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Q&A: Davis Legacy Boys Director of Coaching Simon Elliott

Note: NorCal Premier Soccer regularly sits down with an influential figure in the youth soccer landscape to pick their brain about a variety of different topics that are relevant in the current soccer environment in the United States. For this edition we spoke with Davis Legacy Boys Director of Coaching Simon Elliott. A Native of New Zealand, Elliott first came over to the United States in 1997 to play for the Stanford Cardinal. After leaving college, Elliott began a pro soccer career that would include stints with four different MLS clubs and Fulham in the English Premier League. Playing for his national team, Elliott was capped 69 times for New Zealand, scoring six goals while playing all 270 minutes of his country’s 2010 World Cup campaign. Following his playing career, Elliott joined Sacramento Republic FC, originally to coach in the academy, before serving as the club’s head coach for two years. During his time in charge of Sacramento, the Republic compiled a 33-21-14 record while making the playoffs in both years.

NorCal: Growing up in New Zealand, where soccer isn’t the most popular sport, how did you fall in love with the game?

Elliott: Falling in love with the game can happen if you want it to, the main thing is that you have to seek it out. Soccer isn’t the No. 1 sport in America either, but there’s a lively and vibrant soccer community here too. It’s certainly grown over the last few years as well. New Zealand is more of a small market — we don’t have the economic capacity to support multiple major sports. I haven’t lived there for quite some time so I might not be the best person to talk about this, but when I was growing up, sailing was a huge sport, there’s good funding at the government level for Olympic sports, it’s a very outdoor country so as a kid you’re always doing something. Certainly a lot of kids I knew were outside running around, playing all kinds of different sports, which I think helps later on when we started to focus on just one. Like anything, if you want something, you’re going to seek it out. You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to get some things wrong, it’s an old cliche, but it’s all part of the process. It’s not a linear progression. You look at it in hindsight, look at it in black and white, or on a piece of paper…the really interesting stuff was all the wrong turns and all the cul-de-sacs and all the missed steps because eventually that was the stuff that led to some better decisions, some more informed decisions, some better play, and all the rest of it.

NorCal: We assume it wasn’t a wrong turn that then brought you to Stanford then, right?

Elliott: I was a little bit fortunate with that, before I came here, I had never heard of Stanford, didn’t have a clue. You’re living in a different world in New Zealand. In New Zealand, a lot of the institutions are more like they are in the UK. In America all the sports and academics are connected, they’re all together. In New Zealand, I would have had to go to university on one side of town and then travel all the way across town to train at night. But it was Bobby Clark, who played in Scotland for years and years and years and played for Alex Ferguson at Aberdeen and won league titles in Aberdeen, beat the Rangers/Celtic domination, he came over to the States, coached at Dartmouth for a long time and ended up in New Zealand for a couple of years and ended up identifying a number of kids from each level, from the senior level down to the U17 level, and four of us ended up going through Stanford. So it wasn’t so much Stanford, although the more I got to know about it, the better it sounded, but it was certainly the fact that you’re dealing with a great coach and probably an even better human being in Bobby Clark.

NorCal: After your college career you had a stint in the then A-League before making the jump to Major League Soccer. You played in a different time in MLS, how was the league then compared to what you see now?

Elliott: What I hear and, I could be wrong, but I always hear that, ‘MLS is so much better now.” I think there’s a progression, but there’s always been good players and teams in MLS. You look at some of Bruce Arena’s teams in the early years, Sigi had good teams in LA, there’s always been good teams and good players. Do they have more now? Yeah, maybe, but the league’s also bigger. Are the resources better? Yeah, I think the league has grown economically so players are probably on average better compensated and there’s certainly a big push into the youth to get good resources so they can create quote unquote better players at a younger age. Stadiums have also become a piece of the business model as well as major sponsorships with companies like Adidas. These things have all grown, TV rights have grown, yes there’s been a lot of growth, but I wouldn’t want people to think that the league wasn’t important or vital or didn’t have good players and good competitions back in the day because it did very much so. That will continue because every generation will have good teams and good players and I want that to continue in MLS.

