We talk to Mike LeClare about team building activities, improving team spirit and managing the player and parent groups. Mike “Squid” LeClare grew up playing club in Denver before coaching teams at Colorado United and Broomfield Blast. He still plays on indoor teams in the area and is an ardent follower of Chelsea in the Premier League. He has a proven track record of building strong teams both on and off the field.
When you are selecting teams, do you take player personality into consideration?
Yes. When a player is clearly a better player you have to take them, even if you think there is going to be a conflict because if you’re a good enough coach you should be able to balance the impact it has on the team. If it is a decision between two similar players you go with the one who is not going to upset team chemistry. I once cut a stronger player and kept a weaker one because of the player and family dynamic, and in a year the weaker player had become much stronger from having the better attitude and the stronger one remained the same so the decision was the right one.
How about parent personality?
I wouldn’t say it has ever been a determining factor but it is factored into overall decisions about a player. If you have one parent you will never hear from and one you will have constant contact from you will take the one who doesn’t give you the extra workload. However as I said before, if the player is that good, as horrible as it sounds you are going to find a way to deal with it.
Do you have a code of conduct or expectations that are laid out for players at the start of the year?
At the beginning of every year at the first team meeting we go over expectations regarding contacting me if they are going to be late or miss practices, how to interact with teammates and coaches and so on. I have had teams sign contracts like high schools do, but find now that if you just go over it at the beginning of the year and hold them to the standard you don’t have to hit it again. We lay out the calendar for the year with tournaments, camps, training and so on so that players are aware of what they are signing up for.
What are the first steps you take to develop cohesion between your players?
Every year I do some sort of team camp – either through organized companies or creating it on my own. With younger teams we sometimes need chaperones but their role is just as drivers – they are not taking part in the teambuilding activities or anything like that. Sometimes we do it at the beginning of the season or somewhere during the season, but it is a weekend away for the players where they don’t just focus on soccer. I will decide on activities with the group organizing the camp. I have a good relationship with Rocky Mountain Soccer Camps and their owner has been running these events for a long time so I trust his approach. In two and a half days we will have three or so structured sessions working on a specific theme or topic and then probably six hours of letting the kids play. We have more teambuilding activities than we have actual structured soccer sessions, which I agree with.
How often do you have meetings with the parents? Do you talk to them at any other times?
Before tryouts, I’ll have a meeting at the end of the season with the current parents explaining the upcoming process, then I’ll have another one after tryouts which includes any new additions to the team. We’ll go over rules and expectations again, the schedule and so on. Then I give them some time off over the summer. The meeting tends to be a group setting with me doing most of the talking. I encourage communication but in that setting it is best to lay out the expectations and have it not be a discussion. It is a relatively short meeting. Prior to the meeting, there might also be input from the team manager and treasurer. Throughout the year we will then meet 3-4 more times. We will meet before going to a tournament to explain how that will work, then at other times through the season. Informally I will talk to them in passing at practices and games although I will follow the 24 hour rule [no contact for 24 hours after a game]. There is quite a bit of interaction walking by them and chatting and I find this is a good way to build our relationship and see how they are feeling.
If you see or hear players being negative to each other, what do you do about it?
I’ve been pretty lucky with my teams getting along well. There was a time once that it felt unmanageable ten years ago when the team got into high school and all of the extra activities had became too much for them. I took the approach that they could either go on hating each other or I would make it that they only hated one person, me. For the first 30 minutes of every practice that season I worked them hard on conditioning so they were exhausted and didn’t have the energy to fight with each other. After about 2-3 weeks they learned from it and things went back to normal. I still worked them though because they needed to get it out of their system. If I had an incident now with my girls’ team I would talk to each player individually and hope that we could sort it out there. If it became bigger than that then I would involve the parents in a small setting and go from there. It is vital to attack the problems right away though because otherwise they can blow up and become much more damaging.
How often will you do activities at practice or outside of practices that help with cohesion?
I try to make sure you have some fun during practices helps with cohesion. Not just always technical and tactical focuses – having a goofy activity every so often will help a lot with girls. Sometimes we will skip practice altogether and they will make t-shirts together or have a team dinner. We’ve been to extreme-style gyms to have them play American Gladiator style games and other things too. I try to read the mood of the team over the season and all of them will have a period where they don’t play to their potential. Kids have a lot on their plate so if you can recognize those moments, gather them back in and let them know that you are there then you can turn it around with an activity like that.
