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The Problem with “Soccer People”

I’m a “soccer guy”, but not a “soccer person”.  There’s a difference, at least under my definitions. As a soccer guy, I am a fan of all aspects of the game and I have an appreciation for all levels of play.  I enjoy watching the game whether it’s a bunch of 10 year olds or adult professionals.  It makes little difference to me as you experience many of the same features of the game:

  • Physical demands that come with sporting competition
  • Mental challenges including maintaining composure under pressure
  • Support for teammates and group problem solving
  • The thrill of anticipation, the close call and the release of that rare goal
  • Enjoying the outdoors with friends and family

I’ve found many youth recreational games every bit as exciting as a pro game partly because you are so close to the action that you can really sense the emotions of the players.  The frustration, anger, relief and excitement playing soccer brings to its participants and fans.

“Soccer people”, on the other hand, are different from me.  Most of them grew up playing (unlike myself) and continued playing competitively into their 20s either through college teams, high-end amateur leagues or, in rare cases, professionally.  As their playing days wind down, many of these people choose to get into coaching and some even try to make a career out of coaching and / or club administration.

As I’ve immersed myself in Colorado’s youth soccer environment (see The Grace Years, The Erin Years and The Board Years), I’ve met many great coaches and club staff members who are equally great people with a balanced approach to soccer and a belief in taking the “youth” part of youth soccer seriously.  Most have the same background as soccer people, but manage to keep things in perspective.

Diametrically opposing them (and myself) are soccer people who represent the negative side of soccer culture.  The drive to win at all cost, ethics be damned.  The know-it-alls who think that since they’ve been around soccer their whole lives that they can’t be wrong.  The giant egos, the arrogance.  It’s at this point in the rant where I usually imagine saying: “If you are such an omniscient being, why again are you working with children instead of coaching at the highest levels of world football?”  But I digress.

The problem with soccer people is they were begotten by soccer people and they go on to beget more soccer people.  It’s a vicious circle.  They are taken under the wing of another soccer person at a young age and taught “this is how you do things if you want to be successful”.  These are also typically the players who zeroed in on soccer as their top career choice as they exited high school or college, foregoing the opportunity to gain experience in other business environments before soccer.  As a result:

  • Professional, rational, organized, high performance people are a rarity (soccer people role models and mentors rarely possess these traits)
  • Many key decision makers in clubs have little to no real world business experience
  • People in leadership positions often don’t know how to lead or manage
  • There is little appreciation for relationship building, customer service or business process

It gets really diabolical when you have one of these soccer people enforcing (or ignoring) bad behavior by team coaches.  It’s one thing to be a nuisance in club operations, it’s another to basically encourage coaches to be immature and amateurish.  This turns off kids and, perhaps more importantly, it turns off parents.  Parents are the lifeblood of any youth sports program.  Parents pay the bills, then haul the kids to practice and far-flung matches.  If coaches and clubs are not mindful of how they treat both the kids and their parents, ultimately they are cutting their own throats as they drive families either out of the club or, worse, out of the game.

As a soccer guy, my perspective is often very different from that of the soccer people.  Over time, this idea of soccer guy vs soccer people will come out as I share thoughts on coaching and club management.  Are you a soccer person?  I hope not.

My Soccer Path – The Board Years

At the same time I was immersing myself in coaching (see The Grace Years and The Erin Years), I was learning about youth soccer in Colorado from another angle: that of board member for a non-profit club.  I served on our club’s board for five of the six years from Nov’07 to Oct’13, first as the Technology Director and later as the Competitive Program Director.

At the beginning, the club actually operated as though it was two separate entities: a recreational arm and a competitive arm.  The recreational arm was run by volunteers with a couple paid part-time staffers (one person taking care of fields, equipment and referee coordination and the other was an accountant).  The competitive arm had two full-time employees plus a part-time administrator.  The original reasons for the split are unclear, but eventually the two pieces were brought together to create a true end-to-end program.

But back in 2007, the rec board was huge as everyone on the board had a specific job to do.  It was a very tactical approach, but it was pretty effective and the club had been run that way for more than 30 years.  As the Technology Director, I was responsible for selecting and administering all the systems used to run the club’s programs.  This eventually amounted to a website powered by the Drupal CMS platform; a SaaS electronic registration system operated by a company called Bonzi; Google Apps; and a few other odds and ends.  As volunteer board members came and went, I got involved in other activities such as web content production, financial / budget analysis, orchestrating rec coaches meetings, building out the season match schedule, match day operations and so forth.  Whatever it took to put on a season of soccer.

Two-thirds of the way through my first term, the club “reunified” the two disparate pieces and the board was reinvented (as well as dramatically reduced in size) with the intention of becoming a more strategic body, leaving the day-to-day work to staff.  I left the board as part of its downsizing, then ran again a year later to join the new board.

