By: Jake Nesteruk, NLSA Trainer & HS Coach
As many of the players, parents, fellow coaches, supporters, naysayers, and everyone else in between who know me know, depending on the subject of conversation, I am either incredibly short and reserved, or genuinely lack the ability to stop talking—there is no gray area. Same goes for my writing.
Culture is such a buzzword topic and so many people claim their expertise in it. It is dizzying how much it has been written and presented about. A quick search in the Times Best Sellers, Audible top 100, or Youtube and you will find enough content to fill your weeks of self-quarantine.
I am not an expert on culture, rather I am a student of it like all of you. We have all been a part of an experience that feels, sounds, moves, and just is, a good culture. We have all also been a part of the exact opposite: a bad or nonexistent culture usually marked by underwhelming results, high turnover, low attendance, and emotional distance between organizational layers. It is these contrasting environments that led me to start thinking about what makes culture exist on teams and how I can create sustainable, positive cultures for my kids.
Good cultures are not organic by nature. They take continual actions, framework, nurturing, and reflecting to make them work. They are an active curation of guiding principles put into place. For your reading pleasure (see The Culture Code, Good to Great, The Score Takes Care of itself, and/or most soccer related The Man Watching) who articulate these thoughts much more thoroughly than me. And to be quite honest, have shaped so much of what I think, talk, and write about below.
Like any young coach, I developed an immediate fascination with Anson Dorrance and the UNC Women’s Soccer Program. Anson built his famous competitive cauldron on key technical / tactical skills and metrics that he wanted to measure in his players and team, but most importantly this cauldron was fabricated on an underlying belief that the UNC Women’s Soccer Program should be a place where student-athletes feel free to be as competitive as they humanly desire. This freedom to be competitive has been a selling point for recruits like Mia Hamm, Tobin Heath, and Crystal Dunn and hundreds of other incredibly talented, dedicated, and gritty student-athletes who have worn the jersey of the most dominant program in NCAA history. One piece I picked up from Dorrance, and really I am not sure where I got it from, because I’ve consumed a heavy share of what has been written and recorded from him, is the simple fact that he has, and continues to try “stuff”, keep what works, and ditch what doesn’t.
This humble certainty that simple, yet unshakeable beliefs, put into action, and then filtering out the bad and keeping the good help to drive successful team cultures. And this “see what sticks” philosophy has built my pursuit for building better teams.
I do not claim to be the winningest coach. I do not claim to be a master of soccer. I run far from perfect sessions, and I’ve come to the comforting fact that I will never be or do any of those things. Why? Because none of that matters. I boiled down my job at NLSA to this and only this:
Yeah—I want to win, but more importantly…I want to create an environment for my players where they are happy and want to grow as student-athletes on and off the field, because they want to help the team improve and they know their teammates are going to do the same.
This leads me to my first reason on why building a positive culture is a priority for my teams and our club. It is a point of differentiation.
There are hundreds of bright, talented, and challenging soccer coaches in the area. Likewise, there are hundreds of well-run clubs that give these coaches homes. But you won’t find a place that discusses the health of our teams and club like NLSA. We’ve made it a point to make what we do sound and feel, just…different. We want to keep our coaches here. We want to keep our players here. We want to keep everyone together.
The best way to word our fundamental belief comes from the work of coaching legend, Greg Popovich. The wiry Air Force-Vet more prominently known for his unfiltered rapport with the media and short temperament often demonstrated during time outs or poor referee decisions, has built the most statistically over successful teams in American sports history. His team-orientated legacy of Spurs Basketball is fabricated on team-meetings on everything to do besides basketball, conversations on family over Pop’s favorite wines and meals from his favorite restaurants across the country, and his one-off sometimes earnest, sometimes humorous, but always honest conversations as he works his way through the gym after a tough loss.
Pop says, “We have to hug ‘em and hold ‘em”.
Those 8 words my credo and I feel it is the club’s too. It is the reason I stand so proudly to call myself a youth-sports coach and a member of NLSA.
