Do you have a specific type of team you work best with?
SO: I enjoy working with girls, anywhere from 10-13 years old. At that age they are like sponges; you can teach them the basics which seem to get forgotten a lot.
Who in the world of soccer have you learned the most from?
SO: The biggest influence was a gentleman called Tony Paris who is the Director of Coaching down in St Petersburg. I worked under him for maybe 3-4 years. He was an ex-pro who had coached professionally; he had been a college coach at St Leo’s. How he conducted himself on the field and with the parents were real strengths. Also, from working in the MLS Perry Van der Beck and Tim Hankinson. I used to watch Tim’s sessions a lot. Basically I will watch and learn from anybody, from a parent coach to my peers, I am always trying to take their ideas and put my own spin on them.
What formation do you like to use?
SO: For the girls I started with a 4-3-3 to give the girls balance. In 2005 I had a very good U14-15 team in the Carolina tournament. Before the event we were conceding a lot of goals. We had a great team but for whatever reason we were not keeping clean sheets. On the 10 hour journey up there the assistant coach and I talked about formations and came up with the 4-2-3-1 before it was super-popular, believe it or not. We got to the tournament and ended up getting beaten in the final on penalties. From 2005 onwards it was my formation of choice. It gave us balance all over the field; I could fit in girls who maybe weren’t as athletic in the holding positions, so basically I could find a place for every player that I had. When I moved to Colorado I used it with my Challenge team, switching them from 4-3-3 and again had success with it. I got comfortable coaching that formation and it worked. It brings a smile to my face now when I see all the professional teams going to it now. It works for girls especially, when you have a varied level of player on the team.
Mike Freitag talked to us last week about the dangers of using one forward at the youth level. How do you deal with it in your 4-2-3-1?
SO: When I first introduced this I had a player in the forward role who had an engine on her – a cross country runner – who could cover the field. The girl in the middle of the three used to be a center forward and she was very athletic as well. It would be like a triangle behind the top player, so we’d have a traditional number 10 drifting around and getting up to support as quickly as possible. When we were attacking it was almost like a 4-2-1-3, with the wingers being fast and wide outside. The left back and right back were also ex-wingers, encouraged to attack a lot. We moved up the field very quickly to provide support all over the field.
How do you decide what you are going to practice?
SO: I get the team at the beginning of the year and see what the level is. That will determine the first 4-5 weeks of work. If they can’t pass the ball right then that may be the focus of the sessions. Once we get that down and we start introducing defending, combinations and so on we can build from there. Beyond that it depends what I see in games. You can plan a season but at the end of the day, if you have an attacking practice and we can’t defend it is all pointless as they will never get the ball to attack.
Do you rate your practices afterwards?
SO: I am constantly critiquing them. Before, during and after I ask what I could have done better, what I could have said better. If the session is not going well I will ask myself whether I didn’t explain it very well, or whether it is too easy or too hard for the kids. I have reams and reams of typed out practices that I have used and kept.
How often do you use the same session?
SO: A lot of the practices I use over and over again with tweaks, so the kids are comfortable but we are advancing. I have maybe ten favorites which cover everything and which I can change all the time, depending on the team and the situation.
How do you talk to your team parents?
SO: The most important part is before the season starts you must set expectations. When I first came to Broomfield I was getting married and I was going to be away for a while. I told them up front that if they had a problem they had to tell me there and then, and no one did. I think part of that was my communication up front. During the season I am always sending them updates on what we are working on. Often the parents look at the score and don’t look at what was actually going on during the game. So it is constant education. You can’t keep everyone happy, with so many parent-types out there. Set everything early and make sure you follow through on what you said you would do. Also make it clear what parents are going to provide. If they don’t do it you will need to have conversations one on one and as groups with them. If you do that you will keep away the big issues.
How do you deal with the big problems when they happen?
SO: Face to face. Too many people hide behind emails, which is really the coward’s way out. I tell them there has to be a 24 hour cooling down period after games. Emotions are high whether you won or lost and you as a coach are probably exhausted too. You might be upset because something happened and the last thing you need is to be confronted by an angry parent. If they have a problem they can call me, not email me, because it gets blown out of context when it is read in an email.
What do you think is the biggest threat to youth soccer in the US?
SO: Expectations probably. The sport is still relatively new. People forget that the game is for the kids and them learning new skills as opposed to the win and loss record. The pressures put on the kids does not allow for them to try new things as they are scared to fail. I am an A-licensed coach but at the end of the day my sessions are about learning through fun. Creating an environment so the player is not afraid to try something new. If you can do that results will happen.
I took a U10 team in Florida who lost almost every game in a B Division the next season we cam 3rd in the A division the following season we won the league going undefeated. By not being afraid of losing and building the foundations for the players to succeed, success and positive results will follow The expectations were telling the parents why we were doing something and what would change, and it worked.
If you could change anything about youth soccer, what would it be?
SO: At the younger age groups there should be less emphasis on the tournaments and results. If we can provide an environment where the kids can learn and not be afraid to make mistakes. That’s both education for parents and coaches who are too focused on the win/loss record as opposed to their education and the kids themselves.
Quit over coaching the players and allow them to learn through playing. Kids have little time now to play, everything is organized from the moment they wake up till the time they go to bed, allow them to learn through playing instead of endless drills that make them play like robots.