American game enjoying a coaching renaissance

By Christian Lavers

Over the past 5 years, the landscape of the youth soccer world has changed dramatically, and the pace and magnitude of change shows no signs of slowing down. With the creation and growth of new and different leagues, competitions, identification programs, and clubs, the expectations and demands on coaches have also changed significantly.

Importantly, many of these changes are providing opportunities for youth coaches to become more professional, more educated, and better at their craft.

For much of youth soccer history, the “best” coaches were almost always considered to be the ones that won the most games, or that won the biggest championships. Winning was the only barometer for success that the American culture recognized in youth soccer, and chasing results was the primary way for coaches to find respect, or sometimes even to keep their jobs.

These pressures have resulted far too often in a reality where words like “development” are given only lip-service, where recruitment is the biggest factor in success, and where the soccer being played isn’t attractive to watch, much less challenging and inspiring to play.

It seems to me that we stand on the edge of a new opportunity to change much of this past culture; where there is an opportunity to redefine youth coaching as a “profession,” and to establish leaders within this profession that can impact the game for generations.

Giving credit where it is due, much of the genesis of this opportunity was created when U.S. Soccer got directly involved in the youth game with the creation of the Development Academy. Now, four years into this project, coaches within that program are, often for the first time, beginning to be reviewed, assessed, and measured on things beyond just success on the scoreboard. For the first time, things like the style of play, behavior on the sideline, and the number of players developed for higher levels are being noted, measured, and publicized.

Whether there is perfect agreement on the specific system of play that is best for development, the best way to train certain techniques or tactics, or the perfect coaching tone of voice is irrelevant; what is important is that this discussion is occurring in many places, and the measurement of coaching success and talent is beginning to move away from a sole focus on results.

From the starting point within the Development Academy, there have been a growing number of coaches and clubs outside of the Academy with a desire to change the structure of the programs, leagues and competitions that their teams and clubs participate in in order to be technically and developmentally better. There has been significant movement toward limiting numbers of games at all ages, of increasing the focus on the importance of training, and making many other changes that are designed to make the youth game better for the players.

Inextricably linked to this process, there is also more discussion between coaches about what it means to be a master coach – a professional developer of soccer and athletic talent for long-term success.  This desire for change on the competition field has begun to foster ideas for changes on the sideline, the training field, and in the coaching classroom. While this “movement” is still in its infancy, and ideas don’t always lead to practical and permanent change, the fact that there is a movement at all is very important.

In the youth game, for the first time, it is not only the coaches with the biggest trophies who are being heard, recognized and respected.  There are now voices being heard and elevated who make it clear that you can have success on the field without sacrificing style, that you can have long-term success by developing players and sacrificing short-term victories, and that being a professional requires more than knowing technique and tactics.    

Culture change always requires a platform from which leaders can arise and be heard. This platform is beginning to grow within the American youth soccer landscape, and more people are stepping on board. At some point, as the message gets stronger and the incremental changes add up – hopefully we will reach a tipping point.  That point will be the beginning of the coaching renaissance that is absolutely necessary for this country to have a chance to develop the next Lionel Messi or Marta.

As eloquently put by U.S. Soccer Development Director Jill Ellis: “It is certainly time for us as a soccer community to acknowledge the coaches who inspire a love of the game, and to truly appreciate the coaches who develop our future national team players.  It is time, perhaps, when getting one special player to the next level is recognized as more important than a 19-0 season.”

When more coaches and clubs recognize and support this truth, the future of the American game will be brighter than ever.

(Christian Lavers is the Executive Vice President at US Club Soccer and the President of the Elite Clubs National League.  He holds the USSF "A" License, the USSF "Y" License, the NSCAA Premier Diploma, and is the USSDA and ECNL Director at FC Milwaukee Nationals in Wisconsin.)

12 comments about "American game enjoying a coaching renaissance".
  1. Don Rawson, October 27, 2011 at 4:30 p.m.

    Well said Coach Lavers!

  2. Ron Singh, October 27, 2011 at 4:52 p.m.

    Great article. For all those parents, ref's and even other coaches out there - we need to support those who follow the idea that development is more important than winning. Thank the coaches even if they are on the opposing team and help drown out the overly competitive parents and club directors that only care about winning.

