Managing Coed Soccer

Coed soccer has been a popular sport in the greater Seattle area. I jumped onto the scene seven years ago as a manager of a team consisting of our IMA intramural soccer team at the UW.  It’s undergone a lot of changes, with people coming and going. At one point, it had to go under a complete rework and I had to start all over (had one person returning, but I put in the effort to make it happen). I started to apply the solutions to the mistakes that I made or problems that I dealt with and it’s resulted in probably the most successful team I’ve managed in my seven years as a manager.

As more and more teams are being created, there have been a lot of issues in terms of team composition, retaining players, and dealing with problems that pretty much every coed soccer team has been struggling with: keeping women. I figure I’d start sharing some of my insight to the problems I had to deal with and mistakes that I’ve made and how I went about creating a new team from scratch to having such a successful team today.

How it came to be

What I will say before all this is I’ve never been a perfect manager. While I’ve had my share of success over the past few years, I definitely had my struggles in the past. I made a lot of mistakes while managing and had to deal with the consequences for them. But what I can say is that I’ve learned a lot from doing so and it’s definitely helped me grow not only as a manager, but as a friend and taught me how to be a real leader.

Managing teams are difficult. They require a lot of work and effort. It’s essentially a second job. But in order to realize the kind of work one has to put into it, a story as to how I pulled this off will help understand the kind of effort and mentality that’s needed to make it happen.

The Rework and Vision
Having to start over a team from scratch was probably one of the most challenging things I had to pull off. I was lucky enough that the team “took a season off” before finding out that I had to start over. It gave me some time to look and see what I did right and wrong. When I started to work on the team, I had to create a vision and plan for what I wanted to do with the team.

Having a vision for any kind of major project is important. It helps you figure out whether or not you’re on track, whether you’re meeting your goals, and helps you have a clear picture of what you’re trying to accomplish. In terms of the overarching goal, the task was to create a coed soccer team that was focused on playing at a competitive level, while playing fun, enjoyable, selfless soccer. In order to pull that off, I created these objectives:

  • Create an enjoyable environment and atmosphere for the players that are on the team (especially the women).
  • Make sure that players’ needs are met and address any issues that they might have with the team/other individuals/other sources, while meeting the team’s needs as best as possible.
  • Make sure that this team is about the team, not about a group of individuals.
  • Create opportunities for the team to meet off the field, as a way to create bonds and friendships with one another.
  • Create a game strategy and tactics for the team to build their play upon that incorporates everyone on the field, regardless of position.

It’s a lot of stuff, but it’s gave me a platform to work with and to help me make sure that this “project” was on track and going as planned. If it was straying off course, I could always refer back to this, see what I did wrong and make adjustments that would let me get it back on track.

Pulling this Vision Off
So there’s a lot of things that you have to do in order to pull this all off. I knew it was going to be a challenge and a lot of work. But it was a challenge I was willing to turn down. The rewards outweighed any potential heartbreak. I started off with a weekly Craigslist post and it went from there.

The first time we met, there were only a few of us at the UW IMA fields. It continued a week or two later at Magnuson Park, when I got a ton of people (with a lot of guys showing) to come out and play. I spent more time observing play and seeing people’s habits and their play rather than focus on how I played. The idea behind observing people’s play was to see what their tendencies were. Thinking back to the vision, it related back to the game strategy, the team-first attitude, and the right environment. I didn’t want people whose first instinct was to dribble at opposing players. I wanted to build a team with a passing, possessive, attacking strategy in mind (think Arsene Wenger/Pep Guardiola hybrid). I wanted to see where people were effective. Skill also had some importance too, since I wanted this team to be competitive. I wasn’t looking based on “I played college” or “I played GSSL Division 2 (men’s league if you don’t know what that means)”. I wanted to see them for who they were as players.

But you can see where this is going. When I was looking at players, I kept that vision and game plan in mind. I chose the players that fit that mold and sent the bad news to the rest.

