• March 1, 2018. Finding the Right Team and Club for Your Child.

Until the age of 14 the most important consideration by far for both players and parents should be to find the best available coaching. That is not always with the “top” clubs where parental and club pressures often lead at the younger ages to player selection for size, strength and athleticism over skill and coaching that pursues games won more than player development. Even within the club, the best teaching can be found on the “B” and “C” teams, where there is often considerably less focus on the winning needed to maintain the brand’s image. The benefits to a player in terms of developing leadership skills and the ability to impact a game should also be considered: those can be hard to come by in a team already populated by a pack of “big dogs.” 

The following three lists have been drawn from a soccer forum where there was a long and spirited exchange among about thirty experienced coaches. Even a parent with little experience in the world of youth soc-cer and youth sports can, with some legwork, see the answers to the first two sets of questions.  The third set are meant to challenge an organization’s leaders and coaches to about the details of the club’s culture and philosophy.

1) Watch Practices of the Prospective Coach (you may need to see 3-4 to get a true picture of the training environment.)

  1. How are players greeted?  Is it warm, positive, confident?
  2. How engaged is the coach throughout the session?
  3. How much time are players doing, rather than stopped and listening?
  4. Is everyone on the team being coached?  Is there coaching that appears directed to increasing individual player strengths as well as eliminating weaknesses?  Does the coaching seem to inspire players?
  5. “Correction is a compliment.” Is correction given in a positive manner that conveys the message both that I want you to get better and believe you can?
  6. “What gets rewarded gets repeated.”  How much recognition, using players’ names, is given to positive moments?
  7. Is effort and boldness getting positive recognition (and encouragement), or just the outcomes that succeed?
  8. “Doers make mistakes.”  Mistakes can make you better.  Are those kinds of mistakes praised or criticized?
  9. Do sessions seem well prepared?  Are activities set up before the session starts?  Are players moving with a ball at the designated starting time?  Is there good flow from one activity to the next? Does the session end on time?
  10. Watch how many soccer balls are in play. At younger ages, a fair amount of time should be spent “everyone with a ball” or “a ball for two”.
  11. What % of sessions includes some form of 1v1 play?  (All should.)
  12. If working on shooting, does it include working on technique or just shooting games?
  13. Overall, does the session seem to be focused more on developing better players or organizing the team for the next game?
  14. “Juggling makes every other touch better.”  Does it appear that learning to juggle is encouraged?
  15. Is there any emphasis on developing the ability to use both feet with similar proficiency?
  16. A clue to player engagement: is the practice noisy, or is the only voice that of the coach?  Do the players appear to be enjoying their time together?
  17. Watch players’ faces.  Do they seem to be enjoying it?  Better, do they have that scrunched-up-face look that comes with total focus and involvement?
  18. What’s the tone of the end-of-the-session summary?  If you can hear what’s being said, does it efficiently sum up what was done and why?
  19. When it’s all done, do the players look satisfied with what they’ve experienced? Do they leave with smiles and happy chatter?
  20. Does the coach leave the same way?


2. Now Attend a Couple of Games.

  1. Whose game is it? Games should largely belong to the players. Does the coach largely “Train and Trust” the players, letting them think and make decisions, or is there a constant stream of instructions that micromanages play on the field.
  2.  Is the positive/negative environment of the team the same as at practice, regardless of the score?
  3. Even if you can’t hear what the coach is saying pre-game, half-time and at the end, how would you describe the tone?
  4. What are parents saying/doing on the sideline? It’s amazing how much parental sidelines reflect the influence of and respect for the coach. Is the post game summary “quick and done”?  It takes everyone, including players, time to process a game, so the in-depth stuff should wait until the next practice. (A timely reminder here that one of the things players most dread is the PGA – Post Game Analysis – which happens most frequently on the CRH  – C _ _   R _ _ _  H _ _ _*.)   Does the coach’s summary end on a positive?


3) Additional Questions for the Club and Coach

Each spring there is a series of presentations designed to sell the benefits of specific teams and clubs.  What follows are a few of the topics that sometimes get passed over in those presentations. 

