Coaching Education: The Case for Some Orthodoxy

By Mike Singleton

In a recent column by Soccer America's Paul Gardner, the author maligned orthodoxy and posited that curricula are where "problems start." If taken to the extreme, these points have some validity, however, when thrown into the context of coaching education in our country they prove somewhat amiss.

Soccer in this country is supported by millions of volunteers, many of whom who have no soccer experience and end up coaching simply because they were the last person to step backward when a club administrator told parents that if they could not find a coach their child would not have a place to play.

What is this goodhearted yet fearful volunteer to do when faced with 12 bubbling 6-year-olds or 8-year-olds? Where does this volunteer gain advice, knowledge, and confidence? Through coaching courses and curricula, this coach can find these needed supports.

What would this class and curricula say?

Whether it be with an English accent, a New York accent, or a Brazilian one, the message would be “let the game be the greatest teacher.” This voice may not sound the same and likely is not, but the message does need to be the same.

Novice coaches need to be warned of forcing younger players into locked positions, always telling players to pass the ball, asking players to kick the ball out of bounds whenever under pressure in the defense end and telling defenders never to cross the halfway line.

These are a handful of examples of many coaching mistakes made every day throughout this country and we need courses and curricula to help minimize the number of people coaching in this manner. Without coaching eductation courses we may be shocked to see how many are trying to teach 8-year-olds how to play in a zonal back four!

This message needs to tell young children to discover new ways to manipulate the ball, to take risks, and to teach us a new thing whenever they can. Whether this voice is gruff, deep, perky or soft, this message needs be the same and this message need be concise and clear as well.

Coaching education in this country has taken amazing steps over the years, and through the collaborative work of coaches, doctors, kinesiologists and psychologists, the curricula for our national courses are top notch.

We encourage coaches to allow players to problem solve and use guided discovery to help them come to solutions for the problems the game presents. Not only do we try to give inexperienced coaches insight into how to make a pass, with all surfaces of the foot, but we encourage them to ask players to determine when different methods should be applied.

This is crucial in skill development, not just technical development. Introducing coaches to the principles of play and to the importance of 1v1 and 2v1 and 2v2 and so on are vital components of our lower level courses. In these areas, I pray for orthodoxy!

Coaching has taken on more than the soccer X’s and O’s these days and courses include learning theory, understanding varying methods of communication, being sensitive to childhood developmental issues and many topics one would not typically think are in a coaching course.

This is because one voice does not suffice. We have to see how to connect with different players at different times. We have to understand how individuals learn best and at what times they accept coaching optimally.

True, we do not want every player playing the same way, but there are fundamental principles of quality coaching that need to be the same. Whether a child is in San Diego or Boston, I would hope they are exposed to the points made above. I hope they are not told there is only one way to do things and I hope they are allowed to make mistakes. I hope they are encouraged to be great in whatever way and accent works for them best. And yes, some English ones may be best in some circumstances.

With the new added attention that U.S. Soccer is putting on younger age players my optimism is peaked. Conversations such as the one previously started and now continued need be commonplace.

With added attention to information such as this we can all help move this game forward. Taking a page from these courses it is time for us to learn from our mistakes, to test out different techniques at different times, and to problem solve.

(Mike Singleton is the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association's Head State Coach and Excecutive Director. He is a Region I ODP Senior Staff Coach and a U.S. Soccer and US Youth Soccer National Staff Coach.)

12 comments about "Coaching Education: The Case for Some Orthodoxy".
  1. James Froehlich, July 26, 2010 at 8:52 p.m.

    Mr. Singleton-- I found your attempt at responding to Paul Gardner's column as quite misleading itself. You chose to focus your argument on a point that is not really essential to Mr. Gardner's point regarding orthodoxy. The damage is not being done by novice parent coaches, who are usually involved with the youngest players. By the time the kids get to be U-10 and above , the parents are demanding experienced coaches and it is these former players who are relying wholeheartedly on the orthodox training being dispensed by the US Soccer licensing programs. All you have to do is watch a few practices with teenage players to see the regimented manner in which they are instructed. There is nothing devious about this, it's just the result of the standardized license process which provides everything that the busy coach needs to run his practices. US Soccer hands out detailed lesson plans to all its coaches and then wonders why our players lack creativity. Actually the licensing process even affects how these licensees comment on soccer blogs --- very authoritative statements from the implied perspective of the coach and heavily seasoned with tactical references. Words like creativity magical skill will never be referenced. While you have made an excellent case for the training of U-8 and below, I'm afraid that Mr. Gardner's real points still stand.

  2. Colborns , July 27, 2010 at 2:25 p.m.

    O.K., but regarding coaching of U-8 and below, if "locked positions" are a bad thing, how do you dissuade the players from chasing the ball around in a pack (which is a worse thing)?

