“Let’s just kick the ball around.” A first-time soccer coach & implementation

Update 4.15.21. And it’s not Spring 2021, and soccer is back. I’ve got a new cohort of U5 kids we’ve been having a lot of fun. I’m certainly a better coach than when I started. There’s something to this experiential learning. Original post below!

Another post I’m porting over. Man, it would be such a bummer if there is no soccer in the fall. I was all set to coach U5.

I’m a sucker for strongly worded e-mails. So, when my son’s Under-7 program coordinator sent out a plea for more volunteer coaches or “we’ll have to postpone the season,” I tentatively put my hand up.

My experience as a first-time coach mirrored the experiences many organizations have when trying to implement a new intervention. An organization has a thing they are trying to do. They then need to train up and support the people within that organization to do that thing. In my case, the thing was coach a bunch of five and six-year-olds. And, like organizations, my readiness to coach varied throughout the season. And, like well-functioning organizations, I was able to use data to help monitor performance and improve.

We can use the Interactive Systems Framework to think through how coaching unfolded. The ISF says there are three systems to bridge research and practice.

The good old ISF

The Delivery System. These are the front line providers implementing the intervention. In this case, it’s coaches who are helping the kids to learn and play soccer. It’s important to note that “no experience was necessary.” So, implicit in this request is that I had sufficient motivation to learn to coach soccer and sufficient general capacity (time, health, social skills).

The Support System. This group assists in implementation by building momentum and capacity. Here, this was probably (??) the Exeter Youth Soccer Association.

The Synthesis and Translation System. There’s not much evidence out there about best practices to build skills. I looked. There is stuff about improving aerobic capacity in teenage soccer players, but that’s not really what would help improve my ability to coach. The S&T system packages the evidence in a form in a way that can be used by the Support or Delivery Systems. Lacking an S&T system for youth soccer, I had to resort to googling exercises and relying on internet ratings for whether or not they would be useful.

The Support System has a few levers to build capacity. There are tools: packaged sets of information, like manuals, dashboards, worksheets, and so on. Training, something that is quite popular in organizations, involves delivering content and providing experiences to build knowledge, skills, and abilities. Technical Assistance is ongoing support and feedback that helps receipts enhance their skills and improve their efficacy. Finally, Quality Improvement/Quality Assurance provides a mechanism for tracking implementation quality and improving should deficits be observed.

The season began with a coach-level meeting and training session. A more experienced coach ran us through a bunch of exercises. Frankly, it wasn’t that helpful and pretty annoying by the end. There wasn’t a clear rationale about why we were doing specific games, and whether these would be generalizable to the young kids. Also, my own momentum waned as we hit the 90 minutes mark on a school night as a volunteer. My general capacity is a fixed quantity.

Something not addressed at this coaches’ training was what purpose of all this was. So, at the first practiceItook it upon myself to come up with a set of group norms (or culture) for these kindergarteners. These included 1) We’re here to have fun, 2) We’re here to get better at soccer, and 3) We’re here to play safe. Throughout the season, I made sure to revisit these, probably mostly for me, to keep myself grounded on what I was trying to do.

Over the first few practices, I kept track of what games worked and which weren’t that great.

7.16.20 note: If I had to do it over, I’d really play with the color on this graph more.

Game 1 was fine. Game 2 was also mostly fine, but we got crushed. Game 3 wasn’t great. By this point, I could start to see patterns emerging in the game. The kids were hanging back too much on defense, parking in the goals, and not coming out to challenge incoming balls. This wasn’t just that one kid, either. There wasn’t a stinker on the entire team. The kids were pretty good! But they weren’t playing well. Even my wife started to criticize my coaching

This situation called for some quality improvement. The ultimate goal was to get better at soccer, but a more proximal goal was to improve their defense. I went back to the drawing board and research different skills and games that we could use. So, instead of sharks vs. minnows and traffic jam, we used more defense-oriented games like clean your room and some two-on-one drills. The kids were also bunching up a lot, so we worked on spacing by keeping track of positions and trying to pass in between them. Overall, this worked okay. We still got beat in games 4 and 5, but at least the kids were starting to come out of the goal to challenge for the ball.

We’re not supposed to keep score, but I think our final record was 0–7.

With that in mind, I think we can go back and think through ways that a soccer association can have better support for their volunteer coaches. These suggestions are predicated on the assumption that the goal of the soccer association is to develop soccer players.

  1. Provide tools and training plans that can be adapted to the needs of kids. Don’t assume that the volunteer coaches have any knowledge; don’t assume that they will passively seek out advice on their own. There should be a repository of testing and evaluated games/strategies that all coaches can access. Setting up a wiki or other online message board shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
  2. Make sure that training reflects the needs and capacities of the coaches (and be transparent about what the goals of the training are).
  3. Provide some form of technical assistance and booster session. Other coaches (maybe the salaried ones) should make rounds to provide points and support to the volunteers.
  4. Be clear about coach expectations. If an organization expects to implement a new intervention, they need to be clear about the specifications of those interventions. Things I didn’t expect I’d have to be in charge of included: a) researching training plans, b) coordinating post-game snacks, c) purchasing team medals (out of pocket), d) monitor the fundraiser. There’s no quicker way to set up a poor culture and climate than misrepresent responsibilities.

Since I’m clearly on a list of “potential coaches” now, I hope that there can be a clearer support system so that the kids can have fun, get better at soccer, and maybe learn something.