David Saward – Coaching and Playing D3 College


David Saward has been the head coach at Middlebury for 30 years. He has led the team to 25 postseason appearances, including ten NCAA tournament appearances. He has more wins than any other coach in Middlebury soccer history with a career record of 315-110-49. In 2007 his team won the NCAA National Championship, without letting in a goal in the five tournament games. David was named National Coach of the Year that year and in 2009 he was honored by the NSCAA with the Mike Berticelli Excellence in Coaching Education Award, given annually for long-term service to soccer.

David is Director of Coaching for the State of Vermont and a National Senior Staff Coach with the NSCAA. He is a certified soccer coach through the NSCAA and both the British and Canadian Soccer associations.

After a string of five wins without conceding a goal, your team had a couple of losses on the road. As a coach, what do you say to the players to help turn that around?

You have a look at their class schedule and see what is bothering them at this level, because that can be such a big impact on performance on the field. We forget sometimes that they are actually students first. We have the luxury here of getting to know our students quite well, so we spend a lot of time talking to them, seeing what might be affecting them so that we can adjust what we are doing. When you get to certain periods of the year you might experience a little downturn like we did, and it often coincides with midterms. There are other things you can’t control too, especially with such a small squad, if you lose a couple of key players to injury you can be affected as well.

Your conference (the NESCAC) has several long-running coaches and at least one former player coaching against you. Is there a spirit of community amongst the programs and how does that affect you as a coach?

Actually I have two head coaches who played for me and four others in the conference who are assistants now, so I feel like I have my fingers in lots of pies, but they are all beating me! There has always been a good collegiality in this league. If you go back to the good old days Peter Gooding was at Amherst for 35 years and Ron McEachen was at Middlebury before me who is also another staff coach at NSCAA. So I have always found it to be a good league with everyone looking after each other in some ways. You are all out to try to beat one another but there is a sense of balance in what we try to do. I’ve really enjoyed the whole experience but in the last 5-6 years it has changed a little bit, with more emphasis on winning and our value being judged by winning. Thirty years ago I was a three sport coach when I started here, but now we are refocused to one sport, which changes the atmosphere around games quite a bit.

When you’re recruiting, what kind of players do you look for?

The first thing we have to look for are academics. Obviously you have to be a reasonable player too but we are looking for people at the top of the academic spectrum. We fish in the same pool as the Ivy League – the players who are qualified to go to Yale, Princeton, Columbia etc who want a smaller environment, which really does differentiate who we can go after. Beyond that we are looking for players who can make the level of your program just a little bit better than it already is, in a perfect world. I tend to look for generalists rather than specialists – with the exception of goalkeepers and strikers. Incidentally, strikers are few and far between. It seems to me that we are just not producing players who instinctively score goals. We should spend time on some of these courses getting input on it, because we could craft something that leads to the creation of more goal scorers.

How can coaches best prepare their players for college with you?

They need to be students who are able to balance their life very well. They need to be self-sufficient because the academic load is significant so when you add in the athletic component they need to be able to balance that out. Often talking to students they find it much easier to balance their time during the season than outside of it: freedom can lead to issues on a college campus that aren’t as productive for them! The best way to prepare them for us is to have well-rounded athletes who see soccer as a part of their life but not the whole of their life.

Do you choose players to fit positions or adjust your system to fit the players?

We’ve actually fiddled around with it this year! One of the things with our conference is that we only have a 15 game season. We have a very strict set of rules that we have to abide by that are over and above those set for Division 3 as a whole. By about mid-season we have just about decided who should play where and how we should play. Most of the players who come in now are playing some version of a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 so given the amount of time we have to get them ready to play as a team I think we have to feed in to what they already are used to. For the last 5-6 years we have been a 4-3-3 team but certainly there has been some tweaking of that depending on the strengths and weaknesses of players.

Most of your players are from New England. Does that come from you targeting local players or is it the nature of the university as a whole?

Demographically it is so much easier to see a player within the New England/New Jersey area, but we do have a couple of players from the West Coast. We’ve traditionally done quite well in the Chicago area and had 1-2 from Colorado too. I think the name Middlebury is very well known in New England so the majority of our recruiting is done there. We are also restricted in what we can do for recruiting – we don’t have a bottomless budget to get out to see everybody, which has an impact on what you can do.

You have several out of state players, including boys from California, Iowa and Utah.  How did you get to see them play and recruit them?

Over thirty years you build up connections with players and coaches so we have a player from the San Francisco area at the moment, and there’s a guy who I knew in Vermont who moved out to San Francisco to coach out there and you can fill in the rest for how we got to the recruit. So it is a two-way street: if someone we know notifies us about a good player it is a lot more powerful I’m afraid than somebody I don’t know – especially if they don’t have a reference back to a player we have had here. It helps us to have a reference point when it comes to assessing their level.