Do you meet with players/parents individually?
Generally yes – I set up a 15-30 minute time period for each family. I give them the written evaluation at the beginning and let them have a few minutes to read through it. They will generally gravitate towards the negatives in there! When I write them I make sure there is something positive in there and something they can improve on. I tend to focus on the four pillars of the game [technical, tactical, mental, and physical]. The first part of the evaluation is just for the player, so if there are parents in there I don’t want the kid looking to them for answers. At the end of the evaluation, once the player and I have had a chance to talk through all of it, the parent is encouraged to ask any questions they might have. It is important that I am there when they receive the written evaluation though so I can explain it in the right context. The goal of it is not to destroy a kid, it is to build them up and show what they can do to become a better player. Human nature is to say you are weak or horrible at something so just giving them the evaluation sheet and not explaining it can lead to them interpreting it the wrong way.
With about half of my teams I also set goals in the meetings. They get one on the field, one goal off the field (hold up your GPA, so many juggles – it can really be anything), and they have one team goal. For the team goals we ask them what they think it should be and some players will be results-driven, wanting things like promotion to the next division while others will want three team building activities during the season. The important thing with all of the goals is that they are measurable and attainable – they can’t just be I want to be a better soccer player. That’s not good enough, they need to say how they will get better.
How do you deal with tournaments in terms of traveling, eating, sleeping?
I just finished an itinerary for a tournament coming up in Dallas. I sent it out to the chaperones and other coaches to make sure we are all on the same page. Generally you always want to have some fun at tournaments, so we have one game on Saturday that ends at 4pm and the next game isn’t until Sunday at 11am. The girls really want to go country dancing in Dallas, so we are going to a place called The Stockyards where we can have dinner and then the girls can dance in a safe and fun environment. We’re also going to try to get to the 6th Floor Museum in Dallas so that they get a cultural experience, if that is the right word, of something they can only see at that destination. The soccer comes first of course, so the itinerary is built around the game schedule. We also balance downtime because everyone needs that – coaches, chaperones and players. I split up meals so we do some together and some on our own. We have a late morning game and some like to get up and have a full breakfast while others want extra time in bed, so that morning a team breakfast isn’t required. Same with the lunch, but the dinner they are required to eat as a team. You just have to remember that although you are a team you don’t all function the same way, so need to accommodate that in the planning.
What do you say to your players during games? How do you read the emotion of the group and direct it?
Sometimes I do it right, sometimes I do it wrong. When I do it wrong I am overly critical and negative. I have gotten better about it. I had one bad game this year where we were playing so horribly and my comments were so negative that they didn’t help the team at all. In hindsight it was a big mistake and I apologized to the team afterwards because I try not to be a coach like that. As horrible as it sounds, I have found with girls that if you compliment them too much at halftime they don’t go out and play the second half very well. I focus on three topics that they need to improve one. It might be one for each third of the field or some other divide but I limit it to three things. Then I let the girls talk too, starting with the captains.
Do you have an end of season party? Who organizes it and what is your involvement at the event?
Generally we have some form of party which I may or may not organize. We had one at a swimming center where they did a haunted house first then swam. Sometimes we might to bowling or go to people’s houses. I just go and hang out as the girls do their own thing. There is no formal awards part to it for me. I might do a gift exchange and thank everyone with a quick few words but nothing too formal.
Do you find that you coach the same way that you play? How would you deal with your own personality if you were coaching yourself?
Yes I coach the same way I played. I’m trying to get better at it! I think I would have dealt with myself pretty well as a coach because I know how I work and what makes me click. The players you like coaching generally share characteristic traits with the coach and that is across the board at every level of the game. When you talk to other coaches and they are complimenting players it is usually because they share similar characteristics. I was mouthy as a player, but those are the ones I love. It was all in good fun with my coach and teammates and I like that joking interaction. There is a time to have fun and it humanizes everyone. One of my old managers said a person won’t work for a company but they will work for a person and I think the same is true for soccer. There are very few kids who will stick with a club no matter what, but there are a lot who say this coach is my coach and what they do I’ll do.