Making a connection

Having played at a semi-professional level in England, Wayne Cleverly moved to Canada aged 26 and developed a career in coaching.

Formerly the foundation-phase manager at Calgary Foothills Soccer Club, Wayne now splits his time between his own academy, through which he consults for clubs, coaching the Canada men’s national futsal team, and working as a coach developer for Canada Soccer and Alberta Soccer.

SCW caught up with Wayne to discuss building a program and philosophy, planning and delivering sessions, learning from others and those tying the shoelace moments…

SCW: Having played in the UK and worked in Canada, how do the two soccer cultures differ?

WC: “Quite a lot. Climate is one thing. The street football culture may be going away a bit in the UK now, because of gaming and other things, but when I grew up we were playing in the streets or at the park.

“Here in Canada, it’s -30C in the winter and kids don’t have that freedom and experience. “In England, Sky Sports News is always on, there’s transfer deadline day and Champions League games. Here in Canada, there’s not the exposure for that.

“Kids still love the game here as much as they do in England but in terms of culture, it’s quite different and the experiences that kids are exposed to are quite different.”

Young football soccer players in sportswear. Young sports team with football coach. Pep talk with coach before the final match. Soccer school tournament

SCW: You have spent time building programs and philosophies. How do you go about doing that?

WC: “I used to work off a framework of just two things – organization, so parents understand what the program is about, the logistics, the scheduling and the support they get, and then fun, making sure the program is as fun as it can be.

“Understanding what grassroots soccer is is the big one. The kids are new to sport, some of them. Some may never have been in a team.

“They might have been in a big class at school, but they have never been in a team. What does team mean to them? Because, growing up, their life is very egocentric, and everything was about them.

“Now it might be a bit more about sharing and collaboration and connecting with other children. Doing simple things that kids need at that age and making it relatable and fun to their learning was what I did.

“It’s a really tough task, grassroots. If you get it right, you really see the fruits of your labours over the course of many years. If you get it wrong, then you could turn the kids off of the game. So it’s a fine balance.”


“I don’t think we ask grassroots players enough what they want to do…”


SCW: So many people coach while having a day job and don’t have much time to plan. Do you think it’s important to plan ahead in blocks in terms of training? Or is a week-to- week approach best?

WC: “I’m not a huge fan of having a syllabus or curriculum at grassroots – where in week one, we’re doing dribbling; week two, we’re doing turning; week three, we’re doing shooting.

“In a session, if you incorporate dribbling, shooting, changing direction and ball protection, you tick those boxes every week.

“I always work off the principle of teaching just some core things. One would obviously the motor skills – allowing kids to experiment and explore with their body in different environments through different experiences, dribbling as much as they can, ball contact and changing direction with the ball. And kids love to score goals, so in every session, make sure there’s a goal.

“When I plan a session, rather than having a curriculum week by week, I always just think – what is the game and what are we trying to achieve from it? How many ball touches? How many opportunities are there to score? Are they doing the right thing? Are they waiting too long? Are there lines?

“I don’t think we ask grassroots players enough what they want to do – we always give them what we think they need.

“But, ultimately, it’s their learning and you learn better when it is fun. So having that open dialogue at times with children is great.”


SCW: Some coaches fall into the trap of thinking they need to do something new and amazing every single session. How much do you think you can repeat things you’ve already done, if they work?

WC: “Loads. I’ve run the same game for six weeks running. If the kids enjoy it – and this is the key thing, asking them if they enjoy it – and if there’s lots of learning returns in it, lots of ball contacts, lots of dribbling, lots of goal scoring, why change it?

“There’s little tweaks you can make, like numbers up, numbers down, adding a goal in, adding some constraints or adjusting the area size – but if they enjoy it, then keep going at it.

“Everyone has their favourite activities or sessions that they do, especially the grassroots coaches, because many of them just tried to survive an hour on the field.

“What are the things they can hang their hat on that really works, and they’re confident to do?”

Coach sitting to tying sport shoelaces of kid soccer players before training football or football match. football or soccer academy.

SCW: What is it that sets a really good coach apart?

WC: “Human connection. In some of the top coaches – Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp – you can just see the character and the passion that they have.

“You can have as much information and knowledge and IQ level as you want, but if you don’t have that human connection with people, and they don’t buy into the empathy, the honesty and the trust, and that what this coach is telling me is really going to help me, then you lose them.

“Humans are so diverse. Having the skill set to understand the character’s personality, what they need and why they play, is so important. Finding those little nuggets of information that are important to that specific human is is key.

“Sometimes coaches can get caught in a trap of ‘I’m coaching a team’. It is a team sport, but you’re coaching individuals to work in a system in a team.

“The best coaches understand they’re working with humans, not working with players. The humans are just players in a game.”

SCW: Do you think it’s important for coaches to watch other coaches and network to learn more about coaching?

WC: “100%. Everyone’s gone on to YouTube and watched Pep Guardiola’s sessions and tried to copy them. You see a lot of good sessions on social media.

“Coaches are given such accessibility to other coaches and listening to others, which is great. It’s so important, but you can’t be a copy and paste coach.

“You can copy a session, but how you deliver it is totally different to how Pep Guardiola delivers it. The session design is there but, again, it’s the understanding of the players.

“I think even looking at outside learning is key as well. Look outside at other sports. My son does taekwondo and I watch his master or teacher, and the way they enforce respect and discipline and then they have some fun. It’s really intriguing to me.


“Tying shoelaces is a great opportunity to build a connection with a child..”


“Laying down the cones is just the framework, it’s how you make someone learn something and there’s some really talented teachers, business leaders or taekwondo masters that you can watch.”

SCW: What is the one top bit of advice you’d give to a grassroots coach?

WC: “Try to understand children as best you can. A lot of grassroots coaches – a high percentage – are parents or guardians.

“You teach your children how to speak, how to walk and how to eat as they are growing up, which are the most complex things you can ever do in your life.

“The children are all different, and they have different characteristics, but they are there to play. Question them, talk to them, ask them how they’re feeling, what they want, what they enjoy.

“I think the best coaches do that, they don’t just have their session plan and say ‘right, children, we’re going to do this next’. They actually take interest in their learning and take interest in them.

“You’ve got to be an expert at tying shoelaces at grassroots level. But that’s a great opportunity to build a connection with a child and say, ‘I think you’re doing really well with this, how are you finding this game? Is it okay?’. Little subtleties like that can go a long way.

“You can know everything about the game, but if you don’t understand young children, and their learning process, then it’s just wasted. You’re not a coach at grassroots level. You’re a facilitator of learning.

“The best thing for grassroots coaches is to let the game be the teacher, because grassroots coaches don’t have an abundance of knowledge.

“They’re new to coaching and the players are new to playing. So playing the game lots and lots and lots will help. But building connection with children is the biggest thing I would say.”

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