Tryouts are over. As a coach you have a gleaming new roster in one hand and a lot of great ideas about how to fill the next few months in the other. At the most successful clubs, the planning starts now. Over the course of the season you will need to cover a range of practice topics, which may or may not be set by the club; there will be a number of games, tournaments, team building moments, meetings and other events and the more it can be planned, the happier the parents and players will be. Also this way you can be sure that you have time to do everything you need, but still with the flexibility built in to make changes when appropriate.
Start with a calendar and divide it into weeks from right now until the end of the season. Add in all known games and tournaments, practices, club functions and anything else you have planned. Count how many practice sessions you will actually have and compare that to the number of topics you are expected/expecting to cover. Some coaches like to leave space for practices that are catered towards the next opponent, or sessions to work on whatever didn’t work in the previous game. Whether or not you do that will depend on your coaching philosophy. You might also leave flexibility for scrimmages, weather issues or needing to try again with sessions that you don’t think worked out very well.
For the more hardcore coaches – each week on your plan is called a microcycle. A group of 3-4 microcycles make up a mesocycle, and a couple of mesocycles comprise your macrocycle or seasonal/yearly plan. Professional clubs break up each season in this way. For example, they might focus on control for the first half of the macrocycle and tactical understanding for the second half. Below you can see an example from Athletico Madrid, used during their 2011/12 season, which broke up their focus into the various cycles.
Generally the time before your league or tournament season starts serves a number of functions: – building social/task cohesion among players (making friends, learning to work together); improving player fitness to have them ready for the stress of the full game; and starting with the technical and tactical components of the game that they will focus on during the year ahead. Some teams also schedule time off to recover from a previous season or for vacations.
Having a meeting at the start of the season gives you a chance to meet everyone (including parents) and set out your vision for the season ahead. This can include your expectations, timing/scheduling of events and any paperwork. Some coaches like to have players sign a team contract, agreeing to certain levels of professionalism and accountability. You might also need to collect registration information for your club administrators.
Often coaches will use the pre-season to have a meeting with every player individually. Spending 15-20 minutes going through their goals, talking about their position(s) on the field and answering any questions they (or their parents, depending on age) might have can be extremely useful for you to gather information, but also for them to find out more about you.
Once practices start coaches tend to begin with lighter sessions, testing player fitness, working on simple technical skills and building over time. Having a few scrimmages arranged throughout the first few weeks gets players used to the team and field, plus gives you a chance to look at formations. Many teams will sign up for a tournament or two before the season starts, giving them some full intensity games so that they are in mid-season form by the time league games start. This might not be financially possible, or there may be no events around you to go to. In those situations you could arrange ‘friendlies’ or round robin events with other teams in your club or the local area.
Once the league season begins it is good to get into a routine with practices on the same days and scheduled communication with the team. Often coaches will send out an email at the beginning of each week, talking about what they saw at the previous game and what they will be working on during the week ahead. They might also outline any reschedule plans or team functions so that everyone is on the same page. Spending 20 minutes each week doing this keeps everyone informed and saves the frustration that can develop in parent groups when they have no idea what the coach is doing and come to their own conclusions. Try not to get into too much detail – especially about the performance of specific players. In a public form like this you want to talk briefly about a few common themes you saw. Also stay away from explaining (or excusing) the result, and referees. In this way we can help parents to focus on performance goals rather than outcomes.
Within the week, think about when you should be running high intensity practices and when not. The day after a game or tournament you might need to plan some recovery time and lighter training for players. In the middle of the week you can usually ramp it up as you can give them days to recover afterwards. Generally the day before a game it is common again to be careful not to fatigue players. Some coaches use the time to run through situations with their players rather than playing full scrimmages. Textbooks recommend having practices and games at the same time each day, but it is unlikely that you schedule your games so this might not be possible. Keep in mind that it takes 24-48 hours to recover from heavy exercise though, so if you have a game 16 hours after a Friday night practice you need to plan accordingly.
Over your 8-16 week season you will need to cover whatever is in your club curriculum for the age group. If the club doesn’t have one you could follow a model created by a national federation, or as many coaches at small clubs do – come up with your own. It makes a lot of sense to coordinate with other coaches in the club, to make sure when you hand teams on you are not repeating the same things ad nauseam, but providing players with a true path to development.
Check out our interview with Stuart Hilton on how he plans his seasons and makes changes to them with his Dallas Sting teams.
Depending on the time of year, coaches might ‘reward’ their team with a tournament to finish the season, or be building on their league form to take them to a showcase event (if they are looking to get into college). Others might be done with the long months and want some time off. Generally though this is a good time to have some form of gathering with the players, to congratulate performance, give out awards and look ahead. Most coaches will meet with players individually (with or without parents, depending on age) to go over goals that were set, check progress, and set new ones. This is also a good chance to gauge how happy players are and be ready to address problems before they develop into something more serious.
Some teams will play year-round and continue practices for tournaments in or out of state. In some parts of the country they play indoors during the winter (or summer) so coaches need to schedule (or rent) field time and come up with training plans that fit the size of the space and number of players. Many coaches will have athletes who play other sports during the break. Coaches might make the gesture of going to watch a game (theater performance or other activity) to show that we are here for more than just their soccer development.
Finally, coaches often need a break themselves. Seasons can be long, tiring and stressful. With a few weeks (or months) off, coaches can come back reinvigorated and ready to start again. Taking coaching courses during the break can also give new ideas and enthusiasm for the job.