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Spain trip recap: An unforgettable experience

Even after three days of decompressing and reflection since returning to the United States, it’s extremely difficult to the put into perspective the massive impact that NorCal Premier Soccer’s 11-day coaching education trip to Spain had on the roughly 35 directors of coaching involved.

With days packed full of lectures, coaching interviews and training observations, we’re still trying to digest the plethora of information garnered and lessons learned that we can take back to Northern California to help grow the game locally.

During the trip the NorCal directors of coaching visited internationally-renowned clubs such as Athletic Bilbao, FC Barcelona, RCD Espanyol and several other lesser-known clubs in order to study arguably the best youth setups in the world.

Because of our dedication to coaching education, the journey into Basque Country and Catalonia was subsidized, with NorCal covering roughly one-third of the cost for any of the many willing participants.

It’s still early, but for those on the trip, the experience proved a massive success in both expected and unexpected areas.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Jesus Mata of Davis Legacy. “I know this trip is going to change me not only as a coach, but also as a person and what I can get out of kids. It’s not only on the soccer side either — I help shape the kids more as people and take this experience and make the most out of it going forward.”

Due to scheduling conflicts, Mata was only able to attend the Barcelona portion of the trip, making his words that much more telling as he didn’t even experience the highly-influential Bilbao leg of our journey, where the excursion officially started.

In the heart of Basque Country, the gracious hosts of Athletic Bilbao showed NorCal how a club can succeed through youth development despite copious amounts of difficult road blocks.

The club policy of Athletic is that only players who are born or developed in Basque Country can suit up for the team.

This restricts their pool of available players to roughly 13 million worldwide, though more realistically, the nearly 3 million who live in the Basque regions of Spain and France.

And yet, Bilbao are one of just three clubs to have never been relegated from La Liga and their eight league titles rank fourth overall, only behind powerhouses Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.

Furthermore, Bilbao’s women’s squad has claimed a record five Primera Division titles in the 28-year history of top division women’s football in Spain.

In a lecture to NorCal, former Athletic Director of Methodology Gari Fullaondo attributed these massive successes to the quality of their youth programs and the club’s ability to co-operate with every youth soccer program in the region of Biscay.

“If we don’t do good work in Biscay with five, six, seven, eight and nine-year-olds, it’s impossible to come to [Bilbao] with good qualities,” Fullaondo said. “I think the most important thing in Biscay is that there are 149 different clubs that play soccer. The most important thing is that Athletic has an agreement with all of them…boys and girls want to play in Athletic. Most of them want to be Ronaldo or Messi, but all of them want to play in Athletic.”

This is a lesson we can take back to Northern California, which has a population about 14 times larger than Biscay, yet doesn’t come anywhere close to the pedigree of producing professionals.

“This trip has been an eye opening experience that changed my life,” said Impact Soccer Club Technical Director Gavin Glinton. “For me, in Bilbao, their belief in the culture I think was one of the biggest things that stood out for me. Everybody’s involved, everybody takes pride in everybody going through. They would rather do it their way. They’re not chasing greener pastures every time they look around. They understand what they want to do, this is who we are and this is who we’re going to be, love us or hate us.

“I think that that is really special because they do it and it’s not just lip service,” he added. “It’s real. You can feel it when you walk in the streets, you can feel it when you talk to the cap drivers. I can’t tell you how many people I talked to on the street, but they just mentioned and talked about who they are, why they are and how much they love this.”

As important as the lessons learned in Bilbao were though, Ballistic United Soccer Club Boys Director of Coaching Andrew Ziemer noted that the situation at Athletic isn’t 100 percent replicable anywhere else because of the large variety of variables that differ between Basque Country and Northern California.

“I think obviously, when we come to Europe, or any country or even travel within the U.S., the important job for a DOC or a coach is to always think to a reference point to your own situation as you look and hear things and then analyze and see and hear and then adapt it to your situation,” he said. “There’s never one formula that is one-size-fits-all. For every team, there’s a little bit of a different way of doing it, but with the same principles. I think that’s the main thing that these coaches need to do when they get back, to see what they can implement in their programs and the biggest thing is going to come down to educating coaches to what a common methodology and philosophy in working on the game can be.”

This was also true during the second phase of the trip: visits to RCD Espanyol and FC Barcelona in the Catalan capital. During each visit, the clubs (especially Barcelona) preached the importance in the idea that their philosophies and methodologies work for them, but that doesn’t mean they are the correct philosophies and methodologies for everyone involved.

“For me, [Barcelona’s] point of this isn’t the best model in the world, but to have a philosophy versus believing that one philosophy is the best is important,” said Omar Cervantes, the Director of Coaching & Player Development at San Ramon Futbol Club. “As directors, we might second guess ourselves and say, ‘The Spanish do it this way, the Germans do it this way, who are we as Americans? What do we do?

“You’re influenced by outside factors all the time, you want to do the best that you can, so whatever it is that you see, or whatever is the best, or maybe the American model is a mix of everything, it’s hard to say,” he added. “I’m convinced that your model or my model or whoever’s model could work. I feel confident that I can go and do what I believe in and not worry about what that director thinks or what that parent thinks.”

With that in mind, the teachings were still incredibly influential to our eager learners, with certain universal principles and practices apparent to the directors of coaching.

“The game demands certain things, I don’t care where you’re at,” said Tom Atencio of US Club Soccer. “If you do those certain things you can play soccer properly and maximize yourself. Will you make the national team? Who knows? Probably not. Most of us aren’t. But you’re going to play correctly and you’re going to know how to be a good fan and you’re going to know how teach kids.”

Most of the above thoughts touched on the learning outcomes that one would have expected coming into the trip — the ideas and philosophies that make each club unique.

What was unexpected though is how much of the down time during the trip — bus and plane rides, waiting for trainings to start, meals out, etc… — was almost as useful as the scheduled events.

“I just think one of the best parts of the trip has been the collaboration, just talking to the different directors about what they do,” said Davis Legacy Technical Director David Robertson. “I think all of the collaborations is one of the best parts of this whole trip. Even when there’s an issue between directors, and unfortunately as directors we do have issues from time-to-time, to be able to pick up a phone and know who you’re talking to, as opposed to sending an email, you can get a lot more work done.”

Added Cervantes: “It can’t be overstated that besides from this lecture, the most important thing I’ve gotten from this trip is connecting with the other directors, who we view as competitors. But that connectivity allows us to share information at home.”

That sharing begins immediately, as NorCal have set up a Google Drive dedicated exclusively to debriefing the lessons learned throughout the trip as well as sharing said lessons with as many people as possible.

Because ultimately, the overall goal of the trip isn’t about competition between the clubs, something that we tend to lose focus of when competing for trophies with our neighbors.

The trip, and NorCal’s coaching education movements in general, are about the betterment of the game overall in Northern California, and consequently, the United States.

The full archive of our blog posts during this incredible trip can be found below: