Stuart Hilton coached from a young age, growing up in Liverpool in England. He has a degree in Coaching Science from John Moores University and a degree in Science and Secondary Education from the University of Oklahoma City. Stuart played at various levels of the game, including professional youth academy and full semi-pro teams in England. He was a two time NAIA All-American and three time All-Region player while at Oklahoma City. As well as the USSF A license, Stuart holds the UEFA C through the English FA, and he has completed several research projects with professional clubs there including Everton and Tranmere Rovers. After college he coached high school and club teams in Oklahoma, as well as working with the Olympic Development Program for the 1998 Girls. For the last three years he has been the Technical Director for Dallas Sting – a club with more than a dozen national championships.
When did you know you wanted to be a coach?
I started coaching in some capacity at 16 years old. My dad was a coach so I got in at a young age as an assistant coach – putting cones down, running with the water bucket and so on. After high school I did a BTEC [Business & Technology Education Council Diploma] in Sports Science and I knew then that I wanted to be involved in sports. The more and more I got into coaching, the clearer it became. I did a coaching degree at 19 and at that point it was pretty much decided for me. There were only two coaching degree programs in the UK and I was at one of them. I was around some pretty influential figures from the game – Gary Ablett at Everton – and not just soccer either; I did work with Great Britain Athletics, cricket and other sports’ elite coaches.
How did you end up coaching in the US?
I was brought out here originally on a collegiate scholarship to play soccer. During the time that I was studying and playing here I also completed the US form of the coaching licenses and it became a natural progression from there. I met my wife at that time, stepped into the collegiate game as a volunteer assistant and from there doors have opened to the role I am in now. I don’t think I set out to coach in the US full time but it has just worked out that way.
Can you explain what your role as Technical Director involves?
I wear many hats: initially my role was to help develop a club-wide curriculum and that is ongoing. It is never something that you should write up and be done with as the game is constantly evolving. I oversee that and collaborate with our staff on continuing to develop it. I’m heavily involved in coach education, so I do week to week coach enhancement sessions – which could be game analysis, session analysis, coach analysis and so on. We do various activities that will bolster our understanding of coaching. It’s one thing to have a curriculum written down, but it is another to actively implement it. We spend a lot of time working with coaches to apply it on the field and that is a big piece of what I do. I also oversee the technical and fitness testing in the club and I coach two teams. Beyond those I work with our college program and at the other end our ETA [Emerging Talent Academy] program, working with our younger elite players to help them develop.
How do you measure success for your club?
The challenge that I face as Technical Director is defining exactly that. The environment we have here in Dallas is particularly challenging. In many cases success is measured by winning national championships or winning leagues. I think lots of people see value in titles, and clearly there is, but in the same breath the margins are much smaller between winning and losing and you need to have a clear footprint in terms of what you are trying to create for your players to look like. We are moving in direction where we try to define the systems that they play and the style of the game. The attitudes are continually being shaped and we are placing more value on more technically gifted players and teams with their longer term growth rather than just their short term results. There will always be a balance between the two though.
What qualities do you look for in coaches for your teams?
Firstly a level of knowledge of the game. We want individuals who have played or been around the game at a high level or have significant experience in the field – particularly if they are working with our more elite players. We look for a high level of energy and health too. Can they spend hours on end on a field and still bring a level of intensity and enthusiasm for the game that is infectious with your players? With the female players that we work with, the ability to motivate and instill enthusiasm in young girls is very important. Beyond that, being honest, reliable, punctual and so on, but I look for enthusiasm and knowledge above all.
How do you evaluate the performance of your coaches?
We don’t have a formal grading system. We have a program of observation and analysis where we will have a feedback form and periodically visit practices to get a gauge of what they are doing. We will look at the session plan to see what they are trying to achieve, and give them feedback on the organization, appearance, response of the players and so on. It is similar to how you would assess a coach on a D or C license. Periodically we will bring our full staff together and cover session analysis – watching each other coach and asking what we liked and didn’t like.
How do you attract players to play for Sting?
Sting is already in itself its best marketing tool. The level of success that the club has had on the national level naturally interests people. Players reach out to us and want to know more, which is a nice problem to have, but it can also hurt you if you get players who are in it purely for winning a national title – which might be an unrealistic expectation. Having a strong brand affects how we market to players though as we are competing with multiple academy programs here in Dallas. We have a monthly newsletter, a good website, and we will host 3v3 and other events to bring potential players in. With a city of this size we don’t need to go looking very far, we just need them to select us by seeing that there is value in playing for our program.
