I'd be lying if I said I wasn't (still am) guilty of sideline coaching. Any coach at some point in their career will have had the urge to give instructions and try to win games. However, as I progress through the early stages of my career I have come to realize that giving players freedom to play their game is the best thing a coach can do, and it can yield magnificent results.
I coach for an accredited youth club in England, working with 7 year old boys who are part of the club's foundation phase set up. This is officially one month into the season for me, and because these boys are only 7 I've adopted a much more laid back style of coaching since the beginning. And I'm seeing some terrific results.
As there is no competitive soccer at this age group, the boys often play against their mates in intrasquad friendlies. Today, in one of those games, two of my boys combined for the best goal I have ever seen in my coaching career. Tom, a player I considered to be a bit more skillful than others, backheaded a bouncing ball onto the path of Max, another more technical player of mine, and set him on a clear path to goal. With a first time volley, Max sent the ball past the goalkeeper and straight into the bottom corner. I was completely blown away by what I saw, and had to personally come out and give each of them a high five for that brilliant piece of art. Was there a hint of luck to the goal, to Tom's backheader or to Max's crisp first time finish? Maybe. But I'd like to think that these kids are playing with the sort of freedom that only exist at youth level, and because they know they're free to go out, express themselves and have fun, they produce sensational moments like that.
It might sound shallow of me to use a goal scored in training as illustration for the positive effects of giving my players the freedom to play, but I have seen small moments in training where they are using skill moves that I've taught them weeks ago without me having to tell them to. I'm seeing little dragbacks, "Ronaldo chops" and "Cruyff turns" or at least attempts at performing the move even in small sided games. Coaches who fall victims to sideline coaching might credit their shouting of instructions as the reason why their players are doing skill moves and such, but in fact if we just all take a step back and just watch the fruits of our hard work coming up with lesson plans and teaching these players how and when to do certain things, we might just be blown away by how much they actually know without us yelling instructions at them all the time. Best thing to do on the sideline? Give them high fives, hugs and congratulate them on their performance no matter if you're winning or losing.
I can't remember who came up with this quote to credit them with, but it sums up my entire blog post: "the game is already decided after the last training session". There is nothing more you can do during a game, other than sit back, relax and watch your players put on a show.
As I prepare for my first senior coaching role as director of soccer for a summer camp in America, giving my players freedom to play and express themselves will be the focal point of my entire curriculum and programming, and I'm already counting down the days when the camp season starts so that I can meet hundreds of new players and provide them with an environment where they can have as much fun playing soccer with just enough guidance to ensure they are on the right path of development.
Football Manager, Tony Carr and love for the game: the story of how I became a coach with zero playing experience
It's funny to think that I became a coach without playing a single game until I was 15 years old, considering that my players these days are as young as three! American clubs and camps are crazy about playing experiences, and will often give the job to a player with college playing experiences rather than someone with actual coaching experiences, so for me to defy the odds and earn myself a full time coaching job in a market dominated by college players with no formal coaching experiences is quite something.
When I picked up my first coaching book, How to Coach a Soccer Team by West Ham academy director Tony Carr, I was laughed at and made fun of by my schoolmates because I was an absolutely terrible player (still am!). Little did they know, that 9th grade boy they made fun of would five years later be a qualified coach who has worked with well over 200 players across three continents.
It all began just under six years ago, when my mom bought me a video game called Football Manager. Having been an avid fan of Chelsea and the game, I was immediately hooked by FM's focus on fine details and realistic depiction of coaching and managing a professional football club. FM brought my attention to coaching, and I started to seriously explore a possible career in being a football coach. Quite bizarre how a video game can have such a profound impact on you!
I started out by asking to help the school with the U14 team by organizing training and accompanying the team in matches. My first year being a "coach" was a bumpy one with a few clashes wirh the then athletics director but it well prepared me for my first proper role with Arsenal Soccer Schools a couple of years later, one that I earned after impressing their director of coaching with my work organizing an international U16 football tournament. After once again clashing with management I moved on to become an assistant coach at SSA Sports. It was this job that set me well on my way as I got to work with great bosses who allowed me the space to learn and grow as a coach. After bits and pieces here and there in America I landed my first full time coaching job last summer. Currently working with an FA Charter Standard club in England, I'm faced with two choices next summer: either going back to the camp I worked with and continue coaching the boys I got to know and bonded with, or take the next step in my career and become director of soccer at another camp. I'm grateful to be in a position with many choices, so to reflect on the path I have been on that brought me here today is quite special to think of.