Once I established the core of the group, I rarely recruited externally through Craigslist, Facebook, or any other social media sources. I knew I had a good group of solid, unselfish male and female players that knew the style of soccer this team was going to be about and they would be able to bring in players they knew would do the same. If that resource was dry, then I would return to Craigslist. However, I never really had to resort to that except for women, but even then, I made clear posts about our play, skill level, and style of play and we found the right people for the group. Again, this goes back to the environment. When friends or former teammates are playing with one another, they want to stay. There’s the risk that if one left, their friends would leave to, but it was one I was willing to take. But if I executed this successfully, this wouldn’t be an issue.

As a manager, my goal was to try to bring out the best in players. It was as if I was a straight up coach. Things like formation, tactics, individual orders, encouragement, and so forth. I didn’t want to be a manager that was just about having a team, play each week, and go off. I knew this was something 99% of teams do and when times go bad, everyone just runs. I had to put my heart and love into these guys. In essence, it was an investment I was making each week. I wanted everyone to score goals. I wanted to see everyone get the ball and be a part of the play. I wanted to see them thrive and feel like they’re a part of a team, not just feel like some bit-part player.

But rec soccer is more than just playing each week. It’s also about relationships. We all know that we can’t continue to play soccer forever. However, we can still have those relationships with one another until the day we die. And I think that was what really was most important to me: Creating that playing environment on the field builds relationships off the field. When you see the players talking about weddings, Flounders… err Sounders games, laughing on the sidelines and so forth, you know you’ve built something valuable. People wanting to go to bars to hang out after games, playing pick-up during bye weeks, watching Sounders lose to the Timbers in the playoffs, or even going to each other’s weddings, it’s just rewarding seeing all that happen. Those memories will always be there.

That leads to today. It’s a very solid group. We’ve had our fair share of wins, losses, draws. But we’ve had a lot of success on the field as a team. They play a great, possessive, attacking game. Everyone works hard and everyone just enjoys being around one another. There’s been a lot of memories on and off the field, it’s just been amazing. Sometimes, I have a habit of comparing it to other teams. But that’s because I wouldn’t trade this team for any other team out there.

Tips for success

Now comes the part you’re probably looking for. How to create that kind of success. The story gives you an idea behind the process and work that needs to be put behind it, but there’s still things you have to consider as a manager.

