Youth soccer presents many challenges to coaches who are prepared to go beyond the basic requirements of putting together training sessions, coaching the team in games and managing the players and parents. Those three elements alone are difficult enough and require a wide range of skills beyond simply “knowing the game”. For many coaches the time simply just isn’t there in their lives to accomplish much more than the above.
For those of us lucky enough(or broke enough!) to have the time and have the will to go beyond the basics, there is a near endless number of tasks and concerns to occupy one’s mind for each team they coach. The often stated task of focusing on player development, which nearly every Club and every coach says they are focused on, gets simplified mostly into only on field categories. The typical ones being technical and tactical development, game intelligence and fitness. Being a good teammate, learner, leader, these individual aspects can be overlooked. Simply being happy, confident and enjoying one’s soccer are even rarer spoken about aspects of player development.
Just those ten categories of individual player development is enough to occupy all the thinking of any one coach. And this is without even mentioning how team development can help or hinder player development. If measuring individual player development is a challenge, measuring a team’s development is even harder. And it would be easy to overlook team development at youth level as the focus is on the individual. However, every individual must be part of a team. Thus monitoring the team’s development is also monitoring the individual’s development and vice versa.
What factors indicate if a team is developing well? As a youth coach you must contest the issue that if results are poor you are in a battle with the players, parents, your Club’s directors and even yourself to be able to confidently say you see the team developing even though the results suggest otherwise. You might experience such a poor run of results you start to find it hard to even believe yourself when you tell your players they are on a good path.
That is a test of your coaching knowledge and ability, there is no greater test of your abilities than to keep a team happy, confident and enjoying their soccer when the results just will not come. In these times you need to analyze everything, everything imaginable, and fix what needs to change and convince yourself that what you’re doing right, well, that you are actually doing it right. You have to believe your message to the team, they will know if you do not. Youth players are not fools, you have to be honest with them and you also have to be overly positive with them, not so easy to do when the team is struggling.
Almost equally as challenging is coaching a team who is getting results and you see underlying issues in their development you are not satisfied with. Perhaps you are in a lower league than you should be in based on the team’s ability, perhaps you are getting lucky, perhaps your goalkeeper is exceptionally talented, it could be many different reasons. In this situation, it is harder to convince players to focus on the underlying issues you see that is holding back the team’s development. After all, if you keep suggesting the team needs more focus on getting support to the center forward in attack and the center forward bangs in a hat trick every Sunday, what’s the problem, coach?
The saving grace here is time. You will get more time to sort these issues out with a good run of results as the players, parents and Club directors will not be as concerned as you are. Anyone who says winning and losing has no effect on player development or that players and parents shouldn’t care about results are wrong. Full stop. It is not the most important factor, of course not, but it does matter. Everyone feels better winning than they do losing, at any age, in any activity. Give someone a choice between winning and losing and they will always pick winning.
The real issue in youth sports isn’t winning or losing, really, it’s not ALWAYS losing or ALWAYS winning. These two extremes make a coach’s tasks even more difficult than they already are. Essentially, if you can win half your games each season as a youth coach, you shouldn’t have to worry about moral of the players drifting too far in either a positive or negative reaction and your Club’s directors will probably stay off your back as well. Winning and losing matters in the extremes.
But you can’t prioritize winning as a youth coach, even though you might agree that your life is a whole lot easier when you’re getting results. When your team is getting results half the time you’re then just left to work on the ten categories of individual player development for 12-18 players, off field issues between the players and the players and you and, of course, the parents’ concerns as well.
So yes, winning and losing is not the most important factor in team development. A near equal balance of wins, draws and losses, does help the coach keep the focus where it needs to be, development not results. Therefore, in order to maximize development you need results even though the results don’t provide an accurate assessment of development.
You the coach need to know the true narrative of your team’s development and you need to share this narrative with the team and steer the group through the murkiness caused by what happens on the weekends.
We’ll look into how you can build the narrative of your team’s development in part two with some help from the recently unemployed, former coach of the Australian men’s national team, Ange Postecoglou.