Manny Schellscheidt, one of the most influential soccer coaches in the United States, didn’t move here until he was 23-years-old. Born in Germany, he first came to the U.S. in 1963 to visit an aunt. While vacationing here, he was quickly recruited to play professionally by the Elizabeth Sports Club. Schellscheidt had a successful career playing in the North American Soccer League and the American Soccer League before getting involved in coaching as a player-coach.
Schellscheidt quickly advanced in coaching and eventually held several coaching positions with U.S. Soccer. He coached the U.S. Men’s National Team in 1975 and later led the team again during the 1984 Olympics. He also assisted the U-20 MNT and more recently served as the head coach for the U-14 BNT before retiring.
In the coaching community, Schellscheidt is known for being the first coach to ever receive a U.S. Soccer coaching license. He recently spoke with ussoccer.com to explain how he became the first top level coach in the United States.
You’ve had such a successful career both as a player and a coach, when did your passion for the game of soccer begin?
Manfred Schellscheidt: “Well it was quite early as a child. I first kicked the ball around in the neighborhood with my friends. There’s something special about a ball; it’s probably a lot of kids’ favorite toy. Then as we were growing up, I ended up having the chance to see a real game with adults and I was really amazed. I thought, ‘Wow, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.’ It just did something to me somehow. I just always wanted to be able to do this.”
What led you to come to the United States after playing professionally in Germany for several years?
MS: “I had an aunt that I visited in New Jersey who had plans to go back to Germany. It was actually something that I had to push a bit because in 1963 we had the coldest winter in years. It was so cold in Europe that the North Sea froze. I had seaman’s papers to work my way over to the U.S. on a boat so I wouldn’t have to pay for the trip but that didn’t work out because all the boats were frozen in the harbor. So I had to borrow some money from a friend to get on a plane so I wouldn’t miss her going back to Germany.
“I got here on Jan. 1, 1963 for two months of vacation and I met up for training with the local club, the Elizabeth Sports Club in Union, N.J. My aunt knew somebody, a German fellow down the street, and he agreed to pick me up to go to practice. I got there on a Monday and my first practice was on Wednesday. There was also a game scheduled for the weekend and somehow they managed to have a player pass for me come Sunday. How they managed that I’m not sure.”
What was soccer like back in the 1960s?
MS: “I remember that first game we played against the German-Hungarians. It was very cold and the ground was frozen. The dirt field had a million footprints on it from the day before when it was soft. The conditions were terrible.
“The clubs were mainly formed by ethnic groups. The New York Hungarians were probably one of the best teams on the East Coast at that time because they had all the former Hungarian National Team players that came to the U.S. during the Hungarian Revolution. Most of the ethnic clubs brought guys that grew up in their native country and then ended up in New York. I remember the Greek Americans at times would fly guys in from Greece to play on a Sunday afternoon in the German American league when the championship was on the line.
“The conditions in terms of preparation and training were not good at all but there was still quite a collection of established players on these teams. It wasn’t anything like it is today with real organization. It was a little Wild West but the number of good established players was quite high.”
When did you decide to stay in the United States?
MS: “After I was here on vacation, the club came on a tour to Germany and they asked me to join them while they were over there. Then they asked me why don’t you come back with us? The condition was that they would take care of all the papers needed for the green card, the flight, and the apartment and they would pay me to play. I asked how long I had to commit and they said one year. I figured that wasn’t too bad; I was always interested in seeing more of the U.S. after those first two months. I agreed to it and came over. My plan was that after a year I would go back to Germany but I’m still here. Somehow one thing came to another and then my wife came over.”
How did you get involved in coaching education?
MS: “I ended up coming to the U.S. with the papers in ’64 and then in ’66 I went back to Germany for one year to take the DFB license. That is the license that you get that allows you to coach Bundesliga. It’s a one year course. So I took the course and came back to the U.S. afterwards. I think that course made it possible to be in that first school here where I ended up with a U.S. Soccer “A” license.”
Speaking of that first school, in 1970 you became the first person ever to earn a U.S. Soccer National Coaching License. What was the “A” License
course like back then?
MS: “Dettmar Cramer conducted the first ever coaching school in Providence, R.I. in 1970. There were four or five people from New Jersey that got an invitation. At that first course I got my “A” license. I think the course was 10 days or something like that. The amazing thing was that Dettmar Cramer was the only instructor. The course was 10 hours a day between the field and the classroom sessions and it was just amazing how he held up doing everything on his own. Plus he had four courses in a row. How he managed to pull this off was just amazing.
“It turned out that when he got to his second course, he ended up calling me because there were more candidates and it got to be a little bit too much for the exams. So for two days at the end of the course, I helped with the “C” license exams. I went from being a student and getting a license to helping with the exams at the very next course. It was really an attempt at that time to get this thing off the ground so that it could become a nationwide program.”
Why is coaching education important?
