Becoming a “student of the game” is often thought of as a phrase which only applies to players, but the concept is even more important for soccer coaches. Coaches need to learn the game in order to teach it and the only way to do that is by first being a student. As with all excellent students, coaches must never be satisfied with what they have learned, up to any given point in time, but must continue to educate themselves in new concepts and new approaches as long as they are involved in the game.
The education of a soccer coach can be different and varied. There is no one size that fits all. Coaches should never stop learning. They must keep improving or the game will pass them by. This form of continuing education is part of a “professional attitude” in coaching and it applies to every level of the game. Coaches should study the sport just like a subject in school. They should prepare as if they were going to be tested. The following treatment contains numerous suggestions for how coaches may study for soccer and how to continue to do so for the long-term:
Play the game. First and foremost, you learn by doing. Coaches are then the teachers. You teach after learning. The same concepts for teaching any subject apply to coaching: listen about what to do, see what you are expected to do, attempt what you are supposed to do, perform what you are supposed to do, practice and perfect what to do, read about it, write about it, teach it, and then perfect your instruction. Understand the concept of “Learning Progressions.” Coaches really wind up learning the most for themselves about their sport by teaching others. There is no substitute for playing experience. If there are no adult teams or leagues available, start one. All it takes to begin is two people and a ball. If you can’t play on a team, buy a ball and some shoes and kick around on your own. Attend adult player camps.
Watch as much soccer on television as possible. Note, however, that the limited picture size on television restricts the ability to see the larger aspects of the game. Record games so that they can be viewed when time allows, or slowed down and paused.
Watch as much soccer in person as possible. Watching in person allows you to see the whole field and thereby see the whole game. Go to high school, college, and top club team games. Attend professional games whenever you can. Arrive early. Watch warm-ups. Find a high vantage point. Observations from midfield allow you to see the whole game and to concentrate on the middle third for transition play. Observations at the 18 allow you to see both the offensive third for one team and the defensive third for the other. Observations from behind the goal allow you to see goalkeeper play, certain attacking strategies, and especially team defense. Observe the effect of spectators and parents on the players. Go to games at youth levels that are higher than yours, either by age or by competition level. Takes notes on what you could emulate or what you should strive to direct your players toward.
Whether you are watching a game on television or in person, actually scrutinize what is happening; don’t just be a spectator. Try to look at the big picture of the game; don’t just watch the player with the ball, unless that is your intention. Concentrate and stay focused. Conversely, getting up close allows you to see the skills being utilized by individual players.
Create a plan for what you want to watch on any given occasion. Don’t try to see or do everything all at once. There’s too much going on. Accordingly, you benefit the most by trying to follow your plan. At any given game, you may wish to focus on one or two of the following: how a team attempts to create and use space on offense; how a team tries to deny or destroy space on defense; the effects of pressure; position play, position-by-position, especially the goalkeeper; what is successful and what is not successful; decision-making on the part of players and the coaches; tactics used, fitness levels and the effect of fatigue; the types of skills used; passing techniques; overall strategy; movement without or “off” the ball; aspects of emotion; and set plays, including throw-ins.
Take good notes. Always have a pen, pencil, paper, folder, or portfolio available. Critical thinking is imperative. When something worked, ask yourself, “Why did it work?” When something failed, ask yourself, “Why did it fail?” In either case, ask yourself if you would have done something differently. Make sure to concentrate on the things that you can use or apply to your coaching. Write it down. This includes formations; systems of play; offensive and defensive philosophies; one-touch and two-touch situations; the effect, if any, of ball control and possession; substitution decisions by coaches; and the effects of fouls, including yellow and red cards. You can try to use the technique of “scouting” a team as you watch, as if they were your next opponent. This can include observing what you might need to especially defend and what you might be able to exploit when you are on offense.
Join the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA). This gives you access to their courses, study materials, training videos, monthly magazine, electronic newsletters, and annual convention information. Attend the convention, if you can.
Take classes. Courses are provided by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF, US Soccer), and local providers. Take first aid courses. Take sports training courses.
Acquire soccer resource materials. Buy and read soccer coaching books. Obtain DVDs, including those available for purchase from commercial organizations like Soccer Learning Systems (www.soccervideos.com), or for rent from Netflix. Go back over your materials occasionally; there is so much information and so many drills available that it is easy to forget.
Utilize the Internet and the World Wide Web. Find soccer sites and request specific searches. Many short soccer videos are available on YouTube. There is one word of caution about Internet videos, however, because some items are not well done and a small percentage of them contain incorrect information.
Understand the Laws of the Game. Utilize the FIFA website to read the rules, interpretations, and everything else that it has to offer. Remember to search out the rules changes annually before the start of each fall season, and to understand their potential effects on the game and your coaching.
Become a referee. Search out the local referee organization. Take referee training courses. Understand how referees are expected to apply the Laws of the Game.
Talk to other coaches. Seek out local soccer coaching groups. Attend clinics. Find a willing mentor.
Organize your coaching materials. Create a notebook or a whole filing system. When printing out materials from the web, retain them. Keep everything in one place. Make a library. Review materials in your library regularly. Analyze, and evaluate materials in order to determine how to apply what you have seen and learned to your own coaching. Keep your practice plans for future use.
Recognize and accept that your time is limited. Just do what you can do. Pick and choose carefully to get the most out of your available time. Don’t spend so much time becoming a student of the game that it is at the expense of time spent with your family or with your team. If time is a constraint, don’t spend a lot of time on soccer history. Knowledge of Pele and stars of the game, the origins of the offside law, winners of the World Cup, and other history is nice, and potentially helpful to your coaching, but only if you have a large amount of available time.
Encourage your players to become students of the game. Provide them with brief written materials and diagrams. Retain copies of everything you hand out to your players. Tell them about helpful websites. Encourage your players to ask you questions. Be honest if you don’t know the answer. Promise that you will find out the answer. Then keep your promise by doing some homework. Encourage your players to attend camps. Ask them to demonstrate new things they have learned to the team and to you. Suggest that they keep a notebook and, as they get older, start doing the activities identified above.
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