Wednesday, June 01, 2011
I like to read the numerous youth soccer forums available online. Several of them are geographic specific and some are general, but all seem to ask similar questions. During these months of tryouts, many of the queries focus on which travel team clubs would be the best choices. The transition from recreation to select has to be one of the most traumatic rites of passage for a child based on what these forums spin out with their threads. Parents see the choice they make as a do or die option that can affect the rest of their child's life, which isn't surprising given the propaganda. Trying to find answers that aren't self-serving for a club or a group of players can be difficult since you can't easily find impartial information out there. As someone who has been through it with two children and now several grandchildren, I can vouch for the brambles on the journey.
If you look on club websites you will read about the number of state, regional, and national championships they have achieved, the number of players who went on to college soccer, the level of the coaching staff, and the testimonials of previous players and parents. The credentials of a club are important to examine, but you need to do so with a critical eye. Clubs ebb and flow, so championships likewise ebb and flow. Achieving a national championship in 1990 isn't necessarily an endorsement of the club's quality in 2011.
As a parent selecting a club, you need to do the same research you would do to find a good day care or school. You need to visit practices, talk to parents on the sideline, and watch how players interact with one another and the coach. Are practices well-organized and controlled? Do the drills seem to be busy work or have a purpose? Is there a good balance among fitness, individual skills, and team tactics? Does the issue of winning come up often? Is the coach respectful and firm? Does the club have a history of significantly changing the teams' rosters year after year? What are the coaching credentials of the staff? How many teams are they each responsible for? Do they have an assistant coach? How often do they miss coaching the team because of conflicts?
Remember that clubs are in the business of surviving. Survival depends on two things: money and reputation. For most clubs, reputation means lots of wins, lots of championships, connection to major programs such as US Youth Soccer's National League or USSF's Developmental Academy, and lots of players going on to play college soccer. The better the reputation, the more money the club should be able to make, which can translate into attracting better coaches, creating better facilities, and receiving invitations to top tournaments and competitive leagues.
Parents looking for a top soccer experience for their children should consider these factors as significant and beneficial. However, parents should also keep in mind that maintaining that reputation means that most clubs won't value their loyalty towards their players as more important than attracting even better players at their expense. Choosing a club at U-11 doesn't necessarily translate into a long-term, harmonious relationship with that club. And being rejected by a club at U-11 doesn't mean that three years later the club won't welcome your child in with open arms.
Teams also dissolve, so that, through no fault of you or your child, you may need to find a new club at U-15 or U-16 because your club no longer has a viable team at that age level. Therefore, your determination of a club team can take into consideration what the club will offer many years hence to your player, but shouldn't be the only consideration. Robbie was lucky enough to play on a team from U-9 through U-14 which stayed together as primarily the same group for those six years with the same coach for five of those years. I credit that team and coach with developing Robbie's strong team tactics and his abilities to play off the ball. Having the same group meant that they could develop both trust and strong interplay. Stability of a team creates wonderful opportunities for a child and I would encourage parents to put a strong emphasis on clubs which attempt to maintain a team's stable roster since they are placing importance on development of both individual and team skills.
Ultimately, the success of a soccer player won't be based directly on his or her team's success. Certainly winning teams attract the best players and the best competition which serves the development of a player well. But if the club constantly shifts the roster to "collect" the best players in the hopes of creating a mega-team, then the emphasis is on winning and not on development. As I've often mentioned, the future success of a player is in his or her ability to fit in with a team of players who understand the dynamics of playing on a team. As a player moves up the ladder of competition from club to high school to college to professional, the worth of a player isn't just his or her ability to score goals or run fast down the field. A player has to be able to be a cog in a well-oiled team machine and to understand his or her role as the coach instructs it. So, finding a club that focuses on both individual and team development will be important for your child's future development.
Parents need to understand that players can advance without being on the "it" team. And even more importantly, that being on the "it" team doesn't insure that the player will advance or want to advance. Robbie played for four years on a team that was ranked in the top three in the country. Out of that roster only 1/3 of the players now play college soccer. Some players didn't want to play past high school, some tried college soccer and found it wasn't to their liking, and some were cut from their college team.
We can't predict if our children will find college sports to their liking and we certainly can't predict if injury or other limitations will affect their opportunity. Therefore, choose your team with some eye to the future, but primarily with an eye to the present. Let the team be a comfortable and happy fit for your child. Make sure you don't overextend yourself financially and time-wise. Keep all your family members and commitments in perspective. Most importantly, remember that it really isn't an irreversible decision. If things aren't working out, make a change come next year's tryouts. Your child's own determination to succeed will ultimately be the biggest factor in any future accomplishments along with your support.