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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on USYouthSoccer.org every Monday.  A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom". 

 

Armchair Quarterback

Susan Boyd

Apparently I’ve had it wrong all these years. I encouraged, nay even demanded, that my kids and grandkids spend as much free time outside running and screeching. Even in the winter I would send them to the basement to run and screech, safely removed from the temptations of electronics. I signed them up for athletic teams so they could develop healthy habits, learn cooperation, understand the humility of wins and losses, and possibly, just possibly, earn a college scholarship. I am one in a legion of parents with the same requirements and dreams. We drive our kids thousands of miles every year so they can get to practices, matches, and tournaments. We spend a king’s ransom on uniforms, equipment, dues, and private coaching. We battle the elements in order to support our young players. Most importantly, we pat ourselves on our backs that we don’t have those squinty-eyed, slouch-shouldered kids who spend their free time clicking on a video controller and staring at a TV screen.

Then my entire world was shattered by this weeks’ TIME magazine. Using March Madness as a backdrop, TIME did an extended report on college e-sports better known as video gaming. Just 90 miles down the road in Chicago is the first college to offer athletic scholarships in video gaming. These aren’t some token amount — they can be as much as $19,000 rivaling and even surpassing the amount given to most physical athletes including those battling for March Madness glory. Robert Morris is a commuter school in the heart of Chicago that has attracted corporate sponsorships for their gaming athletes who wear jerseys and fall under the athletic rules of the college but not those of the NCAA. This means that when they compete in their “Final Four” championship this May, the winning team is guaranteed $30,000 in scholarships, plus the players can be awarded money and equipment from game companies. They train in state-of-the-art classrooms outfitted with ergonomic chairs, HD TVs, and high speed internet, all donated by the industry’s companies.

Gaming is big business, which is probably why schools, including Harvard and Stanford, are flocking to cash in on the trend. There is a collegiate league that sponsors the North American College Championship leading to that “Final Four” showdown. Who competes?  Amazingly, many of the schools who have established NCAA sports programs such as University of Michigan and Texas A&M. However, it’s smaller, private schools who are the pioneers in this program. Just recently the University of Pikesville (KY) announced it would be offering scholarships in the fall. Presently, dozens of other schools, even some athletic powerhouses are exploring the prospect of setting up e-sports programs. This might be the start of the NCAA having to address the issue of amateurism in college athletics. With the e-sports athletes being able to cash in on their abilities with scholarships, salaries, and products, they may soon outstrip their basketball and football counterparts in financial viability.

The president of Robert Morris, Michael Viollt, feels that the program adheres to the same teaching and community standards as other sports teams. “These guys have to learn to communicate with one another in clear and concise patterns, and take leadership positions.” The operative word in that statement is “guys.” Gaming is traditionally a male pursuit. Since the e-sports teams aren’t under the auspices of the NCAA it means they are probably outside of the Title IX rules as well. That means college women may be shut out from this pool of money. In addition, these e-sports athletes are as prone to the enticements of professionalism as are their athletic brothers. The lure of huge paychecks in the professional competition ranks can pull players out of the college level quickly. In a recent championship in Seattle in July for “Dota 2,” the Chinese team members each earned a $1 million prize. Competitive gamers can earn on average $4,000 a month. My son who briefly went pro in indoor soccer was being paid around $500 — a season. Certainly makes one think, doesn’t it?

Lest you believe this isn’t a spectator sport, you should know that the 2014 World Championship of “League of Legends” drew 40,000 fans to the World Cup stadium in Seoul. There were over 32 million viewers for the 2013 championship streamed online. So it’s no wonder that ESPN has taken notice. They will air the finals of “Heroes of the Storm,” which begin as a 64-team collegiate tournament. It’s no coincidence that sounds like a familiar bracket set-up. However, last year’s NCAA final between Kentucky and Connecticut drew 21.2 million viewers, which “Heroes of Storm” should eclipse. Although the “League of Legends” finals only drew 130,000 in 2014, those numbers are expected to jump dramatically this year. More importantly, the winners of the “Heroes of Storm” competition are guaranteed a three-year college tuition scholarship. No one on the winning Kentucky team got that guarantee.

