Coaches must be teachers
"MY job is not for you to win the Manning Cup," a coach in his first season once told a group of young student-athletes who turned out for pre-season training in 1983.
"My job is to teach you the game so that wherever you go you will always understand how to play the game. If you end up winning the title that would be a bonus for me," the coach said.
As a member of that group at the time I didn't really understand coach Cliff Williams's statement - having experienced a totally different mind-set with all coaches I had come in contact with at the various age-group levels. Some of those coaches eventually won the Manning Cup and various other football titles.
But as I matured I began to realise how correct Williams was. And I wished that most other players would have been so positively impacted. Unfortunately, to this day, most coaches responsible for young players place significant emphasis on winning at all costs, while ignoring what should be their primary role, that of teaching the game.
In the three years Williams spent with us I realised that the game could be taught, and that fact was manifested in our results in the competition, by the manner in which we tried to play the game and the level of understanding displayed on the pitch, even while we didn't win the title.
At the time the school, Ardenne High, was lacking in many other elements needed for success, such as nutrition, funding, simple weights training, etc. So there was no great surprise at the final outcome.
Sadly, and most importantly, since then I have not personally come across another coach who takes great care in ensuring that his players become students of the game.
Without apology, that, to me, is the main contributing factor to Jamaica's inability to produce consistently high-quality football on the pitch.
Brazilian Rene Simoes had said that we as Jamaicans defied logic by installing the roof before building the foundation, and he's so correct. Our new coach Winfried Schaefer plans to do what should have been done all along, start from the foundation and build upwards.
If we are not honest with ourselves we will never get it right and we will forever play the hit- and-miss game when trying to qualify for world tournaments. And the culprits responsible for these failures are going to be the first critics of head coaches in the national programme, whoever they are.
Our coaches operate without fully understanding that they are the ones 'producing' these players who are embarrassingly void of the basic understanding of football, regardless of how many local titles they may have won.
A frustrated Wendell Downswell summed it up best following his Under-17s failure at last year's CONCACAF Championships in Panama, when a glaring lack of awareness and the general paucity of understanding and cohesion among players regarded as the nation's best, got exposed.
"One of the problems with our youngsters is their understanding and (them) becoming students of the game... to understand the rudiments of the game. We had so many turnovers (of ball possession) in 45 minutes, and at the international level it is unacceptable," Downswell told the Jamaica Observer then.
"If you look at the Central American teams and the North Americans and how disciplined they play... The whole aspect of turnovers is a no-no for them, especially in their defensive third. We lost the ball (regularly) against Canada because the players didn't show the ability to concentrate.
"We just make decisions without a tactical reason. It may be because they do it at the local level and get away with it," said Downswell.
This is as good an assessment as I have seen of Jamaican teams, generally, over my many years of watching and or reporting on games, and this basic problem is more exposed the more we compete outside the Caribbean region.
Our players are often found wanting, as regards their football IQ, but what I have found interesting is that as soon as some of these youngsters migrate to US colleges or pro leagues, they start to develop a better understanding of the game.
They articulate the game much better in interviews (not necessarily in standard English, but the substance of their analysis) and they appear to make better decisions on the pitch, a clear sign of the utilisation of their cerebral matter.
As Schaefer suggested a few days ago, we, as a people, need to ask why our Under-15s got beat so badly in a regional tourney in the Cayman Islands last August when we failed to make the last four, even in the absence of the big guns, USA, Mexico and Canada. We even lost to Belize.
Head coach Fabian Davis, like so many of our national coaches, bemoaned the lack of understanding of the game, and the absence of the mastery of the basic rudiments of the game by the players.
It has always been my view that football is better taught in US colleges than at our premier league level, and I was not surprised by the result of an unscientific research I did with a number of our senior Reggae Boyz engaged in the friendly matches against Trinidad and Tobago last November.
Fully 100 per cent of those I spoke with about how the game is taught here as opposed to the US, said that they learnt more about their roles and functions and the game as a whole in the US.
I've longed for the time when most of our players can be approached at half-time or even at the end of a game for an analysis, and pass with flying colours. Truth be told, I've longed for that even from some of our coaches. Most times it is just the old rhetoric - "we created chances and the strikers didn't put them away"; "we gave up a soft goal"; "we came out flat", nothing to explain what sections of their team failed or succeeded, and what needed tweaking, and the tactical adjustments.
Juxtapose that with the US major sporting disciplines, the NBA, NFL, Baseball, Hockey, and just about any player can breakdown opposing teams and analyse games. These players transition easily into the media, because they have a solid grasp of the intricacies the game.
When the local body introduced the JFF/UTech/JMMB Coaching School and mandated the certification of coaches in 2009, I literally jumped for joy, because I saw that as a positive step.
However, fast-forward five years and some 500-plus certified coaches: I'm not sure I'm seeing the level of understanding being manifested on the pitch. Certification is one positive step, but as JFF boss Captain Horace Burrell told the most recent graduating class over a week ago, it's more than just the piece of paper. They also need to impart knowledge to the players under their guide in a tangible way.
If the players are not learning the game, then the coach is not doing something right. He needs introspection and very probably a refresher course.
"No sport can improve without significant attention to the knowledge base of coaches, and you coaches will have to impart your knowledge to the players who are under your command," Burrell said.
For too long we have struggled against a superior level of tactical know-how from countries like the US and Canada - teams which are at times short of technically gifted players. At our level of development in football, we, as a country, need to accept our tactical shortcomings and move urgently to correct them.
I have no doubt that with our natural athletic ability and skill sets, once we get this most important aspect of football education right, our football will benefit greatly. And when we do, even coaches whose only aim now is to win will stand a better chance of winning games and titles.