Every youth soccer club will tout player development as the cornerstone of everything it does.
But making player development the top priority rarely happens. In many cases, the club is exaggerating its commitment to player development. In most cases, they are wishing it was true but not doing a lot to make it happen.
There are a lot of reasons, of course. But one in particular is especially frustrating in youth soccer, and that’s when winning games is more important to the coach.
Coaches endure an internal argument between their naturally competitive impulses and the desire to do right by the players. Too many times, when the competitive beats development.
That’s why Noel Gillespie’s job is so interesting.
Gillespie has had that argument decided for him. He is the head coach the Greensboro Swarm, the G-League affiliate of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. Until this season, when Gatorade kicked in a significant sponsorship, the G-League was named the D-League, as in Development.
In a situation many in soccer leadership would find ideal, the Swarm’s players use the same offensive and defensive schemes and adhere to the same principals as the players on the NBA roster with the Hornets. Gillespie is not teaching his own system. He is teaching the system Hornets coach Steve Clifford uses.
So Gillespie, who spent 10 years as an NBA assistant coach before coming to Greensboro, is tasked with creating a competitive team as well as managing the individual development of the players the Hornets have identified as having potential.
His job description is simple: Develop players. His job is much more difficult.
“I enjoy being able to be a head coach of a professional team and have the accountability that comes with having everything under my watch,” he says. “But I enjoy teaching the game the most.”
And he does a lot of teaching. And that includes teaching them how to be a role player.
“I have a lot of coaching colleagues and scouts and they all say same the same thing – the last thing they look at is the points column,” said Gillespie. “But the player’s human nature kicks in, and they think in order to get back to the NBA, they have to score 30 points each night. It’s the exact opposite.
“NBA teams have their rotation. They are looking for the 10th, 11th, 12th man. Some coaches in this league play their best players off the bench, because that’s the role they will play with an NBA team.”
When players are assigned to the G-League, it is usually for a specific reason. Former college stars are sent down to become better floor leaders, better defenders, learn how to execute a game plan, or to get experience running the team’s offense. Gillespie said Swarm players, “Won’t realize how much they have learned for three or four years.”
Do we do enough of that as soccer coaches? Do we put players in different environments that will help them down the road? Are we developing players capable of playing multiple roles?
“I want to develop players to have a skill set that NBA teams are looking for,” Gillespie says. “I tell the players, ‘Let’s work daily on a skill set and implement those skills in games.’”
To do that effectively, Gillespie has found it’s best to be clear, direct and honest with players.
“If they are not progressing in an area, you let them know,” he said. “I tell them, my job is to make you better and I am going to stay on you.”
How all that translates onto the court is important, of course. But Gillespie is in the unique situation as a professional coach who is not judged primarily on wins and losses.
“This is a developmental league, but at the same time we want to win,” he said. “But if I can get all the potential out of a player, I consider that a success.”