  • Set the example for your team… You are the authoritative figure on the team. Be the leader. If you’re the one that tries dribbling at defenders all the time, it gives your players’ rights to do so as well. Practice what you preach, whatever style you play, whatever things you do.
  • Focus on playing an inclusive game strategy… One of the reasons for why I am so focused on the possession game is for two reasons: (1) straight up game strategy as the more you have the ball, the more chances you get, the more goals you get plus the less goals your opponent will get and (2) because it will get everyone involved in the flow of play, men and women. When everyone’s passing the ball around, eventually everyone on the team will get passed to a lot during the game. Players want the ball regardless of their skill level.
  • Treat everyone as equals… It’s easy to focus on your strongest players. However, favoritism isn’t good if you’re trying to focus on a team-first mentality. Take everyone’s suggestions. Listen to problems, such as, “I haven’t see the ball all game” or “I’m getting overwhelmed on defense” or “I’m always wide open”. See what you can do to fix those problems, whether it be to make people aware of who’s open or moving players around or any other ideas that will solve the problem. Especially if you’re recruiting people of similar skill level (which I address later), assume they can play at the level that the team is playing at. Don’t belittle them or make it seem like they can’t handle their role. If they can’t, again, work to fix the issue as best you can. Put trust in your players. And never think of your players as just “another warm body”. You might as well insult them in front of their face if you think that way.
  • … But focus on your women first, then your men… Wait, doesn’t this go against the last one tip you just wrote? Doesn’t it seem like favoritism or even sexist? The reality is that even in coed soccer games, the men can completely dominate the game and the women are left out. When any female player brings up an issue, make sure you find a solution for them because it’s extremely easy to forget that they’re there. Coed soccer isn’t about five men and five other players that are just there. It’s still eleven men and women versus eleven men and women. It’s too often that most of the glory is given to the men. More often than not, it’s the women that do a lot of the hard work, only to see the men get the glory from scoring that goal (especially in higher divisions).
  • Meet the needs of your players… Too often, managers play players out of position. Just because they’re a girl doesn’t mean that they just like playing on the wings. Some are more comfortable in central mid, some prefer not playing defense, some prefer not playing offense, some really like to get the ball a lot, while others not as much. Play to your players’ strengths. If you have to make those changes, make sure that it’s not a long-term thing. 
  • Put that extra time and effort into the team… A lot of these things can’t just be done on the field. Sometimes, you have to go that extra mile. Talking to players on the sidelines to help figure out problems that they might have, subbing off to make sure that people are rotating in and out, listening to the problems on the field. Other things like communicating with players about things (even if it seems annoying) like signing in or texting to see if they can make it to the game or checking in on any injuries. It’s the little things that require the most work, but it helps the team keep running.
  • Put the team before yourself… This might be the toughest for many managers. Whether it be positional on the field, playing time, or something else, put the team before yourself. Here’s an example. I enjoy playing soccer a lot. I prefer playing a central defensive mid/deep lying playmaker, since it gives me time and space to make attacking passes and control the game. However, when things happen such as too many players are able to come to the game or we don’t have enough defenders, I have to make sacrifices for the team. Sometimes, I just sit on the bench to ensure the guys get enough playing time. Most of the time, I’m playing defense because we have a lot of available and capable midfielders. It’s things like that. It kind of coincides with the “Set the example” point. It’s tough, but it’s telling the team, “It’s not about me, it’s about the team”.
  • Communicate with the team frequently… They may not seem like they’re reading your texts or emails, but they are. Keep them in the loop about what’s going on (e.g. team dues, strategy/tactics, adding players, etc.). It’s better to cover all bases than to assume that they know.
  • Choose players that fit the team, not on pure skill… There are a lot of talented players out there. However, it doesn’t mean anything if they don’t fit your team. If you’re an intermediate skill level team, choose people of that level. By choose people higher (or lower), it can affect the team long term to the point where it can snowball the team into oblivion. A player’s attitude, their mentality towards the game, and how they interact with other players and the game itself are far more important than someone claiming that they’re a former pro. Also, players with egos or are ball hogs always create tension for the team.
  • Be open to suggestions and change… If someone suggest something, listen and if it seems reasonable, make the change. A team never remains static and never should be static. Things will happen that forces you to have to make changes. Listen to your players. Take second, third, or fourth opinions and use that to make those decisions. If multiple people are saying the exact same thing, it’s probably a clue you need to do something.
  • Attitude is everything…  It can be anything from a simple high five to yelling “Good!” on making a simple pass to just telling them “Don’t worry about it!” after they made a mistake that results in a goal. Always look for the positive. It’s easy to yell at someone for making a mistake. However, as we all know, it just instills fear and not confidence into the person. Focus on being constructive. Figure out how to help them not make that mistake again in a manner that will help their game. And remember that in the end, it’s just rec soccer. We’re not pros; we all can improve in one way or another.
  • Do things off the pitch… It helps with team chemistry. People get to know each other better. It makes any tension when things go wrong on the field easier to defuse. And ultimately, people build those relationships and friendships, which in turn, makes the team more like a group of friends that enjoy playing with each other. And that’s how you get people to stick around for a long time.

If there was one tip that could encompass everything, it’s this: Make your players happy when playing the game, and you’ll eventually start seeing lots of success in it as well. Make sacrifices. Put in time and effort and you’ll be rewarded for it.

In essence, it’s more than just about creating a team that plays every week. It’s about creating a family. A group that cares and plays a game they love together in a manner in which they can thrive together. There’s a big difference there. I’ve seen numbers of people join and leave in time because they found a new job, return home after finishing school, or because their schedule has changed and can’t play anymore. But rarely did I have people leave because they hated the team for their style of play or the environment that was created with this team.

People will come and go, as that’s a part of life. However, when you create an environment in which people are appreciated for their skills, effort, and presence and make them feel like they’re an important part of the team, it’s really difficult to want to leave.

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