Winning the NSCAA D1 Championship and Coaching Elite Players

Interview with Mike Freitag

September 8, 2017
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Mike Freitag is played professionally in the Major Indoor Soccer League. He then attended Indiana University where he played on the men’s soccer team from 1976 to 1979. He was a 1979 First Team All American . He graduated with bachelor’s degree in physical education and earned a master’s degree in sports administration from Indiana in 1986. Mike served six seasons as the head coach of the Indiana Hoosiers men’s soccer team, winning the NSCAA D1 National Championships in his first year, taking over from Jerry Yeagley. He was named the 2006 and 2007 Big Ten Coach of the Year. Mike is the State Technical Director for Colorado Soccer Association. 

I’ve read plenty of horror stories about coaches who take over from Hall of Fame-caliber guys. What was your strategy for replacing Jerry Yeagley at Indiana?

I think the transition was easy because I was his assistant. Jerry was my mentor; I had studied under him for many years. I knew how he ran the program. It would have been stupid to come in and change something that was being very successful. It was announced early that I was taking over and the transition was quite seamless. I emphasized the things that were Indiana Soccer and then put my twist on things in time, little by little.

Did you find that the existing players accepted you?

Yes. We won the championship the next year. Once you have the right team, with the right chemistry and character it becomes their team. I was just the headmaster; they already knew how to play. I just tried to continue to guide them in the right direction. It is still Jerry Yeagley’s program to this day. Even though I was the head coach, people would say the only reason Freitag won was because Jerry Yeagley left him a championship team.Sure we had a good team, but I was part of what made that championship team over the years before. So in some ways I was always going to be second-fiddle as far as getting praise, but that didn’t matter, it was about winning games and championships.

I followed the legend, and if you look at guys that followed John Wooden and others usually they fall on their face and fail. I had success. The guys on the team knew how much I did in previous years so I didn’t have to gain their respect because they knew me already.

From what I’ve read you have coached several elite players during your time there who went on to have MLS careers. How does coaching at elite college level differ from competitive youth?

Those players are already motivated. They are internally motivated or I wouldn’t have recruited them. They were made up of what we used to call the “winning fiber” so really it is easy to coach at the college level in so far as that I had quality players already. I didn’t have to teach how to trap a ball, I had to teach them how to go about their business and play as a team. The role I am in now is completely different from that. There you had thirty young men that you were trying to guide and piece a puzzle together for. Now I am trying to create good pieces for the puzzle. Which is a little bit different.

Did you ever have to keep them grounded?

Oh yes. Most of the kids coming in have been big fish in little ponds and now it starts all over again. They are used to playing every second of every game and being the star, now you might be red-shirted because you are not ready to play or maybe you have to play a different position that you are not accustomed to. You almost have to break them down sometimes so that you can build them back up because it is all new to them. The kids in youth soccer today don’t have that competition within the team – if you are the best player you know you are going to play. When you get a lot of them together you have to hold kids accountable and some kids are not used to that. I think that is one of the weaknesses of youth soccer sometimes – coaches don’t hold players accountable because they are worried about losing kids to other clubs, which is sad.

How did you communicate that message to the players?

It’s always honest and upfront. You talk to them in person. You can see a kid is down from their body language, you pull them into your office and give them some examples “so and so who was an All-American went through the same thing, it’s not where you are at now it’s where you are at at the end.”

How did/do you balance coaching hours with free and family time?

First of all you have to have a wife or partner who understands what makes you tick. You try to find any time you can to get your kids involved and to be involved with them. They know your job is 24/7; Dad’s gone again on a recruiting trip,but when you do have the time you try to do something special with it.

When you were a college coach, what was the best way for potential players to get recruited to your team?

First of all players have to do their homework. They have to be realistic in their ability and what level they can play at. I would get hundreds of letters and thousands of emails, but there are only really a handful who could actually play at the level of my team. Coaches have to guide them and give them feedback on how good they are and what level they can play at. I think it is important for coaches and players to go out and see how good the college teams are because otherwise they don’t know. Maybe occasionally they see a game on television, but it is important for players to see the level of play during your junior and sophomore years. There are a lot of youth coaches out there who have never seen college games.

It is important to have an idea where you can play, but then again, don’t sell yourself short. If you feel you can play, you should go for it. You need to catch the coach’s attention somehow. The club team you play on hopefully plays in good tournaments where you can be seen. The ODP program and DA are probably the best places to be seen now because if I’m a college coach I want to go see the best kids in competition and those programs offer that.

Another way, if you are not on an ODP or Academy team is to sign up for the camp at the school you are interested in going to. That way the coach gets to see you for 5-6 days, your training habits, they get to know you. I’ve recruited a lot of kids who weren’t on anybody’s radar, but they came to camp and caught my attention. You look in your crystal ball and say hey this kid has something, what can he be down the road in the right environment? So that’s another avenue to be recognized. What’s happening now at college is instead of having the long week of camp, a lot of schools are having these mini-identification camps over a long weekend that is less expensive but you still have an opportunity to be on the field in front of the coaches that you want to see you.

