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.
VERTICAL OR HORIZONTAL PATHWAYS
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.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT PATHWAYS?
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.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT PATH FOR YOU
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.
EFFECTIVE COACHING EDUCATION EMPOWERS
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)