My first club coaching season in Canada has finally ended. It has been a very rewarding experience to be able to coach a group of 17 and 18 year olds girls that were passionate about the game but at the same time needing to balance work commitments, family summer holidays and other sporting commitments. The club team I coached this summer was the U18 Girls Fredericton District Soccer Association (FDSA) that competed in a the highest competitive league in New Brunswick which also included senior women’s club teams as well.
I had an opportunity to work with many of the players over the years as a provincial team coach and regional technical director, but it has been over 5 years since I have had the opportunity to coach an age-group club team and it was a fantastic experience to get back into the daily coaching environment for about five-and-a-half months. Though we as a team fell short of our main goal that is winning the U18 girls provincial championship title and qualify for the club national championships, however there were many positives that were achieved from this season.
But this blog is not about how we did as a team during the season, but more about the process that took place in making it a great season and how I learnt a lot as a coach. I have been coaching for now approximately 20 years at all levels from club to international level and specialize in coaching and developing the female game. However I constantly continue to learn and implemented new methods in coaching and preparing females athletes. It was no different this year.
I made a few changes to how I would coach this team. It was somewhat of an experiment at the same time a learning process for me and the players in terms of my style and art as a coach. The following are some of the things I experimented on that I have not done before:
Ownership/Empowerment – I conducted a team meeting prior to the start of the season and facilitated a team goal setting session. All I did was possessed a few questions to the team and they had to come up with their own answers and keywords that would define our main goal/objective and what was required for us to achieve and successfully reaching the goal. This took the pressure of me as a coach as it allowed me coach within those goals and keywords that the players established. I still gave 110% percent at trainings and games but working within those keywords. Hence the players were responsible for their actions.
Training times and quantity – it’s a tradition that all trainings are conducted in the evenings as coaches that coach club teams are volunteers and have work commitments during the day. This had created a challenge for many players to balance work commitments and attending training sessions regularly in the past. At this age, the players have to work to save up money for university. Therefore I changed our training times to early mornings at 7.30am – 9.00am. I was not sure how successful it would be as it’s their summer holidays and as passionate as they are as individuals, it’s still their holidays. However it worked really well as I would have at least 12 – 13 players on average attend each session four mornings a week. We only had 15 players on the roster. Also we had the full field all to ourselves, allowing me to conduct sessions in a bigger space.
Players/team honest and open feedback – I have always allowed my players that I have coached in the past an opportunity to provide feedback to training sessions and games. The difference with this team was that we did it immediately after each training session and game. It would normally last between 10 – 20 minutes. The first thing I did was, I asked the team “so how did you think the training session or game went?.” This allowed the players to make their observations, feelings and opinions first before I gave them mine. It was very refreshing to hear the honesty of the players and their confidence in providing feedback on how the training session or game went and how they as individuals performed and what key areas that they either were strong at, weak at or needed addressing. Then after a few minutes of player feedback, either the captain or one of the players would ask me for my thoughts on the training session or game.
“It’s not personal” – When coaching females, as a coach you have to be careful and understand how to communicate with female athletes. Criticizing individuals in front of their peers when they did not successfully make a good pass or diving into a tackle and getting beat easily. This approach does not work well for many individuals, though sometimes we are all guilty of doing so but without realizing that you are doing it or meant it. Therefore, before allowing this to happen to me this year coaching this group of players, at the start of our first training session, I spoke to the players and told them that if I do make a negative comment about an individual during training in front of everyone, “it’s not meant to be personal”. In fact it was more to get the best out of that individual and help them achieve good understanding and habits that will allow them to improve as a player. I also told the players this would also apply between players as well as it will demand intensity among the players to succeed and whatever happens on the field stays on the field. Easier said than done!! But it worked! The players responded well and worked hard in trainings. Once again I would re-iterate it at least once every 3 weeks at training to ensure that they know “it’s not personal”.
