Danny Jackson in action - Photo Credit: Jenni Conner
Danny Jackson on What good coaches know: the responsibilities of effective team leadership
Daniel (Danny) Jackson is a former Major League Soccer (MLS) player and was captain of the Seattle Sounders. SN is pleased to bring readers Danny Jackson’s column with insights into the professional world of soccer.
In all sports, at all levels, there is an intense – and warranted – focus on coaching. Coaches are the designated leaders of the pack, responsible for connecting the dots and putting all the hard work, drills and training in context. And, when they do their jobs well, they serve as strong role models and sometimes even parental figures to their players.
Recently, tragically bad coaching has dominated the news, illustrating what happens when this critical and trusted role is exploited and abused. It’s been difficult for many of us in the sports community to fathom how coaches so successful on the field could fail so miserably in keeping young players safe and healthy. Parents give coaches the responsibility of looking after the best interests of their children and those players place their trust in the coach’s hands. This is an earned privilege and can never be abused.
But now, as a counterpoint, let’s explore the positive responsibilities of coaches and focus on what effective, committed leaders do to keep their players healthy in mind, body and spirit.
A coach’s responsibilities are vast, on and off the field. And excellent coaches welcome the challenge of meeting their players’ needs and expectations.
Foremost in my mind right now, as we move into winter, is the responsibility of helping players appreciate how lucky they are, that they should never take their opportunities for granted. In my experience – and in that of many, I suspect – the calendar is intimately connected with sports. Our years are shaped by sports seasons and annual events: March Madness for college basketball, fall football, spring baseball training, summer’s World Cup. For me, August always symbolizes the start of the soccer season, both at the youth level and in the European leagues. May represents the end of the soccer season, the showpiece finals and the mad dash to the finish line to win the league or avoid relegation. It is an incredibly tense and exciting few weeks. Sports are a comforting constant in our lives, year after year, giving us something to look forward to every season.
For me, changes in the weather and certain smells in the air evoke nostalgic sports memories. The scent of fresh-cut grass will forever mean soccer to me, taking me back to my decades in the sport, from 3 years old until my late 20s. It’s still a bit of a shock to me, since I’ve retired, that my seasons are no longer anchored by competitive play. The annual soccer calendar governed my life for so many years.
I believe it’s a coach’s duty to impress upon players how meaningful these memories will be for them in the future, to encourage and inspire them to appreciate every season, every game, every practice. To live as fully as they can in the moment. I remember, for example, playing two major soccer games each year when I was in Middle School. My classmates were split between two club teams – Westbrook and Briton Juniors. These U10/U11 games were fierce – even the parents got fired up. We pumped ourselves up for those games all year long – mocking our friends who played on the other team, escalating the tension. The build-up was intense and we reveled in the banter! For us, it was like a professional game – we talked about it on the bus, in the classroom and in the school yard. For most people, competitive sports end around 18 years old, after they leave high school. But they can cherish their youthful sporting memories for a lifetime. Of all the games I played over the years, I still vividly remember those school games and how excited we were to win. And if we did win – the excitement of going to school on Monday morning and seeing our fallen classmates was, in some ways, better than the game itself. We had months to gloat. So, coaches should remind players to step back and really appreciate what’s in front of them. As a parent, I will be sure to remind my kids.
I believe a significant responsibility of coaching is to provide context for what sport is, what it means and how the characteristics players develop through years of training on the field translate into “real” grown-up life. As a coach, you learn so much about yourself, as well as how to deal with many different kinds of people. It turns out the characteristics of an angry, quiet or frustrated 8-year-old are often identical to those of a 35-year-old. Every player has an optimum way he or she can be reached and it’s the duty of a good coach to discover how to inspire and train that person for their own betterment and that of the team. Coaches should strive to communicate effectively with every player and ensure all criticism is constructive and positive.
Coaches also have a major responsibility to provide a safe and secure environment and safeguard their players’ health and well-being. Thankfully, the emphasis on health and safety has increased significantly in recent years. When I was growing up in competitive youth soccer in England, the First Aid we received was a little rough, to put it mildly.
Coaches make a huge impact on the success of their players.
Surf Soccer Club Coach Steveo with his GU9 team in a Thanksgiving Tournament. Happy, confident and talented players eagerly await the start of their match.
