License-mania -- aggrandizing the coach in a player's game

By Mike Woitalla

It’s not easy to become a USSF-licensed elite soccer coach:

“You must pass six licenses. … The failure rate is high -- I haven’t had time to check this data but it’s often well above 30 percent of license-seekers who are told, ‘No. Come back again when you’re ready.’ It’s difficult to imagine a teacher certification or licensing program in this country failing 30 percent of applicants.”

The words are those of Doug Lemov, a renowned teacher of schoolteachers who in 2010 was enlisted by the USSF to help train soccer coaches.

He’s telling us it’s tougher to become a licensed elite soccer coach than a certified teacher.

An article in the current edition of The Atlantic on Lemov’s work in soccer hit the web in the same week that’s Liviu Bird reported on the USSF's overhaul of its coaching license standards and MLS’s collaboration with the French soccer federation (FFF) to get the “Elite Formation Coaching License” for its youth academy coaches.

“The first cycle of the Formation License took two years and involved 320 hours of on-field and classroom instruction,” writes Bird.

Said one coach who got the license, Darren Sawatzky: “That course was the single hardest educational thing I’ve done in my life. It was harder than my college degree.”

Wow. Sounds like soccer is a very complicated sport.

Of course, soccer-coaching licenses have been around for a long time in the USA. In September, I wrote about German Dettmar Cramer setting up the USSF’s national coaching school in the early 1970s. Since then, the men and women who coach our kids also get diplomas from the NSCAA. Or if they’re playing AYSO, the coaches take that organization’s courses. U.S. Youth Soccer has the National Youth Coaching Course.

The American coaching license industry got a shakeup of sorts in 2015, when the USSF announced it would no longer accept NSCAA diplomas as a prerequisite to skip the USSF’s lower-level courses. In other words, even if you have an NSCAA National Diploma, you’d have to start at the entry level to work your way up the USSF’s license ladder.

That it’s ridiculous for the USSF to claim it has a magic formula no one else has access to is one thing. There are other serious concerns.

I have heard of lower-income clubs whose coaches didn’t have the money or the time – because of their day jobs – to get the licenses that would enable their teams to compete in the elite competition their talented kids deserved to be in. Who’s to say that these coaches aren’t as good as those who have the benefit of charging their players thousands of dollars a year to play for their clubs?

I also wonder how many men and women out there are excellent coaches but might not be suited to the academic rigors of what some of these courses demand.

For sure there are basics about health and safety and age-appropriate training that I believe everyone who coaches kids must familiarize themselves with. I know from my own experience, and from others, that much in these courses helps us become better coaches. I like a lot of Lemov’s advice. And Bird's article on the "overhaul" indicates some common-sense changes, such as taking the C, B and A courses to "the candidate’s home environment" and spreading the course work out over a longer period instead of a nine-day residency course.

But what comes through loud and clear when one reads the reports of the in-vogue sophisticated coaching education is the aggrandizing of the coach’s role. That’s a perilous approach in a sport whose greatest players have in common lots of soccer without adults telling them how to play.

From Bird’s article on the Elite Formation Coaching License: “Much of the terminology used in the course comes out of the classroom rather than off the soccer field.”

So kids, be aware, your teams are “academies.” You’re on a “curriculum.” And your field has become a "classroom."

32 comments about "License-mania -- aggrandizing the coach in a player's game".
  1. Wooden Ships, February 11, 2016 at 9:24 a.m.

    Good read Mike. Soccer in this country, like many other fields, has consistently raised standards-hurdles to join the club. The ones credentialed keep increasing credentials. It's an esteem competition for those participating. Over coaching and thinking is not leading to player joy. How could it, when the coaches expectations aren't met at the level he or she expects. And, then it becomes personal, how dare they not appreciate all I'm doing for them. I've just flashed back to Pink Floyd, "we don't need no education."

  2. Kevin Sims, February 11, 2016 at 9:39 a.m.

    While US Soccer licensing is heavy-handed and designed to find fault with aspiring coaches, the NSCAA becomes friends and allies of coaches, motivating them to get better and to positively impact the players and the game. I navigated through both systems and the caliber of information is quite high in both; I prefer the teaching to mastery of the NSCAA over the arrogance of the USSF.

