One of the best tools for aspiring coaches is picking the brain of successful coaches and learning from their experiences. Any opportunity to chat with a fellow coach is time well spent, whether you and that coach agree on nearly everything, or very little. Exchanging opinions, trading stories, debating, seeking advice, and sharing a laugh at one another’s expense all help us grow as coaches. Learning from one another is done by all coaches at all levels.
Adrian Dubois has been a colleague of mine for nearly four years now, having met on a coaching course in 2014. We arrived at that coaching course from completely different paths in soccer and have both pushed forward in our careers in different ways as well. It’s been a great learning experience following his progress as the head coach for the Saint Joseph’s College of Maine Men’s Soccer program. Having also served as an assistant coach there for two seasons, it’s been an enjoyable and helpful experience in my career to be associated with Adrian and the program.
The men’s program at St. Joe’s had two years of unparalleled success in 2016 and 2017 achieving back to back GNAC Championships, five years on from their last Championship in 2011, and recorded first round NCAA Division Three tournament victories in both years, the first two tournament wins in the program’s history. In 2017 the Monks took defending D3 National Champions, Tufts University, to penalties before being eliminated in the second round of the tournament. In nineteen games across the regular season and GNAC playoffs the Monks did not concede any goals. Eighteen wins, one draw, nineteen consecutive clean sheets and a new NCAA men’s soccer record for consecutive shutouts.
The incredible 2017 Monks’ season led to a number of post season accolades for the program. The Monks finished the season ranked #19 in D3Soccer.com’s rankings and #25 in the USC D3 rankings and had numerous players selected for honors from the USC and New England Soccer Journal. Adrian and his coaching staff were also selected as the 2017 United Soccer Coaches NCAA Division III New England Region Coaching Staff of the Year.
I had a chance to have a chat with Adrian in late November at a youth tournament, Adrian also coaches for Seacoast United Maine, below is a transcript of that chat were Adrian touches on a range of topics as we discussed his methodology and keys to the Monks’ success. Adrian’s responses are in bold.
You’ve been with Saint Joseph’s College of Maine for 4 years with the men’s team, won your conference and conference playoffs twice, won the only two NCAA tournament games in the program’s history, and set an NCAA record for most consecutive games without allowing a goal. Are you happy with the progress of the program? Would you have taken this level of success if offered to you four years go?
I would have said you’re crazy. I would not have thought we’d break an NCAA record. I knew we would win the conference, that had better of happen, for sure. To break records, go undefeated, give up one goal all season, that was ludicrous.
How much further do you think you can take the program?
The ultimate goal is to win a National Championship.
Can that be done? Does the conference that you’re in hold you back?
It does hold us back, yes, but I know it can be done. People wouldn’t have said we would win back to back to titles, they wouldn’t have said we’d break the goals conceded records we broke. And now people will say we can’t win a National Championship. But I believe we can, we’ve got the talent, the buy in, I need more talent, yes. We’re close, we took Tufts to overtime.
Right, I guess if you can take the defending national champions to penalties, then you’re not that far off…
Exactly. I need to make my team believe we can a national title. I talk about winning a national tittle all the time.
How important has recruiting been to your success, do you think it’s the most important part of what you do?
That’s a tough one. A lot of people would say yes. I would say top one or two. I would say creating a strong culture is right up there, developing the culture is first or second.
Well, you could say you have to get your recruiting right to develop that culture…
Yes. Recruiting and developing the culture are the top two.
And one feeds into the other, for instance, you wouldn’t let someone else recruit eight new players for you every year would you?
No. You have to bring in the right players.
How do you manage to focus on making sure to look at individuals you don’t want to miss but also cast a wide net of where you’re looking at the same time when recruiting?
We definitely have to get it right in Maine. We want to be competing for the top five players in Maine, they should be coming to us. We don’t want to miss out on anyone there. New Hampshire, I’m from New Hampshire, I have good connections there, so I should be able to get quality players from there as well. Vermont has been difficult to get into. Then we want to get a good look at Massachusetts and Connecticut as well. We want to pickup the best guys we can from those states, that’s were we focus most of our time.