  3. Nicholas Adams, July 27, 2010 at 2:26 p.m.

    Whilst James makes good points I have to generally agree with what Mike is saying. Especially regarding the need to learn the technical parts of 1v1, 2v2, etc.

    I have been around many town organisations whom without some sort of curriculum that is player focused, would still be lining up their players in rigid formations and taking turns in lines, to shoot!

    Just 'letting the game be the teacher' is, in my view, the easy way out. At the very young ages the majority of kids are far too egocentric to give up the ball so why not use this time to get them to focused on basic technical skills which involve them and a ball and get lots of touches on the ball.

    How you do it isn't the issue, as long as the players enjoy what they do.

    I agree that regimentation and standardisation are bad but having certain goals at certain ages, e.g. can you do a drag back, inside and outside turn by U8, may not be a bad thing.

    If you can agree the coaching goals at the start of a season, every coach would be on the same page and the majority of players would reach set standards by certain age barriers, (Based on the stages of player development). How those players reach these goals is up to the flexibility/ability of the coach themselves.

  4. Tom Kondas, July 27, 2010 at 3:25 p.m.

    A lot of verbage but no substance.

  5. Lancelot Clark, July 27, 2010 at 3:54 p.m.

    While I agree with everything everyone says above, the key to everything is to strike a healthy balance on all the above Techniques and Tactics.
    However, it is very important for the kids to learn to enjoy and love the game at that level such that they would find the time to practice on their own outside of practice hours....and also watch the games on TV.

  6. John h Borja, July 27, 2010 at 5:41 p.m.

    Orthodoxy or that which pertains to what is orthodox,is typically used to mean the adherence to well-researched and well-thought-out accepted norms, especially in religion. We simply do not have norms yet in soccer in the U.S. Yes USSF and NSCAA have their coach training programs, but norms they do not have.
    Norms have to do with the normative, that is, what should be occurring as a coach progresses through a system and what should be occurring as a child progresses through a soccer system.
    The Florida School and the ODP programs are inadequate to provide the kind of world class players we need.The college and universities have traditionally been overlooked in terms of recruiting world class players.What we may all be looking for ultimately is what the Ajax soccer school did for the team from Spain in the 2010 World Cup and the influence of the Dutch. What we want is for the U.S. to win the World Cup. If the message comes with an accent, then so be it. Paul Gardner may have wanted to say was that soccer education should be(this could be a norm) eclectic in approach. My personal take, to add a norm, is that the US National Team always take into account the vast diversity of players available to play at the top level. The U.S. did an ok job this time around. We need to do better. Another "national" norm would be for the 1st eleven to have played as 1st stringers at other 1st class teams outside the U.S. And one very special norm, that our youngest do not begin club competitive ball until they reach 12 years old. Before then, the kids should be playing futsal in far less competitive environments than is currently present in youth soccer programs. We burn out too many children before they get a chance to choose whether soccer is their game or not. And parents, with the singular exception of the last minute coach, should stay in the parking lot, at least, 20 meters(most of the world is on this math norm)from their child's pitch.

  7. beautiful game, July 27, 2010 at 7:04 p.m.

    Fernando Rossi, former coach at Clifton NJ, kept his eyes on the game and never tolerated a player who was indecisive. For Rossi, player mistakes are part of the game and the player himself is the only one to correct them. For Rossi, making a decision on the pitch is crucial in learning and building ones confidence. Too many times kids are encouraged to boot the ball upfield, get rid of it, which encourages self-doubt and an easy method to resolve pressure...that is quite obvious in the MLS.

  8. Richard Busic, July 27, 2010 at 9:46 p.m.

    This is exactly the debate we need to evolve into a true soccer (football) country. Good for all contributing and reading.
    I started in soccer as a coach of u5 teams my son was playing on, God I loved it. At this level you encourage and empower the players, yes as the pack runs by. Too much structure here and they will not love the game the way they could. Sometimes a shy player needs extra encouragement to get involved. Praise should be lavished continuously. As they get older they need to start understanding the whole field, passing becomes part of the game. Practices start developing skills, both feet are needed at the older levels and dribbling drills and passing drills should be made fun. Still there is much praise. Drills are games and games are drills - all efforts are fun and learning happens every minute when it is fun at this age.
    When my son turned eight I had to quit, he needed professional training and I wanted to watch him not the team he used to play for. I coached for 4 years, it ended 10 years ago and I still miss it. I enjoyed watching the kids grow up during my coaching and well after. I still am fascinated by my son's play.
    Let us not forget the joy that this sport brings and be vigilant in keeping this a part of our structure. If we do there will be creativity and true affection for this avocation.
    With this debate we can establish what type of soccer will be the American style in future generations. I believe this will happen and we will become a worthy (dominate) international soccer power someday.

