An Organizational Perspective
Looking at a club perspective there’s this sense that efficiencies are introduced, that it’s just simpler to have a conventional conveyor belt style organization.
So, much like traditional school teachers don’t really continue with their classes for multiple years, and assembly line workers from days past would stay in their respective parts of the process, so too should coaches in the club’s player pipeline.
But again, this can make sense if there’s a clearly designed and optimized end product in mind. What is the end product?
To further the metaphor, teachers and line workers are trained, specialized, and hence mostly adept at just being a specific cog in the large machine. For instance, does it make sense to assign a 6th grade science teacher to lead a group of graduate students in quantum mechanics?
Of course I’m using something extreme and not perfectly analogous, but the point is clear. That is, the skills required to coach U10 vs U14 vs U18 vs pro are different (not to mention the different levels within each). So the argument goes, silo the coaches to “where they belong”.
I repeat, there’s a rationale and merit to that. I certainly know many coaches that do well with young or lower level players, but would get chewed up and spit out if they jumped into coaching decent level U16s. I also know a lot of coaches who are comfortable just cruising with what they’re used to. These are cases where a policy of siloing coaches can be given some credence. But stopping there, and not looking into different scenarios is irresponsible.
Let’s dig deeper.
Impact to Coaches
One consequence of placing coaches in age-group silos is this:
It keeps them from developing as coaches – a key component of which is accruing experience at higher levels with higher speeds of play.
Without experiencing the higher levels, one’s grasp of what’s required there is compromised, and thus so is one’s understanding of what needs to be done at lower levels.
If a coach were to continue with the same team, the skills that can be acquired are:
- Training and managing higher speeds of play
- Managing a further matured player and team psychology
- Expanding your coaching narrative + learning longer term management (i.e. how to keep your players engaged over a long tenure – next level leadership)
- A holistic, first person, view of player and team development lifecycle(s)
Interestingly, the converse also holds.
That is, if a coach is assigned only to the high levels with high speeds of play – depending on circumstances – they’re in an environment where the margins for error (in every respect) may be too high for them to experiment and better hone their craft. It’s akin to not learning or mastering fundamentals before jumping into the deep end.
If a coach is not allowed to continue with the same team:
- coach can’t build a top-level reputation in the club by building his/her team into one of its flagship teams
- coach can’t build a state/regional reputation by building his/her team into a powerhouse
- coach can’t build loyalty of families (e.g. If the coach had to or wanted to move to another club, the probability that the players will follow drops, and so the club is able to retain that team and revenue.)
Coaches who are ultra-ambitious (e.g. develop pros, or work their way to coaching pros), can’t fulfill that ambition.
First off, if you want to develop pros you have to be working with top level talent. And if you are indefinitely stuck coaching a team whose players are bottom 90 percentile, and aren’t allowed to build that team over years, make a local & regional name for yourself, you are going nowhere.
If you are a talented coach, or want to develop your talent, you are also going nowhere.
The result? Entrenched coaches – no matter how poor or mediocre – remain entrusted with the club and best teams/player pools. Of course it’s not just entrenched coaches that remain unchallenged, it’s all the power positions in the club that remain relatively unquestioned.
So, what’s an ambitious coach to do under these conditions?
If they want to climb the hierarchy, they are forced to divert focus to politics. In general, that means complying with status quo (which by the way, we all know is not getting it done for American soccer). Actually, not only does one have to comply, but one must actively befriend, endorse, and brown nose the club’s DOCs, Tech Directors, preferred coaches, board members and executives (most of which have no expertise in the game). And do the same with those outside their club.
So you see, the incentives for coaches – who want or have made this their profession – are all wrong.
Yes, politics are inescapable. But relative to other professions, the level of meritocracy is abysmal. There is little “get really good at your craft, and you’ll move up the hierarchy”. The American soccer ecosystem heavily favors those who befriend shot callers, rather than those who are great at their craft.
Do you think that effects the state of American soccer at scale?
All this is not to say we should just quit.
Quite the contrary, I hope ambitious coaches keep pushing and finding ways to overcome institutional barriers. The point here is to continue exposing the realities of the American soccer landscape. That way everyone goes into their pursuits with eyes wide open.