Donovan: Coaching has strengthened my compassion
Exclusive interview with San Diego Loyal manager Landon Donovan
He's preparing for his second season as a professional coach
Philosophies, lessons learned and much more discussed
Landon Donovan will be forever synonymous with his playing career on the USA national team, having been a ubiquitous protagonist in many of the country’s modern successes on the international stage.
But he’s started writing a new chapter in his life: coach Landon Donovan. Or, to be precise: Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations and Manager of San Diego Loyal Landon Donovan. Taking charge of a new club – the Loyal compete in the United Soccer League (USL) Championship, a division below Major League Soccer (MLS) – in his hometown was an opportunity he could not turn down.
Donovan has been rightly praised for assembling a coaching staff consisting of both men and women. One of his most trusted confidantes is Carrie Taylor, who describes the USMNT legend as being "like a brother to me.” Taylor was the first female coach in professional men’s soccer in the USA.
FIFA.com caught up with the 39-year-old in the middle of preparations for his second season in charge to hear about his coaching journey so far, his guiding philosophies, and to gain insight on how Donovan the coach is different to Donovan the player.
FIFA.com: How do you reflect on your first full season in charge?
Landon Donovan: I think in life in general, when you’re going through something like the first season you think you have a lot of answers, you think have a good grasp of what it is, but the reality looking back was everything was sort of trial and error. You get thrown into the fire a little bit and you try to do your best. I’m far from the finished product as a coach, but I certainly have a much better idea of how to do certain things. There are going to still be a lot of new learning experiences along the way, but I do feel like I’ve learned and grown a lot from last year.
Can you identify one of the areas that you’ve particularly grown in?
There are tons. Knowing when to speak and when not to speak. Knowing when’s the right time to make a substitution versus moving someone on the field. Knowing how to speak to different players differently. Learning about personalities. There was a player here last year who had a certain personality type that needed to be managed in a certain way, and even if that player’s not here anymore, there might be someone who has similar traits this year that you can take a lot from it and learn from. A lot of it is by the mistakes that I made and a lot of it is from learning the different experiences.
Can you even measure success so far given how impacted your first year was by the pandemic?
There are different ways to measure success. I don’t measure success in wins and losses. Although I realize that’s crucial. Nobody’s here to lose every match. I measure success in living to our values. When we do that, the results take care of themselves. We have good enough players here to be successful. If we live to our values as best we can every day, we’re going to be successful on the field too. In that way, was it successful last season? Unequivocally yes. We absolutely lived to our values. We helped elevate the club within San Diego, we helped elevate San Diego as a city and we did it in a really respectful way that I think people really appreciated. And, by the end of the year, we were also really good on the field. The soccer part we’ll get right and as long as we continue living to our values, I consider that successful.
What have you learned about yourself as a coach and how has coaching changed you?
It’s strengthened my compassion because I would say that my strongest attribute as a person is my compassion. When you’re learning the stories of 25 young men, you develop more compassion. You grow to really love them as people and you treat them like they’re your sons. That’s really helped me grow as a person. What I’ve learned about myself is that in order to be successful, I have to be really intentional about what I’m doing every day. When I first started last year, as you would expect, a lot of things were happening on the fly and I was reacting to things because I didn’t have the experience. Now I’m anticipating things before they happen. When I show up every day I’m very intentional about how I act, what I say, things I do, but in a very authentic way. The number one attribute of being a leader is being authentic. If you’re not authentic, people see right through it.
When did the light bulb go off for you in terms of wanting to coach?
During my playing career, I actually didn’t want to coach. I had been exposed to male ego my whole career and I didn’t want to deal with that anymore. But right near the end of my career what I found was the most joy I got out of playing was actually in helping other players around me and watching them be successful more so than myself being successful. When this opportunity came about I wanted to be really mindful that I had no experience coaching. It was possible that I would be terrible at it, that I would hate it and not want to do it, so this was an opportunity in my hometown to test the waters. What I found very quickly was that I absolutely love it. It remains to be seen if I’m ultimately going to be really good at it or not, but I really love it and I really love impacting these young men’s lives every day in a positive way. That has brought me great joy. I take it very seriously. It’s a really important responsibility, much more so than with an MLS club or with guys who are earning a lot of money, because this is quite literally these guys’ livelihoods. Some of these guys, if they don’t make it as a soccer player, there’s not a whole lot else for them to do. It’s not like they’ve saved millions of dollars and can go retire. I take it very seriously to help them become better people and better soccer players so they can continue playing this game and when they’re done, they have a really good foundation to go do what’s next in their lives.
