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Q&A: Dutch Coaching Legend Frans Hoek

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 Dutch coaching legend Frans Hoek. A longtime goalkeeper for FC Volendam in the Netherlands, Hoek established himself as one of the preeminent goalkeeping coaches in the world since starting his post-playing career in 1985. Along the way, Hoek has made stops at Ajax, FC Barcelona, Manchester United, and Galatasaray while also working with the Polish and Dutch National teams, the latter of which he enjoyed three different stints with. Hoek currently serves as the Technical Director for Orange County SC, while working with the Japanese Football Federation, and maintaining an advisory role for UEFA and several other outlets around the world. 

NorCal: You’ve been coming over to California for years for a variety of different reasons and are a frequent contributor to our coaching courses. When and why did you first start to come over here?

Hoek: Okay, so we go back a long, long time. So I was still an active player, I think it was around 1984 when I came for the first time. I was invited to a guest teacher at a camp in Chicago when I was around 27. It was a very long trip to the US and I had been traveling with the Dutch National Team, so I was used to traveling, but coming to the US was something that I had always wanted to do and I got the chance to come here. It was an eight or nine hour flight, but I was just blown away by the size of everything that I saw. I remember that I arrived early in the evening and saw lights all over. It was very impressive. That was the first time I came into any type of camp over here and I immediately liked the way that people were and how they did stuff. My colleagues there were very intense, very serious, but so were all of the participants. The next time I came back, I was injured. And because I was injured I basically didn’t want to go. And then they said, Well, you know, why not? Well I had treatment, so they told me to bring my physical therapist. So I did it and that actually was the first time I think I went somewhere in the US and then I arrived for the second week in Santa Barbara in California. I think 1985 was really the first time that I was in California. And, of course, California is also a little bit different in my opinion than any other state, any other place actually in the world. So there was the first time I came there, and from that time I came every year, minimum one time, but it could be more times as well. I went to the US and started to spread the experiences of a coach, and stuff like that. The first time that I actually was in touch with the Ziemer brothers was when I gave a course at Stanford University. And I think that was in 1993, or 1994. And while I gave that course, and in the meantime sure maybe five to 10 years later, I decided not to do camps anymore, because what I found was camps were fun to do. But you don’t really, in my opinion, help grow the game for the players. Because what I also found out already from many, many different camps and many, many different opinions would be very confusing for players and also coaches. So what I decided to do is you know I tried to give courses because then I could influence coaches who could influence players within their own environment. So in 1993, or 1994 I did another course at Stanford and Andrew Ziemer was there. Andrew started actually to contact me and he said, “hey you know I’m going to Holland and I want to learn football,” and he asked me to be an apprentice at Ajax. Well, that was like that was something that was not done at that time. So I said, “well, that will be very hard. But, you know, whenever you are in the area. Just show by and come by.” And he actually did so it was funny because we were, building on, you know, the big in the history of the club. The first time was in the 70s and this was the second time that we were winning all the prizes and Andrew was almost there. Many practices, almost always. So I saw him standing near a bench. And then he said, “hey, can we talk” and I said, “yes of course we can talk,” and then he actually came to my office that I had, you know, close to Amsterdam. And then he started to talk about, you know, “I really want you to come over to Northern California to help out with the development of our kids.” That was the beginning. And I remember that I said, “okay but we don’t do camps, we want to do courses.” So we basically made an agreement on that. And based on that. The first time I came with some other Ajax coaches was in 1995. And that was the first time that I really got in touch with the Ziemer brothers. And then, you know, the relationship grew from that moment so we did do some courses, but during the week, Andrew asked us to come to his camps so we came over for one or two mornings and did some things with the players, but that was actually the time that we started to work together. I always felt that the heart of the Ziemer brothers was at the right place for the game. They are really willing to do everything to improve the game. And of course what you see a lot of times in the US is that people also need to make a living out of it, which is  a unique situation when compared to, for example, Europe. When you talk about Holland, we don’t have that many full-time coaches. When you talk about the pro clubs, yes, but at the lower clubs, not that many. When you look at the US, basically everybody can make a living out of it if they start to coach. So, now there’s always mixed intentions and mixed emotions there, but what I felt was, the Ziemer brothers and, you know, the whole family and also their father, they really were willing to do everything to improve the game. You know, reaching out to coaches, reaching out to players. Actually, that was such a good feeling. And they were very warm, very nice people, so we felt very welcome. And I started to build more and more relationships, and therefore I also could implement what I definitely wanted them to. One of the things was I said hey, “you should not do camps. What you should do is call it the club concept. You have to try to influence your whole club.” So, you have to go to a club. Make sure that they have a vision or what is the club all about? How do you want to play? And from that way of playing, how do you practice that?. And then, how do you do that with all the different age groups? So that was really the start. We call that the club concept, to go more and more into the club and a part of that, you know, doing a lot of courses, short internal courses at the club concert for the coaches at the club, and also courses for any coach who wanted to come. So that’s basically a brief history of how it happened.

