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Change the Leadership Equation: Empower Players

Posted by Warren Mersereau on Mar 28, 2016 in Education, Membership 0 Comments

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The following is an article in the 2016 Leadership Series written by the NSCAA Board of Directors. The post is by Warren Mersereau, At-Large Representative to the Board and co-owner of SoccerSolutions.

What follows is a theory about leadership and soccer in the United States. It is not a well-tested or well-researched theory. Rather, it is based on observations during soccer experiences in many countries, long-term interactions with some very successful soccer coaches around the world (some of whom are mentioned later in this article), and lingering frustrations that the United States still does not “produce” world class male players.

Warren Mersereau

Being a soccer leader -- being a soccer coach -- requires among other qualities the potentially conflicting abilities to be both a decisive decision maker and someone who empowers players to make their own decisions.

On the one hand, a soccer coach is frequently required to act alone, to be the minority of one making decisions. Certainly, support staffs make meaningful contributions in programs able to have support staffs. But, ultimately, the coach stands responsible by himself or herself for making key decisions, and it is the coach who owns the results--selecting players for and cutting players from the team. Conducting one-on-one evaluations of and with players. Hiring staff members. Deciding starting line ups. Making substitutions during games. Determining half time adjustments. Providing answers at post game press conferences.

On the other hand, we love to reference soccer as “a player's game.” We are proud that our game is freer flowing, less scripted, and less manipulated than other team sports like American football, basketball, and baseball, which are heavily and directly influenced by coaches through time outs, numerous substitutions, constant sideline commentary, and many predetermined plays.

Consequently, soccer coaches more than coaches of other team sports have to help their players learn to think for themselves, to solve problems on their own and with their teammates in the run of play. In other words, soccer coaches need to empower their players individually and collectively to manage their games by responding to situations as rapidly as they develop, which are constantly. 

So, again, we are faced with this arguably conflicting juxtaposition that a soccer coach in practicing leadership must be both a decisive 

decision maker and someone who encourages his or her players to make their own decisions.

Which leads to the theory that follows. Maybe, just maybe, as soccer coaches in the United States, we are more comfortable, more skilled making decisions than we are empowering our players. Maybe we have focused on and are increasingly adept at the X’s and O’s of the game, the scouting reports, the analytics, the tactics, the performance fitness protocols, the organization of training sessions, the half time sequence, and the post game post mortems. Maybe because we do not yet live in an immersive soccer culture, we are still more influenced than we readily recognize by the culture of other sports like American football, basketball, and baseball that are dominated by coaches’ decisions.

What if we do favor decision-making over empowering our players? What if this imbalance is inhibiting the growth and development of our players? How do we adjust our thinking, our leadership style to shift the balance in favor of empowerment, of giving the game back to our players?

Some “coaching moments” and what were my instant reactions to them readily come to mind:

Carlos Alberto Parreira having the Brazilian National Team, the squad that was on its way to winning the 1994 World Cup, running around competing and laughing while playing tag during training. The catch: Each player had to cross his arms and have one hand on his nose. ENJOYMENT!

Andy Roxburgh, prior to an international qualifying match, asking his players how they wanted to warm up so that individual preferences and needs could be accommodated along with full team exercises. LISTENING.

Bobby Robson stopping the England National Team bus after a match so that youngsters who had waited hours on the curb could actually greet their heroes. MUTUAL RESPECT.

Jürgen Klinsmann spending countless unreported hours speaking with his players, their coaches, and their families to help the players make the best possible choices for their career paths. LIFE SKILLS.

Mick Hoban entering tournament play with his U19 team relying on the players who had been with the squad all season, not on returning college players or guest players. TRUST.

Pearse Tormey starting my son’s travel team practices by asking each player how he was doing in school as a prerequisite for taking the field. PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT.

Peter Gooding suspending an All-American winger for getting a red card after throwing a punch because honoring the integrity and heritage of the game is more important than an individual player’s ability to win a game. RESPONSIBILITY.

Gerard Houllier smiling as his Liverpool squad enthusiastically played small sided games in an area of the club’s Melwood training ground where the goals were solid wooden boxes carried forth from another era so that every goal scored registered with a resounding “thump” followed by players cheering and clapping. STREET FOOTBALL.

We all remember moments like this. These are moments that have little to nothing directly to do with X’s and O’s, set pieces, or opponent’s tendencies. But, they are, arguably, moments that help players reach their full potential. [Article continued below video]

More on "coaching moments"

How do such seemingly isolated moments, which probably take place in different but similar ways across soccer fields wherever the game is played, get woven together into an understandable narrative? Probably something like this. As soccer coaches, we have the choice to lead in a manner that:

  • Ensures the game remains enjoyable and, consequently, maintains ties to the individual and small sided games players would play if no coaches were around and no formal teams were formed.
  • Lets our players know that even in the team context their individual perspectives are important, that we respect and trust them, that on and off the field we encourage them to continue to grow and to learn how to make decisions for themselves, and that with the opportunities provided through the game also come responsibilities.

