How to navigate coaching education pathways in the USA

All soccer players, from grassroots to senior professional and internationals, deserve access to good coaching. At the same time, all coaches owe it to themselves, and their athletes, to be proficient in effective teaching. Whatever the level of the athlete, team and coach, learning and enjoyment should always be crucial considerations of the training and game environment.

Ian Barker has served as the United Soccer Coaches' Director of Coaching Education since 2012. He has licenses and diplomas from the U.S. Soccer Federation (A license), the English FA, the German DFB, U.S. Youth Soccer and the United Soccer Coaches (formerly known as the NSCAA).

Acknowledging these reasonable principles for the “why” of developing good coaching, the “what” and “how” in achieving that brings us to the realm of coaching education. In the USA, the history of coach licensing covers a not insignificant 45-year period. It is a history that reflects the development of the game at all levels, the unique economies and diseconomies of scale associated with delivery in the USA, and also the domestic and international influences on youth and adult approaches.

This history is marked by many different directions, designs, and implementations on the part of the agencies offering formal coaching education. On the part of the audience, however, far greater consistency has been found in the enthusiasm of U.S. coaches to seek out education and commit to their development for a host of reasons stretching from the most intrinsic to most extrinsic.

For the coach going into formal education or the club/league/association plotting a course in formal coach education, there are some important questions that can be asked.

One of the most important considerations is the motivation of the coach. If the coach is seeking to develop in order to coach at increasingly higher levels, potentially up to pro or national team levels; then they should certainly commit to what we can call a vertical pathway. In the vertical pathway, the coach may be aspiring to get to and successfully complete the pinnacle course, having taken the time and effort to take the required courses leading to that point. Or they may not seek to move all the way along the pathway, but are certainly seeking deeper content to equip them for a higher level of player and competition.

An alternative approach, though not an exclusive one, to the vertical pathway is what we can call a horizontal pathway. The coaches on this pathway want the important information they need to be comfortable and effective, but do not necessarily seek to ascend a coaching or career ladder.

Both pathways will offer the coach good, relevant content and appropriate challenge and demand. At the same time the motivations of the coach will span from the most intrinsic to the most extrinsic. At one end of the spectrum the coach seeks the education exclusively for the better experience of the players they coach; at the other end the coach is looking for a better pay day and greater status.

Of course, the vast majority of coaches willing and encouraged to engage in formal education seek to derive value for more than one reason. Good coach education depends on three primary factors: solid content, good instructors, and open-minded, engaged coaches. If these three factors are met in an in-person course, be it of three hours in length or a year, coaches should come away and see an improvement in their coaching, enjoy a sense of achievement, get formal acknowledgment of the time and money they have invested, and, in some cases, open new career coaching opportunities.

The major youth soccer organizations in the USA, U.S. Youth Soccer, U.S. Club, AYSO and SAY Soccer all advocate for and promote coach education. All of these organizations direct their coaches to the educational programs of U.S. Soccer and United Soccer Coaches and, in some cases, also have educational awards customized for their members. Both U.S. Soccer and United Soccer Coaches present a suite of offerings that speak to the coaches on both the vertical and horizontal pathways.

The overall U.S. Soccer pathway is very deliberate and most typically demands that coaches enter into it at lower levels that can ultimately lead to the Pro License. United Soccer Coaches offers advanced technical awards and certificate and degree programs in conjunction with the University of Delaware and Ohio University. United Soccer Coaches also offers “specialty” education, for example in goalkeeping.

Both U.S. Soccer and United Soccer Coaches offer grassroots coach education and both clearly define the importance of “getting it right” for the youngest players. U.S. Soccer, United Soccer Coaches, and UEFA education pathways offer excellent, developmentally appropriate content. Currently, however, the delivery method of instruction and the candidate experience are different enough that a coach may find a better fit in one program over another.

Many coaches in the USA who have engaged in formal education have enjoyed both U.S. Soccer and United Soccer Coaches programming. Equally, some coaches have found value and satisfaction in one or the other. In addition, U.S. coaches are increasingly looking to expand their horizons and access the coaching awards of the European Confederation, UEFA.

Each UEFA country offers a suite of educational programs and experienced U.S. coaches who have taken many hours of education here are now looking to commit to the travel time and expense of a UEFA award. Feedback from soccer federations in Scotland, Germany, and Northern Ireland, among others, is extremely positive as to the preparedness and ability of well-trained U.S. coaches. In the case of coaches who have taken the United Soccer Coaches advanced awards, the recommendation from instructional staff has assisted the successful applications onto UEFA B awards.

Considering what formal education to take will depend on a number of variables that include:

Schedule fit.

Geographical accessibility.

Time commitment.

Money commitment.

Preferences over field or classroom presentation.

Any requirements for a coaching pass from a league or tournament.

Comfort with technology.

Preference of modeled teaching or experiential teaching. (The broad distinction between modeled and experiential teaching relates to the degree to which the candidate observes a more experienced coach, or instead performs for the more experienced coach and is offered support.)

In making the choice of formal education program, the coach should seek guidance from trusted resources such as peers and club technical directors.