What attracts players to come to Middlebury and to play at the Division 3 level?

We were ranked 4th in the US World News Report for small colleges and that has a big impact on people – to go to one of these – I hate to use the word – ‘elite’ places where they can be set up for their life ahead. The contacts that they get can be pretty powerful. That attracts students. The other thing is a lot of people fancy spending four years in Vermont. It is a beautiful state and the college itself is spectacular, where it’s set in the Champlain Valley overlooking the Green Mountains. If you like living outdoors and skiing it is a very attractive place to live. The challenge we have is getting people to visit the campus – we are five hours north of New York and three or four hours from Boston – but when they get here they are shocked at how special it is. We have an 18 hole golf course, a ski area, an Olympic pool, hockey rink, and we are just putting in a $45 million field house with a six lane track and indoor field turf field so it isn’t a difficult sell when people come here. Then the challenge is getting through the admissions office though.

Is it difficult without Athletic Scholarships? What other means do you have to support players?  

Not really. The way financial aid works here is that it is based upon need. When you are charging over $60,000 per year almost everybody needs some help. Now that is something I have no control over. Students get admitted and then everything is determined by the financial aid office regarding what the award will be. Something like 65% of all students are on some form of aid here. It has been a priority of the institution to make sure that what we can offer through federal and college grants can still attract the best students.

How do players get noticed by you? Does writing letters and calling really help?

It’s a beginning: it’s like when you are looking for a job you send out a lot of letters to try to get a foot in the door. Anything beyond just an email or phone call is going to help the player more of course. We do 2-3 ID camps each year that students can come here to attend. We hold another one in conjunction with another college down in New York too. They come in for a day or two and we get to watch them play and get to know them a little bit. I also do a three day overnight camp that is a good way to get a handle on a player. Whenever we can we will try to see them at one of the big tournaments if they are there. We can only go to so many though as they are every weekend.

So there is some value to tournaments too then?

We’ve found that some events suit us better than others. Part of that is geography. We will go down to Washington, but we have also been to Dallas and to Disney. We’ve tended to go to events that have provided us with players in the past but that’s not to say that we wouldn’t go somewhere completely new, because we have to compete against the other colleges in our conference who are looking at the same players.

How important is playing NPL, Development Academies or any of the other programs currently out there for youth players?

We look at those for sure. One of the keys to being a top Division 3 school is to try to ‘steal’ (and I use that word loosely) 2-3 players who could easily play at the Division 1 level. We have to then try to show what this institution can bring over and above the notoriety an 18 year old might think he will get at Division 1. There is no doubt that the teams in our conference all have players who if they chose the right program would be good Division 1 players. For all the reasons we’ve talked about though they’ve decided to play here and to reap the benefits of a NESCAC education.

What’s the attrition rate? How many drop out before the end?

I would say maybe one player in five years has dropped out of sport. It hasn’t been a large factor for us at all in thirty years.

During the season, what does the week look like for your players?

By the law of the NCAA they have to have one day off in seven. So we normally give Sunday off, but some others give Monday off. We have 1-2 weekends where we play both weekend days so they get Mondays off then. Training is 4:30-6:00pm every day and that’s about it. We might do a couple of extra meetings or film sessions above the 90 minutes but they don’t get out of class until 4:00pm and some have classes again in the evening. It is very similar to their high school soccer schedule. Others in the league might be dramatically different but I have found it works for me.

How important is it to you to build a relationship with your players off the field? What do you say or do?

It’s huge. It’s what makes the job really fun for me. Over thirty years now a lot of them become good friends and will check back in from time to time and for me that’s my bonus in the job. I try to do everything informally, checking in and asking them how things are going. I don’t like formal meetings: I feel like you achieve more with a quick question as they are warming up, maybe some funny comments here and there and that is all they really need to see that you are taking an interest. If you sense that someone is stressed out we will make sure we tune in and have a private meeting with them.

What do you get out of being on the NSCAA National Staff?

To me it’s the best form of professional development I’ve ever been involved in. It puts me in a position where I have to evaluate what I am doing, but it also allows me to mix with so many guys in the game. We all tend to live in our little silos but the NSCAA gives us a chance to see what is going on in other players around the country. I went through the programs myself and loved them and now it is a way to give back to the association too.

With over 30 years coaching the team where else do you go to find new ideas?

What you are doing here is an example of how the internet has become such a useful tool for coaches. There are some bad things on there but there are also some great and helpful things too. We are all different types of learners and I think for so many years there was only one way to learn but the internet has broadened the way we can help people become more effective in how they teach the game. At the end of the day though, talking to coaches and people in the game is the best way I have been able to stay relevant. As the phrase goes: when you stop thinking there is more to learn you’re in trouble!

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