What is the best way for coaches to improve?

I think you have to become a junkie. When I say that I think you have to go watch other coaches work, not just their games, but go watch them train people. Also I think you have to watch soccer as much as is possible, whether it’s TV or live I think there is transfer no matter what you are watching. Today kids have such a better range of opportunities open to them in this country because now it is on TV and you can see how players moved. I was fortunate because I got to watch college soccer in St Louis University, which was a top school. My dad would take me to watch every game. For coaches I think the internet also offers all kinds of activities and videos to watch, which makes it so much easier today to become a better coach if you take the time to use the resources out there.

Most important is that you get out there and coach and experiment. Try new things, steal an idea from another coach, and try it with a different twist to it. You have to be passionate about wanting to learn though. I have watched plenty of training sessions where I am blown away about how poor the coaching is. The coach stands on the sideline and I hear nothing from them, nothing instructional, no passion. For those coaches it is no surprise that players quit soccer.

Other than Jerry, who else in the soccer industry have you most learned from?

I’ve been very fortunate to have been around good coaches. My high school coach Terry Michler is the all-time winningest high school coach in US history, and he is still coaching today. My first time in this position at CYS I was lucky enough to become assistant coach with the U17 US National Team and I worked under Roy Rees who I attribute a lot of my growth and development and philosophy of the game. He has coached around the world. Every time I hear him talk I always walked away a better coach. He was winning with the U17 National team, beating Brazil and not even having residency for players. He brought it up to US Soccer and tried to bring the kids to Houston where he coached the Houston Texans. He wanted to have residency – to put the kids in with local families, but US Soccer at the time were against it. About five years later they finally did it, creating the Bradenton Academy in Florida.

You are an US A and UEFA B licensed coach – are there particular courses you enjoyed or didn’t enjoy along the way?

I always walk away from every course a better coach because you pick up things here or there. Some courses you say you didn’t learn a whole lot but picked up a couple of new things and reinforced what I knew already. I went to a course with Glenn “Mooch” Myernick in Scotland, which was a B International course. It’s funny because I saw Mooch one time before he passed away and he said “hey, that one guy in our course did pretty well for himself” and I said what are you talking about? He said “I think The Special One (Jose Mourinho) was on our course back then!” But at that time he was an interpreter at Barcelona. That was a course that was good.

Coaching with the U17 National Team was probably better than coaching courses for me though. You get to see the team dynamics. Coaching is not always X’s and O’s, it’s also people management. Things behind the scenes that you have to deal with, players having bad days, trouble at home and so on. A lot of that is very important to the success of the team. Look at Alex Ferguson: he doesn’t do much of the coaching on the field, he’s just making sure everybody’s feeling good and everything’s going in the same direction. Jerry Yeagley was the same way, a lot of people skills – how you deal with players and how you get them to play to their best.

Also important is how to put a team on the field. Some coaches are great trainers and they can train but they can’t put a team on the field. They don’t get the chemistry together. They don’t know how to merge piano players and piano carriers to be effective.

 

We are drilling into players when they get the ball to ask the questions in order “can I score, can I assist, can I penetrate” which would go against your need for them to be patient.

And it’s six of one half a dozen of the other. You want them to have that in their minds but they have to do a better job of decision-making. Sometimes they need to make an extra pass. I think that is the next step for us to get better and to be better offensively. There are certain players when it goes to their feet it’s ok for them to take 2,3,4,5 touches because they are being crafty. We are always telling them to get it and give it, but sometimes they need to put their foot on the ball and let things develop.

There’s no such thing as dribbling too much, just losing the ball too much.

Exactly. The main points here are you want to set up a block so they can’t play through but I also want to pressure. I see too many teams defending just by getting numbers back. That’s not defending. You still have to be good individually and collectively. My biggest pet peeve is the importance of defending first. Teams who win are the ones who are first of all good at defending. There are people out there who think that defending is negative, which is wrong. It is more than half the game, especially if you are a bad team. So you better learn how to do it.

The other thing is that it is going to bring the offense along with it. To have success you can put it in a bar graph. To win your attackers only have to be slightly better than their defenders. If I can get everyone in Colorado to defend at a higher level, in time you will learn how to beat it, and as such, your offense will also get better. That’s how it works. It doesn’t work just emphasizing the offense I don’t think.

Do you match your formation and tactics to the opponent?

I hate adjusting my lineup based on who we are playing. I have played for coaches who have done that for every game. I want to have a system that is flexible enough to adapt to them but I want to play my game. I want the other team to have to adapt to my team. I think a 4-4-2 can do that. You might have one outside back higher all the time if that player is more offensive and now do you still have a 4-4-2? I like to know the other team’s qualities and characteristics and maybe might a slight adjustment but I don’t want to make a major formation change just because of what we are against.

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