Long may this continue.,
When I made the decision to pursue a career in football coaching at 17 years of age, little did I know about the side effects that it would have on my career prospects and the struggle I would find in applying for non coaching jobs.
Two years, six coaching roles and three countries later I'm more than comfortable to apply for any youth coaching job and be confident of getting it. But recently I just had two non-coaching job applications turned down. And this forced me to take a more critical look at specializing so early on in my life. I'm grateful for everything that has happened in the last two years and all the wonderful coaching jobs I've had, but at the same time I regret not exploring a second career path. And to be a college student tight on cash does not help with having no real experience or expertise in any other field.
Perhaps it's time to get to the basic and keep trying to find that very first job that can open the door for me into another career path, just like how my first coaching job came out of nowhere and set me on my way of living my passion on a regular basis.
One thing I know for sure though is that I'm not going to stop coaching and I'm going to keep fighting to get that first non-coaching job that hopefully will open up more opportunities for me.
I have seen debates about the side effects of giving personal awards to youth players at the end of the season. A number of coaches are against the idea, saying it undermines the effort of other players to simply recognize the top scorer or top assist while other coaches believe that a player should be recognized for the hard work they put in during the season in matches and training, and that it is a good motivator for them.
Here is my take on the issue: I believe that end of season awards can be a good thing especially for most improved and best effort players. During the end of season awards ceremony at camp, I was able to give out the Most Improved Player award to a lad who went from being a fringe player on the team to an absolute presence on the pitch. He started the season trailing behind his teammates in terms of confidence, but he was the one that took training seriously and really tried to improve his game. We joined an invitational tournament at the end of July, and the lad was finally able to transfer his training performances into games. He was a beast in midfield, controlling the ball with confidence and playing through balls for his teammates in which a couple of goals were scored from. Being able to see him perform with so much more confidence compared to the beginning of the season made me truly proud. When his name was read out for the award and he came up to me to receive the trophy, I could clearly see his face beaming with happiness. I have not seen a player more delighted to win an award than he did and he completely deserved it.
Rather than simply rewarding players for scoring goals or assisting, recognizing them for putting the extra effort into training and their eagerness to learn and become better can be an important factor in both their development and maintaining their interest in the game, both during training and in matches.
Having been knocked out of the County Cup twice in the last week with both my U9 and U10 teams I have started to feel overwhelmed and somewhat bored of the game. I often found myself frustrated at my inability to address a technical problem with the team, whether it was because of their inability to comprehend my ideas or their lack of attentiveness. One moment though reminded me of the fact that how successful I am as a coach does not depend on whether or not I can create invincible teams or star players, but rather on the positive differences I’ve made on just a few players and how they will remember me for it.
Last week my U10 team and I were on the receiving end of a rout, in which my goalkeeper was very beat up about. After conceding a couple of early goals he was completely void of confidence and blamed himself for the goals that we conceded. I was having none of it and assured him the goals were not his fault. I kept telling him that he was a great goalkeeper and all he needed was a little self-belief, and told him he could keep my goalkeeping gloves to practice with because I had full trust in his ability to be a great keeper. A couple of days later he pulled two amazing saves in an invitational tournament. After the game I came up to him, praised him for the great play and credited his self-confidence as the main factor behind how he managed to make those saves. He said “thank you so much for believing in me” and out of nowhere gave me a big hug. His affection caught me by surprise, but it was a blessed reminder that my primary goal in this job is to instill beliefs and make differences in these kids, and not necessarily to create amazing teams that win everything.
Perhaps now that I don’t have to worry about any competitive matches I can finally calm down and focus on helping more kids find their inner confidence, enjoyment of the game and see where these achievements will take them (and me!).
This week I'm featuring a blog post from my friend and former colleague Chris Smith. Chris was the very first head coach I worked with and is currently a lead development coach for Nottingham Forest academy. In this blog, Chris talks about celebrating a goal from his Under-7 team and the underlying work behind that goal that no one sees.
"We've just scored a last minute winner, without thinking I jump up and punch the air. I might have made a noise, who knows. My colleague, coaching on the next pitch turns around, I'm not sure if the look on his face is confusion or disappointment, "Calm down, Mourinho" he says.
Here's how I attempt to justify celebrating a goal in an Under 7's tournament...