NorCal: So, you know, having said all that,you have sort of a unique perspective in that you’ve been giving these courses for a while, you come over here a couple times each year and get to see the progression that’s made in increments. Since you started coming to Northern California, have you seen any growth and change take place, maybe even because of your courses?

Hoek: Well, first of all, from the moment I came here, in 1984 or in 1995 for California, it’s been 25 years since then. I definitely saw a big difference in approach of the game to make it more realistic, or to make trainings more game realistic. But that was an enormous step because I have also seen this step in Holland, which took a long time. Over there, I saw the development of everything that happened. And, well, what I saw is relational in the moment that NorCal started and it was based on, you know, like the right basics like letting the kids play and making the kids the most important part, then you saw a big improvement. If you get an organization like NorCal, which is fantastic, which I knew from the beginning, what I see then is an opportunity. And the opportunity is interesting because NorCal is even bigger than Holland. But the advantage of that is that you can organize it and have the freedom to make basically your own association. And I think there has been a lot of progression. However, on the other side, I wish it was even more than that, because if you have these options, if you have these possibilities, where you always can make the steps and there’s so much going on in the developmental part of the football world. I think that you know that I’m also part of UEFA and development of visions, philosophies, and ways of teaching so I’m visiting other countries like Italy, Spain, Belgium, England, and Germany. So having seen this and then also coming here, what we felt was that NorCal, out of nothing, became very respected in the United States and that means that the openness was there and the progress was enormous. Again, I always want to do more and I always want to do the best thing possible at the moment. Regarding the second question, if the courses have helped, you have to ask the people involved. They can tell you what influence I may or may not have had. What I definitely saw was different courses 25 years ago compared to now. I see the approach of the participants and the way that you have people starting to think now and the way that clubs are now executing. There’s a big part of what people are doing now that we have been teaching, mostly game-related aspects. So I really saw a big swing from doing exercises to really training and coaching again. I can only hope that I have that positive influence to make coaches better coaches because when coaches are better coaches, they make players better and create players who like to play the game more and more. But again, you have to ask the people who took my courses.

NorCal: To sort of reverse the previous question, I want to take a club like AZ Alkmaar as an example. While they’re one of the best clubs in Europe at producing talent from their academy, a lot of the ideas that they use come from American sources, like some of their uses of data and the “Growth Mindset” philosophy. Has there ever been anything that you’ve come over here and seen and then taken back to implement in Europe?

Hoek: Yeah, that’s a very good question, of course. Well, what I can say is that one of my qualities is that I’m incredibly open. You know I have a very clear line in the game, but from that line, I’m very open to learn and to see what I can use to make my vision, my way of practicing. And of course, you have so many incredible sports in your country that I learn about from documentaries or read about to get more of the philosophies behind. You have some of the best coaches in different sports, like John Wooden, the basketball coach. So I research some of these coaches, some are more structured than others. Some of them rely more on intuition than others. And that’s also the reality in the football world. So, yes, I of course took stuff from the US. Let me give you a concrete example from the start of my career. You know that Johan Cruyff played in the US, right? Well, what he brought from the US was actually working with specialists. So I ended my career in 1985 because of an injury and that was the first year that Cryuff started to coach at Ajax and he called me and said to me that he wanted to work with specialists and told me that he saw me as a specialist. I had already written a book on goalkeeper coaching because there wasn’t one that existed yet. So he asked me if I wanted to join his staff. My advantage was that I had my Masters degree in physical education and I had my coaching licenses so I looked at the game in total and I could take out the individual specific roles, in this case it was the goalkeeper, but you could do it for every position. I also did this later on set pieces for example, but anyway, that was the start of Johan Cruyff bringing the specialization to Europe. Another thing I did was when we landed in Barcelona in 1997, I had seen that American football coaches, who were also specialized, sometimes used different parts of the stadium to watch the game. So I took that idea and spoke to Louis Van Gaal about it because at Barcelona we were a big club with many coaches and we could only have one or two coaches on the bench, but we had big coaches like Jose Mourinho, Koemans, and they had the stats. So we took the idea of having coaches in the stands to watch the game and we would be in touch with Van Gaal with an audio connection And they were informing me about how they saw the game, and what they will do and what they maybe should change, or  look at the opponents, or when I had questions I could call them. So that’s just two small examples, there many more of course.

