A 6,000 kilometre journey in search of real football: a coach’s education

A 6,000 kilometre journey in search of real football: a coach’s education

HAVE YOU EVER looked back at your life and wondered, ‘How did I get here?’ Although this may seem daunting, try to do that now. Trace back each aspect of your life to its respective decision, the metaphorical fork in the road where you stood and were forced to decide left or right. Why did you go left? Why did you go right? Surely every choice you’ve ever been faced with had its logical reasoning, and whether you stand by it or not, at the time you assured yourself that it would result in the best possible outcome for your life.

Map out your past far back enough and you will most likely pinpoint a moment where you made a decision, consciously or unconsciously, that propelled you to where you are today. Perhaps your future self will look back on this moment.

This is my moment: July 2012. It was a typical summer’s evening in Upstate New York and like most summer days in the Finger Lakes region of New York State, it had been a hot and humid one. Granted, most US southern states would scoff at what we consider hot but nevertheless, the humidity along with the blistering summer sun was suffocating to most of us that spent the majority of the day outdoors. In previous years, I typically spent my summers working camps.

In previous years, I typically spent my summers working camps. You know the type; those stereotypically American summer camps where kids play baseball, make macaroni necklaces and eat ice cream sandwiches. It was an acceptable summer job for a 21-year-old but every summer I tried to avoid it, on the hunt for football camps that would hire me instead. Every now and again I was successful, but this year I inadvertently hit the football camp jackpot that would ultimately change the course of my life.

Antonio Barea Villegas, Óscar Felipe Larralde, José Antonio Martínez Haro, David García-Hevia and I were sitting around the kitchen table preparing the following day’s camp for Brockport Soccer Club. The table from the terrace had been brought in to aid the overflow of documents, binders, books, video cameras, cables and computers that had overrun all available surface area in the last couple of weeks.

A room that was once used to enjoy family dinners was now ADD+Soccer’s camp headquarters. Every evening, upon finishing six hours of training sessions with youth teams, the five of us would meticulously analyse every phase of each team’s play and perfectly curate the following day’s sessions. The setting was in place for me to realise that football as I knew it was not just a sport. On many evenings just like this one, these three Spaniards from Granada, who had become permanent guests in my home, introduced me to the science of football.

The three of them had reached a level of mastery in the sport few can equate to. They were UEFA Pro License holders and although they had this in common, they were very different from one another.

If there is such a thing as a football romanticist, Antonio Barea is just that. He possesses the ability to dissect a team’s system of play with the fluidity and artistry of a poet as he carefully intertwines tactics with elegance, technique with grace, and intelligence with passion.

Jose Antonio Martinez is a managerial sharpshooter, pinpointing errors in a player’s technique or a team’s strategy in a matter of seconds, and in the same breath presenting solutions for improvements like Google displaying thousands of results instantly.


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Football is brimming with emotions and some are simply untamable. Oscar Felipe Larralde, however, is able to defuse any hot-headed striker with a simple chat as he demonstrates that a football manager is much more than the Xs and Os, and managing players can sometimes be the difference in a match.

Like a well chosen starting line-up before a derby, they each brought their own skill to the project, and each taught me more about football than I had previously learned in my 15 year playing career through a variety of different settings including travel teams, premier clubs, summer camps, high school soccer, college soccer and ultimately men’s league. My coaching career, which included US Soccer national courses, club and collegiate experience, and working summer camps, had been as educationally disappointing as my time as a player.

Between playing and coaching, I had been a part of the US Soccer Federation for 16 years, yet what had I really learned? In the two weeks I had been working with the three football wise men, I discovered football had a game cycle, it had four phases, each technical ability had a specific tactical intention, it could be simplified in 2v1s and 3v2s, training finishing didn’t mean you’d score goals, defending was more than your stance.

They were showing me through their actions that coaches facilitate learning not with their instructions, but their well-crafted sessions. Coaches don’t teach creativity but nurture it. I witnessed how they played chess with their players whilst empowering them to be more than pawns. They demonstrated that coaches are in the spotlight for the losses and in the shadows for the wins. This was merely the tip of the iceberg and I wanted more. Our Granadian roommates did something US Soccer never had: they inspired me.

