A More Advanced High School Soccer Program

Interview with Hardy Kalisher

September 7, 2017
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Hardy Kalisher is responsible for the entire boys’ soccer program at Boulder High School. He is the school’s longest running and most successful boys’ soccer coach. Under Hardy the team have reached the Colorado State Playoffs six years in a row, including one state championship, trips to the semi-finals, quarter finals and a league championship. In 2012 he was a 2012 NSCAA National High School Coach of the Year Finalist and Colorado’s only recipient of the Positive Coaching Alliance National Double-Goal Coach of the Year. 

Hardy received coaching training in Holland with the KNVB, England at Chelsea and in Spain with Real Madrid. Hardy holds a USSF National Coaching License and regularly attends the NSCAA Convention. His prior coaching experience includes working with the Colorado Rapids Academy and Boulder Force Soccer Club.

You’re in your ninth year at Boulder High School. What made you apply for the job?

I always had a desire to coach high school soccer and I’m probably influenced by a tremendous high school coach I had as a player, Len Renery at Sacred Heart Prep in California. Len played for the New York Cosmos and passed a tremendous legacy on to me. When I got into coaching my initial intent was to coach high school soccer, but the coaching landscape had changed since the 1980’s and my first opportunity to coach came through camps and club soccer. Living in Boulder – Boulder High School is 5A, it is a prestigious school and most of the coaches they have had were teachers from within the building and the program hadn’t had much success since the early ‘90’s. I was coaching the top club soccer in the state and I noticed that there were some Boulder High School players who didn’t want the club season to end. At some other schools there were players who couldn’t wait for the high school season to start so there was something culturally happening differently at these schools.

At about the same time I was asked to become an assistant at Boulder. The head coach was a friend of mine, who was a teacher in the District and had just taken the job. Boulder plays at the 5A level and in their conference most of the teams at some point get voted to be the top team in the state, so it is a strong division. As the season progressed it was clear that the situation was a challenge for the coach and the team only won two games, failing to score a goal during league play, and he resigned. As a good friend he put my name in as potential head coach and I was encouraged by players and coaches in my club and I was selected in 2006.

Did you have a vision for what you wanted to create for a program? Has it changed over time?

I did. I had had the benefit of coaching in the local community and I knew there was a good foundation of skilled soccer players. My vision was to build a soccer culture and get the school excited about soccer. I wanted to raise the standard of expectations for student athletes both academically and athletically. I studied who was running the top high school and even college programs in the area and tried to model culturally what we were doing off those programs. Then I tried to hold the student athletes to those standards. I looked at different levels of high school programs – from 3A-5A to understand a broad range of what was working out there. At the very least we needed to match an expectation of quality and culture with those programs.

In Colorado we have the benefit of players being allowed to train together over the summer and coaches can facilitate and organize that training. In some other states there are rules forbidding contact until two weeks before the start of the season, which would make it a challenge. After Memorial Day we begin to create a training environment for the players – three days per week of training. The content has evolved over the years but really heavily focuses on technical training.  Over the last nine years our summer training program has grown from 15 to 90 players and our volunteer coaching staff has grown to support that as well.

We also added winter futsal training through the school. It is free to everyone in the school in our gymnasiums. The program has also grown from one small game to two full gymnasiums and we are now looking at building our own futsal court. This training has helped grow the program and has brought in more of the Hispanic kids who had previously not been playing in the soccer program. As they played they met the coaches and now our numbers more closely match the ethnic breakdown of the school as a whole.

My coaches and I stay connected throughout the year. We will go out and watch their club games; we will do community service events with them; and we’ll organize other events – for example we might all go and watch a professional soccer game or go on a hike.

The other cultural piece that we did, that was a real challenge, was hosting team dinners for the Varsity team every Friday throughout the season. That’s almost four months of Friday dinners as a team, hosted by the various families in the program. It has now become a big part of building our team chemistry.

When you won a state championship in 2012 was it an inevitable step in the program or did the stars just align for you that year?

It’s been a progression. When you take over a program that hasn’t had a lot of success, it is very easy to be afraid of setting a high standard. We wanted to have the courage to be the best, so we would reward the players for coming out in the summer months, for having the courage to be there and to take the chance of becoming the best down the road. It may not come so you have to be willing to fail. Then you start to define what success is and you start to leave a legacy for future teams. The first year we made the playoffs and that team was as excited about getting to playoffs as my 2012 team was about winning state. They built the foundation for the next year and left them a legacy to build upon. Fortunately there are enough players who carry over to the next year who can remind the team of the effort that went into it. The next year we made the second round, then the quarter finals, then the semi-final, then the finals. So there was a strong progression there. There were a couple of dips along the way but that was part of the progression.