NorCal: You mentioned Cryuff, who reportedly really enjoyed the old shootouts that used to decide ties in the old NASL and the first few years of MLS. Did you ever talk to him about the shootout?

Hoek: Well, the only thing I can say is that of course he loved to play games. He loved every game actually, whether it was billiards or whether it was playing cards. And, you know, I did speak about it with him because if you know if there’s a draw, if you go to overtime, then you want to decide the game. So the question always is, what is the best way to decide it? Sometimes they did it by flipping a coin, which is of course terrible. Many times still today you see penalty kicks, which is a little bit different than the actual game. And if you go in a shootout basically, a one versus one, it’s closer to the game than all the other things. So, he liked that, because, with penalty kicks you need different qualities than a shootout, but in the shootout, it’s much more of a game than penalty kicks. So yes, he loved it. And we know it was fantastic in it because his skills, it didn’t matter on what field, they were unique.

NorCal: You’re currently working on a new book. Tell us about it.

Hoek: Thank you for asking that. When you are starting to coach, it’s a whole pathway without knowing it. Nowadays it’s much more spread out than it was when I started to coach. So, if I move back to the defaulting of the coaching qualities, then what I see is that of course, and people should not misunderstand that but playing is completely different than coaching. It’s two different worlds and too many people still think that if you are a good player, you will be a good country. Well, reality is, and we can see that on a daily basis, that’s not what happens. Some good players become good coaches, some. Many who have not played at a high level become goOd coaches. The examples are there. Jose Mourinho wasn’t a high level player, Pep was, but coaches like Ferguson, Wenger, Van Gaal weren’t. So that’s the first thing that I want to say about it. Then if you develop yourself at a high level,  you know I had a good background. I had been playing and at a reasonable level, though not the top, top level. I had been studying, and a master’s degree in education, did many courses, and I had my coaching license, so you can see that the luggage to start coaching was pretty good but the moment you start coaching, it’s like going to swim for the first time. You don’t know what to expect and you really need to find out what your qualities are, what you can do, what you are able to teach, are you able to explain things, are you able to improve things, are you demanding? So the reality is, what I always say is my first six years at Ajax, I was very much coach orienting myself because I  wanted to find out what my qualities were and what my position within the whole game was. I had experiences as a teacher and then I also had done some camps. I had taught physical education at different age groups, but now I was teaching the best players in the country, some big stars, which you need different qualities for anyway. I was lucky because I was a specialist and the players didn’t even notice it too much but I very quickly went into integrated practices, which means that no one was isolated, not even the goalkeepers, who worked with the whole team. So my skills as a teacher and with my coaching licenses helped me a lot. Slowly, but surely, with many hours of practice, not only with the first team, but also with the second team and the youth teams. For me it was an excellent time. I stayed twelve years at Ajax and then moved to Barcelona. So now I knew more about my coaching skills, but still had to do the same thing in another language and in a different culture. So, slowly but surely, all these experiences I gathered, alongside the different ways of thinking I saw, the different methodologies, the different philosophies, and the introduction of new technologies like video became part of my experience. By analyzing the personal performances and players with new technology, you start again with trial and error because no one taught you what to do so you get a personal interpretation to try it out. So, having said that, from actually starting to coach on the pitch from 1985 until now, combined with the openness I that I feel that I have, and the openness to the whole world, but also the experience of giving lectures and teaching coaches. Now for the Japanese federation, I developed courses, and then I did others for UEFA and then taught them and taught other coaches to teach them. This book is the whole package that brought me away from being concentrated on myself to being concentrated on others, whether it was a tutor, whether it’s a teacher, whether it’s a player, whether it’s a coach. That was a big switch. I did produce some stuff and something I introduced was my tapes (of game analysis) and what I saw. Before that, there was nothing, almost zero. But after that, so many things showed up and it was amazing. Everyone, with their own opinion and their own way of thinking, but also asking questions about what I believed or what I thought. What we have to do nowadays is not have assumptions, I think it should be much more. I have this book, which I’m writing together with Raymond Verheyen, who is experienced in writing books based on facts. There are items in it based on goalkeeping, there’s a lot in it for every coach and every goalkeeper coach and for every specialist…for everyone. This book is goalkeeping the way it is. Not how I think it is, or how it could be, but really the way it is. It’s only based on the game. So it’s a lot of investigation. It’s based on data. It’s based on the scientific background so you understand it’s like every aspect of the game. What I hope from it is that it makes people think about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and are there ways to improve on it?  It’s really a book about the game but also a book about football language because, for example, if we look at pilots, they all speak the same language because they have to land their planes in the whole world, so they speak in a worldwide language. In football, everybody has their own language so there are a lot of questions. Suppose I did this interview in Dutch, then, I think we have a problem because nobody understands Dtuch, so I did it in English and you understand what I’m saying. It’s the same with football, but for some reason we’ve accepted that everybody speaks their own language. If we don’t know what they mean, then we have to ask them to explain themselves. This is a problem with many coaches and then going back to the kids, a lot of coaches get frustrated when kids don’t understand them and ask the kids, “don’t you understand me?” Well, a lot of times, it’s because the coaches and the kids aren’t speaking the same language. So one of the things in the book is a worldwide logical football language developed by Raymond Verheyen, which is very nice. So I’m looking forward to finishing it, but when I finish it, it’s only a start. It’s the start of many instructional tools that I will explain later when the book is out. But I also realize that  reading a book is different for everybody because reading a book is an interpretation of yourself. So we need examples and explanations and teaching so I think that the book is a really nice start on a lot of those nice things.

NorCal: With COVID-19, we’re facing some unique challenges everywhere in the world right now. With regards to the pandemic, what advice would you have for both coaches and players who are still trying to improve their craft even though they’re not able to train in the normal manner for the time being?

Hoek: Again, a very good question. Look, nobody asked for this. Nobody could see this coming. Yeah, at the moment it was there, we all had to adapt to the new situation. What you could see immediately is that a lot of things started to develop. For example, at Orange County Soccer Club we are working on developing our philosophy, developing our way of playing, developing our scouting, developing the way of practicing, so that’s a big job. You mentioned AZ earlier and they’re a good example because they’re very successful in what they do. Success is measured by being consistent but also by education and scouting. So there are special people who are working to develop all of this stuff there. So like them, we’ve started to develop these things with the right people. When the pandemic happened, we immediately made a whole program based on developing everything that we wanted to work on, but also developing our staff. So, having meetings, letting them go into their fields, and giving them assignments to develop themselves and implement that in Orange County way of thinking, playing etc…And then also giving presentations with explanations on why. It was of course a very good start. So in the meantime, we were also influencing the players by giving them games to watch and analyze and speaking on the aspects of the games with them. So we worked on the personal development of the coaches and what you saw all over the place was webinars so at least you could get information about whatever the situation was. Sometimes you could also ask questions. But on the other side, so much of what is happening is on the internet, which is dangerous because everybody is doing something and as a coach you need to filter and ask yourself what you can use and how you can use it, what is good for you, and what you can use in your way of thinking, which is not easy to be honest. You can be easily fooled. But there is so much that you could do and that you can do. So to help the coaches out, I always talk about self-scanning. Every course that I do we start with a self-scan, where you ask yourself what kind of coach you are, what you think, and what do you think are your strong and weak points? Then improve it by making your own action plan. From there you can start to go and work on everything that you can do by yourself, so there are many things you can still do. I’ve also done some webinars, even one for NorCal. NorCal provided their members with options and possibilities to improve themselves. But my advice as a coach is to look at yourself, figure out what is strong, what is weak, what can be better and then decide what you’re going to do to improve that. But also because of the pandemic, there’s a different way of communicating to your players because you can’t be close to them. So maybe you needed to learn how to do that with FaceTime or on calls. I think there are many options to improve, but know what you want to improve and how you want to improve it. The last thing is that you can always do great work with your club right now. There’s always work in your club that you can do right now because you’re always too busy with the other things normally. Like coaching and travelling. There’s still some time left to do that work to improve your club.