NorCal: In 2010 you went to the World Cup with New Zealand and famously were the only team in the tournament to not lose a game. What was that experience like for you as a player?

Elliott: It was great, I think a lot of people put a lot of time and effort into creating a good environment. We had sort of a typical New Zealand experience there — a lot of other teams were put up in hotels and away from everything, but we got houses on a golf course, resort is the wrong word, but just short of a private compound. But you could pop out of your house for an hour and head over to a teammate’s house for a barbecue. It was nice because sometimes hotels get claustrophobic. There was plenty of space outside where we could walk around and be unencumbered by positional responsibilities or media or anything like that. So the staff did a good job of getting us in the right spot. We had guys that had been on the national team, about a quarter of the guys had been on the national team for quite a while. Some of us had been on it for 10 years I want to say, probably more. But there was also a relatively younger core that came on around 05, 06, 07, around there. A lot of us had been together for at least one cycle, I guess you would call it. So we knew each other well, we knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses and the things that we could do well on the field. We were aware of the things we didn’t do well on the field. I think that everybody knew that it was a big moment and then as soon as we got Italy in the draw we felt like we were in decent shape because Italy was the seeded team in our group. We played them the year before, I think we lost 4-3 in the last minute so we felt like we could be competitive there. The confidence from being together for a long time and knowing each other well…the group just went from strength to strength during the qualifying campaign. Oceania isn’t the strongest place in the world, but I think we went through that undefeated. Maybe there was a dead rubber against Fiji, but we sort of sent a skeleton team. We were pretty strong for the two years leading up. The fans were great, we made a big impression in New Zealand. It was nice to see some of our players doing well on the international stage and getting some recognition for all of our hard work over the years.

NorCal: You’ve been around the youth game in Northern California for a few years now. What do we do well here and what are some things that still need to improve?

Elliott: The main thing is that there are a lot of young players, a lot of good young players. Maybe they just need a little bit of direction. There’s not one organization over here, there’s a whole bunch of different organizations, which I think contributes to a little bit of indirection. It’s a big market, but soccer isn’t what you’d call the game of the masses. For the most part, you need some resources to compete at a certain level which can stop players from being able to access the sport, which I think is a detriment, because I think there’s a lot of good players who aren’t getting the training that maybe they should. I always think of American as a compliment, it’s very diverse from top to bottom so to have one central body telling everyone what to do in soccer terms may be a little bit tough, but there are good players, there are a lot of interested and committed folks. The other thing is that here, a lot of America is about choices. Not everyone wants to play pro whereas culturally in Europe or wherever, everybody knows what the pyramid looks like. Here you can have the club experience, play high school and club, you can go to college, you can play pro, there’s a system for that, a pathway. It’s just different, it’s just a different way of doing it. I think overall there are a lot of well-intentioned, hard-working people who are interested in football. There’s a lot of courses available, there’s a lot of stuff you can do, but ultimately if you want to be a coach, you’ve gotta coach. If you want to be a player, you’ve gotta train and play. So let’s start with the first thing first and get the nuts and bolts right. That’s a conversation that we could have for hours.

NorCal: You mentioned that you played different sports growing up outside of soccer. Is that something that you recommend that your players do, to go and participate in other sports, at least at the younger ages?

