Why Do You Coach?

Answering this question is the first step in defining a coaching philosophy
by Ken Sweda   |   Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Technically Speaking - column on player development, coaching & youth soccer

There is no more important thing a coach must do than define his or her philosophy.

Even before adopting a system of training or a style of play, the philosophy must be established.

It is not so much a singular decision, but an aggregation of experiences that are actively melded into a distinct path.

And yet, almost assuredly, there is one single question that must be asked at the beginning of the process, and during every successive experience:

Why do I coach?

For me, it’s simple: I love the process and detail of instruction, and I value and enjoy the participants immensely. I want to share the depth of the game and the wonderful opportunities to create something amazing in the moment, both individually and with their teammates, with them.

I know the landscape in this country is full of coaches who may say they value these same things, but their approach proves otherwise. The level of detail is missing, leaving the players short of the tools needed to make these special moments. Coaches dominate the proceedings, manipulating the participants to serve their own purposes.

This is not unique to soccer, but I do believe it impacts soccer much more, especially in a negative way, than any other sport. Because unlike the standard North American sports, soccer at its highest levels is essentially a players’ sport: no plays are called in from the sideline, no one is looking to the coach for a series of random hand gestures telling them what to do, the center midfielder isn’t holding up several fingers to indicate what progression is coming next.

In soccer, the players are physically trained to execute certain skills, and to understand their appropriate use, and then they are essentially allowed to perform them.

But in North America, players are conditioned to play in a superficial fashion as prepared by the coach in training, and called for by the coach during the game. The gap between what “is” and what “could be” is much larger in soccer than perhaps any other team sport.

If our young players knew how fun and fulfilling the game could be, and how much they’re missing out on, I believe there would be an all-out mutiny. But for this to happen, it would require that parents begin to value these things, and hold coaches accountable. They need to value the process, and the growth and enjoyment their children show. Until then, coaches and parents will continue this oddly self-serving, mutually reinforcing, and ultimately destructive relationship.

So the focus has to change. It has to be about what the players want. This requires investigation and understanding. It requires commitment.

And frankly, it requires empathy. It comes down to a simple question: Do you value how these young people feel?

Ask yourself: How does it feel to a young player to be parked on the edge of her box for the duration of a game, waiting for a touch on the ball, only to be told all she can do is blast it forward or out of bounds?

How does it feel to a young player to try something of her own accord, make a mistake, and then be yelled at from both the coach and the parents and told not to try it again, as opposed to being better trained and encouraged to do so?

Again, why do you coach?

Is it to take your U-8 team to a “championship?”

Would it surprise you to know that the players who lose a “final” react almost exactly the same as those who won, and are typically more concerned with, say, what flavor ice cream they’re going to get on the way home?

I’ve seen the reactions from our team on both the winning and losing end of such a game, and I can assure you, there is nothing vastly different or particularly lasting about either. What is lasting, however, is the ownership our girls have of the game itself, and how they are being developed to, and allowed to, execute it.

Why do I coach? And why do I coach the way that I do?

It’s about the kids. Period.

Understand what they want out of their experience, find your passion in the game and your individual way of connecting with them, and invest in the process. Your philosophy will be an outgrowth of these things. Support your philosophy with the technical and tactical details you choose to impart, and with how to choose to impart them.

I dare anyone to truthfully say they love the game (not the results), and that they love working with young people, only to go out and shortchange them so dramatically. One of those things must be missing in the majority of youth soccer in this region, or we wouldn’t see so many examples of poor play and poor behavior.

The philosophy you adopt will define the “how” and the “what” of your coaching, but the “why” must be the same for every coach.

We must be involved for the purpose of serving the player. The game will be better off for this approach, and the results will take care of themselves. We will produce more fulfilled young people, and we as coaches and parents will be more fulfilled as well.

I can’t help think that there is a very detrimental mindset that has taken root in this part of the world. We increasingly seem to have this need to treat everything as a zero-sum game: We have to win, or we lose. There is a need to indulge mindless competition solely to “get over on” someone, rather than choosing to walk away and be secure in ourselves.

I’m not really sure what we all think we’re trying to prove to each other.

When a massive youth club team takes joy in running up the score on a rec team (see my earlier piece), I wonder what must be so fundamentally wrong with our perspective and how we view and treat each other.

When a small, developmentally-based academy invites a big local club to a 3v3 festival for U7s, with no results to be kept, only to have the big club’s DOC cynically ask whether the small academy has some “superteam” that they want to show off, I wonder what has happened to our priorities.

I worry about this attitude, this lack of civility, empathy, richness, this emphasis on superficiality, on winning and having the last word. I worry what the extreme of this attitude can create, and perhaps is already creating. There is a mindset that everything needs to be “settled.” It’s a perversion, and it needs to stop.

I can’t stop the insidious creep of these attitudes everywhere, but I can do my part locally.

I will continue to focus on the process, and its wonderful young participants, scoreboard results and mindless braggery be damned.

It’s about the kids.


U of Illinois, Urbana
Club Domestic:
Chicago Fire
Club Foreign:
Column on progressive youth training, development and coaching topics. Private skills instructor, Coerver Coaching (C) diploma holder & U9 coach. Abashed Holland supporter. Raising two beautiful daughters in the beautiful game.