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.”