Keeping faith in the volunteer coach (Q&A: AYSO's George Kuntz)

Interview by Mike Woitalla

In an era when playing youth soccer has become ridiculously expensive, AYSO continues to provide low-cost ball for American children thanks to its use of volunteer coaches. Scores of U.S. stars, from Landon Donovan and Julie Foudy, to Alejandro Bedoya and Alex Morgan, spent their early years in AYSO. We spoke to George Kuntz, who was recently named AYSO’s Player Development Technical Advisor, about the challenges of creating a soccer environment that suits recreational players and those who have the potential for excelling at the highest levels.

SOCCER AMERICA: The message American parents seem to be getting nowadays is that if their children aren’t getting professional coaching -- if they’re not paying a lot for coaching -- they won’t become great players. …

It seems to be the American way that if it costs more, it’s better. It’s not true in this case.

If you can create good environments, even as a parent coach, you’ll have kids who are excited about the game. They’ll be motivated to play more soccer, to watch more soccer. And that’s the key -- creating an evironment in which they enjoy soccer so much they'll want to play more.

SA: Obviously club coaches have a vested interest when they argue for the importance of professional coaching. But can a legitimate case be made that experienced coaching is crucial at the introductory stages?

If we have all our “best” coaches coaching these players in AYSO, U-5, U-6, would that be the answer? I really don’t know. In fact, it might go the opposite direction, because they could be forcing our kids to do things they really don’t want to do. It could be too regimented and the children wouldn’t want to play.

A lot of coaches without much or any soccer experience do a great job. They do their homework, do research, take our courses. They get everyone involved at practice, lots of touches. They’re engaged in making their kids better. …

And my sense is there are a larger number of parent-coaches who have played. …

Are [paid coaches] really giving them something better? I’ve been to their practices. It just depends on who you get.

SA: Coaches with a soccer background can overcoach, but volunteer coaches who are new to the sport might be especially prone to overcoaching because they know traditional American sports in which coaches play a larger role. …

We overcoach. We know we overcoach. We have for the most part well-educated parents who are coaching our kids and they want to give them as much information as possible.

But they’re saying things on the sidelines that have no application or cannot be understood during that millisecond when a player has to make a decision on the ball. It makes no sense to yell out things when the kids are supposed to be making decisions on their own.

Figuring out how to make the best decisions comes from reacting to where their teammates are, where the opponents are – and requires improvisation. That only comes in playing. The coaching part comes in training at practice.

SA: How do you address that in coaching education?

: When I do all these coaching education courses -- and I do a lot of licensing -- I stress that if they set up a 4-v-4, or 2-v-2 game, they’re doing the right thing. Just let them play. Create an environment -- you don’t even have to be the referee -- just monitor that environment and let them play. Create small-sided games.

We tend to want get elaborate. We tend to want to do more. We tend to want to have the newest exercise. But it’s not that. It’s getting kids to want to play. Setting up separate play dates and those types of thing.

Play dates, jamborees, whatever you want to call them. There has to be a way for a coach to set up another day or one of their practice days where the kids are just playing. No rules, no conditions, no restrictions –- just set up little games. Not 11 vs. 11. Not 10 vs. 10. Small games next to each other, 3 vs. 3 or whatever. Not in a structured environment.

At the same time, we educate coaches on how to incorporate age-appropriate technical exercises. We all know how important individual technique is.

SA: One of the toughest decisions parents are faced with is when to move their child from recreational soccer to club ball. When is the right time?

I’ve gotten that question so many times. I’ve been on both sides because I’ve also been involved in the club thing for a long time.

It is a complicated answer, because every player grows differently.

I tell parents, You know your child better than I do. Are they mature enough? How do they handle criticism? How do they handle success and failure?

For some kids, it’s very difficult to handle success and failure. Do they just enjoy playing? Sometimes they’re really close to their friends and don’t like to play with outside groups who aren’t their friends.

Some kids are very independent. They want to play on the best team possible. The parents know those types of things. When they don’t, I say they need to spend more time with their children.

