Although the loss of high school soccer has devastated coaches and players around the country, COVID-19 provides a few opportunities for coaches to raise their game. In a world filled with loss – jobs, income, daily interactions, and tens of thousands of human lives – it may seem counterintuitive, even disrespectful to talk of silver linings. Yet soccer coaches are adept at turning the toughest times into learning experiences. And times don’t get tougher than this.
The “learning” part of this experience is important. An ocean of online resources – and time at home to surf them -- offers coaches the chance to do real professional development. United Soccer Coaches, for example, provides “Match Day Webinars” that range from the pros and cons of different formations and how to evaluate games, to sports psychology. There’s also a “Coaching Through COVID” series, and an extensive online resource library on attacking, defending, training, and every other topic imaginable. Videos and documents are accessible only by members, but a free 30-day membership is available now.
America Scores is in the midst of an innovative Soccer Summit. Online sessions include how to teach heading and third-man runs, handling concussions and preparing for game day.
YouTube is a terrific source of information too. Search by subject (“3-4-3 formation,” say, or “2-v-1 soccer drills”), or type in “Anson Dorrance” or “Liverpool training.” You’ll find more videos (and more rabbit holes to wander down) than you ever dreamed of.
YouTube is also the go-to source for game videos. From classics like the France-West Germany 1982 World Cup semifinal to Leo Messi’s most amazing goals, there’s enough there to keep you entertained for several pandemics.
Our current pandemic is a good opportunity for coaches to work on long-term projects. Perhaps you’ve never had time to learn about coaching goalkeepers. Maybe you’ve always meant to clean out, organize and update your training session files. These days, you’ve got time to plan your entire season. Or you might have always wanted to create a team website. You won’t do it all in one day – but there are enough days ahead to tackle that long to-do list.
Of course, high school coaching is all about the connections with players. This is a great time to reach out to everyone. Some coaches are conducting Zoom conferences with their teams. That’s a great way to keep everyone together, reinforce goals, and trade training and fitness tips.
But individual conversations are important too. Texting each player lets them know you’re still there, in a profound and impactful way. “Just checking in … how are you doing?” sends a strong message of care and concern. Some players will respond quickly, or at length. You’ll get insights into their lives you’d otherwise miss. Others won’t text back. Yet all will be grateful.
One of the joys of coaching is the chance to build relationships with former players and colleagues. In the frenzy of our pre-coronavirus lives, it was tough to nurture those relationships. Now we’re able to connect with the men and women in the soccer world who mean so much to us. Choose one person a day to text, or even call. You’ll have meaningful conversations. And don’t forget the mentors who helped you get you where you are today.
In the end, all of these acts – professional development, watching matches, planning for the future, reaching back to the past – are part of the surprising gift of the current crisis. Despite so many horrors, the pandemic gives coaches a chance to sit back and reflect on the things that really matter.
In the end, what matters most are not referees’ calls, shots that go in or miss, or even wins or losses. Instead it’s the chance to play with teammates and against worthy opponents; to set lofty goals, and try to reach them, and to have as much fun as possible in the process.
High school coaches are privileged to help their players learn many life lessons from “the beautiful game.” At some point, we’ll all be back doing it. Until then, there’s a lot to do to stay ready.
(Dan Woog is the boys soccer head coach at Staples High School in Westport, Connecticut, and chair of United Soccer Coaches’ LGBT & Allies advocacy group.)