by Faye Rapoport
Tony Stevens is not your everyday soccer coach. British by birth and currently coaching in Florida and at camps and clinics nationwide, he has become one of America’s finest practical youth coaches. Stevens is known for helping players develop both physically and mentally to fulfill their potential. His emphasis on technique gives players the skill necessary to perform at the highest level.
Stevens was captain of his high school team in Manchester, England at 13, and moved up through senior amateur and semi-professional leagues in England and Germany before his playing career was halted by an early injury. It was then that Tony began training younger players. He coached club teams, View Rovers and Priory County, in Macclesfield, Cheshire, to winning the “double” two seasons in succession. After a successful tour of the U.S. with the ’79 View Rovers U13 boys’ team, Stevens was invited back annually to coach at various soccer camps. His successes led to an appointment as Head Coach to Mancunian Boys, nursery team of England’s world famous Manchester United in 1978. He was named Head Coach at the University of Manchester (UMIST) in 1981, and founded and co-directed the prestigious Alex Stepney/Pat Crerand Soccer Coaching School, based in Manchester, before coming to the United States in 1983.
Flamboyant and enthusiastic, Stevens brings an entertaining flair to the field, making his training sessions unique and pleasurable for players working toward excellence. His philosophy, “train exactly the way you play the game,” transforms novices into players that make a difference on the field.
Stevens talked to Foot.com about his own career as well as the cause of most of soccer players’ foot problems. He discussed his against-the-grain views on weight training, the reasons U.S. men’s soccer hasn’t attracted a committed audience and current threats to the U.S. women’s team dominance. Read on for one of our more fascinating and fun Foot.com interviews. Soccer players and coaches especially!
Foot.com: First, tell us about your career, and how soccer became your chosen sport.
Stevens: I’ve always been involved in, and played, soccer. I grew up in Manchester, England, in the industrial north, where we played in the streets. That’s all there was. I got into playing on the school team, then captained my school teams, and joined the army when I was 16. I played in the army, in Germany. When I left the army I was 21, too old already to make it in the professional leagues. So I ended up playing semi-professionally, and with amateur teams as well.
Foot.com: I understand you had a career-ending injury?
Stevens: I got osteoarthritis in my feet. It’s in the bone, in all the little joints. I played for a while like that, one year using one foot, the next year using the other, but it was awful and I couldn’t go on like that.
I don’t know whether it was soccer that caused it, or if it was playing in the damp, cold and wet climate all my life. I was probably just prone to it. As soon as I got to a hot climate here in the U.S. I had no problems whatsoever, it’s been great. I changed my diet slightly as well, less fatty food and that type of thing.
Foot.com: What brought you to the U.S.?
Stevens: Soccer brought me to the States. I came here on tour with a kids’ team, around 1979 or 1980. I had never even planned to come, but I got invited. I was actually the trainer of the team in England, so when I came over I was just training the kids. In England they use the word “coach” to describe a trainer, and because I was called coach, everyone here thought I was the coach of the team. I saw the set up here and the involvement, and our team did well. Afterwards, I was invited to come back to work on some soccer camps and for the next three or four years I would come back at holidays and summers. I also attended the coaching schools here and received my A and B Licenses before I actually moved over. Then I got a job as a college coach at the Florida Institute of Technology in Jensen Beach. In fact it closed down after a year, but it looked great on the post card, with palm trees and everything. I mean, after Manchester, that looked great, you know!
Foot.com: Why are you known as the “coach’s coach?”
Stevens: It’s a bit of a complimentary term really. But it’s probably because I’ve got more practical and universal experience than most coaches. I’ve met, worked and studied with coaches from all over the world, and I’ve seen them at all kinds of camps. I’ve been to many coaching schools, I invite other coaches to my camps and they reciprocate.
Also, I’m not like the traditional coach. I’m unorthodox and different. I don’t go by the book. I rely on instinct and experience and I experiment and try things, and sometimes prove the theories wrong. There are a lot of theories that kids are only capable of this, and at certain ages you should only do that, and that’s a bunch of rubbish. These are the theories of someone who studied for a few years with a sample of players, but I’ve been doing this for a lifetime. I study coaches and I study the GAME. I don’t just watch what is happening, I want to know the reasons why, and if there is a better or more effective way. I’m continually learning and progressing.
