When a new coach brings in plans for a different style of play and long-term success, he must earn his employers’ trust for long enough to work through a period of transition and losses. In Our Competition is the World: Ideas for implementing the United States Soccer Curriculum (2012, Lulu Press, $22.99), Stan Baker provides creative support for youth-level coaches dealing with these issues while seeking to implement a ‘long-term development’ rather than a ‘win-now’ coaching philosophy, as recommended by the USSF coaching curriculum.
In addition to on-field exercises, Baker focuses on mental and physical aspects of young players’ development through through open-ended questions, and even television, video games, and movies.
Similarly, Rise & Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story (2011) is exactly that type of documentary movie: It portrays Jay DeMerit’s story of ambition, determination, confidence, persistence, creativity, and success, which will benefit anyone as a soccer player and as a human being.
However, DeMerit’s professional path, playing style, and development are not what USSF has in mind with its new curriculum. While Rise & Shine will provide a positive role model for youth players, their parents might see it as a basis to demand that their children’s coach emphasize scrappy and pragmatic competitiveness to find ways to win at every stage.
Baker anticipates this demand, but he could provide coaches with better guidance in responding to these parents.
Development over winning
Competition sets out some useful resources for a youth-coach who needs to get his players’ parents to buy into a long-term developmental approach. Baker provides quotes endorsing the philosophy, forms for engaging parents and players, and symptoms to evaluate the results of a developmental approach. He also discusses physical and mental development, as well as the importance of fun and creativity, in youth soccer.
I like his suggestions for developing passion and soccer intelligence through off-field media, such as video games, televised professional games, books, and movies. Soccer video games require conscious strategic and tactical decisions that young players often do not consider or control, while world-class clubs can open their eyes to technique that they likely would not encounter in a local pick-up game. The variety of media and global perspective build their creativity and — particularly if they are already using time for video games, television, and books — it can only improve their training regimen.
Baker also includes many diagrams and details for implementing specific practice formats and coaching tactics. The combination of these granular instructions with high-level philosophical principles makes Competition useful for coaches with little or lots of experience, and for coaches looking for either concrete or general advice.
At its best, Competition reads like a soccer version of Jeremy Silman’s zen training manual for chess. Just as international master Silman encourages amateur chess players to clear their minds, Baker encourages young soccer players to experiment on instinct and coaches to avoid restrictions, all to improve creativity and mental acuity on the field.
All of these are valuable tools for a team that has entrusted its future to a coach of less renown than Marcelo Bielsa or Arsene Wenger. Unfortunately, Baker does not fulfill one of his own goals, stated in Chapter 3, “Hopefully it is already clear how superior the long term development approach when compared to the win-now approach.” Baker addresses this issue by referring coaches to quotes and photos of prominent international soccer players and coaches.
US soccer needs coaches to convince parents to support long-term development of youth players, and DeMerit’s story shows that conversation may be more complex than Baker lets on.
Think hard, improve slow
Rise & Shine provides examples of soccer qualities that USSF would encourage and some that it would discourage in young players. For the positive attributes, this should be a movie on Baker’s list for young players to watch. However, coaches should also recognize that DeMerit is the poster child for the “try hard, run fast” ethos of traditional US soccer, which USSF hopes to change.
DeMerit was raised in the football-oriented town of Green Bay, Wisc., where he apparently played every sport available. After a solid collegiate career at the University of Illinois-Chicago, he was considered but ultimately rejected by the Chicago Fire. Then his impressive, almost irrational, but certainly admirable determination led him on a door-to-door expedition for try-outs in Europe. Years wandering and a stint subbing for a second-division Sunday league team culminated with DeMerit’s promotion to the Premier League with Watford and his becoming captain.
This movie models determination, humility, confidence, and the difficulty of succeeding internationally out of the US soccer system. Parents might also see DeMerit’s success as a lesson in pragmatism, competitive spirit, and lack of polish. As Baker notes, many US parents grew up admiring another Green Bay legend, Vince Lombardi, who famously said, “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” DeMerit’s scrappy athleticism, down-to-earth demeanor, and success in the Premier League might do more to sway parents toward a ‘win-now’ approach, than Baker’s list of quotes and name-dropping that favor a developmental approach.
USSF is undoubtedly proud of DeMerit, but it has set its sight set above ‘trying hard and running fast.’ Baker has captured this ambition, and recognizes that Jurgen Klinsmann expects US soccer players in the next generation to have the soccer intelligence to think just as hard as they try. The USSF’s curricular focus on long-term objectives also shows that the next steps in improving players might be slower than the traditional pace of US athletes.
Baker is Klinsmann’s salesman to coaches, moving USSF from “try hard, run fast” to ‘think hard, improve slow.’ But these coaches, who have more experience and understanding of world soccer than their players’ parents, will more readily agree with the principles of the USSF curriculum. In earning parents’ trust in a developmental approach rather than a win-now approach, however, coaches are more likely to find resistance and impatience in the face of short-term losses.
‘Win small now’ or ‘win big later’
Competition directly and indirectly provides responses to Baker’s rhetorical question of whether a developmental approach is superior. He correctly states that big names can prop up an unknown coach, but one-sentence truisms and photos are not reasons, and his book hints at a better explanation.
Baker suggests early communication among coach, parents, and players about coaching philosophy—this discussion about long-term goals could further assist coaches in earning parents’ trust in a developmental approach. This is also a great starting point, because parents who are focused on winning will find common ground with coaches following the USSF developmental philosophy. As Klinsmann has made abundantly clear, everyone involved in US soccer needs to expect to win and succeed on higher levels. Baker provides quotes and philosophical guidelines indicating that training for high-level success should favor creativity over tactics, possession over directness, and intelligence over strength.
Baker suggests that coaches begin by focusing parents on a developmental philosophy, telling them not to focus on winning, and directing them to quotes about the vague notion of ‘playing good soccer.’ Rearranging Baker’s points creates a more effective argument to parents. Coaches can start by building on common ground (i.e., desire to win), inform parents about long-term expectations for winning on higher levels, provide intermediate benchmarks that are used around the world (e.g., creativity, possession), and then discuss with parents the best approach for reaching their shared objective (i.e., developmental approach).
The decision boils down to when and how much parents expect for their children: win small now or win big later. A patient ‘long-term development’ philosophy is not foreign to traditional US sports: young baseball pitchers learn proper mechanics at the expense of speed, football teams grind away the short running game to set up the long passing game, and running college quarterbacks learn to pass from the pocket in preparation for faster linebackers in the NFL. Fortunately, Baker provides support for connecting creativity and success, although the reader will need to piece the argument together.
As Rise & Shine shows, DeMerit is a great role model and a good player, but Klinsmann would point out that Watford hasn’t won on the biggest stages.
Baker has explained the developmental philosophy for better and smarter US soccer players to rise and shine on those stages. Now coaches need to earn parents’ trust in that philosophy.