Interview by Mike Woitalla
Four players -- Landon Donovan, Eddie Johnson, Nick Rimando, Alejandro Bedoya -- who helped the USA lift the 2013 Gold Cup got their soccer start in the American Youth Soccer Organization, which next year celebrates its 50th anniversary. With more than 50,000 teams and 510,000 players, AYSO continues to rely solely on volunteer coaches. We spoke with AYSO Director of Development Scott Gimple about its new coaching curriculum, its faith in parent-coaches, and how to create the best environment for young players.
SOCCER AMERICA: There is no shortage of curriculums or guides for coaching youth soccer. What makes AYSO’s new “Coaching Series” unique?
SCOTT GIMPLE: Almost all soccer curriculums are written by soccer guys for soccer guys. It’s as if they’re written to show other soccer people how much they know about the game. In some ways they’re overcomplicated. The reality is that the people we are addressing are all parents.
Most of our coaches have never played the game. What we had to do is create tools to show how different soccer is from baseball, basketball, football and hockey from a coaching perspective.
All of the American sports are coach-centric. The coaches call the plays. The coaches call the defense. They send in the signals in all those sports. Soccer’s not that way and we can’t expect our parents just to understand that because they’ve watched one soccer game.
The other thing is that soccer is such a fluid game. It’s a game of mistakes. People are making bad decisions all the time, but it’s the best decision they can make in that split second. As parents, we want to control, so we’re yelling from the sidelines like we would if we were watching baseball: “Throw it to first! … Throw it to second!” … Giving them directions.
SA: Which denies the young players the chance to figure out how to make decisions on their own …
SCOTT GIMPLE: I was refereeing a U-12 girls game and there was corner kick. The girl stopped and turned to her dad and said, "Dad, where do I go?"
SA: You emphasize resisting over-coaching and that parents must realize that making mistakes is part of the learning process, that we shouldn’t be correcting all the time …
SCOTT GIMPLE: I remember seeing a little girl make a mistake and start crying. Nobody necessarily yelled at her. But because she made the mistake she felt like she failed. So something was ingrained in her that taking that risk and making a mistake was something to cry about. ...
There's got to be a cultural change from parents hovering over the kids and trying to prevent them from making mistakes, wanting to do what they think is best for them by giving them instructions, pointing out obvious solutions that they can see, to help their kids be successful ... What we want them to do is sit back and let their kids try something different and not necessarily succeed, and then try it again, and keep trying again until they are successful and have figured it out.
It's like giving a child a puzzle and telling them where to put the pieces because you don't want them to make mistakes. When really what children do by trying different pieces of the puzzle, they learn how to put together a puzzle.
Parents should allow them to do that when they play a sport.
SA: A common refrain is that we need better coaching at the youngest ages, which can also be a way of convincing parents to seek professional coaching at an earlier age. How do you make the case that parent-coaches can provide the right environment for players who may have the potential to succeed at the highest levels?
SCOTT GIMPLE: We attended the U.S. Soccer’s Zone 1 [ages 5 to 12] program [in April 2011] when it unveiled its curriculum and its four pillars pretty much match up with AYSO’s philosophy: Player development over winning; Quality training; Age-appropriate training; Inspiring the kids to have fun.
Sitting in the room with all these big clubs, everyone’s nodding their heads. “That’s got to be the key with U-12 and below.”
Then you go and have a conversation with them at the bar that night. And they’re saying, “There’s no way this will work,” because their clubs are evaluated on the win-loss records of their teams.
For us, having volunteer coaches, we probably have the best opportunity and best chance to truly focus on individual player development.
SA: Even unpaid coaches without big-club pressure go to the field with a great desire to win …
SCOTT GIMPLE: That’s why we’re working hard to make them understand. If you’re so concerned about losing on a Saturday, that leads to kick-and-run. You put your best athlete up front, you kick through balls, and it’s one-on-one with the keeper, and that’s kind of the standard U-10 soccer game.
Our whole focus with the new curriculum is trying to get the parent-coaches to understand the importance developing the player at the appropriate age level, understanding the motivation of the players, and focusing on developing the individual first and less about winning the game.
SA: How do you create coaching guides that aren’t “overcomplicated?”
SCOTT GIMPLE: We put a lot graphics in it. We put in boxes we call “Keep in Mind” and we don’t expect our coaches to read this thing cover to cover, because coaches don’t do that. The referees would. But the coaches don’t.
So we put highlights and pictures in there that draw their eye. (For example: “Players should be encouraged to defend and attack.”) A little block that summarize the important details on the page. Even if they just read what’s in the “Keep in Mind” block, at least it will give them a summary of what they should be learning.
We combined the manuals with integrated online video segments that parent-coaches can get on their smart phone. People comprehend better when they see a demonstration. We’re making it as convenient as possible, to keep them from having to go search somewhere like YouTube, because if they did, most of them wouldn’t and they’d fall back on: jog around the field for your warm-up, get in two different lines, one being a crossing line and one being a shooting line, and that’s practice.
SA: What do you say to parents who might think their kids will get better coaching at a big youth club than with AYSO?
SCOTT GIMPLE: When we presented our new curriculum at the 2013 NSCAA Convention, which was combined with U.S. Youth Soccer’s AGM, we had roughly 80 club people in the audience. Most ran recreational programs but didn’t have mandated training programs for their parent-coaches. They did for their travel teams, which had professional coaches, but few of them had coach education programs for parent-coaches.
AYSO requires all parent-coaches to be trained and certified for their age group.
(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.)