How Long Should a Player be a Multi-Sport Athlete?

Parents want their child to excel and want to know at what age I stopped playing other sports and focused on soccer.  The answer to this question is much more complex than you might think.    Parents only want the best for their children.  They want them to succeed at everything and give them the opportunities to find what they are passionate about.  When it comes to sports they will put them in every sport under the sun and see how it shakes out.

By the time each child is 11 or 12 it is safe to say that they have their favorite sports.  This is where it becomes complicated. Now, we all know that in a perfect world each child would like only one sport and decide that that is all he or she wants to play, but we know better than that.  I was a child who knew that all I wanted to do was be a pro soccer player.  I played every sport there was while growing up, but I had the most fun playing soccer.  This was because I had some natural talent, but a lot of it was because of the people that were on my team.  I played for Los Gatos United from the time I was 9 years old until I went off to college.  Most of the players that were on my team when I was 9 were the same as when I was 18.  I was one of the lucky few that had a great situation.

When it comes to your child, however, the first priority is to narrow down what sport he or she is most passionate about, and what sport he or she has the most fun playing.  Then there are a couple questions you have to ask yourself:

1.  How old is your child?  If your child is 8 years old, then you don’t even need to be reading this post.  I do not think that this is something that you, as a parent, have to think about until your child is 11 or 12.  Until then it is important to have them try out a number of different sports and activities.  Only after trying many of sports can your child really know which one he or she is most interested in.

2.  What do I do if my child can’t pick one sport?  I tell the parents of the kids that I coach that I don’t mind if they play other sports, but I expect them to never miss a soccer practice or game because of having a conflict with another sport.  In other words, I expect them to miss other sports events in order to be at any soccer event that they have.  Soccer comes first.

In conclusion, your child can be a multi-sport athlete as long as he or she likes.  They just need to set priorities so that they are are meeting the expectations of their teammates and coaches.  In their minds they must value one sport over another, and as a parent you must help them make the decisions about which one to pour the most effort into.

How to Choose Which Club Team is Right for Your Child

One of the most common questions that I have come across while coaching in youth soccer is from parents wondering which club team their child should play for.  This is a very tough question that depends on a number of factors.

1. How old is your child?

If your child is young (8-12) then you should be looking for a club that isn’t as results oriented as it is development oriented.  At a young age it really doesn’t matter if they win or lose.  You want them to develop.  Most parents think that the team that wins the most games is the best place for their child to be.  I can assure you that this does not matter.  You want your child to be in an environment that focuses heavily on developing the individual skills of each player.  While these teams may lose a large number of games at a young age, but when they get to an age where results start mattering they will be equipped with all of the technical skills they will need in order to execute the tactics of the game.

If your child is a bit older (13-18) you want them to be in an environment that is competitive.  I am not saying that they have to be on the best team, but that they need to be on a team where they are going to get a lot of playing time and be challenged.  It is much better for a player to play 90 minutes every week on a team that goes 500 than to play 35 minutes on a team that wins every game.

2. How committed are you?

Many kids at a young age play many different sports.  Whether it be basketball, baseball, hockey, or lacrosse, all of these sports take time and commitment.  Personally I believe that children should play a number of sports to figure out which one they like most.  If they do decide that soccer is the sport for them it doesn’t mean that they have to stop playing all other sports, just that soccer will take priority over all other activities.  This is relevant to deciding which club to play for because not every club is ok with having their players play multiple sports.  Some clubs and coaches believe that playing other sports takes the focus off of soccer which in turn makes the players struggle to perform at their highest potential.  The solution to this is to have a conversation with the coach and figure out if this is something that is going to be acceptable or not.

3. What is the reputation of the club?

Certain clubs have a reputation for being all business.  What I mean by this is that they do not care about how they win, just that they do.  This relates back to the first question in that you always want to be at a club that values development.  It is perfectly ok, especially as players get older, to strive for perfection, but you need to have a coach that teaches the players after a mistake has been made.  I know that this might sound a little ridiculous, but I have seen too many coaches that will yell at a player and pull them out of a game after making a mistake without ever explaining to the player why.