E-sports teams are run in a parallel fashion to their sports counterparts. Players must attend daily practices, must attend all their school classes, and must maintain a study trajectory to graduate on time. They watch team films which are replays of certain sections of their contests against one another and against other schools to find ways to maximize their power. These scrimmages are an important part of their training just as they are for college sports teams. The e-gamers take their training very seriously. They concentrate on good nutrition, the right amount of sleep, learning to trust their teammates, and developing strategies for improved play. They have coaches who give notes and encourage better teamwork.

There is presently the National Collegiate e-Sports Association (NCeSPA) which compiles statistics on the colleges who compete. There are Eastern and Western divisions where presently Georgia Tech and University of British Columbia sit on top. Because matches don’t require any travel, these teams can compete across the country easily, opening up the competitive possibilities. On its website, NCeSPA allows viewers to see the players, learn the schedules, and keep track of statistics (www.ncespa.com). Collegiate StarLeague (www.cstarleague.com) lists an extensive bracket for the various game competitions they sponsor and actively advertise for teams to join with the prizes they will award to the athletes who win. They have links to Twitch, the online gaming application which connects gamers to one another through chat rooms and which streams games, and to Razor University which recruits e-sports athletes for teams. Twitch was recently purchased by Amazon for nearly $1 billion (yes billion with a “b”) showing the financial power gaming has acquired and the trust major investors have that this pot of gold will continue to grow.

All of this certainly makes me re-evaluate the push for our sons and daughters to succeed on the pitch. It may be that they’d be better off taking a quick run every morning and then knuckling down with their mice, keyboards, computers, X-Boxes, and PlayStations. As one scholarship player, Jonathan Lindahl, said, “My parents were always telling me to get off the Xbox. So I’m really rubbing it in their faces.” Given that a much larger percentage of e-sporters end up playing professionally than the 1.2 percent of other college athletes and that their ability to immediately cash in on their talents while still at school could make e-sports a far more attractive option for getting an athletic scholarships. Given that most sports cost families dearly during their youth development and given that most of us already supply our players with the tools to play video games, we may all be better off simply concentrating on the latter and forgoing the former. As e-sports grows so too will the popularity of individual players, the status of schools with winning teams, and the opportunities for more scholarships. I certainly don’t regret one single moment of watching my kids play in their various sports:  soccer, basketball, baseball, swim team, dance team, and cheerleading. I also don’t regret the money we spent. But now I get it when there’s a line outside of Game Stop for a week before the new Halo or Call of Duty version is released. Those kids know a cash cow when they see one.

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Talent for Hire

Susan Boyd

Besides the steady discussion of bracketology during March Madness, we are inundated with the perennial argument concerning paying student athletes. As obscene levels of money change hands before, during and after the three-week event, people ask why the real generators of these sums shouldn’t get a share. It’s a difficult situation and the sides are clearly drawn. The NCAA absolutely refuses to even consider the possibility, while players both current and graduated argue the fundamental unfairness of the situation. In 2014, Ed O’Bannon, a starter on the 1995 National Champion UCLA men’s basketball team, realized that his likeness was being used in an NCAA video game entirely without his permission. He argued that he was no longer an amateur student-athlete and as such deserved to be compensated. Several other former basketball and football players joined the suit. On August 9, 2014 the court ruled in their favor. The precedent may lead to other financial doors opening for college athletes.

The problems in considering compensation for college athletes are three-fold. First, payment would result in athletes becoming employees, a standard that requires all kinds of legal obligations including workman’s compensation, payroll taxes, termination standards and benefit packages. Second, they would need to decide exactly how much pay would be appropriate. Third, there’s the issue of fairness across the broad spectrum of college sports since most sports outside of Division I football and men’s basketball don’t bring in any money to the schools in the form of lucrative TV deals and fan support.

Since scholarships rarely cover the full financial needs of players, they are forced to add heavy debt to continue playing and studying. Therefore, even players who get a good scholarship can find themselves without enough money to get groceries for the entire month or to purchase all the books they need. NCAA rules are very stringent concerning financial assistance. Students can’t accept money or anything of monetary value from boosters, coaches, or university staff for even the most rudimentary of costs. The story is told of a young basketball player whose father died. His coach drove him to the airport so he could attend the funeral and sat with him before the plane took off. He bought the player a sandwich for the flight, which was against the rules. The coach didn’t buy a plane ticket, he bought a sandwich under $10 as an act of kindness during a stressful time. The university, player and coach were cited by the NCAA for the incident. In the meantime, March Madness generates billions for the universities, the coaches in endorsements and analyst jobs, and commercial sponsors. But nary a penny for the players. Since less than 2 percent of college athletes go pro, there is no pot of gold at the end of the college years that the vast majority can hold out for.