For those of us that work with young players, there is no such thing as 'one game' or 'one goal', certainly not in isolation. We've seen the journey, the high and lows. We've seen the hard work and the learning that has gone in to that player being in that position at that time and taking that shot. It doesn't happen in one second in one match, it happens because of every second that player turns up and practices with a great attitude, because of every time they spend hours in the garden with a ball, every time they play with their friends in school. That goal isn't the hard work, that goal is the payoff for that work, a moment they can enjoy, remember and tell their friends about.
I celebrated because of who scored the goal, because I'd seen his journey. At least part of it.
I work at a Development Centre for a Championship club, just below academy level. When I took over my Under 7 group back in November, one face stood out. Polite, sociable and with the biggest smile I've ever seen. He listened, played with the amount of chaotic energy only a 7 year old can and thanked me before leaving. That smile never left his face, and it hasn't for 6 months.
But I was a little worried. Compared to others in the group, he seemed to take longer to understand or struggled to keep his focus. His technique would let him down, not because it wasn't there, but he would get rushed or kick the ball before thinking. He is 7, this is all fine and normal, the most important thing is that he's still enjoying himself, the smile is still there every week.
Then I saw it. The week before we had worked on movement off the ball, this week I saw him make a darting run in to space to receive a throw-in. I was sure I hadn't seen it before. Then it happened again. And again. It didn't look completely natural, I could see he was giving it some thought. His teammates were noticing, he was receiving the ball in space. This time maybe he put so much thought in to the movement, he wasn't prepared for what to do next. But it came, the movements became more natural, he had space and time to think. Suddenly he began to trust his technique and good things were happening. Week after week he seemed to add an extra string to his bow.
In my short coaching career, I've not seen a player make such visible and noticeable progress in such a short space of time, in this case just a few weeks. When the next Under 7's Inter-Development Centre Games Program came around again, I was excited to have him involved. But as sometimes happens, things didn't go to plan, more precisely, not to the coach's plan anyway.
Our goalkeepers train separately to us, different pitch, different night. When we have games, it is more than likely the outfield players (and coach!) haven't met the goalkeeper before. The one we were sent, this boy was incredible! I never thought I'd see a 7 year old coming of his line to catch a cross, he stopped anything that came close to him. Add in my new little superstar, we were looking in pretty good shape. Before the second of 3 games, my goalkeeper says to the team "I play outfield sometimes too, can i have a game out?", my little superstar tells the goalkeeper he will help out and go in goal this game, he likes to play in goal too. Who am i to argue with him? We lose 4-2, but my goalkeeper and player both come off smiling, they enjoyed their role reversal.
Fast forward to the last few minutes of the last game. My player doesn't need to prove anything, in the 6 months I have known him he has continued smiling, listening, working hard, asking questions and thanking me each session. I've enjoyed watching him play every week, in every way the model young player, no matter how effective his movement or touch. But when he pops up in the area in the last minute and scores that goal, I'm just extremely happy for him. That's all.
When we finish I say "Well done, you deserve that goal", he almost looks embarrassed, thanks me for letting him play and walks over to his mum, smiling the whole time. I don't think anything ever changed for him over those weeks, he plays football with his friends and it makes him happy. Long may this continue."
For the past few days I have been talking to my best friend about how I'm pulling my hair out over the emotional toll this job has taken on me, working with the sweetest kids on a regular basis just to have them or you depart and start over again with a new group of players. After telling him that sometimes I wished there was no emotional attachment between me and my players, he sent me a series of messages which I have composed into this heartfelt letter that I could not have said any better myself.
"It would be a real pity if your best quality (emotional attachment) is erased from this job.
Do you feel the difference between dedication towards your players and dedication towards your paycheck? The great thing about your job is that if your heart is in the right place and you are doing the best for your players, they will trust and listen to you and their parents will feel the same towards you.
Such quality is so hard to find in a world where everyone is working for penny to penny, paycheck to paycheck. Emotions are raw, humane and there are no side agendas accompanying them.
I know you grew up without a father or brother figure in your life, and you want to be that figure for the kids. But remember one thing: kids come and go, and they won't be with you forever. You are just a stop in their lives, but be the best stop in their lives. Show them that there is more than just football when you coach them, and that you are coaching them to become better human beings too, so that they can carry those qualities throughout the rest of their lives.
Teams come and go. Who knows, you might be the key factor in bringing up the new Del Piero, the new Totti, or the new John Terry when the world of football is judging good players by the number of titles and wealth they have.
