‘Coaching is madness. But to us, it’s a calling’

Scotsman Duncan Ryan has almost 40 years of experience in coaching.

Now technical director of Yarra Jets in Melbourne, and sitting on the technical subcommittee of Football Coaches Australia, his focus is on driving standards and supporting coaches to thrive.

Here, he talks to former Soccer Coach Weekly editor Dave Clarke about lifelong learning, communication, coach wellbeing, and why every player deserves their playing time…


SCW: How did you start out in coaching?

DR: “I played in London for many years. Some boys at the pub wanted to start a Sunday League team and we couldn’t find a coach, so I put my hand up to do it.

“I did the basic badge, the immediate badge, then UEFA C and B. And I just kept educating myself. I worked at Watford’s academy for a while and at Barnet Under-17s. I keep learning, after 36 years as a coach. I absolutely love it.

“It’s absolute madness, I don’t know why anybody would want to do it. But for those that do, it’s a calling, a vocation.

“It can be hugely stressful. I’ve done some courses with the League Managers Association (LMA) on health and wellbeing for coaches, because coaches stress.

“A player finishes a game or training and forgets about it. A coach can never switch off. After a game, they are thinking about what went right and wrong, what needs to be done at training, the team for next week and the next opponent.

“It can be quite stressful – stress that people don’t realise they have got.”


Unlike players, coaches can never switch off and are always thinking about the next game, says Duncan Ryan


SCW: As a director of coaching, do you put in a system or a way of playing that coaches will follow?

DR: “At my club, the senior team plays 3-5-2 and the reserves play 3-5-2. The under- 18s and those below will play the same way, because if a player moves up the system, they might not know the players around them too well, but they will know the system.

“That is not set up by the director of coaching but by the senior coach, who makes his mind up on the shape. The shape is just a starting position; what you do and patterns of play within the shape can vary. That is down to the individual coaches.”


“A player finishes a game and forgets about it. A coach can never switch off…”


SCW: What age groups do you work with?

DR: “We have got four, five and six-year olds in a skills acquisition programme. At that age, we want them to be able to stop a ball, pass a ball, control a ball and, more than anything, have fun doing it.

“Then we have teams from under-sevens right up to under-20s and senior and reserves adult teams. We’ve got 29 teams in total, split evenly between men and women. We’re one of the biggest girls’ sides in the area of Melbourne.”


SCW: How do you go about looking at the motivation the coaches have with the children in their teams?

DR: “Coaches should be self-motivated but it can be tough for them, especially if they lose a few games in a row. But winning is not everything. It should be about development. The consequence of development is winning.

“Everybody likes to win, the kids like to win. You can’t tell a kid ‘No, you’re developing’ if they’re getting spanked 10-0 every week and they can’t see a development there.

“So we just do what we can to pick up the heads of the coaches. I’ll go and join in sessions with them. It’s great at the club because every kid knows who I am.

“I’ve got a little rule: don’t pass me without hitting me. So everywhere I go I get little high fives. It is just about picking the coaches’ heads up. If I need to, I go and have a sit down with them and see what they need.

“I catch almost every home game and I try to catch a couple of away games a week. I might suggest a session to the coaches or tell the kids ‘you played really well, unfortunate about the result’.

“You have just got to reinforce what they’re doing, keep their heads up, and let them know that they’re doing the right things.”


Communication is the most important part of the game – but the hardest for a coach to teach (Picture: Ollie Chamberlain)


SCW: Do you find communication is something you have to talk to your coaches about?

DR: “Communication is singularly the most important part of the game, and teaching kids to talk is the hardest thing for a coach to do.

“We play games where every third pass you make, if there’s no talking, it’s a free kick. We make the kids talk. Talking builds confidence. Communication is so important in the game and so hard to teach.”


SCW: How do you deal with parents? Do they get involved?

DR: “My role as technical director is to protect the coaches and the committee. I keep parents back from the coaches. I tell them if they’ve got any concerns to come and see me.

“I’m open to talk to anybody. I’ll listen to anyone’s concerns and I’ll listen to anyone’s advice. I don’t know everything, parents don’t know everything, coaches don’t know everything. But if we all work together we’ll get it right.”


SCW: Does that also cover playing time?

DR: “That can be extremely hard – if the kids have paid their fees like everybody else, they deserve their playing time.

“At a community club, you get extreme differences in the ability of the players in some teams; we get some who we think might be a pro one day and other kids who we think should be playing tiddlywinks at home or something. They’ve got no ball skills, no natural movement, but they’ve got to play. They’ve paid their money.

“You work with them, you encourage them. I tell coaches not to have all the poor players on at the same time. Start a game strong, finish a game strong.


“Communication is the most important part of the game and so hard to teach…”


“Try and play them in positions that won’t hurt you. You can go weak down the sides, so give them a run.

“I’ve been doing the director of coaching course here and a question that came up was ‘If you’re 2-1 up in a cup final with an under 9s or 10s team, and you’ve got two on the bench you know might cost you the game, do you play them?’.

“I say 100 per cent you play them. Put them up front and just defend the last 10 minutes, do whatever you’ve got to do. They’ve got the right to be there and if you’re in a cup final, they must have helped get you there.

“You can’t drop people for the sake of points. As I said earlier, a consequence of development is winning. Take them on a journey with you but don’t drop them at the end. Don’t stop them from having a bit of glory.

“I think the stat is that 75% of people that play football never win anything, never get promoted, never get relegated. They make up the numbers. So if you get a chance of glory, give it to all the kids, give every kid that you can a touch.”


SCW: Where do you think Football Coaches Australia will be in 10 years’ time?

DR: “We’ve got a voice on the table now with the Football Federation in Australia so hopefully we can help guide the game into a better situation.

“I think Australia is a sleeping giant, it’s such an athletic country. If Football Coaches Australia can be part of this, it would be sensational, but we need members, we need people to sign up, more people in to do coach education.

“We will bring people from the UK, Europe and America to come and do coach education sessions and talks. We’ll do Zoom conferences. And if we can keep doing that and keep educating, the game will get bigger and better.”


“Goals are never a keeper’s fault. There are 10 players in front of that goalkeeper that could stop the ball before it gets to them…”


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