If you have success over night the stars may have aligned for you, but we’ve had to build it over time. It’s about high standards and effort; love and brotherhood for each other; a foundation of technical work; and they buy into our system of play. The outcome of that has to be success. We’re not going to win every game and we might tie some and ask what happened, but then we revisit our goals and learn from that. Better that it happens early on in the season than during playoffs.

On paper, Boulder High has been the most successful program for 5A soccer for the past five years. We have all collectively grown through the process and the steps we have taken have definitely been intentional.

How do you refocus and motivate the players after a year that was that successful?

A lot of people thought I would retire when we won, but it wasn’t just about winning a state championship. Our goal is to maintain that high standard. We are not afraid to say things like let’s win games, let’s win the city rivalry, and let’s win state; but that’s not a conversation we have as a team. We don’t circle games on the calendar or focus too much on specific outcomes. The program has evolved towards effort-orientated goals rather than outcome goals, which produces positive results. They work hard for each other and achieve success that they would not have had on their own. Multiply that by 22 people on the team and you get a tremendous lift. We talk about being the hardest working team – a team who truly seizes the day and believes that this might be their last game and plays that way.

We build a chemistry that is so strong that the other team and the fans feel it. They start to come out to games to support us. Other teams want to play us because we have over 1000 people at the games. It has taken years to build that spirit but it has been intentional.

How do you pick your assistant and JV coaches? How much influence does the Athletic Director have?

I’ve had three different Athletic Directors and three different Principals and when they come in they are going to look at what is broken and what isn’t, and fortunately the soccer program is in pretty good shape. The school district sets an expectation of hiring people with character and an ability to teach the game. My personal belief is that we are coaching the whole student, so my coaches need to be able to connect with the students and act as mentors at various levels.

My coaching staff does have a lot of alumni student athletes. Right now I have two alumni coaches who played for me and one who was there right before I got there. He’s been able to say when I was at Boulder we talked about pranking the volleyball team or our weekends; you guys have a completely different culture here that I wish I was a part of when I was an athlete here.  I have him coach our youngest players. All of my staff are looking to learn. Our freshman coaches study the JV and Varsity games and they are very involved in coaching education – continuing to develop their technical and tactical understanding.

We have a common understanding and system/style of play across the teams. I expect that when a player gets to the Varsity team it’s not the first time they’ve seen some of the tactical ideas that we implement. With our strong foundation and technical focus we have been able to have a consistent system of play. Every team is going to have its own personality: one year I had the Colorado High School Player of the Year on the right wing and nobody could keep up with his pace and confidence. This year I don’t have that pace so we penetrate the defense a lot more through combination play than we do with pure speed, so some things do change.

Finally, we’ve had the staff in place for years. I have had the JV coach since I started and a lot of credit has to come from that. Players go through our teams, starting on the Fresh/Soph team and building from there, which is a reflection of the success of our coaching system.

School facilities are also used by other sports. Are they all treated equally when it comes to field and gym space?

Soccer tends to get whatever they can after the American Football schedule is organized. There are some schools in Colorado that have soccer-specific game and practice facilities that look like college. At Boulder we are a downtown school so we have a lack of space. We have one turf stadium field and a park next to that. When I first came in I didn’t want to compete for field time with Football – they deserve to have their time and we deserve to have ours – so I established soccer practice in the evenings, initially starting at 7pm. Now they start at 6pm, which is a big commitment because you are practicing over family dinner time.

The benefits are that we practice on our game field so we get used to the shape of the field. There are no distractions at that time and we turn the lights on, we are surrounded by darkness and there is no one there but us. It has become part of our culture now. We meet in the locker room, we line up and as a group we jog to the field and that’s our ritual. It tells them that it’s practice time and they train hard.

I also heard that it is beneficial to train at your regular game time, and we play a lot of ours at 7pm, so by practicing at the same time we are physiologically preparing the body to be active regularly at that time. We don’t control away game times but our home game record has been very strong.

High School soccer fields are often overlaid onto football fields, which makes them very narrow and very long. How does this affect your coaching and formation?

When I first got to the high school everybody was giving me advice about how to play on “the bowling lane” and first of all, every field we play on is unique. We’ve played fields of all sizes, but for 5A we are mostly playing at Stadiums with turf fields. By training on ours we get used to the shape of it and by following the principles of proper football – good shape, creating width early and getting into those proper positions, we are playing within the restrictions of our width rather than trying to play within the bounds of a width that doesn’t exist.

Teams that come to us often have wide players who are still running to the wings as the ball is being passed to the wing so when the receive it they are facing the sideline (which allows us to press them), and many passes go wide and out of bounds. Our players intentionally have their heels on the line when the ball is arriving so they can play it centrally.

So what happens when you play away games on wide fields?

I’ve found over time that it is easier to go from narrow to wider because we have more time and space. The challenge can be covering the space in the midfield. Psychologically I let the players know that it is an advantage for us though because now we have more space and more time for our wingers. We tend to play a 4-3-3 system. We do have some other systems that we play that are fun to experiment with, depending on the conditions of the game. We tend to use wingbacks and wingers and that works on our home field and away games.

How do you structure your week? How many practices, how long and what do you cover?

Early in the season we spend a lot of time on defensive shape and then we do utilize a lot of game film and we use software called HUDL that allows us to work to correct tactical shape and intent. Every game is uploaded that night into the software and the players all have access to it. They can watch the game on their iPhones, laptops etc. Then I can go in an add comments and overlay on top of the film. We do that a lot early in the season. For the first few games we talk about what we need to work on, but for the rest of the season we use game film to reinforce what we are doing correctly. It’s not about getting players to play like a professional team, it’s about them believing in what they do well. In reality there’s too much to fix from film – you could break down every touch – but rather than me imposing my opinions we show success and build their confidence.

We do a lot of technical work on Mondays working on Dutch passing patterns, playing the way you face, short passes, tiki taka soccer. It all becomes muscle memory so you can turn off the brain. We’re always adding new layers, always pushing to make passing patterns mentally challenging for them as well. We keep it in tight spaces, with more touches and lots of repetition, keeping clean on every touch.

When we do bring the goals in I like 6v6 over 5v5 because it has better options and shape. It’s very easy to create three teams and rotate and the game is the teacher. I think that is a place to start. When they do play we create conditions that are going to create a mentality in the game as well as improve technique. We will play with one or two touch restrictions. I prefer two touch because turnovers tend to happen from one touch moments.

Bobby Muuss at the University of Denver creates conditions that create game mentalities that were adopted into our program. Winner stays in – you have to earn being on the field. With a tie the incumbent stays on. You have to beat the guy above you. We do a condition called Lightning Strike, where if you have a 5-7 minute time cap, if you score in the first minute you automatically win the game. That goes back to statistics that the team who scores first wins 70% of games. We create a culture of Lightning Strike – can we score first and push for that?

We also play 30 Seconds, where when a team scores in the game, if either team then scores within 30 seconds they win the game. That feeds towards the understanding that goals come in clusters and you need to play that way. If we get scored on and we can score on you, we’ve taken away that momentum you had and raised ours.

In my early years of coaching I felt like every practice had to be new, then I found I was spending too much time teaching exercises. Now I have a smaller library of activities that I use throughout the year and I think players benefit from knowing that we are going into something they have done before, they can get right into it and we can teach rather than teach the exercise. We will add layers to it – reduce the size to add pressure, add defenders to add pressure, all to make teachable moments all throughout the year. The night before the State Championship game we’re still learning.

We challenge the players to hold themselves to a higher standard than the coach. They pull us along, saying coach we can play better than this. Then the coach is going to try to leapfrog the players and so on, so we have this constant collective that we are always trying to push each other. They you throw in a fun day to keep the balance!

How do you decide who to play against for your non-conference games, and how much is it your decision?

That’s evolved over the years. I inherited get your wins in the non-conference games because that’s when you’re going to get them. We would play 3A programs and the win might feel good but it wouldn’t help us. Playoff seeding is done on a voting basis and we wouldn’t get any help from those games there either. The first thing I did was to take control of the schedule from the AD. I know all of the coaches and programs and am conscious of budget so we don’t have to travel far. We have two year contracts (home and away) so I removed all of the 3A and 4A games that were not helping us. Even if we beat the 4A State Champions who were very good – we were supposed to beat them ­– so it didn’t help the program reputation.