There are a lot of factors. Physical development. Mentally, are they more mature? If they’re not physically or mentally prepared, they could be stepping into a storm, because the club environment can be very difficult.

Maybe they need to spend another year or two developing and having fun with their friends and then they decide.

SA: What impact do you aim to make at AYSO?

The main focus is better educating the coaches so we can get better training for the kids. And to keep them having fun. Being challenged and having fun keeps them in the game. There are too many kids who have just stopped playing for various reasons.

SA: Can you leave us with some thoughts on how coaches can do a better job?

I don’t think we encourage kids to really try things. That’s where creativity comes from.

We tend to hold the kids back. As coaches, we should allow kids to do more. We should expect that they can do more. Because they’re intelligent.

We keep telling kids they can’t do this or that. Allow kids to make mistakes. Tell them you don’t care if they make mistakes.

Kids can pick up things really quickly. Instead of holding kids back saying they can’t -- encourage them. If they struggle, you can always scale it back to a simpler form.

(George Kuntz, AYSO’s Player Development Technical Advisor, is also head coach of UC Irvine's men's team, where he's been at the helm since 1994. He previously coached the women’s team at Pepperdine after starting his college coaching career at California Lutheran University in 1988. Kuntz served as the Director of Coaching for the California Youth Soccer Association-South for eight years and also served as Hawaii Youth Soccer Association Director of Coaching.)

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif. His youth soccer articles are archived at

7 comments about "Keeping faith in the volunteer coach (Q&A: AYSO's George Kuntz)".
  1. Kent James, July 23, 2011 at 2:09 p.m.

    I think ideally you have volunteers working with kids U9 and under, with those volunteers overseen by professional coaches (or at least experience volunteer coaches), who can structure the environment in the way George Kuntz suggests. But the professional coaches at this level must want to be there (not pissed off because they didn't get to coach the older kids), and they must recognize how different coaching young kids must be (as is taught in the Y-license course with USSF, and I'm sure in the courses Kuntz teaches). So they focus on developing skill on the ball, lots of small-sided games, and fun (no tryouts, trophies, winner take all tournaments). U10-U14 is where I think you need coaches who have been skillful players themselves, and can make sure every kid has the ball skills they need to succeed at a higher level. This is where competition should be introduced, and it may start to cost more because you need a higher ratio of professional coaches/volunteers (professional head coach, volunteer assistant, e.g.). But even as competition plays a bigger role, I still think it is important for kids to have opportunities to play in a low-pressure environment (weekly pick-up games would be ideal), so they can try to incorporate some of the skills they're learning. At the highest ages, the coaches don't need to have been good technically themselves (though it obviously doesn't hurt), but U15 and up it is more player selection, player management, tactics and helping players understand the subtleties of the game. The bottom line is clubs should use volunteer coaches as much as possible to keep costs down, and to multiply the impact of its professional coaches. More important than paid v. volunteer is to make sure all the coaches understand the importance of emphasizing different aspects of the game at different age levels and setting up the right environment, so the kids can develop to their potential.

  2. jason ungar, July 24, 2011 at 2:36 a.m.

    My kids are still under 4 and I have hopes they will play. I cannot agree with George anymore. I grew up in Thousand Oaks/Westlake Village and met George a few times but never played for him and played with some pretty good players in the late 80's early 90's and the thing that turned me away from soccer was over coaching. Even at the ODP camps they really took away any creativity and fun from the game. Not all the coaches of course but most...Now as I play at the parks in Mission Viejo where I live and I observe practices I notice it has gotten way worse with all these paid coaches. I feel they care more about winning (parents too) then developing players. I hope to get my coaching licenses soon as my young one enters the game and I make a promise in writing now that if I coach again (I had coached an boys u13 and u14 club team when I was 19) that it will be all about fun, getting as many touches on the ball as possible and to foster creativity. 90 percent of that and maybe 10 percent tactics. The winning will happen as a result but personally I can careless. I have so many great memories on the field and played on great teams but winning are not a part of those memories, the people I met, the fun on the field..those are the best memories....Bravo George and Congrats.

