Director of Coaching, Sporting Omaha FC
To improve is to change, as they say, a concept Ryan Kruse understands better than most.
A native of Omaha, he’s watched soccer grow throughout the region from lurking in the shadow of that other kind of football to the prominence it enjoys today. He’s witnessed the rise of player and parent expectations, the advancement of coach development practices, and the emergence of disruptive technology.
But perhaps the greatest growth was his own.
Once an avid subscriber to the “winning is everything” mentality both as a scoreboard-focused player and young coach, his years of experience on the field and in the office gradually shifted his views a full 180 degrees. Coaches who love the game. Players who grow to be good people. Winning games is just a bonus.
He became a teacher, a mentor, and a strict proponent of formal coaching education and development. He walks the walk – literally – with his “manage by wandering around” philosophy passed down from his uncle. And he talks the talk through his ongoing participation in U.S. Soccer’s coaching education.
In this interview, Ryan shares more of his experience and his approach to developing great leaders into good coaches (yes, you read that right), as well as his no-nonsense insight on where he spends most of his time (spoiler: it’s not on the actual game), his belief in setting expectations early, why he considers himself inefficient (and why that’s a good thing), and the best piece of advice he ever received.
How did you come to be a Director of Coaching at Sporting Omaha FC?
RK: I used to have a full-time day job and just did some coaching on the side. I think, like a lot of people, I ended up doing more soccer, more coaching, and getting more involved than I probably had the time for. Long story short, the opportunity came up in 2010, and I’ve been in this role ever since. Sporting Omaha FC has been a club by that name for four years. We evolved from what was the Omaha Football Club, which has been around since 2009, which evolved from a merger with the Gladiator and Arsenal soccer clubs which go back to the mid ’80s.
How many coaches do you have in the program?
RK: We are a full-service club, so everything from the micro under four, to purely recreational and youth development, to our Academy program, which is a transitional phase for those players that are ready for more advanced programming, to our Select program. If you lump all that in together, we have about 3,000 kids, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 plus coaches. I’m directly responsible for our Academy and Select programs where we have about 33 coaches. Our youth development and recreational program coaches are purely volunteers. The 33 in Academy and Select are paid.
You’re a native of Omaha, and you once said that when you started playing, soccer was “primitive” in the region. What did you mean by that?
RK: I think there are a couple of parts to it. One, where we are, and I suppose where most of the country is at, American football is king. Now, there has been tremendous growth in soccer. There’s no doubt in my mind that even though our player pool may not necessarily match some of the larger metropolitan areas that have larger numbers and probably higher-level programming and sophistication, we still produce some pretty darn good players.
What I meant by primitive was more about the perspective. We spend a lot of time trying to educate coaches, families, and parents in particular about what a pathway looks like. It’s very difficult especially since we don’t have a professional outfit. Just this year we got a USL-1 franchise in Omaha, but the whole pathway from youth programming to what the professional or college player looks like is difficult to educate families on because the full pathway is not always visible.
We do have two Division I programs in town, but too many times, the perspective that we’re battling centers around “we have to win the tournament on Saturday, we have to win the game on Sunday,” which is all good to an extent. But we try to focus on the bigger picture of what it means to develop a player, and why you have to go through some lumps to prepare players for the next level, and the next level, and the next level. Not everybody is patient in the youth soccer world. So when I say primitive, it’s just a lack of exposure in our area.
You have excellent certifications including your USSF A License. What does it mean to have many levels of certifications in coaching?
RK: Coaching education in the United States has gone through four or five pretty significant transformations in the last 20 to 25 years. For a long time, it started at letter F and worked up to E, D, all the way up to A. The way it used to work was, once you got to the C-level, you were spending a week and a half traveling somewhere for a very concentrated course. There was a good deal of playing and a high level of fitness involved. There were a lot of demands in a relatively short amount of time. After several changes in the process, within the last decade, U.S. Soccer has now moved to a model more like the European and South American coaching pathways. So instead of doing everything in 10 days and what essentially becomes survival of the fittest, now it’s much more coach-friendly, where you spend about three or four days on location somewhere.
A lot is done in Kansas City now, with the National Development Center being there. You have a developmental period, where you go back to your soccer world, complete certain assignments, homework, and reflections. Then you come back for another three or four days on-site, work closely with your instructor, come back for another developmental period, and then final testing. The whole process could last as long as three to five months, depending on the work schedule.
