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Colton’s culture club
A good coach improves players technically and tactically. A great one understands them as people.
And an outstanding one? Well, she or he creates the culture that enables players to get the best out of each other.
Many coaches talk about building a team. Colton Bryant has a passion for building an environment – and getting to know his players on an individual level.
Bryant, 26, is head coach of the Columbia State Community College women’s soccer program, which began in 2018 and proudly describes itself as ‘culture-driven’.
“We push empathy a lot,” he tells Women’s Soccer Coaching. “There’s things people go through in life that maybe they don’t tell you.
“I think if we understand how to empathize with people, and the girls understand how to do that with each other, that can create a bond.
“And if you can empathize with people, you can start to make them feel comfortable being vulnerable, and that can create a deeper connection.”
This is already a marked departure from the usual clichés around locker rooms, which usually focus on teams being like ‘a family’.
Bryant says the key to getting the best out of each other is not necessarily unconditional love or loyalty, but honesty.
“I’ve never seen a family event where an aunt didn’t get into it with your mom or something like that. It’s going to happen,” he said.
“But it’s about being able to have those hard conversations without ending friendships and relationships, and being constructive, not destructive.
“Then it allows you to start being demanding without being demeaning, and all of a sudden you can set standards and hold people to them.
“How many of your team know anything about each other beyond small talk?”
“But if you start to get animosity because players are demanding better out of someone, that’s not good.”
Bryant began coaching when he was 17 and got the job to lead the Columbia State Chargers program when it launched.
He says his own approach has been built around getting to know potential recruits as individuals, as well as their ability levels, to ensure a harmonious environment.
“You want to try and find out who’s invested before they get to you,” he said. “And if you have a bad apple, usually it means they were very good con artists or you didn’t do your part in getting to know them.
“We don’t just recruit regionally, we recruit everywhere. We have a girl coming in from Cameroon next year. So it’s about what you can provide to us that someone else may not.
“Not many people can say why they’re special and that blows my mind. You always have to have something about you.
“It’s okay to not be the leader that speaks up and holds people to certain standards, but you have to be able to identify what type of player you are. If you’re not that demanding player, you’re probably the player that’s really quiet but when you say something people listen.
“I think it’s important to understand how to utilize those things. What value can you bring the team when you’re not on the field?
“That’s a role we try and give our players that maybe don’t get as much playing time. Their energy feeds into the team.
“The question is, how many of your team know anything about one another beyond surface-level small talk?”
Of course, no environment can be harmonious all the time. And there are several potential pitfalls a coach has to avoid.
The first is what to do when the standards drop on the field or players start to lose focus off it. What happens then?
“I’m someone who is willing to sacrifice a practice if we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do,” Bryant said. “We’ll sit down and talk about it because if I just start getting upset it’s not going to do any good.
“I’ll never hold them to a standard they don’t want. So at the beginning of the year, I’ll always say, ‘do you want to be just a regular team? Or do you want to go try and fight for nationals?’.
“And, of course, every athlete says, ‘I want to fight for nationals’, but there’s a lot that comes behind that statement. There’s a lot of standards you have to uphold.
“There’s a lot of mental fights – do I go do this social event or do I go to the gym and work out? Do I watch film [of matches] or do I scroll on TikTok? And that’s hard on some players.”
The second possible issue can arise when words are had on the field between players during a match or practice session.
But Bryant says, with the right environment, it can lead to healthy conclusions.
He added: “It comes down to the old saying ‘it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it’ but it’s also the context in which you say it. For me, I think most problems stem from conversations NOT had.
“You can tell when tensions build up. So I like to bring them into my office and tell them ‘say what you got to say and get it over with’.
”Once you clear the air, even just knowing that someone feels a specific way, it helps you mould your interactions.
“You don’t have to be best friends. You don’t have to click like that for a team to work. But if you’re not giving the ball to someone because you don’t like them, you’re likely not going to play.
“And if they score and you don’t, it doesn’t make you look worse or them look better, it makes the collective team look like we did something together.“
Coaches also often have the dilemma of what to do with a talented but troublesome player who might be damaging to team spirit.
Bryant believes it’s important to show strength of personality as a coach, to give the player boundaries.
He added: “I have no issue saying, ‘I’m willing to take the chance, but this is what’s going to have to happen, this is how you’re going to treat your teammates’.
“Those people who maybe have the wrong perspective on things might just not have had something in their life that made them see the bigger picture.
“Why can’t we help them do that? The right team understands they’ve all been somewhere like that at one stage.
“We create an environment because, when you are on the field and the other team has the same level of ability as you, who’s going to fight more for one another?
“You just got to read the individual and I’m one of those that I’m willing to take a chance, to say ‘all right, we’ll bring you in, but this is the standard. If you don’t meet it, you’re gone’.
“If you build the right environment, you don’t have to kick people off the team, they end up kicking themselves off.”
These days, coaches need to be part-sports psychologist, too, to understand their players as people, and the differences between them.
A locker room is full of disparate individuals who get motivated and encouraged in different ways – some require reassurance and an arm around the shoulder, while others need some more firm words.
