Ambition and the Unique Pathways Players Take on Their High Performance Journeys with Steve Cooke

If anyone knows about High Performance Pathways, it's Steve Cooke. With over 30 years of coaching and consultancy in football, Steve has taken up a range of roles in various soccer clubs across the US and England. Starting as Academy Assistant Manager at former Premier League side Sheffield Wednesday in the UK, Steve has since been Technical Director and Assistant Manager at MLS side Colorado Rapids, Head Coach of OKC Energy FC, Director of Soccer at Phoenix Rising FC, and is currently Academy Director of Seattle Sounders.

With this vast experience, we are delighted for Steve to be joining Skye for High Performance Week on Soccer Parenting. Skye and Steve discuss how to nurture your child and their high performance dreams, how to identify the right behaviors, and much more. 

We hope you enjoy this short yet engaging interview for High Performance Week - give us your comments below in the box provided. You can find the transcript to the Interview below, too.


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TRANSCRIPT:

Skye:
Hey everybody. I'm so excited to welcome Steve Cooke to the Soccer Parenting platform as part of our high performance week. He's got such an incredible background and such various aspects of the game in terms of levels of coaching. And I know it'll be a really fantastic resource for us. Steve, welcome to Soccer Parenting.

Steve:
Thank you so much. I really appreciate you having me.

Skye:
Absolutely. Why don't we start with you just kind of giving the brief highlights of your very experienced bio here for everyone to get a sense of the experiences that you've had within the game?

Steve:
Yeah. There have been some lowlights as well, believe me. So it's not all highlights. I can assure you of that. It's been a long journey so far. I'm 53, and I've been doing this a long, long time, over 30 years now, over 30 seasons. And really, when I started out in coaching, it was through playing, and then getting qualified to be a coach and working with some kids for free in schools or whatever. For no other reason, and I enjoyed it. And then at the age of 22, 23, I was given the opportunity to go back to Sheffield Wednesday and work with their youth team. So, my first real gig in coaching was in a professional club. We were in the Premier League at the time, really doing very, very well. Had a lot of good young players, but more importantly, I think had a lot of great mentors around me and people who were experienced.

Steve:
My boss at the time was 68 years old and just a wonderful man who'd seen it and done it at all various levels. And then a few years later, in that six years it was, I decided to come to America. No idea why, but decided I was going to come out and have some fun in America for a few months. And had an opportunity to go back. My boss at Sheffield Wednesday said I could have my job back whenever I wanted. But I kind of was in these youth clubs in Phoenix, in a club called Sereno and then a club called Del Sol.

Steve:
Working hard in the typical US youth landscape of helping young people, not only develop their soccer, but become better people, better students. And then really, I suppose, this is when you might refer to maybe a highlight. I was given the opportunity to go to Colorado Rapids in major league soccer in 2010. Went in there as a technical director in the academy program. And kind of strangely every six months, nine months was given another role on top of the ones that I had. And that role went from technical director in the academy to assistant coach with the first team to then becoming the head coach of the first team on an entering basis.

Steve:
And from there, went to Oklahoma City and was the head coach there in USL. Again, a really great experience, different experience. And then I went actually to Phoenix Rising as the director of soccer. So more administrative again, more club development, more, how do we get the young players through the pathway to an elite level? And then for the last nine months I've been here in Seattle as academy head coach. I think you can tell from that brief synopsis that it's varied, it's different. I've worked with players, world stars who are fantastic and of been there based on real great ability and all their efforts. And I've worked with a lot of kids who are just doing it for fun and enjoying their time, and really just enjoying the experiences with their friends.

Skye:
Yeah, absolutely. I love that you have all of these varied experiences. It really lends a lot to this conversation. Is there anything that you know for sure after working with so many players at different levels, whether it be within the youth game or professionally? When it comes to kids that have dreams of being a high performance player, as far as their pathway is concerned, is there anything that's clear about these high performance players and theirs pathways?

Steve:
I think the one sure thing is that there is no sure pathway that gets you there. Every player is different. Every experience is different. Actually the last couple of weeks, I did this for our club and presented some things to people here about players I'd worked with in the past. And it hit me as I was doing the work, and looking at photographs and putting down little bios of players, is that they all came from these various backgrounds. Some kids came from socioeconomic backgrounds that were relatively disadvantaged, and some kids, their families were millionaires. And they all came from these different experiences. Some of the players were very, very good young players. And then some of them kind of took their time. Went maybe down the college road, and came back to now be international players through the college road.

Steve:
And so all of these players, what really hit me as I was doing this a couple of weeks ago now, was how oftentimes in coaching, I think, and parenting, I think as well for that matter, we think that there is this one linear way, and we're going to join a club and they get better. And then they join the academy. And before you know it they're playing for the reserves. And then in the first team, before I go on to be a superstar in the world cup. And it just isn't that. That does happen, but it doesn't happen in that linear fashion always. And I think the very, very gifted, the very, very few are maybe they're in the first team at 16 or 17 and they continue that progression and end up playing internationally and for their countries.

