Great Coaches on Great Soccer: Bo Nielsen
Bo Nielsen is an exceptional soccer coach and has been training and developing youth soccer players for years. A more private person than many more boisterous coaches, Bo Nieslen shares his views on being a coach, what it was like to train his wife when she played for the U.S. National Team, and key tips for soccer players who want speed on the field.
He and his wife Jen Lalor-Nielson joined Johnson Asiedu in launching the San Diego Soccer Academy this year. Bo Nielsen coaches several boys teams at the club.
SoccerNation News: Why do you coach?
Bo Nielsen: Coaching players is my passion. I love to teach and assist players in their development, regardless of their age or level.
For me, it’s about helping others to grow, develop and dream big! That’s why I coach – it fulfills me.
Coaching for a living is a dream come true.
When you work with youth soccer players, it’s about giving the kids something that they can take with them and help them mature ... something that helps make them better people.
It’s not really about the sport; it’s about the education that you get through the sport.
Athletics is the vehicle through which you express yourself. Youth sports should be more about good sportsmanship and social development than winning.
All too ofiten all you hear about is winning, winning and winning. Youth sports should teach good values of how to conduct yourself on and off the field.
SNN: Good Sportsmanship, can you explain more?
Bo Nielsen: Well, it’s about being respectful. Do you understand that if you hurt someone, it comes around? It can come back to bite you?
That’s one of the lessons that I really want to get across to my students.
You should train hard and consistently work on all parts of your game to perfect the strengths and improve the weaknesses. And practice good sportsmanship. All players should know their strengths and weaknesses. I often ask players, 'What is your weakness?'
SNN: You’re a unique coach. How do you compare yourself to other coaches?
Bo Nielsen: All people are unique really, it’s all about your personality and how you teach and instruct. I focus on communication. Personally, I often try to make references, 'painting the picture' for my players. I demonstrate for them. I will go great lengths to try to make the player or team understand the point. At times I can get very animated.
Every time I see someone coaching soccer, I am curious to know how they do things. Knowing what ohers do helps me evaluate and challenge myself to become a better coach.
I think it’s important to be open to new and better ways of coaching.
I believe that it’s the invisible/non-physical world that creates the visible/physical world – that’s my basic coaching philosophy.
SNN: You sound very “California,” very relaxed, but in reality I’ve seen you on the field – you are very exacting, you are very specific. You get the best out of your kids in a positive way. You demand a certain level of excellence.
Bo Nielsen: Yes, It is my job to break things down and simplify the job description for the player to help them be successful. When the player understands the “job” it is then up to that player to demonstrate how much energy they want to spend getting the job done. “Who wants it the most?”
It’s about where they are now and where they want to be. Why have they chosen to either play for me or have a training session – to go to my camp or go to my program? What is it that they want? So they have already opened up and said they’re here to learn. In my terms, the “clay is wet.” That is when you have their attention and the teaching can begin.
Teaching should be fun and repetitive, with a focus on technique and execution in a competitive and positive environment.
SNN: When did you start coaching?
Bo Nielsen: When I was 16 and I’d been playing soccer for probably six or seven years, I was offered a coaching job in my club.
SNN: Where were you playing soccer?
Bo Nielsen: JGI – Jyllinge Gundsomagle Idratsforening in Denmark. And ever since I was offered that position, it has been a major thread through my life to coach and teach.
SNN: Why do you think you were selected to coach when you were so young?
Bo Nielsen: One of the reasons might be I was hanging around the field a lot, even when I didn’t have any practices. Someone thought I was ready for the opportunity. I remember being very inspired by the opportunity to coach and I loved it.
I am always open to learning and have taken many courses in Communication, Physical Training, Mental Training, Holistic Health and Coaching Seminars. I draw knowledge from all sports I have played and from what I see others do.
Coaching is like being a chameleon – you have to change and be flexible.
SNN: How many years have you coached?
Bo Nielsen: Over 22 years. That is a long time.