  3. Kenyon Cook, October 27, 2011 at 5:26 p.m.

    It will take time for this mentality to filter down through the ranks and finally into where it all starts, with the Micro programs. Spending more time with the philosophy that is being set forth by Claudio Reyna, Tab Ramos and others who understand the simplicity of allowing our youngest players the freedom to explore the game without the constant pressure of parents and coaches to play with structure, could have a significant impact.
    I think one of the biggest challenges will not to be in a hurry to push up teams to the next age group, which so often means playing with more players on bigger fields and LESS TOUCHES. Let the better and more creative players move up, but not wholesale teams that clearly have players who require as many touches as possible to grow their game.
    The longer we let our players play small sided futbol, the better and more creative they will become. The problem remains with the big youth soccer club machine that is locked into competitive leagues and tournaments that only place more pressure on the players.
    Isn't it ironic that millions and millions of children who play the same game of futbol all over the world, never play in organized youth leagues or 11v11 until they reach their teens. And yet that is the birth place of the world's most creative players.
    I manage tournaments, so I can't be too hypocritical, but we try to mix in fun, such as bringing in professional soccer freestylers for clinics, juggling competitions and freestyle jamming the night before the event.
    Our 3v3 events are played on smaller fields and teams are punished for excessive fouling with 1-minute time penalties. Coaches/parents are held accountable for innapropriate behavior by punishing the players with time penalties. Maybe a bit radical, but if we can provide our players with more freedom to express themselves without the negative criticism, who knows maybe the next star will be born here in the US.
    Let's back off at the early ages so players can become more passionate about the game. Only with a true passion for the game, will young boys and girls take the time on their own to become one with the ball and one with the game.

  4. Kent James, October 27, 2011 at 5:44 p.m.

    Yes, a nice positive article. But Kenyon makes some very good points; development doesn't start at the academy level, and and the younger levels, it is important that coaches provide good structure but also back off sufficiently to let kids learn on their own (as they say, "the game is the best teacher"). A blend of rote repetition (in brief stints) to develop ball skills (Coerver method) along with lots of fun games in which kids can use those skills and be creative in a non-competitive environment. In other words, providing training sessions that the kids don't even realize are training sessions. It's also important to manage carefully that transition from a fun, ball-oriented, no pressure environment of youth to the more competitive environment of the Academy. The only thing I see that worries me is the attempt to "professionalize" the youth soccer experience at younger and younger ages, which unfortunately often means cutting weak kids, raising prices, and traveling to distant tournaments (raising pressure on parents). At the youngest ages we need to be as inclusive as possible, let the kids enjoy it in a low pressure (and low cost) environment, and ease them into the more completive world when they're a bit older.

  5. Rich Blast, October 27, 2011 at 6:45 p.m.

    Good discussion, but I don't see things changing anytime soon. I think clubs and the pay for play model will prevent anything from changing too quickly. There is too much money to be extracted off parents, who believe little Johnny is the next Pele, etc. There are tons and tons of teams and levels in North Texas. How do parents know who the good coaches are? I have yet to meet a coach that will provide parents with development plans. Most coaches who played at the highest levels regardless of their "license" have no clue how to teach young kids. Some clubs in NTX even close practices to keep the parents away. Parents roam from club to club each year. The turnover limits the incentive of good coaches to develop players. His resume is still judged by the level his team plays, e.g. DA, Classic 1,2,3, or premier leagues.

    Lack of cohesion among clubs is another problem. Team A is completely separate from Team B, C,D,E. FC Dallas Youth is a prime example. Players in the FC Dallas Youth program should play in the correct level, with the correct coach to develop their skills. The whole thing is a mess in NTX. Coaches have no incentives to work together in Clubs. Its really mostly about the money.

