Player ownership is a relatively new concept I just learned on my FA coaching course. No, it doesn't mean who owns a player! It means allowing players to take control of their own learning. We tend to think that young players, especially with the ages I'm working with, need constant guidance and directions, but in fact if we take a step back and let them take control of their own session, practice and learning process, we will see amazing results.
I have been trialing this concept with my U6 team. Last weekend, I wrote all instructions on a whiteboard and packed equipments into piles for pairs to use. They did not require any additional instruction, and got on with what I wanted impeccably. I was very impressed by the autonomy, and how organized they were. No arguments, no fighting over space, no nothing.
This week, I pushed it further. I set up stacks of cones, placed footballs into a neat pile and put out a few bibs. I told the kids to set up games themselves, first in pairs then progressing to threes and fours, and that they could do whatever they want as long as their games would involve everyone.
The result? The kids came up with games that are better than I've seen from other coaches. The majority went for 1v1 and 2v2 matches, some went for penalty and freekick practices, some went for passing and moving around the pitch. As I walked by each "station", I asked them what they were doing and what they were learning from it. The answers were impeccable: individual skills, dribbling to get past a defender, shooting the ball into corners, all that. There was nothing else I needed to do. The kids themselves put on a session that was extremely fun, organized and challenging with pressures added in the form of defenders or other people playing around them.
Why do coaches still make kids run in lines and dribble through cones??? I overheard the coach next to me saying "in a match, you would..." when all his kids were in lines listening to a lecture. Why not just let them go straight into a match??? You don't study maths by simply listening to instructions. You actually do the maths problems, make mistakes then fix it up and learn as you make mistakes. Why is football any different?
The number 1 question kids ask at football session is "when are we playing a match?". So why not give them the match? Let the game be the teacher. There are a plethora of individual and team challenges, conditions and themes you can add into small matches in order to get specific coaching points across. This summer, I'm giving my players plenty of autonomy to run their own sessions and coming up with their own practices. It might make me look like another lazy and clueless college soccer player with no formal coaching experience at a summer camp making pocket money. But as long as my players are learning, having fun and taking the initiative to lead, so be it. Just please don't lecture them while they stand in a line. Kids want to play football, not listen to lectures. They get enough of that at school and at home.
I have been radio silent for two months. My apologies! I have been caught up in a lot of things, coaching six days a week alongside developing a project that I can't wait to share with everyone when the time is right. All in all, it has been a hectic time for me as I wrap up my year in England and prepare to go back to America, where I will be heading straight into a 60-hour-a-week coaching job (help!).
Here's what I have been up to:
- Monday and Tuesday: coaching in schools
- Wednesday: club coaching with the U10 boys (bunch of cheeky little rascals!)
- Thursday: physiotherapy for my slipped disc, thankfully it's getting a lot better
- Friday: coaching at Manchester United Foundation
- Saturday: club coaching with the U6 boys
- Sunday: coaching my FA Wildcats girls team
So as you can see, add in being a full time student, I have literally no time to do anything for myself. I celebrated my 20th birthday by having a normal day. I'm probably doing life wrong for a 20 year old, really. Though what I have been able to accomplish and the experience I've gained from my time in England have been absolutely brilliant. Looking back, I probably made one of the best decisions of my life to go abroad this year. I've managed to go on courses with the English FA learning from some of the best coach educators England has to offer, got plenty of coaching experience under my belt working with a lot of good coaches (shoutout to Sam Holtham, if you can be bothered to read this...) and also getting top quality education from the University of Manchester (I feel obliged to put this on).
So what's next in store for me? Well, I'm going on the second part of my coaching course in June which is another three miserable days in the rain for 8 hours a day. After that, I'm heading straight back to the East Coast where I will be directing the football program at Camp Micah in Maine, and then back to university! As I mentioned, I also have a very exciting project coming up in which I hope to be able to announce soon. It's been absolutely hectic so far, but I guess I'm coping.
I really look forward to being back to the States and getting on with my upcoming role which I am certain will be an absolutely brilliant time, but I'm also gutted to be leaving behind what has undoubtedly been some of the best times of my life, both as a person and as a coach. The experience here in England has made me a better coach, and I look forward to being able to apply everything I've learned into future endeavors, so that I can look back and say I made the most out of my opportunity.
I better get some sleep. It's 1AM. My sleep pattern is royally screwed.
