I’m sure you want your child to have the best soccer experience possible and that will be largely dependent on who their coach is and what club they play for. To ensure you find the best fit for your child, I’m going to give you four questions you can ask your player’s coach and go over what an ideal answer to each question would look like.
Question one: How will you help my player enjoy their soccer experience?
This is the most important question you can ask. Studies have shown that young athletes play sports for four main reasons in this preferred order: have fun, be with friends, learn new skills, and be active. No part of that deals with competition or winning, and yet that’s usually what coaches focus on. If your child’s coach wants to help the team have fun by collecting trophies then you may need to rethink where they play. A good coach’s answer will address all four of these factors to some degree.
A key term that a coach should use is “teaching games for understanding.” This is a methodology that focuses on using scrimmages and small-games to teach technique and problem-solving. This is replacing traditional drills where players stand in lines because it’s more fun, it keeps players physically and mentally active, and it teaches them applicable skills. Any coach who has had professional training, or read about coaching methodologies, will be aware of this.
The other component a coach should address is team-building. A large part of what makes a soccer season enjoyable is if the players enjoy hanging out with their teammates. How a coach organizes training sessions and teaches competition can have a huge influence on the social fabric of the team. A good coach will already have a plan to create a team environment that fosters positivity, collaboration, and, most importantly, makes sure everyone feels included.
Question two: What experience do you have with coaching and the game?
It’s easy to think that somebody who’s good at playing soccer must be good at coaching soccer. I am here to tell you from personal experience, from conversations with United States Soccer Federation instructors, and from reading about the subject of coaching, that this is a myth. Being a good player does not equate to being a good coach. Being a good player can help with coaching, but it is not automatically transferable. An ideal answer would be that the coach has years of coaching experience and a high-playing pedigree, but that’s rare in most parts of the United States. If I had to choose between the two I’d rather have a coach who has years of experience with coaching, even if it’s in a different sport. Seasoned coaches generally have a better understanding of teaching players, organizing training sessions, and it shows they truly care about what they do. There is no replacement for a coach who deeply cares about their players. Outside of coaching and laying experience you want a coach who is a positive role model, who encourages your child to try new things, and is patient enough to allow the player to learn about the game through their own volition.
Experienced coaches, who have developed their craft over time, will know how to do these things and it will show through the answer they give. If your player is between the ages of ten and fourteen you will want a coach who has playing experience, or at least can teach soccer techniques, because those are key ages for skill acquisition. Once they get older a coach’s technical knowledge takes a backseat, and instead former playing experience is used to prepare players psychologically. Coaching experience can also be used as psychological-teaching fodder so it’s not crucial, only helpful.
Lastly, if your coach lacks playing or coaching experience that is okay. Just as we encourage players to learn on their own and have patience with their development, the same must be applied to coaches. Trust your coach to learn as they go, encourage your player to listen and ask questions respectfully, and of course you can always refer your coach to soccerparenting.com for helpful tips.
Question three: What is your development plan?
A development plan should consist of more than “We’re going to play in the most competitive leagues and use our resources to help your child get a college scholarship.” That’s a broad statement that’s not individualized to the needs of your player. A proper development plan should be based around a curriculum, and that is the key word you want to watch out for in your coach’s answer. Club’s can have their own curriculum (the USSF provides one free of charge) and coaches should refer to it. Much like how children need to learn how to add, subtract, and multiply before moving on to more advanced math concepts like geometry and calculus, the same is true for soccer.
Before someone can play in a 11-a-side soccer game they need to be taught the positional principles and requisite skills beforehand. A good, well developed curriculum will help guide this process while accounting for the physical and psychological changes that all children go through as they age. An A+ answer will mention both a curriculum and the Long-Term Athlete Development Plan (or the Developmental Model of Sport Participation).
Both of these plans account for how bodies develop over time and how to create a solid athletic base that young players can build their future technical skills on. A sole focus on sport-specific skills at a young age can actually harm overall athletic development. And the better the athlete is, the better they will be at whatever sport they choose to play when they’re older. A development plan needs to have the larger picture in mind and guide the progression of how athletic skills are built on each other over time.
Question four: How long has your organization been around?
A general rule of thumb is the longer an organization has been around the better it will be. Of course past success is no guarantee for future success either, so instead use duration only as a general indicator. But with this question what you’re really trying to find out is how much the coach knows about their club and the strength of support it has from the families involved. A good answer will address the history of the organization, what their growth is like, and the vision the organization has for the future.
Beyond what the coach says though, you should always be looking for what makes an organization successful. What type of people work for the organization? Are they good communicators? Do they present realistic goals and visions and have the competency to achieve them? Is there a sense of community that your child will feel like they belong to?
The social framework surrounding your child is crucial to their development, and who they are coached by and who they play with are critical components. This is incredibly tough to gauge over one coach’s answer at a single parent meeting, but if the people are happy, if the feeling of community is palpable, and if you believe your child’s well-being and interests are important to the organization then you’ve chosen well.
I encourage all parents to ask their coach these questions. If their answers follow these guidelines then you know your child will be set up for success And even if they don’t, that’s no cause for concern. Instead trust your coach to learn through experience and provide the support that will help them on their journey. A good coach will be able to put their ego aside, take any information that seems helpful, and find a way to implement it.
Good luck at your next team meeting.