& A with Phil Nielsen
Smith head soccer coach
Phil Nielsen recently spent four months in Brazil coaching
kids in Rio de Janeiro, teaching English to his players
and traveling with a professional team. Nielsen, who has
coached soccer at Smith since 2000, coordinated the trip
as a way to explore his twin interests in soccer and international
economics. “In both those areas, Brazil offers
many interesting examples to be studied,” he says. Nielsen
received his bachelor's degree from Lyngby Business College
in Denmark and a master's degree in economics at the
University of Detroit-Mercy.
Nielsen worked with the
coach and founder of Team Chicago Brasil, one of the only
girls' and women’s soccer clubs
in Rio, which provides training and competition opportunities
for girls and women in some of the city’s poorest favelas.
Nielsen recently answered
questions about his trip for The Gate.
Grécourt Gate: What
specifically did your trip to Brazil consist of?
Phil Nielsen: The
two main parts of my trip were a nine-week stay in Rio de
Janeiro coaching soccer five days per week with Team Chicago
Brazil, and a two-week internship with the professional club
Cruzeiro in Belo Horizonte. In Rio, each week usually consisted
of at least two to three beach soccer practices or games,
and at least two to three regular soccer practices or games.
I helped coach in the Rio de Janeiro State Championship in
both U-20 “Futebol de Campo” (which is regular
soccer—teams of 11 players) and the Rio de Janeiro
State Championship in beach soccer. My girlfriend and I also
provided English lessons to the players two or three times
In Belo Horizonte, I spent two weeks at Cruzeiro's “Toca
da Raposa I” training center, where I lived among the
professional youth players, and observed the daily practices
and weekend games of the four youth teams. Cruzeiro is one
of Brazil's biggest clubs, and it is known for being one
of the best clubs in terms of youth development. Three current
Brazilian national team players came from Cruzeiro. I usually
watched several training sessions per day and had extensive
conversations with the coaching staff about tactics, fitness
training, sports psychology, and youth development.
The Gate: What did you learn from the experience?
PN: I learned
a tremendous amount on this trip, specifically about the
unique Brazilian approach to soccer and life; the playfulness
you find throughout Brazilian culture, even if it's a matter
of life or death for the local, state, or national psyche;
the constant encouragement to be creative, show personality,
and to work on your movement and form. People think that
all Brazilians are born greater soccer players, dancers,
singers, and musicians, but I found it be to more a product
of nurture than nature. Everyone is constantly encouraged
to express themselves in these forms. Fans there get very
upset if a player just tries the safe option. No kid wants
to grow up and be a goalkeeper or a central defender. They
want to be in a position to dazzle with their skills on the
ball, and they want to score breathtaking goals.
In Brazil a lot of time is spent on developing proper coordination—having
proper coordination and balance while running, jumping, turning
and striking the ball. Again, people think Brazilians are
born with this, but they actually train it far, far more
than we do in the U.S. And the same goes for developing the
proper technique and skills. Obviously, I also learned a
lot about the Brazilian society and culture in more of an
economic and political sense. I learned to appreciate the
awesome issues facing the Brazilian society.
The Gate: What are some differences between the way soccer
is played in Brazil and in the U.S.?
PN: In Brazil,
soccer is played in a way that allows the individual player
to express him or herself. What in the U.S. we would call
showboating is an integral part of Brazilian soccer. Players
are always attempting the most audacious moves, and it is
better to fail while attempting this than to not try at all.
The enthusiasm and alegria (happiness) is
always present, and coaches actually try to bring that out
in practice by having special rules giving an advantage to
the team that shows the most enthusiasm and alegria.
And the players are far more soccer-savvy there. They understand
the game in an intricate way that very, very few American
players do. This is obviously due to the fact that they constantly
watch and imitate their heroes. Our players rarely watch
soccer, but Brazilians are always watching, analyzing, talking
about, and copying the professional players.
The Gate: In what ways does soccer affect the lives of inner-city
kids in Brazil?
is the most important thing in Brazil. It is the only truly
unifying aspect of an extremely diverse people, both ethnically
and socio-economically. Your local team and the Brazilian
national team are the two most important things next to your
immediate family. Everyone follows these teams—men,
women, the elderly, children—regardless of whether
they have ever played soccer or even been to a soccer match.
If you are born into a Flamenguista family (fans of the Flamengo
club from Rio), which half the people in Rio are, you will
be a die-hard Flamenguista till the day you die.
So for the inner-city kids, soccer is a passion and an escape
from their daily troubles both when they are spectators and
when they play the game. For many boys in Brazil becoming
a professional player is the only real opportunity to climb
the socio-economic ladder, so a lot of time and effort is
directed toward that goal. For the girls soccer is not about
making it out of poverty, but rather about getting the opportunity
to experience the same level of excitement and escapism as
the boys have. And it's about being allowed to copy the moves
and goals of their heroes in the stadiums and on TV.
The Gate: How will your experience in Brazil affect your coaching
PN: There is
no question that my experience in Brazil will have a positive
effect on my coaching at Smith. I have returned with a newfound
excitement and passion for soccer and for coaching. The Brazilian
spirit is clearly present, and I hope to be able to translate
that into better training sessions, which in turn should
translate into better players and a better team—but
equally importantly, into a happier and more creative team.
Tactically, I have also picked up a few new nuggets. That
is the main reason why it is so important for coaches to
take developmental trips like this—they provide you
with new and different perspectives on coaching and how the
game should be played.
The Gate: Do you have similar trips planned for the future?
PN: My hope
is to take the [Smith soccer] team to Brazil next May, and
then go back for a two-month stay in the summer of 2008 or