By Mike Woitalla
Imagine if cookbook publishing in the USA had the same approach that the soccer coaching industry has had for decades. You'd find mainly Northern European recipes at your Barnes & Noble. And you'd be a pretty limited chef.
In soccer terms, focusing so much on the Northern European methods is particularly stifling considering the USA’s demographics and the fact that Latin American and Southern European nations have been producing most of the great players and winning teams.
It’s been more than two decades since a Northern European nation, on the men’s side, has won the World Cup, 25 years since an Olympic gold, and 17 years since lifting a European Championship crown. It’s been 32 years since Northern Europe has claimed a U-20 World Cup title. Our neighbor, Mexico, has won two of the last four U-17 World Cups.
So Stan Baker’s “Our Competition is the World” passes my first test for a coaching book that offers examples from abroad: It presents models from nations that have been producing successful and attractive soccer.
We won’t be able to import any specific system that perfectly suits the unique U.S. youth soccer landscape, but this book by Baker -- an Oregon-based coach who is fluent in Spanish, has lived in Spain and South America, and besides his USSF A and Y, has coaching licenses from Argentina and Brazil -- goes deeper into describing the environments that produce brilliant players than any I’ve read. Barcelona and Spain figure prominently, as do Brazil and Argentina. Baker also conveys some of the best of what U.S. and Northern Europeans coaches have to offer.
Baker’s book also passes my most important test: It avoids -- as much as a book for coaches can -- aggrandizing the role of the coach. Baker stresses the importance of free play and makes a strong case against the perils of over-coaching.
I like this advice from Baker in a section about inspiring players to be creative:
“Another way to encourage such creativity is by holding practice sessions where there is no coaching and only free play. In this situation, those players who are normally fearful of making mistakes, when the coach is running practice, will have a chance to play in a worry-free environment.”
The book does provide, with clear directions, lots of useful practice exercises -- ones that simulate the real game and steer young players to a style of play U.S. soccer is aiming for, eg: playing out of the back, possession-oriented, attack-minded.
(A simple suggestion to coaches of young players to help encourage a possession game: Encourage that most throw-ins are to a teammate’s feet and passed back to the thrower.)
Covering the whole spectrum, it includes advice on how to help players develop a love for the game that will encourage them to play on their own.
The book is subtitled, “Ideas for implementing the United States Soccer Curriculum,” which was unveiled by USSF Youth Technical Director Claudio Reyna in 2011, and it complements it well.
Writes Baker: “As a melting pot of cultures, the United States soccer community is built on influences from all parts of the globe. Some view the game as an art, while others see it as more of a war. These differences in philosophy, the fractured nature of our youth organizations, along with the vast size of our country, have made it more difficult than some smaller countries to come together. Despite these difficulties, as we move forward, we should look to develop a common language amongst our players. …”
The book is chock-full of aphorisms from soccer minds from around the world (including Johan Cruyff, Pep Guardiola, Tele Santana), U.S. soccer leaders striving to get the youth game on the right track, and non-soccer figures such as John Cleese, Pablo Picasso and Ralph Waldo Emerson. These quotes complement the reference material -- the examples of youth development guidelines from Spain, Argentina, Mexico, the English FA, U.S. Soccer – and the practical guidance for youth coaches.
There is, I’ve found, an admirable hunger among American coaches to constantly educate themselves, and Baker delivers the perfect dish for youth coaches, whether they’re novice or vastly experienced.
“Our Competition is the World: Ideas for implementing the United States Soccer Curriculum.” By Stan Baker 378 pages, 2012. Lulu Publishing. $22.99.