Steve:
But so many more, have more of a up and down pathway. And I think they hit little challenges and stumbling blocks along the way. And they get over them, and they work hard and they keep persevering through. And again, the one sure thing is that there isn't a definite way. What I do think is whatever the way is for you as a player, and your child as a parent, I think you have to make the very, very best of that opportunity. And whatever it is, wherever you are at the time, perseverance, effort, hard work, keeping going no matter what. And then letting your abilities shine through.

Steve:
And I think our job as coaches and as parents is to really try to maximize players' abilities and children's abilities. Really try to help them navigate through. And I think as long as we are helping young players maximize whatever level of ability or potential they might have, I think we're doing a great job.

Skye:
Yeah. That's so hard to see your children struggle. If we know that it's not linear, it's not going to be this simple. There's going to be injuries. There's going to be teams you don't make. There's going to be situations that are challenging that our children face. And how we choose to support them really matters. In all of the interactions that you've had in the youth game, do you see some maybe patterns, if you will, for parents who get it right, who have kind of figured it out?

Steve:
Well, it's so interesting what you just said there, I think is a follow up there, Skye. You're saying it is hard to watch your children struggle. I have two children of my own and they have their challenges too. But if you look back on your life, or in the life of very successful people, they all have these challenges and struggles. And everyone has these setbacks and it's up to the player I think, and the person to get over those things. And I think like you said, there as a parent just be supportive, don't avoid the challenges. Don't try to rescue it. Don't blame, don't look to point fingers at coaches or look to compare your child with somebody else. They're on a different journey.

Steve:
I've known players who have real struggles, whether it be emotionally or physically, or from a playing ability standpoint, and then suddenly find their pathway and find their way. And, I think the thing I would say to parents is yes, be supportive. And again, I've known parents who are very quiet and less involved. And I've known parents who are unbelievably involved, and their children come through somehow, or don't. But I think in the end, the advice I would give is that every player, every person has their set of abilities. Some of them are super strengths. Some of them are weaknesses that may never even improve. But, the reality is as long as we are helping them to be the best they can be every single day.

Steve:
Are their behaviors the right behaviors? Are they challenging and kind of have this positive tension? So positivity, but there's a tension to improve. There is a difficulty in circumstances. And I think what I would advise is that in our yearning to make these young people's lives more comfortable or more successful on the day, maybe look past that to the longer term and say, "Maybe these challenges and difficulties are actually a great thing." You know, sitting on the bench can be a great thing for players, because if you're going to be a high level player, you're going to sit on the bench a lot of times, you know?

Skye:
Yeah.

Steve:
And so I think that preparing them for the struggles in a positive way, and keep pushing their behaviors, not comparing to anybody else.

Skye:
I love it. You said a term I like. I haven't thought of it this way. You said maximize their tension to improve, or make sure that there's a tension to improve. Did you mean that a player should have a little bit of desire all the time to improve? Is that sort of-

Steve:
All the time. And I think as coaches, as parents, again, I call it positive tension. And so, that positive vibe around them, the energy, the "don't be too harsh on players when they fail." Unless it's a lack of effort, which is going to always be a big problem, but then there should be that necessary tension. Kind of like light rope where, if it's too stiff, then they'll struggle and fail. But if it's way too soft and so your kid feels successful all the time, then they're going to fall because they need that difficulty.

Steve:
They need the tension, they need the setback, the two steps forward, one step back kind of approach to this. And I think if you're going to be a high level player, and if certainly, if you're going to be a parent of a high level player, I think remaining quite even, not too high, not too low. And just keep encouraging hard work, keep encouraging enjoyment, keep encouraging that the player is doing their best every single day in every circumstance. And if that is happening, then your child will be the best they can be. And if they don't do that, then, they won't. It's as basic as that, I think.

Skye:
Yeah, what you're saying in some ways is this concept of autonomy, which we talk a lot about at Soccer Parenting. Because we know how foundational it is to motivation, which is what you're also saying, like for them to show up every day. What role do you think autonomy plays in a child's, the young player's ability to progress? And what role do we have parents in facilitating this kind of concept or sense of autonomy for our children?

Steve:
Yeah, a phrase I heard a long time ago is that the player has to be the protagonist in their own development. And I believe in that fully. And one of the great, why do we do things? One of the big, big few things that we do is having autonomy. If we want to be successful, we need to have autonomy. We need to drive our own car a little bit. We need to make sure that the road is ours. And that if your child is not working hard, maybe that's because they don't enjoy it. They don't want to do it. And maybe as a parent, you have to listen to that and see that as well and observe. Because some times parents want it more than the player.

Steve:
And if that's the case, you've got a problem. The kid should be dragging the parent out the door. I have a situation, I mean, Seattle Sounders is obviously a great organization, great club, great people. And my sessions typically start at 1:30 in the afternoon with our groups. And I can't remember starting a session any later than about five minutes past one or ten minutes past one because the kids are there early. They get there at 12:45, 12:30, so we start, you know. If the player is leading the parent out the door, if the player is the one who's the enthusiast and the one who is the passion behind it, I think there's always a chance.