The argument that at least these players get a college education, which translates into higher pay would be wonderful if the graduation rates were strong. The NCAA uses its own algorithm which differs from how the Federal Government measures graduation rates. The NCAA argues that transfer students who leave a school in good academic standing should be included in the graduation rates since the original school has no control over that student leaving. However, the government doesn’t take that factor into account at all unless a student eventually graduates. This naturally skews the NCAA rates to higher than the national rates, which they then use in the press to tout the academic strength of athletes. Additionally, the graduation rates are for all athletes, which average out the notoriously low rates for football and basketball. Soccer graduation rates for both men and women are quite high, as are those of lacrosse and golf. However, these sports represent only a small percentage of all college athletes. Additionally, female athletes do graduate at a higher rate than their male counterparts. Therefore, many athletes, as many as 44 percent never graduate and don’t enjoy the bump in pay benefit.

College athletes, no matter the size of their scholarship, or even the absence of a scholarship, have a grueling schedule. Because their eligibility is dependent upon maintaining a minimum grade point average and successfully completing a proscribe number of credits each year, they can’t cut back on studies to give them more time for practices, games, travel to games, weight training, study hall, appearances, and team meetings. They must arrange their classes around their athletic obligations, which means they often can’t take prerequisite classes in a timely manner, have to do online courses, and may find themselves taking evening classes after practices. Coaches, fearful of losing players to academic ineligibility, will prohibit the athletes from taking courses with strenuous academic standards. For example, when Robbie was a freshman he wanted to take a chemistry course that was a prerequisite for his pre-med studies, but his coach told him he couldn’t, which meant Robbie would have to wait an entire year before he could begin the reason he was attending college. Instead, he was steered to take earth sciences, pre-algebra (he had completed calculus II in high school), and U.S. history. Some colleges even offer what is called “paper courses,” where a student logs into an online course two or three times in a semester and completes a paper for his or her grade. The courses are never difficult and there seems to be no bell curve of grades. Additionally, there’s no monitoring to check that the student and not a proxy has written the paper. These come in handy for coaches when an athlete has a grade point too low to be eligible. A couple “A’s” in paper courses can lift that up immediately. Therefore, the label of student-athlete is a bit disingenuous for many.

That label was instituted for the sole purpose of insuring that no scholarship player would ever be considered an employee. And for decades the label worked. But recently several athletes have begun to question their lack of share in the deep-dish financial pie that universities and the NCAA enjoy. College athletes see the daily hypocrisy of the title “student-athlete” as they watch teammates who never attend a single class and yet magically manage to keep their academic eligibility or as they watch their coaches earning in the six to eight figures cutting endorsement deals, being hired as consultants and announcers, scheduling paid speaking engagements, and receiving gifts from boosters, or as they witness schools spending funds liberally on lavish building improvements rather than funding more scholarships. Northwestern University football players voted to unionize, several on-going lawsuits on behalf of injured athletes to receive compensation for their injuries, and groups of athletes who have completed their college careers who have filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the NCAA are the recent indicators that the tides are shifting. For their part, the organization has adamantly refused to even discuss the issue, stating simply that “if you’re going to come to us, you’re going to come as a student.”

Both of my sons were Division I student-athletes in soccer, and I can attest to the difficulty of that job. Yes, it is a job for which they get paid in minimal scholarships, which are constantly at risk should they become injured or fall below the eligibility levels or get caught breaking any one of the thousands of NCAA rules. Bryce never graduated – the combination of athletics and studies proved to be more than he could responsibly handle. Robbie graduated, but it took five years and several occasions of scrambling for credits when he changed his major mid-stream. The scholarships they received covered around 25 percent of their expenses. Bryce was recruited by a private school where the tuition was over $30,000 and Robbie was recruited by an out-of-state pubic university, so he had to pay additional tuition that wasn’t covered by his scholarship. Both boys transferred to a public in-state university, which made their education more affordable but didn’t reduce any of the myriad of demands.