MS: “What the coaching school can do is deliver a solid foundation of correct information. You can go there and really inform yourself about a lot of things that pertain to coaching. However, if you leave it at that, it doesn’t do anything. It’s just perhaps a diploma on the wall that has no life. If you get that information, what do you do now that you have a team to take care of? It’s the application that matters. We talk about the players being responsible for bringing the game to life; well the coach has to become the facilitator of that process.
“How do we help our players become better? That’s an ongoing challenge every coach has the minute he agrees to be in charge of a team. I think the most important step in coaching a team is to get to know your players. For the coach it’s important that he understands the journey from being a beginning player to being a top player. Then he needs to assess his players as to where they are on that journey. If a coach can make a good assessment he is in good shape because then he can move players from where they are to becoming better.
“Quite often I think coaches get the feeling that they haven’t gotten to know their players. They hit the players over the head with the manual that they know so well but it doesn’t fit. It doesn’t fit their ability level and what they can actually do. That usually ends up in frustration. Too many guys go to coaching schools and all these sessions and clinics that we do at conventions, and they write down all these things that might be good and fine but then they attack these little kids with all this new found knowledge that doesn’t always fit so well. There are definitely people that know the manual, but in the end they know the manual well but they don’t know the game. That’s something you arrive by and you’ve got to get the feel for it.”
In 1975 you were the head coach of the U.S. MNT for several games. What was it like to be in this position back then?
MS: “Well in those days things were pretty Wild West; there was very little organization. Just to give you an idea, before a trip to Poland and Italy, we had one day of training in New York. It was just a collection of guys that had no preparation whatsoever. It was at a time when it was just impossible to put anything together. You feel bad for the other team actually because they’re all in full swing and we had cold feet.
“It was also often the case at that time that there was no official head coach. The phone would ring and they would say look Manny, would you want to help us out with this or help us out with that and then you go ahead and do it.”
What else were you involved in coaching-wise during that time?
MS: “In 1977 I coached the New Jersey Americans. These were all player-coach situations in the American Soccer League. The team had been in the league one year and when I took it over we won the league that year.
“In ’82, I went with Angus McAlpine and the U-20 National Team to qualify for the Mexico World Cup in ’83. Then in May of ’83 I started coaching the Olympic team. In preparation for the Olympics in ’84 we played a total of 36 games. It was once again Wild West at its best because no matter what the invitation was, we were always going. If they had an invitation for the U-21 team, the Olympic team would go because they were all amateurs and college players so they were young enough. If they wanted the National Team, we would go, and if they needed the Olympic team, then we were of course the Olympic team. We played anywhere we got an invitation to play.”
In 2000, you were named U.S. Soccer’s U-14 Boys National Team coach. Why is this age group so important?
MS: “ It started when Bruce Arena took over as National Team coach. He basically said, look, what do you want to do? They were at a point where they were looking to field coaches for all the teams. I thought it was best to start with the little guys because it’s definitely important that we get the first step right. I felt that if we can get a good introduction at the bottom with the most talented kids that we could find in the country that would be a good thing.
“Dettmar Cramer would have a nice way of making a case for that. He would be in a session and say there is a guy in the first row with a button up shirt on. Dettmar would say, sir would you be nice enough to unbutton your shirt? The guy would be kind of puzzled but he would do it and once he had it opened up, Dettmar would say ok now go to the bottom and take the first button and put it in the second hole. Then the man proceeded buttoning all the way up to the collar and he obviously realized that it didn’t come out right. Dettmar’s explanation was that if the first step isn’t right, it doesn’t matter how many right ones you put in the middle, the outcome is no good. I thought it was a good metaphor.”
What is your coaching philosophy?
MS: “I believe the game has the power to teach itself and as coaches we are just facilitating the process. It comes down to kids getting a feel for the things that matter and then having the ability to bring the game to life. We just need to give them little problems to solve, but they still need to have a chance to do it their way. It’s better to ask questions than to give answers. It’s more important that we activate their minds to catch on to things and solve problems. In the end you can never really teach anybody; people teach themselves based on experimentation that is quite often hit and miss. The ones that have the ability to learn are the ones you hang on to, the ones you bring back.”
What advice do you have for young coaches just starting out?
MS: “They need to understand not to take themselves too seriously. Coaching is about making sure that the kids they are entrusted to have a great experience with the game and have fun. It’s about fun. I always say, it’s a game, it’s play. Play is essential to human development. Through play we find out who we are, what we’re made of, and what we like and don’t like.
“Often times I go to games and when I come back people ask me, well how’d it go? I use the expression ‘well they are very well coached’ but I don’t mean it as a compliment. The players can look so programmed and so stiff that they don’t respond naturally to the flow of the game anymore. So we should really measure success in coaching by how long it takes me before you don’t need me anymore. If I’m doing a good job, I’m putting myself out of a job. Every good team I’ve ever had, and there were a few of them, got taken over by the players that caught on to the principles of the game.”