I have a curse with U10s and cup games. My first two games in charge of an U10 team came in the form of a cup game, and both times my boys lost by six goals. Now, if this was me three years ago when I started out as a schoolboy-aged coach, I would be distraught. Or even last summer when it took me a long time to get over a 3-9 drubbing. But yesterday's loss turned out to be one of the best losses I've ever seen, and for all the right reasons.
We conceded four from corners, first time in my football life I've seen a team scoring that many from. Our goalkeeper spilled one of them to no fault of his own as the field was soaking wet and gripping on to the ball was almost impossible. He came in at halftime telling me he didn't want to be in goal anymore. I told him he was doing absolutely fine and that he had no fault in the goals. The lad picked his head up and finished the game with some amazing saves and bravery, earning himself the man of the match award.
Five minutes before half time at 0-4 down I took off another player who was running his socks off the entire half and at no point showed any sign of letting his head drop. I told him I had nothing to say because he was doing absolutely brilliantly. His response was one I've rarely seen from a player in a team four goals down in a cup match: he punched the air in delight with a very audible "yes!" coming out.
All these made me a very happy coach regardless of the result. The boys know how tough I am in training, but very laid back and quiet when it comes to matches as I believe, and always tell them, it's a time for them to show how much they've learned from training and most importantly to have fun. Do I care about the result? Yes, but not anywhere near as much as what the boys have learned from the match and knowing they enjoyed themselves and had fun.
Kids are kids, and football is meant to be fun. Let's not make it any different. Plenty of positivity, praises and encouragement will go a long way in fostering young athletes.
My friend lost a player to childhood cancer this week.
Just hearing the news alone sent shivers down my spine and forced me to take a critical look at the work I have done so far as a youth coach. Ever since I started coaching as a schoolboy, I have always been aware that I have a unique opportunity to make positive impacts on the youngsters I work with. There are not many roles where you can directly make and see the differences you make, and especially on young children through your dedication, your passion, your love for them and for their developments, We often get judged on how successful of a coach we are through our players' technical success, but how many times do we take a step back and appreciate the fact that our players are not just better footballers but also better people simply because we have their best interests in mind?
My personal mission, all along, has been "making a difference in children's lives through soccer". This isn't some blanket statement to make my CV look good. This is what I truly believe in and live for. The nature of my education forces me to move around every nine months or so, therefore I only spend a limited period of time working with certain groups of players. I try to make the most of this time knowing that neither my players nor I will be around forever, and that I will do everything to make as much of a difference as I can so that when I no longer have the same group of kids, I can look back and proudly say "I did something worthwhile".
Barely anyone, if there is even any, is involved in youth sports and coaching to make money. We're in this to help our players be the best they can be, on and off the pitch. Every time a kid comes up to give me a hug or a high five, that's all I can ask in return for the hours I've put into the job. When you spend six months coaching a few kids, see them again a year and a half later and their faces brighten up seeing you and they enjoy spending time with and being around you, you know you are doing something right. This is the real reward of the job that no money, league titles and personal accolades can trump.
When we're no longer there, our players move on, or God forbids, when tragedies strike, we want to be able to say that there are children who have become better people because we as coaches believed in them, believed in their ability and wanted nothing but the best for all of them.
So please, go out and make a difference while you have the chance to.
The title of this blog might have made readers go, "huh?" and I don't blame them! I've talked about how I became a football coach but not really about why. It is a deeply personal story to me and I haven't really discussed it in details other than with a couple of friends. To put it simply, part of the reason why I became a football coach is because I am compensating for a lost part of my childhood: I grew up not playing sports, didn't have a dad to take me to sports and never had a role model like a coach to look up to.
I grew up with my mum and grandparents. When I was 6, my father went on his own path. Mum was working 9 to 6, while my grandparents had their hands full taking care of me full time (I was a needy kid!) and were of old ages already. My small family did their absolute brilliant best to bring me up and make me the person I am today, but there was a major part that I didn't realize was always missing. I had no male role model who I could share stories with, seek advice from or just in general talk to and have some fun with. My grandpa was the best grandpa anyone could ask for, but in that capacity I just couldn't interact with him in the ways my players do with me. So when I started out coaching, I realised that this was my chance to compensate for that missing part of my childhood by being in the other shoes! I try my hardest to portray myself as a role model, but at the same time personal and approachable to my players. Every kid who has confided their trust in me, talked to me about things outside of football and shared stories with me made me feel extremely proud. I know that they know they have someone who they can trust and that someone has their best interest in mind.