In other words, as coaches we can empower players. And maybe, if we more consciously and conscientiously promote this element of leadership as much or more than we promote our decision-making ability, our players will be beneficiaries and more fully develop with some -- maybe, just maybe -- even becoming world-class players.

From a practical standpoint what might this mean for us as coaches in terms of our behavior? How do we take our detailed daily training plans and our gameday key points and make them more about empowering our players and less about what we want our players to do?

  • Maybe we need to be even quieter and even less directive during games so our players have to make their own decisions, including learning through the inevitable mistakes that they will make.
  • Maybe we need to find even less “teaching moments” during training so the flow is not repeatedly interrupted and we more fully acknowledge that “the game is the best teacher,” which really means the players playing the game can be teachers.
  • Maybe we need to offer (at least occasionally) unstructured training sessions so the player can just play, as they want to play.
  • Maybe we need to spend more time showing our players what they can do away from official team training on their own or with a teammate or two to improve their skills and understanding of the game. After all, our players will not get 10,000 hours of focused training if they only train in organized team settings. To get there, they are going to have to also train on their own, play on their own, constantly keep falling in love with the game on their own.
  • Maybe we need to work with our players’ parents at the youth levels to encourage them to make their children/players responsible for getting ready for training and games. How many parents do just about everything for their children to get them ready for soccer? Organize the shoes, uniform, shin guards, ball, and backpack. Get the water bottle filled. Make sure healthy food is available at an appropriate time prior to playing. Provide transportation. Clean up afterwards.

    If kids like playing soccer and want to be with their teammates, certainly they can take some responsibility --- or all responsibility as they get older --- for organizing everything they need to play. After all, with empowerment comes responsibility. If we as coaches cannot convince the parents of our players of the importance of the parents making their children increasingly responsible for everything associated with their children’s game, it is going to be difficult for the players to turn on the “responsibility switch” --- the “empowered switch” --- when they get to training and games. Arguably, this is no different than training at half speed and expecting players to suddenly adapt to and succeed at full game speed. It’s not a good formula for success.

  • Maybe we need to ask our players at age appropriate levels to think more about the game so they understand it better. Maybe this means asking our players after games what they perceive happened so training can be adjusted taking their input into account. Maybe at older levels it even means asking at half time what players perceive is going on and taking their thoughts into consideration as adjustments are made. Maybe this means taking our players to higher level games (e.g. college, professional, national team) with the expectation that all players will be involved in a post game discussion and analysis about what they saw happening in the game. Maybe this type of involved learning will give players more confidence as they try to take charge of their games and solve problems in the run of play.

Again, it is worth emphasizing, if we as coaches think empowering our players is a good idea, we also have to be prepared to help our players accept the responsibility that comes with empowerment. Quite simply, empowerment is an opportunity provided, or as Jürgen Klinsmann likes to say, “a door opened.” But, unless players walk through that door, accept responsibility for the opportunity, in this case, for the empowerment coaches are trying to provide, it will not work. Arguably, the same holds true with the parents of our players. If they do not support requiring their children to be more responsible for their own pre training and pre game preparation as well as post training and post game clean up, our players will feel entitled, which is contrary to being empowered.

Is the theory outlined above valid? Will it work? I do not know. In fact, in the beginning, if adopted, I think coaches will face the hurdles that come with any change, with trying something different. Players and parents are used to directed behavior, of having coaches be in charge. So, they may at least initially struggle with a modified leadership style, particularly if there are poor game results or players indicate they are uncomfortable or not getting coached enough. Predictably, re-structuring our coaching approach so that players are afforded more opportunities to take responsibility for their own development is not necessarily going to be easy on anyone involved --- players, parents, and coaches.

But, what choice do we have other than to make a dramatic change in the way we approach coaching?

The challenges we face as soccer coaches trying to elevate the game in our country to reach higher international standards are clearly evident. Since 1990, 25 countries have had at least one player voted into the top 10 of the annual FIFA Player of the Year (now FIFA Ballon d’Or) selections. The United States is not one of these countries. Since 1990, 15 different countries have reached the semifinals of the World Cup. The United States is not one of these countries either.

Maybe, therefore, it’s time we changed our coaching equation and viewed coaching leadership as more about empowering our players than making decisions for them.

Photo credits: University of Miami Athletics, College of Wooster Athletics, Chico State Athletics

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