  1. What is the Club’s Mission Statement and how often is it a reference point for what you will be doing with the players and the team? A Mission Statement should be “a clear and compelling statement of who we are and who we intend to be.” As part of every decision, the question needs to be asked: “Is this consistent with our mission?”
  2. The Mission Statement mentions something about developing character and life skills? Every Mission Statement contains something like this. (Look it up on the club’s website.) What specific things do you do to fulfill that element of the Mission Statement’s promise Few organizations have plans to turn those words into realities. They just leave it to chance. Unfortunately, chance tends to favor a lower common denominator as often as a higher one. The life lessons, for good or ill, learned through sports will be more enduring, and therefore more important, than anything athletes will learn about a particular sport.
  3. Could you share with us, coach, your philosophy of Player Development? A good sign is if the coach has it in written form. Another is how the coach addresses who plays where and why and for how long.
  4. What do you do, coach, to improve as a coach? In the last 18 months, what courses and clinics have you attended, what have you been reading, etc.? To continue to get better, you have to become a continual learner and have a Teachable Spirit.  That’s a quality you will want to see in your children.  It’s more likely to be developed if that’s in the skill set of the coach.
  5. How do you expect training time to be broken down into time structured primarily around the development of the players and time structured primarily around the development of team play? While much training time can benefit both aspects, the long-term view of what will be important for the athletes would put a much greater emphasis individual development. Some organizations mandate that as much as 75% of training time through Under-14 be structured around the development of individual skills, an idea we would endorse.
  6. What are the most important things you’ll expect players to be able to do at the end of the next year? The breakdown of the answer into things that are focused on individual skill and those that are focused on team play will be instructive. On the individual side, one should expect to hear that players will become technically proficient in striking a ball, will develop an increasingly productive first touch (an emphasis on juggling helps), will become increasingly comfortable under pressure with the ball at their feet (through training the 1v1 situation) and will play significant amounts of time in a variety of roles and positions on the field.
  7. Could you describe the year’s schedule? “If a four-month season in one’s choice of sport is good, then six months is better. Ten months is better yet.  And twelve months: optimum.  Except that it’s not.” (Sololove: Warrior Girls.)  “More” is a poor substitute for “better and smarter”.  “Rest is a weapon” and kids need time off.  To recharge.  To pursue the other interests, activities and relationships that provide balance and texture to athletes’ lives.  Rest and recovery time is critical in terms of keeping players physically and emotionally fresh.  At a minimum, players will need a pair of 4-6 week breaks.  It doesn’t mean that they must put the ball away during that time, but anything they do soccer-wise should be low key, truly optional – as opposed to “optional (wink, wink)” – and different from the normal routines of team and club.
  8. Do you encourage players to participate in other sports? Early specialization has been identified as a primary factor in the alarming increase in serious youth sports injuries. “Young athletes who participate in a variety of sports have fewer injuries and play sports longer than those who specialize before puberty” (from Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.)  Playing other sports develops different sets of muscle skills and different sets of sports aptitudes.  These complement an athlete’s soccer competencies. 
  9. Are you familiar with the Relative Age Effect, and how do you address this with these younger players? In any larger club, the “A” team will be significantly older than its “C” team, with most of the “A” team players born in the January-April months. This is usually an accurate reflection of the snapshot of players’ abilities that one might take on the day of a tryout.  After all, some participants are 10% older than others.  It is not, however, an accurate predictor of a player’s soccer potential.  The selectors think they are selecting superior “athletes” or (less commonly) based on technique or tactical insight; instead, they are mostly selecting birth days.  It’s like trying to figure out who should be in a “King of the Hill” game in seven or eight years.  (For more on this, see Gladwell: Outliers.)
  10. If a player isn’t selected to the “A” team, perhaps because they’re just younger, how will they get the training that gives them the same chance as the first teamers to fulfill their potential once their maturity allows them to catch up? Here’s the question about the consequences of the Relative Age Effect. Typically, teams after the first get significantly less.  Less qualified coaching, less training, less opportunity for competition.  The initial selections become self-fulfilling prophesies.  In the “King of the Hill” analogy, most of the potential players are being told to go home long before the game is to start.   Any difference in the training curriculum for different teams in an age group should be in its depth, not its basic content. The planned involvement of the “A” team coach with the other teams, and the degree to which the different teams will interact in the training environment are strong indicators of how a club values teams other that their “A” teams (and, by extension, how they value kids in general.)
  11. What feedback mechanisms are in place to evaluate how well these things are being done? An evaluation matrix should include formal means of evaluating the performance and progress of players, coaches, management and the program itself, and incorporate feedback from players and parents.
  12. How much of what we’ve heard tonight can we expect to see in writing? Written documentation shows that an organization actually plans what it will do. It’s also a standard for accountability.
  13. Exactly how many of the players on your U12, U13 and U14 “A” teams have been on those teams since the initial tryouts for the U11 team? Where did the rest come from, inside or outside the Club?

5 thoughts on ""

David Salazar says:

Great article and very spot on, which is refreshing to read. We have 3 kids who have all played soccer and our youngest still plays (U12) for a big club. Kids are selected at 8/9 years of age to be “A” teamers and the rest particularly if they are on the 3rd 4th or 5th team don’t have a shot – unless they look elsewhere. Good stuff!

TC Valentine says:

Regional differences exist. Culture and parent ego are real. This article addresses the right things for a successful kids. In a personal communication of three Olympians they all said “I played lots of different sports as a kid.” Imagine that!

Rene Rivera says:

Loved this article. Will share on my Facebook page to my soccer community.
Parents should not have to settle. Many great options out there.

Sam Blakeley says:

Fantastic post. Sometimes I feel kids aren’t having as much fun as I remember having playing football… Kids need to learn to love the game first and build those fundamentals.

Steve Bette says:

As a parent of a U12 player born in August and rather small but explosive and technical strong, I have to admit that this article is spot on !! Our son played Elite formation but never had training as he had last season. This season we enlisted in a Soccer academy, Way to Play in Belgium. What Alain Van Mieghem (the founder and ex PRO player) and his trainers are working on with these children is purely individual progress. We are glad our son feels good in this format and we already notice that it is attracting youngsters from other ‘Elite’ formations in the region…

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