FOOTBLOGBALL continues its essential interview series with part 1 of a 2 part interview with  Dave Clarke .An Irishman who has gained a well respected reputation in elite coaching in USA. Dave  is one of the  premiere college coaches in the NCAA’s highest division, a staff coach for the Connecticut Junior Soccer Association and is a License Instructor for the United States Soccer Federation. 


FOOTBLOGBALL: You are involved in the curriculum for coaching education in the USA , what developments have you recently seen in attitudes to player/ coach  development and what ones do you hope to see ?

DAVE CLARKE: There has been a shift in emphasis away from lecturing to candidates on the various courses to involving them in the learning process.  This has made the higher level courses more enjoyable to teach and a better learning environment for the candidates.

Instructors still have an opportunity to share their experience and knowledge, but the lectures are now more open, allow for more discussion and allow for candidates to express their opinion.  That means they are now more engaged in the learning process.  They are no longer sitting through a two hour Power Point presentation that they could have read at home.  They are now being asked questions, to analytically breakdown games, to provide their opinions and to support their view point.

This new approach means the candidates are more engaged in their own education as a coach and it makes the course less tedious for both instructor and candidate.

The main developments have been in the area of technology and sports science.  Coaches have exposure to more technology than previous generations and the internet has allowed for greater sharing of knowledge.  Twenty years ago it was impossible to know what coaches were doing in Spain or Germany let alone Australia or South Korea.  The advent of the internet, Facebook and Twitter now allows for file sharing and there is a more open source of information.  We now know the role that the KNVB has played in changing the structure of Australian football and the impact that sports science and periodization had with South Korea’s national team.   

In the US Soccer Coaching Education system we have experts in adult education designing the next generation of coaching courses.  Teaching a coach is not the same as teaching a player, so the focus is on improving how we teach the coaches.  If we improve the education of our coaches then in theory we should improve the education and sophistication of our players.  This commitment to improvement in adult learning should see an improvement in the standard of the game here.

I still think we need a better understanding of why players and coaches learn.  What can we learn from the backgrounds of the likes of Johan Cruyff, George Best and Lionel Messi that will help us develop future players?  Similarly, what can we learn from the backgrounds of Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp to help us develop successful coaches?

There are other questions that show we have a long way to go before we fully understand player and coach development.  Why do some academies produce players but not others?  Why do countries like Belgium produce a golden generation every 20 years, but not every cycle?  How did their current group of players end up evolving and peaking at the same time?  Why hasn’t a country like India or China produced a single world class talent or an EPL player, but the USA has?  There is no real consistency to player development.  Why is that?  It will be fascinating to see if the next generation of La Masia graduates will be as successful as the current players in the Barcelona first team.  If not, why not?  

 FOOTBLOGBALL: We hear a lot about agility and speed in the modern game but for me and especially at youth level , perception and decision making should be trained at the same time otherwise  there is a risk that there will be a break down in the  connection between how the young player experiences training and the real game. Perception can  improve a players agility while the ability to perceive and react quicker ( make a decision ) can help the speed in which an athlete can move in a new direction . Can you discuss this statement ?

DAVE CLARKE: At the highest level of track and field, the Olympics, the 100 meter final between the world’s best sprinters is won and lost in the first 10 meters after the starting pistol is fired.  The difference between winning a medal and being a hero and coming last and being a loser is measured in hundredths of a second.  The gold medalist tends to react quicker to the pistol.  It is what makes him world class and a world champion.  His speed is natural and his time from 10 to 100 meters is similar to the other runners in the race, but coming out of the blocks and reacting to the gun is a learned trait.  That is where he wins the race.

Similarly, speed of thought, speed of movement and speed of perception are all learned traits in football.  If a player can react quick enough it is the difference between scoring a rebound and the chance being cleared.  Young players need to be put in situations where they are forced to think quickly, react quickly and to perceive things before they happen.  Example, intercept a ball instead of tackling.  Young players need to solve problems in practice on a regular basis.  They need to solve problems before the problem exists. Just as the sprinter learns to react to the pistol, the youth player can learn to react to the ball or defenders coming at speed from different directions.


FOOTBLOGBALL: Research suggests that young players only retain 18% of concepts that are learned passively but 68% of that which is learned actively, thus implying the need for a more player centered training rather than coach centered. Can suggest how by using your methods this can be achieved?

DAVE CLARKE: There is an old Chinese proverb that relates to the percentages presented that states: ‘what we hear, we forget; what we see, we remember; but what we do, we know.”   In elementary and middle school classrooms teachers don’t lecture.  They teach through hands on learning – counting blocks, stencils, finger paint, guided discovery, role play, animals, music etc. – which makes the classroom more stimulating for the students.  It is one reason why we have more positive memories of our kindergarten teacher than we do of our high school history teacher.  The latter generally does not make the lesson fun, stimulating or creative. 

Youth coaches need to become more like the kindergarten teacher than the history one.  They have to replicate the best classroom teachers and try to be creative in planning sessions, season plans and cycles.  Some techniques I recommend or have used with U8-U14 are:    

  • Allow free play – dedicate time at the start and the end of practice for the players to play without any input from the coach.  This provides time for individuals to organize the activity, team selection, rules, scoring, officiating, etc.    
  • Allow players to take risks in games – rather than tell players what they cannot do in games, tell them to try things – beat a player, try to nutmeg a player, rainbow a player, do a Maradona spin, chip the keeper, slide tackle, beat three players on a dribble.
  • Ask questions – don’t provide answers, just ask questions.  Rather than point out the technical error of a bad pass or shot ask the player(s) what he could have done to keep the ball down, score, beat the keeper, surface he could have used, etc.  Be the guide or the facilitator, but do not provide the answer.
  • Allow players to solve problems – don’t solve the problems for the team or the individual.  Rather than bringing four players back to defend two, ask the two central defenders to defend 2v2 or have them figure out how to play 2v3 when needed.
  • Let them coach themselves – have the players coach themselves – you stop the activity, but have them make the coaching points.  This can be done in the flow or after a specific amount of time.  Extend this to a game – you pick the players, but they pick the formation, the approach, the approach when leading, when trailing. Ask what they would do when 1-0 down and how would they get the goal back?

These suggestions do not and will not work for every coach.  The coach needs to be knowledgeable, have an array of questions and ideas at his disposal and most importantly the patience to allow the players to make mistakes and to come up with solutions.



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