Make the mistake of calling St Benedict’s College and W Connection youth team coach Leonson Lewis, “Coachman”, and be prepared for the possibility of punishment by push-up.
That’s just one of the strategies in the arsenal of the former Trinidad and Tobago star forward as he moves to bring good old-fashioned discipline and professionalism into football and coaching.
Lewis recently signed on as football coach at St Benedict’s College in La Romain following the departure of former coach, Dexter Cyrus. His charges include the Under-13, Under-15 and Premier Division teams.
“[My first question] when I was asked to coach St Benedict’s was Why me?” Lewis told Wired868, “especially with [former coach] Dexter Cyrus’ past performance [at the school].
“The school told me [Cyrus’] contract was up and that they wanted somebody who could spend more time with the team and have more of a developmental role [which] Cyrus was not able to give due to his job and limited time.”
Lewis, who is a full-time coach and former Portugal-based professional, accepted the challenge and says his mission is to develop players not simply to train them. He intends to do this with the three Ds: Discipline, development and dedication.
At St Benedict’s, he aims to transform the very idea of coaching as the development of raw football talent, into personal development through football.
Observing that students come onto the field steeped in the attitudes at large in the wider society, Lewis has devised a strategy for tackling the challenge from every quarter, starting with language:
“It’s like a culture thing now where kids are calling their coaches ‘coachman’. It’s not to disrespect us, but it’s up to the coaches to stop it. I am not their buddy, but a member of authority. When they call me coachman they immediately have to get down and do push-ups.”
As a young professional in Portugal, Lewis said he would not dare to address his coaches as treinador—or coach in Portuguese. Rather the players would refer to their coaches as senhor—Portuguese for Mister—as a respectful gesture towards authority figures.
Lewis’s time playing internationally taught him all about the importance of development in social skills rather than technical skills.
One 13-year-old who addressed him as ‘coachman’ via text message got a sharp response: “I told him to delete my number if you’re going to call me that name. He told me he didn’t realise that was wrong and from them on he’s never referred to me as ‘coachman’ again.”
While he has found older students more resistant to change, Lewis is encouraged by the responsiveness of the younger footballers and remains hopeful for all:
“They’re growing up in a society that has no boundaries or any role models to look up to.”
Lewis, who stressed that he gives players time to adjust before even considering using push-ups as punishment, is concerned not only about player attitude but by attitudes to coaching that devalue its professionalism. It comes from the personal experience of not being paid for two years while coaching the national team:
“We would get something now and then which is why I left because I think when you’re doing a job, that job requires payment. I am totally against these coaches coming into the national teams and saying that they’re coaching for free.
“When you do this you are taking away a paying job from someone else who is more equipped to coach a national team.”
In motivating his young teams, Lewis often draws on his club experience in Portugal and on the heroes that inspire them:
“Many of my young players love Messi and Ronaldo and admire a lot of foreign players, so why not learn the language? If you met Messi, could you tell him anything? I speak fluent Portuguese. I lived there for 13 years and I taught myself the language.”
Lewis knows the power of being able to converse with one’s hero:
“One of greatest joys that I remember to this day was when I won the most goals trophy [at the Caribbean Cup] tournament in the Cayman Islands. I was playing professionally in Portugal at that time.
“They flew in Brazil legend, Pelé, to present the winners of that tournament with their trophies and when he handed me that trophy I spoke to him in Portuguese.
“He asked me with surprise ‘how can you speak Portuguese?’ I told him that I was a huge fan and that I learnt the language to be able to converse with him.”
Working with today’s teenagers, Lewis is having to develop new techniques for coaching youngsters who come from a different age of technology:
“I do see the raw talent but their co-ordination needs improvement. Long ago we used to climb trees and hop and skip, which they don’t do now because you have the video games, the parties and the internet.”
With his back-to-basics strategy, Lewis has set a top three finish as his goal for this season while he works on the all-round development of his young players. He gave every one of them a copybook to track their progress, both on and off the field.
“If they respect the game,” he said, “football can take them far because football gave me what I have today.
“The skill is only 30 percent. The rest comes from mentality.”