What’s it like to coach football in Europe? This is a question I’m most often asked about my summer job. After the first confused question…”They have football in Europe?… You sure you don’t mean soccer?”
This is my third season coaching the Ravensburg Razorbacks in Southern Germany. There aren’t many jobs back home I’d trade this experience for. I get paid to coach the sport I love, in a beautiful place. I have the opportunity to see the world and I coach grown men with interesting lives.
My job is full time, as my only work responsibility is overseeing the development of the Razorback offense. Within my area, I have almost complete control and freedom, leaving me plenty of nice afternoons to sit in bier gardens and enjoy leisurely bike rides along the shore of Lake Constance.
A great job? Yes… but coaching in Europe is different… and differences can be good or bad, depending on how you look at them.
Practice vs. Training
The biggest culture shock for an American coach working overseas is how practice is approached. Most of us come from either high school or college coaching. In both cases, practice isn’t optional, it’s a priority.
In 1984, my high school coach told us the only acceptable reasons for missing practice were “Sickness, with a note from the doctor, or death in the family,” standard policy in the US. This level of commitment is possible because football in the US is generally played by young men without many responsibilities, or at the higher levels for scholarships and money.
These expectations aren’t realistic for most European players. The Razorbacks are grown men with families, kids and careers. They take business trips, have to care for their kids and work football in as best they can. But, legitimate misses too often bleed into less legitimate excuses. Players have parties to go to, players have tummy aches, players are playing tuba in the community band.
Germans talk about ‘training’ instead of practice, as in “We need everyone at training tomorrow.” At first, I thought this was just imperfect translation, but now I suspect it has deeper meaning on the value of ‘practice’
To an American coach, training is something you do in the off-season; lifting weights, running sprints…etc. While practice is held during the season, often with game specific goals. Training can be moved around, done early, late, missed then picked up later. Practice must be done with teammates and at a specified time, or the whole team suffers.
Attendance is something we must continually address in Germany. I’d love to say we have solved this problem in Ravensburg, but I’d be lying. Instead I’ll say that building organized practices with enough flexibility to overcome unexpected absences is vital in Europe.
Mentor vs. Employee
In the US, coaches are role models. We oversee grades, help with homework and tie on-the-field requirements into broader life lessons. In Europe, I’m simply a football coach, an employee of the organization.
I do have the responsibility to model correct on-the-field demeanor and commitment. The players need to see me as someone who won’t miss due to a tummy ache (see above). But, my mentoring ends at the sidelines. I don’t give any “…if you quit here, you’ll quit on your families…” talks. Who am I to tell them about their families? These are grown men and their outside lives are already formed.
This is one of my favorite things about coaching in Europe. It allows me to drink beer with players in the parking lot after practice and hang out with them on long bus rides after road games. Things I could never do with players in the US.
I enjoy working with the HS kids in the US. Many have become outstanding young men, and I hope I had a role in shaping them. But, the player-coach relationship makes it inappropriate to call them friends. In Germany, many of the Razorbacks have become friends.
More vs. Less
In Europe, we generally only practice two or three days a week. Less practice means a smaller playbook, less formations and less thorough scouting reports. It also means we don’t need as detailed scouting reports as the opponent likely has similar limitations.
Most teams run a version of the spread offense, as it packs a lot of versatility into a few base plays. The spread also puts a premium on quarterback play and decision making. In the GFL and GFL2 the QB is almost always an American import. Defenses generally run the same two or three fronts and coverages.
Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on what type of coach you are. Coaches who want to make big game plan adjustments every week will be frustrated here, as lack of practice time…and poor practice attendance, make execution of complicated schemes difficult. Luckily, I brought a ‘less is more’ offensive philosophy to the Razorbacks…one that’s proven to work well in Germany.
Size vs. Speed
When I go home to the States, I’m always struck by how small my American high school players are… then when they move, I’m struck by how quick they are.
In Germany, our players are anywhere from early-20’s to mid-40’s. The good ones hit the weights and have grown man muscles, but most are well past their prime speed-wise. Many also smoke, so they don’t have a lot of wind.
In the US, the kids generally train harder, but are barely through puberty and don’t have fully developed muscles. But they are athletes. They don’t smoke, and have often played long enough to have quick reactions.
The huge exception in Europe are the American imports.
In Germany, two Americans can be on the field, and in the top leagues; these are trained athletes with both size and speed. When an American D-1 athlete is in open field against a 35-year-old part timer, the differential can be enormous.
As an offensive coach, a big part of my strategy is finding the middle aged cornerback or outside linebacker with a beer gut and creating mismatches. We look for the same thing in the States, but rarely with such a differential in talent.
Too many cooks vs. One chef
Coaching in the States is all about egos. Every coach has his ‘turf’ and has to be very conscious of not having his ‘toes stepped on’. Staff meetings can become bogged down as every coach feels compelled to weigh in about any issue remotely connected to their position. Nobody wants to lose face, so no one backs down. Every decision becomes fodder for the staff to dissect endlessly.
This isn’t always true. A strong and organized head coach or coordinator can resolve this. But, if left alone, in-staff rivalries and backbiting often develop as everyone fights for a bigger slice of the coaching pie.
In Germany, an American coach is brought over as the ‘expert’. Whether this respect is deserved or not, is another story. But, American coaches’ words are carried out, without pushback or meetings. As the OC, I don’t have to run any adjustments past my position coaches. I simply do what I think is best and deal with the consequences.
That’s the downside. Like everywhere else, there are consequences. If things go wrong…well, there’s no one to hide behind.
So far, things have gone well, but the scoreboard reads 0-0 after every game and every play is a chance to fall on your face. It’s also a chance to learn something new. Which I guess is a big reason I keep coming back. A coach’s freedom here creates a great laboratory for trying and learning new things about football. I’ve been doing this job for a while, but every week still makes me realize how much more there is to know.