What are the core tenets of your coaching philosophy and how did you cultivate them as you’ve grown as a coach?
It’s in two ways. One is in what I’ve seen done really well. I had some great mentors. The way Bruce Arena manages people in a locker room is elite in my opinion. He seamlessly allows an organization to function swiftly. There’s a lot of takeaways from that. Some of the coaches when I was younger, like Frank Yallop and John Ellinger, were really good at handling me as a human being, how they treated me because of how I needed to be treated in certain circumstances. And then I had the opportunity to go to England twice for three-month spells and learn from David Moyes, who without question was the best manager tactically I ever had. He would make changes in a game that would really impact it. So that’s one way, learning all the good, and then the other is learning all the bad. You watch coaches do things where you go, 'Why the hell would you do that?’ or ‘That makes no sense’ or ‘There’s no clarity around that’. That’s helped me a lot too, because sometimes I’ve made those mistakes and I catch it pretty quickly and I go, ‘Hey, don’t be like that coach you had – that’s not what you want to be’. So that’s helped me a lot too.
Have you found it difficult to find balance in your life? Are you watching other matches constantly or are you able to step away from the game when you need to?
Both. I’m watching more games than I ever did before, more soccer, more players than I ever did, but I’m also able to shut off the phone and the computer at night when I get home with my family and enjoy that. The biggest key is being able to delegate and have good people around who are really good at what they do. We have a really elite staff, especially for this level, and I rely on them to do what they’re good at. I see a lot of coaches who try to do everything. They want to manage the team, run every training session, watch and cut all the film. Some people can do that, but that’s not the way I operate. I like to depend on the people I have, and empower them and give them autonomy with clear boundaries and let them do what they’re good at. There are things I’m not good at. I’m still young and new at this. I don’t have 100 games managed under my belt. Why would I pretend that I know better than someone who has hundreds of games coached or thousands of hours watching film or cutting film, so it’s important to know what you’re not good at, what you don’t know, and get people around you who can do that better.
Do you have even more appreciation for all the coaches you had during your career?
Unequivocally, yes! Any walk of life, it’s so easy from afar, right? Anything we do, it’s so easy when you’re not in it. When you’re in it, you realize that it’s so much more difficult. As a small example, when we show the guys film in the morning, it is hours and hours of watching film, cutting it, discussing how and what we want to show – and this is nothing new to anybody who’s coached – but that it’s put into a five-, seven-, ten-minute digestible form for the players. Sometimes as a player I’d watch a video that a coach put together and go, ‘Why were we watching that? That was dumb, I didn’t need that.’ And it took hours and hours and hours for them to put it together. To that point, we try to be really, really intentional with what we do, so that when we watch video or do anything around the game or on the field that it’s done with clear intentionality. By way of example, most teams I was around on a Monday after a Saturday game, you’d have Sunday off and Monday guys would just jog around the field and stretch. We don’t do that. When we’re going to step on the field, everything we’re doing is intentional, so you can get the same physical response by doing something that actually applies to our game model. I might do something with our shape with some passing that gets them moving the same way, so they’re not just jogging around the field and wasting time.
What brings you the most joy as a coach?
My daily interaction with the players and watching them grow and develop. That can be on or off the field. When I see someone do something really compassionate or really respectful or they’re really dependable and showing that to their team-mates and doing it in a mindful way – things like that really make me feel good. On the field there’s tons of things we’re working on all the time, and when it comes off in a game it brings me great joy.
Do you find yourself itching to play again when you’re out on the training pitch?
I don’t at all. I thought I might, but I don’t. Mainly the biggest reason is because physically I see how elite these guys are and I know what it takes to get to that point, and I don’t ever want to go through a six-week pre-season again (laughs). It sounds like hell to me. I know physically I can’t do it, so it doesn’t actually intrigue me at all.