In my many years of soccer coaching experience, I’ve come to this conclusion: girls need to be happy to play well, while boys need to play well to be happy.
Soccer is soccer and the modern game is well, the modern game. Whether you’re a male or female, the core principles are the same and the manner in which they are executed is the same. So should female players train differently than males? No, not really. But should they be coached differently? I believe so.
I remember being in a coach meeting with all-time UCLA leading scorer Traci Arkenberg when she said perhaps the best session for girls is a pizza night. The look upon the male coaches was one of pure comedy, as we were all thinking about refining our finishing, organizing the back four, or training our runs off the ball. That’s all well and good, but if the environment is all wrong, none of that matters. The social components and the need to be happy for young girls is hugely important, as it creates a sense of community within the group. I think it plays a huge role in women’s soccer, from little girl recreation leagues all the way up to senior national teams.
The ESPN documentary “The ’99ers”, which detailed the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team, really showed how women at the top level of soccer think and interact. It was amazing to see these legends open up about the price of success and the stress it created. For one they had a father figure coach, who arguably wasn’t an overt tactician, but he knew how to get the most out of those women. Before the final, he told them the crowd was there because of what they’d done as people and players. The clincher was watching Mia Hamm break down when she said that the attention she was getting for being really good and attractive was a burden. Her concern; how her teammates would perceive her and she was afraid they’d resent her. Ironically, they loved it because it brought more attention to them, the team, and the program. When you look at this, you realize how together they were of each other.
Now consider the idea of a player at then Real Madrid or Juventus one-upping Ronaldo. At Brighton Hove and Albion, a young player bought a Mercedes and was told by Chris Huton to sell it so he didn’t show up any senior players. Jealousy can permeate any gender, but it’s difficult to see that type of insecurity affecting the women of the 1999 World Cup Team.
Watch a Premier League or Champions League game live, and the speed of play is off the charts. The players at that level are so technical and fast on all fronts, it’s something special to watch. While the women’s game isn’t as fast, it’s still becoming a highly technical game that in itself is a far cry from what was happening 20 years ago. Now that countries have seen the women’s game as viable, more money has been invested in it, which is paying dividends around the world. Japan, France, England, Australia, Germany, and China are producing players that have exquisite skill, vision, and movement that creates problems for the best of teams. Phil Neville of the legendary class of ’92 from Manchester United is now the English Women’s coach. Brazil is the anomaly here as they get together two weeks before the world cup and still rip teams apart, assuming the group is actually on the same page.
Playing boys off the male ego and its a perpetual state of showing the others up. The inherent competitive nature of the boys comes out quickly. One club soccer director quipped, “Boys are soccer players and girls play soccer.” Now, this is not meant as a slight but girls take a little longer to embrace the sport fully, but when they do, it’s becoming a great product to watch. While pulling a team together and building the environment should never change, boys will take physical challenges personally and girls won’t always do this as they are seemingly so positive with each other and cheering each other on. This goes back to the social dynamic and its importance to girls. Boys are all trying to be the alpha as this is also prevalent in boys groups as the dominant personalities or the fastest boys seem to fit in quickly where for girls it’s about who are as opposed to what you can do.
When on the practice pitch, what do practices look like? The concepts to train and learn are frankly the same. Principles of play are just that, core concepts that apply essentially at any age and any level. However, with eight-year-old girls, they love to run around, kick a ball, and be part of a social group. Younger girls also love the group pottery class or even naming their soccer balls. While to an outside observer, this may seem silly but for girls, it isn’t. This is part of how they function and do things. They treat their soccer balls like a little sibling. It’s a means to bond and deeper connection. Dribbling, finishing, passing, and defending principles do not change for gender.
With any team, you have to manage a group and manage individuals. With girls, it’s critical they think the coach is on their “team” and once this level of trust is established, the real work can begin. The girls will do anything the coach asks and really bond as a group. This level of mutual trust and appreciation can have a lasting effect not just on the group but their long term love of the game. For the University of Portland and National Team, the Assistant Coach was extremely successful and popular because of how he treated his players. He held them accountable and showed them the utmost respect. Ask any player who spent time with him and never a negative word will be uttered. To be fair, this can be said for men as well but keep in mind, women tend to internalize criticism far differently than men and above all, never single a girl out in front of the group. This is the fast track to failure.
However, recent examples of this in the Premier League with Jose Mourinho and Paul Pogba demonstrated how much this can affect a player and ultimately a manager’s job. Calling any player a “cancer” and “sickness” that affects the team cannot really go well with anyone, especially if that player is one of the highest-paid players in the world and just won a World Cup. With Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who seems perpetually happy, Pogba is a new player. But with Solskjaer, there is a manager who knows the Manchester United Culture, knows Pogba from his academy days, and is far more positive and encouraging. If tough conversations need to be had, those need to be in private and not in front of the media and the general public.
What a coach says and how they say it can determine plenty. Know your players and how they handle being coached. This is the same for boys and girls but knowing the social dynamics of girls, who they see themselves and their teammates as a group first, individuals second will be hugely beneficial at any level. Remember the 80/20 rule with more positive than negative comments, Even the negative stuff can be used as “areas to improve.” How this is phrased can be the difference between having a player, male or female, flourish or fail. Coaches are in the business of growing the game and helping players get better, They should not engender a negative environment that pushes the country’s future Alex Morgan or Christian Pulisic out of the game.