How does this impact youth players? Once a child begins to exhibit some interest and talent in a sport, everyone begins talking scholarship. There’s a special pride and honor attached to earning a slot on a college roster. It’s certainly a vindication of years of dedication and hard work and offers some respite from the heavy expenses of higher education. Nevertheless, parents should be wary because the time commitment of being on a team can actually end up destroying the reason kids go to school, which is an education. It’s not unusual for players to burn out with all the demands and just quit. As difficult as it was to juggle studies with athletics up to college, those pressure ramp up at the university level. If our kids are recruited to a private school, they may not receive much financial assistance (very few players, especially freshman, get a “full-ride”) and parents are left to either pay or borrow the balance. Therefore, parents need to have a serious discussion with their potential student-athletes about the reality of the title. We need to be honest on how far we will go financially to support our children in their athletic pursuits just as we have a discussion on choosing a college for the education. Let them know, for instance, if you will support them being recruited by a private vs. an in-state public school. Because of our savings and a small inheritance, we were able to afford most of the expenses not covered by our sons’ scholarships, but not every family has that luxury. No family should go deeply into debt for the chance to say their child is a student-athlete.

The promise of paying those students for their efforts can naturally be enticing to families who would want the best of both worlds – a free college education and the honor of having a college athlete. I’m hoping, should the decision be made to pay athletes, that A) the “lesser” sports won’t be neglected and B) the schedule will require that sports and education are pursued separately allowing the latter to have a student’s full attention during a true off-season. However, no matter how this controversy plays out, families need to decide how realistic it is to encourage their children to become student-athletes, whether at one of the three NCAA divisions or the NAIA, keeping in mind that Ivy League and Division II schools don’t offer athletic scholarships. Parents need to rise above the hype that surrounds college athletics and look realistically if our children can handle the strains and ultimately graduate, which is the point of going to college.

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Burning Out

Susan Boyd

Last week, 24 year old rookie linebacker Chris Borland retired from the 49ers stating he had too many concerns about injuries, especially concussive episodes. He decided his health was more important to him than a big paycheck. Just a short time before his decision, seven-time Pro-Bowler Patrick Willis, just 30 years old also retired from the 49ers citing health and injury concerns. As he said, “I have no regrets . . . [I don’t want to] barely walk.” Over the past few months at least five players under 30 have quit the NFL for health concerns. However, they also complained of burnout, a condition that easily plagues those who play for years under a heavy scheduling burden and the constant risk of injury. Even as these players finally begin to have a monetary reward for their efforts, they are worn out both in body and in mind. As I mentioned last week, the English Premier League realized they needed to address these issues for their youth players if they expected to retain the best into the professional ranks. Consider that these professional athletes have already spent up to a quarter century playing their sport, often overshadowing all other aspects of their lives including schooling, social contacts, family life and hobbies. They have spent as much time playing before their third decade of life as many of us spend in our adult jobs before we retire. If they remain in their sport, they may make a big check, but they may also risk their quality of life for the next four or five decades.

We parents deal with our youth players exhibiting burnout as young as seven or eight. When kids have to give up a bike ride with friends, watching their favorite after-school TV show or down time in order to complete homework after a practice, they will grumble and/or show anxiety. This manifests itself in refusing to go to practices, breaking into tears easily at the slightest roadblock or slight, clinging and hanging back. Some of these behaviors could be shyness and feeling intimidated, but in general kids who begin a sport enthusiastically and then slide into reticence are experiencing a form of burnout. In these cases, burnout isn’t overdoing a sport in the classic sense, but feeling as if the sport is intruding on the rest of their lives. If a child has several activities on top of a sport, or plays several sports, then he or she may try to shed one or two of these to stop feeling overwhelmed. Astute parents need to recognize when this is happening and address it without adding even more pressure.

As children advance in their skills, they will also advance in time demands. Two one-hour practices a week with one match morph into three or four 90 minute practices a week with two matches. Additionally they may be expected to train extra outside of scheduled practices including weight training, running, backyard dribbling or studying instructional films. Parents, in an attempt to help their children compete, will hire private instructors or put them in intense physical training programs, adding to the stresses and stealing more precious time. The more that’s invested in the child and the sport, the more reluctant both parent and children are to walk away even if the tensions are tremendous.  At the same time, parents may also begin to feel some burnout with the constant scheduling, carpooling, cheerfulness at game after game and the financial demands. It may be that we can unknowingly transfer our burnout to our kids, especially if they are a bit on the hesitant side and still discovering their passion.