  3. Roni Schneider, February 11, 2016 at 9:39 a.m.

    As a coaching education director who is in charge of coaching courses and education and myself i have a Uefa Pro License - i see the coach as the most importnat person in the youth development therefore i want the coach to be the most educated. being a top player does not make you a good or a top coach.I am for the system that will make it difficult for the upcoming coaches so they know how to develop better players.I find in europe that many coaches once they have their license - they know it all !! NO Way !! you always must learn and improve.I also insist on a yearly madatory coaching enhancements counted by hours each year. alleays willing to support coaches and do seminars and symposium for coaches.Tks Ron Schneider

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, February 11, 2016 at 10:44 a.m.

    Ron, with respect, the point is that the player is the most important person in youth development, not the coach. I think it is better to think of development coaches as influential rather than important. While that may seem quibbling over semantics, an egocentric view of the player development process is not the best viewpoint for coaches to have.

  5. Wooden Ships replied, February 11, 2016 at 11:27 a.m.

    Ron, I appreciate your efforts and you obviously are passionate about your calling. But, you kind of make my point about over coaching and thinking. We aren't training astronauts. Your mention of increasing enhancements/education by credentialed leaders of organizations is a never ending quest. If we are talking philosophy, then I agree, we can never know it all and in fact never will. How has it become here or abroad that great soccer players need great prophets-sensei's? I'm not saying coaching education isn't of value, but I don't see it as the most important. As Twellman pointed out, our players look clonish and that's because of over coaching, over instruction. Players become real good players amongst themselves, first and foremost. AA's argument that we need training compensation is certainly worth a try and I do feel it would yield greater results, but the gentleman that mentioned increased funding and attention to the rec leagues has nailed it in my mind. All kids and socioeconomic backgrounds would benefit. You don't make great players they make themselves. You can't teach instinct and guile.

  6. john bogdan replied, November 16, 2016 at 2:22 p.m.

    I agree with you. As a coach and player with experience in both continent. I found the USSF and NSCAA falling behind the UEFA coaching curriculum. We had a recent shake up at the USSF not excepting NSCAA Diplomas just comes down to money. Yes the USSF Licenses takes more time and some has and had pre-course requirements, but the ideology both where the same. I found out at the NSCAA they want you to be a better coach, while in the USSF focused more pass or fail and not coaching educations. I am working on my UEFA A and before I started I had to pass again the UEFA B test.
    I have entered the USSF B course recently and was turned down, stating I need more commitments to my coaching education even the fact I am doing my UEFA A license. Coaching Premier team and ODP, won championships 2-3 years a row. I believe at the USSF it comes down to who are the leading instructors, who knows who, basically big time brown nosing. They encouraged me to keep continuing my coaching educations, I agree but I will do it anywhere else except here in the USSF. I am hopping to start my UEFA Pro in 2018. I am enrolling the NSCAA master coaching Diploma. I noticed if you are looking for a high end coaching job they need USSF A or equa likel NSCAA Premier diploma. So that is no problem, you need the USSF B or A if you do coach at US developmental Academies, but in that case my UEFA A license should be more than enough. I just thank the USSF to turn me down will save $3000 for my B and $4000 for my A.
    Please let me know what do you think. John

  7. Ronak Shah, February 11, 2016 at 9:39 a.m.

    This is still the top-down approach and misses the unmeasurable cultural piece: kids need to be playing in their backyards, in the streets, in playgrounds, and in their homes (with a softball and understanding parents!). As coaches and soccer participants, we know not to offer open-ended questions but to provide quiet, direct, clear instructions and praise. That's easy. The harder part is creating the culture were going to games and practice is really the residual of the wider activity of playground football. We spend too much time looking for expensive top-down solutions, modelling after Europe and South America, forgetting that kids need to dream about being Messi and make that a part of who they are. That's going to take time. The rec leagues where lots of kids play should be the focal point of funding and educational outreach, and not the top-level academies.

  8. Mark Botterill replied, February 26, 2016 at 12:48 a.m.

    While we spend our time shielding parents away from the development process Tom Byer at T3, based in Japan, but now plying his trade in China makes us all look a little silly frankly.

    3 in every 4 World Cup winners in the last 3 World Cups state that their father was their most important influencer in their personal development.