In conclusion, each player’s situation is going to be different.  As a family you must have a conversation and get your priorities straight, then look at all of the options and make a decision.  Personally, I always value a teacher over a dictator, and believe me I have seen my fair share of both.  In youth soccer you want someone that is going to develop your child not only as a soccer player, but as a person.

Why a Tiered Structure is Necessary for Development

Do you remember what playing competitive sports was like when you were a child? Let me give you the overview. No matter what sport or organization, every age group had one team. You either made the team or went to play for a different organization. This approach was common practice for a long time, and many organizations still use this model (or an adapted version of this model). While there are some positives such as team camaraderie, there are to many negatives to make it successful. The main negative is that if you only have one team then how are you going to keep adding to the talent pool if you have no place for players to improve?

The most effective way to address the problem of development is by implementing a tiered structure for your organization. What this means is that players are placed on teams based on their current skill. For example, your best players would all be on the “A” team, while your next strongest group would be on your “B” team.

Let’s look at a club like Real Madrid for example. Real Madrid’s youth academy is commonly referred to as “La Fabrica” or “The Factory.” They have six different tiers within their academy starting with Prebenjamin, Benjamin, Alevin, Infantil, Cadete, and Juventil. Within each of theses tiers there are A and B teams. In certain tiers there are also C teams. Youth players must aspire to progress up the ladder if they wish to make an appearance for the first team. Real Madrid has even gone so far as to design their training center, Valdebebas, so that players must literally raise their level to get onto the next level of playing field.

kellygraysports-real-madrid.jpg

The first team trains on the highest field so you must climb the steps in order to get there.

Developmentally this allows the coaches to place each player in a situation where they are going to be challenged. For example if a player on the Cadete A team is doing well the coaches can make him simply climb the steps to the next pitch to train with the Juventil C squad. This same format can be repeated at any age. What is important is making sure players are challenged at all times and are able to grow in experience and confidence. With such a set up players are able to stay with one club for an extended period of time.

This structure translates to all sports and all competitive clubs. The main issue that most organizations will need to focus on is that the result of the teams is not what is important. What is most important is the development of each player individually. That is a hard concept for many people to grasp. Coaches ego’s need to come from looking at how many players they develop to reach the next level of the game, not how many wins and losses each team has. If a coach is doing their job properly then their team will eventually start winning because they have been taught the correct technical skills and tactical awareness.

How the USMNT Will Win the World Cup

 

It all started back in the early 2000's with US Soccer’s push to win The World Cup by 2010. We saw the emergence of programs like Project-40 which was designed to sign the best and brightest players to professional contracts with MLS so that they could continue to develop at an accelerated rate compared to all the other players their age playing college soccer. While there is no question that this is a great program to develop these elite players, this only addresses a small group of players that could flourish at the next level. What MLS and US Soccer failed to recognize was that while they were picking the top few players to turn pro, they were neglecting the masses, and that is where the real opportunity lies. The problem can be summed up in one word: Money.

The United States is the only country that has managed to turn the world’s poorest sport into a rich kid’s game.

There are 5 million youth soccer players in the United States. Are we so naive to think that only producing a handful of professional players is not a massive failure? Five million people is more than the total population of some countries in Europe who manage to churn out top professionals year after year. The problem in the United States comes down to money. 

The United States is one of the most diverse countries in the world. There are people from many different cultures, religions, ethnicities, beliefs, and philosophies. The one thing that all of these groups have in common is the game of soccer. It is the world’s unifying game. There are massive groups of people in this country who grow up with a passion for the sport that many Americans do not. We see it primarily in the Hispanic community. Hispanic players grow up with soccer as the #1 sport in their household. They are brought up to understand and feel that passion that comes with supporting your team, the sadness that comes when they lose a game, and the jubilation of each victory. A typical American player is brought up with Sundays being the big day in their house because that is when NFL games are played. They usually do not discover soccer until they are older, and only because their parents signed them up because all of their friends were doing it too.

My point about the above is that at the young ages of youth soccer the difference in these two upbringings is extremely apparent. Socioeconomically challenged players and teams completely dominate other teams that are comprised of mostly socioeconomically privileged players. Most of the challenged teams are coached by one of the player’s fathers who do it for free, while most of the privileged teams are coached by professional coaches who get paid by the parents.