At that point, I came to the conclusion that I knew nothing about football. US Soccer had failed me. I had dedicated the majority of my life to it and it had let me down. Throughout the years, on countless teams with a myriad of experiences and numerous coaches, I was betrayed with a lack information, inspiration and motivation. Footballistic unfulfillment fed my yearning to learn everything there was to know about my childhood passion, and the only place to achieve this was 6,000 kilometres away.

What is training? “Training is a conceptual fortune derived from the spontaneous adaptations of the player.” What is the process? “The process is prominent where players’ natural abilities converge. It belongs to the player and his manner of intervention.” How can we coach intelligence? “If intelligence has to be dictated, it ceases to be intelligence.”

According to Óscar Cano Moreno, that is what football is. Although relatively unknown outside of Spain, Cano is considered one of the brightest minds in Spanish football. A self-proclaimed contemporary coach, Cano’s ideas have evolved Spanish football to its modern form leaving behind the traditional ways of training.

Since beginning his coaching career in 2003, he’s been at the helm of many important clubs in Spain, including Granada C.F., U.D. Salamanca, Real Betis ‘B’, C.D. Alcoyano, and currently the manager for the Qatari under-19 national team. He’s authored four books, a pair about Barcelona’s system a play, one on Mourinho’s Real Madrid and one on Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, where he poetically analyses these football giants down to every last detail. He is also a featured writer for several important football media outlets including Panenka magazine and Futbol Tactico.

To sum up, Cano is a football philosopher; his words transcend the sport and inspire his readers to never halt the learning process. Cano was my professor when I completed my UEFA B License in Granada, Spain, and those quotes previously mentioned are taken directly from my notes when I attended his Methodology class; or as he said, “We must stop talking about methodology and talk about ‘playerology’.”


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It’s not the US Soccer Federation’s fault for its inadequacy to educate their coaches. Countries like Spain have set the bar at an unprecedented level in this regard and this has shown year in and year out as they have taken nearly every European trophy back to the Iberian Peninsula. The amount of quality players that Vicente Del Bosque consistently has at his disposal further demonstrates Spain’s commitment to its football infrastructure. Spain’s football success is simple; highly qualified, extensively educated football coaches increase national wide player development.

From an early age, pre-benjamin (six and seven-years-old) Spanish players are introduced to world-class training, which continues through the fundamental cognitive and physical stage of a child’s development, and on to their possible professional careers. It’s understood that youth soccer, or ‘futbol base’, is where players like Iniesta and Xavi were created.

It’s through conceptual coaching that does not separate technique from tactics, but rather teaches that every technical ability has a tactical intention. Not through the repetition of passes but through the repetition of situations which contextualise each pass in a game setting. A football match is not a series of separate reoccurring individual movements, therefore why would you train this way?

Changing the identity of a nation’s football culture does not happen overnight, and requires an entire country’s football federation to implement radical changes from the top down. As of 2015, the US Soccer Federation has been changing their system to better educate their coaches. If you check out their website, you can learn all about of the updates they’ve put into action.

Among other things, they launched a Digital Coaching Center (DCC). Their website explains: “The DCC is a state-of-the-art online educational platform. It allows coaches to create a personal profile, register for courses, communicate with technical staff, take part in online courses, create session plans with an online graphics tool, access an archive of US Soccer training sessions and much more.”

Dave Chesler, US Soccer Director of Coaching Education then goes on to say: “It is one of the most extensive and significant investments the coaching development department has made.” Whether you agree with Chesler or not, it’s up to you.

I came to Spain three years ago to study the football science I had grown so fond of and, in these three years, I finally understand how it’s possible to become a football romanticist or a managerial sharpshooter like my Spanish friends. Indeed, football is more than just a sport. There is an exorbitant amount of mental and physical elements that concern a player’s development over the course of a year, and more so, their integral career. To assign an unqualified and untrained individual to be responsible for a team of young football players would be detrimental to the sport and the integrity of the children.