Steve:
And one thing that I can say is, virtually every player I've ever worked with, who was successful, and I don't mean playing professionally, I mean, who was able to get the most out of themselves, they were all driven and passionate and hardworking in terms of just their daily habits of work. They were all that way. And I think for me, the signs are that when a kid becomes disinterested, or looks sad or isn't putting quite the effort in that would be the time to have a conversation with them about that part of it. And also to check to see if everything's okay with them in their real lives. Because sometimes I think we can ignore that as coaches as well and parents, that it's not always a garden of roses for young people these days. That would be, I think a brief way around that.

Skye:
I get a question from parents a lot that sort of centers around this concept of ambition or dreams for kids. And I've had sports psychologists answer this question a number of times, but I'm really curious about your answer. The kids that are like that 12 years old and are like, "I want to be on the national team. I'm going to start for the Sounders one day, and you just don't quite necessarily see that in them. What do you say to those kids? Or, what would be your advice for parents? How do you pull back on the dream, or do you not? Do you let them just run with it?

Steve:
Yeah, I think you'll let them go. I mean it would be very tough, I think as an adult, especially a parent, when your kid says, "Hey, I want to climb Mount Everest," and you say, "No, no, no, you've got no chance. People die along the journey all the time." That would be almost a negative. And that's what I'm saying about this positivity. Yes, be positive. But then also say, "Okay, well if that's what you want, then this is some of the things you're going to need to do. You're going to need to work every day. You're going to need to do more than you do with your team. And with your coaching staff. You're going to have to eat right, sleep, right, train right. You're going to have to absolutely invest all of your life energy in this."

Steve:
And then when a player or a child, their behavior doesn't match what their words are saying in terms of ambition, then you say, "Hey, you told me you wanted to be a professional player. You told me you wanted to go be a big time division one athlete. Well, okay, this behavior doesn't match that ambition. So if it is one thing saying you want something, it's another thing doing the work, and having the difficulty and staying in on a Friday night. And eating the right way when your friends are off out."

Steve:
And especially as they get a little bit older, staying away from some of the social pitfalls that I think every young player is faced with, between the age of about maybe 17 and 23. And I think it's this. I think ambition is a great thing providing the work ethic and the commitment matches the words that they're saying they would like. Everybody wants to be a multimillionaire player playing world level football. But if the effort doesn't match that, you've got a problem. And at times, obviously of course, most players are going to fall short of what they truly seek out when they're young. I think as a parent, all you can do is encourage, support, guide and when they fall off the pathway that they're saying they want, is try and quickly get them back on.

Skye:
Yeah, yeah. It is. You know, that's one of the proverbial challenges of parenting, is supporting your children and letting them own the process at the same time. And also being aware of the fact that where they are at 12 is not necessarily at all going to be where they are at 16. It's like when you choose to push, when you choose to have those conversations, it's a real balancing act that we're all really faced with.

Steve:
I think this is one of the keys, Skye, is that this idea that this 12 year old superstar is going to have this linear progression all the way through. This is a tiny, tiny fragment of the playing population. And these players, we know by name. These people are world famous in our profession. Most people don't have that. We've all got stories of the 16 year old national team player who then wasn't even playing at 18. The top goal scorer in college who never made it into their senior year. We've all got these stories. And there are many, many more stories of players who found a way to struggle through. And found a way to keep persevering and have that resilience and that attitude of mind to keep moving forwards, who ended up making the best of themselves.

Steve:
And, I think as coaches, probably, we all have this idea that if only that person had that level of ability. Or, if only so and so could work harder and we kind of like have this photo fit idea of making the player. Well, we can keep going with that argument forever. Right?

Skye:
Yeah.

Steve:
It's just futile. I think the real thing is, does the player's effort and commitment match the words they say in terms of ambition? If they have that and they have real great quality, wow. You've got a player on your hands.

Skye:
Yeah. Yeah. Oh, it's been so great chatting with you about this. We look forward to inviting you back on Soccer Parenting and having your voice here more. But this week that we're really focusing on supporting parents who have children with high performance dreams. I know these concepts of ambition and linear pathways and how kids develop and how parents can support, are just like extremely important. So thank you so much for your time with us today.

Steve:
No, but it's a pleasure. And it's interesting you said there at the end there, just to add one thing on the high performance. High performance is different for every person, right? As a parent, you support your child. You help them, but high performance for me and my children would be, are you doing everything you can to be the best you can be every day? And if the answer to that is yes, then you're a high performer.

Skye:
Yeah. I love it. I love it. That's a perfect way to end. Thank you so much for your time today.

Steve:
Thank you so much. I really appreciate the time.

Skye:
Awesome. Thank you.

Steve:
Thank you.