This is where the money comes into play. Because of the American pay-to-play model many of these players end up getting lost and have their development halted because they cannot afford the high price of professional coaches. 

Challenged teams will dominate most other teams until they are about 12 years old. At this point the players tend to understand the game more than their parent coach. This is the turning point. This is the moment when a professional coach is needed. A typical privileged team will have had a professional coach all along who will be able to continue the player’s and team's development well beyond that of a parent coach. 

Professional coaches cost a lot of money and a typical challenged team will not have the funds to  hire a professional on a consistent basis.

The Answer

Make soccer free. It is as simple as that. 

Now I know this is a ridiculous statement because professional coaches still need to get paid. So the question becomes, “How do we pay professional coaches without charging parents any fees?” We will get into this a little later. First let’s start with what the affects of this change would be.

  1. Players would be under professional instruction from a very young age.
  2. At the turning point age that we currently see, all players would be given the opportunity to continue to develop under the guidance of professionals.
  3. More players would stick with the game because they will be able to see a future within it.
  4. Higher rate of development of the masses driving a much higher level of play at the highest levels in this country.

Now let’s get back to the question of expense. How are we supposed to pay for this system. The most obvious answer is to have the professional teams pick up the cost of the programs within their areas since they will be the ones to most naturally benefit from the increased level of development in their area. This will not work in our current system because the only way that this is a true benefit is if the clubs can gain the rights to each player. Under the current labor laws in the United States players under 18 are not able to be owned by a club. If a team was able to own the rights to all of the players in their area then with each player’s development the club would be able to either promote them to the first team (homegrown contract) or sell them on the world market (like every other club in the world). Without this changing there is no way that the MLS owners would ever float the bill for this proposed structure.

So what is the next option? Corporate sponsorship. We see corporations dump billions, yes with a “b” into sports each year with the hope of turning them into a fan of their product. Most of this focus is put on football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. The world market for these sports pales in comparison to soccer. It would be much more beneficial for corporations to be dumping money into youth sports on both the developmental and marketing fronts. We have seen more money being put into soccer more recently as TV deals have made soccer more of a household sport, but we have not seen that money trickle down into the youth market.  

Clearly there is no easy answer to this problem. I would love to hear your comments on this and see what proposals you have for how to fund the continued growth and development of soccer in this country.

Please leave comments below...

The Slow Death of the #10

 

The title of this post relates to the fact that the United States has failed to develop thoughtful, creative, dynamic, attacking minded soccer players. Now I know that this is a very bold statement. We have seen players like Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Christian Pulisic, and many more. I don’t want to take away anything from these players, and I rate them all very highly, but the reality is that they were developed outside of the American system. Dempsey and Donovan were before the USSDA (United States Soccer Development Academy) was in existence, while Pulisic started in it and jumped ship to Borussia Dortmund to continue his development. None of this is really the point though. I believe that this issue goes much deeper than a few players on our national team. I believe that the true fault lies within the philosophy that we are teaching our players from a young age.

It is estimated that 5 million youth players are active at some level every year in the United States. Out of these 5 million players every year one would assume that we would be able to produce a consistent group of players to compete at the highest levels of the game. To put it into perspective 5 million people is about half of the population of Portugal, the 2016 European Champions.

Who is Making the Decisions

The highest ranks of US Soccer are held by people who have never really played the game. Sunil Gulati, an economics lecturer at Columbia University, and now Carlos Cordeiro, a former Goldman Sachs parterre in charge of creating the environment needed to create world class players.  How does this possibly make any sense? 

We are Copy Cats

US Soccer has a history of simply trying to copy the ideas of others to find their own success. In 1988 France opened a national training center, Clairefontaine. France wins the 1998 World Cup. So what is the US response? The opening of the US Residency program in Bradenton, Florida. Spain wins the 2010 World Cup with their signature tiki-taka style of play designed around a 3 man central midfield within a 4–3–3 formation. The US response: require all teams in the USSDA to play a 4–3–3 with a focus on the tiki-taka style of play. Germany wins the 2014 World Cup. The US response: US Soccer hires the german company Die Mannschaft to audit each youth academy in the USSDA.

How can we expect our players to be creative when we cannot be creative enough to come up with our own path for development of our players?

Does Winning Really Matter?

Being American is a disadvantage in the argument about whether winning is everything. The American culture of competition teaches us from a young age that the only thing that matters is winning. In the words of Ricky Bobby, 

“If you’re not first, you’re last!”

While this was said in a very satirical way it is only funny because we all know the truth: we are all brought up to believe this. Most of this is fueled by parents who failed to reach their own athletic goals so they push their children harder and farther so that they can try to relive their failed glory through their children.

This is the first part of how creativity in youth soccer has died.

What is the Role of US Soccer?

There is no question that US Soccer has a role to play in the development of youth players in this country. My question is this, “What should their role be?”

Right now US Soccer is in charge of the USSDA for both boy’s and girls. They believe that it is their job to develop the next US National Team superstar. What I find questionable about this is that USSDA is a league that has teams from all of the MLS organizations in it. US Soccer grades each Academy on things such as formation, style of play, number of players signed to homegrown contracts, facilities, training sessions, and many more things. While I do not disagree that a scale by which to grade an academy is a needed service, why is US Soccer doing the grading? If you are an MLS academy shouldn’t you be designing your training sessions for the sole purpose of developing players for your first team? If they find themselves on the National Team that is great, but the main job of any academy director is to place players on the first team.

This is just a scratch on the surface on this discussion so please leave your comments below.  The point of this is to spur discussion.  Please be respectful in your responses.  This is the only way that change will occur. 

 

Just Let Them Play: Why Parents Should Stay Out of Youth Sports

When I started working on the management side of youth sports I quickly adopted a saying,

Kids just want to play, and parents ruin everything.

Anyone who work is in youth sports understands this statement, and probably gives a little chuckle as they read it.  This is because their mind goes directly to one of the many situations that they have been through where this statement holds true.

The perfect example of this is an experiment that has been replicated numerous times.  The experiment goes like this:

The Setup

There is a group a children out on a field.  In scenario 1 a ball is introduced and there are no parents around.  In scenario 2 the ball is introduced and there are parents present.  Below are what the outcome are:

Outcome 1  

  • The players then make goals, split into teams, and start playing a game.  
  • If the score becomes too uneven then the players rearrange the teams to make them more fair.  
  • The players then play for hours without interruption.

Outcome 2

  • A parent is present.
  • The parent tries to control the scene.
  • The players stop playing.

Unfortunately for today's youth scenario 2 has become the norm.  It is very rare that players are left alone to simply play.  Parents always try to interject and control the scene to assure that there is organization and no conflict.  If players get out of line then the parent will discipline them.  The problem with this is that children do not learn how to handle these situations because the parent is always handling it for them.  Many of the conflicts that arise during a sports game are the exact conflicts that will arise in many other aspects of their life off the field.  

When parents try to handle each conflict for their children they think they are helping them.  The reality is that they are failing to prepare them for the real world and hindering their social development.

 

The Power of Mindset in Sports

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was my first ever college soccer experience, a scrimmage against the perennial powerhouse UCLA at our home field at the University of Portland. I was subbed into the game with 15 minutes left, and I remember thinking "Oh crap. I have to go against Carlos Bocanegra" who even at that time was a formidable opponent. He was already a star with the US U-20 National team and a stalwart in the heart of the UCLA defense. Long story short, I went into the game as an inexperienced freshman against one of the best college players in the game, and I did nothing. He completely shut me down.

The next day I was asked into my coach, Clive Charles's, office. I was terrified. I had no idea how he was going to react. What he said to me changed me forever. It was so simple and elegant that looking back on it now, I still marvel at his genius. What he said was this,

"Well, I have good news and I have bad news.  The bad news is that you played like crap.  The good news is that you never stopped running.  That work rate is something that I cannot teach.  However, I can teach you how to work effectively."

