Growth as a coach comes in many different ways throughout one’s career. Simply gaining experience and learning from what works and what doesn’t work is perhaps the simplest and most constant way for coaches to grow. Observation, whether it be of games or training sessions, and then implementation within your own teams is another path to growth. Some coaches find coaching courses to be a path towards growth, or adaptation of methods from other sports as well.
Experimentation as a way of getting outside your comfort zone to develop new methods and challenge your ideals is another great avenue towards growth. This may involve trying a new formation, changing the structure of your training sessions or changing the dynamics of working with an assistant coach.
This season I have tried an experiment that involves putting a personal belief into practice within a team. Throughout my career I have always believed strongly that as a coach, leading the group from within the group, as opposed to a more hierarchical structure, is the most effective, enjoyable and empowering method of coaching a team.
For this particular team, a Club team of high school aged girls, I have decided to go one step further and introduce democracy into the team and empower the group’s decision making to a highly involved level. It is a challenge as the head coach to empower the team without losing the ability to lead the group effectively.
Too much empowerment and we may become adrift of our ability to stay focused on our Club’s playing style, individual development, establishing clear and concise principals and goals, while sticking with our decisions. Too little empowerment and the players might feel that they have been given only token, inconsequential decision making ability and lose enthusiasm for group decisions.
It is a tight line for the coach to walk. However, if one believes, as I do, that the experience of soccer is for the players, first and foremost, then if one is going to practice their beliefs empowering them becomes a requirement. On the field this means allowing players to play, free of too much interference from coaches and parents, and allowing them to make mistakes and learn from them. It means asking players to motivate and lead themselves and their teammates on the field and not rely on a clapping, jumping, screaming cheerleader-coach to do it for them.
The natural progression then is to take this on field way of coaching, which not enough coaches are comfortable or willing to even contemplate, and move it off the field. This idea is in it’s very early life of implementation; here is what we have done so far:
Where is Everyone going to Play?
This was a new team for me, with several new players and several returning players, all new to me as I’d just joined the Club over the summer. We had only four training sessions before our first tournament for the players to get to know their new teammates and for me to start to get to know them and vice versa. A lot to be learned then. Especially when considering the team has 22 players and their new coach is very poor at learning names!
With games impending upon us right from the start we needed to quickly determine where everyone was playing. Given the high level of the team and their age, it was easy to assume they all had preferred positions and at least one secondary position. A Google sheet was created and all players entered in their preferred position, secondary position and any other positions they would like to try.
The team was told this sheet would be the basis for where they played across our first two tournaments before winter break. They were also told any situation in which I thought they would be more successful in different positions would be discussed between myself and that player. No unilateral decisions on my part, all deviations would be discussed before possibly being implemented.
The one caveat they were given was being prepared to occasionally accept playing in a position they did not list due to a team need. For example, we looked short of outside backs and a bit heavy on center forwards. The center forwards were let known that they may need to sometimes play in a wide midfield position and the wide mids were told to expect some time at outside back.
Since this initial period a couple of players did come forward and express that I had drifted, rightfully so, from where they preferred to play a bit more than they were happy with. These two players were very similar in their playing style and one expressed wanting to play centrally more often while the other expressed wanting to play wide more often. Bit of luck then here as the first instance of players wanting to see some changes in their positioning could not have been any easier to sort.
The First Vote
Given that the team has 22 players, we will most always have the maximum of 18 available for league and certain tournament competitions. The selection policy for games in which were limited to 18 and having more than that number available was not up for debate. A fair and transparent selection process was laid out to the team at our first meeting covering all competitions (league, state cup, tournaments w/18 max per game, tournaments w/no max per game).
The team was also told that each player selected for a game would expect to play at least half of the game. This follows the Club’s policy and my own personal belief for teams focused on player development(all youth teams, then, in theory).
The players were going to be allowed to vote on the in game rotation policy. In order to minimize the difficulty of tracking playing time, changes would be made en mass. All players on the bench would enter the game together and then remain on for a specified amount of time. Doing this would ensure all players were getting to at least half of the game on the field.
What they were choosing from was either a policy of the starters playing 20 minutes, the subs coming on for 20 minutes afterward and repeating this in the second half. For an 80 minute game, this would be 20 on, 20 off, 20 on, 20 off for most of the starting 11.
Option two, my preferred option, was the starters went 20 minutes, the subs came on for 40 minutes straight(20 minutes either side of half time) and then the starters returned for the final 20 minutes.
Two key items were pointed out as well:
- We would not have a settled started 11 during the season, so whichever choice was made players would experience it both as starters and as subs. I mentioned this in hopes of pushing more players to consider the 20-40-20 pattern.
- For games were we were limited to 18 players, only seven of the 10 starters would come off when changes were made. Thus the opportunity was there for extra playing time beyond 40 minutes for all players as no one would be expected to play 80 minutes(aside from the goalkeeper).