COACHES MUST LEAD BY EXAMPLE: ‘IF MY ATTITUDE IS WRONG, I ASK THEM TO CHECK ME ON IT’
Bryant does not exclude himself from the environment he builds. He appreciates the need to keep a certain distance (“You can’t become so close to them that they don’t respect you and what you’re saying”) but says he also demands the players keep him to the standards he sets for them.
“I’m not a dictator, I’m a coach. I’m only a part of the family,” he said. “If there’s a time that maybe my attitude’s wrong, I ask them to check me on it.
“I don’t start arguing with them. I reflect and I figure out, ‘am I wrong?’. And if I am, I have no issue. I’m the first person to apologize. But they also know I’m the first person that when they ask something of me, it’s done.
“I once put a girl’s video together for her at 2am when she was sending me clips, because she wanted to send it to a coach the next day.”.
PLAYERS MUST GO THE EXTRA MILE: ‘IT’S WHAT YOU DO FOR OTHERS THAT’S IMPORTANT’
The close-knit nature of the Lady Chargers roster is summed up by an anecdote Bryant tells about goalkeeper Eriona Shabani.
“If you meet her, you think she’s the most outgoing, confident person in the world,” he said. “She’s a 5’ 10” animal in goal, but she’s the most self-conscious person there is.
“She has all this confidence that she puts on to really mask what she feels. And it took me getting to know her to learn these things.
“She’s also driven one of her teammates, who didn’t have a car, nine hours to a school for a two-day tryout. How many teammates would do that?
“So when Eriona has bad days, and people start getting upset with her, I’m like, ‘yeah, but would any of you have driven anyone else nine hours?’.
“It’s about what you do for others that’s really important.”
Bryant said: “My advice would be to learn your players, because a session can’t be brought to life if you aren’t getting the best out of each player. The way to do that is to figure out what gets them to tick, or not tick, and that’s trial and error.”
Bryant also recommends that coaches understand how to keep their players in a positive frame of mind during bad spells in a game or season.
“if a player misses a shot and thinks ‘I should have made that’, that’s a negative thought,” Bryant said. “We’ve got to figure out how to shift that straightaway.
“So I’ll say something stupid like, ‘Oh, it’s Tennessee wildlife, the goal jumped out of the way’. It has no meaning behind what happened, but it instantly makes them laugh so instead of thinking ‘I missed it’, they think ‘okay, we’ll go and get the next one’.
“As coaches, we’re bumper rails. We’re making sure they don’t fall in the gutter. if you can keep them as straight as possible, especially during a game when things aren’t going your way, it minimizes the negativity.
“We have to use whatever our personal traits are, whatever makes us special, whatever makes us different as coaches, to bring that out of players.
“There are really good coaches who are really quiet, then there’s coaches like me that are energy bunnies out there. Everyone has their own personalities and people buy into you for that personality.”
But is it possible to have a successful team without a good environment? Can a group of talented, but dysfunctional, players still dominate on skill alone?
Bryant believes so in college or youth soccer, but not at the highest level of the sport.
“High-level players are going to do the right things, whether they like you or not,” he said. “But when you start getting high-level players against other high-level players, the minute something doesn’t go their way, ego usually can take over.
“And the team that has that togetherness is going to fight through it, whereas the team that doesn’t have the good environment will usually fall apart.”
“I believe the true win-loss column is getting letters and wedding invites…”
It is telling that the enthusiastic Bryant does not just measure the success of his team- building by results alone.
“I really believe the true win-loss column is when you start getting the letters, the wedding invites, and the calls afterwards,” he said. “And if you’re not getting those, you might have done something wrong.
“If you think about who your favourite teacher growing up was, and ask yourself why, I bet you it is not because they were good at teaching algebra. I bet you it’s because they invested in you. And because they invested in you, you learned algebra.
“So we believe in a person-over-player development here, because if they like you, they soak it in more. You can be Pep Guardiola in the mind, but if you’re not Jurgen Klopp in the soul, you’re going to struggle.
“Too many coaches think badges are what make a good coach, but that’s no different than a degree meaning someone’s smart.
Sir Alex Ferguson couldn’t coach college soccer in the US because he doesn’t have the right degrees. That’s wild.”
Unlike Sir Alex during his time at Manchester United, Bryant – at 26 – is closer in age to his players than many head coaches.
He believes it is a strength to play to – but concedes that, as every birthday passes, he has to make the effort to stay in tune with the teenagers he coaches.
“You never want to say something to them and it go in one ear and out the other,” he said. “You have your own personal traits that make you you, and as you get older and your personality changes, you evolve.
“I think staying relevant is a skill. The players now are growing up in a world where social media was given to them at an early age. How many six-year-olds have iPads?
“I’m in a very lucky generation. I lived pre- and post-iPhone, so that’s why I think millennials are unique in the sense we can connect to both sides right now.
“But staying relevant with Generation Z is going to be a thing because they’re coming up in a whole different world.
“I hope I stay relevant because it’s very important. I hope I never have that mindset of ‘this is how it’s done, this is how we’re going to do it?’. I hope I have the mindset of ‘I need to evolve in order to achieve’.” WSC