A Partnership With La Liga for the Care and Feeding … of Coaches

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imagesThe favorite flavor in soccer the past several years has been Spain’s La Liga. Perhaps more specifically the stylish play of the top three clubs — Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid.

While those club teams have played dominant roles in European competitions, Spain’s national team has won major international titles over the past 10 years. It seems that every soccer mind around the world is seeking to unlock the vault and feast on the Spanish/La Liga method for the care, feeding and development of young players.

But which comes first? The player? Or the coach?

“I have felt for a long time, going back to my time at DC United and chairing U.S. Soccer’s technical committee, that we needed to learn from other countries that approach the process of developing players in a systematic way,” said Kevin Payne, the chief executive of US Club Soccer. “The principle, the underlying philosophy is that if want better players, you need better coaches.

“To get better coaches you need to embark on a specific, purposeful program to develop coaches. It doesn’t happen by accident. I’m happy that U.S. Soccer has begun a process of improving licensing programs, making them more directed and rigorous. But that’s only a starting point. It’s really a license to learn to become a coach.”

US Club Soccer, which was founded in 2001 as the National Association of Competitive Soccer Clubs, is an affiliate of the United States Soccer Association, and is sponsored by Nike. The recently formed a partnership with La Liga is part of its mission in player and coaching development in all 50 states via tournaments, clinics and development programs.

La Liga was looking for a partner in the U.S. and, to Payne’s surprise, asked US Club Soccer how it could help American soccer. The quick answer was an appeal to help the raise level of coaching. The result has been a series of LaLiga Formation Methodology courses — the most recent of which, a Level 2 course, was held Aug. 11-13 at The Pennington School in New Jersey and included about 40 coaches. The course represented the advanced stage of the three-level coaching education series at the heart of the US Club Soccer/LaLiga partnership and Players First. To date, nearly 1,000 coaches from clubs, colleges and other organizations have taken part. The cost is between $250 and $300 for each attendee and membership in US Club Soccer is not required.

20728362_10155532870494098_2330555320170456629_n“For us as a club, we have 25 coaches and feel the process really starts with our profession,” said David Richardson, the president of the Chicago Sockers, which hosted one of the courses in July. “For too long in youth coaching, there haven’t been enough demands put on coaches to continue their education, to learn and develop. Think about our kids — they go to school and in those schools there are requirements for teachers, what needs to be taught and learned. Continuing education. When you talk about soccer, you should be talking about the same thing.

“La Liga gave us the opportunity for our club to host 25 coaches sitting together, listening and discussing. We have an opportunity to grow as coaches. When we work on ourselves we can do better jobs with players.”

In the U.S. most recently, the clarion call has been for better and more extensive player development. Whether that means at the youth level or via the academy system adopted by the federation and taken up by professional teams (which really aren’t in the business of developing players), the U.S. has yet to locate the Holy Grail. In Payne’s reading of things, La Liga is among the best leagues in the world, but one that also boasts the most domestic players in Spain’s top flight, more homegrowns than any other top European league.

“Their system is working,” Payne said. “It’s a good place to learn from.”

Of course there has been some push back from a soccer establishment that is married to the American way of doing things — right or wrong.

“We’ve heard some of that, including from some people fairly highly placed in the coaching ranks,” Payne said, without mentioning names. “In the last 30 years we’ve had more registered youth soccer players than anywhere else, yet we’ve yet to produce a world-class player on the mens’ side.

There are two conclusions: American athletes aren’t very good, obviously that’s not the case. Or we’re not doing a good job of teaching them how to be soccer players. People get defensive. If we want to get better we have to be willing to be honest about own shortcomings and areas that can be improved. I have all respect for American coaches, but it doesn’t mean they can’t get better. The vast majority of American coaches feel that way, and they can learn from experts from countries like Spain.”

The LaLiga Formation Methodology is part of US Club Soccer’s Players First initiative, a branded, holistic club soccer experience for parents and players, emphasizing the development of each individual to his or her full potential, and helping parents make better choices about where their children should play.

Two of the experts from La Liga — the brothers Gari and Zunbeltz Fullaondo — are past technical directors at Athletic Bilbao, a La Liga club that only employs players from the Basque region. The club basically shares a pool of 40,000 players with Real Sociedad, but has never been relegated from the top division. Why? They have adopted a philosophy and methodology in a progression. Players ages 12 and 13 are basically equal in technique. What they lack, and are slowly taught, are tactical awareness, how to use space, how to prepare to receive the ball in different circumstances and how to be in position to make the next play.

It all sounds ever so basic, but you don’t know what you don’t know.

You can’t just turn a fire hose on and shove it in kids’ mouths,” Payne said. “There has to be a progression of learning. A kid doesn’t learn skill M before skill A. There are nuances our coaches need to be exposed to.”

There are plans for one more coaching session, in Houston in December, this year, with addition session on the board in 2018 in Oklahoma and California.