I can still vividly picture the goal posts that decorated the muddy soccer fields where I spent much of my youth – huge, cast-iron posts, which I swear were some of the only edifices to survive the Blitz. They were ghastly things, flecked with white paint and rust that should have required Tetanus shots on contact – if anyone had cared about such things back then. I don’t even want to think about the number of concussions those goal posts chalked up. And barely any goals in England had nets. When we arrived at the soccer fields, all you could see over the vast patches of mud and sparse grass were those white and rust-orange relics. So when we played for hours with friends, the punishment for losing was not only playing in goal, but chasing the ball, as well. If there was ever any additional incentive to score, it was to see your mate chasing the ball down a slippery bank of mud behind the goal. On the other hand, if your shot was wide or high, then you had to retrieve the ball. But did any of this prevent us from playing until the sun went down? Absolutely not. I laugh just thinking about those times.
And then there was our team’s “First Aid kit.” That was usually the back of someone’s dirty sleeve, wiping the blood away. For numbing our pain, we had the bucket and sponge… a big bucket of freezing cold water and a huge yellow sponge, probably used previously to wash the coach’s car. Whenever you suffered a bad fall – and were laying there in the freezing cold mud, in pain – here would come your coach, waddling out onto the field in his Wellington boots to slop that cold water on you. That was our “cold spray,” meant to numb whatever injury you’d incurred, so you could haul yourself up and carry on playing. The goal of every player, of course, was to get up before the coach reached you with the bucket. It was health, safety and First Aid all in one!
I laugh now, thinking about that bucket and how much First Aid has improved in youth sports, in Europe and the U.S. Now, someone is always designated to bring a real First Aid kit, with bandages, wraps, antiseptic wipes, cold spray – the works. No more freezing cold bucket of water and sloppy sponge.
Another example of the far more casual attitude toward health and safety that governed coaching in my youth was the injuries inflicted on youth from playing in the extreme cold. If there’s one thing any English player has strong memories of, it’s the extreme weather endured for soccer. (I remember often being so covered in mud that I would have to shed my clothes before entering the house. If it was really bad, my father would hose me down outside.) Muddy fields were a given in winter. But the frozen ground was actually much worse. The churned-up mud would quickly become frozen daggers, ripe for causing slide tackles and instant pain. Once, while training with my U15 Leeds United team, snow covered the ground, several inches deep. We knew we would still practice. The only difference: we’d use the orange ball. We still had to wear shorts and only our club sweatshirt to keep warm. We weren’t allowed tracksuit bottoms, a jacket, gloves or a woolly hat. And we certainly didn’t have Under Armour. They were trying to toughen us up, or so we were told. One warm-up drill proved particularly grueling. We sprinted 15 yards around a cone and then our partner served the ball to us, so we could execute a diving header. It didn’t seem so bad at first – we were laughing and joking, rolling around in the snow. But it went on, and on, and on. We quickly became cold and wet, and the laughing turned into moans and squeals. When the show disappeared from the frozen ground, we were in for a real surprise. By the end of that drill, our legs were so cold and red from the numerous cut and scrapes inflicted by the frozen ground. Ouch. I think I still have scars from that session. I am not sure young players today would be pushed like that, to the point of injury.
But even in those tougher times, there were people looking out for our best interests. People whose passion for the sport inspired them to help youth players avoid injury. I remember one individual, an odd bloke, who was the caretaker of a local soccer field. He lived there, in a rather derelict building, but the care and attention of that single grass soccer field was his life’s work. As a 10- and 11-year-old, I couldn’t quite appreciate his mission. I do now. One experience with him stands out, when the ground had frozen after a cold night. We arrived at the field to play. Frost and bad weather was no barrier at that time – I can’t ever remember a game being canceled. So we expected to play, but what we did not expect to see was the caretaker carefully pouring a kettle filled with boiling hot water over the frozen pitch. He had been there for hours, covering a few square inches at a time. His effort didn’t accomplish much, unfortunately, and even when we laughed (what else is a 10- or 11-year-old supposed to do?), his act of commitment demonstrated a profound dedication. And our coach made that very clear to us during his pre-game speech.
