This is the second post in a 3-part series on “Concepts of Leadership from 3 Soccer Coaches.” To view the first post in the series, go here.
A few years later I found myself back in the states and coaching a high school team. It was a small private school, not entirely unlike those for whom I’d felt pity in high school. The school wasn’t known for its soccer program, their best record up to that point being a .500 season. And never before had they earned entry into the district tournament, much less won a match in that tournament. But they were a great group of guys who enjoyed the game and were willing to be coached. In just a few years they would turn an entire soccer program around. I want to reflect on the team’s coaching staff in an attempt to address concepts of leadership; however, I don’t want to take away from the players themselves. And I especially don’t want to take credit for their accomplishments — but prefer to view the team’s success as just that: the success of a team, which is necessarily comprised of both players and staff.
In our first season with a new strategy for play, the team finished .500, tying the previous school record. What was amazing, though, was the trust they placed in a new coaching staff. We asked them to give up goal-scoring opportunities in order to become competent in a different type of play. And they did. The team learned to value ball possession over attempts to be in front of the goal, and they began to play into “unimportant” space in order to create space where they wanted and needed it most. In essence they were learning to play beautiful soccer. But that season they lost matches for it. There were several games which those guys could have (and would have) won had they played long balls and concentrated only on scoring goals. But instead they trusted a coaching staff who explained that our new style of play would benefit them in the future.
In the second season, ball possession led to scoring goals, and playing into space became winning games. There were still a few breakdowns and disappointments, and the team wasn’t perfect, but they made the district tournament at the end of the season. And advanced to the region. And then on to sub-state. That small, private school had the only single-A soccer team in the state to finish in the top 16. And they did it playing really beautiful soccer. I’m still proud of what those guys accomplished, and even more of the way in which they accomplished it: grabbing hold of a vision for better play, working hard to accomplish their goals, and performing as a team.
The Coaching Staff
David Robinson is brilliant. He just understands things. He grasps new concepts easily and adapts them well to the circumstances at hand. I wish I had his ability to apply intellect to any given situation. I also wish I had his ability to fly airplanes, but that’s a different story. David played soccer all his life (all three of the coaches did). David was also a referee for many years, and I’m convinced that’s where much of his knowledge of the game was founded. I first met David when I was coaching against his high school team — while he was in high school. I especially noticed David because, after playing in the varsity match, he changed shirts and refereed the junior varsity match. Even as a student, David had a grasp of the game many coaches don’t possess. And he appreciated the rules and concepts involved. The tall, lanky 17-year old was knowledgeable and fair, even though it was his own teammates playing in the match he was reffing. He was responsible as a young man, and is only much more so today. David is able to think clearly in most every situation and rarely allows his feelings to take over. David is the kind of guy that everyone likes to be around, and whose advice everyone knows to take seriously.
David was the intellect on our coaching staff. I’m not belittling Keith or myself, or suggesting we didn’t understand the game, but I’m convinced David understood the game on a deeper level. When I would be excited about an idea, David would call me back to center, asking me how it played into our larger strategy. He often did this without words. His presence alone could encourage me to think through things before I said them. David had great ideas for methods of play, formations on the field, and positioning of players. He also assessed individual players’ strengths and weaknesses well, and was able to practically apply his findings to our team’s overall strategy. He could be a little wordy in the explanations he offered the team, but it was only because there was too much smart stuff going on in his head.
Keith Bagwell is the best striker I’ve ever personally known. And there are a dozen “Keith”s in Wuhan, China, to show for it. When I was teaching English there, many of my students didn’t have English names, and so, asked me for help in selecting them. I decided to make a class out of it at the beginning of each semester. I would write the names of several of my American friends on the board, and then tell the class stories about those friends. At the end of class, each student would select a name — several chose by which friend they were most like. But the majority chose by which friend they most wanted to be like. Keith was my most popular boy’s name. Every guy in China wants to play striker and run as fast as Keith Bagwell. And most every guy who plays soccer in the states does as well. I remember meeting Keith just after he’d dropped off his university’s soccer team in order to concentrate more on school and work. I thought it was a really mature decision, though I would have liked to have seen the “red-headed wonder” play in those university matches. Keith and I played together on many an intramural team, and always he led our team in scoring. Keith could do things with a ball that would leave others just watching in awe, and he could shoot from basically any spot on the field. He was fast and a threat to any defense that tried to contain him.
Keith was the skill on the coaching staff. I’m not suggesting that David and I can’t play the game, but Keith can make us both look pretty silly if he wants. It’s nice for a soccer team to have one of their own coaches to look up to as a role model in how to play the game, and how to do so with great skill. Someone whom they can all aspire to be like. When David or I wanted to discuss or teach a particular skill, Keith was there to demonstrate it — and was always able to at the highest level imaginable. There was no room for a player to ever say, “You can’t do it. Why would you expect us to?!” [Not that our players would ever have said such a thing, but it’s not unknown for athletes to do so.] Yep, Keith could demonstrate the skills of soccer, but he did more than that. He enabled players to dream. To dream of what they could become, what they could accomplish. Players could see in Keith the tangible fruits of discipline and hard work, of commitment and practice. He was an inspiration of sorts.
I… well, I was the coach who lacked skill and intelligence, but was able to motivate players. I suppose you could say I was able to see, and then cast, a vision for excellence. Or able to share my passion for the game when played beautifully…? This part’s harder to explain, because I’m honestly not sure what it is I did; somehow the players were able to “catch” from me a belief that we, as a team, could be great. And they were able to believe me, and trust me, when I told them how we were going to get there. I don’t know if it’s charisma or passion or the ability to tell a good story — or maybe it’s a combination of those factors and others. I’m not sure of the ingredients, but I can definitely describe the results. Players were moved to work towards a goal that previously had not been seen as realistic or achievable.
It wasn’t me moving them toward that goal, though. I was only some sort of catalyst for helping them find the motivation in themselves. A soccer coach can’t motivate 20 guys to perform a rigorous off-season run schedule, peaking at a long run of 10 miles. And a soccer coach can’t persuade a bunch of athletes to lose games this season in order to win more, and look good doing it, the next season. A soccer coach can’t convince a guy who’s never played soccer that he could be the best goalkeeper in their district if he’d work hard for a couple of years. And he can’t create in a player the willingness to super-glue shut a huge gash in his head at half-time, so he can play the second half of a match that’s crucial to his team’s advancement to regionals. Coaches don’t really motivate players; players motivate themselves. I’m not sure what it is that a “motivator” actually has or does, but that was my contribution to our team. I helped a bunch of guys believe they were the kind of team that could come back from a score of 4-0 with only 25 minutes left in the match. And you know, they did… to win 6-4 in regular time, against a more athletic team with bigger and stronger athletes. I was able to witness one of the few times that the small, private school beats the bigger, stronger team. Actually, I was able to witness it several times that season.
Next post in the series: Concepts of Leadership