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.”