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‘I have influenced thousands of kids’
In July 1998, Rick Meana started a new job as director of coaching education at New Jersey Youth Soccer.
It was the same month in which France won the World Cup, inspired in part by the performances of Zinedine Zidane and Didier Deschamps.
But while Zidane has since won three Champions League titles as a coach, and Deschamps is now France manager, Rick remains in the role he took up 23 years ago.
He estimates he has had a material impact on thousands of soccer-playing children in New Jersey due to his influence on coaches.
Here, Rick talks to former SCW editor Dave Clarke about his coaching education program that covers philosophy, methodology and giving youth players a sense of belonging during their development…
SCW: As director of coaching, what does your role involve?
RM: “Well, number one is making sure that I put together a program that educates the coaches, based not only on the US Soccer licenses, but also in terms of what we offer as a state association, our coaching education program.
“I would say probably 95 per cent of my job is that. The other responsibility is creating courses and clinics at a variety of different levels.”
SCW: What are the main ideas you’re trying to get across to the coaches?
RM: “Philosophy, and making sure we’re in line with what US Soccer is teaching, methodology, and the different ways we teach that methodology, and how we can communicate with the coaches who are taking those courses.”
SCW: You have, as you would say, travel coaches and recreational coaches? I assume there is quite a difference between them?
RM: “A big difference. A majority of the travel coaches are paid and I would say a good majority of the recreational coaches are moms and dads who are involved because their children are involved – or they were volun-told, so to speak!”
SCW: In terms of motivation for the kids, again that will be different for the two ends of your spectrum of coaching…
RM: “Yes. Once again, what is the philosophy of the club? What is the mission and what is it that they want to provide the kids? At US Soccer, besides fun, we also talk about belonging and development – what am I learning and how am I learning that? Those are key areas.”
“If they’re coming up with solutions, and solving problems that’s motivation…”
SCW: But if you have a couple who are messing about, or are not communicating with you, you may be thinking ‘how do I change my motivation skills?’. As director of coaching education, do you educate coaches in that? Or is this something they have to basically pick up themselves?
RM: “We say, first of all, step back, because the first thing they want to do is blame the child – ‘the child doesn’t want to be here, the parents forced them to be here, I don’t like babysitting’.
“Well, wait a minute, hold on, step back and take a look at the environment that you set up first. Does the environment provide fun and belonging? How are they learning and what are they learning? I think the coach has to look at themselves.
“In US Soccer, we talk about what we call five elements to an activity. Is it organized? Is it game-like? Is there repetition based on what I want to get out of the program? Is it challenging? And then when I’m coaching it, am I being directive? Or am I using a Socratic approach? Am I giving them the opportunity to come up with the answers? Because that’s what children like.
“If it’s a good challenge, and they’re coming up with the answers, and solving problems, then that’s motivation.
“A lot of people think ‘it’s my responsibility to motivate’. It’s the environment you set up that motivates. That is what we stress. It doesn’t start with you. It starts with what you put on the field.”
SCW: It might be that I say to a parent ‘your son is fantastic in goal and he’s going to play in goal this week’, and they come back to me and say ‘my son’s not a goalkeeper’. How do you deal with parents?
RM: “I believe that it is the club’s first priority to educate their consumers. The parents need to understand the ‘why’ – why are you saying that child should be able to play in goal? Obviously we want to give the kids as much of an opportunity to play in a variety of different spots on the field.
“In terms of educating the parents, I think it’s a number one responsibility and priority of the club. So when I go out and speak to clubs, we talk a lot about how you engage your parents in this process.”
SCW: With a recreational team, if a coach is just starting out, do you say, ‘this is the way we play’ or do they develop it themselves?
RM: “The first things we address are the characteristics of the child at that age. We talk about the cognitive characteristics, the physical motor characteristics, and then the psycho-social characteristics.
“Let’s make sure we understand who is in front of us first. Once we understand who is in front of us, then we can design an environment that makes sense to that child. And at the same time, we throw a game of soccer in there, obviously.”
“Failing is important. Failing is really the first step in learning how to get it right…”
SCW: I can remember when I first started, 20 years ago, if we didn’t win a game I would feel it’s my fault…
RM: “I think that’s a very good point. One of the things we talk about in our coaching education is that failing is important.
“Failing is really the first step in learning how to get it right. You don’t just start winning games, unless you’re lucky and you’ve selected the right kids – in which case, you’re not a teacher, in my opinion.
“A coach also has to realize that not every child is on the same emotional or physical level. There are challenges to understanding that aspect – late bloomers versus early bloomers.
“If you do not take that into account, and all you are concerned about is the final score, as a youth coach, you’re going to struggle.
“A coach also needs to understand their responsibility is to develop that child who’s going to enjoy playing the game and, as they grow older, they stay in the game.
“Then maybe when they become a parent, their kids play, they coach, they watch the games, and then, in the end, maybe they start their own club.
“So the responsibility of the youth coach, in my opinion, is to first of all develop the person, and then develop the athlete. The player, hopefully, at some point, will come out. A lot of youth coaches don’t look at it that way.”
“ I’m not influencing just the coaches that attend the coaching education. I’m influencing hundreds of thousands of kids…”
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