On a more serious note, coaches these days are expected to make an effort to consider all aspects of their players’ well-being, placing more emphasis on physical health and safety than ever before. Of the many injury-related issues coaches must now track, one of the most complex and prominent is concussions. These serious head injuries are common in all team sports; soccer players get them most often from clashing skulls or getting an elbow to the head. I myself have suffered several concussions, the first occurring around 4 years old, when I fell during an overnight ferry ride and hit my head on the bunk bed, throwing up down the bed and wall. (My father, as he continues to remind me, did not appreciate having to clean up after me.)
For coaches, such head injuries can induce anxiety, as concussions can be notoriously difficult to assess. Victims can exhibit very different symptoms, and players (as well as parents) often think they’re OK to play when they’re not. How do coaches know when to pull players out and when to ruffle their hair and send them back in?
Ultimately, it’s every coach’s job to educate him or herself about concussions and other serious injuries, in order to assess a players’ symptoms and decide whether they can play. Some organizations, such as Eastside FC in Washington, where I coached, bring in experts to provide that education. But many coaches must seek out information on their own.
Protecting players from themselves – pulling them out of the game when they’re not healthy enough to play – is just another crucial responsibility of a good coach. And it’s not always easy to make that call, particularly when the injured player is a game winner. Coaches must use their common sense and stand firm in their opinion on whether a player should leave the game.
Assessing players’ health and protecting them from injury and unnecessary harm is a coach’s duty, no matter what the level of play. Strong leadership is needed at all ages – from youth to the pros. But other coaching responsibilities vary, as the level of play progresses.
Youth and college coaches have more moving parts to manage than professional coaches, but this takes nothing away from the unique pressures the media and fans can exert on elite college and professional staff. The influence coaches have on players as their minds develop and they mature into adulthood is considerable. Youth coaches must work hard to motivate players – in body and mind; at this age, a coach is still seeking true buy-in, convincing youth they want to work hard. And some players need logistical help in getting to practice and games and securing equipment.
Communicating with parents is crucial at this level too. Think about it: at the youth level, many parents are just starting to pull back, handing the reins of their child’s sports education over to a coach. Some parents may have coached their children previously and it’s hard to let go. They’re trusting the coach with their most sacred relationship: their child. Coaches must reward that trust by communicating with parents, setting clear expectations and creating a positive experience for their children as they develop as players and people.
At the college level, coaches are responsible for guiding young players into adulthood and helping them manage being away from home. They must help players successfully balance sports, academic and social demands, manage performance pressure and learn to become good community citizens. I know I personally feel intensely grateful that the excellent coaches I had at the University of North Carolina, took their responsibilities seriously, as leaders of young men.
In the pros, coaches have different challenges. Gone are the parental and academic concerns, replaced with issues of fame, wealth and ego. At this level, it’s all about man management and leading a team of highly-competitive individuals who must work together to succeed. The challenge is to understand the players and their personalities, guiding them to make the right plays and decisions on the field and combining them for optimal performance as a team. Coaches must also school players in good citizenship, public relations and how to be good role models for young fans.
Excellent coaching demands so much of an individual at every level. The most successful leaders in sports understand their wide range of responsibilities and embrace them fully, guiding, safeguarding and protecting their players’ mental, physical and even spiritual health. These coaches know that everything matters, everything is connected. Who they are on the field is who they are in life.
They reach down deep to give the best of themselves and are rewarded with the same from their players.
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Daniel (Danny) Jackson is a former Major League Soccer player and was captain of the Seattle Sounders
for five seasons. Jackson, the Colorado Rapid
’s first round pick in the 2002 MLS draft, recently retired from professional soccer following a successful career in which he led the Seattle Sounders to two USL
National championships. At the University of North Carolina,
Jackson was a multi-year All-American, team MVP, and three-year team captain. His UNC
team won a National Championship in 2001, and he was named Soccer America National MVP
and National Championship MVP the same year. Danny was awarded the 2002 Patterson Medal
as the UNC Student Athlete of the year
Danny Jackson's recent coaching experience ranges from youth soccer at Eastside FC and the Sounders FC / ODP youth development program and speaks to high schools and youth clubs regarding the far reaching impacts of youth sports. Danny also is serving as the Director of New Business for Korrio.