You also have players from New Jersey, you even got a player from California…
California, I got lucky, I went out there for my first recruiting class and my goal was to get a player from California. My athletic director and assistants said it wasn’t possible…
Yea, I didn’t think it was possible either…
But in spite of that, I was determined to do it and made it happen. I also brought a player from India. Those were situations I wanted to prove myself I could do and was determined to make it happen. The first couple players from New Jersey, I went to a couple tournaments in New York, just branching out from New England in that first recruiting class. But most of the New Jersey players I have now I got from internal recruiting, players we brought in making recommendations on players they knew.
Have you relied on that, internal recruiting, a lot? Has it been helpful?
Not recently. Some of the players really wanted to help the program early on but now, I think, they’re less likely to help with recruiting because they’re concerned about their spot in the team.
What do you find difficult with recruiting at the D3 level, given that you can’t offer scholarships and can’t get commitments from sophomores and juniors?
Recruiting is all based on the relationship. Every player I’ve recruited fell in love with me, the team and fell to the D3 level. There’s no real hook at D3, no scholarships, not a lot of exciting traveling trips, no big fancy locker rooms. It’s all pretty basic.
That doesn’t leave you with the abiltiy to disillusion players then from what really matters, which is do you like the team, do you like the coach…
Yes. The biggest tools we have is the vision we create about the program. We try to make it more than just playing for a soccer team, they represent their school, the alumni, the local community. We have high standards of how we play and prepare to play.
You inherited an assistant coach, you’ve brought multiple coaches in addition, how do you utilize your coaching staff, say in a typical training session?
I think I need to do a better job utilizing my staff, I was actually thinking about that today on the drive down, a coaching buddy of mine was having issues with his staff wanting to be involved more. It’s tough though because they’re part-time, they have other jobs, they’re not paid much. I try to meet with them 30 minutes before the session whenever possible for them, sometimes we have five minutes to go over the session. I try to let them know what I want to get out of the session and what I’m looking for them to help with in each phase of the session.
Because the coaches are part time is it difficult then to turn the session over to them and let them run it?
It’s not if we plan ahead for it. I’ve had one of my coaches run sessions before and plan it out the night before, send it over to me to look at, send it back, make some changes. It takes a lot of time and energy. It’s definitely doable but do they really want to spend their night after a long day at work doing that? I admire coaches that manage their staff well, I admire them a lot because it’s difficult to do.
Managing the staff is one thing, what about the players? How many players did you have this past season?
Thirty-three. How do you manage that many players in a training session?
You have to plan exercises that allow for a lot of them to participate at once. I can’t really do a back four against a front five…
And if you did, you’d have to three of them…
Yes, I need to have exercises with either larger numbers or break them into smaller groups. Need to be prepared for it, can’t have guys sitting out a ton, until we go to 11v11, then there’s no option but to sit guys out.
Do you find it difficult to make sure you get your points across and also keep everyone engaged during the session?
It’s so tough. It’s a big issue we have. We need to have that depth though, we need to develop players at Saint Joseph’s of Maine, I’m not going to pickup Development Academy players. But I get guys like Rory who come in a little raw and develop and in his third year is an all conference player.
Being at the level you’re at, do you feel that you have a developmental role to play? At a higher level, D1, if you come to the end of the season and don’t like your back line, you can go and replace all of them.
Saint Joseph’s College men’s soccer is all about development, players come in and they have to get better for the program. We need to develop top players because we can’t just go and get them. And it’s not just the fall, I need to get them playing soccer in the summer and winter. The players coming through the system need to be ready to help us win championships.
How do you keep thirty-three players happy? If you have 11 playing, six or seven in the rotation, that’s another 15, 16 players that feel like they’re the ‘other guys’, how do you keep them from feeling that way?
I utilize the coaching staff, I make sure they’re having individual conversations with the players. They need to spend time with individual players and develop a relationship between those coaches and the players, put their arm around them when they need to.
So you use the assistant coaches as a conduit to relay your message to the players and the coaches can relay the feelings of the players back to you?
Yes, it’s cyclical there, for sure. And of course, winning, winning is probably the biggest factor.
Sure, players can’t really complain about not getting playing time if the team is winning every game.
Yea, but any time it does happen, I tell the players all the time, you’re not always going to be happy. But any time they’re not happy with playing time or want to follow up after a session, my door is always open.
I utilize individual meetings throughout the day. I wish I could do more. Any time a player is unhappy or I sense something is bothering them or an assistant coach mentions something to me, or if I just want to work on something with that individual, we’ll meet. I usually will set the meetings but players will come to me as well.