Progressing through the youth ranks can propel a player to high school and college teams which bring both honor and another set of pressure. Now a player is expected to not only represent their institution on the field but in the classroom as well. They need to juggle excellence in play and excellence in studies. Players have to meet eligibility requirements for both grades and credits in order to keep playing, and in the case of college players, to maintain their scholarship.  Those expectations now require hours and hours of devotion. Passion for the game is important, but often it can be that players don’t feel so much passion as they do obligation – they need to see the investment through even though they are no longer joyful. They may fear disappointing their parents, school mates and coaches if they express hesitancy. Parents will also feel the obligation for their child to continue both because of the monetary investment and their own ego investment in their child’s achievements. Therefore, kids can be burned out, but not willing to give out.

How do we handle burnout at the various levels of participation? For the youngest players, it may just be recognizing what is causing the reluctance and letting the child exercise the right to choose a break. While I do preach commitment because I believe it’s important for kids to work through the occasional valleys of emotion, with very young players there needs to be an opportunity to try activities on, walk around in them and see if they fit. It’s not one size fits all, and if a kid is uncomfortable, then burnout can be nearly instantaneous. Sometimes just letting a kid choose a different option during one practice can give him the sense that he isn’t on a speeding, out of control train. It may be that you give your child the chance to exchange one practice for something different each month. It’s important to listen to concerns and acknowledge them while encouraging our players to not give up too easily. Finding a valve to let off the pressure can really help slow down burnout and help them stick to a course during rough spots. If hesitant to participate in practices, it may just be an issue of feeling like they’re drudgery. So spice them up by putting some rousing music on while driving to the fields or let your child bring a treat to share. If they worry about not measuring up, find a skill where you’ve seen improvement or a behavior that indicates leadership or kindness and point them out. Don’t begin the trip home with any kind of criticism or suggestions, because they’ll begin to dread the trip home before they even leave for practice. That makes the entire experience distasteful leading to early burnout.

As the players get older, parents can’t get by with gentle changes and simple fixes. Players now have a commitment to their team which has to be honored. Nevertheless, we parents can reduce the feeling of being trapped by setting down options before the season even begins. For example, give the player the guarantee that special events like school dances or a concert will be reasonable excuses for not attending a practice. Work with your club to remember important events and holidays when setting up the practice and game calendar. This is much easier when teammates come from the same school district or districts with similar schedules. Still coaches may be totally clueless about the significant rites of passage kids on the team look forward to. So parents should make those dates clear during the first meeting after tryouts. When kids are discouraged about their progress, they can feel burned out. So if your player suddenly moves from being a starter to being a bench player, be aware that she may want to give up in order to erase the pain. That’s when you can meet with the coach, not to ask for special treatment, but to find out what he or she sees for your child’s future development. Have your child initiate the conversation and help him or her understand what is being relayed. Ask positive questions such as “what do I need to do to earn back my starting spot?” and “can I work with you on my skills?” Don’t demand things like more playing time.

Kids ma be overscheduled leading to burnout in an activity they love but see as the most viable option to quit. Overscheduling can also be a reason for a player’s skills to decrease – he’s just too exhausted to give 100%. So we need to discuss and really listen to how our kids are feeling about what they are doing. In our house every year for three or four years we had the internal battle of football vs. soccer. The boys had to choose for themselves and my only input was that they had to do one or the other. Ultimately, each year they chose soccer, but I wasn’t opposed to revisiting that decision once a new season was beginning. I think knowing they had the option to switch helped take some pressure off while owning their decision.

Landon Donovan famously quit soccer for four months from December 2012 to March 2013. During the break he traveled, relaxed and didn’t think about soccer. As he put it he was tired and lacked motivation. His mother had always told him to quit soccer if it was no longer fun. His time off angered U.S. National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who removed Donovan from the 2014 World Cup roster. Within 18 months Donovan had permanently retired. He admitted to being burnt out; that facing daily training was weighing him down. He acknowledged that many players feel like they want to pack it in, but “…they’re scared to say it because it shows perceived weakness. It shows your coach that you’re not completely committed like all coaches want. It shows that you’re human…” Donovan was 33 when he retired and had spent 28 years playing soccer, most of that time at the highest levels possible requiring intense physical, mental and time commitments. Sustaining that degree of intensity can be wearying.  So it’s not surprising that many players gladly give up what is making them feel exhausted despite accolades and monetary rewards. If players burn out in those situations, imagine how young players feel with little come back and lots of input on their part.

