Sam Snow is the Director of Coaching at US Youth Soccer and therefore the man tasked with educating America's soccer coaches.
In part one of this in-depth discussion, The Coaching Manual Editor Pavl Williams talks to Sam about how the culture of US sport presents challenges and opportunities for soccer.
Read on to learn why some coaches need to change their mindset if they're to develop better soccer players, and what is the biggest error parents and coaches make when thinking about youth soccer player development...
Pavl Williams: Traditionally US soccer's successes - especially for the women's national team - has been based primarily on physical strength, speed and athleticism. Yet in the US Soccer Federation's curriculum and on US Youth Soccer courses there's an emphasis on the psychological and the social aspects of soccer, as much as technique or tactics. Has it been difficult to develop coaches who view all aspects of the game as equally important?
Sam Snow: I think it's a bit of a challenge at first with some coaches for sure, because for some of them it's a change in mindset for them.
But you can start to win them over once you begin to work with them and give them the evidence and the information, as we do in a lot of our coaching courses, then say "Okay now we're going to go onto the field, we're going to actually do it". Then when we work in the right manner with real kids - like the kids they coach themselves - most of the coaches begin to come around because they see, "Wow it's really true, it really does work, it really is important".
There's obviously a lot of coaches that as soon as you begin to give them the information the light bulb goes on and they think to themselves, "Well of course that makes sense I just haven't thought of it that way before".
Soccer is more fun and, ultimately, better players are developed if sessions are less coach-centric and more player-centric.
PW: Where do you find some of the opposition you face comes from?
SS: In North America we've also got these other huge sports; ice hockey, football, basketball, baseball, in which the approach to coaching and the way that those games are played are very different to soccer. In those sports - by design - the coach is actually a part of the game, the contest. But we believe that soccer is more fun and, ultimately, better players are developed if sessions are less coach-centric and more player-centric.
That's a big change in mindset for a lot of us, especially for coaches whose models of how to coach sometimes come from other sports.
The same thing absolutely happens with a lot of parents too. So at the youth level the situation can be compounded by the expectations of the parents of the kids or by the board of directors. All based upon their exposure and experience in other sports and thinking "coaching is coaching" and it just automatically transfers.
For [US Youth Soccer] that means the educational process has to be deeper.
PW: So, what is one of the key pieces of information that you give to somebody who maybe cynical? Are there any anecdotes you tell, or piece of evidence you provide that proves especially effective at helping a coach alter their mindset?
Here's a piece that I try to get across to coaches and parents to begin to shift that mindset:
A lot of our parents think they're paying for the matches. No, you're paying for the lessons.
Think of your child in school. When your child goes to school, what do you want them to get exposed to the most? Examinations or lessons?
You want more lessons then you do examinations. If they're going to school and they're taking 2-3 exams a week when are they going to have a chance to learn new material?
You want the same thing, Mom and Dad, at your soccer club.
You want more training sessions then you do matches. A lot of our parents think they're paying for the matches. No, you're paying for the lessons, the training sessions.
PW: Would you argue that competition is being taught to kids at too young an age? Where does 'learning to win' fit into the wider process of developing players?
SS: We do a number of things too early, too soon in the players career.
Part of the problem is that so many adults still look at soccer as a kid's game and don't recognize that players should be peeking in their 20's or early 30's. A lot of the adults, and even coaches, think that the players peak at 14 or some such early age.
So we need to get them to recognize, that this is a long-term process and it's okay for kids to be exposed to multiple game environments, jamboree festivals and other, less structured, sort of things.
A lot of the adults think that players peak at 14.
PW: I've heard a few coaches here in the US talk about "Tournament-itis". Does the hyper-competitive nature of most soccer stem from other American sports or is it just innate to American culture?
SS: The problem is when you get into a tournament environment where we're saying "You have to win your bracket in order to go on to the next round" and so on. That is where often the pressure the emotional, psychological pressure becomes too much and we have to talk to parents and coaches and even the players about how do you deal with that environment.
We're beginning to aim more education at the parents than at the coaches.
But the real message is for the adults, "When is it too soon?" And we still have many problems on that. We're not uniform on our approach to that across the whole country either. This is why you see educational pieces coming out from US Soccer, from US Youth Soccer, from the National Soccer Coaches Association [of America]. And we're beginning to aim more of that education at the parents than at the coaches.
PW: I think it's a really positive step that there's now a consistent philosophy coming from US Soccer Federation, from US Youth Soccer and from the NSCAA.
In what ways do you hope to develop the game in the coming years?
SS: We're looking into the crystal ball here and it's a little hazy, but certainly the governing body and US Youth Soccer are more in concert than ever before and we are more clearly implementing a national philosophy and a national methodology.
So we're hoping that we can, first of all, retain more players. We want to lessen the drop-out rate so the quantity of players improves.
Then we must continue to grow the sport by taking it into communities where it doesn't exist right now; for example amongst Native Americans and African Americans.
And then certainly we're hoping to keep raising the bar on our coaching courses, as we have worked very diligently to do over the last two years in particular, because through that we also improve our quality overall.
Obviously some of that the wheels are just beginning to turn now, so it's going to be a little while longer to actually see the outcomes!Read the second part of the discussion on 'The Structure of U.S. Soccer' here.
Do you agree with Sam Snow? Or do you have a different view? Let us know in the comments below.To learn more from Sam Snow, read his weekly Coach Blog and visit www.USYouthSoccer.org for more coaching education opportunities and resources.