Unit­ed Soc­cer Coach­es Gio­van­ni Paci­ni on Play­er Development

We sat down with Unit­ed Soc­cer Coach­es Nation­al Staff and Nation­al Goal­keep­er Staff Coach Gio­van­ni Paci­ni to talk about the state of play­er devel­op­ment in U.S. Soc­cer, and what coach­es can do to improve.

Unit­ed Soc­cer Coach­es Gio­van­ni Paci­ni on Play­er Development

We sat down with Unit­ed Soc­cer Coach­es Nation­al Staff and Nation­al Goal­keep­er Staff Coach Gio­van­ni Paci­ni to talk about the state of play­er devel­op­ment in U.S. Soc­cer, and what coach­es can do to improve.

Coach edu­ca­tion has been my pas­sion for over 25 years.”

Gio­van­ni Paci­ni has been a staff coach for the USSF in region one, a nation­al staff coach and goal­keep­ers staff coach for the Unit­ed Soc­cer Coach­es for close to 30 years. Paci­ni owns and oper­ates GP Soc­cer, a pro­gram which includes con­sult­ing ser­vices for clubs and youth soc­cer orga­ni­za­tions wish­ing to improve their play­er and coach devel­op­ment meth­ods and standards.

With such an expan­sive back­ground, we tabbed Paci­ni to talk to us about play­er devel­op­ment, his phi­los­o­phy, the land­scape with­in the Unit­ed States, and to ask specif­i­cal­ly what coach­es can do to improve and iter­ate on their method­ol­o­gy to ben­e­fit their play­ers’ development.

What is your basic phi­los­o­phy on play­er development?

Paci­ni: The short answer is, any­time I have a play­er, whether it’s a team that I’m coach­ing or in a camp or clin­ic envi­ron­ment, it’s a ques­tion of was I able to get that play­er to anoth­er lev­el? Tech­ni­cal lev­el. Tac­ti­cal lev­el. In oth­er words, are they bet­ter when they left me than when they arrived? That’s the short answer. That’s some­thing that every coach should be doing every time they have play­ers under their care. That’s train­ing ses­sion by train­ing ses­sion, not just sea­son by sea­son. Are they bet­ter after two hours?”

The term play­er devel­op­ment” gets used a lot. What does it mean at a larg­er scale?

Paci­ni: It’s a term that gets tossed around a lot. You’re exact­ly right. The big­ger answer from a nation­al point of view is are we, as a coun­try, are we as Amer­i­can soc­cer coach­es doing our part to bring the play­ers who are play­ing the game to a lev­el where they can com­pete? Not only with the nation­al teams. But when they are with the nation­al team, are they amongst the most com­pet­i­tive in the world? That’s some­thing that every Amer­i­can soc­cer coach should have as a cor­ner­stone of their view. 

I’ll be very frank — a lot of coach­es don’t ask them­selves that ques­tion. I spent some time in the Nether­lands and I can tell you that every place I went it was all about, We’re here to devel­op the Dutch soc­cer play­ers so that our nation­al pro­grams are amongst the best in the world.’ I use the Nether­lands because they are arguably the best in the world at play­er devel­op­ment over a sus­tained peri­od of time.”

Com­pe­ten­cy-based coach­ing is all about where the play­er is at in terms of their human development.”

How do you encour­age coach­es to address play­er development?

Paci­ni: As a coach edu­ca­tor for the NSCAA, I would change that word encour­age to edu­cate. That’s the key com­po­nent. Edu­cat­ing our coach­es on how to devel­op play­ers. I think that’s impor­tant to this conversation. 

U.S. Soc­cer has real­ly tak­en the bull by the horns in terms of how we should be devel­op­ing play­ers at each stage of devel­op­ment, of which there are five. We now coach in what we call com­pe­ten­cy-based coach­ing. It sounds fan­cy but it’s pret­ty sim­ple. Think of a school sys­tem. There’s a rea­son why we teach a kinder­garten­er a cer­tain lev­el of infor­ma­tion. There’s a rea­son why we have spe­cif­ic meth­ods for them — because they’re five-year-olds. That method is dif­fer­ent than if we have a group of 15- or 16-year-old high school stu­dents. So com­pe­ten­cy-based coach­ing is all about where the play­er is at in terms of their human devel­op­ment — phys­i­cal­ly, men­tal­ly, cog­ni­tive­ly, social­ly, emo­tion­al­ly. And then we coach accord­ing­ly. That’s com­pe­ten­cy-based coaching.

Coach­es need to also know the prin­ci­ples of attack­ing and defend­ing, even with a group of five- or six-year-olds. That’s the key com­po­nent. It’s a bit of an uphill bat­tle because most of the coach­es in this coun­try are just vol­un­teers, moms and dads, etc. We maybe have three gen­er­a­tions of peo­ple who have played the game. So a lot of folks don’t get that stuff. They go out there and do drills.’ They read a book or watch a video and they think they’re coaching. 

We need to edu­cate our coach­es through com­pe­ten­cy-based coach­ing and under­stand­ing what play­ers should be doing at each stage, and then edu­cate them on the method­ol­o­gy that must be used to edu­cate play­ers at those stages.”

How can USS­DA-lev­el coach­es mea­sure whether a play­er is developing?

