As my time with the Winstars Soccer Academy comes to a close, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on my experience. The last year and a half have been full of lessons, and I wanted to share them – both good and bad.
Before I dive in, I want to thank the coaching staff that has embraced me from day one, starting with Bobby Graham, the Academy Director. I met Bobby on the sidelines of a youth soccer practice for a team that I was consulting with. He was an hour early for the Winstars practice on the adjacent field.
Following that practice, Bobby introduced me to a few of his coaches.
While being introduced to the coaching staff, each and every player on the team walked up to the coaches and shook their hand, as well as mine, before heading to their change room. I stuck around to observe some of their practice, and was welcomed by the group with a round of applause after a brief introduction by Bobby.
The warm welcome I received was not a special treatment, but rather “business as usual” for the club. It’s how we welcome new players, coaches, or any returning players back to training from their respective schools.
That moment always stuck with me. I knew then that I was going to be part of something special.
Here are 5 things I’ve learned from my time with Winstars Soccer Academy
1. Hard work doesn’t go unnoticed
Winstars was the first team I got to call my own. Prior to joining the team, I had previous experience under a mentor or alongside a colleague.
This was my time to shine. I was going to put everything I could into making this team better and turn this into a positive and rewarding experience for everyone, including myself.
Luckily, I had a ton of support from staff and coaches which had made the aforementioned inevitable.
In a way, as much as I wanted to prove myself to Bobby and the coaching staff, I was really seeking self-validation. I wanted to know that I could take a team, and make them better. This was my first opportunity to do so, and I wanted to succeed.
I think that the players and coaches quickly noticed this trait about me. It really worked to my advantage because they knew that not only was I eager to make an impact, but that I wanted to be part of the team.
This built trust, not only in the program, but in who I was as a person and with the team as a whole.
Aside from my personal experiences on this topic, this lesson applies to the athletes as well.
Over some time, maybe a few weeks, or a few months , the players who were consistently working hard at practice and during S&C sessions began to shine. Whether they eventually got the scholarship they wanted, or they were making noticeable improvements amongst the team, their hard work came through and they began to shine.
These were the moments I cherished the most as a coach.
Lesson: Hard work doesn’t go unnoticed. No matter what. With enough time, the seeds you plant will begin to grow, and you will be rewarded with the harvest.
2. Do your job, and then some
Depending on the sport/environment, S&C coaches can sometimes work in isolation in the gym, without the opportunity to attend practice or technical sessions. In my opinion, this can be a big problem. High performance teams and cultures require everyone working in unison.
The coaches at Winstars understood this and embraced my presence during practices.
The players had a running joke on our Summer Tour that I held five job titles on the team! I was the S&C coach, therapist, nutritionist, team photographer and social media coordinator.
Whatever job I was doing, the goal was the same – support the team - both athletes and coaches.
Whether I was collaborating with coaches on practice plans and conditioning sessions, echoing their instructions, or lifting up the athletes with words of encouragement – I was there to support.
Lesson: In a high performance environment, it is not enough to simply do your job. Be prepared to step up to the plate to fill the gaps in any way you can – it all helps.
3. Coaching teenagers as a young coach is a challenge
The saying “there is a fine line” couldn’t be more true. However, I often had a very hard time finding it a lot of times.
The first coaching principle I abide by is relationships come first. To me, that means establishing some common ground and building trust with the group.
There was a lot of common ground. I grew up playing soccer, I’m a relatively young male (26 with 8-10 years on many of them) and a lot of them were interested in my profession and had plans to study kinesiology in post-secondary school.
It didn’t take long to establish a positive rapport with the athletes on an individual basis. I took a lot of time in getting to know them individually. One of the ways I did this was connecting with them through social media (Instagram in particular) which I believe helped immensely in building buy in.
All the work I did to build rapport with the team helped when it came to training. Soccer players are notorious for disliking fitness. However, I rarely had any trouble in getting this group to work hard for me.
The trouble came when athletes began to feel too comfortable with me. They understood I was their coach, and in some way, also a friend. And there were certainly times when the players were a little too friendly.
This is where that “fine line” got hard to find. I began to ask myself: Do I make a big deal about a small comment? Should I discipline the athlete in front of the team? Did he or I cross the line?
In hindsight, I could have done a better job defining the ambiguous “line” with the team and my expectations of them.
That being said, I do believe there was a ton of mutual respect between myself and the players. I believe that the situations I encountered arose because of trust and comfort – which are qualities I set out to establish.
Although I am being critical of myself, I believe that these are challenges any coach working with teenage boys may encounter. There is a certain amount of “rope” you must give with this age group, and a there is a time to pull it back.
Lesson: Be clear and define your expectations and boundaries of athlete-coach relationship dynamics.
4. Don’t get complacent
Performing at a high level – whether it be an athlete, coach, or entrepreneur – is not something you do part of the time, you must do it always and continue to seek ways to improve.
During my time with Winstars, Bobby would always remind me that we need to keep getting better. In one of our first meetings, he sent me home with seven books and three DVDs on training soccer players!
It was easy at times to feel like I had some things figured out. We had many successful training blocks and I had some data to demonstrate that.
What I learned was that after a year and a half, you are going to find a groove with your group and hone in on what you can see is working. However, that doesn’t mean you stop innovating.
One thing I found particularly difficult was having a group of athletes I had been training for one year, and another that had been in the program for only a few months.
The new group lacked the understanding and training history to get the most out of the program I was running. I quickly realized that no matter how well you did developing one group of athletes – there is another standing right there at square one.
Lesson: There is no room for complacency. In physical and athletic development, there will always be new athletes on the team with limited training history.
5. Physical Testing is hugely valuable with youth athletes
This may be bias due to my position, but it is true.
Aside from the obvious reasons to perform physical testing (how do you know your program is working?) there are many other reasons to test youth athletes.
For one, they are still growing. At Winstars, the players are between 15-18 years old, so their bodies are going through a ton of changes. Being a part of the team for almost a year and a half allowed me to watch athletes grow into their bodies and become young men.
We ran a battery of tests every few months and it was amazing to see how the change in their height and/or weight would affect their physical performance – in both positive and negative ways. There were instances where these results explained their recent performances on the field.
Additionally, testing allowed us to set goals for athletes, monitor their physical development, and allowed us to screen for potential injuries.
This is where that “hard work” (mentioned above) would be validated at times. In many cases, their effort and improved soccer performance was being supported to some extent by improved physical fitness.
Throughout the year and a half, different tests were used, and we experimented with some things. It was a good exercise for me to collect this data and use it to inform my programming and report results that back to coaches.
Frankly, this part of the job was new for me. It took a while for me to be able to present the data in a meaningful way to coaches while drawing conclusions. There were a lot of bumps along the way and I was humbled more than once.
I still have a long way to go in this department, and I am looking forward to continue to learn and find ways to add value with testing to the athletes and teams I support.
Lesson: There is a ton of value in testing youth athletes. The data often correlated to what we saw on the field, and was a really useful tool in monitoring their development and physical qualities.
As you can imagine, there were countless lessons learned over the last year and a half, with even more stories to be told.
Thank you to the everyone a part of the Winstars family – coaches, parents, and athletes - that made my time with the club special. I will always look back with fond memories.
Hope you enjoyed my reflection and follow me on my journey as I continue to learn and grow.
If you have any questions/comments, please share below or by e-mail.
Thanks for reading!