You can see it immediately.

    As we drove home from the college visit, we asked our daughter what she liked about the different schools. Her answer is not surprising. It’s all about the coach. She wants to play for an amazing soccer coach who inspires her and motivates her and is obsessive about helping her get better. That…and blue bell ice cream. One of the schools had a cafeteria with a huge freezer full of blue bell, right around the corner from the room she’d be staying in. That was impressive too. 🙂

    Thanks for the post.

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