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Sayreville Soccer: Growing The Game By Rethinking Player & Coach Development

By Michael Lewis, 12/17/18, 10:30AM EST

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It's intriguing how some big ideas can come from the smallest endeavors. A little after he was named Director of Player & Coaching Development at one of EDP's fastest growing local New Jersey clubs Sayreville Soccer Club, Jason Davis was presented with an interesting challenge.
 
A local woman with a hockey background wanted to bond with her two children, so she volunteered to coach a recreational soccer team. She knew little about soccer, so Davis decided to help teach her how he did things with his team.
 
"That was my first experience teaching somebody what I've learned throughout the years," he said. "So, when we started the season. She said, 'My team's so bad. They're no good. They've never played soccer before.' I said this is rec, this is how it’s like."
 
Davis started regularly helping with her squad on a weekly basis -- in training and at some games.
 
"I'd give some advice on things, not to be overly critical, how to talk to the players," he said. "As the season went on, the parents on her team were like, 'Hey, you guys are doing a real great job. We've been in this soccer program for eight years with my oldest kid and this is the first time I've seen this much improvement in their enjoyment, understanding of the game and their skills all in one season. Now they want to come back.'
 
"I said, maybe I'm onto something here."
 
Teaching the players how to play the beautiful game is the most important thing a youth soccer club can do. But it is almost as equally important to make sure the teachers are knowledgeable on how to pass on these lessons to  players.
 
In fact, Davis likened it to teaching someone a new job at work. "Teaching them in a way how to do it, without telling somebody what to do. It's the same thing if you work somewhere and you get a new position. Someone usually teaches you how to do something. You do it and you're expected to teach somebody else. So, I took that philosophy, since we weren't able to use professional training with the rec level."

But because he could not be in two places at once -- Davis, who now also coaches an 11U Boys teams at the club -- devised a plan. He came up with a strategy in which he brought in a professional coach/trainer that would help two teams at a time—both the players and the coaches.

"It would be all the same age group, the two teams and their coaches would come in would give them a session," Davis said. "They would see what we're working on that week, they would know what the practice is. The trainer would help set up the field for them, they would bring all the balls, so the coaches wouldn't need any extra bags or gear. The trainer would help them and guide them through what we're teaching the kids. If they understand great, but if they have any questions, there's a professional there to come over there and say, 'This is why we're doing it this way.' " It isn't just about dribbling around cones and passing to teammates. It's about presenting players challenges they will face in matches.

Davis remembered one incident when parents questioned the particulars of one practice session. "A couple of parents said, 'They're [the players] in a really crowded space. I feel like we should have made these areas bigger,' " he remembered. "The trainer came over and said, 'Look, this is why we're doing it this way. We want them to be in a crowded space. We want them to start picking their head up to avoid other players. It takes smaller touches on the ball. If we gave them more space, we would be giving them bigger touches on the ball and it defeats the purpose on what we're doing.'

"That's the first time I saw an ah-ha moment in one of the coaches. 'Oh, I get it now. Instead of giving them this huge space, there's a reason why we're doing it like this.' I believe that started making some of the coaches look into the way they were thinking about how they were teaching the kids. From there they continued to grow to the point where I have a lot of parents who have no soccer background, no soccer education, their kids have never played before, but they were able to step up and help coach.

"They have different backgrounds. I had a lot of coaches (new to the game) that said, 'I'm good with kids, but I don't know anything about soccer, but the fact you guys are doing it this way put me at ease that I still can work with the kids and someone can teach me how to teach it to them.' We had a lot of success with that. We had a lot of new coaches; 95 percent of the coaches were extremely happy with it. Some of the more seasoned coaches tended to not like it at first because they felt maybe they did not have as much control as they're used to with the sessions. As they started watching their players and started understanding how it was working, even they came along and said, 'This is the right thing to do. It makes me realize some of the things I was doing different and some of the things that work.' "

Asked what part of the program he is most proud of, Davis replied, "Just making kids who don't have another sport or another outlet, giving them some place that they feel they belong. Just doing my best planning sessions for them, getting them involved in the game. Get them to learn and then at the end of the year the parents come to me and say, 'He's been playing for three years and he wanted to quit, and now he's talking about he can't wait to do winter and he can't wait to come back next season.' That's the big moment for me. My goal is to build a passion for the game and make the kids come back every day, whether it's cold out, it's raining, it's snowing, they want to come and play."

Almost a decade ago, Davis fell in love with soccer while watching his niece play for Sayreville Soccer. He and his wife enrolled their son in the Lil' Kickers program that the club offered in 2011 and Davis' involvement with the sport and club evolved from there. A former specialist in operations and logistics for the Marine Corps, Davis became an assistant coach in 2013 and started a Boys U-11 travel team called the Bandits. Davis, a stay-at-home dad and a father of two children, was so immersed into the game that the club asked him to take on the player and coach development role.

"This is the first season that we've done it," he said. "The plan is to make tweaks on the things that worked, on the things that the parents liked and the coaches tend to like. We're definitely going to work with them to come up with a curriculum for the spring. And that way when the coaches sign up, right away they're going to get a 10-week curriculum on what we're doing. We'll have a coaching meeting where they can come in and ask any questions, have a professional there to explain the curriculum to them for each age group, what the goal is for each age group and just go from there."

Davis is not resting on his laurels. He is looking for ways to get the right information to coaches. Learning about the beautiful game is an endless task, as Davis has learned through the years.

With the soccer coaching and learning experience expanding on the internet, there are so many articles, stories and websites on how to teach players the game. Davis is always looking for ways to share development information and youth coaching education with members of the club.

"I'm just trying to take little pieces that I pull from everybody every single season," he said. "I meet new coaches and trainers and get that feedback. I'm trying to figure out a way through the internet and through the website. You go online, there are so many different resources, they're everywhere—different club websites, different academy websites. You can find resources from U.S. Soccer. You can find different stuff everywhere. I have like nine million links on my phone."

Davis laughed and then continued.

"I have these session plans and different formats everywhere," he added. "Once I can get the training settled, in the spring, my goal is to take those sessions that we put out to the coaches and put them on our website, so people can see what we're doing here and how we're doing it and get feedback from the different clubs in the area. Be a resource, not just for Sayreville, but for some coach in South Jersey, his club doesn't have these resources. Maybe he can go on the Sayreville website and look at it. Just be like a resource to anyone who's looking for this type of stuff -- coaching tips, ideas and things like that. Definitely something that I want to grow here."

Sayreville continue to enjoy both tournament and league play with EDP as they continue to grow both on the coaching and player development fronts. With league promotion/relegation and opportunities to advance all the way to Regional and National Championships, Davis sees no reason to slow down. "I just don't want to stop. It's a continuous development.