Written by Jonny Sharp

The college soccer season is a notoriously grueling time of year for players and coaches. The impact of its condensed schedule has been well documented on a number of occasions, from mental health, physical recovery, quality of play to long-term player development, there is an overwhelming majority of people who agree that the college soccer environment could do with some major changes. Despite this, we still regularly see professional players being developed by the system and its coaches year after year.

As professional soccer has evolved, and become more organized and scientific, with teams looking to find that extra 2% in every possible department, it’s no surprise that some college coaches are doing the same. There has arguably never been a more difficult time to find the right balance of science vs intuition.

It’s now common for a Division one coaching staff to have GPS and heart rate data, training loads, match data from external providers, and video all within twelve hours from the final whistle. Figuring out what to do with this information is a full-time job in itself, let alone balancing recruiting, travel arrangements, scheduling and ensuring your players are attending and passing their classes.

There’s plenty of people, most of whom do not work in college sports, claim it’s an easy job due to the ‘time off’ out of season, but after digging deeper into the intricacies of the college soccer season from a coaching point of view, it’s clear this opinion couldn’t be more wrong. As in almost all industries, there may be some who pull down the overall standard, but for every coach not pulling his or her weight, there’s far more striving to be the best every day.

Given the chaotic world of college soccer, it’s only natural that coaches should, whenever possible, look to make their life easier and aid their decision-making processes. After all, with such an all-consuming environment in the fall, it’s easy to lose perspective and get caught up in the beautiful chaos.

One way to stay focused, and make better decisions, is to build clean and clear processes before the season begins. Processes, which you know when the pressure is dialed up, you can rely on to take some comfort in the decisions you make.

Liverpool FC’s Chief Executive Peter Moore recently said, “Analytics won’t win you a championship alone, but if you are trying to win one without using analytics, it’s going to be a lot tougher.”

One of CoachTech’s college clients, Division 2’s Gannon University, are currently enjoying a great start under new Head Coach, Billy Colton, now sitting with a perfect 7-0-0 record. In the summer, Colton knew he wanted to take the program a step further, and enrolled in CoachTech’s online courses, before following up about consultancy on his new program. Together, a post-game analysis and feedback process was designed.

“It’s been massive for us. We clip every game and send the video to the team to watch. We can then talk about it at the next session and hit the ground running. This year is the most they have ever done with analysis and they have really bought into it. The players look forward to seeing the stats from the metrics CoachTech helped us design, based on how we want the team to play. It’s a mix of the raw data, with some more subjective things we have to measure ourselves, but it’s easy and takes no more time than watching and clipping the game, which most coaches will be doing anyway. You can’t argue with what the numbers are saying and the team are really embracing that.”

Colton discusses expectations and playing philosophy with his players in pre-season.

Another flagship program for the use of structured and purposeful analysis is the University of Virginia. Following a stint at English Championship club Sheffield Wednesday, Oliver Gage began his non-playing career in the States with UVA, under head coach George Gelnovatch.

Gage’s replacement after he left the program for a job in Major League Soccer, was AJ Barnold, who in turn left after 2 years, to take a role with the US Women’s National team. It’s safe to say that Virginia isn’t just developing pro’s on the field, but off the field as well.

Gage (left, center) celebrates winning the US Open Cup with Houston Dynamo while Barnold (right) stands with the Women’s World Cup trophy in France.

Both Gage and Barnold used video and data to relieve some of the daily pressures faced by college coaching staffs. Following a Friday night game, often a full report was prepared for the players and coaches by the time they made their way in to training for a recovery session on Saturday.

Gage explains:

“At Virginia we had a clear set of performance metrics and targets to hit on a game-by-game basis, which made it considerably easier for the coaches to analyze positive and negative aspects of an individual performance. Probably even more powerful was reviewing these trends over a number of games, which sometimes highlighted an issue, which might have previously gone unnoticed. “

Off the back of this analysis, finding relevant video clips from previous games on a team and individual level becomes far easier and quicker. Decisions on which drills to select in training can be based on evidence, rather than gut feeling. It’s not black and white, of course, and coaching intuition will always play a crucial role, but given that many studies have shown a large disparity between memory and reality immediately following soccer matches, having something to lean on to drive decision-making can be a powerful coaching tool.

Analysis isn’t just for coaches either, as Gage elaborates:

“A new generation are now playing the game. A generation brought up watching Premier League games with stats popping up on the screen, and playing FIFA. The modern-day player is already exposed to all sorts of stats, even if they aren’t directly aware of it. The players absolutely loved it. I would print off my report and post certain things on the locker room walls or in an individual player’s locker. The morning after a game, players would come in and all the talk would be about their performances. Passing numbers, shots, tackles, whatever it was. The most powerful aspect was that players were taking ownership of their performances, they were thinking about their game more and they were fully bought into to the way we wanted to play – our KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators).

We went on to win the National Championship based on the motto ‘games are won and lost in the box’. Down the stretch it was all about limiting shots in the ‘danger zone’ for the opposition and making sure we weren’t wasteful with ours. We were out-shot in every game from the second round through to the National Championship, but we had the better chances overall. This was a smart and composed team, mature beyond their years, thanks to some excellent coaching aided by analysis.

Without the shot data, this wouldn’t have been possible. George did such a fantastic job having the foresight not just to hire an analyst, but to get the most from the role and get the players to buy into it. He’s a top coach.”

This year, Virginia currently hold a 100% record and are unsurprisingly ranked #1 in the nation. They have conceded just one goal through 9 games. Clearly the culture at Virginia remains strong, as current Performance Anaslyst, Carl Carpenter opened up about his role and it’s impact:

“At UVA, the number of tools I have at my disposal means we never leave any stone unturned in regards to improving our players individually, and team as a whole. Whether it’s with video or data, my role is to support the coaching staff and help them better analyze matches, training sessions, and the opposition with complete objectivity. With this evidence-based approach, the “guessing” game and subjective nature of coaching is minimized. When coaches across all levels of the game have shown to only accurately recall 40% pertinent information in games, this can be crucial for success. Understanding the game and how we want to play as a team makes this process easier as well, as I am able to tailor my analysis of the team in a way which is A) Easy to grasp, and B) Effective in its implementation.”

Carpenter shares a picture of his pre-game set-up at DC United’s Audi Field.

On the female side of the college game, Florida State University used CoachTech’s ‘Analyst Finder’ scheme, to find and hire their first full-time analyst last year on their way to winning their second National Championship under Head Coach Mark Krikorian.

Echoing Peter Moore’s statement, perhaps incorporating analysis into you’re the process won’t guarantee you win, but there definitely seems to be a pattern emerging in the type of coaches who see it’s value.

Heading into the business end of the season, fatigue will no-doubt begin to play a role in the futures of college programs across the country. Players and staff will begin to be pushed to their limits, both physically and mentally as games come thick and fast.

For every 90 minutes the players have to endure, there is a coaching staff who have to plan, prepare and analyze for many hours before hand. Starting from post-game analysis, to planning training, breaking down 2-3 games of the upcoming opponent, to arriving at the stadium 2 hours early, the list of duties the staff at the college level perform prior to each game is endless.

Form isn’t exclusive to players. Coaches can see their own standards drop as the college season takes its toll and this is the crucial time when the hard work at the front end can see them reap the rewards come playoffs. Having an ally you can lean on, whether it’s sports science, physical preparation, injury prevention, great recovery techniques or in this case, impressive analysis processes, can make the difference between good seasons and great seasons.

Judging by recent results, some programs are tipping the odds in their favor.