By Paul Gardner
The expert. Defined as someone who knows more and more about less and less until he reaches perfection and knows everything about nothing.
Not bad as definitions go. It is pretty funny -- which means it is in danger of being dismissed as simply a joke. That would be a mistake. This is one of those quips that contains the seeds of some awkward truths.
And yes, I am thinking about modern soccer coaches. Without question these guys are better trained and educated and informed than any group of coaches that has gone before. But it’s not that they know more about less. Their situation is that they know more about more. The aim seems to be to know everything about everything.
Coaching has been steadily expanding its reach ever since it began to take itself seriously some time around the 1960s, and then, a little later, turned itself into an industry. That applies to all forms of coaching -- but particularly to youth coaching.
I write as something of a turncoat on this matter. Way back when -- let’s say in the 1960s -- there was a pretty general feeling in this country that one of the things that soccer most needed was more and better coaching -- particularly in the area of youth development.
That was certainly the way that I then saw things. What seemed to make the situation so clearly unsatisfactory was the parlous state of high school soccer. I frequently attended such games in those days, and found the experience harrowing -- or rather it would have been had it not also been laughable.
Games played in quarters, rules that seemed to vary almost from game to game, clueless referees (usually two of them) officiating as though these were football games and, of course, far, far too many coaches who coached as though the sport were football.
The game barely looked like soccer. What chance had the kids to develop in that atmosphere? None it seemed. But what I do not recall is any idea that high school soccer should be abolished. What we envisioned was a world in which high school soccer flourished because it was put in the hands of coaches who understood the sport.
So here we are, 45 years on, and we’ve got everything we took to be lacking. We have specialist academies sprouting right, left and center, they’re staffed by a regiment of coaches with all sorts of clever badges -- these are the new experts -- and we have a pile of carefully prepared paperwork, a curriculum, a best-practices guide, etc., telling all those coaches what to do and how to do it (the guys who write those things must, presumably, be the super experts).
No one can doubt that U.S. Soccer and MLS are taking youth development seriously. The anarchy of past decades has been replaced by firm organization. Discipline is required for all this, and it is the expert coaches who will ensure that things run smoothly. According to the curriculum, shall we say.
Boy, have things changed. Where we used to lament the lack of coaching, the big fear now is of over-coaching. U.S. Youth Soccer’s document titled “U.S. Youth Soccer Player Development Model,” actually includes an admonitory section headed “Over-coaching.”
How odd. This is a 116-page booklet on coaching, it is put out by the U.S. Youth Soccer Coaching Education Department, in association with the U.S. Youth Soccer Coaching Committee, and it acknowledges “support from 55 U.S. Youth Soccer State Association Technical Directors and the U.S. Soccer Technical advisors.” Did someone mention over-coaching?
There is, obviously, a contradiction there -- but the coaches themselves will be the last to see it. No one over-coaches, you see. Have you ever met anyone who admits, or boasts, about being an over-coacher? Yet everyone worries about it.
I think they are right to worry -- but they need to take look at themselves. I said that youth development is now being taken seriously, to which most coaches will say “And about time, too” and regard it as automatically a good thing.
But are things being taken too seriously? The question is not a theoretical one, for U.S. Soccer has made sure it will be asked by deciding that its academy programs are so important that if a boy is really serious about the sport, he must forego high school soccer, and stick with his academy program year-round.
Forty-five years ago I’m sure I would have enthusiastically supported U.S. Soccer’s move. Now I don’t. Partly because high school soccer is a lot better than it used to be, but even more because I do not believe the academies are as good as they evidently think they are.
The experts seem to me to be claiming too much. It is impossible to read any of these imposing official publications without getting the feeling that the coaches now feel they know everything about the sport. And beyond the sport. Some of the advice being offered sounds more like a parenting guide than a coaching manual.
But the biggest problem I have with the new coaching is that, by taking itself so seriously , it is inevitably tending to assume an authoritarian air. “The coach knows best” is at least a plausible way of looking at things. “The coach knows everything” is not.
U.S. Youth Soccer’s Player Development Model tells you, on its title page, that it is a “player-centered curriculum.” That is one way of looking at it. But you could be forgiven for finding it equally, or more, “coach-centered.” And when those coaches are the new experts, when they are convinced of their own omniscience, the authoritarian tone soon makes itself heard. On Page 8, one short paragraph on Player Development uses the word “must” four times.
So of course -- with fatal certainty -- that attitude will lead on to diktats like the one stipulating that Academy players must not play high school soccer.
I do not believe such arrogance to be warranted. The seriousness that has overtaken youth development pays little attention to what is -- for better or for worse -- the natural habitat of boys when growing up: their high school life, their high school friends. A social life that a soccer academy -- despite the extraordinary “life skills and psychology” knowledge that coaches now claim to have -- can never be replaced by the narrowly focused requirements of an academy.
Nor will the arrogance be supported by results. If the ultimate aim is to produce top-level players capable of performing for the national team, then we can say immediately that a tremendous amount of time, effort, and money is going to be spent for minimal results. We know that because that is the way it is all over the world.
From the hordes of young boys who sign on with pro clubs in foreign countries, the number who become good enough to play in the premier divisions, never mind the national teams, is pitifully small. In England the stats show that 75 percent of the boys who sign on with a pro club at age 16 -- boys who will already have been selected as promising -- have quit the game by the age of 21. The chances of a boy making it all the way through the elaborate youth coaching systems and emerging as a national team star are around 1 percent.
Yes, yes -- I do appreciate that today’s youth coaches are committed people who are much better prepared than their predecessors 45 years ago. Whether they can -- in practice rather than in theory, on the field rather than on paper -- produce better players, well I think the jury is still out on that.
Which is why I find it decidedly arrogant of the leaders in a system that operates only in a very limited area of life -- and that has yet to prove itself -- to demand that boys should give up their participation in activities, namely high school activities, that are likely to carry life benefits that the seriously well-intentioned and ominously well-planned and charted and programmed and diagramed and check-listed and flow-charted academy programs can not.