Recently I spent a couple days with a few boys I used to coach for six months all the way back in Vietnam. The way the boys interacted with me over those few days was the best reward I could have asked for in return for the way I have approached coaching. They treated me like their big brother, played games with me and I went with one to a half-day sports tournament. I felt so proud that in six short months I was able to make such a positive impression on them, and I take tremendous pride in being a part of them growing up and playing sports, something that no one did for me when I was a boy.
Having not had a male figure and role mode or coach throughout my boyhood, I believe this is by far the most important part of my job, to be that person young players can look up to, confide trust in and interact with in an interpersonal way on and off the pitch. And I wouldn't trade my job for the world.
I've been in youth coaching for two years and two months now, and have seen a fair bit of the game at grassroots level. A topic that has constantly been on the agenda with the professional game is racism, but I have been fortunate enough to not have experienced it (yet). I do, however, have a problem with the game of football at my level: reverse ageism in hiring coaches and program leaders.
I'm turning 20 in four month's time. Yes, I'm young, but I have also been involved in a variety of roles and have coached across three continents for over half a dozen programs. In no way shape or form am I saying I know it all and I'm super experienced, but I have seen and learned a fair bit during the past 26 months working as a youth coach. Qualifications wise, I've constantly pushed myself to do all the coaching educations I could possibly do, and have had the pleasure of learning from top coach educators both in the US and in England. With all these in mine, it ticks me off when I apply for a senior coaching role and receive the following reply:
"We think you might be a bit too young for the role of (X) and we have not had a 20 year old in such position before, but we really like your experiences and qualifications and think you would make a great addition to the staff as a staff coach."
Great. Thanks. Bye. First of all, I applied for the head of coaching role, not the staff coach position. Secondly, if you like my experiences and qualifications, why not give me a chance to impress for the head role? I have a pet hate for interviewers who automatically assume my inability to lead at a young age while they have not seen me in action. You haven't had a 20 year old doing that role? Why not start now??? So many times I felt like if I was 23 with the same experience and qualifications I would be getting a lot more jobs and paid a lot more than what I have been offered as a 19-turning-20 year old.
One interview that ended with me accepting a job, my interviewer asked me what I like to do in a typical coaching session. I was impressed that they actually cared about the actual coaching instead of the non-important things, like my age! I took the job knowing that they trusted in my ability to take on the role successfully, that I would be paid accordingly to my ability and not my age. It goes a long way in developing a mutual trust that benefits the overall program.
It doesn't matter if it's in coaching, in a volunteer role or in any other task. If someone questions my ability to fulfill my duty simply because of my age, I will withdraw myself from contention every time. Judge someone by what they do, not how many years they've been on Earth.
Often times when I tell people I lead the Reception program for my club they dismiss it as not actual coaching, as the kids are "only five year olds" and "can't actually play football". Yes, they can't play proper football, but if they are not guided appropriately at this age they will not be able to play football properly when they grow older. Coaching reception isn't about football. It's about basic motor skills, social competences, and getting themselves familiarised with a sporting environment. And to me that's dead important.
According to a research conducted by Ohio State University, 86% of disadvantaged urban children of preschool ages lack basic motor skills. They do not have age appropriate ability in throwing, catching, dribbling, or even simple motions without an object like jumping and gliding. How do we expect any kid to become fine footballers if they are not equipped with the very basic of motor skills at a young age, when their brains and bodies are rapidly learning new concepts and acquiring new abilities?
Coaching reception isn't about football. In a typical structured session there are tag games, progressing to having a football at their feet to get them used to the concept of controlling and dribbling a football, lots and lots of turning and basic physical activities. Throughout an extended period of time these skills will become muscle memories, tremendously important for any athlete in any sport. How many times have we seen a seven or eight year old who struggles in a sport simply because they are not used to rapid movements, rapid turning and change in direction, hand-eye-foot coordination, or rapid body reaction?
And it's not just motor skills that are at stake. These sessions also allow them to familiarise themselves with playing and interacting with other children of their age, where they can learn basic social skills and allow them to develop psychosocially. Not only are these important in team sports, they also prepare kids for years of schooling to come as well when they will be interacting with classmates, teachers and other individuals on a daily basis.
My job is to ensure the kids I coach don't struggle both physically and socially as they get older and more involved in sports and other daily activities, when they hopefully will be prepared adequately to ensure successful development as both an athlete and a person.
I had a discussion today with my mentor and friend Chris Smith whom I started my coaching career under. We were talking about how too many coaches treat young players as professionals and coaching as their dayjob, and end up not enjoying coaching enough. They can never put on a smile or joke around with their players, simply barking orders and making kids sit still or stand in line in the name of "instilling discipline".