Foot.com: Are you coaching a particular team now?
Stevens: I am at the moment coaching one team, a girls’ team, the Delray Beach Red Hots, age 13. But I coach anybody, adults, schools, clubs and I’m constantly doing clinics.
Foot.com: It seems like a silly question, but how demanding is soccer on the feet?
Stevens: It’s very demanding, obviously. The feet are the tools of the trade, and they need to be taken care of. That means especially not wearing ill-fitting shoes that are too small or too big, which causes problems. Also, looking after your toe nails, so that they don’t get ingrown, too long, or pulled off. If they get stamped on, it can also cause ingrown nails, which is a painful thing. Also, corns can be a problem, and believe it or not, some kids don’t wash their feet. Good hygiene can help prevent things like Plantars warts and athletes foot.
Players get blisters from ill-fitting shoes that are too small or too big, and they wear synthetic socks. If they are going to wear these kinds of socks, they should wear a pair made from natural fiber underneath, like all cotton to break in a new pair of shoes, before they begin to rub against the feet. Nylon causes friction straight away. The new sports socks on the market now are perhaps ideal, because they wick the moisture away from the feet. They are very comfortable and effective, and the bottom layers are soft and cushioned to prevent blisters.
In soccer, the shoes should be a snug fit. Most parents buy kids’ shoes that are too big because they think their child will outgrow properly fitting shoes too quickly. But this is completely useless for soccer because you want the shoes snug so you can sense and feel the ball. It can’t be emphasized enough to have shoes that are properly fitted. When players are stretching and exercising their feet they should not neglect their heels.
Foot.com: As a soccer coach, what kinds of exercises do you advise players to use to strengthen the feet and lower legs?
Stevens: Everything in training should be soccer specific and relate to soccer, not relate to running, for example, which everyone is into now. It should be soccer, which is about stopping and starting, turning, twisting, changing speeds, direction and the pace of your strides. Ball familiarity/manipulation and all of that, if it’s done regularly, directly develops the natural muscles in the feet.
You can do some plyometrics, which is becoming more popular in soccer. You can use it as a limber up exercise. And of course in a warm up, usually you twist the ankles around, lift the toes up and down, that sort of thing. But then when you start with the ball, your feet have to be firm, not sloppy. All of the ball manipulation you do just naturally strengthens the feet.
Foot.com: What about weight training?
Stevens: I’m against weight training for soccer players. It’s absolutely ludicrous, especially in women’s soccer where it has become big. I think it’s brutal. The only use for it in soccer is to strengthen the body overall to withstand the usual results of collisions, knocks and digs. But in soccer you need to be flexible, agile and nimble. And they are building these huge players now who end up being sluggish and slow. They’ve all got weight trainers and I think it’s disgusting. If you do lift, all you need for soccer is very light weights with lots of repetitions, so you can withstand the knocks that you can get in the game. It’s dreadful, I’ve seen great players as children who, when they go to college, gain the weight and it’s terrible.
In the rest of the world they are more sensible with the weights. It’s a narcissistic thing, “oh look at my thighs!” Generally pushups, sit-ups, exercises with your own body weight are most effective.
Foot.com: Is upper body strength important in soccer?
Stevens: Absolutely! Upper body strength is important. Most of your strength comes from your stomach, and players use their arms to balance and to shield themselves, so you do have to be very strong. But if you bulk up then you lose out on your quickness and flexibility. We love playing against big lugs because they’re so slow. It has to be very strongly controlled. I think it’s extremely dangerous personally and I think what they’re doing to girls’ in college soccer is atrocious.
Foot.com: What does it take to gain the kind of footwork and agility that makes a truly great soccer player stand apart from the rest?
Stevens: Like in most sports you have your naturals, but a natural sportsman still has to work and have dedication. Without passion, forget it. Great players are consistent in great performance. To be consistent they have to take pride and practice correctly for the rest of their lives. And I have seen loads of players who are absolutely brilliant. They’ve got everything, but without the right attitude it doesn’t mean anything. You’ve got to have a positive attitude, absolutely.