  6. Ron kruse, October 27, 2011 at 7:19 p.m.

    I coach in the Alaska RUSH Youth Academy at the Micro level. All of the parents love what we are doing with the kids. I had a couple 5 year olds that started to look bored and ran circles around the other kids,so i asked the parents to go observe the u7 session and tell me wether or not tthey wanted thier player to move up. I already knew i wanted the player to move up but i involved the parent on purpose. I also tell every parent that if thier player is not having fun after moving to bring them back down. The number one reason kids play soccer is to have fun period. I always demand respect with my older players but WE have alot of fun while playing and practicing. When they come off they field i want smiles even if they are losing. I often wonder if my positive have fun attitude is because i never played soccer when i was a kid!?? I also agree that this article was a fresh and positive change to what i usually see written about US Soccer! GO USA!!

  7. sam overton, October 27, 2011 at 8:21 p.m.

    I have been waiting over 25 years for someone like Jim Ellis to agree with me. Thanks, great article Soccer America

  8. Beth Koncir, October 28, 2011 at 10:46 p.m.

    This is an article that I find very interesting as the parent of a U 14 daughter. We have been with the same club for the past 7 years since she was U 8. Although the club has merged and changed names the philosophy has stayed the same. When she was young our DOC and coach, Brad Partridge, gave us a plan of what was to be accomplished and learned at the appropriate age levels. As a parent I attended the meeting and read the information. I really don’t remember what I did with the paper but I can tell you that he stuck with his goals and training techniques over the years. Many of the teams we played then and now still comment on the exceptional skill development that our children display. “Development” is a word that I hear thrown around teams and leagues but I don’t think they really understand the extent of the word! To Brad it meant focusing on individual skills, small sided games and ball control. He encouraged them to use their moves during practice and rewarded them in games with a “great job young lady” whether they were successful or not! And, by the way, this is the only thing he would say from the sidelines! He considered the game to be their time to play and have fun and expected the parents to limit their comments as well. We did not attend many tournaments and he was a stickler for limiting formal games. There were certain training to game ratios and he believed that it was important to limit the amount they played at this age….he kept saying “when they are 15-18 they will travel enough!” Last year we had 9 players that were chosen for the Florida ODP state team, 1 went on to regionals, and we made it to the final four in State Cup. Unfortunately, I have to admit that the biggest challenge in this philosophy is getting the parents to understand that wins and losses are not important. We also, as a team, struggled with this concept along the way. If coaching success is measured in style of play, behavior on the sideline and the numbers of players developed for higher levels than Brad has been very successful in his coaching techniques.
    Thank You Brad for being such a wonderful coach!
    Beth Koncir
    (Parent of U14 girls FC Florida)

  9. Kent James, October 29, 2011 at 12:37 p.m.

    Beth, if only more players had the experience your daughter did, the world would be a better place. Sounds like that club is doing development right.

  10. James Froehlich, October 30, 2011 at 6:43 p.m.

    I completely agree with the direction that Mr.Lavers says US youth soccer is heading but I would be much more optimistic about the future if He would have been more specific about the who, when, where of the positive changes he speaks of. Other than the Development Academy's very recent changes in the evaluation of their coaches, I see little concrete in his hopeful picture. At this time , I see four reasons for hope: Jurgen Klinsmann, Claudio Reyna, Tab Ramos, and Caleb Porter. If I ignore them, Mr. Lavers speech is the same list of hopeful platitudes that have been preached for the past 20 years.

  11. carolynn wotring, October 30, 2011 at 9:28 p.m.

    Go Ms. BETH!!! As a player, Coach Brad has talked many times about people who think that the U.S. need to increase their style of play, instead of focusing on individual player skills, ball control, and small games to move the ball around quicker. I'm glad we have coach Brad as a coach, he is one of the best out there and as much as we hate the suicides we do. I appreciate the time he takes to push us that extra step. He pushes every button to make us a better player! Although we follow the rules of the club, his consistency with the CAPS program has actually helped us become a better player. He makes sure that we get better as a player but develop as a team, leaving no one behind! He is very dedicated on getting the job done, Coach Brad is like no other coach I've ever seen! He treats everyone fairly and does not let us slack off, no matter who you are; he pushes us to our fullest extent!
    Carolynn [u14 girls]

  12. J Heder, October 31, 2011 at 12:22 p.m.

    This article says all things we want to hear but Lavers should not be the messenger. His reputation is far from practicing what he preaches (writes). Version of malpractice. But outside of that there are definitely many great coaches in the US who can indeed inspire the next generation of great soccer players.

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