The first time I was on the board, it was simply because the club needed help with technology and I was sort of tricked into joining (but in the nicest way).  The second time, I was mobilized by what I was seeing as a parent new to competitive soccer.  My older daughter Grace had been selected for one of the club’s competitive teams and all during her U11 fall I watched in horror as her coach made one foolish, selfish decision after another.  I thought to myself: “Isn’t competitive soccer supposed to be about a higher degree of professionalism?  Are the kids no longer supposed be enjoying themselves?  Are parents really expected to just write a check and shut the hell up?”

The arrogance and egotism of the coach was counter to everything I’d learned in my courses and everything I believed in as a parent coach.  Then I talked to parents on other, mostly older, teams (both in our club and in other clubs) and it sounded as though my observations and negative experiences were the norm, not the exception.  “Utter insanity!”, I thought.

I re-joined the board to try to understand why Colorado’s competitive system was the way it was; to find ways and means to change behaviors and break ingrained habits; and, above all, to try to improve the experience for both players and parents.  Soccer is supposed to be a positive experience.  An oft cited and well-known study by authors from the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports (ISYS) at Michigan State University (Seefeldt, V., Ewing, M.E., & Walk, S. (1993). Overview of youth sports in the United States. Paper commissioned by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development.) found the number one reason boys and girls play sports is “to have fun”.  The top reasons why these kids from age 10 through age 16 drop out of sports?  “not having fun” and “no longer interested”.  While I appreciate the fine work of the folks at ISYS, you don’t have to be an academic researcher or youth psychologist to know that this is true.

In addition to the “quality of life” aspects I hoped to address, I also thought there had to be a way to create great, elite players without the various shortcuts and bad behaviors I saw so often around the game.

Many of the ideas I will share on this blog originally emerged during my second term on the board, the three-year period from Nov’10 to Oct’13 when I was our club’s Competitive Program Director (U11 to U18) overseeing the strategic development and operations of that program.  During that time, I invested hundreds of hours into:

  • independent study,
  • conversation with a range of soccer experts,
  • board meeting debates and
  • coaching coursework

all of which have informed my understanding of youth soccer and helped to form my beliefs around what constitutes the ideal player development system.

More to come…

My Soccer Path – The Erin Years

Spurred by this experience, I started making plans to do it all over again with Erin’s team, only better.  The summer before Erin’s U9 year (2010 Fall), I completed the NSCAA Junior Level V / VI (fka Advanced Regional) Diploma , which is similar to the USSF E.  I was hooked on the coaching courses and following the U9 fall season, I obtained a USSF National D License and an NSCAA Goalkeeping Level I Diploma.  Finally, during 2011 Summer I completed the NSCAA National Diploma course (which I will blog about in more depth later).  In an 18 month window, I had attended 110+ hours of formal coaching courses plus the referee education.

While gathering this new knowledge, I also had ample opportunity to apply it to Erin’s rec team and as a guest coach working with older competitive teams.  I also spent a lot of time watching other coaches work with their teams both good and bad (including Grace’s new coach).  I rapidly formed a set of opinions about player development.  These experiences, along with parenting, helped me to determine which methods and philosophies were good, better and best (I don’t like to say what is good or bad as soccer, like life, isn’t black or white).

Beyond the courses and coaching, I also had the very good fortune to spend a great deal of time with a coach who ended up being very influential to my thought processes and who also dramatically increased my level of professionalism: Tim Hankinson.  Tim joined our modest club in Broomfield, CO as the Director of Coaching after stints abroad and domestically, always coaching collegiate or professional players.  His attitude and approach was entirely unexpected as I just assumed a seasoned, high level coach like Tim would be an egotistical maniac with an unyielding focus on winning.

Instead, it was remarkable how quickly he adapted himself to teaching other coaches and working with children particularly girls as he’d had no previous experience with that gender at any level (anyone who’s a parent or coached knows that young boys and girls are entirely different creatures).  I assumed Tim stepping down from a role that’s about tactics, fitness and man management to one that often calls for a bit of silliness would likely end in disaster, but I was wrong.  Tim made it work because he always seemed to have the spirit of the game at the front of his mind, trying his best to ensure coaches and players were enjoying themselves.  He espoused this idea of two kinds of fun:

  1. The social aspects of team sports, being outside with friends, exercise and so forth
  2. The challenge of soccer including it’s physical and intellectual demands along with the excitement that can come with competing and pushing yourself to new limits

If you as the coach know which kind of players you have and cater to their needs, everything will turn out fine.