  9. Roque Lopez, July 27, 2010 at 10:29 p.m.

    I really do not know what Mr. Singleton is talking about it. He as ODP coach should not been paying attention outside but his own Yard.
    I always remember my son first year at ODP. His coach who was overweight (Bad sample for a program like ODP) stated from the beginning that the best coach for the kids is going to be the game. From that day I understood that Mr. heavy weight was meaning that he will coke to practices and let the kids play and lear by themselves.
    Today Mr. Singleton, who probably is not the one to blame for the failure of this program should bring all those good ideas and influence not just his state but the whole East Region. We need more action and less words. Outside there are a big group of talented kids that their parents can not pay the $1,500 + for one day a week practice. That is why they end with the coaches that do not have Mr. Singleton skills or knowledge but do their job with a love and not expecting a monthly salary.

  10. Mark Zimmerman, July 27, 2010 at 11:59 p.m.

    Many countries have developed soccer philosophies over the last decades, but the US has yet to do so. (With our size and diversity it may be impossible.) A philosophy (perhaps another way to say Orthodoxy?) gives the coach a general framework to work within when teaching his or her players the game.

    I just spent the last 9 days filming highly-qualified Dutch coaches that were here in the States working with local players. (We intend to create some Coaching DVDs.) For me the Dutch have it right.

    The Dutch focus on Ball Control at the younger ages and then add tactics as the kids are able to handle it mentally. At all times the focus is on playing beautiful, insightful soccer while always seeking ways to attack and score goals.

    Importantly, age-appropriate fun is always worked into their training sessions.

    The primary way to make training fun for the players is to let them play soccer. During small-sided games the coach uses her experience to guide the players to seek one or more possible solutions to pick apart a soccer problem, repeating it over and over so that the players can learn to deal with the problem in a confident way.

    While the Dutch have a philosophy (orthodoxy) of playing, they have no desire to stifle creativity and in fact, encourage it. They realize that there are multiple ways to solve almost every soccer problem.

    So I agree with Mike that an Orthodoxy (Philosophy) is necessary whether it comes from the coach, their club or the USYSA. Every single player needs to learn how to pass accurately with the inside (and outside) or their foot. Every single player needs to learn how to hit a ball well with their laces and their instep. And every single player needs to be encouraged to summon every bit of creativity their brain can muster to solve the constant challenges the game can present.

  11. James Madison, July 28, 2010 at 12:03 a.m.

    I teach youth soccer coaching, and there is a ton to be said that I do not have time for here.

    For one, however, those who are accustomed to American sports need to begin by understanding that, whereas baseball and American rules football, for example, are coach-centered, soccer is player-centered. No one will be able to say take this pitch or swing at that one. Players need to learn to make their own decisions, based on factors like do they have the ball or does a team mate or an opponent, where are they on the field, where are their team mates and the opponents, what are their skills, what is the score, what is the time in the game, etc.

    Second, the object of youth coaching is to develop a love of the ball and the game and the skills to support that love as players mature. This will lead to live-long fandom if not life-long play. Anything else will lead to burnout, "maybe not today, but soon and for the rest of the player's life." (credit "Casablanca") Coaches have a responsibility to the game to make winning, which parents pay for and coaches see as their short-term payoff, secondary.

    Not to worry, for example, about U-6s chasing the ball. Reduce the U-6 game to 4 v. 4 on an appropriately sized field, and let them chase. They will sort it out---the ball has more endurance than they do and they will start to think about how to put it to work---maybe not in the first game, but soon enough.

    1 v. 1, etc. Yeah. I can give coaches enough different 1 v. 1 games to last a season without the kids getting bored. And they will soon enough let you know which is the "ice cream game" that they will play all afternoon if left to it. Ditto 2 v. 1 and 2 v. 2, etc.

    I have no idea what's going on the country other than Northern California, but I can say that, between my US Soccer training, my AYSO training and the ineffable Karl Dewazien, the CYSA-North Director of Coaching, the kinds of things I have written above and lots more like them are GOSPEL. There are sinners among us who do not live by the Gospel, but the GOSPEL is nonetheless spoken clearly and consistently.

  12. Chris Morris, July 28, 2010 at 12:50 p.m.

    I can identify with this article because I was once one of those novice coaches, drafted to take on a team. I learned a lot then from experienced coaches, including one who had played at the top level of the English game (sorry, Paul Gardner). However, I don’t think Mr. Gardner or anyone else is saying that novice coaches of 8-year-olds should be left to sink or swim. Rather, his ongoing beef is with pro teams or elite youth teams; he argues that the players are over-coached at the cost of creativity and individuality. Whether he is right about this or not, the recent establishment of the Development Academy shows that USSF felt the existing club system was not working as far as producing top-level players. The challenge for U.S. youth soccer is that it is supposed to be both a rewarding recreational activity for the millions -- the game Mr. Singleton focuses on -- and a source of a few future pros -- what Mr. Gardner writes about. In other countries these two things are separate.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications