August 19, 2015
'Coaches cannot be set in their ways' (Luchi Gonzalez Q&A)

Interview by Mike Woitalla

After a seven-year professional playing career, Luchi
launched a career in education -- he served as Dean
of Students and algebra teacher at Miami’s Gulliver Academy --
and youth coaching. A full-time coach at FC Dallas’ academy
since 2012, the 2001 Hermann Trophy winner at SMU guided FC Dallas to
the 2015 U.S. Soccer Development Academy U-15/16 title. His FC Dallas
team, which took USSDA Central Conference “Best Style
Play” honors, outscored its six postseason opponents, 20-0.

Influences …
LUCHI GONZALEZ: I am the teacher-coach I am today because of all the prior coaches who have been in my life. My personality is set, but my attitude about game knowledge, planning, training culture -- coach behavior and training setup -- continues to evolve based on past and current coaches who have influenced me. We cannot be set in our ways and think we know it all.

Today’s youth players …
LG: The current generation of youth players do not respond to “do this because I said so.” Any youth player has access to incredible amounts of information (internet, social media, etc.). They need meaning behind the concepts of the game and how it relates to their roles. It’s our duty as a coach to give purpose behind the things we do, and how they impact the game.

Luchi Gonzalez flanked by Hector Montalvo (left) and Branden Terwege.

Communicating …
LG: It’s important that we have enough game knowledge to set up training so that players can discover concepts that they will need to know how to apply in the game. This is accomplished with patience, asking them questions, guiding them, making the training objectives relevant to the game.

It’s important that when we communicate with our players (as a group or individually) that we tell them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. Honesty is vital for the players to grow. The tone and the ability to be constructive and positive go hand in hand with this notion, but done properly, the truth is what lets the player have the opportunity to improve and get better. When things are too fluffy, sugar-coated, not honest enough, then I think you accomplish the opposite -- a confused player or group of players who think they are doing all the right things who are in fact not.

Planning Practice …
LG: As coaches, we should always have a plan for the training. It is usually written or digitally input into a training planner. It is more important that coaches are willing and able to veer from the plan. I think too many coaches get stuck in trying to execute the plan exactly the way it was first set out to be. This is a huge mistake. The plan is a guide to achieve an objective. During a session, coaches need to be able to make adjustments to numbers, space, times and intervals, game rules -- all based on observation of their players. To me, a coach can never blame his players for not finding success in an exercise. It is the coaches' responsibility to adjust the exercise so that they find success, based on the player resources and level they are capable of.

Challenging Players …
LG: At the same time, the coach must also not think that the exercise is successful if his players are executing with ease, because then they are not being challenged enough. The coach must always play with the balance of what his players are capable of technically, tactically and mentally challenging the training environment is. Coaching truly is an art, it's constantly modifying the original piece of work, to enhance or improve the effectiveness of the planned training.

FC Dallas, U-16 Boys Head Coach
Hometown: Miami, Fla.
Age: 35
Playing Experience: U.S. U-17 national team (1997 U-17 World Cup), SMU, San Jose Earthquakes, Bodens BK (Sweden), Sporting Cristal (Peru), Colorado Rapids, Miami FC, Minnesota Thunder.
Coaching Experience: Felix Varela H.S. (The Hammocks, Fla.), Gulliver Academy (Miami, Fla.), Kendall SC (Fla.).

Competition …
LG: Trainings should always be competitive. A competitive culture conditions your players to develop leadership, emotional control, personality, alertness, desire, pride. All intangibles when trying to develop pro players. I have observed trainings that have great technical and tactical components, but they never touched on the emotional control that is so important for a player. I believe that every technical exercise, whether passing patterns or finishing, should progress into some type of competition.

Warm-ups, possession games ... can all have competition components as well. I think we have to be careful with this concept with ages below U-10, but from U-10, competing in training will increase motivation, tempo, intensity, quickness of acting and thinking, give urgency. It's fun to watch the players find ways to out-perform, out-smart each other from Monday to Friday, then all come together and do it as a team on the weekend.