Working with Tim, I took on other projects for our soccer club including developing coaching reference materials as well as designing and running an introductory course for other U9-U10 coaches in the club.  Teaching other coaches was nerve-wracking, but also fun.  I always enjoyed the sense of community when attending the USSF and NSCAA courses, so introducing novice coaches to the community, sharing ideas (and failures) and instructing them on the basics of pulling together a practice session was very enjoyable.  It was also rewarding in that I was able see those coaches continue to grow in the seasons after they attended one of the courses.  Many went on to attend formal USSF or NSCAA courses and four of them eventually won “coach of the year” awards from our club.

Later, after Tim had departed to become the head coach for the San Antonio Scorpions, he invited me to observe invitation-only try-outs for his new side.  It was an eye-opening experience to see how hard those players worked for a chance to play in what was effectively the US 2nd Division of soccer which is a LONG way from the top-tier leagues in Europe, both in terms of level of play and player financial opportunity.  It helped me put into perspective how difficult it is to reach the top of this game and frame my views on what ultimately is and isn’t important.

Now, after coaching hundreds of matches and practices; after all the courses; after all the reading, watching and conversations; I finally feel as though I am a competent coach.  Still, of the total body of soccer knowledge, I have absorbed perhaps 10% of what there is to know.  Soccer is wonderful in that way as there’s always something new, some evolution, some different angle, another lens through which the game can be viewed.  With billions of people playing this game around the world, I cannot think of another activity (other than sleeping) which has such broad participation, thus nothing garners as much creative thought.

I grew up a fan of football and played basketball throughout my youth, but by the end of the process I described, nothing else captured my imagination like soccer.  I found other team games shallow and uninteresting.  I had become a “soccer guy”.

My Soccer Path – The Grace Years

I came to soccer in my mid 30s, which I guess is a bit old to be starting out in a new sport, especially as a coach.

Growing up during the ’80s in North Dakota, soccer wasn’t an organized / sanctioned game.  I played soccer in phy ed classes, but never outside of that.  Soccer wasn’t supported by school sports programs, there were no clubs, no city rec program, no YMCA soccer.  Football, basketball and wrestling were the big sports on the prairie and soccer was a game played in Europe and South America (wherever those places were).  Youth soccer finally began to emerge after I had already moved on to college with the first high school state championship contested in 1995.

Fast forward a decade or so and I found myself an assistant for Grace’s U6 team (my older daughter), recruited to help by an old family friend who had grown up playing soccer and football in South Bend, IN.  So started my addiction with soccer and coaching education. That first season (2006 Spring), I took the NSCAA Youth Level I course.  At the time, it was called the Parent Coach Diploma and it consisted of kicking the ball around for a couple hours, playing and learning activities suitable for the youngest players.  Not really tactical nor particularly technical, the games were really just fun things to do with a ball and introduced me to the idea that, as a coach, one can’t really take things too seriously or the kids will just lose interest and ask their parents to do something else.  Kids (like adults), don’t want to be yelled at or ordered around all the time, especially when it’s supposed to be their fun time, a release from the rigidity of a day in school.

After a couple more years of casual rec coaching of my daughters’ teams (my younger daughter Erin began playing as a U4), various events led to my inheriting Grace’s U10 team entering the 2009 Fall.  About that time, I took the NSCAA Youth Level II (fka State) Diploma and the USSF State E-Certificate.  The E was my first dose of in-depth education, learning about the Four Pillars of Soccer and other common player development models.  I was already a voracious reader of soccer coaching literature, so I didn’t get a ton of new information from the course, but I did learn some key fundamentals around session planning and practice session execution.

Being mixed in with a bunch of other coaches also exposed how terrible a player I actually was, leading me to seek opportunities to play more often, be it pick-up games with other parents, playing indoor in the winter or playing more often during my practice sessions (not just telling the kids what to do), all of which helped tremendously with my coaching.  While being a player doesn’t necessarily mean you can coach, it’s really not possible to coach effectively without playing.

After the E, things started to click.  I got organized and developed a focus.  During Grace’s U10 winter, I obtained my USSF Grade 8 Referee certification (another very useful bit of education), but then it was over.  Following the 2010 Spring season, Grace and her teammates went off to U11 competitive tryouts, for better or worse.  

Tryouts were enlightening (but also an incredibly thoughtless and frustrating process which I will blog about in more depth later), as coming out of tryouts, every player from that team made either the first or second team at the different competitive clubs where they tried out.  Perhaps I was doing okay as a coach despite my lack of a deep playing background and only a few years of coaching experience?  But then I realized: it was the coaching education, stupid.  Without the reading, without those introductory NSCAA courses, without the USSF State E Certificate, I would have floundered and really underserved that group of kids.

I began to look to the future and my next challenge.