Friday, April 20, 2012

Jeff Bilyk: The American Dream "Nailed" Soccer Style

You don’t earn the nickname “Nail” for nothing. Former North Meck SC Coaching Director Jeff Bilyk earned his alias for his mental toughness and ability to “get stuck in” as a player.
"Nail" competing in the MLS for 
the Miami Fusion

Bilyk’s journey to the coaching ranks started at Clemson where he was an essential part of one of the countries’ elite programs. Success at the collegiate level launched Bilyk into the MLS as he was selected 18th overall by the Columbus Crew in the 1999 MLS draft. However, his ascent to achieve the domestic dream and play professionally didn’t come without its challenges.

I’m a case where I wasn’t highly touted, wasn’t always the superstar or the big name. But, I used those ‘setbacks’ that life throws at you as a way to push me. Disappointment just drove me to work and push harder. Those are the things that led to me to be successful as a player all the time. Any adversity needs to be viewed as a challenge that you can move forward from. You never know who’s watching when you’re playing. Just so happens that my future coach at Clemson (who was at Brown University at the time) came to watch a teammate of mine, not me. I had a good game, caught his eye and he offered me a spot once he took the position at Clemson.”

Once he arrived on campus, Bilyk knew that the work had only just started, both on and off the soccer pitch.

“When I got to Clemson I realized that I was a little fish on a big campus. I was playing next to national team stars and Olympic team players and some really big physical guys. The speed of play was so fast and it was a huge jump. It was a tough transition from being a good club player to being one of many excellent players in the program.”

Along with his long list of playing accomplishments, which includes All-American, All-South and All-ACC recognition, Bilyk was an Honor Roll student-athlete earning a Bachelor of Science Degree in Marketing. 
Bilyk (in white) at Clemson's Alumni Day

Following his successes at the collegiate level, Bilyk played professionally with the Miami Fusion of the MLS (1999-2001), the United Soccer League’s Milwaukee Rampage (2002) and Virginia Beach Mariners (2003-06). In his last season with the Mariners he was named the club’s MVP. Shortly thereafter, Bilyk was coaxed out of retirement to compete for the USL's Charlotte Eagles during the 2008 season. It was here that Bilyk realized he would never lose his appetite for the game and moved in to a coaching role.

Working with the NMSC Youth Academy
“Soccer is my passion. I think as a player if you’ve been a leader on the field, you’re coaching as you’re playing. I’ve never been quiet and as you realize those qualities in you as a player. I know the game really well and I was always kind of teaching even as I was playing so why not make that transition and make it a career.  I want to work with the future of the game so for me, moving on to coaching was an easy transition.”

Most recently, Bilyk has joined the coaching staff at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina serving as the program’s top assistant.

Q&A with Coach Jeff Bilyk

What would you say is your coaching philosophy?

“My philosophy is simple: set the standard high. Make sure the demands are there and that the players don’t accept mediocrity. They must realize they can always do more. I know what you need to do in order to succeed in this game. When things get tough, can you push through it?

Simply put, that is our job- demand more of each player. If not, we are doing the kids a disservice. Our job is to show them what it takes to get to the next level. That’s why we’re in it.  I truly believe that demanding more of one’s self, especially in an athletic environment, is the only way to get results.

I try to make sure training sessions are pushing each individual player to get the most out of each and every one of them. If you’re not trying to be the best player at training every night then you shouldn’t be out here. You should be trying to entertain us coaches really.”

Coach Bilyk likes the game to be played the right way and hopes to work with the next big-time player, ideally coming out of the NMSC Youth Academy program.

“I would love to see any of these kids at NMSC playing for Barcelona or Manchester United or the Philadelphia Union. That would be a great thing for us as coaches. I have coached in a lot of different age groups now, U-10 Youth Academy, Juniors, Seniors and collegiately. Hopefully, (since starting the Youth Academy) when we get them in 3, 4 years down the road they already know how we want them to play. That way when we get them at 12, 13 when we ask them to pass out of the back, they aren’t lost.”

The institution of the Academy and the shift to a more player-centric model will undoubtedly help continue to push these players to a new level.