Your start in coaching …
LG: I coached while I was still playing with the Colorado Rapids [2005-06], a U-11 boys team – running sessions as a guest coach. With the Minnesota Thunder, I would help with their camps.

Transition from playing pro to coaching …
When you’re a player that’s the only perspective you have. When you start coaching kids, everything comes from out of passion, being vocal, a lot of animation. Which can be great to spawn learning in young kids. But I think when you become more experienced in coaching you see the way kids learn is different. It’s creating environments where they can discover and that they’re not micromanaged. Where they’re still challenged and there’s still a motivational piece, there’s still support and guidance -- but that the young athletes are empowered to make their own decisions and think for themselves.

Balance …
LG: A key word. We’re evolving our curriculum at FC Dallas. We always reflect on how we play every year and try and modify how we want to do things. And the word that comes up is balance. We want to develop balanced players who can adapt so we can dictate a game knowing how to hurt teams in several ways. It can be vertical play with quick combinations going forward, short and long passes. Or it can be with a patient buildup. It’s not doing one all the time. It’s knowing how to do both and when in a game.

Parents …
LG: Having a good relationship with parents is important, because we mutually develop the kids. The parents at home and the coaches on the field and off the field when we travel. But for me having a good relationship is having honesty, not necessarily a friendship. You need to have transparency, good communication, but you also have to have boundaries so they’re respecting the environment so the coach is guiding the pathway.

FC Dallas’ Latin-style of play …
LG: We’re in a central region. We’re near the border of Latin America. I think we’ve got a true melting pot of different styles of players. We’ve got the Latino players. We’ve got athletes. We’ve got the structured, disciplined players. We’ve got the playmakers, the creative, free-flowing, flexible players.

Oscar Pareja …
LG: He’s the pioneer who put our academy on the map in a short period of time and now he’s the first-team coach. You see the consistency between our academy and the first team because he doesn’t look at a player and judge him on age, ethnicity or background. He knows what kind of soccer he thinks is effective for this culture and development decisions are made based how we want to play. Whether it’s a Latin player, African-American or Anglo, [Pareja] finds a way to put everyone on the same level. He wants a center back to be technical and have some improvisation in his game. He wants a forward who can hold the ball and defend as well. He wants wingers who can be outside backs. He wants outside backs who can become wingers.

Positions …
LG: When do we begin to evaluate a center back and differentiate him from an outside back, and when do you not, and just call him a defender? When do you just call him a player? We began to ask ourselves that. We think a U-12 player and below needs to be a soccer player. He’s not a defender. He’s not a forward. He’s not a winger. He’s not holding mid. He’s a soccer player.

For field players, we evaluate them as a player, technically, tactically, physically and mentally. Physically -- what’s the coordination level, how do they control their body? Mentally -- are they competitive, are they resilient? Technically and tactically -- what is their first-touch like? What is their body orientation? How are their dribbling skills? How is their shooting? Short- and long-range passing?

We don’t get into position-specific until U-14. Now we’re differentiating a forward from a midfielder to a winger …

With the U-16s I will pick a training at least once every two weeks and go 11 vs. 11 where you’re not allowed to play your usual position. It’s free-flowing. It’s fun. We do the same with smaller numbers. Give them a principle and a concept to work on – but don’t put them in their specific positions. We get them out of their comfort zone so they can learn from different positions, learn what that perspective is.

Your idols as a kid …
LG: Somehow my father had illegal cable and we got the Argentine channel, so all my idols were River Plate and Boca Juniors players. … Claudio Caniggia, Gabriel Batistuta, obviously Diego Maradona. I also liked Enzo Francescoli. I always idolized the creative players. As a coach, I ask my players to idolize creative players as well, like Alexis Sanchez and Lionel Messi. Look at these runs, look these movements. Visualize yourself doing these things, because you can.

But I also ask them to look at defenders. I’ll bring a clip of Fabio Cannavaro. His timing of tackles. His anticipation. It’s an art. Or Paolo Maldini with his management of the backline, his distribution. Andrea Pirlo as a holding midfielder with his long- and short-range passing. I try and get my players to not just idolize the Messis -- also but the guys who are relative to their roles.