Aug 6, 2018
Coaching a New Sport
Joe Clement

It is said that the best laid plans often go astray. That hit home this past winter, when our boys’ soccer coach here at Terrebonne High School in Houma, La., resigned after nine games and our principal asked me to take over the team.

I have been a football coach for 35 years (formerly as a head coach and now helping out as an assistant while serving as Athletic Director) and have also coached track and field, softball, and strength training. But never soccer, not one day.

After so many years in football, I have a vast amount of knowledge about America’s favorite sport. But when it came to the world’s most popular sport, fútbol, I’ve only been a spectator. How was I going to make this work? I thought about how I mentor new coaches who come on board at Terrebonne and about the basics of what makes a team hum. My strategy would be to focus on discipline, structure, and building a positive experience for the students. Going from football to fútbol was a challenge, but coaching is coaching.

My first task was to meet with the team. I wanted to set a firm and positive tone right away, so I conveyed that each player was starting off with a clean slate. There was no discussion of the past, only eyes to the future. I was determined to encourage them daily, so I set the groundwork for practices and games by establishing these three simple rules:

Be at practice. Players who missed practice were required to communicate directly with me — no messages. Our motto for the rest of the year was, “If you give a workday, you will get a payday!” I adjusted playing time to reward those who attended practices and penalize those who did not.

Have discipline on the field. Players were forbidden to execute any activity that was detrimental to the team. They soon learned that no one player was larger than the whole group.

Keep a positive attitude. Our overall goal was to have fun and play with intensity.

It’s funny how just a few simple rules, when implemented consistently and fairly, can lead a team to success. The players started to show more dedication, work together as a team, and exhibit a new sense of pride.

I also promised that practice would not last more than 90 minutes, as long as the players committed to attending with positive attitudes and high intensity. This incentive proved to be extremely motivational to the team.

To develop practice plans, I used the same approach as with all of the other sports I have coached. I structured practices into three slots: individual skills, group work, and team time. Individual skill training consisted of touch pass maneuvers, drills on inbound pass receptions, and so on. Group work was two-on-three drills, heading corner kicks, and other similar drills. Team time consisted of game-like situations.

As any football coach quickly learns, your assistants are key to your success, and I put this idea into play on the soccer team. I asked my assistant coach, Aaron Coffman, a former player at the collegiate level, to take on more responsibilities and ownership in the program. We worked well together and I leaned on his suggestions for making adjustments during games.

One of the most important staff members was my team manager, Arlene Bonvillain, who communicated via text with the entire team. Everyone was always informed about game times, jersey selections, and last-minute details.

I also reached out to our soccer experts. I continually asked questions of John Hebert, Head Coach of our girls’ soccer team, which has won 10 consecutive district titles.

Another group that offered an assist was our football-soccer players. A few members of the football squad, where I currently serve as defensive coordinator, play soccer in the winter. Our experience together on the football team was instrumental in the transition of philosophies.

One of the great things about football is that a large number of players get on the field every game. I realized years ago that, more than anything else, players want to play. With the soccer team, every game, I tried to get as many boys as possible into the competition. We played as many as 19 team members per game. This strategy also helped for building next year’s team and created motivational competition at practice.

When I began my soccer coaching stint, the team’s record was 4-2-3 and the spirit was not great. With the above ideas in place, the team gained confidence and we started winning games. The players began to believe in the system and in themselves. I’m proud to say that I led them to a 14-2-1 record and we won the district title and our first playoff game. It was the first time Terrebonne High School boys’ soccer has finished undefeated in district play.

I have been blessed with a wonderful career and have enjoyed being involved in many areas of athletics over 35 years. But having a banner season in soccer this winter and being chosen as “Coach of the Year” by our district was a huge honor — and a big surprise for this old football coach.

Joe Clement, CAA, is Athletic Director at Terrebonne High School in Houma, La. He also serves as President of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association and as an Assistant Coach with the football and softball teams at Terrebonne, adding Head Boys' Soccer Coach duties this past winter.

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