The remainder of this post will focus on WHY culture is such a big piece of the development process and it how it impacts coaches, teams, players and parents, and our club as a whole.
Active Listening Development
Dan Coyle spent years observing, talking to, and analyzing highly effective cultures from all aspects of industry, athletics, demographics, and mediums in preparation for writing his book, The Culture Code. In it, he shares the most distinctive tactics, actions, and personalities that make a culture unique and ties common threads through many that seem totally unrelated. Coyle details experiences with Google, the Navy Seals, the San Antonio Spurs, the world’s most infamous jewel thieves, Johnson & Johnson, a Harlem-based charter school KIPP Infinity, the Union Square Café, and the improve group Upright Citizens Brigade to highlight the variety of mediums where these highly-effective cultures exist. And one of the simplest skills that was consistently on display was active listening.
Why? The ability to truly listen and hear people creates an immediate sense of safety, belonging, and ownership of the development of the team, group, company, etc. Simply put, it says “You are here. I am here. You are safe to contribute and your contribution is beneficial.”
One of, if not the most important, skills as a coach is the ability to listen. The ability to listen to players, to peers, to officials, to administrators, to mentors, and even to parents helps to contextualize the needs and wants of the kids we are working with. While we coaches know just how important ACTIVE listening is to what we do, most of us would quickly admit that one of the major areas of improvement in what we do is ACTIVE LISTENING.
Time is always the issue. A game is going on. Another practice is about to start. We have to quickly change and head to a family event because we’ve missed the last few with a busy tournament schedule. When we do have a minute and have a conversation, we hear you, but struggle to truly listen. Coaches hear you out until they hear a point where they can interject to either defend ourselves, reframe your point to tailor your answer back to a point we are trying to make, or simply move on. Coaches are the kings and queens of interrupting, and I’ve been as guilty as the next coach. But just like we tell our players they need to actively think about their decisions on the field, or actively think about how and what to communicate in a game, we as coaches need to practice the skill of active listening.
Come on! Find me an easier way to create a greater sense of belonging on a team! Be patient with the wrong answers and off-guided conversations that will come with active listening. But if you don’t display the patience in hearing out those conversations and probing through, players will not be confident and comfortable enough to reach and give you the right answer on a key moment question or half-time opinion. Show the immediate signs of listening when having these moments – body / facial reactions, positive posture, small affirmations of engagement (mhm, okay, uh-huh, hmm) and ask questions—meaningful questions that you genuinely want to know the answer to or ones that will guide your players to a more thorough response.
As the Play-Practice-Play model has begun to be the dominant system for coaching methodology and questioning is the most practiced source of active learning, I’ve grown more obsessed with just asking questions about everything. And I respond to all of them. It takes our soccer conversations off key. It leads to school drama and pop culture talk. But it is those moments that show me the people my players are becoming. It shows me what’s bothering them, what excited them, how school is going, how far I can push them on a given day, what we will be able to accomplish in our session today, and so on. But most importantly, it shows that I care. That I don’t just see a soccer player. But a person. Here’s my point: by encouraging questioning and actually practicing active listening, I’ve heard my fair share of wrong answers, but I’ve gotten more right ones when they matter more often. And more importantly, I no longer get silence.
Every coach has coaches that inspire them. I have been so incredibly lucky to have had a diverse group of coaches that have shaped me and what I do daily. I’ve had peers that continue to move me with their passion for the game, for their players, and for their ability to squeeze out every bit of potential in their teams. There is a quote that often circulates through the world of education and coaching:
“They may forget what you said –but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
I certainly do remember certain soccer-specific aspects the coaches I’ve looked up to have utilized and shared with me that have caught my interest. But, way more powerful is the feeling that they’ve left me or their players with after a great preseason, the thoughtful words after a tough loss, the shoulder or lack thereof in a key moment of growth. All of these instants were aspects of these coaches’ cultures that just made me feel whole.