Or they might never become great footballers, but instead become great human beings."
Last night was the first time in three days that I got a proper night's sleep. The trip has really taken a toll on me and my two colleagues, having to take care of 17 kids on a full time basis. Any person in their right mind would look at us and say we're crazy, and in all fairness during our down time we did look at each other and ask what the heck are we doing with our lives??? But deep down, I know that I cannot possibly see myself doing another job or sitting in an office for 8 hours a day rather than spending my time coaching, mentoring and being a friend for these kids.
During our movie night on Saturday, I asked the lad who I previously wrote about in my blog post what his favourite part of the trip is, to which he answered the football tournament itself. I asked him what about outside of football, and his answer was one that made the entire weekend worth it: "you".
I was hit with the reality that I am leaving Vietnam this Sunday midnight to take up a full time job as head of soccer at a summer camp in America. Knowing that I am a kid's favourite part of the trip epitomizes the best and worst thing about this job. You spend quality time getting to know and bonding with a player, but either you have to leave or they have to leave. It's heartbreaking to have to say goodbye to such a wonderful kid, but what happened here gives me a lot of hope and optimism about my next two months coaching soccer full time where I will meet 48 new players who will call me their coach and will put the same faith in me as these lads have.
By the end of the trip, before leaving the airport I told the lad that he is an amazing kid and that I want him to stay just the way he is. He in return said that I am an amazing coach, and gave me the tightest hug I have received in my life. Moments like these are the only thing keeping me in this job, and the only answer to the times when I rip my hair out thinking why am I even doing this at all.
Day 2 into my last Bangkok trip with my club has just ended. Today has been rough to say the least. I've had three injured players on my hands, dealing with all sorts of drama stretching from wakeup call to breakfast to the actual games themselves. Just when I thought my day couldn't get any busier and more tiring, one small event turned the day completely on its head and reminds me that being a coach is much more than just coaching soccer.
By the end of the day we gave our kids two choices between shopping at a mega mall in Bangkok or staying behind with me to watch a movie and order pizza. One kid who was badly injured during the gameday was forced to stay behind, and two kids followed suit. Just as we were about to go up to my room, one of them tarted sobbing. I pulled him to a private space and asked what was wrong, to which he answered that he wanted to get his mom a gift but could not because he hurt his heel during the day and was advised by his coach to stay behind and rest. The words that came out of his mouth and the tears that followed just took my heart away. I promised him I would help him find a gift for his mother. Just how in the world do you find kids which such a purely loving and kind heart these days?
What happened between me and that kid today reminded me of why I chose this job. There is so much than just soccer coaching. You are literally making a difference in these kids' lives, and just to see a pure and innocent, loving side of the kids that we adults ourselves lost on our way growing up is such an invaluable experience. It reminds us of what really matters in our lives and that at times we need to take a step back and realize there is more to youth coaching than just teaching the sports itself.
That will undoubtedly be one of the most treasured memories I will carry throughout my career.
So as I sit here writing this blog, I have only had five hours of sleep in the past 24 hours and my seven soccer kids are soundly asleep in our 4-bedroom rented suite in preparation for a long day of soccer matches tomorrow. Any person who looked at and interacted with me at the airport told me "Good luck, you're gonna need a lot of it!". So what exactly about this job that makes all this crap worth it? It's the kids themselves.
I have not been with SSA for the past year or so and have only returned due to a shortage of coaches, but I also could not turn down the chance to be working with the lads who I spent the beginning of my coaching career with. We have been a public disturbance everywhere we go in Bangkok, and granted I feel annoyed at times at the level of noise and craziness produced by my kids. But it doesn't actually make me feel mad. There is a special feeling to it, something that I have only found through coaching these young, energetic and crazy young soccer players!
Throughout the first day of the trip I had the chance of talking and sharing my experiences in coaching with this young group of lads who so innocently and enthusiastically asked me about my college experience (and also about my lovelife!). Seeing them comfortable around me throughout the trip was the most rewarding experience. I had a brief chat with my coworker who has probably been coaching for nearly as long as I have been alive! After asking him about how long he plans to stay in the business, I was told that there were and are times he has been considering his position, but insisted that the kids are the only good thing about the job. I could not agree more.
This is probably my last time with my beloved club and I am going to make every second of it a positive experience for the young players that have put their trust in me and feel comfortable calling me their coach.
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.