Robbie spent five hours a day in the car, five days a week, as we commuted to Chicago for his soccer training. I’d pick him up as soon as school let out and we’d get home around 10 p.m. He had to do his homework in the car, eat his dinner in the car and maintain whatever social like he could with his cell phone in the car. Even after he got his driver’s license, I continued to chauffeur him because he needed the commute time to get his homework done. There were certainly times when he had had enough. Even I suffered from burnout, since I was working at the time, so I went from job to driving, to bed, to job. Our discussions centered on what he would do if he quit and what would he miss if he quit. Ultimately his love of the game, the quality of the training and competition and his strong ties to his teammates won out, and he stuck with it. But I certainly wouldn’t have blamed him if he wanted to just hang up his cleats. We did make it clear to the team that he would not come down when there was a big event at school or a special occasion with a friend. We did what we could to carve some normality out of the chaos and pressure. Even now that he has completed college and decided not to turn pro, he expresses some desire to get back into the game. But he has moved on to his preparation for medical school and plays for fun, which is how it should be.

Therefore, parents need to determine if the burnout our kids express is temporary or chronic. Except for the youngest players, all kids should meet their commitment before quitting. But if they really want to end their participation, we can’t allow our dreams and opinions to make that decision impossible for them. Considering that less than 10% of youth players go on to play in college and less than 1.7% of college players go on to play pro, it’s inevitable that most kids will have to quit simply due to exigent conditions. Therefore, the timeline of when they leave the sport should be less important than what will make them happy, secure, confident kids. Sticking with an activity that they consider agony doesn’t contribute to those qualities. However, we need to make sure they don’t just quit and then cocoon. We need to help them make plans. Find out why they want to quit, what they want to do with that free time, how they’ll feel leaving their teammates, what the plan will be if they regret their decision and what the process will be for quitting. Our input should be free of judgment. We can lay out the alternatives, be sure that they aren’t having a knee-jerk reaction to a temporary setback like a coach’s sharp criticism or kids making fun of them and help them see all the permutations of their decision. Then we need to leave it up to them and make it clear that it is their decision to take responsibility for. We should be a sounding board, a mirror in which they can see the outcomes, and a resource for choices, but not the decision maker. When Robbie quit baseball, I was very sad. He was great at it, but he was impatient with all the inactive time that came with the sport. Compared to soccer it was like slogging through molasses. We discussed what the decision meant, and even though he was only 11, he has never expressed regret for leaving. Childhood is so short; it shouldn’t be filled with anxiety unless the child is prepared to deal with it and accepts it as the proper balance for the joys and passion of an activity. When that isn’t the case, it’s our job to listen and let kids take the pressure off.

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No Standing

Susan Boyd

We’ve all done it — rushed to the league website or the tournament boards to see where our kids’ team stands. The all-important ranking determines any number of things: status, ability to advance, pride, future recruitment, and club affiliation. Under our developmental system we still depend on standings because so much else depends on it. The result is that clubs end up focusing on team strength often at the expense of individual player development. No one wants to admit it, because clubs sell their product on the basis of developing your child to his or her next level. However, clubs need to recruit players to pay the fees that keep the club running and that recruitment often depends on how well the team is doing. Organizations do tout their success stories — which players went on to play at college or even the professional level, but the real attraction is where the club stands in comparison to the records of other clubs.

It’s a system that used to exist in England. Kids were coached on either community or school teams until they were 15, mostly by volunteer coaches or teachers. Those teams competed for the best players by advertising their standings. There was supplementary training available to good young players at Centers of Excellence run by the various professional clubs of the English Premier League (EPL). Outside of the Centers, youth played a tremendous number of games, tournaments, and friendlies fueled by membership on both club and school teams. At age 15, players could be “owned” by professional teams meaning that they signed contracts with the youth programs of EPL clubs. They then were trained by the club’s staff at no cost to the player with an eye towards these players developing into viable professional players. This old system parallels to some extent the American system, where players register on both club and school teams playing up to four games a week. Some players can join United States Soccer Federation (USSF) Developmental Academy teams at U13/14, although the primary emphasis is on U15–U18. They are excluded from joining high school teams. The remaining majority of players are trained by clubs and schools.

