Monday, February 17, 2014
On the heels of Valentine’s Day, it may seem premature to talk about spring soccer. This winter wrapped many of us in deep snow and dangerous ice blankets, so venues even in Texas and south across the Gulf Coast to Georgia aren’t ready yet for soccer practices and games. Nevertheless, team meetings will begin soon, and parents need to be prepared to ask the right questions. The answers will dictate how the spring and summer progress, and they will influence whether or not our children continue to play with the same club. Even though tryouts usually don’t happen until July, we need to arm ourselves with information so we can make informed decisions before committing our money and our time. Asking all the significant questions now will give us the opportunity to see if the answers pan out over the course of the spring.
We must never be shy about gathering the facts. Parents may worry that if they bring up the worrisome issues of playing youth sports on a team they will be considered troublemakers. My argument is that if that’s true, the club may not be the right place for you and your child. You need to be free to make informed decisions, and since you are paying the fees for your child to play you have the right to know if your money is being spent appropriately for your family’s goals. Clubs should welcome your questions. Laying everything on the table means that everyone will be on the same page. It’s confusion that causes hurt feelings, disappointments and conflicts. Some families will seek out a team that focuses on winning, while others are looking for a team that focuses on development. It’s not about what’s right or wrong for all, but what’s right for your family. To discover the accurate fit, you need to ask the right questions. I categorize enquiries four ways: credentials, player expectations, safety, and parent expectations.
Club, coach and team credentials help you decide if they represent the type of structure you seek. What national organizations is the club affiliated with, since these regulate the club? This makes clear who you can turn to for mediation if you end up having a disagreement or problem with the club. It also establishes that the club is serious about its professionalism. Competitive leagues are generally formed under the umbrella of state and national associations, so which one the club adheres to will dictate in which leagues the teams will play. If you and your children are interested in a more competitive experience, then find out what opportunities exist within the governing organization’s structure. Not only ask “do the coaches have licenses,” but also under what auspices they are licensed, and what level of license they hold. In many leagues, people can’t coach a team without a license even if they are volunteers. Any level license indicates that the club and the coach take the job seriously, want to learn the most advanced techniques for proper coaching, and submit themselves to background checks, a prerequisite for a license. What does the coach do off the field? That helps decide if he or she has interests and skills that mesh with our kids and has activities or a job that could interfere with coaching commitments, such as being a teacher or coaching for another club. Finally, I suggest asking what the team credentials are. Has the core group been together a long time? What is their record in league, tournaments, and state, regional and national arenas? These answers will help you decide if the team is driven enough or too much for you, and if your child could possibly be low person in the pecking order.
That brings me to player expectations. The primary question most parents will have is what policy the club and coach have on playing time. Often the associations that govern the leagues also dictate playing time issues, so you will also need to ask how these rules are enforced. If you are concerned about playing time, then a red flag for you will be teams that put winning at the forefront. Those coaches will be less amenable towards fielding weaker players for 50 percent or 75 percent of playing time. If you want the winning-team experience and feel your child is strong enough to compete in that environment, then playing time becomes an issue for you if your child is often subbed for a less-skilled player. Be sure you are clear on what those policies are and how they will be enforced. You will also need to know how the club, team and coach treat absences from practices and games and if that policy actually enforced. Bryce’s U-14 team had a number of players who also participated in football, therefore they missed about half the practices and even important tournament games. The club policy was that absences resulted in a minimum of a one game suspension, but the coach never followed the policy because these players were among the most athletic. Therefore, kids who were loyal to the team and its schedule but perceived as having less skills ended up with reduced or nonexistent playing time. It was unfair and ultimately resulted in the team breaking up completely right after the season. No matter which side of the argument you find yourself, you need to know what will be the consequences. What absences will be excused, for example a family wedding, religious ceremonies or family graduations? Parents also need to know what players are expected to have for uniforms (do they have to have warm-ups and an official bag?), how soon before a game they are expected to show up, and what pre-game exercises they need to do.