Coaching style – I have used many different styles of coaching over the years as I evolved, developed and continually trying to improve myself in the way I coach and how would be the best approach to get the best out of my players. I am still constantly learning and there is no correct, wrong or one way of coaching. Each situation, team and players dictate which coaching style would best suit, either authoritarian, casual, co-operative or a combination of all three (http://www.mts.net/~cglass/Coaching%20Styles.pdf). I tended to use the co-operative coaching style where I allowed players to make decisions on their own while I would provide them with some ideas and guidelines on what we would be working on in a particular training session. I used this same approach with this team as well. However during one training session halfway through the season, the players were not training well, lazy if I’m honest.
So I raised my voiced and was very demanding in my instructions. Somehow the players actually responded well to this approach. In fact at the end of the training during our evaluation of the session, the players said that I need to be more demanding and forceful with them as they prefer that approach. One of the player’s mentioned that they liked it when I’m cranky as it motivates them to do well. To be honest I was somewhat perplexed as I have tried similar approaches on other teams I have coached previously and it ended up in a disaster. For this point on, started being more demanding but still used the co-operative style. Hence balancing both styles to get the best out of the players and the players thrived on it.
Motivating and creating a competitive training environment – Over the years I have read various coaching materials in the art of coaching and attended numerous coaching courses and conferences. Many of the literatures and courses mention that punishing athletes as a motivational tool is not very effective. I have not used tactics such as running round the field, sit-ups or push-ups as a form of motivation or creating a competitive training environment for over 10 years. I feel that it is counter-productive and it only creates fear within an athlete to be creative. So during training sessions, each activity would have some sort of outcome/result at the end, like keeping score between two teams. Therefore the losing team would collect the cones and balls. This is something I have always done.
So I continued with such an approach with this team as well. Once again, halfway during the season, the players asked that there should be more consequences for losing teams as it will motivate the players to work and train harder, achieve consistency and possible perfection (or near enough within their abilities). So I posed the question what they would consider as a “fine” not “punishment” (I prefer using the word “fine” as its is has a lesser perception of fear), and the players said that push-ups and sit-ups should be introduced as a fine for the losing team along with collecting the balls and cones. Once again, this group of players continue to surprise me, so I started introducing this into our trainings. I have to say, trainings started to be very competitive as no player wanted to lose and do push-ups.
Match Analysis – Another experiment I did this year with the team is only providing feedback and instructions tactically, though there were certain situations (not too many) I did suggest improving their technical performance. I stayed away from motivational speeches in particular and concentrated on how we should play, the style (either high or low pressure), seeing how the opposition plays and counter-act on that, using our strengthen out wide as oppose to playing down the middle as we are out number centrally, just to mention a few. I found this a lot more beneficial as it directly relates to the game and is something we can control. I the past I would instruct the players that they need to do this or that to win (the result was the goal), however the way I approached this year was to effect the game in a more positive way and the things I have control off. I saw continually improved understanding of the game by the players in each game.
I guess ultimately from my experience and experiment with this team this year, I can safely say that am definitely still evolving, developing and learning as a coach and how to coach. Empowering the athletes and allowing them to have input, feedback and ownership on how they want things to occur is very important. As a coach this year, I was less pre-occupied with the end goal (result) instead my training sessions and how I approached games was defined by the team’s keywords and objectives. I was a lot more relaxed and was able to analyse the game better and provide detailed tactical feedback during games.
While we as a team did not achieve our end goal that the players set out at the beginning of the season, I was very pleased and satisfied with the season and saw it as a success. As a coach, you are defined by your results/records/titles at a competitive/performance level where your job is on the line and that clubs consider you as a successful coach. This particular season, I consider myself a very successful coach. Not only did I further developed new understanding of coaching female athletes but to receive positive comments after the season from players was satisfying. Comments such as “I have learnt more from you this season that I have ever did” and “I have improved most that I ever have” were a re-occurring theme in their messages to me. They as players have in return helped me develop and improve as a coach.
Of the 15 players, six are graduating and are heading to university where four of the players have been recruited and two others will be trying out for their university women’s soccer programs. The rest nine players will be returning for another year in the U18 girls program. This in my view is success as these players are not lost to the game and continue to strive to play at a higher level and prolong their soccer career in a competitive environment.
With the university season about to start and Training Camp in a few days time, I am going implement the above approaches to my university coaching and evaluate and see if it does work or it was just a one off.