The best way to honor the cultures that inspire you, is to take the “stuff” that they do well, find a way to make it your own, and drive it into your own culture. There is no greater honor for a coach than seeing something you’ve done put into someone else’s coaching work. I cannot thank the following coaches enough, your cultures have helped shape the ones I actively work to create today:
Mike Gorni, George Nazario, Ryan Hayward, Jorge Rodriguez, Evren Asral, Bree Benedict, Brian Thomsen, Mark Strassel, Paul Blodgett, Danielle Fagan, and Mike Moyer to name a few.
Coaches—I urge you to honor your coaches that came before and stand beside you by working to put pieces of what they’ve done into your own cultures.
I get bored with soccer. It is the reason I quit pushing myself to excel as a player the way I should’ve. It is the reason I’ve thought about walking away from coaching altogether. When you are soaked in soccer talk 24/7, 365 days a year, you begin to resent it. What you do as a coach, the sessions, the talks, the drives, and the games just become stale. But despite all of these feelings, underneath it all, remains passions for people, for seeing young athletes discover a love for competition, and for the game that has raised me to the person I am today.
For those of you who don’t know, I think every bit of human emotion and sense of place can be captured in the words of Bruce Springsteen. And it his feeling in the lyrics of Dancing in the Dark that have tackled my ignition for sport and profession on occasion:
I get up in the evenin’
And I ain’t got nothin’ to say
I come home in the mornin’
I go to bed feelin’ the same way
I ain’t nothin’ but tired
Man, I’m just tired and bored with myself
In order to rid the sense of the shallow negative sentiments that creep up time to time, it is critical to challenge yourself as a coach. To push yourself to new boundaries, to think about what you do, and its relationship to soccer differently. Some adopt a new system of play. Others pursue superior USSF license accreditation. You can change teams, clubs, practice structure. But I will argue that none is as rewarding and as challenging as dedicating yourself to ensuring that a unique culture exists on your team within everything it does.
Find your 3-5 key principles and see if you can work them into the coaching points, the sessions, and the games. Talk about what leadership looks like, sounds like, acts like in certain moments. Flip session structure and ask captains, or certain positions, to run a session or two. Share an article that captures a belief you and your team are working on. Ask your players to find a quote that embodies what motivates them. Talk about a current event that has nothing to do with sport and just ask for thoughts on it. Adjust positions when it’s unexpected. Change game stipulations that may adjust playing styles and force different decision making, partnerships, and scenarios. Take yourself less seriously and pick a game that all of your players cherish when they were just starting out. Encourage your athletes to remember what it was like when they were just starting to enter the world of sports and soccer specifically. Know who they play for and why they play.
“Somewhere behind the athlete you’ve become and the hours of practice and the coaches who have pushed you is a little girl who fell in love with the game and never looked back… play for her.”
My philosophy has changed and continues to evolve daily as a coach. But I know that I have never been as motivated, engaged, and moved by the game than I am now. It is my obligation to create that sense of purpose for my players. A pursuit of a higher culture has been my ultimate challenge in coaching soccer. And I stand happier than ever with what I do.
Optimal Learning / Competitive Environment
The purpose of the team is to provide an environment where individuals feel compelled to put their best effort forward for the success of the group, and by doing so, individuals will realize their own improvements.
By guiding teams through core values, a greater sense of purpose begins to arise in every action players, coaches, and parents take. A team that preaches its core values and rewards behavior that exemplifies a core value will develop an environment that promotes its end goal. Let’s just say I want my team to play more fluid in the attacking half – combination play, 1v1 confidence, etc. If my team labels creativity in intense moments as one of its core values, I will need to accept the fact that turnovers and mistakes will happen. But we as a team need to reward the attempt. We need to highlight those moments and stand by those errors. And if we do, we will encourage our team-members to continue the push to grow more creative in areas where there are high-levels of pressure.
It’s obvious—coaching 101. But, our teams need to prioritize and act upon our values, beliefs, and principles of play to provide an environment where we are pushing one another to actually make gains in our play and behavior. By tying cultural values with actual, functional game principles, players are able to learn and compete better. It is tough for a player to understand why we combine in certain areas, or why we look to take on defenders in others. It is much easier to understand a simple phrase with words they hear more frequently, and know that the team believes in concretely. As result, there is a higher chance of understanding and action.