When it comes to safety, parents should be diligent. Having coaches licensed means they will have gone through background checks to look for things like predators, felons and those with DUIs. However, there are other safety concerns. You need to ask how many of the coaches and staff have gone through first aid and CPR training. Ask where first aid equipment is kept and how it is monitored — is it restocked regularly and are there people at practices who know how to properly administer the equipment? Are first aid kits available for every team and taken to every game? Does the club have a defibrillating machine? Is there a way to rapidly contact emergency medical and police services and who is in charge of doing that? In other words, is there a medical emergency action plan established by the club to ensure quick and proper response? In these days of cell phones that may seem a silly question, but often fields are in rural areas with conflicting addresses. Emergency teams may not be able to locate the fields. If there isn’t a designated person on the team to make the calls, several calls from parents unfamiliar with the area could delay response. Hopefully the club has contacted police and EMT to give them directions prior to an emergency. What is the club’s policy on lightning? Do they have a lightning detector? Who enforces their policy — individual coaches, referees or parents? Have coaches been briefed on proper concussion protocol? Does your coach have the attitude that players should “tough it out” if they get a concussion? Are players regarded as weak if they don’t return to the game? Is rough play tolerated? Does the coach encourage participants to engage in dangerous play during practices? Is the coach a proponent of dirty play? Robbie played on a team where the coach promoted conflict among the players resulting in numerous injuries just during practices. Again, toughening up players may be exactly what you are looking for, so these types of questions aren’t meant to be judgmental. There’s a style appropriate for every child’s needs and goals. Finally, you should ask what insurance the club carries to cover injuries on the field and during games. While you may have your own coverage, not everyone does. So what will be the club’s liability when it comes to accidents and injury? How much of your fees goes towards insurance? Most importantly the overriding question must be: will you put my child’s safety above all other issues?
Parents are expected to be part of the team as well, so find out what your jobs will be. Do you need to volunteer a certain number of hours a month? A season? What happens if you don’t meet your commitment? Who enforces this? Can you opt out by paying an additional fee? In what ways can you volunteer? How will your hours be recorded and tracked? Many coaches prefer parents don’t attend practices, but that seems to be a nearly impossible condition to enforce. Nevertheless you should find out what the policy is. There are often behavior requirements that clubs try to institute such as sideline decorum, how and if you can contact your child’s coaches, interaction with your child’s teammates, and alcohol. Understanding these rules before traveling to a game or sitting on the sidelines of a practice can prevent misunderstandings. You might also want to ask if there are any restrictions on photographing or filming games. Usually there aren’t, but in some cases the club may have an agreement with a professional service precluding any family recording.
Clubs should absolutely welcome your questions. In fact, a good club will anticipate these questions with a written code of conduct for the players and parents, a list of safety regulations and applications, an open record of coaching licenses, and a clear history of the club’s affiliations and team records. Clubs should make available to families a list of team members and phone numbers along with parent names. Despite these excellent documents, clubs won’t anticipate all your questions. You’re not a nuisance for asking. Consider yourself a stock holder in the club, which entitles you to know everything about the policies and operation of the club. Who can you approach if you feel your child has been treated unfairly under the rules the club has established? For example, if you have been told there will be 50 percent playing time for all participants and your child has sat on the bench for the first four games, it’s time to find out why the policy isn’t being enforced. It’s also might be time to consider a new club come tryouts. Naturally, you can eliminate many of these problems by determining the actual culture of the team and the history of the coach’s institution of that culture. I always suggest that before U-14, parents look for coaches who promote skill development and fun. But if your child appears to be particularly talented, you may want a more aggressive team at a younger age. Asking the right questions will help you determine if you’ve landed in the proper mix. No matter what you are looking for, answers to your questions will only be as good as following up with observation. A club may promise one thing yet deliver another. So arm yourself with the necessary information and see if it is validated. It comes down to knowing in advance as much as possible — so go ahead and ask.