Currently, the Spanish Football Federation offers three levels of coaching courses: UEFA B (465 hours), UEFA A (565 hours) and UEFA Pro (875 hours). Each course is divided into two parts, theoretical (classroom) and practical (on-field). In the classroom students take part and are thoroughly examined in a wide array of topics including basic anatomy, first aid, psychology, sociology, individual and group technique, tactics and systems of play, laws of the game, team management, methodology and professional development.

In the practical portion, participants work with any team of their choice to put into place the theoretical elements they have mastered in the classroom. The hours break down to 75/25 theoretical to practical. The soon to be coaches typically start in October and finish the theoretical portion in June attending classes twice a week four hours a day. Once having completed the appropriate number of hours of practical work, they will receive their license. UEFA B and A courses generally take nine months and UEFA Pro requires 18 months.

sergi roberto la masia barcelona

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In order to train any team at any age, the Spanish Football Federation requires coaches to have completed at least the UEFA B course. A coach in possession of a US Soccer National ‘D’ license (36-40 hours) is allowed to train any team at any level younger than 15. How do we expect an individual who’s been prepared for a mere 40 hours to be capable of growing young players into exceptional footballers?

According to the Spanish Football Federation, in 2014 there were almost 700,000 youth players and approximately 12,700 UEFA A licensed trainers. For every 58 players there is a UEFA A licensed coach to guide them through their growth as a player. Spain boasts the most UEFA licensed individuals in all of Europe due to their belief that if their are coaches willing to learn, the federation is willing to educate.

Unlike most countries, Spain does not limit the number of participants in each UEFA course. Some may argue that not capping courses creates an influx of coaches making it difficult to place all of these coaches in teams, but in reality, this only enriches their players’ experience in youth football.

Over the last three years, I have been fortunate enough to see first-hand the inner workings of, arguably, the best player development system in the world. I’ve been side by side with football scientists as they have deepened my knowledge for the sport I love. I’ve also had the enormous pleasure of watching football masterminds develop young players over the course of several seasons. Coming from the American soccer system, and having spent the better part of three years coaching and learning in Spain, I’ve now realised that the US is not ready for a Spanish style coaching system.

US Soccer is too young, and although in recent years soccer has risen in popularity, there simply isn’t enough passion. I’m not saying there aren’t any passionate coaches out there; what I’m saying is the country is far too vast for the amount of passionate fans that do exist. Spain’s passion for its national sport is so powerful and concentrated that it gives life to the obsession for football. Walk into any Spanish bar and you will see someone reading about football or overhear football talk amongst friends; it’s the Spanish way life.

America’s devotion to soccer is diluted. In most American cities, some googling is required to find an establishment that will broadcast the match. This watered down fervour makes it difficult spark a fire in a young soccer coach. However, with time, popularity will rise and we’ll become accustomed to football talk amongst friends.

Let me reiterate: I don’t blame the US Soccer Federation for failing me as a football educator – it’s not their fault. When I was growing up soccer was not the crowning jewel like it was around the world. Americans took more enjoyment in watching a home run or a touchdown than a well crafted goal. Finding a broadcast of a European match was nearly impossible.

Now there is a new breed of American soccer fans. These fans are knowledgeable and hungry for more. Not to mention youth soccer is growing faster than it ever has before. There are nearly four million players between the ages of five and 16.

To quote Oscar Cano one final time: “Find football and challenge it.” Unfortunately for American coaches, finding football at their local bar or in their community park is unlikely but does not mean you should stop searching. Embark on a quest, travel abroad, and go where football is rampant. Learn everything there is to know about the sport, meet people that will inspire you, feed your fire. In today’s day and age, distances are no longer an excuse.

Connect with coaches like you on the internet and ask them every question you’ve ever had. Analyse Oscar Cano’s books, re-analyse them and then tell him he’s wrong. Challenge football. I came to Spain to find football. What will you do?

By David Garcia  @itsjustasport

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