Monday, May 03, 2010
Lately I've been seeing a number of clubs advertising spring skill camps for U-9 and U-10 players. These camps have no fees attached, are open to any child in the correct age range, and don't require a reservation. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what's going on – these are camouflaged tryouts for kids too young for any select program. Clubs know that if they can snag potential players when they are still learning cursive writing they may be able to snag and retain the next Landon Donovan or Abby Wambach. Anxious for little Molly or Mikey to be discovered, parents have no problem bringing their children to these camps. It's either a win-win or win-lose situation with the clubs always winning.
Competition among clubs has become fiercer as more national developmental options open up. Clubs need talent to qualify for the top levels of competition and training and that talent can be gathered two ways. First clubs can plunder other clubs for their developed players, which is a common enough practice that strict rules have been laid down in US Youth Soccer State Associations. Every spring cries of "recruiting" bring cases before State Association mediation, and occasionally, clubs get sanctioned for being too aggressive in their hunt for talent. Second, clubs can find raw talent and develop that talent for themselves, hoping that no one poaches their finds after years of nurturing them.
The positive for young players comes from the opportunities that these skill clinics, aka tryouts, bring. If a player shows some penchant for the sport, then the likelihood is that the parents will be approached following the clinic to be told what potential Molly has and how this is the club that can mold that potential. Parents and kids alike will be stroked with lots of compliments, promises, and pie in the sky dreams. The reality is that Molly will be one of dozens of kids approached; however, her development may or may not pan out as the club expects, and Molly may find herself at age 14 persona non grata. That's hard to take when just four or five years earlier Molly was being told she'd be a star, play in college, and make the club proud. Now she's cast off in favor of some other "star" recruited to take Molly's place.
Clubs are a business. There's no two ways around it. They succeed when they win because that draws parents to the club through reputation and prestige. Most parents don't care how the club gets a winning record, they only care that the club is perceived as the best. Coaches don't keep their jobs if they don't win, so they are always on the look-out for talent. Since there are strict guidelines on when they can approach players from another team, they often leave the job of recruiting to the parents of players or the players. Once after a State Championship game, in front of all the parents of Robbie's team, the manager of the opposing team, who had beaten us, came up to me and loudly announced that Robbie was too good to be on this, "rag tag collection of misfits" so he should consider coming to the other team's tryouts in June. Not only was I embarrassed both for Robbie and for the parents sitting there, but I had no idea how to respond. I sputtered out something like "Thanks, but everyone's great. Their talents complement one another." However, the damage had already been done. The team's parents had their faces rubbed in not only their loss but in Robbie being elevated over their hardworking and skilled children by this rogue parent. I could barely contain my anger.
Parents need to be cautious about seeking the top club in the area for the sake of prestige. Robbie played for years for the "second place" club in our part of Wisconsin because his coach was a superb developer of soccer talent. The coach was Hispanic with deep ties to the Hispanic community, so he brought in raw talent from a basically untapped source and created a team that did appear on the surface "rag tag" only because the kids were all different races, sizes, and ages. But those kids could play soccer. They didn't always win because many of the players were younger than the registered level of the team so they weren't always strong enough to beat bigger, more powerful teams, but they possessed skills beyond other players at their age level. Robbie knows that he owes his strong soccer abilities to that coach and to that team. Eventually he made the decision to move to another team because of competition and exposure to college recruiters, but he loved his original team.
I encourage parents to shop around for two things when their players are young and not to be enticed by that bright, shiny object of status. First look for a coach that you believe will be able to truly teach your child. Many coaches substitute yelling louder for actual education. Coaches who patiently explain tactics and skills and don't expect perfection in a few minutes of practice are better suited for young players. Second look for a good mix of kids that share your child's interests and personality. Winning is wonderful – there's no better high than winning a game – but winning at the cost of fun and education isn't really worth it. Remember that getting into that winning club and on that winning team means your child has to pull his or her weight. If not, your player won't remain on the team. That kind of pressure and rejection can be detrimental to a child's self-image. I have listened to scores of parents, many of them on the verge of tears, when their child didn't make the cut, especially after being on a team for a number of years. That moment when they don't get the phone call can be one of the most devastating in their lives. If your child isn't driven, then a driven team isn't for him or her.
If your child continues to improve and shows a keen passion for soccer, then by all means check out more competitive programs. Kids who want to play beyond high school should consider eventually playing on teams that have more national exposure so they can be seen by college coaches. But that can wait until later. If your child grew up in soccer with a great teacher-coach then he or she will have been well-developed even if the team doesn't have a strong winning record. Likewise they should consider joining the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program (US Youth Soccer ODP) in their state to augment their development. Here they can test their skills and abilities against the top players. If they are successful in US Youth Soccer ODP, they will likely be recruited by the top soccer clubs since many of the coaches from those clubs are coaches in the program.
Be wary of coaches courting your child at age eight or nine. They may well be a wolf looking to devour Red Riding Hood. Take their flattery with a grain of salt. Come watch some practices over the course of the next couple weeks to see if the coaches have a Mr. Hyde personality when the clinics are over or continue to be patient and nurturing with these young players. Talk to other parents, particularly parents of older players, to get their opinion of the club once players hit the select stage. And most importantly listen to your child. If he or she is unhappy, then prestige and winning are empty gifts. Soccer should never cease to be fun.