We went to a 5A schedule from beginning to end, and then there truly is a fraternity of the top programs at 5A and it is invitation only. You get in by being successful. We get good games from being in a strong conference but eventually I scheduled games with teams who had been in finals and semi-finals from the last three years, and I took a risk with that. So 2012 was the first year we did that after first round elimination the previous year. We set ourselves the hardest schedule in the state, and we lost games but we were competitive. Losing exposed what we needed to work on and winning reinforced what we were doing well. We were losing 2-1 in overtime and the coaches were saying wow you guys are pretty good. We won two and lost five of our first seven games in 2012 and then we won every game after that and won state.

What we experienced in that first part of the season, set the tone for us, kept us humble and showed us that we needed to keep working to get better. We became very difficult to score on and went from there. 2013 we won about half of the non-conference games, and this year I stepped it up another notch.

You played against MLS teams or something?!

Ha, no we just increased the strength of schedule. We have an informal committee of teams who all want to play against each other and came out of that two wins, a loss and two ties, which gave us second in state ranking. It’s taken years for us to be invited into that circle of games though, playing against the best teams.

A standard opinion out there is that high school soccer is not about developing players because of the short time window and direct physical style of play. Is there still any truth to this view?

I took the approach that player development can be intensive and you can improve players. Especially if you are going to have a system of play which involves keeping the ball in the team and building our attacks. We invest in the technical development of our players.

We have been investing more over time in technical player development and team chemistry and less of the more traditional high school foundational pieces like fitness. In the first year we did maybe 30% fitness (speed ladders, running around the track, timing activities etc.) it might be less than 5% now. That said we’re known as the fittest team in 5A soccer – particularly in the second half of the season. It’s about peaking at the right time. We’ll drop some games early on, but once we get into a rhythm we win more games in overtime and at the end of the game and generally show our fitness. I think a lot of that comes from our technical work and 5-10 yard passing patterns, which are all done at game rate.

A lot of high school conditioning is based on American Football, with Cooper Tests and double days for training. We got rid of double days after the first year. We want our players to be mentally and physically fresh once the season starts to matter, which is when we get into league play.

Colorado High Schools have their own adapted rules for soccer, which includes having three referees on the field. Are you a fan of the system?

My view is the view I have of all referees – control the controllables. We can’t control them so we let them do their job. They are part of the game so we need to respect that game as coaches and model it for players. We go out of our way to let them feel welcomed, with locker rooms, drinks for everybody (including the other team) so that everybody can be a part of this match. The only trigger for me is safety issues. If a game is too open and gets too physical I might say something but you earn your respect. We have a great schedule and the referees in our state want to referee good games so we often have some of the better referees at our matches.

The Three Whistles System to me does not impact the quality of the match. What can affect that match is that they are all on the field, which makes it more difficult to call the offside decisions as they are focused on being a center referee. Also I’ve learned from coaching that if you stand on the field in a game of possession you become the natural barrier. The same is true of the officials, so if they are not getting wide as the game gets wide, they will constrain the space a little bit. It has gotten a little better over time. We were one of the first teams to play the Ajax/Barcelona 4-3-3 in high school so we had wingers standing in the spaces that the official was in. Now that that has become the norm in Colorado the officials have moved wider to adjust.

One of the biggest complaints we hear about the club world is the involvement of parents. How different is it in high school soccer?

There has to be a parent collaboration, because without their support you have no one to coach. In my experience the issue and politics of the issue and influence of the parent on the game is much bigger in club soccer. Everyone likes a successful program and so I have had the benefit of that here and the support of the parents and administrators here, but we are coming from the right place. I’ve had issues over the years though and they tend to be from similar areas as club – particularly tryouts. The occasional player who doesn’t make a team can be a challenge.

In my program the AD and principal have done a great job of supporting our coaches. We ask the parents to follow a very clear line of communication. I want the parents to talk to me if they believe that their son is hiding an injury or has health issues that I am not aware of. If there are issues at home that I don’t have knowledge of or academic issues they might have concerns with. Everything else the student should be communicating with me. Playing time, positions, placement, doctor’s appointment all comes through the student. They talk to the coach, then the Varsity coach, then the AD, then the Principal. If they miss a level they get referred back to make sure we are following the correct chain.

The issues that get escalated stem back to a belief that the coach is against them. We let them know that the decision is best for the student and for the program. We give examples of how much time we put in on the decision and everyone walks away feeling better about it. They need to know that it isn’t personal. I’ve never met a coach in twenty years who held a vendetta against a kid. We’re all in it for the right reasons, which is relationships and watching players grow.

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