Paci­ni: They’re held to anoth­er stan­dard by US Soc­cer. They’re man­dat­ed to hold a cer­tain num­ber of train­ing ses­sions and games played. The sea­son is much longer, and much the cre­den­tials for coach­es in those types of clubs are of a high­er lev­el. Those clubs make up a small per­cent of clubs around the country. 

But, I’ll defer back to my pre­vi­ous answer. If you go to a com­pe­ten­cy matrix and see a vir­tu­al check­list of what play­ers should be work­ing on at a par­tic­u­lar phase of their devel­op­ment. Coach­es can check those box­es rel­a­tive to a play­er, and then you can mea­sure if a play­er is real­ly devel­op­ing. The ulti­mate test is just watch­ing them play. Obvi­ous­ly depend­ing on the age group. If you’ve got a good soc­cer eye and you’re aware of what they should be doing relat­ed to a par­tic­u­lar stage of devel­op­ment, then you’re going to know if they’re mak­ing some progress. Specif­i­cal­ly, they’re han­dling the ball bet­ter, they’re pass­ing, their cre­ativ­i­ty is emerg­ing. You can have a lev­el of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty certainly.”

Are there spe­cif­ic resources they can reference?

Paci­ni: The NSCAA! Every­thing that I’m shar­ing with you here is what we share with our coach­es. So look­ing for stuff that we’re talk­ing about, the NSCAA is a bot­tom­less pit for the most up to date infor­ma­tion that coach­es would need to become bet­ter coach­es. We have an online course called the foun­da­tions of coach­ing. Coach­es can sign up for it and take it at their leisure. That’s a pre­cur­sor for the oth­er cours­es we have. There’s a resource library with books and videos. We’re here to teach coach­es, and that’s why you’ll find such an expan­sive amount of infor­ma­tion and guidance.”

I think video is an invalu­able tool.”

How can video aid in the devel­op­ment of players?

Paci­ni: I think video is an invalu­able tool. I mean I’ve use it for a num­ber of years. (Show­ing my age a lit­tle bit here.) I remem­ber many years ago I had a video cam­era that I propped up over my shoul­der with the VHS tapes. I remem­ber haul­ing that thing out and using it and pop­ping that thing into a VCR and watch­ing train­ing ses­sions and games. I’d video tape goal­keep­ers, with my work as a coach there.” 

I don’t know if I’d be haul­ing video out for five- and six-year-olds. I don’t think that’s nec­es­sary, but over a cer­tain peri­od of time it cer­tain­ly is an invalu­able tool to aid in play­er development.”

What is the most chal­leng­ing thing about work­ing with play­ers directly?

Paci­ni: As a for­mer col­lege coach­es, It was always aston­ish­ing to me that we’d get play­ers — and I nev­er blame the play­ers, they’re prod­ucts of their devel­op­men­tal envi­ron­ments — that knew so lit­tle about the game. In their world they thought they were great because they could get by three peo­ple, but they didn’t under­stand basic con­cepts like first/​second/​third attack­er, pressure/​cover bal­ance, tech­ni­cal vs. func­tion­al vs. tac­ti­cal, what those things meant. It was aston­ish­ing to me how the ele­ments of basic soc­cer foun­da­tion was lost on these kids. I found myself using basic lan­guage to edu­cate them.

We can devel­op the next Mes­si or Ronaldo.”

But that goes back to edu­cat­ing coach­es. Coach­ing is teach­ing. Any good teacher is an indi­vid­ual who is an expert in their sub­ject mat­ter and can effec­tive­ly trans­mit that infor­ma­tion so that the stu­dents under­stand it and can build from that.

It’s even preva­lent now in some of these mini­camps that I do, just what they don’t know. I don’t blame them. It’s coach­ing. They get out there and they play, but the broad­er con­text that should’ve been shared with them at each stage of their devel­op­ment is lost.”

There’s been a shift in US Soc­cer recent­ly. There’s an obvi­ous empha­sis on high­er lev­el coach­es and edu­ca­tion. What are your thoughts on the future? What trends are you noticing?

Paci­ni: I think coach­es now need to embrace what U.S. Soc­cer has put in place in terms of play­er devel­op­ment man­dates with the empha­sis on small-sided games. I think coach­es can embrace it, get edu­cat­ed on it, and be able to then put it to good use with their teams and their play­ers. That’s going to have a pos­i­tive effect on play­er devel­op­ment going forward. 

I think we’re in a good place with­in the soc­cer land­scape in the Unit­ed States. We’re not where we need to be, but we’re in a good place, par­tic­u­lar­ly with the man­dates set forth by U.S. Soc­cer. The wealth of infor­ma­tion and stan­dard that are in place is abun­dant. We [the NSCAA] and U.S. Soc­cer work col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly to get infor­ma­tion out. 

I just wrote an arti­cle for a web­site about how we devel­op cre­ative play­ers. That’s some­thing we have not done. That’s a chal­lenge. Can we get coach­es to under­stand how to devel­op and fos­ter envi­ron­ment where cre­ativ­i­ty can be nur­tured and grown. That’s some­thing that needs to be embraced, with the hope that we can devel­op the next Mes­si or Ronal­do. There’s a lot of good stuff hap­pen­ing now in the short and long term.”