If you have ever observed a coach at work and felt you have not gotten as much out of it as you had anticipated, maybe you were not trying hard enough.
Most observers make an effort to record all the drills done in a session, how long it took to do each drill, what the purpose of the drill was, and the result of each drill.
However, that is only a small part of what an on-looker can acquire from the experience of watching a coach work.
Two of the most successful American soccer coaches in history — Sigi Schmid and Anson Dorrance — believe that an observer who pays attention to the basic workings of a training session has only scratched the surface.
“Too often when we watch a coach work, what we do is write down a sequence of drills,” says Dorrance.
“At the end of the day, we have notes on how he organized practice — what went first, what went second, where the players ran, where the balls were. So you have an imprint of the coach’s practice. All that is not without merit. Part of observing a coach, certainly is what the progression of practice.
“When I see people observing training session, they stay in the stands, and they shouldn’t,” adds Dorrance. “If they sit in the bleachers, they are missing what I think are the essential aspects of coaching. It’s not a collection of exercises that makes a coach consistently successful.”
Schmid agrees. When he has been in the role of an observer, Schmid is looking for methods of leadership.
“When I go watch a coach work — whether it is a soccer coach or any coach — I like to watch the way that person interacts with the team,” he says.
“There are some group dynamics going on. I look for what he allows to happen and when he allows it to happen, as well as what he doesn’t allow to happen. Basically, you are looking for leadership style. What takes place in training often relates to the way a coach leads his team.”
Schmid points out that you can’t copy a coach’s style of leadership. If the coach you are observing has an entirely different personality than yours, his style of leadership will not work for you.
Schmid believes you can take parts of any coaching style and adapt them to your own personality.
“I was at a coaching school, and I was watching one of the students give a lesson, and I thought it was really good,” he says. “In fact, the whole time I was thinking, ‘How can I adapt that to my team?’ I’ve always believed that you teach from a base point of what you are most comfortable with.
“For me,” he adds, “I feel I’m best at being a bird chirping in your ear. I feel I have the most success by putting the team in game situations and constantly reminding them with things like – ‘Now is the perfect time for you to go,’ and ‘There it is again.’”
Because motivating and instilling a desire to compete at higher levels is such a difficult area for coaches to address, the more successful coaches are constantly looking for new ways to instill these qualities in their players.
“When I watch a soccer coach, I don’t necessarily want to know why they play a 4-4-2,” says Schmid, who served as an assistant coach to Bora Milutinovic with the 1994 U.S. World Cup Team.
“I’m more interested in how they get peak performance out of their players. There are so many small things. For example, Bora was very good at keeping the players a little off balance, and he used that to motivate them. If he had a player that was not bringing their best performance everyday to practice, he would make them uncertain about their status within the team.”
Practice structure is not critical
There are many ways to run a practice, and Dorrance believes most coaches today know the basic way to structure a training session. There is, however, much more to it.
“If coaching were simply stringing together a collection of drills and ways to organize a practice,” says Dorrance, “then that coach sitting and watching from the stands could set up a practice and claim to have the imprint of a Bruce Arena.
“It’s not those collection of exercises that makes a coach consistently successful. It’s how he drives his players in a session. It’s how they respond to the coach to play at a higher intensity level in every session.”
Other than the basic structure of a practice, there are several aspects of a training session to watch, which will help you understand how a coach motivates his players.
“It could be the things he says during the session,” says Dorrance. “It could be the things he says when he brings them together. It might be what he says in the team meeting before the session.
“Maybe it’s what he wrote to them in a cover letter before they came to camp. Maybe it’s how he acts off the field. Is he very intimidating and distant, making the players are afraid of him? Or his he a really nice guy and players genuinely like him?
“These are the issues that are critical in leadership. I’m curious as to the essence of leadership. Can you actually teach and instruct leadership, or is it something that comes from within?”
Learning from the best
Schmid and Dorrance have both had the opportunities to watch some very successful coaches in action, and the aspects they took away have helped them become successful themselves.
“I watched Pat Riley when he was coaching the L.A. Lakers,” says Schmid, the former coach at UCLA, who observed the NBA coach when the Lakers were training at the school.
“Outside observers would think with a team that had Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on it, Riley would just roll out the ball and let them go. But I was amazed at how much intensity he demanded and how much he required them to work.
“What I found interesting was how he used Magic Johnson to motivate Kareem. He would say, ‘Hey Magic, we’re not getting into our offense soon enough!’ He did that instead of insisting Kareem get involved earlier.
“You don’t know all the internal dynamics of the team, but maybe he knew that Kareem would respond better to Magic than he would to him.”
Schmid was also fortunate enough to be able to learn from legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.
“When I was younger, I watched him at UCLA,” Schmid says. “He had such a mild approach, but there were times when he was very animated.
“When most people want to get attention, they get louder. But Wooden would get the best results by speaking softer. To get his point across, he would call the team together and speak in a soft voice. All his players would be paying close attention.”
Dorrance also learned a bit from a basketball coach. As a young coach, he spent time observing UNC basketball coach Dean Smith. From Smith, he learned about the proper time and place to display emotion.
“There is a public perception of Dean Smith that he is a very business-like coach who coaches without passion, and people think he is successful because of his wonderful organizational structure,” says Dorrance.
“If you watch Dean Smith work, what you are struck by first is that his sessions are certainly wonderfully organized, but if his players aren’t working, his passion comes out immediately.
“I think this is what surprises people about a lot of these very successful coaches. There are environments when you want to be calm, cool and collected. But there are also situations when you don’t want to be. I think nothing grabs a player’s attention quicker than passion. And in every great leader and every great coach, passion is bubbling.”
Like Schmid, Dorrance adapted aspects of Dean Smith’s style and fit it into his own coaching philosophy.
“Based on your leadership style, you pick moments to express passion and emotion,” he says.
“You don’t want to express it all the time because then it becomes like the child who tunes out his mother’s voice. She yells, ‘Fire, Fire, Fire!’ And the child says, ‘Oh, that’s just my mom.’ Then the kid ignores it as the house burns down around him.”
This article originally ran in 2002.