Players Come and Go
It is an undeniable, inevitable fact in youth sports that there will be players that come and go. I want all of our players at NLSA to stay. I really do. But I know there is always the temptation that grass is greener elsewhere. And for some players it actually is, and for others it isn’t. Both are just as okay. Most of the time, some reshuffling on a team is good. It keeps the grind of improving fresh. But any time there is movement, a fluid culture is impacted.
That said, if the groundwork of core values, principles of play, and relationships of player to player and player to coach already exist and are over exaggerated, the process of moving on from a teammate that has left quickens. Similarly, when those factors of culture are so frequently discussed, the initiation period of a new teammate quickens as a feeling of communal pursuit of success is established and expectations of attitude, behavior, play, and pursuit of goals are clearly outlined.
None of my players will remember that snazzy passing pattern I worked up. They surely will forget the running I’ve made them do. Maybe one or two will remember how I’ve laid out different formations. I’m not betting on it. Possibly a handful will remember a long team-talk I used to rally the troops. Again, chances are slim.
But, they will remember the emotions spewing after winning or losing a big game. They will remember the feeling of training on a beautiful spring night under the lights of the Pennington School. A team’s lasting impact is to create a collection of memories, emotions, and feelings that teammates can reminisce about when a team graduates or when it’s time to hang up the boots all together. By prioritizing a culture that values making memories, it pushes players to create them in the now.
Players / Parents
Connection to coach / teammates
Ask any educator what factors improve a learning environment and somewhere in the conversation they will say strengthening lines of communication. This same element goes for the game. When a team is encouraged to engage with each other and its coach about factors of the success of the group besides soccer, it strengthens the line of communication between all teammates—coach included.
By parents supporting and players actively seeking to live up to and act upon core values, principles of play, and supporting teammates to do the same, it creates a bond that supersedes “soccer team”. When there is an honest and actual relationship between players and between player and coach, feedback is accepted at a higher level, suggestions and coaching points are tried or retained more frequently, and improvements and adjustments are more permanent.
At NLSA, we want to help our student-athletes become great soccer players. But that is far from our most significant job.
When coaches and the club prioritize developing positive cultures, it pushes players to take leadership positions, demands open communication and competition, advances the ability to accept feedback and address areas of improvement, and it forces players to think and feel at the same time. Athletics are meant to improve soft-skills and when culture becomes a main talking point at the club-level, the ability to make gains in soft-skills expedites.
You poll athletes about what they’ve taken from their time in athletics and most will give you that their experiences on and around the field better prepared them for college and the real world. Just like the parents that line every field in the U.S., NLSA wants our kids to appreciate the good, compete for the teammates beside them, work on weaknesses, play the game fairly, shake hands, make eye contact, think critically, articulate opinions with fact and enthusiasm, and reflect. That’s the stuff that really matters. And by owning this responsibility, and actively creating ways to implement that in our sessions, team-talks, and curriculum helps to push our kids to the “next level” – pun intended.
Trickle Up Identity
Youth soccer is a grassroots movement. As much as it continues to be monetized and professionalized, the success clubs and teams experience are a direct result of initiation, development, and action at the local level. Grassroots movements are built with a “boots on the ground” approach and grow in popularity and success because of the work done at the most fundamental level.