Another thing that has happened is U.S. Soccer has gone a different route with what they call their Coaches License Pathway. That’s where I have focused most of my attention in terms of my personal development in the last few years; on becoming more of an instructor on the coaching education side and running the new curriculum and programming for U.S. Soccer at the Grassroots and D-level licensing levels. I may take that further at some point.
There’s a great deal involved in getting these certifications.
RK: It does get pretty involved. Originally it was more the technical and tactical sides. Now there is more focus on the leadership qualities needed, how to develop your personal development plan, how to become a better leader for players on an individual level, teams on a team level, and then even a club level. It’s dealing with people and making connections.
What does a day in the life of the director of coaching at a youth soccer club look like?
RK: I say this a little tongue-in-cheek but there’s certainly some seriousness to it. Probably a good eight or nine months out of the year, the Monday through Thursday into Friday, at least half of the day, every day, is putting out fires. What happened over the weekend? Was there a conflict with a coach and a referee? Were there injuries that we need to follow-up on? And with COVID that has escalated to occupy a ton of time, everything from trying to guide coaches through the process to is a team quarantined? If so, for how long?
It’s a lot of management. It’s keeping up with coaches and maintaining those contacts. To be quite honest, the portion of soccer that we spend time on, and I’m sure a lot of people in my position would agree, is relatively low. Probably 20 to 30% of the time is spent on the actual game. We affectionately joke that if we had time to spend on soccer, we’d be pretty good. And it’s not that we’re doing anything wrong. It ebbs and flows. There are certain downtimes during the year between seasons that I try to focus a larger portion of time on coaching development and building curriculum. I would say a good 60 to 70% of the time is some damage control, it’s managing, it’s trying to keep the train on the tracks.
We spend a lot of time trying to educate coaches, families, and parents in particular about what a pathway looks like.
So, 60 to 70% is all work done off the field?
RK: Yes, easily that much. And then you still go out on the field for five hours every night.
Did you expect that?
RK: I didn’t know what to expect. I wanted to coach, and I thought I just had to show up to the field, have some fun, teach kids some stuff, and try to win a game. By the time I got into this position, I was well aware of what those expectations were. It wasn’t really a shock, as much as I might complain about it some days. It hasn’t been a surprise for a long time.
Do you think the 60-70% of “putting out fires” is because of COVID, or do you think it’s been thrown into the mix but the balance of on-field versus off-field time is still the same as before the pandemic?
RK: I think like a lot of clubs would say, we’re probably a little understaffed, so there was already going to be distractions and things to take care of. But when you add on a good hour or two every day now with COVID matters to discern, it certainly adds onto it.
We affectionately joke that if we had time to spend on soccer, we’d be pretty good….. I would say a good 60 to 70% of the time is some damage control, it’s managing, it’s trying to keep the train on the tracks.
What is your approach to dealing with conflicts, or as you say, putting out fires?
RK: As a club, we certainly try to approach things preemptively. Which is to manage the expectations, lay the groundwork, get out in front of coaches and families and players what to expect, and what pitfalls they might run into at a given game, event, or for a certain program. A lot can be gained or lost with our U8s, U9s, and U10s as they separate themselves into some advanced programming.
You have to get to the parents and the players, and try to set the tone for, “this is how we want to do it, this is why we want to do it, this is why you need to look farther than the next day or month or year.” And most importantly, try to put the kids in a position where they love the game because if they do, a lot of those adversities and challenges become not so terrible. Hopefully, because we enjoy playing and competing, we don’t get worked up about the other stuff. It doesn’t always work that way, but you got to try to get out in front of it.
In a recent interview, Gary Buete of NCFC Youth said you can’t “just” be a coach anymore. It’s more professional, there are more full-time opportunities, and requirements asked of you. How have you seen the role of a youth soccer coach change over the years?
RK: He’s absolutely right. Where the coaching profession is now versus a decade or two ago is so much different. A lot of that has to do with expectations. There’s a lot of pressure put on kids’ program coaches for things such as trials at MLS Academy opportunities, or college recruiting. And that’s all well and good. But I think it goes back to that word “expectations.” Not everybody is going to be a Division I player or go pro. A very small percentage of players are. How that has changed the coaching or director roles I’ve been in, is one, you have to over-communicate. We live in a world where people expect results, but you have to stay on top of it. When you lose that rapport or those connections with your players or families, it doesn’t matter how good a coach might be with Xs and Os. If you lose ’em, you lose ’em.
