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Visiting the Coaches - Virtually
by Paul Gardner, January 15th, 2009 7AM
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I shan't be getting to St. Louis, so I'm afraid the coaches' convention will have to muddle through without me. Quite possibly the organizers prefer it that way, but I have some regrets, regrets that I've managed to somewhat appease by visiting the convention online.

A quick zoom through the enormously long list of exhibitors gives me that smug been-there, done-that feeling -- there are over 250 of these guys, and most of them seem familiar enough. Yet there are some names that sound as though they've wandered into the wrong convention -- Alpine Services, Twin City Knitting, and Boathouse Sports, for instance, have me wondering exactly what they're offering.

Probably what so many of this huge number of exhibitors are offering -- something nicely summed up by the prosaic title of one of them: Perform Better. I did manage to find a couple of entries to take exception to -- I think Axis Sports Groups could have found a happier name, and I don't at all like the robotic sound of Telecommand Coaching Systems.

Having swept through the exhibitors hall, I now make my virtual way to the "field" and classroom sessions -- the clinics and the lectures. There's some good news here, because the appalling Brit domination so noticeable last year has been toned down a bit, and there is actually a coach from Argentina. Though he seems to have arrived at the expense of the Mexicans -- I can't find any of them.

Maybe some of these sessions are dynamic affairs, full of sparkling wit and insightful action. I mean, they could be, but I have my doubts. As a veteran of many, many years attending these events, I have to tell you that most of them will run the whole gamut from mildly interesting to downright boring.

That is not necessarily the fault of the clinicians or the speakers -- it's simply that soccer (or any sport, I suppose) is a holistic activity that suffers dreadfully once the experts start to break it down into smaller units -- the sort of units that crop up repeatedly in clinic titles, things like Possession, Shooting, Dribbling, Defending, Psychology, the Attacking Third, Good Habits, and so on, little slices of the game that we are suddenly asked to believe are more important than the whole game itself.

Some of these titles are pretty sweeping, if not downright pompous: How about "Creating Sustained Success -- Delivering a World Class Performance Model for an Elite European Champions League Club" -- a guy from Chelsea will be telling all those high school coaches how to do that. Another Brit brings us presumably expert help in an area where we don't really need it -- actually, does anyone? -- with "Defending to Win."

And there are the usual clinics that seem to promise the revelation of some secret that must surely mean at least a winning season. One such secret will be revealed by the NSCAA's own and amiable Jeff Tipping who has decided that soccer's "most important moment" is the transition point from defense to attack, or vice versa, and will reveal all with some transitional exercises. I see another of these abstruse "discoveries" in a clinic by another NSCAA instructor, Ron McEachen, who has discovered a weakness (he calls it an Achilles' Heel) in the American player -- one that he will attempt to correct with a clinic on "Driving the ball for distance, power and accuracy." Off we go, then, with more long-ball training. Thanks a lot, Ron.

Then there's Sam Snow, U.S. Youth Soccer's director of coaching, who has another secret to unveil: The player who "really makes your offense tick," says Snow, is the "second attacker." Well, possibly, I suppose. Who knows what he means by "second attacker" anyway -- quite possibly it's nothing more than what used to be called an inside forward, in which case this is deja vu. Play it again, Sam.

The chances of there being anything new or revelatory in any of this stuff are remote. Unless, that is, you assume that your audience knows so little that almost any topic will fall upon them like a lightning flash of fresh information. Why one would make that assumption, I have no idea. If there is one thing that has been pretty clear over the 40 years that I've been going to these increasingly commercialized extravaganzas, it is that the level of sophistication of the coaches attending has advanced enormously. The Internet has made certain of that.

The Internet, the damn Internet. It can do so much, it can whirl me through a virtual visit to St. Louis ... but one thing it cannot do is to create that strange excitement that comes from spending a few days surrounded by, almost locked up with, soccer people of all ages and levels, from all over the USA, all over the world; the delight of recognizing (or, more probably, not recognizing) old acquaintances, the pleasure of finding new ones ... all that social hubbub that doesn't, cannot, feature in any printed program of events.

The spontaneous part of the convention, it takes place away from all the committee rooms and meeting halls and lecture theaters -- it flourishes in the corridors and the elevators and it does pretty well, too, in the exhibitors' hall, and of course it reaches a noisy boisterous climax in the bars. That's the part of the convention that I'm going to be missing, the unofficial, spontaneous -- but, oh, so human -- part.


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