From that point on I knew that as long as I worked as hard as I could each and every day, I was going to receive praise from my mentor. It was this kind of praise that I consider a dominant factor in why I was able to have so much success in soccer.  I was not the most talented player on the field, but I knew that I could out work anyone.  I believed that if I worked harder than everyone else, I would be able to make myself a much better player regardless of the natural talent anyone had.  I believed that I could make myself better.

This line of thinking falls directly in line with a very popular debate that is going on right now regarding mindset.  The debate is based on research by Stanford University Professor of Psychology Carol Dweck and focuses on the Fixed Mindset vs. the Growth Mindset.

 

The Fixed Mindset

Having a fixed mindset means that a person believes that is or her skills and intelligence are set and cannot be changed.  A fixed mindset leads to an emotional player who is constantly comparing himself or herself to others.  This creates a rigid and fearful athlete who is limiting his or her potential.

People with a fixed mindset generally believe:

  • Skills are something that a person is born with
  • Challenges are something to avoid
  • Challenges can reveal a lack of skill in an area
  • Perseverance will not help
  • Effort is unnecessary
  • If a person has to put effort in, it must be because he or she is not good enough
  • Feedback should be taken personally
  • When failure happens, it must be the fault of others

 

The Growth Mindset

A growth mindset means that a person believes that his or her skills and intelligence are things that can be developed and improved.  Someone with a growth mindset is able to share in the successes of others and win or lose with class.  This way of thinking leads to a hard working, calm, more open minded athlete who is coachable and able to reach his or her fullest potential.

People with a growth mindset believe:

  • Skills come from hard work
  • Skills can always be improved
  • Challenges should be embraced
  • A challenge is a chance to test one's self
  • Effort is the most important trait
  • Effort is the basis for mastery
  • Feedback is something that you can learn from
  • Feedback helps you make a better product and identify areas in which to improve
  • Setbacks are a learning moment
  • Setbacks are viewed as a wake up call

 

This video describes more about fixed vs. growth mindsets.  Although it is not related to sports, the principles apply.

 

The Debate: Development vs. Winning

An often debated question in youth soccer is whether it is more important to develop talent or win games?

A common situation that I have experienced in my many years of being involved in youth soccer happens at the youngest ages of the game.  We will call this "The Winning Scenario."  Let's take the U9 age group as an example.  As a coach if I want to win most games, I put the player that can kick the ball the farthest at central defender and my fastest player at striker.  Obviously, the defender will kick the ball the length of the field and the speedy forward will sprint past everyone and score on a breakaway.  This may happen three or four times per game, and the team will win most of the time.

Now let's look at "The Development Scenario."  I have the same players lined up in the same positions, but instead of coaching the defenders to kick the ball up the field as far as they can, I tell them to control the ball with one touch and find a short simple pass with their second touch.  With this scenario my team loses most of their games. But which scenario is best for kids?

The Winning Scenario:  This strategy will work for players at U8, U9, U10, and U11.  When they reach U12, they will struggle because these players will not have learned how to play the game of soccer.  They will have simply learned to kick the ball hard and run fast, getting by on their athleticism alone. After U11, when they come up against teams that have learned to pass and create space, they will end up chasing the game the entire time and most often lose.

The Development Scenario:  This strategy only works if the club has created the right culture.  What this means is that the Director of Coaching and individual coaches have clearly communicated the plan for development to parents and kids.  The challenge is to get players to stay with the development scenario even when the team loses most games.  What does it take to convince parents that a coach is doing the right things and that in a few years the team will win the large majority of games--communication.

Communication is critical to implementing the Development Scenario.  First, the Director of Coaching must have the credentials that show that he or she knows what he or she is talking about.  Second, there should be some record of the development model working.  Now I understand that this is not possible in all cases which means that the Director of Coaching and individual coaches must communicate their ideas repeatedly.   Once a club decides to coach for development, coaches must not waiver and get sucked into trying to be more competitive. It is important to stay the course and let the development model work.

So which approach is best for kids? Personally, I always opt for The Development Scenario, but as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, very few coaches, directors, and clubs actually stay true to this plan.  We are all naturally extremely competitive so it really is no surprise that people have trouble sticking to it.

Can you?