We talk a lot about player development (often how broken it is), but we never seem to move beyond that to building the foundation to improve it: coaching development. There’s this almost universal assumption that elite coaches are always elite players who move into coaching and are ‘good’ because they know the game and have been coached for years. But they aren’t usually coaching U5-U8 soccer, when kids are learning the critical basic techniques and developing a love for the game. Why don’t we talk about the development of those coaches more beyond ‘Hey, here are some cones a whistle and try to take this Youth I Coaching Class’?
I’ve coached youth soccer for ten years now and still feel like a novice, learning every day. My practices this year are probably a lot different than years before. I’m always trying to adjust my sessions to better fit my ever improving idea of how a player should develop at a young age. I’ve started to settle on the organized chaos theory. If the kids are running around and having a blast with a ball at their feet in U5/U6 – life is good! But it’s been long enough that I’ve forgotten how utterly terrifying it was to coach my first season of U6. When I happen to talk to some of the coaches at our younger age groups, almost universally they think they are doing poorly. They know they are green, they know they are ‘new’, and they usually have no yard stick to measure THEIR development by. The most obvious measure is also the worst at young ages – the score. We rarely KEEP score at young ages, but you know when your team is beating another team or not. The problem is, the team scoring the most goals at U6 is NOT necessarily the best team overall in terms of coaching and development. More often it means they have a big fast kid who can dribble and run to the goal and score. Over and over. But the other team may be doing a better job of individual possession and exhibiting better soccer technique. Guess which coach thinks he’s rockin it and which one thinks he’s doing poorly…
We need to do a much better job of reaffirming when coaches are doing well with criteria that focus on player development, NOT the score. The coaches who leave U5/U6 with confidence in their ability are often the ones who happened to have big fast kids that score over and over. Some of those will develop a coaching sense of ‘pass it to the big fast kid so we can score’ as they move up in age. We need to do a better job ensuring the coaches who ‘get it’ are recognized for their efforts and ensure they’re the ones who stick with it, while also trying to get the ones measuring themselves by the score to see the error of their ways and to focus more on player development.
Case in point. I was coaching one of my teams and I hear these peals of laughter and squealing from a bunch of kids. Field space is tight, so there are 5 or 6 teams on this one baseball outfield. I’ve already had a coach upset because he doesn’t have enough room for his U7s to ‘work on passing’ and dribble between cones. Guess how excited those kids were. Yet I look over and see this other coach, with U5 or U6 boys, practicing in a 20x20yd box. He pretty much took whatever scrap of field he could find for his practice. These kids are laughing and squealing and running all over their little square. The coach is full of energy and giving high fives and the kids are having a BLAST. They all have soccer balls at their feet, running here and there and everywhere. This is one of our newer coaches. I thought that was pretty cool, but turned my attention back to my practice and kept working with my group.
Later that week, one of my parents asked me if I had noticed the very same practice and how much energy that coach had and how much fun those kids were having. I said that I had, and then it hit me that I’m sure nobody went to *him* and said that. So the next week, after another of his team’s high energy practices, I made a point to go over to him and tell him what a fantastic job I thought he was doing. He was shocked. He reacted like many newer coaches who think they can’t possibly be doing things ‘right’. I explained that at this age you can’t *teach* the kids stuff – your goal is to create a fun and high energy atmosphere where the kids are always moving around with the ball at their feet and are having FUN. I told him he’s more than accomplished that and to keep it up. He was beaming and as I left the park, I wondered why our league didn’t make it more of a point to do that. We try to mentor and offer tips when coaches need help, but we don’t really make it a point to approach those coaches who CLEARLY are good with kids and were running good sessions and say ‘Great Job! Keep it Up!’ If we did, I wonder how many more coaches we’d develop long term who ended up loving the beautiful game as much as many of the kids and experienced coaches? We work so hard trying to convince the parents that the score doesn’t matter at the younger ages, but I’m not sure we do a good enough job convincing the coaches the same thing when it comes to measuring your success as a coach. A U6 score is NOT an indication of how well your doing. Instead, how many of your kids are having fun, keep coming back each season, and are touching the ball a lot?
In short – we certainly need to keep working to educate our inexperienced coaches, but we probably can do a better job of telling them when they’re doing things right. Otherwise their only metric is…. the score nobody keeps.