What fun does that bring to the coach or the players on their team, when the players can't have a laugh with their mates, afraid of being yelled at or punished by their coach for misbehaving? How enjoyable is soccer when a player is told off for doing something true to their nature: having fun?
I'm not calling myself an excellent coach, but I do have enough belief in myself to deliver quality sessions and manage a successful program. And I put this down to how I was able to put myself in a kid's shoes, understand their thought process and empathize with them. I was often praised at the start of my career by other coaches for how well I dealt with younger kids, and I believe this has propelled me to being the coach that I am today. Sure, I have enough technical knowledge to run a highly technical session, but a session can only be as good as how enjoyable it is, and this isn't going to be achieved by a cranky angry coach treating eight year olds like professionals. I try to put on what I consider as the right image for a youth coach: fun, energetic, approachable while still maintaining a high standard of coaching. In other words, I try to be myself and not Jose Mourinho.
Chris said something very true, and I'm going to quote him here: "every person working with kids should understand two things: 1. This isn't about you and 2. Kids will be kids." Stop treating kids like professionals, and stop taking away from not just them but yourself the joy of soccer. In other words, don't treat it like a job. You have a responsibility to teach them all the right techniques of the game, but it's about the kids having fun with it. Without them, you're not a coach. Smile. Laugh. Joke around with your players. Be yourself. They won't be around forever, nor will they have the same level of energy and fun a few years down the line. Enjoy yourself and let your players enjoy themselves.
Today I was asked to support a new coach who was trialing with us. This guy probably has coached for shorter than I have been, but on paper he has a higher level of coaching qualification than I do. He was generally good with the kids, got them listening and organized. But one of the things that really bugged me was that there was no more than one ball on the pitch throughout the entire session. And there were a dozen kids.
When I attended the USSF national coaching course a year ago, the instructor was crazy about our session plans ensuring players get as many touches on the ball as possible. And that is one of the most useful things I have learned as a coach. A ball and a field is essentially a pen and a notebook. You can't teach a class a new concept when they only have one pen and a notebook between all of them. How are they supposed to take notes, to remember what they learned when they spend most of the class fighting over who gets the pen and notebook to write and take notes?
The same concept applies in soccer coaching. Kids can only learn when they have a ball at their feet exploring what they can do with it, learning from actually attempting whatever concept we are trying to get them to understand. As Confucius as said, "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand". You can't expect kids to grab onto the concept when all they are trying to do is win the ball back from their other 11 mates. Good coaches, in my opinion, know how to facilitate and create opportunities for players to explore different things with a ball at their feet, emphasizing on the PLAY aspect. Are we really creating that opportunity at all with one ball to be shared between a team?
My entire coaching curriculum that I'm building in my new role as summer camp director of coaching revolves around the concept of individual play and touches on the ball. No kids should ever have to wait for their turn to practice that new skill they were shown, or to make that perfect pass that they're desperate to pull off. We as coaches need to ensure they are given that opportunity in every training session. And no other way to do that than with a ball at their feet.
In September, with the summer being almost nine months away, a relatively new camp contacted me about a recently vacated position. They were interested in having me to fill in, so we exchanged emails, had a couple of phone calls to discuss ideas and it turned out we clicked. Three weeks later, I'm beyond delighted to announce that I have agreed to join Camp Micah for Summer 2017 as the new Director of Soccer.
For the past three years I've been lucky enough to be coaching for programs in Vietnam, the US and now England. Last summer was an extraordinary experience at Camp Towanda under the guidance of the one and only Coach Lee Nikolaidis who I had the honor of shadowing and learning from. It was at Towanda that I learned what the camp life is about and just how amazing it is to be able to spend the summer coaching the game I live and breathe while also making friends with so many new people. Most importantly though, I got to mentor some of the best kids in the world through seven weeks full of surprises and suspense.
I would have loved to return for more of the same next summer, but the opportunity to create, implement and direct a 270-strong soccer program at just 20 years of age is too good to pass. This has been a dream job I've had since I started coaching as a schoolboy, and I'm already counting down the days till I can get started.
I wish everyone at Towanda the best of luck and if you are returning to camp for Summer 2017, I know you will have a blast. Thank you for a memorable summer of 2016.
About the Author
Bao "Terry" Cao is currently a coach at Manchester United Foundation and the FA Development Centre for girls. Terry is licensed by both the FA and USSF. He shares his personal experience of being involved in youth soccer as both a coach and an outside viewer.