The team then played the first tournament testing out both of these methods. Through varying the lineups, all players experienced both playing 20 minutes, sitting for 40 and then playing 20 and the other way around of sitting for 20, getting all 40 minutes straight through, and then sitting for 20.
After the tournament the players voted on their preference. Personally, I thought the team played better in the 40 minute period in which only or two changes were made in the 20-40-20 setup. And then we brought on rested players to finish with high energy levels for the final 20 minutes. I was hopeful the girls would see this too and vote for the 20-40-20 rotation policy.
20 on, 20 off won 14 votes to 7, with one abstaining.
This was not what I had preferred. However, as I had told the team, ultimately, they play the games, not me, so their preference of how they want to get their playing time should be respected.
This early decision was of some importance, the players weren’t just voting on something trivial, this decision will impact us in every single game we play this year. The thought then could easily have been that the decision must be taken by the coach. But instead of guessing what is better for your players, why not just ask them?
Negotiations and Compromise
After playing our first two tournaments we had a team tactical meeting to discuss what we were doing well, where we needed to improve and possible solutions. It was an incredibly productive meeting. This was not a coach telling the team their tactical issues and telling them the solutions. My notes for this meeting were very brief, the plan was to introduce the topic, present what options I had considered and then discuss. It was a very different experience to walk into a team meeting with no predetermined outcomes to what we would conclude.
Our first discussion centered around players having expressed unhappiness with the dynamic portion of our training and game warm-up. The players felt they needed more time and needed to add certain movements into the routine. I guessed, correctly, which movements would be suggested and was prepared to tell them I needed to be convinced as I thought they were more or less useless.
This was a lively discussion and nearly every player participated. First, I clarified to them that the dynamic movements are designed to increase mobility and blood through the joints and that is why it followed, not preceded, the technical warm-up. We all agreed that the effort level of the technical portion of our warm-up was lacking and needed improvement.
It was made clear that there was no point in discussing adding or changing anything to the warm-up routine if the effort level didn’t improve. Once this was agreed, the players proposed four additions to the dynamic movements. One was voted down by the players as not being necessary. There was unanimous consent, however, that three movements needed to be added.
I suggested I felt these movements were ineffective and they only wanted to do them out of routine. This sentiment was not accepted by any of them. What ensued was an impassioned defense, demonstration and lobbying for these movements. Fair enough, then, I dropped my protest under the condition that these new movements must be carried out correctly on a consistent basis. Any going through the motions of the dynamic movements, especially the ones being requested be added, would not be acceptable.
The players had mentioned that they needed more time as well for individual movements. I mentioned I had said routinely that they could take 2-3 minutes to do so after the group dynamics were completed. They agreed but also said I had cut this time down over a few weeks time. Being in the unfortunate position of them being right and myself wrong, I relented and said I would give them more time.
I was, though, adamant that this time without the ball, the dynamic movements, could take no longer than 15 minutes for any game or training session. I accepted they felt all this to be important and they accepted my insistence on maximizing time playing with the ball.
Thus an agreement was struck wherein the players agreed to increase their effort level in the technical warm-up portion, they would limit the dynamic movements portion to no more than 15 minutes and would carry out all the movements correctly. I agreed to allow for the addition of the proposed movements and agreed to not cut into the individual period after the group movements.
The tactical discussion that followed allowed me to learn more about why they had certain habits and allowed them to get a better understanding of what I wanted to see from them. It was a great discussion where we agreed on three tweaks to our current formation, a 4-1-4-1(but not really), and left open the option of testing a 4-2-3-1 over the winter in a friendly game.
The tactical portion involved nothing more than a tactics board and a few notes I had scribbled down. No video, no PowerPoint presentation, no lecture. My expertise on tactical matters was respected by the group and I also respected their thoughts and observations as well.
Those are the early highlights of my experiment to empower this team and introduce the democratic process into some of our decisions. The idea is for them to take ownership of these decisions in hopes they will be carried out more enthusiastically and effectively. There have also been certain decisions it is clear will still be taken by me and certain topics like playing time, our style of play, standards for behavior and so on that are not up for discussion or deviation.
The possibility of losing “control” of the team has been mentioned to me. Certainly, if empowered too much or if we constantly debate everything or the team feels they can override me whenever they want, this could happen. As a coach though, it’s my responsibility to guide the group, not control them. And coaches can just as easily lose a team by being too strict and not listening to them or even asking what they think.
Putting what the coach is supposed to do in the context of successfully leading a group, not controlling or ordering a group, lends itself to trying to keep that balance of knowing when to take decisions unilaterally, when to discuss and decide as a group, when to rely on your expertise and when to rely on the player’s unique perspective as players.
It is not easy. Just a few weeks into trying this out to this extent, however, it has been informative, empowering, eye opening and most importantly, very enjoyable for all involved.