SNN: And what do you think makes a good coach?
Bo Nielsen: A good coach empowers and develops their players. A good coach communicates clearly and should have knowledge about the game.
SNN: How do you describe yourself?
Bo Nielsen: I really try to motivate each player and get everybody to understand what they need to do to contribute.
I am a straight shooter – I tell you the way I see it.
SNN: Do you yell?
Bo Nielsen: I may be loud, but I don’t yell often.
When I critique, I try to do the sandwich, which is the “Good job. Next time do this. Keep going.” So there’s a “good,” there’s a critique, and there’s a “good.”
My approach is to be positive, then provide valuable how-to-accomplish-this-better information, and then positive comments again. I feel this approach creates a better scenario for the player to take in and absorb the information.
SNN: How young should players start playing organized soccer and being coached by a professional coach?
Bo Nielsen: It is about preparing the kids for life through sports, and that can start early.
It is never too young to learn to be a good teammate, how to stand in line, or be quiet and listen when your coach talks.
Good basic behavior should be encouraged early on. Then you add more specific soccer training.
If your goal is to play on the National Team and the pro level, well, when you hit 14, 15, 16 you have to get very serious. That is when you have to make soccer training a top priority, and you have to schedule your life around it.
SNN: These are the ages when college coaches start identifying players?.
Bo Nielsen: Yes, It all comes together at this crucial age.
Many children plays soccer when they’re young, butwhen kids turn to 14, 15, 16, that’s when the youth teams come together or fall apart. For some kids, other things in life start to be more interesting than going to soccer practice and competing in soccer tournaments.
This is the age when a player's commitment level is being challenged and youth soccer players have to decide whether it’s for them or not.
SNN: High School ages are crucial. It is when Harvard, Stanford and WestPoint start looking at players. But isn’t that young for such a serious choice?
Bo Nielsen: Yes. But serious soccer players know what they want.
SNN: What do you recommend if you want to be a serious player?
Bo Nielsen: First of all, I recommend that you sit yourself down and deep inside of your heart ask yourself what you really want to do, and then push it as far as you can go and see where it takes you. Be okay with just going for it and believing it is done. What you put out is what you get back.
In this day and age it is also important to realize that your height has nothing to do with your success level.
SNN: You can improve speed?
Bo Nielsen: You definitely can improve speed. Absolutely. I improve the speed of soccer players all the time.
You have to drill the mechanics of running until they are clean, then add resistance training.
SNN: What’s the proper position for someone’s arms when they’re running for speed?
Bo Nielsen: You’ve got to swing arms from the shoulder. Not from the elbow because that creates very little momentum.
SNN: Is that a mistake a lot of people make?
Bo Nielsen: This is a common mistake but it is hard to generalize. Another frequent mistake is runnng flat footed.
SNN: What is flat footed?
Bo Nielsen: Flat footed is sprinting like a marathon runner. It’s when you put your heel down first, and then you put your mid foot down and you roll to your toe.
SNN: What should you do if you want to be a fast on the field?
Bo Nielsen: The faster you want to run, the more you have to go on the front of the foot. More running on the toes.
SNN: So you don’t land on your heel?
Bo Nielsen: Never. If you ever watch a hundred-meter Olympic final in slow motion, you will see that it’s only the front third of their feet that really touches the ground. It’s amazing to see.
SNN: Besides landing on your heel and swinging your arms from the elbows, what are other mistakes people make when they’re running for speed in soccer?
Bo Nielsen: Often the body is straight; players should lean into the run. They should not start standing straight.
SNN: So what angle should you have?
Bo Nielsen: You should lean in the direction you want to go.
SNN: Lean how far? 45 degrees?
Bo Nielsen: Good question. There is a fine line between leaning forward and leaning too much. Players have to experiement and play with the position to discover the right angle for them.
SNN: Each player has their own unique angle?
Bo Nielsen: Yes they do - for maximum speed.
