A Letter to My Younger Self - Tony Setzer

Coach Tony Setzer is currently the Head Men's Soccer coach at Gardner-Webb University.  This year marked his 30th at the helm of Gardner-Webb Men's Soccer.  Setzer has been instrumental in transitioning the program from NAIA, Division 2 then to Division I in 2000.  In 2006 he was voted the Atlantic Sun coach of the year and Gardner-Webb clinch the schools first ever NCAA Tournament bid.  In his 30 years Setzer has amassed over 200 wins, while leading over 50 players to All-Conference Selections.  

Below Coach Tony Setzer writes a letter to his younger self. He provides wisdom that he has learned over the past 30 years in the collegiate soccer scene.  These lessons range from self-belief during the tough times and humility during the great times.  It was an honor to have coach Setzer provide this information for Tactics Corner and I hope that as you read you gain some guidance as a coach or player. 


Dear Tony:

Congratulations! You are now the Head Soccer Coach at Gardner-Webb. 30 years ago I sat where you were. Over the illumination of sun filled and torrid seasons you have an adventure in store. I write you to provide some guidance. I know that in “Back to the Future,” Doctor Emmet Brown says, “Marty you can’t interact with the past or it will change the future!”

Your first few years will be a blur. A second year team, where the previous head coach left you with a rabble of players hungry to do better. It will be the best of times because it will be like life. You won’t have squat but later you will long for those simpler times where the greatest joy is hope for the new season. You will not have much but you will have it all.

In the late 80’s Gardner-Webb will be on the frontier of college soccer. If you can change your approach you will find an easier path. That is why you need to seek wisdom in the game. Those come from those that you already admire. Call them regularly. Seek their ideals and when you find some nugget of gold – steal it like a pirate and use it. Let the knowledge be a way to grow – seek it – don’t feel you know more than you actually do. Soccer development is collaborative. The collaboration comes from both peers and players.  They will both give you a perspective. Peers will give you ideals, and players will provide the feedback to clarify them. When you meet Puck, Rock, and Bullet, they will transcend both the coaching and player line. They are great men! Heed their advice. They will teach you more than you can ever learned in a coaching course.

 Soccer is a team game that is governed by artists and warriors, and along that spectrum you players will reside. There is the need for the Artist to bring color and imagination to the game and the warrior who works tirelessly. It is moment of individual spark sandwiched in the team concept. As a player you were a warrior and you will gravitate towards them. Don’t, and I say again do not, discount the artist. It will take you too long to value their value. Soccer is both individual and team. Players get to decide what happens next. That will be both the greatest of joy and the insanity for you. Those complex choices clouded by time, space, and opponents are the true joy of development. It is that development that provides the joy. 

A friend will tell you, “Tony, Soccer is a game of opinions. When you coach your team it is your opinions that count.” This is so true on so many levels. It will define your style of play to who you support. It is your ideal of beauty of the game that will define your experience in the game and who you are as a coach. In giving you that nugget of wisdom, you will see with the blinding flash of understanding. At that point you will realize two things: first, you are way too young to be a head coach, and second, you don’t know as much as your “A” license gives you credit for knowing. You need to keep learning from that point and not feel like you’ve made it. For too many years, you will be stubborn about your thoughts. You will not seek more knowledge. You will not seek the opinions of others that will be vital in your soccer education. Please understand, I admire your strength and determination, I just advise you to seek a better understanding. From The Citadel, you should have sought to be an assistant at another school, but you won’t. Just heed my advice. Seek mentors! Seek wisdom and understanding about the game.

Coaching is really piracy. Why? You will steal and loot more ideals than you will come up with. You will take a drills and make them your own. Don’t be afraid to modify them to suit your needs. There will be too many times you will see or diagram a drill and it won’t be the same as the way you thought it would be. Don’t stick with it just to do the activity. You will need to learn to evaluate the activity. Examine it for what your ideals of the game. Modify it - Change it to suit them! You won’t learn this for quite a few years, and there will be too many wasted sessions because you saw this session done at a convention or a book, and by God it looked good then or on paper; it must be good. In reality, as you really look back, you’ll see that it was either not your style of play nor valuable. Don’t fall for the fad of the game but rather look for your style of play. Nurture it. Examine closely if the idea fits what your team can do. Then use it.

Player development verses victories will be a frustration. The fact is you will develop players! They will get better just by the sheer fact they are training with the ball. Gardner-Webb will have some difficulties and you will exacerbated them. Your “Old School” coaching style will drive players both to new heights and off the cliff of the game. I don’t know if that is bad or it just is.

Let me be plain, you value loyalty, but remember that while you will be very loyal to players, they sometimes have a different view. I mean that players have their own agenda for themselves. Shocker! You need to realize that sometimes you need to do what is right for the greater good of the team and not for the player. It is your job to get the best for your team. Don’t forget that. You have a heart for the players, and I’m not saying not to, but rather look for what is best for the group and act what is right for them rather than just one individual. That will be very difficult for you because, while you won’t show it, you love those players. You want the best for them. You want to impact their lives in a positive way.

Seek out people who are both loyal and commit to both your vision and Gardner-Webb. They will be sprinkled on your path. They are the angles of the game that will constantly renew your hope and spirit.

Gardner-Webb’s challenge is unique. It is a place that if great! It is a place that does not change just to change, but it will not always be conducive to keeping players for their experience here. The early days will be fine, but as you get down the road, the sleepy little hamlet of Boiling Springs, North Carolina, will pose as much of a challenge as your stubbornness to evolve. It will not provide the worldly experience of a metropolitan school. No Starbucks – no quaint experiences of a community that embraces its students. For soccer players, that will be a challenge. The campus will feel like the soccer program is a bunch of Gypsies or commies. Just know that in your little outpost of soccer, most of the campus won’t understand the beauty of the game. Realize it and look to develop relationships it is your only chance to overcome this challenge.

As you take this journey, don’t every lose that since of hope and determination. I admire is your inner strength, your desire to be better, love of your people, and love of the game. I just tell you that you will face struggles. They will beat at you! Every time just remember this, don’t ever allow anyone to define your game, and don’t let the game define who you are and can be. Greatness is the journey, work is the fuel that drives it. Just do it again tomorrow and be a little better.

 As you get towards the back end of your career you will have fewer regrets over missed opportunities and what’s more – you will be a better coach. Enjoy the ride – it is a fantastic journey as your failure will not be fatal nor your success immortal. Treat these two the same and do it again trying to be a little better each time. Keep grinding – the journey is so worth it. I will leave you with a quote from Winston Churchill, “The nose of the bulldog is slanted backwards so he can continue to breathe without letting go.”