By Dan Minutillo
The Club Soccer Coach in a High School Environment
Coaching club soccer for 20 consecutive years at all club levels surely would prime any coach to take on a varsity high school soccer coaching assignment for a large, well-established, local high school, right? How different could coaching high school soccer be from coaching at the academy or club level? Soccer players are soccer players whether they are club or high school. It’s a distinction without a difference – wrong, dead wrong.
The purpose of this article is to help the club soccer coach understand the differences between coaching a club soccer team and coaching a high school soccer team. It does not focus on the difference in player skill, player vision and general decision making ability between the two levels. It focuses on creating a team culture, spirit, personality and program reputation at the high school level. It increases a coach’s understanding of how and why a high school team functions differently from a club team from a group sociological perspective.
Group Sociological Differences
The phrase “group sociological perspective” is used to mean a viewpoint that is developed by analyzing a high school soccer team through observation of conduct and interaction as a group, disregarding individual analysis of each player. This requires a coach to view the interaction of players on the team, as opposed to analyzing team performance based on the performance of its individual players. The purpose of this analysis is to help a coach influence individual player performance and attitude using the group as a tool to influence each individual player. The group is influenced by the team culture. The team culture is created by the coach. This does not mean that a coach stops analyzing the technical, tactical, physical and mental ability of each player, but does add a tool to enhance team and player performance.
In a high school setting – because of the high level of peer group pressure amongst the players on a team – the effect of a group mentality has a much greater impact on team performance than at the club level. The group affects performance of the team and of each individual player with direct, indirect and subliminal pressure applied as a group. The high school player sits in the classroom all day alongside his or her teammates providing the opportunity to interact about the team much more often than at the club level. This interaction helps to create a deep and lasting group mentality, team culture and spirit that affect team performance on the field. At its simplest level, assume that the group is one player being taught, influenced and manipulated by the coach and by individual players in order to improve team performance. Analyze the group (team) as you would analyze one individual player. The group takes on its own personality (group mindset) – with flaws, inconsistencies, goals, desires, periods of excellence and periods of failure – no different than an individual player.
The key for a coach to influence the group in a positive way is with consistency, repetition and patience when imprinting of a culture on each member of the group. Determine the culture for the team, refine it with ideas from the school administration, put pen to paper and then sell it to the team at every training session, game and team event. Be consistent with player and team discipline for violating this culture; and consistent with praise for adhering to it.
A group mindset means team culture, team personality and most importantly, a positive or negative view of the group as a whole or of individual parts of the group, including the coach by the players. The mindset does not refer to any one individual but to the group as if the group has a personality of its own.
Having been on both sides, it is clear that the high school experience is more important from a social viewpoint than the club experience even though the player may be with the club team for more months during a year. Players recognize the importance of having a high school soccer experience; the importance of their status within the high school team; the importance of their status as part of a successful or failing high school team; and the importance of representing their high school during these formative years. This higher level of perceived importance can be used by a coach to more easily influence high school players than club players.
Once the high school team’s mindset is created it is harder to change because of normal player carryover. For example, a talented freshman may be part of a high school team for four years and his or her impression of the coach and the team may remain year after year to either negatively affect the culture and team personality, or positively enhance it. At the club level, because of age restrictions and ease of movement from club team to club team, player movement is more constant.
There is a high level of discussion – or gossip – outside of practice and games amongst high school players about the program, the coach, the school administration and the success or failure of the season. Player camaraderie outside of the soccer program is important to the players and is shared by the players away from practice and games at the high school level, much more so than at the club level. Players’ opinions about each other in a high school setting (whether a player is popular or not; whether a player is a good student or not) is valuable input for a high school coach when shaping team culture.
There is a greater opportunity for high school players to share ideas, comments, praise and criticism about the high school program than at the club level. This produces a major group sociological mindset that a coach must recognize, observe, understand and manipulate to the team’s advantage. This mindset exists at the club level but it is much more easily diluted or changed by the club coach in a club environment. The difference between the club group sociological effect and the high school effect is like comparing a small wave on a beach to a very large swell moving in the middle of an ocean. For the reasons mentioned above, a team culture, which includes expected work rate, discipline, goals and aspirations, is much easier to create in a high school environment than in a club environment.
Why is this important?
At the high school level, from an administration viewpoint, coaches are expected to create a program that has a distinct and positive team culture, spirit, reputation and code of conduct. The high school coach is the prime mover to create each of these parts of the program. Coaches are closer to the players and to the overall program than the school administration and can have a greater influence on players than teachers or administrators. Because of that influence, coaches can create or destroy a culture with long-lasting effect on the school and on the program based on an understanding of the group dynamic and conduct with a team. Coaches’ conduct when interacting with a team creates the team culture, which in turn creates the team spirit and the reputation of a program.
Team culture establishes team work rate during training sessions and during games. Team spirit either enhances or degrades player happiness, which relates to player performance during training and games. Team and program reputation is created as coaches enforce a chosen code of team conduct. Team reputation is also influenced by school administrators, who are not so much focused on developing a winning team as on sportsmanship or adhering to school or district rules. School priorities, for better or worse, may be different than usual club soccer priorities. To complicate matters further, in addition to winning a few games along the way, coaches are pressured to ensure that the players conclude their high school season with fond memories of the program and, hopefully of their coach, while increasing their possibilities to play college soccer.
ELEMENTS OF THE GROUP DYNAMIC
What are the elements of the group dynamic to be observed, analyzed and influenced by a coach in order to create a team culture resulting in positive performance on the field? Look at the flow chart below, starting from the bottom of the chart and working to the top of the chart.
The most important element of the above flow is the creation of the team culture before the first meeting with your players. As an example, the team culture might be a required high work rate at training and during games; never giving up; punctuality; unselfish play; and respect for the opponent. Or, the team culture might be, fun during training sessions and individual player enjoyment; a high grade standard; and individual player improvement.
The components of the team culture are only limited by the imagination of the coach but, each component must be an element that can be controlled by the coach. For example, an element of the team culture should not be “winning” or “no goals allowed” for a season or “no offsides during the run of play.” The team culture is more like a concept than a goal. Note that once the team culture is created, based on the above flow chart, all the other elements fall in line like standing dominos to influence team performance. The coach pushes the first domino by creating the team culture.
What are the controllable elements that can be used to influence the group dynamic creating a team culture?
1. Repetitive reminders to the team and to individual players by the coach and the team captains reinforcing the culture.
2. Continual and consistent player or team discipline by the coach when the team culture is violated; and praise when the team culture is followed.
3. Relentlessly explaining the purpose of each element of the team culture and explaining to players how reinforcing it with discipline or praise relates to team performance.
4. Sticking with the team culture for the entire season whether or not the team is winning games.
5. Defining and explaining the team culture to the athletic director and any other administrator who has contact with players before the start of the season and asking that person to reinforce certain elements of the team culture to the players when appropriate.
Understanding the differences between the club and high school soccer team dynamic, knowing that this team dynamic can be influenced by a coach in a major way by creating a team culture and that this influence will have a direct effect on team performance will not guarantee a winning season, but it will get the team closer to that goal.
About the Author: Dan Minutillo has coached soccer for more than 20 consecutive years, including club academy and varsity high school soccer teams. He holds an NSCAA National Diploma; has been published several times in various nationally distributed periodicals including articles about soccer speed of play, player motivation, plyometrics, and the use of time, space, and third man runs. Minutillo is the author of the bestselling book, “Formation Based Soccer Training”. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.