Foot.com: Do you have any thoughts on the state of U.S. soccer, and why the sport doesn’t draw the kind of audience here that it does throughout the rest of the world?
Stevens: There’s a misconception that it’s a new sport you’ve only been playing for so long, when in fact, the U.S. has actually competed in two more world cups than England has. The U.S. has been playing for years, but perhaps they’ve not been doing it right for years.
It’s a misconception also that the crowds don’t go for soccer. When the U.S. hosted the 1994 world cup, it was the most popular world cup in terms of attendance. Top teams from Europe have done exhibition games and everyone has sellout crowds not to mention the old NASL where the Cosmos attracted huge crowds for obvious reasons. People will watch the real thing. At the open game I went to in Florida 33,000 people showed up to see the Miami Fusion, one of the new MLS teams. Ten thousand people couldn’t get in. It’s not that the people won’t go; it’s the quality that they’re not getting. People nowadays have satellite TV and FOX Sportsworld. You can see soccer played from the best leagues in the world, so you’re now seeing the highest standards, and in comparison some of what you see here doesn’t stand up. It surely makes you think. You can’t fool people anymore. They are producing good players here, but not in abundance. In England, with a population that is less than half the size of the US, there are four professional leagues each with reserve and youth teams, plus semi professional leagues. Here in the U.S. there is no depth whatsoever in the structure of professional soccer. The US doesn’t have reserve teams or youth teams, at their disposal so it’s difficult to try to match leagues from other countries on the same scale.
Foot.com: What can be done to change that?
Stevens: I think we should try to get colleges to take a hard look at NCAA rules. They put too many restrictions on college players so that they can’t play out of season, and they play too few games in such a short time. So college players are killing themselves for a three-month season with 20-odd games, and then that’s it. It’s a crazy system. Whereas in the rest of the world you’d play in a league on a home and away basis where the standings are finally decided with promotion or relegation. This is a true way to measure performance. You challenge each other. Here instead, coaches can pick their own schedule, and they will pick an easy one to keep their jobs. Three quarters of the games they play are against “easy” opponents.
Then there is the stupid substitution rule, that they can substitute any player whenever they want, on and off. It’s extremely disruptive. They should apply themselves to FIFA rules. Everyone should play by one set of rules like they do in the rest of the world.
In youth soccer it’s apparent that the ODP has long since served its purpose and has not evolved and progressed as the game has. I’d do away with it totally or completely revamp it. Apart from being too expensive, too political and too conflicting (scheduling wise), to some it is a necessary evil and to others it is used simply as a recruiting tool. I for one, don’t see any major development take place in the program as it should, most of the best players that emerge are trained by their own club teams coaches.
Foot.com: Why does the U.S. women’s team do so much better than the men’s?
Stevens: This is not so! On the contrary, because men’s soccer has been established for years in other countries and the US had to compete with teams in the past that were so much better. However, since playing in the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the US made truly remarkable progress and have now earned themselves a very respectable F.I.F.A. World ranking. It is commendable that they are now able to compete with most of the top teams in the world and when they can produce world class strikers and creative attacking midfielders they will be a real major force to reckon with.
By contrast, the U.S. women’s team had it relatively easy as the pioneers and one of the first countries to take the game seriously. Nowadays it is played in most schools and colleges and is by far the most popular women’s sport in the US. They can also boast of the finest facilities in the world. What other countries can go into residency camps to prepare for games? Out of the four Women’s World Cups, the US has won two but in 2003 were defeated 3-0 by the eventual champions Germany in the semifinals. They recently restored their pride by being crowned Olympic Champions in Athens 2004. However, it is evident that others are quickly catching up and if the US don’t continue to progress they had better watch out. From my observations they sadly lack creative, free thinking players that can change the course of a game by possessing the ability to improvise. I find them rather predictable and boring, do they not score most of their goals from set plays? Food for thought!
Foot.com: How can teams or coaches reach you?
Stevens: Through my web site, www.supremesoccer.com. It lists my email and telephone contact information.
Foot.com: Thank you!