A Generation of Soccer Coaching Robots

FIFA is the governing body of worldwide soccer and the only organization that can sanction coaching licenses. FIFA grants this authority to National Soccer Federations around the world, who in turn offer the coaching courses for various prices in their country. In the United States, the “B” license will cost you around $2750, a couple of plan flights, and some missed work. The United States “A” license will set a coach back around $3500, and the “Pro” license will be a hefty $10,000. If a coach doesn’t comply with the FIFA and the National Federations licensing system, their ability to work in the game is severely limited, but the ramifications go much further. However before we dive deeper into the harm licensing programs bring to soccer, think about this, in a game where coaches preach about the importance of developing creative players, the type of players who come up with unique skillful solutions on the field but are we encouraging that same creativity in coaching? Do we really value original thinking and original ideas in soccer coaching? Let’s be very clear on this point, soccer is a separate domain compared to other areas like math, and it is a slippery slope to view a subject like math to soccer, in math, there is one answer, and normally one linear path to get to that answer. In soccer, there are millions of ways to score a goal, and no linear path is going to be the clear best path. If you had to coach Messi, can you even understand what his affordances are, can you understand what actions he is capable of in all different situations? Be careful about designing a rigid game model with Messi on your team, because he will have solutions to problems you never could comprehend. With licensing programs be careful when it comes to replicating traditional academic teachers’ methods, academics is not soccer. I would ask coaches to question absolutely everything, including the mainstream ideas of tactical periodization. Personally, I think coaches should be given an open slate, they should be allowed to flourish in an environment constrained by only the theories that make sense to them in their specific environment. In my opinion, coaching should be the connection between theory and practice, but what that actually looks like is up to the coach. One theory I value is called representative game design, it simply means that there is a benefit if your trainings relate closer to the actual real game. In representative game design, there is more coupling of real game cues, decision-making is more realistic, and the transfer to the actual game is high. The debate will occur, how representative is representative enough, but the fact is the answer to that question will rest with the coach themselves.

If FIFA wanted to bring up the level of coaching around the world, they could simply produce free or low-cost online coaching education. Award a digital certificate that costs nothing and the barrier to entry into the coaching world is removed, the current pay to coach model is also eliminated. The reality is that a coach develops by working daily in a club, reflecting on their work, having experienced coaches as mentors, and continuing on a non-stop journey of learning. At Harvard, there is a course that focuses on developing a personal brand, as famous athletes from around the world take the course every summer. The interesting part is that most of the course consists of participants teaching each other what they do, and the experiences they have had. The course is participant-directed, not instructor directed, there is no final exam or grade at the end, just an experience. Imagine a coaching experience where original ideas and creativity were encouraged without the fear of failure because you didn’t follow the mandatory course guidelines or your session didn’t move the KPI’s in the direction the instructor wanted to see.

One thing that American Football does really well is they search the country for talented coaches. The NFL looks everywhere for the top coaching talent across the country, from high school, college, arena football, and beyond. They don’t only look for the talent, they hire the talent in some capacity. But in soccer, we wouldn’t dare view a high school or regular town club coach as a serious talent, probably because the level doesn’t say MLS Next or Premier, and they probably don’t hold an “A” license. The fact is that in all the major sports like baseball, football, basketball, and hockey, there are no licenses. There are two reasons for this, in my opinion…. first, it serves to limit opportunity – keeping the jobs inside the circle for those who join the licensing network, second – it is a moneymaker for the federations. Again if FIFA was so concerned with bringing up the level of coaching, just use a tiny fraction of the money you made over the years from the people’s game, to produce the best low-cost coaching education ever seen.

On a side note, my many emails to FIFA about this very subject have never been answered. I even offered to offer free licensing to anyone, if FIFA would grant me the ability to offer licenses…yes, you guessed it, never heard back   Of course I never expected FIFA.

Let me end with this. I respect everyone that has done any sort of license on the journey to becoming better. I have done them myself. My issue is never with the coaches, it is with FIFA and some of the Federations. Just offer coaching courses online for a low cost, look at it as an offering of information without judgment to be used however a coach wants to use it. Let the overwhelming message be that you encourage ideas, creativity, and original thought in coaching. Go out and be an artist, try new things out in trainings, don’t feel you have to follow any method but the one you believe in. If you can connect theory to practice that will most likely point you in a direction that you can build on.