Soccer in the US is talking more about moving away from players having to pay the most to get to the highest levels of the game, but it can currently be very expensive. How do you attract players who can’t afford to pay?
It’s a challenge for sure. We have scholarship avenues for players, with a certain number available for each team. We have a foundation that has been set up to support our athletes who need financial help. There is never enough though honestly. There are players out there who are not catered to as much as I would like, but you have to balance the development side of the club with the business side. We don’t have the positions that we have in the club, without functioning as a business. I grew up in a different system but things aren’t like that here in the US.
Could you imagine a time where the US moves towards a more European model of academies getting money from selling on players rather than charging them to play?
It’s a long way off: as my club works with female athletes I have a different perspective of it than some. The professional women’s league hasn’t been consistently profitable yet and there are very few throughout the world that could sustain a youth model in that way at the moment.
For many high level players there is no longer any high school soccer. Do you think this is a positive step for their development or do they lose anything without that experience?
It’s a very contentious issue. The Development Academy players don’t play high school now, whereas ECNL players still can and I don’t know if that will change. When the door is left open it creates a problem for our coaches. I coached high school a few years ago and the players had a lot of success so I see the value in it. The question is what are we trying to accomplish and if our mission is to develop elite players with a healthy game:practice ratio I think it is impossible to ask players to do both high school and club. Our ECNL teams are playing all year round. We have 21 players on my roster and 6 are currently out with injury. High School season is about to start and I have to adjust my schedule and plans to accommodate for those seasons. It’s a not as big of a problem as long as there is an awareness from both sets of coaches that the current demands put on the players is unrealistic. We need to work together to make sure that players are kept healthy and to make sure that the programs are developmentally appropriate. The decision has to come from US Soccer or ECNL though rather than us trying to address it.
How do you decide which tournaments to take your players to? How important is college coach exposure as a factor?
It’s huge. We have a college program that aims to help with that. Exposure is much more than getting seen at an event – there is a process and preparation phase that a lot of players miss. Marketing and communicating before the event is very important. I worked at the collegiate level and it is well known that often coaches go to the tournaments knowing who they want to see and what they are looking for in terms of positions and age groups. So first of all it is about getting on that list. We encourage our players to do the work and then we don’t mandate which events they go to – it is done team by team depending on where they are looking to attend and the financial constraints. We’ll pick showcase tournaments that fit the level of interest that the majority of the team has. If they want to stay local there is no point in us going to a tournament in New York for example. We also host our own in-house open scrimmage events where college coaches can come in to watch our teams.
We’ve heard that players in this country – particularly girls – don’t watch much soccer on TV or play on their own outside of their organized practices. Have you noticed this and do you do anything about it?
Absolutely, our ETA program tries to facilitate part of that – giving them extra training each week, but also we have a nutritionist who educates players and periodic visit to games. We took a group to the TCU vs Texas Big Twelve game recently and gave them a match analysis task to do around the game. We’ll bring our younger players out to watch ECNL games and they will do analysis of it too. We encourage players to watch higher level games – whether it is English Premier League or National Women’s Soccer League games, but how much they choose to watch is obviously up to them. Many of our players say they want to be elite but they don’t always realize what the lifestyle of an elite player looks like in that way. Practicing outside of practice and watching games are all part of continuing education and they can be lost.
How often do you work with your teams inside and outside the season?
They train three times each week in the off season, on a Monday-Wednesday- Saturday schedule. Then when the season starts we adjust it to match games being on the weekend. We will give them breaks though and days off because as well as working with me they could be doing high school soccer, cross country, or other sports and the workload can become very high. It is naive to think that we can keep increasing the load without injuries occurring, so we don’t impose too much on the players at that time and we have different times of the year we will turn up the heat or pull back slightly, depending on their workload.
So when you plan for your season do you organize practices by a long plan or do you react to games each week?
I have a plan and periodize my season. I write it before start and establish what the core objectives are that I want to accomplish. During the eight week pre-season (June-August) we will focus on those elements, then once the season starts it is a mixture of the two – maintenance and continuing to work on the goals but also tweaking things according to the games we have or what we have seen the previous week.
Would you ever consider coaching at other levels of the game?
Yes, I think my passion to develop players and to work at the elite levels of the game remains a goal of mine. I’ve worked here in Dallas with some of our youth national players at the training center and I think that has given me desire to work more with those players at a higher level.