  3. James Madison, July 24, 2011 at 11:59 p.m.

    1. Soccer has the potential for being the best game in which to learn to function effectively as an adult. If coached appropriately on the training ground and allowed to play on their own in matches, youth players will learn how to make decisions and accept, i.e., deal with the consequences of their decisions. This is how adult life works.

    2. We should not forget the many teenage players who become sufficiently competent to play in select programs, but prefer to keep soccer as their recreation because they have decided to give primacy to another interest, which may be either another sport or a non-athletic activity.

  4. VINCENT JONES, July 26, 2011 at 4:18 p.m.

    George and his UCI came out to the Advanced certification course I took a few years ago. I think its a great idea that AYSO put him in the Player Technical Advisor role. I really learned alot when he came out. I grew up in AYSO and almost made it to the 'Show' (darn injuries). Some of the comments that have been pointed towards club were spot on. I would also like to include the high school level. The local high school where I live (Foothill High School), has two coaches for the girls teams that, from talking to players and parents, just dont make the sport fun. They are just plain mean to the kids. They have a 'win-at-all-cost' mentality that has really turned alot of talented young girls away from playing high school soccer. I personally have coached a number of the girls that have left the program. These are girls that, if playing for another team, would possibly (and in some cases definitely) be oplaying varsity. How can you hope to build a competitive high school team if your attitude turns away quality players. I was told by one of the parenst that the coaches dont think AYSO is any good. That the coaches are any good, and that if they are playing in AYSO that they should immediately stop because they are not learning anything. I have a daughter who has the ability to become a great goalie. She would be playing for these coaches. By their standards, they wont even consider her, even if she is the best for the position, because she hasnt played club. Is she good enough to play club? Yes. I have had coaches ask if she would like to play for their club team. We cant do it though because it costs too much. We still have two other kids that are playing soccer.
    Sorry for the rant. Got carried away. Congrats George. You deserve it.

  5. Paul Giavanopoulos, July 27, 2011 at 7:20 a.m.

    Problem here in East PA is that most Pro coaches, coach to win. it's a vicious cycle where they must produce results to keep their jobs. Since volunteers have nothing to lose, there is no pressure just to win. Yes I agree most times Pro coaches are better than volunteers but maybe we can hold that off till U14 and above. Canada went trhough similar problems 15 years ago in youth hockey where it was win at all cost at young ages. Coaches found ways to win but sacrificed development. here is EP, parents have been sold they must have a PRO coach, and look down on parent and volunteer coaches. it's a shame. kudos to Mr.Kuntz. funny thing is many of us that are not born in this country have played mostly w/o any type of coaches.

  6. Mark Grody, July 28, 2011 at 9:28 p.m.

    The stereotype of pro-coach as all about winning is a little overblown. While some clubs do review their coaches on TEAM championships etc, there are plenty of clubs that judge their paid coaches only by the improvement of their PLAYERS.

    Also, there are plenty of volunteer coaches that coach to win. Winning is fun, so when fun is the only goal, winning actually takes on more importance than when coaches stress development.

    Lastly, it is more about whether the coach is striving to improve themselves or not. Smaller sided games, less tournaments, structure & fun at practice, & adult free times work whether one is paid or not.

  7. VINCENT JONES, July 29, 2011 at 12:19 a.m.

    I cant speak for other club teams in other areas, I can only comment on what I have seen with the high school coaches (which run the Tustin clubs). From my experiences, in watching them and listening to them coach, they dont make the sport fun. As a club and high school coach, you can get your point across, have fun and build a competitive program without having to power trip all the players and threaten them. How many coaches do you guys know, or have come across, that have blatantly told the team that the play favorites among the players? Not hearsay, I have heard them say it. Its coaches like that that cause kids to not want to play soccer. I played CSL for 8 years. Never once was I embarrassed or cussed at by my coach.

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