Contributed by Ron McEachen
Coaching is an art and it doesn't just happen. It doesn't take a great player or a special accent, but a great person who is interested in the total growth and development of the youth that they are teaching and coaching. It takes patience, understanding, compassion, education, leadership, knowledge, energy, organization and passion. It is a process that is never ending—in that we are always looking to learn and improve in order to bring the best out in ourselves, and more importantly, our players.
With all of this in mind, it is critical that we create an environment that is conducive to learning. In my fifty years of coaching, I've tried all the methodologies to get the best out of players. In my younger days, I was authoritative and probably talked too much. I got away with it because I had played at a high level but I'm not sure my players always enjoyed it (?) Over the years, I've changed dramatically in how I approach training sessions. I think by changing that I've enjoyed training more and also players enjoyed it and gave me so much more in terms of attitude, ethic, focus, passion, and love of playing our beautiful game. Some of the key pieces of this change were that I stopped talking so much and watched more closely with a critical eye to detail. I allowed players to play and stopped play only a few times during a session—allowing players to make mistakes, take risks, make their own decisions, bolster confidence and be encouraged in a much more positive manner. It is easy to find fault in players. But now I try to find the silver lining in each and every player on the field—no matter how hard it is to do so. I now get to know every name and call each by their name. I greet each player before training begins and have a short chat with them and also try to tell each player what they did well on the day before they leave training. Now the training more closely replicates the intensity and competitiveness of the match. More time is spent playing. They are given the task of figuring it out with as little guidance as possible. I don't talk non stop—telling them what to do, telling them that it's wrong, organizing and managing their every move—because in the end it's a players game. The coach that has to give players constant information does a great disservice to the player. We want to develop intelligent footballers who can—and do—make split second decisions during the match. If they are used to being told what to do all the time, they probably will not reach their full potential. Don't let your ego get in the way of development of your charges. Stop worrying about the wins and losses and lead them through the ups and downs with patience, understanding, compassion and by doing the right thing in all situations. You are the adult and an important role model. Believe me: these kiddos are always watching you. Set the example of how you'd want someone coaching your child.
Now let's examine how to prepare for a session and the important components of it. Write up your session with how much time to allocate for each phase—important coaching points and what you are looking for in their play. I often start a session with a quick explanation (15-30 seconds) of the session and get them playing. I like a dynamic warmup of movement and try to always use the ball. After 5-10 mins., we are into a small sided game which focuses on the particular theme that I'm hoping to get across to the players. This may be 15-25 mins. I try to make it very competitive with match-like conditions. We then would go into our theme for the day in a functional or phase of play. It could be a technical or tactical theme—something that we identified in our last match as needing improvement. We would have increased numbers and play in one third of the field (functional) or two thirds of the field (phase). This may be a time where the flow of training is not as free-flowing as when playing. But we want as many repetitions as possible in the 20-30 minute session to replicate real match situations with players figuring it out with a little guidance from the coach. We would normally finish with some sort of large game (15-25 mins) with possible restrictions, but taking them off as soon as possible. Finish with some questions and some positive statements. Ask yourself how it went. Did players improve? Did learning take place? Reflection is a very useful tool to improve your coaching. If you can video yourself, useful feedback will be forthcoming as you review the session.
So now we need to talk about the flow of a session—how to coach using several methodologies that can be useful. It is very important that we acknowledge that not all children learn alike. If you are talking through a point and don't demonstrate, you may miss a key player who doesn't get it. Depending on the environment, they may or may not ask a question. Don't leave anything to chance. Be thorough, yet not too long or wordy in any stoppage of a session. We think that players should be playing or moving a minimum of 80% of a session. That means that you shouldn't be stopping more than 4-5 times during the session. Explanations or coaching points should be no more than 30-45 seconds, then back into action. Stoppages should come only when you need to refocus the team because something just isn't working. It is much easier to CIG—coach in game—to make a few comments or ask a question of a player or group of players. Allowing the play to flow is critical. Players want to play, not listen to us! We can utilize guided discovery in a stoppage or by asking a player in the flow of play. Individual coaching can be used where you see a player struggling. Instead of stopping or constantly finding fault, you can call them over and have a short chat by asking pertinent questions and getting them back into play. We like to think that you get more from positive reinforcement than negative suggestions and comments. Ideally, you'd say very little as players know when they made a mistake. By singling them out, you may hinder their growth, risk-taking, creativity, and confidence. Try to keep the positive comments for exceptional events or happenings on the field or you face the danger of players always looking for praise. Make it just for the really special moments. As far as negative comments, we suggest asking questions of a player—what they might have seen—then offer a suggestion that might help them improve.
Lastly, the role of the coach is to create a safe, enjoyable, competitive, learning environment that takes in the needs and desires of every player. This is done through their own enjoyment and passion for the game, hopefully instilling that same love and passion into their players. Critical in the mission is an awareness to allow and guide players in creativity, confidence, fearlessness, and understanding (knowledge),while further teaching them attitude, ethic, perseverance, resolve, leadership, character and maturity. By allowing them to take risk, make mistakes, make their own decisions without criticism or judgement, we nurture their proper growth and development as a player and as a good human being. Let's start producing some Messi and Neymar-like players by fostering individualism and not yelling at them to pass the ball to an open teammate. Make it known that it was indeed a great effort and ask the simple question if they saw the open player in front of goal. Begin these team concept ideas early so they all understand it takes an entire team to play great soccer. But it often takes some magical individual efforts to achieve a desired level of play.
Good luck! I'm always available for questions and thoughts as I never want to stop learning....