“It is so little about winning and more about playing and learning the game but mostly to try new things on the field. If something doesn’t work, it’s ok because it has no influence on the game whatsoever. That’s where us coaches come in and say ‘ok, so it didn’t work that way, how about your try this or that.’ We have to allow them to be free spirits on the field and that’s what our Youth Academy offers.

It’s  all about the absolute sheer joy a player finds in a small aspect of each game. Seeing that 10 year old who just pulled a Maradona to beat two players, then ripped one in the back of the net and can’t control his excitement runs over to you and asks ‘Did you see that Coach!?’ 

It’s one of the most amazing things about this game. And it is so fun. The game is so authentic and pure at that age. This is where the future of the club soccer lies and the future of American game.”

How have you seen the American game grow over the years?

We are finally getting enough media coverage, and all the tools to get the game out there. We see stadiums being built; the MLS adding teams, the resources are being applied so the level is increasing every year.

Bilyk during his time with the Charlotte Eagles
It’s also becoming a faster paced game because of the youth system. The players are getting more involved and more exposed to professional and collegiate environments at a younger age. Obviously that’s appositive step. 

Instead of training twice a week, on terrible fields, sporadically with very little commitment, now you train 4 times a week, 10 months out of the year there’s no slowing down. You’re playing at the best facilities and getting looked at by national team scouts, every game! Obviously, having a national league to push these college players into is amazing. I have been out of the MLS 10+ years now and to see how far it has come in that time is pretty exciting.

What is the most important part of the game for the younger players?

Technique. Technique. Technique. The ability to be comfortable on the ball at any age is so important. If you’re not technical enough you won’t be able to play at the next level. Proper technique slows the game down for you as a player. It’s already a fast enough game where you have to make decisions in a split second. Technique is the most important thing for soccer players to be successful in the game nowadays. Do you need to be athletic and be able to run? Yes, but if you can’t combine that with technical ability then you’re in trouble.

What does it take to be successful as a player? As a coach?

Achieving my goal as a professional soccer player at all costs was a big accomplishment for me. It was probably my proudest moment. It really depends on how much work do you do on your own. How much time do you spend on the ball outside of training. If you only spend only four or five hours doing something in your life are you going to be successful? They answer is probably no- It’s not enough. It’s going to take a lot more than only a couple of hours. If you want it bad enough every ounce of energy heart and desire has to be aimed at what you are looking to achieve.

Maintaining drive and commitment and setting the standard high can be difficult for a young player. You’re trying to fit in and be cool. But the guy who is working the hardest at training and pushing his teammates isn’t always the “cool guy.”
DeMarcus Beasley trying to stay with
Bilyk during an MLS match

You also have to study, teach, watch and really learn it. It’s funny how much the kids that are watching the game are the guys that become more successful. Of course you end up learning to love pain. No pain, no gain right?

Now as a coach, you have to enjoy going to training sessions. You have to be organized, and have personality. The ability to influence players in a positive light so that there is learning taking place is so important. I’d say the most important part of being successful as a coach is when players walk away from a session with a renewed passion for the game. 
If you do your job correctly then all of these things can vary by coach but ultimately if you have a player that will run through a brick wall for you, then you have impacted that youth player tremendously. If they enjoy the experience while learning and being challenged both mentally and physical then you are doing the job.

But, reading your players and how they react is a big part of our profession. You must know when to push and when to back off. I think that’s true of any teacher. You have to realize when these kids need a break and when to keep it light.

Jeff Bilyk: Better player or better coach?
I like to think I’m a better coach! I was a good player but some of those things that I lacked as a on the field myself I try to instill in my players and try to show them what I wasn't successful at and why I didn't become the greatest player of all time. Now I can share with these kids some of those qualities that will make them great that I never had. I do know that if you can combine all of these things and mold them into the one player that’s the goal as a coach and teach is to give them the tools that I may have missed or wasn't as good at as a player

What was your favorite part about your time spent coaching at NMSC?

The environment and philosophy we create here from co-workers to the families, players, everybody has the same set of goals and philosophy. All the teams support each other and feel like they’re a part of something bigger. I think that’s the beauty of being at this club. We all have slightly different goals as individuals but we are all trying to get to the bigger picture. We all share a vision and all want this club to compete on a national scale. We want to push ourselves to be the model for development. So, the synergy at the club is fantastic.

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