What are some things a coach can do to create a team culture that allows each individual to succeed as a soccer player?
By Paul Oliu
So I’ve had issues throughout my career as a player and then as a coach, and finally as a dad of three soccer players. In countless instances, I have thought to myself how could a coach behave/talk/manage a team in the way it was being done. And it doesn’t seem to be confined to soccer. Since I spend a lot of time in airports, I thought I would outline some of the key elements to managing players on a team. Maybe not managing them individually, but more like what are some things a coach can do to create a team culture that allows each individual to succeed as a soccer player. It seemed obvious to me that coaches would focus on helping their players succeed. Unfortunately, as I looked around, I can’t say it’s common practice with all coaches or clubs or academies.
1. Positive Environment — No player, outside of some of the normal gripes a player is entitled to, should be in a position where they do not want to go to practice. If anything, practices should manifest themselves to players as an opportunity for more liberty and freedom of expression than they enjoy outside of practice. Now that does not mean they can do whatever they want, but they should feel as though they have the freedom to try, to err, to succeed, or to fail within those confines. Too often players think of a practice as an expression of their coach or their mood or in how they yell. I am more convinced than ever that this is a game for players and not coaches. Coaches are organizers and managers. They are not daily disciplinarians getting on players because of a bad pass, or poor trap. I am more impressed with coaches who question decisions on the field, not ability. Yes, not ability. Because as a coach you have the players you have and you are tasked with creating a positive environment to help them grow as players and as people (See #6).
2. Responsible Freedom — I believe in giving players as much freedom as possible on the
field. But only so far as they exercise that freedom with some degree of responsibility and discipline. After all, great players know there is a balance between the freedom and responsibility. As an example, I encourage players to get forward from any position, but they have to be responsible enough to know when is the right time to get forward, and then have the responsibility to get back to their position of the ball is lost. I think the freedom of movement opens up their minds to all the possibilities that are there during a game. It helps expand their minds for doing things I believe a rigid form of playing inhibits. Probably explains why I am not such a fan of managers like Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho because they rigidly impose a game plan and the players are subservient to that. That works in short order, but I believe it drains players of enthusiasm and freedom of expression that makes the system over the longer haul hard to adhere to.
3. Encourage Mistakes — “Mistakes are meant for learning, not for repeating.” Think that sums it up. Now, I don’t view mistakes as physical expressions of a game. Meaning, a bad pass is a bad pass. Technically, a mistake but it’s not something I get up in a gander for. It bothers me more when there is repetition of that mistake. So, if you are constantly giving bad passes, we need to talk. Where I’d really rather focus my attention is on the mental aspects of the game. Do I have to repeatedly yell at the backs to step up when a ball is cleared? Are you failing to pick up a man running through? Are you constantly out of position? Now, a game is made up of a series of decisions. I would rather focus on the decision-making aspects of the game. Now, no player is perfect. But in that process I would prefer they err rather than make no decision at all. That to me is a signal that the player is fearful of making a mistake and that is in direct contradiction of point #1.
4. Brutal Honesty — I believe coaches need to be honest. Brutally honest. I think a coach is not a coach if they are not constantly telling the player what it is they need from them and what they need to improve. Otherwise, no player is going to get better. Riding the bench without an understanding of why you are there is harmful to a players’ confidence. So the only way to remedy that is to be brutally honest. Keep in mind, I don’t think brutal honesty means squashing someone’s dreams and making them feel worthless and not capable. You must take into account who you are dealing with and understand at younger ages, you have to be more delicate. Keep in mind, I don’t think being brutally honest means only highlighting the negative aspects of a players’ game. I believe you can be brutally honest about what a player does well. And I usually err on being more positive about those aspects of the game, then on the negatives. Now this is the crazy thing, I am a huge advocate for players having the liberty of being brutally honest with their coaches. This is a players’ game, and if a player can’t give a coach their ideas or opinions about the game, then we are missing something. I don’t think there are many coaches who are mentally equipped to handle that though.
5. The Players you have are the players you have — I won’t drone on about this, but I think too many coaches are guilty of not being brutally honest with themselves and have a real understanding of the individual players’ capabilities on their team. You can’t make a player better or develop that player unless you know how they really are as a player. It’s simple yet I think this largely is assumed.
6. Finally, the team — I won’t belabor this but this is a team sport and every individual’s role is for the purpose of building the team. I think this is where the “responsibility” comes in No. 2. Each player is responsible to the team. Not that I don’t appreciate the individual contributions of a player, but they should always be done in the context of pushing the team forward.
Interestingly enough, I think if a coach did nothing else but what I outlined, and didn’t try to “coach” soccer, I suspect that his or her team would excel because of the atmosphere that’s been created to support the players.
Paul Oliu is coach and another former ex-writer. Any comments can be sent to PMOliu@GMail.com.