In 1990, the youth program in England underwent a significant change. The professional coaches and national team sponsors felt that England was falling behind on the international level and needed a stronger development program. They also recognized that such a program needed a financial incentive for the EPL teams to agree. Additionally they understood that they needed to make as serious an effort in developing female players as they did male players. Although females were not yet attracting the crowds and therefore the payrolls of male professionals, they were becoming an important part of international soccer.

The Football Association (FA) mandated a Premiership Academy system for the EPL. The clubs had to abide by a strict set of guidelines closely monitored by the FA. Foremost, the Academies had to be fully funded by the clubs, meaning no costs to the player and his family. Unfortunately, no such provision was made for female players, so steps still need to improve there. A few professional clubs do run a fully funded development program for girls (led by Arsenal), but many still require the players to pay for kits, travel, and facility fees. In return for their financial support, clubs own the players they train. This means that on a smaller scale than with their professional players clubs can trade their youth players for a fee. The cost of running an Academy is around $3 million. If the Academies can produce one excellent player a year for the professional level, they can end up covering all their costs with a single “sale” since the average value of an EPL player is $5 million. This financial incentive means that clubs are motivated to focus on the individual player, rather than an entire team’s success. In fact, clubs are prohibited from playing more than 30 games a year, and these are all friendlies. There are no standings, instead the team’s position in the EPL is measured by the success of the professional team over which none of the youth players or coaches have control. Instead the focus is on individual development beginning as early as age 8. Clubs are mandated to not just teach techniques, skills, and tactics. They must also teach players how to be players off the pitch with lessons in nutrition, character, hygiene and social skills. The FA knows that not every child who enters the program will turn professional, but all will eventually be citizens.

Players are signed for a season, which runs September through August, and they cannot leave the team until the end of that season. Clubs are allowed to sign up to 30 players at each age level, but usually only sign half that number. Players U-9 through U-12 have one-year contracts and at the end of each year the club decides whether to retain or release the player. Another club can sign the player at this time but must agree to a transfer fee to be paid to the original club to help defray the costs the original club invested in the player. At U-13 the situation becomes more serious. Players are signed for two year or four year contracts giving both the player and the training club stability. At U17/18 players have to either make the transition to being on the professional team or leave. They sign an apprenticeship contract. Finally at U-19 they can become full-fledge professional players who may be sold to other clubs at the will of the clubs and approval of the FA. Since even a novice EPL player can be worth $3 - $5 million, clubs have a significant financial investment in creating top players.

Training focuses on a strict philosophy of development. The policy is extensive and clearly outlined for the clubs (www.premierleague.com/content/dam/premierleague/site-content/News/publications/other/youth-development-rules-2013-2014.pdf). Games are not the important center of training nor are wins. In fact, players younger than U-13 can only play one game a week (capped at 30 games) and those must be on the weekends. Players can only play for the Academy (so no school teams), and they are guaranteed at least 24 games a season. Matches are used for players to practice making their own decisions based on the training they received during the week. Coaches primarily focus on team tactics and positioning during games, but may even leave that to the players, choosing instead to offer instruction during game breaks or after the game. The idea is to help the player have confidence in his or her choices and to depend on teammates. During the week, practices focus on skills repetition. Players may spend an entire practice on first touch or dribbling techniques. Developing good habits in practices is the goal that is done in three phases: Foundation Phase, Youth Development Phase, and Professional Development Phase. There must be at least one coach at each level with a UEFA A level license, and the number of coaches at each level is strictly controlled. Players U-9 through U-11 are at the Foundation level and play 8v8, players U-12 – U-16 are at the Youth Phase and play 11v11, and all other players are Professional Phase.

The overall guiding force in these changes was to develop players who exhibit creativity and confidence. Therefore, players are encouraged to find their own style based on the strong, repetitive training they received before U-12 in skills, techniques, and tactics and their refinement in later years. The FA is hoping to gain strong, breakout players who take their training to a higher level with their own signature talents. By attaching a financial component to the development they are hoping to ensure that clubs will nurture that creativity, individuality, and talent to create world-class players. The club will only need one or two significant players a season to off-set the costs of their youth program. So far the EPL has been a happy supporter of the Academies having seen some robust results. On their website they promote their Youth Academy with stories and video highlights of training. Fans are delighted to see these budding players as they develop into the stars of tomorrow (www.premierleague.com/content/premierleague/en-gb/youth.html).

