Dan Watkins has been coaching at Wheat Ridge High School for 17 years, including 6 years as head coach of the boys’ varsity program and 13 years head coach of the girls. He played club soccer at Kansas State. Outside of school he is coaching club at the U10 academy level for Real Colorado. Dan has the NSCAA High School Diploma as well as various special topics courses. He is also the Vice President of the Colorado High School Coaches Association Soccer committee.
What would you say are your strengths as a coach?
Besides the soccer knowledge I would say I have the ability to unite kids in a common purpose towards their school. High school soccer is a different experience for kids and that sense of connectedness – playing for your school and program – is something special, regardless of the background of the kids coming in. I think focusing on this area has helped us to be successful over the years.
When you took over the program did you have a vision for what you wanted to create, and how would you rate your success at achieving it?
I was very young when I started (23 as JV coach) and there had been a lot of turnover in coaches before I got there. My vision was to provide a high quality soccer experience, which forced me to be as educated and informed as possible. Being an educator I also felt that part of my vision was to build a program, with the continuity, experience and other pieces that in my mind make up high school soccer. I feel like we have had a great amount of success trying to achieve that – regardless of whether we have had one of the better teams in the state or one in the middle – this focus has allowed us to have more success because of those foundational pieces.
So are you rating success by game results or the other factors that make up the program?
I think it is both. We won championships in 2009 and 2010, we were in the finals the next year and other stages of the playoffs also. What your kids learn from having some success makes it easier to get the buy-in from them, so it can go hand in hand. If you try to do some different things but don’t have success on the field it can be more difficult. The goal has never really been to win a State Championship because so few get to do that. When you are having success in academics and in the community you often find that the program as a whole is going well.
Has your approach changed over time?
My understanding of the kids and what they want has definitely grown over time. You come in and you want them to like you and like playing soccer, and you want to win. Over time you move more towards trying to develop young men and young women. If you make that one of your central focuses then you have a much better chance of succeeding on the field.
Do you have a vision for the season as a whole when you look at it from the start of the year?
Yes. It’s a lot of big picture stuff. Each team has a unique identity in terms of who the leaders are, who is returning, what level of club kids you are getting at the tryouts and so on. You want to figure out the identity and how best to approach what they need. Another part is figuring out which way to push them depending on the goals that you think are realistic for that team.
How do you structure your pre-season?
We do informal workouts from October each year. That allows us to build relationships for a longer period of time. We expect kids to come in with a high level of fitness and we get them connected to what we want to do very early on. I have a couple of great assistant coaches that work here in the school and have great soccer backgrounds. They spend a lot of time with the kids and help share the responsibility with me. As the club program winds down we introduce the ball and have a camp the week before the season starts. So many kids now are going to President’s Weekend tournaments so that can make it more difficult, but we do a lot of little things so that when we are ready to flip the switch they are able to jump right into the high school season.
During the regular season what do you cover in practices?
High school soccer is very different from club soccer because you are not just playing games at weekends and you have much less time to practice between games. Figuring out the rhythm of the season is one of the more difficult things to do. We do a lot of sessions focusing on our vision and how we want to play, up until Spring Break, which is about 40% of the way through our season. After that our knowledge of our own team and players and opponents will allow us to adapt to what we are going to play and our training sessions will focus on that. We will do standard things like finishing and possession too, so there is some balance.
There appears to be a growing trend of bringing in specialist soccer coaches from outside schools to coach varsity teams. As a teacher, what is your view of this?
I think it depends upon the program. I think the high school experience is centered around the student athlete, so having a program that is connected to the academic side of things can be a vital piece. Coming in just from the club side can offer some things to some programs, but I feel like the investment isn’t always there. They might have a winning mindset, which is also very important, but I feel like the success often comes more from ‘educators’ or people with an extended interest in the program. There can be varying levels of soccer background with educators though, so I do get that the results will vary for each program. There probably isn’t a right or wrong answer: being an educator will help, but you have to have a strong soccer foundation.
In your opinion is player development in high school affected by how short the season is and how many games they have to play within that time?
When you are in a school you are coaching a sport and that is a piece of the educational experience. Are there more kids playing high school sports who are not going to go on and play college soccer? Yes, there are a large number of kids in that position, so if your goal is to work with whichever kids come to your school I think the model is right. For the highest-end kids maybe it isn’t the most perfect model, but for a huge majority I think it is a very good experience. In 2.5 months is there a value to playing so many games? It could be argued either way, and the higher end kids might actually benefit from it. We’re not asking them to play so many games for 12 months of the year either.
Some of the high end kids are choosing to skip their high school season now, to play in Development Academies. Do you think this trend will increase over time?
I don’t. I think there are not many positions available and there are not several hundred kids in Colorado who are academy level, geared towards playing professionally one day. You have to remember too that those academies are for-profit entities geared and their goal is not to have hundreds of players. There are kids who can come in and have great success and get great exposure in high school though, so it isn’t the only way to get recognized. It is harder to get seen and the players and parents know that, but it isn’t impossible. ECNL is a little bit different because they can still choose to play school. I’ve had several kids play for me and go on to play at Division 1 schools and in my opinion playing high school didn’t hurt them one bit.
You are Vice President of the Colorado High School Coaches Association for soccer. What do you do for them, and what are their priorities?
My role is as a liaison between the coaches and the association (CHSAA), so I work with them on their concerns and help improve high school soccer improve as a whole in the state. That might include refereeing issues and making sure kids are getting a good experience. We put on an All-State Game and work with CHSAA for the betterment of our game. When they discuss league alignment or other decision-making we try to provide as much input as we can. Things that go to a vote on the state level have generally come from our committee.
CHSAA has its own rule book for the game, which is particularly noticeable with the three referees on the field? What is your view of them not choosing to follow the common FIFA Laws of the Game?
Probably some other people can give you the history, but the decision evolved from other sports having trailing officials who could see different things. If you have a high caliber officiating crew they can make the system work because they understand the FIFA system and they work together. The side referees are still with the last defender, they just have a whistle. So the role really isn’t that different. The problem can come from a lack of training and resources to help referees play in the CHSAA system. If the state chooses to mandate their own system, then I want it to be the best possible system that they can make it. That includes conditioning requirements, assessing, and how best to utilize the assignors and get the best crews together. There are a lot of games taking place during the week, whereas USSF games are taking place at weekends. It can be difficult to get the same referees to games at 4pm on a Tuesday because the officials have full time careers. Like I said though, if we are one of two high school states choosing to use a different system, I hope they can continue to make it the best experience possible within that framework.