And then there is also the role of building camaraderie within your staff. Coaches are by nature very competitive, so I have to spend a lot of time getting coaches to work together in productive ways. Many times they do, I don’t want to make it sound like coaches don’t work together, but if you ask most coaches, we tend to think that we each have the right answers regarding development, and so you have to try to find some common thread there. Those are the biggest ways I think things have changed in terms of coaching and directing clubs in the last several years.
How much time can a youth soccer coach expect to put in every week?
RK: A few years ago as we were working on the structural design of the club and laying out expectations for coaches, we figured that a coach can very easily put 700-800 hours a year into it. Not everybody is cut out for that. Not everybody has time for that. Something that I’ve noticed is the coaching pool of not just willing candidates, but also able candidates with the increased amount of duties that a coach has, is getting smaller. Maybe I’m too picky but when you want to find someone who has the qualities you want in your club, and also the willingness and the ability, it can be a bit of a challenge.
Can you share more about qualities you look for in a good coach, in terms of one’s skills and experience, but to your point, the other traits that you want to bring to your club?
RK: It seems like there have been two categories of coaches that I’ve seen over time. One is the group of coaches who may be very good with the Xs and Os, the ability to train, and knowing what next-level soccer looks like. But sometimes those coaches might be poor communicators and/or maybe average to not so average managers. And then on the other side, some coaches are incredible managers, communicate well, layout expectations, resolve conflicts, but have a little less prowess when it comes to preparing higher level players. Ideally, you find someone who is both. But those people don’t grow on trees. I am much more willing now to take the coach who’s the good communicator, the good example, the good leader, and just try to maximize their ability to coach on the field the best I can.
And then, as I started getting more coaches in that were just good examples, good managers, our player retention went through the roof.
You said, “I’m more willing to now.” What got you there?
RK: When I first started coaching, I thought that we had to win games. If we’re going to justify what we’re doing, justify the process, it was largely, or exclusively, dictated by how many games we won. I’ve come 180 degrees in the last 20 years. Same with the coaches. I think after a lot of experiments early on of trying to get the best coaches who I thought could win games, or train high-level athletes on the field, I was willing, initially, to take whatever baggage they might have had in terms of lack of personal skills or the ability to manage. Over time, I saw a little bit more damage along the way. I saw a lot of players that would quit the game, maybe because of a coach’s conduct, or when winning became too important. And then, as I started shifting to getting more coaches in that were just good examples, good managers, our player retention went through the roof. And to me, it’s about keeping kids in the game. If you can win a few games along the way, that’s a great bonus.
Sporting Omaha has a very clear coaching philosophy. Tell us more about that.
RK: We want, above all, to train our players to be good people. We put a lot of emphasis on accountability, not getting worked up in all the external factors, not making excuses, those types of things. I firmly believe that over time, if you can condition players to conduct themselves and think properly, maturely resolve conflicts on the field, overcome adversity, those are typically going to be your best players in the long run anyway once all the physical differences sort themselves out.
We also believe in teaching kids to play the right way. And that means playing with purpose, understanding that every player has attacking and defending roles. Nothing against American football, but this is not, “I’m an attacker, and that’s all I do,” or, “I play offense, end of story.” Conditioning players to play productively, understand the importance of movement and shape, learn how to take risks or where to take risks, those things are much more important than getting the biggest, strongest, fastest kid out there and trying to make it a track meet. We try to use those building blocks.
Great coaches develop great players. How are you actively developing great coaches? Are there any things you do, formally or informally, through training or mentorship?
RK: I tend to be a little inefficient in my approach, meaning that I try to spend as much time with the individual coaches as I possibly can. We do have staff-wide initiatives and principles that we want to get across on a broad scale. But even though I can’t make all the rounds to all the coaches as often as I’d like, I think there’s nothing more valuable than spending some time with a coach to get to know them as a person, but also going out to a field and evaluating a coach during training sessions and games, and giving them feedback. It’s one piece at a time, and it can be a little painstaking. In a given season, you may have a couple of meaningful contacts with a coach, but that’s how I try to do it.
How do you attract good coaches to your program?
RK: You have to maintain a good culture. And by that, I mean, how are our coaches generally perceived? For example, do we have more issues with referees? In regards to player retention, that used to be a bit of an issue. We have certainly fixed that in recent years by getting good people that gain respect. In terms of attracting good coaches, you just try to be the best club you can. I try to make as many personal contacts as I can.