Elliott: If you look at the literature, there’s research to support this stuff, for a lot of kids it’s about strength and balance and movement through time and space. If you’re competing in other sports that help you with that type of thing, the research that I’ve seen suggests that that will help you when you finally do decide to specialize. I was talking with Brian McBride the other day and he was talking about how he did all kinds of other stuff when he was a kid. He said the reason why he could time things so well in the air was because he played volleyball for years. So I think anecdotally, there are examples. In general, if you’re a kid, you want to explore, I don’t think you should just be doing one thing, one sporting thing when you’re four, something that’s super structured. I don’t think that if you (focus on just soccer) that you’re going to be a good soccer player by the time you’re 18, I don’t think it works that way. I’m probably getting a little holistic, but within reason, every pathway is a little bit different and every kid has different tweaks along the way. A lot of the stuff we see in the public domain is edited for general consumption. If you look at (the concept of) 10,000 hours, everybody talks about if you do your 10,000 hours, you’re going to be good. Pick a vocation and if you do it for 10,000 hours, you’re going to be good, but that’s not exactly how it works. There’s a little more nuance and a little more thought. I want to say that that initial study was done on violin players and the variable coefficient was, what, 50 percent, so that means anywhere from 5,000 hours to 15,000 hours. But it’s also about the way you structure it, the feedback loop that you set up so you can continue to tweak it correctly, whether it’s soccer or something else. There’s a lot more that went into (the 10,000 hour idea) than what was originally suspected by the public. So when you’re a kid, just be a kid. Explore, run around, climb trees, play with your friends, run, jump, play basketball, try volleyball, try something that fits for you because you’ve got to enjoy it. Maybe you get some degree of proficiency at it and some confidence, which helps you enjoy it more. You’ve gotta be curious, you’ve got to be interested, you’ve got to want to learn. When you’re a kid, a young kid, five, six, seven, eight, ten, or whatever that’s just trying stuff and failing at stuff and getting up and toughening yourself up and getting better or maybe deciding that this thing isn’t for you and going into something else and trying that. This is the thing that we have to remember: if somebody had figured this out, what would they do? They’d bottle it and keep it for themselves. There are certain things that we all know that are going to work, but if you want to make it to the top, top, top, you listen to some interviews that Klopp gives and he says that these days you have to be quite a serious person, but within reason. If folks had the formula, they wouldn’t give it away. That being said, there are definitely things that you do need to do if you want to, over a number of years, become a good soccer player, a college soccer player, a professional soccer player. Simple things like showing up to training on time and listening and learning and experimenting and more complicated things like trying stuff in training and having it not work out and then trying them again until you figure them out. Being prepared to work outside your comfort zone, having a good first touch and understanding pressure — how to create it and how to escape it, acquisition and denial of space. We could go on and on with this stuff, but I think there’s also some wiggle room. As coaches, as technical directors, as the soccer community we have to accept that none of us have got it entirely figured out about one specific way to do it because if anybody had totally figured it out, they would bottle it.

NorCal: Given the current situation with COVID-19, trainings have been off for a while. Everything is expected to return soon, but on a tentative basis. What advice do you have for players right now who are looking to make it to the top level and make sure they come out of this break having improved?

Elliott: How old are they? It’s going to be different for a five-year-old and a 10-year-old. Are you looking at a teenager, maybe someone almost in high school? For them, I’d say, “where do you want to be by the end of high school?” The way that I’d set it up, and again, this is a way of doing it, it’s not the way. By the time you finish high school, where do you want to be. For them it’s long term, four years is an eternity. Do you want to be playing pro? Do you want to be playing in college? Do you just want to be playing for your club? Figure it out and then just work back from there. So then what can you do this month to help you get to where you want to be in five years? What can you do today? I would try to help them set up their own pathway. That’s basically what we’ve been doing with our kids at the moment. And that’s with the understanding that it’s going to change. So it may look very, very different next year or the year after. That’s okay. The point is that you’re putting in some kind of work in some kind of sport into what you really want to look like. One of the things we always say is that you’re going to be a professional something. You’re going to have to be a professional at something. If you want it to be soccer, that’s great, but (that’s really hard to do). You’re going to have to set up a runway for yourself and then look backwards three years, five years to what you want to look like by the end of the season and then what you want to work on this month and then what you can do today. Essentially you’re asking kids to invest in their future selves.