SNN: Many people may not know that you trained your wife, Jen Lalor-Nielsen. What was it like?
Bo Nielsen: Well, it was an interesting time when we first met in Denmark. She played for a club which I also coached for, Frederiksberg Boldklub.
SNN: What did you think of her as a player?
Bo Nielsen: Jen is a fantastic player. She is an inspiration to all of us and clearly an exampe that commitment to training pays off.
In this day and age it is also important to realize that your height has nothing to do with your success level at all..
Jen’s style is more passing, connecting and moving the ball through the midfield as a playmaker. The team she was on at that time played a lot of long balls forward and did not really try to use the middle, so she was good but she wasn’t utilized. They didn’t play her strength. That was sad to see, but that’s just a part of the coaches’ philosophy.
SNN: Were you dating at that time?
Bo Nielsen: Not at all. We actually didn’t really get involved until we met in California a year and a half later.
SNN: Jen was on the U.S. Women’s National Team and she thought she was as good as she could get. Then you trained her and took her to a new level. How did you do that?
Bo Nielsen: I saw that she was extremely well trained in ball skills – she could do pretty much anything – and her vision was very good. That was how she had been playing for years. That was her conditioning, and your conditioning creates your condition.
But I quickly saw that her body positioning when she was running was wrong; there wasn’t much power in it. So we had to start there because that was an easy fix, at least in my eyes.
Jen was excellent with the ball, but she was a passer. So the challenge for me was to try to make her understand that she could actually take people on herself. It took me a long time and many attempts to try to get the message across, and in the end she changed maybe ten percent out of the 100 that I really thought she had in her.
There was really nothing I could say to change this because she was already locked in. Her clay had almost hardened as a player; there was no soft clay left. You know when you talk about teaching an old dog new tricks? She was so locked into who she was as a player and so afraid to lose the ball on the dribble that she just didn’t want to risk it.
I never really succeeded at making her a penetrating and goal scoring player.
The interesting thing is that years later it has come full circle. Now I’m listening to Jen coaching a WPSL San Diego SeaLions player or high school player or club player, or whatever it is, and she is telling them to take more risks. It’s just beautiful.
Interestingly Jen played her best soccer after she became a coach, and understood the difference between playing with pressure and without it. She was coached by Sean Bowers then.
SNN: As a youth player, what do you remember about being coached? Do you remember a coach being a positive influence as you just described, or do you remember coaches you wished were more constructive and positive?
Bo Nielsen: You know, that’s a very, very good question. We are all influenced by our past and some of my motivation to coach comes through my own experienes of being coached. I remember when I was growing up playing in Denmark, the system was different.
The system at the Danish youth level works like this: one year you would play with the age group that was a year older than you, and the next year you would move back and play with the kids that were a year younger than you. That system creates a rhythm of inconsistency, which I think is counterproductive.
I lived in a small city of 5.ooo people, so the club’s finances were low. A coach’s salary amounted to phone bill compensation, sweat suit and gas money.
I don’t want to say some of the coaching was necessarily “bad or good,” but I think some coaches maybe weren’t as engaged or were parents just volunteering.
SNN: Do you feel you could have been a successful pro if you had better coaching?
Bo Nielsen: Yes, I felt that I could have had a chance to go to the next level if my talent or my drive had been nurtured or “coached.” Later on I realized it’s about being proactive rather than waiting to be discovered.
I did play one season of semi professional soccer for Odsherred Idrats Hojskole ’94. The team was undefeated that season; unfortunately I did not make it to the next level. Let me say right away that I have fantastic memories from my youth time playing with JGI. Thanks to all teammates and coaches that helped me along the way.
SNN: Does this inspire you to nurture the potential talent in the youth players?
Bo Nielsen: Yes. If I have a player’s full attention I can really help them reach the next level. I just want to help today's youth soccer players reach their potential.
As long as players are open to my coaching and want to learn, I want to keep coaching them.
Related Articles: Coach Profile: Jen Lalor-Nielsen