Do you have any players you meet with on a regular basis? Captains, for example.
No, not really. Only when it’s necessary. If I have a different tactical idea to what we’ve been working on, I’ll meet with the captains before training to discuss it. I like to get their input and having their buy-in to my ideas is really important. It starts with taking the time for individual meetings with players to develop that understanding.
Is there anything you see from freshman on a consistent basis when they first arrive that is lacking, in terms of on field ability?
Two things pop out. First thing is positional awareness. They just don’t understand the game the way I need them to. Simple things like a winger needing to put immediate pressure on the opponent’s outside back or a center forward not positioning himself between the opponent’s centerbacks. They come to us and they’re all over the place.
Second is they’re not ready to battle at the college level. They come in soft, a second late, don’t want to challenge in the air, don’t anticipate second balls…
Do you think that’s a Club soccer issue? The priority at Club youth level is more technical development, keeping possession and so on.
Yea, yea in the game today we let the ball bounce almost every time off the opponent’s goal kicks, not contesting it, letting the opponent start to build momentum. It’s definitely an issue because they’re just not ready to deal with it.
Fitness is a much talked about issue, a lot of time gets spent by coaches discussing ways to keep players fit and free from injury. Your program has an impressive injury record. How many non-contact muscle injuries did you have this year, significant enough for a player to miss a game?
None. I couldn’t tell you of one in the last four years.
With the compact schedule you have and all the travel, which involves long periods of time sitting on a bus, how do you not pickup those types of injuries?
One is our style of play, I think that’s most important. I don’t push them over the limit with their bodies. We’re possession orientated, we use good positional play and it’s more intelligent, smarter soccer. It’s not blasting the ball down field for players to go and chase.
Defensively, we don’t press all the time for 90 minutes, we can’t do it. Players will get injuries as well because they push their bodies too far. So again, it’s more intelligent in how we defend as well, not just in attack.
We prepare the players before every session. We take 20-30 minutes before every session for a proper warm-up. We use a three phase warm-up, we’ll mix it up sometimes, first we warm the body up, then a bit of strength work and then some acceleration deceleration and cutting work. The intensity progresses through those 20-30 minutes.
In regards to the playing style, would you play differently, defensively, with a less intense schedule?
Defensively, yes. Another thing is we don’t do fitness training in season. We did maybe two fitness sessions during the season, the rest of the time is playing and technical work. Same in preseason, playing, we want to get going right away on attacking and defensive tactics, and the structure of the team.
Is there an expectation that the players will arrive at a certain level of fitness for preseason?
Yea, there’s a good amount of commitment there. We have benchmarks that we test them on when they arrive that they have to meet. It works. We kept a player out of training for a week this season because he showed up not fit. And the other players see that, they don’t want to do it, they want to be training with the team. Same expectations for the spring season, last spring, had a player come in who wasn’t fit and had to sit out.
They have to live with it all year, I don’t care who it is, if they don’t pass fitness, they don’t play.
I want to spend all of our time playing and building the game model, they need to be physically prepared. We don’t have the time in our two weeks of preseason to get them fit anyways.
Even though you’ve dealt with the compact schedule as it is, would you be in favor of playing less games, like with a fall and spring schedule?
For me personally, I love soccer, I want to play all year long. The players would suffer less injuries if they spread out the season. They would have to structure it so that players aren’t missing too much class.
How do you set expectations for the players academically?
We have mandatory study hours, every week, for the entire year for freshman and for players who’s GPA is below the team average. Right now we have a team GPA of 3.1, so anyone who’s helping our GPA get higher, doesn’t have to do mandatory study hall hours, anyone who’s pulling it down, does. And I can meet with players any time during the academic year to get them more study hours and talk with them if they’re struggling with academics. I’ve never had to drop a player from the team for academic reasons, I have dropped players from traveling with the team in the fall, but other than that we’ve always found a way to improve the situation.
If we need to setup more structure in their study hours, get help with a tutor, we can get them that extra support when they need it.
But the biggest thing is bringing in good kids. The group we have now, I don’t need to worry about any of them, they get it done.
Is that a part of your recruiting process, will you stay away from players with a GPA lower than a certain mark?
No, no, hard work on the field usually means they’re going to work hard in the classroom. We don’t recruit lazy people, their character is an important piece. It definitely correlates and good kids in high school turnout to be good kids in college.