Being a Doylestown native, I am always moved by the growing, impactful work of the Travis Manion Foundation. Their grassroots support for our veterans and families of the fallen is built upon the legacy of 1st Lt. Travis Manion and his unshakable motto that, “If not me, then who…”
It is this “If not me, then who…” credence that makes grassroots movements succeed. And for youth soccer, that falls on individual coaches and teams. When coaches feel a sense of empowerment to create a feeling that “just feels different” on their team, it initiates a passing. Cultures are contagious; for better or for worse. When Coach A acts, Coach B and C begin to do the same. Same goes for Players A, B, and C. All of us involved in athletics feed off of energy. Parents, watch your children’s session get better when the other coach and team are really into what they are doing. Brian and I say it all the time:
“Soccer felt good tonight …. NLSA felt good tonight”
These movements create a trickle up effect to the point where a club identity begins to take shape. We prioritize healthy cultures because it pushes our club to develop a personality. A sense of specific traits that begin to embody our coaches, our sessions, our players, and our relationships to one another takes shape. This identity isn’t born out of a tagline on a website or strategically constructed by a board to attract the best players. It comes to life when coaches and players are encouraged and motivated to act for and by the actions of each other. And when new faces enter into what we do at NLSA, they can sense it right away.
Again, “We have to hug ‘em and hold ‘em”. We want to keep our players at NLSA. The way we do that is by giving them environments where they can succeed, but not too much. Be pushed, but comforted when needed. Be looked at as a competitive athlete, but also a student motivated to perform just as well in the classroom. We need to give players a HOME that challenges them to grow. It is much harder to leave a place that feels like a family. It is much harder to leave a place that has challenged you to become the athlete you are today and still pushes you to improve to be the athlete you want to be tomorrow. Culture is a priority at NLSA because it creates a sense of place and creates a purpose to the patch we wear on our jerseys. We want to keep our families here because we know we can provide the best environment for them to continue to progress.
Amid tournament points, leagues, state cups, private training, film sessions, fitness tests, and set plays, it becomes easy to forget what we are all working towards. The club is not here to just crank out soccer robots. We will surely try our best to develop soccer studs, but we are here to give our kids the best chance at loving and playing the game for as long as possible at a high-level, and equipping them with the necessary skills and experiences that will help them succeed in pursuit of higher education, professional progression, and create happy and healthy family lifestyles. By prioritizing building a culture focused on this goal, we create a sense of humility that is so often missing in sports, but is so critical to achieving a sense of happiness and purpose in our world.
Jill Ellis recently shared a quote that has stuck with me that I’d like to leave you with:
“Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”
Positive club culture is a continual process. It is never built, left alone, and remains standing intact. And while I believe that a singular coach can play the central role in the development of the culture they are trying to create, the village must be invited to partake. Encourage creativity and involvement from all angles. All of us should seek opinions and ideas from coaches, club administrators, parents, and players. We must ask each other to think of ways we all can play a part in a team’s developmental journey and the club’s ambitions. Prioritizing positive culture encourages involved creativity that will stitch voices that stay quiet into the fabric of what we do. NLSA has done so much to make gains in the soccer community. To provide a good home for competitive student-athletes where team-first sacrifice is applauded. We all must play a part to keep us MOVING on the right track.
Let me get all mushy to close this out. I urge all of you to never underestimate the power of thank you. In any environment – professional, athletic, education, civic, family, and social—there is no gesture as simple, yet as powerful, as saying thank you. In our current day, we don’t say it enough. We don’t write it enough. Do not live with regret of not taking the chance to dump a bit of emotion to someone and thank them for their time, effort, attendance, attitude, humor, growth, courage, flexibility, whatever!
I refer back to the leadership of Popovich and Dorrance again. Pop religiously thanks his players for allowing them to be coached by him. Dorrance has written thousands of letters to players as a source of motivation and appreciation for the sacrifices his players have put in and shares these notes out loud to his teams before a game he isn’t sure UNC will win. I continue to write notes to my seniors, my captains, my players leaving, and my mentors simply because it is the right thing to do. I encourage you all to do the same.
For club administrators and parents, thank your coaches and players. Coaches and players, thank your parents and club administrators. Thank the mentors and moments that have shaped your love for the sport. Because we all need to hear it, and all of us need to pass it along. There is no greater sign of a positive culture than the thank you’s we share. And ultimately, this is why culture is such a priority for NLSA. It makes people feel good.
Thank you to all of those who have shaped me, who have put up with me, and who have spent a few minutes reading this.