By Mike Woitalla
In the first of our three-part series, the Youth Soccer Insider looks at the roles played by assistant coaches and the various ways in which clubs create a coaching staff for their teams.
Whether it’s making sure all the shoes are tied at the younger levels, or running tactical and technical sessions, assistant coaches can play a wide variety of roles.
Having an assistant can be a huge help when you’re splitting up the squad for small-sided games or if you’re setting up stations for various exercises -- shooting at one part of the field and possession games on the other, for example. Or taking the goalkeepers aside for some specialized training.
At the youngest levels, having another adult around can simply be about supervision -- making sure one of the rascals stops trying to climb the net. At the older ages, the assistant can help with all sorts of issues, from team spirit to tactical and technical training.
For youth clubs with professional coaches, the manner in which they staff teams varies.
“We have more of a co-coach situation,” says Fred Wilson, the Boys Coaching Director at Mustang Soccer in Northern California. “We have coaches with multiple teams. If we do have an assistant coach, it’s usually more as a mentorship -- a new coach coming in I put with one of our senior coaches to learn the Mustang system, to acclimate themselves, find out what the parent group is about, how we do things.
“They’re usually younger, so they’re usually a great liaison between our older coaches and the young players. Young players identify with younger coaches -- usually a good cop, bad cop kind of deal, which always works out well. I used to fulfill that good cop role in my early days -- which I can’t play anymore.
“I can work and push the kids a little bit and he serves as kind of a buffer. It’s also a way for me to get someone acclimated and trained and ready to coach and be part of Mustang Soccer.”
At the New York Red Bulls, full-time coaches work in pairs.
“The U-16s and U-18s will be a training at the same location, so if the 16s train first the U-18 coach assistants the U-16 coach,” says Red Bulls director Bob Montgomery. “And then in the next session, the U-16 coach might act as an assistant to the U-18 coach.
“They kind of work together. Our U-23 coach also works with the 16s and 18s. He’s more of a true assistant. In the summer, when he’s head coaching the U-23s, one of our other coaches will assist him.”
At New Jersey’s PDA, the Academy teams have assistant coaches and the club teams have age group directors who assist with curriculum content and training implementation.
“We feel it is important to have multiple coaches whenever possible as it allows a better coach-to-player ratio that helps with functional or positional training and provides more attention to players who are facing challenges,” says Gerry McKeown, PDA's Boys Director of Coaching.
North Carolina’s CASL, which oversees hundreds of teams, also sets up coaching staff differently depending on the level.
“We usually do not have assistant coaches at the classic [top] level,” says Rusty Scarborough, CASL's Director of Soccer. “Each team has a paid coach who is responsible for their team [training and games]. At the challenge and recreation levels we do have teams with assistants who are all volunteers. ... Assistant coaches are in a supporting role. They should be prepared to assist in any and all areas of a training/game situation without overstepping their boundaries. It is important for the head coach to discuss how he/she would like for things to be organized."
When it comes to matching coaches with assistants, Sam Snow, U.S. Youth Soccer’s Coaching Director, says, “Account for personalities -- try to avoid if possible known personality conflicts. When possible, set up a mentoring opportunity between the coaches. Traditionally, that would be the head coach to the assistant coach. There may be times though that a highly qualified and experienced coach can be the assistant to a more novice head coach -- the college coach who helps out in youth soccer on a part-time basis for example.”
Ian Barker, the NSCAA’s Director of Coaching of Education, says it’s important that the coaching staff can communicate effectively regardless of title.
“Beyond that, managing some healthy contrast between the head and assistant coach can be very effective,” says Barker. “While each coach needs to be able to manage the team solo as situations demand, each will have coaching strengths that hopefully can complement each other. A club might pair a coach who is able to demonstrate and is still an active player with one who can manage 'bigger picture' issues, both administrative and technical.
“This way of matching up staff is quite common and often effective. If a club pairs up coaches who are very similar in age, experience and connection to the team, for example two parents, this can lead to the lines of head and assistant blurring.”
McKeown says are several factors to consider when matching coaches to form a positive working relationship that benefits each team.
“First would be to consider experience and match an experienced coach with a younger person,” he says. “There is a great opportunity to merge the teaching capabilities with someone who brings abundant energy that can invigorate the staff and players. Another strong consideration would be each individual’s personality and creating a mix of the fiery passion with a person with nurturing skills who can provide a level of comfort and constant support young players.”
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and co-author with Claudio Reyna of More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition.Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)