    Educate the US parent to embrace the simple notion of playing with the ball in the house, backyard and find comfort being on and with the ball at the earliest age possible.

    Inspire and facilitiate that process and we might not need an MIT Grad to coach our youth.

  9. Ron Benson, February 11, 2016 at 10:08 a.m.

    Pickup games frow a young age installs the creativity and love/joy of the game . Later , the organization of a team can give direction . But continuing the pickup games and their spirit can enhance the organized team play . Coaches , let the players think for themselves on the field . Correct them later. Constantly badgering them during the run of play is stultifying .

  10. Junhua Wu replied, February 11, 2016 at 11:15 a.m.

    totally agree. Here in US, kids travel far to play tournaments and league games, while not playing much each day. Even in the 90 minutes practice, players are playing 20 minutes to 30 minutes at most. I would rather the kids play soccer freely for at least 1 hour each day, they will be a much better player in a year.

  11. Kent James, February 11, 2016 at 10:34 a.m.

    The basic question the USSF has to ask is what is the purpose of their coaching license program? Is it to spread soccer knowledge to the community, or as a filter to designate who the 'good' coaches are? If you want to spread knowledge, the courses need to be accessible, inexpensive, and inclusive. If you want the license holder to represent your brand, then you make it very difficult to achieve (which leads to the increase in fees All American references above). I would argue that the former model is better for soccer; the more people who are aware of what good development is, the more likely soccer is to develop in the US. Besides, while a license may be some indication of the skill of the coach, where it matters most (the professional ranks where coaches make a living in soccer), results matter more than licenses.

  12. Bob Ashpole, February 11, 2016 at 11:03 a.m.

    Well said Kent. A license is only a piece of paper, just like a diploma is not actual knowledge. As you point out, a license is also an entry barrier.

  13. Scott Baxter, February 11, 2016 at 11:22 a.m.

    Coaches, this is a great article to begin a discussion about licensing by the USSF. Why should it be so prohibitive in cost and why is it almost exclusively performanced based? When you attend a USSF do you really get instruction as to how to teach kids let alone the aspects of the game? 'Practice Perfect' by Doug Lemov is a great read and might be incorporated more into the USSF structure.

  14. aaron dutch, February 11, 2016 at 12:12 p.m.

    Like usual our soccer system creates a bigger mess. instead of clean UEFA model of coaching education that works we create this crazy system ! You have US Youth, NSCAA, High School, USSF, College Coaching in all of this their is not a clear model of play or unified system of play we want to focus on. If you look at the regional coaching models the countries federation build a philosophy of play which then gets driven into the whole development model thru the youth system. We are unwilling to build a logical way we want to play after 30 years.

  15. Wooden Ships replied, February 11, 2016 at 12:25 p.m.

    With respect Aaron, model, philosophy, logic? We just need creative, passionate, technical players. Coaching fads and country fads come and go. It's a simple, simple game requiring talented players. Models and philosophies are irrelevant.

  16. Kevin Sims, February 11, 2016 at 12:32 p.m.

    Spot on, Kent James.

  17. Kevin Leahy, February 11, 2016 at 1:17 p.m.

    The players that come from our poorer communities already do what needs doing & that is playing on their own or in pickup games. Their technique is enhanced more with a wall & a ball or trying to beat their buddy 1v1. If the big clubs want to help, start open pickup play @ their facilities. Having going through the license process a couple of times, I did feel like I learned some things but, there is more to it than that. Creativity comes with more risk and reward. We need to do something different to improve our product in the U.S.

  18. Wooden Ships replied, February 11, 2016 at 1:26 p.m.

    Roger that Kevin.