The girls program begins with training at the Centers of Excellence through U-15 and continuing to play with their clubs and schools, but they can be signed with club teams at U-16. There are no professional women’s teams in England, so most strong female soccer players aspire to play for U.S. colleges (yes, just like in “Bend It Like Beckham”). Therefore local school and club teams are heavily scouted by American recruiters since they recognize the strong coaching these players receive in England. Players at the Centers only train, and don’t play games. Once signed, the Academy teams only compete in friendlies and therefore don’t keep standings.

Unlike here in America where parents are heavily involved in their children’s training and games, Academy parents are often excluded from watching either. They have to sign a detailed code of conduct agreement and can jeopardize their child’s future if they break any aspect of the code. Parents receive regular progress reports on their players, but they cannot engage with the coaches. Clubs stress that a parent’s job is to keep their child focused on training and provide support so a child can accept being released by the club. Even those who are selected for the Academy have an infinitesimal chance to go professional. Coaches make that abundantly clear from day one to both parents and players. Since those chosen for the Academy are all strong players it will often be their mental approach to the game that will be the difference between being retained and being released. Therefore, it is the parents’ job to provide an environment that nurtures the proper mental approach to the game which includes being realistic about abilities and not over-inflating their egos.

Unfortunately here in the U.S. such a system will be difficult, as the nation is divided into four regions used for national competitions. The first difficulty comes with the size of our country and the limited number of MSL teams so that we can’t run the same type of Academy as the EPL does. While all MSL teams do have an Academy team, in order to geographically provide opportunities to more players, the Academy depends on club teams for numbers. A quick look at the map provided on the website indicates how much of the U.S. isn’t covered by any Academy program. In fact, other than Colorado and one team in Kansas, the plains states are totally devoid of Academy possibilities. Additionally, on the website there is a tab for “standings,” which I think is the second major problem for our Academy system. The local club teams associated with the Academy need to sell themselves to parents and kids considering teams they want to try for. The clubs’ financial well-being depends on recruiting large numbers of paying players, and the major selling point for families is being in a winning program. Academy teams compete for players in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver and the non-professional Academy teams need to attract players to all their teams, not just the Academy ones. With an emphasis on wins, there naturally comes an emphasis on games, which by definition means teams have to be successful. Clubs can’t afford matches to be solely a training opportunity because their standings advertise their status to potential players. The third major roadblock will always be college recruiting. Youth players want to play at that level, preferably at NCAA Division I, and to get there they must be seen by college coaches. That means attending the top-rated tournaments in the country which approve team applications based on their competitive resumes. Academy teams usually get selected, but even then their status can restrict the number of college coaches willing to spend their limited time watching a weak team’s matches. Finally the role of parents in the “development” of their players will always be an impediment. In the name of good intentions parents often over-manage their children’s soccer lives including making demands of clubs and coaches, holding their child out to the top “bidder” (i.e. getting club scholarships even though they afford the fees), putting them in multiple playing situations, and moving their child from club to club in pursuit of top billing. So players often are on winning teams, but miss out on real development. Just watch some of the top youth players now at the college level who still don’t have first touches.

The US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program is a good option for players in all states. Each state has an ODP team for which players can try out by contacting their state association. Players train a few times a month and play friendlies. There is then a selection process for the state team, which goes to regional ODP tournaments, and players are identified for possible selection to the national youth teams for both boys and girls. The primary limitation of ODP is the distance players must travel for training, which further limits the training opportunities. But players are exposed to top level coaching and to college coaches.

Until professional soccer expands further in the United States we will face an imperfect developmental system. Nevertheless, my hope is that the clubs will move to a model of training and games that mimics the EPL Academy, i.e. only play friendlies and limit the friendlies. Exposure to college coaches can be arranged by holding regional friendly events at U-15 and above that become showcases for the players without needing to have standings or declare tournament champions. Additionally clubs should do more to limit the “coaching” input of parents. West Ham is considered the top Academy in England and has the most restrictive parent contract (soccernation.com/tony-carr-west-ham-united-academys-director-on-youth-soccer-in-america--cms-3374). Coach Tony Carr is leaving the academy, but has built a strong model. Many Academies offer American youth players the opportunity to train in England over the summer and offer EPL Academy training at summer camps in the States. This might be the best solution right now for bringing U.S. youth players into a stronger development model.

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