Is there a piece of advice you’ve been given that has stuck with you and you share with new coaches?
RK: Probably the best piece of advice came from a boss that I used to have. He said that if you’re in a position where you have a coach that is a little more willing but a little less able, take it. If you’ve got a coach that’s a little more able but a little less willing, that’s probably not your first candidate.
That advice lines up with your approach shifting from only wanting to win games to bringing in coaches with stronger leadership and communication skills.
RK: Well, I fought it early on. I would say, “That doesn’t win games. Come on. Are you crazy?” But I guess you learn a few lessons the hard way over time, right?
You’re focused on teaching and developing coaches, but how are you learning these days? How do you stay sharp on what’s new in coaching?
RK: If I have an opportunity to hire a coach or bring somebody in that is as good or better than me, I don’t shy away from that at all. I want the best people around me as possible, with the understanding that they don’t even have to be the most experienced coach in the world. If they care about the game and they’re doing it right, everybody’s going to have something you can pull from or something that you can learn from.
But yes, I’ve been very active in the instructor’s pathway for coaching education. U.S. Soccer has put a ton of time and energy into that developmental piece. Being an instructor, there are monthly or quarterly webinars that I can jump on. The U.S. Soccer coaching education staff is very accommodating. There’s a number of them that I could pick up the phone and bounce some ideas off of. I’m also lucky to have coaches on our staff that I would have no problem going to. They’ve been there, done that, and they share ideas. You have to be open to that.
We try to focus on the bigger picture of what it means to develop a player, and why you have to go through some lumps to prepare players for the next level, and the next level, and the next level.
Not everybody is patient in the soccer world.
How do you define your management style?
RK: My uncle was an athletic director for a very large school district in Kansas City, and part of his philosophy was “management by wandering around.” I don’t know if that’s going to be taught in any MBA course, but as I’ve thought about it, it really is what it takes. You make your rounds, you touch base, and you connect. You don’t just walk on by and get home early. You spend an extra few minutes, watch a coach run an activity, give him or her feedback later or a phone call the next day. I don’t see how you can do this job without a similar approach. I also learned much during the time that I worked for my dad. He taught me that treating people right – employees and customers – is the absolute top priority.
How have parent expectations changed over your career?
RK: I would say that in the last 15 to 20 years expectations have changed tremendously. I have more conversations with parents of young players because of the pressure that I see them putting on their kids. Whether that’s, “My kid’s 11 and we got to groom him to go to a Division 1 school,” or maybe he or she has to perform at a high level when they’re 10 years old. The players don’t know what that means, and most of the time, the parents don’t know what that means either. They just want their kids to be successful. There’s a lot of, “Well, we have to keep up.” From the parental perspective, they need to keep up because they think that another player is doing well, so what is his or her family doing? Or we need more training opportunities or we’re only playing in two tournaments and they think we need to play in five because that’s going to make their player better. Again it goes back to expectations and setting them early so that when you say you have two tournaments on the calendar this season, you don’t get buried with all the questions of, “Why aren’t we doing six? Why aren’t we traveling more?” We hit on that very early in the season and say we’re going for quality, not quantity, and why we do it that way. You have to work through a lot more of that.
What about the players? How has their mindset changed? Do you see them trying to be or do more at an earlier age?
RK: Probably the biggest changes I have seen is the level of play, the technical proficiency of players, and the tactical understanding is better than it was. I think a lot of that is because more coaches are educated and around the game. We certainly try from a club perspective to raise that level, and in most clubs, the competition will always raise the game as well. So the overall level is better, but I notice in recent years, fewer players are what I would call impact players relative to the size of the pool. They’re also less willing to take risks. It used to be, or at least it seemed to me, that 15 to 20 years ago you had a lot of kids that wanted the ball, wanted to take players on, didn’t really worry about consequences, and just went for it. Now kids tend to play a little bit more conservatively. We try to address that as a staff, but we want kids to take some risks at a young age so that they understand the value. And then as they get older you can discuss things like where to do it on the field and in what situations.
How are you and your coaches using technology – tools, gadgets, and software – in ways you weren’t before?