  19. Southside Red11, February 11, 2016 at 1:56 p.m.

    USSF A License and NSCAA Premier Diploma holder here. Only did them to put them on resume to be honest. Didn't learn much at all from the instructors. Learned more by sitting at the bar with the other coaches that attended the courses with me.
    Whoever said the coach is the most important part of development is 100% wrong. A coach should be there to guide, motivate and oversee growth, but the player has to want it more than anything else.
    Whoever said that the players need to be playing pick-up games and have the ball at their feet more is 100% correct. I have argued with numerous coaches from other teams that training sessions should be 85-90% playing and the last 10% education. The player needs to find his/her feet and develop their own style to fit within a system. It's the coach's job to make that kid's talents fit into a system.
    Besides coaching, I played four years in college and 18 years as a professional, many of them overseas, even though I am an American. The coaches overseas know that having the ball at your feet and mastering the basics are most important. Even at the pro level, there is tons of small sided games where players are given a chance to improve and shine. When those same players are then put into a full sided match, they get it. That is lacking here in the States.
    American soccer will never reach the heights it should due to the inane organizers at the top. Instead of it being a sport for love, it's a sport for $$$ here. Have to pay all these so-called coaches from around the world (most especially, England) who come here to pull a check.

  20. Scott Rosberg, February 11, 2016 at 2:02 p.m.

    In most of the comments I read about this debate, I rarely (if ever) hear any mention of character education, sportsmanship, team culture, and life lessons. I hear about "player development" and creating players who can play at "higher levels" as much as anything else. While I would consider things like character, sportsmanship, culture, and life lessons to be part of "player development," I wonder how much time is devoted to learning the importance of any of these in the licensing of coaches. While I am all for coaches developing the skills of our young players so as to help them go on to higher levels, the majority of players are not necessarily going to go on and play at the highest levels, even those who are playing for coaches who are working through the licensing process . They will, however, have to be functional members of society during and after their involvement in soccer. It would be nice if we would emphasize the character elements and life lessons that sport can teach as much as (or more than) the technical and tactical elements. Also, I hope there are lessons for coaches on coaching in terms of how to develop team cultures, treat kids properly, handle playing time issues, deal with parents, etc. This is a relationship business/activity after all. Hopefully, there are portions of the curriculum for coaches' licensing that deal with the types of elements mentioned above.

  21. Joe Linzner, February 11, 2016 at 2:23 p.m.

    Great article... Makes sense though, that not only the pay to play tradition is being preserved but the pay to coach is also getting reinforced. Soccer is not learned in a "classroom" nor is understanding it. As far as I am concerned the very first qualification for any coach and Referee is that they should have played the game at a higher level than intramural pickup games.

  22. R2 Dad, February 11, 2016 at 3:37 p.m.

    As a referee, I would like to see coaches that get ejected more than once per season/twice per calendar year lose a license grade. These coaches are always the screamers and the screamers are ruining the game. The leagues are run by coaches and are unable to discipline their own. Meanwhile the referee ranks send wave after wave of new recruits (12YO) into the teeth of the machine, which spits them out and laughs while telling everyone who will listen how wonderful and important coaches are.

  23. Wooden Ships replied, February 11, 2016 at 3:55 p.m.

    I agree R2, but I'll go a step further, or back to the future. No coaching at all during the game, except half. 60's and 70's St. Louis was pretty quiet. Either coaching/yelling during the game was forbidden by coaches or they were all mutes. I rarely go to youth soccer anymore, too noisy!

  24. R2 Dad replied, February 11, 2016 at 5:29 p.m.

    AA, it's not just numbers--these are people. And you might think differently if it was your child who was the youth referee, subjected to abuse at the hands of an adult who should know better. We complain our society has become less civil, but then no one is willing to do anything about it, even when the cause and effect are as plain as day.

  25. Joe Linzner, February 11, 2016 at 5:35 p.m.

    I've coached ages 6 and on up into adults, never bothered with a license because it would add zero to coaching itself. At least nothing new or that I didn't already know. For me a coach concernes himself with teaching soccer. Most of us, at least in professions that deal with people inside or outside a profession have plenty of interaction classes, psych courses etc. The training games, cone exercises conditioning are all a part of what I have been taught as a player and assistant coach. So for me, having a license is not at all what I strive for. For me a person that coaches youngsters this game must be able to show how something is done, how to control a ball, on the field, in the air, with every part of the body excepting the hands. Absolutely nothing within a license will make better coaches or Referees. The situation currently facing the National Team coach and those before this one is that a national team coach should never have to teach. A national team takes a team, determines which position are best filled with which player and must assume that all the basics have been instilled and are automatic. He instills a system that suits the players and develops the discipline to follow game plans against a particular opponent. In any case, I doubt that licensing will improve the game in any way. Referres also will better understand the game and the player interaction during a game. In other words contact can be better interpreted as fair or foul just by remembering hoe he reacted by an interaction. In the end a referee is using his opinion and if that is based on class learing alone then interpretations tend to show inconsistencies. Having also refereed games I realize it is a thankless job becasue calls have to be made at the speed of play and we know that even eyewitnesses make unrealiable decisions. Seems that every sport gets it's pint of blood (Money) out of everfacet associated with it. One reason why I stopped coaching and reffing!