Those organizations and individuals charged with helping educate coaches in the USA face the challenges of making sure education is easy to access, affordable, and does not discriminate based on gender, language, physical ability, or access to technology. It is also a challenge to make sure the information shared is applicable in the real environment of each and every coach, because no country has the diversity among its coaching ranks that the U.S. does.

By way of final advice, try to avoid any coaching influences that suggest there is only one way to do something. Be careful when information contains the concepts of “never” or “always.”

Soccer is a dynamic and fluid sport and there are many different ways to teach it to very different players in widely different environments. What the coach should seek in effective coach education is empowerment. That is, the coaches should come away more confident in what they are doing in the best interests of their players and be increasingly thoughtful in how they prepare and what they present.

One simple check on your performance as coach is when you glance at your watch and are surprised, and a little disappointed, the session is almost over. That feeling, especially if it’s shared by the players, suggests the coach was well prepared and organized, that players were engaged and, most likely, learning was taking place.

For the coach, club, or association assessing the formal coach education opportunities, the USA offers the greatest choice. U.S. Soccer, as the governing body of the sport in the U.S., is a leader in coach education. At the same time, member associations of U.S. Soccer, United Soccer Coaches, and the primary youth organizations have decades of experience and success in the development of contextual, relevant, accessible content that speaks to the unique needs of the U.S. coach.

It is hard to imagine that the USA will have a single coach education pathway anytime soon that mirrors that of European nations. As such, choice prevails and this should be understood to be a good thing.

(Ian Barker, the United Soccer Coaches' Director of Coaching Education, previously served as men’s head coach at Macalester College, director of coaching for the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association (MYSA), and assistant coach at the University of Wisconsin when it won the 1995 NCAA Division I title. This article from the Education Issue of United Soccer Coaches' Soccer Journal was republished courtesy of United Soccer Coaches. The Soccer Journal is a member benefit for United Soccer Coaches members. Barker has served on the national instructional staff for United Soccer Coaches, U.S. Soccer and U.S. Youth Soccer)

5 comments about "How to navigate coaching education pathways in the USA".
  1. R2 Dad, May 21, 2018 at 12:20 a.m.

    No comments from the peanut gallery? I know this article is about coaching choice, but which entity out there is asking "What do our players need?" vs "What do our coaches need"? Seems to me the primary goal should be getting our players the coaching they need rather than an inwardly -focused search for what the grownups need. If only our players had as much choice as the coaches!

  2. frank schoon replied, May 21, 2018 at 11:26 a.m.

    R2, that's the problem ,it's all about coaching and overcoaching. As long as kids are unable to individually develop through a Pickup soccer stage but instead of continually hounded by coaches who ,themselves are questionable, nothing is going to come of this garbage.....

  3. Wooden Ships replied, May 21, 2018 at 11:40 a.m.

    Lol R2. I too was noticing no commentary. Had some thoughts and read over the article several times. Thank you Ian for your work and the shadows in the cave. It did remind me of a graduate paper.

  4. frank schoon replied, May 21, 2018 at 3:48 p.m.

     Wiel Coerver called these types "study heads", "professors", who, if you give them a ball would trip over themselves. It is all about licensing and education, today. Ironically, what has happened is that we didn't have all this "academic" crappalo in my days and yes the coaching was perhaps not as good but the players were so much better as compared to today where the coaching is much better but the player are worse; for in my days the players learned to think for themselves without all this overcoaching today. The coaching has become a cottage industry...what a business has it become....not that the players have gotten any better from it. What is so ironic, is that with youth ,it is not about coaching but "doing" for that is the only way to learn. Having coaches with educational courses, and computer programs, which I call LAPTOP coaches is not making any kid better in skills...
    Ernst Happel, a phenomenal coach and player, who when the great Alfredo Distefano came at him in a game sat on the ball and stated, "try taking it from me", was considered by Johan Cruff as one of four coaches in the world who really understood the game.
    George Kesler the head of the Dutch soccer academy,  KNVB, came up to Ernst Happel and ask to discuss tactics with him. Happel who has no respect for these professors of soccer, stated "talking tactic with you, is really discussing "tic-tac". Tactics is a situational thing which is not done on paper with X's and O's. Tactics is reading  3 or 4 moves ahead, along with interpreting the nuances, all which is not taught or rather can't be taught at a coaching academy. Happel also stated good coaches don't teach at an academy...just stiffs who are good in classroom.

  5. Bob Ashpole, May 21, 2018 at 8:29 p.m.

    An effective program, like an effective soccer team, uses the available people where they can do the most good for the program. That means "professors" that are good in the classroom should be teaching in the classroom. Coaches that are good trainers should be on the training field. Good managers should be managing. There is room somewhere for everyone.

    Nobody should be blindly accepting what anyone says in a classroom. You go to a class, take away the good stuff and discard the rest. The more experienced you get, the less you take away from a class but there is always something new you can take away. From the "professors" viewpoint, teaching is tough because you know that there are always people listening who are more experienced than the "professor." You respect the people listening and do the best you can to provide useful information and ideas. 

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