RK: I admittedly am not going to be the best “year of 2020” example in this regard. We use PlayMetrics, which has been a great tool in terms of not only getting session plans and stuff together, but creating seasonal plans, and delivering them in a way that’s easy for coaches to access and follow. Off the field, we’ve expanded our social media presence, both in terms of promoting the club, but also individual players and team accomplishments. I am starting to discipline myself to use more video opportunities, like with Hudl and others where we can use video for player analysis but also for coaching education. Even for people like me, it’s pretty dummy-proof. It’s a little bit of a set it and forget it type of thing, whereas before when some of the new equipment and technological features have come out, you spent more time with the equipment trying to set it up than you did in the seven games that you played. So making those things easier to use, and making the ability to get it from the field to the screen to the players in a more efficient fashion has been huge. At the end of the day, it’s all about time.
How significant are the advancements in technology to your ability to be a youth coach today, especially now that everyone is using more tools?
RK: It’s a big factor in two major areas. One, you can explain all you want, but you have to show players where the successes and failures occur. Especially with boys. Being on the boys’ side of things, you got to love them, but they tend to not understand or accept that there might be some weaknesses in their game. You have to show them. And number two, and this can be related to the busy lives we lead and things like COVID, but you have to be able to send your message remotely. Now, you have to use Zoom and other sources of technology to bring your team or whatever group it is you’re addressing together to give them information in remote ways.
With COVID, have you been doing more remote training? How have your coaches managed through this?
RK: We have focused on two main areas with respect to remote training. The first was delivering short clips of proper and productive videos to our players during the shutdown. I know a lot of clubs did that, but we put it on our coaches in terms of not just delivering it, but finding ways to hold the players accountable. How many players are going to be out there and driven especially for the extended period that we faced? It was kind of fun, kind of cool for players in the first few weeks, and then frankly, it became a little bit of a burden. We had to try to find ways, and many coaches were very creative in keeping players engaged. I can tell you where we had some video face-to-face contact, even though it’s over a computer, was the difference in the coaches that were successful, and the ones that maybe struggled a little bit. And then the other area that we are continuing to use is video conferencing for coaching education. We had a good response to an eight-week series, where it was me or Alex Mason, our girls’ director of coaching, or any of the program directors, guest coaches, or clinicians would address certain topics to our entire staff.
Being on the boys’ side of things, you got love them, but they tend to not understand or accept that there might be some weaknesses in their game. You have to show them.
Were you intimidated by the new ways of doing things using technology?
RK: Sure, but I will tell you this – I very quickly disciplined myself to get the hang of it.
Did you feel some resistance from coaches to doing things a new way?
RK: Whenever you have a group of individuals, there’s always going to be those that take it and run, and then those that are a little indifferent or not excited about it. I would say overall, we were very pleased with the staff’s response in terms of the frequency and quality of their engagement, not just between the coaches and the players on their teams, but between the boys and girls coaching staff. We had 40 plus coaches every week on our video conferencing for education.
What is something you have to be good at as a youth soccer coach that most people don’t realize?
RK: When it comes to the game itself it’s spending more time watching what happens away from the ball than what’s happening at the ball. That’s one thing we ask all of our players and coaches to do when they’re watching professional games. It’s the same thing when it comes to the coach’s interactions during games. Let’s not focus on giving coaching instruction to the player with the ball. He or she has enough to deal with at that particular moment in time. If you’re going to give information or impact your players during the game, address the players off the ball, talk about things like shape, and staying dialed in mentally when the ball goes out of bounds.
As a former player and now a coach, what is one thing you wish you could get the kids to understand better because you’ve been there?
RK: I was fortunate enough to have some good coaches relative to the times when I was growing up. As for coaching expertise, things were certainly not as sophisticated back then. Some messages that I would have wanted to see or hear more when I was younger is one, just forget about all the peripheral stuff. Love the game and love what you do because you’re always going to get more out of players if that’s the focus point. Don’t be so caught up in the winning and the losing. Now, you don’t play a game to lose. But when I was growing up, the sun rose and set in my mind to how successful the team was. If the team was successful on Saturday, well, that must have meant that I was too. And just understanding that if you’re loving the game and you’re doing the little things to make yourself better, everything else will take care of itself.
What gets you out of bed in the morning and excited about going to work?
RK: The relationships with the coaches. I’m really happy with where our staff is. There have been years, just like with any club, where it kind of ebbs and flows, but some of these personal relationships are going back 10 to 15 years. You develop a lot of trust. You don’t mind going through the trenches when you have people that you trust. That as much as anything is a reason to keep doing it.