  26. Joe Linzner, February 11, 2016 at 5:44 p.m.

    We see what standardized testing has done for our schools. Like has been said. The kids are the most important factor and it is the coaches duty to nurture those with an interest and a talent. I have scheduled special sessions with players and drilled technique, individually. How to attack the ball, runs into space, ball reception, using the entire foot to handle the ball and shoot, volleys, even running a path for ball orotection and on and on. I have found that they want to play games regardless of skill. It's silly. Like going into a Dojo and trying to throw a black belt when you first put on a Gi. Silly.

  27. Brian Something, February 12, 2016 at 12:51 a.m.

    Great column. I've run across many coaches who are extremely knowledgeable in theory but completely lack interpersonal skills to engage players (they're not robots!) or who simply are unable to tailor they knowledge to the targeted age group. These coaches typically view coaching as nothing more than the licenses and certifications you have. Just as the best teachers are not necessarily the ones with the PhD from Harvard...

  28. Brian Something, February 12, 2016 at 12:56 a.m.

    One of the quotes in the linked-to article read, “We’re not going to have better players until we have better coaches." Coaches, like players, can always improve but this comment ignores the fact that our players are overcoached and overscheduled enough already. Too many are robots who play organized soccer too much, and don't play pickup with their friends where they have the freedom to truly express themselves. We are great at producing competent, but limited players. We are great at producing quality ahtletes. But overbearing coaches didn't make Clint Dempsey or Tab Ramos.

  29. Thomas Brannan, February 12, 2016 at 5:24 a.m.

    Have "A" License and Premier Diploma. Best course I ever had was Adv. Nat. with Jim Lennox. In the oral I couldn't get the answer he was looking for. He hinted and still I couldn't get it. Then he said to someone else, throw that question out it is a bad question. I'm still laughing. Jim Lennox knows how to teach. If you fail you don't come back and you stop learning.

  30. Jane Smithson, February 13, 2016 at 9:12 a.m.

    The best part of the USSF course seems to be going away. The interaction with the other coaches and watching some amazing sessions run by the other students was the absolute best part of the course. The instructors were very quick to point out who the stellar coaches were and, for me, that's what was the best part of the class.

  31. Jane Smithson, February 13, 2016 at 9:19 a.m.

    I will also add that the organization of the class definitely earned a "not ready" grade for me. Poor signage, lack of parking, not enough chairs and desks for the coaches/students, instructors arriving late and leaving early. We were in an urban area with construction across the street and it was impossible to hear what the instructors were sating with the noise bouncing around the tall buildings surrounding the field. Coaches had to leave sessions to "pump" the parking meter as to avoid tickets from the local parking authority. On the final day they invited local teams to bring their players and at best about 8 teens showed up show were run ragged all day long. I feel that if my instructors were being evaluated by FIFA they would have received a failing grade. This is just my experience but I am sure that 40 other coaches with me would agree.

  32. stewart hayes, February 15, 2016 at 3:32 p.m.

    What many of you are saying is that education of coaches is not as good as we would like. For that matter the cost of medical school neither guarantees a gentle hand on the operating table nor an effective bedside manner. Of course educating coaches is important. What we have costs money and effort to accomplish and much is learned in attending and passing examinations that are oral, on field sessions and pen and pencil. Valuable lessons are undoubtedly learned informally from fellow coaches after hours where individuals can pick each other's the brains. I would tend to agree with Ronni and Red11. The courses do teach the small sided games and essential background information for coaching. What is usually lacking is the chance to see master coaches in action. There are no residency programs for coaches to work alongside masters. Can this be done is some way? Yes, with video, but the 'schools' may not want to freely distribute masters in action, nor the master's themselves, even though it might be argued that it would be the best way to learn the craft. You have to play to learn the game and pay to earn the certificate.

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