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Joy Fawcett, Tom Farrey talk about improving youth soccer experience

The inaugural US Youth Soccer Leadership Summit, presented by Dick’s Sporting Goods, provided administrators from all across the country with the opportunity to hear and share ideas to help push the game forward in the United States.

Several speakers and experts in their field presented a variety of topics to those in attendance. Tom Farrey, who heads the Aspen Institute's Project Play initiative, and World Cup champion Joy Fawcett both held sessions at the summit, as they each presented information on how to make soccer more enjoyable and inviting for youth.

The thoughts, ideas and strategies discussed in Farrey and Fawcett’s respective sessions can prove to be a valuable resource for any youth soccer coach, parent or administrator. Below are some key points and discussion topics from each presentation.

Tom Farrey

Farrey outlined Project Play’s Eight Strategies for helping children become and stay physically active through sports.

  1. Ask Kids What They Want 2. Reintroduce Free Play  
  3. Encourage Sports Sampling 4. Revitalize In-Town Leagues  
  5. Think Small 6. Design for Development  
  7. Train All Coaches 8. Emphasize Prevention  
  • Farrey used the video game industry as an example of companies that listen to what kids want and make sure to deliver that in the products they produce. He suggested youth soccer coaches and clubs adopt a similar practice and simply take the time to gather the players’ opinions on what they enjoy and want to get from the game.
  • Free play allows kids to enjoy the game without the interference or pressure of adults. Farrey said this unsupervised play encourages more creativity, as kids are unafraid to try new things.
  • Surveys of college soccer players reveal that soccer has significantly higher rates of specialization — focusing on a single sport — at a young age than other sports. Specialization can often lead to burnout or overuse injuries.
  • The counter to specialization is sports sampling — encouraging kids to try multiple sports. Farrey suggested soccer clubs try to incorporate other training programs or sports to make sure the young athletes experience a variety of movements.
  • When thinking small and focusing on development, Farrey said to limit roster sizes and try to get each player more touches on the ball. Another suggestion is to avoid using terms like “elite” or “premier” at young ages to avoid the stress and pressure of not being places on those teams.

Joy Fawcett

The former World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist focused on communicating with parents to help make sure the top priority for youth sports is that the players are having fun.

One common theme throughout the discussion focused on the pressure that parents feel in today’s youth sports environment. As Fawcett said, all parents hear today is “scholarship, scholarship, scholarship. Win, succeed and have prestige.”

“Parents feel inadequate if they can’t get their kid to the college level,” Fawcett said. “That pressure then moves to the kid.”

In order to avoid putting added pressure on players, Fawcett discussed some tactics coaches and parents can use.

  • Negative sideline behavior from parents can take away the kids’ love of the game. Fawcett said sometimes parents need to step back and listen to themselves during games. Take note of any hurtful comments or excessive directions that may confuse the players.
  • To counter negative comments, parents should focus on finding positive plays — big or small — to cheer on during games. Coaches can help by communicating with parents on what skills the players are working on, which allows parents to see when something from practice is successfully transferred to the game.
  • Despite a very successful career, Fawcett didn’t grow up seeking out the winningest team in her area. In fact, she’ll quickly admit her youth team wasn’t very successful. However, when given the opportunity to move to a better team, she chose to stay with the team full of her friends. She stressed that parents need to avoid the pressures of a “win-now” mentality and support their kids choosing the most fun environment to play.
  • Fawcett said parents want “true, unbiased information.” Look for the coach who promises to help players develop and grow their love for the game, rather than the coach who promises he or she will help the player get a college scholarship.
  • When talking about lessons learned from her most influential coaches, Fawcett didn’t touch on anything related to skill or tactics. Instead, each coach she mentioned taught character — things like competitiveness, hard work, discipline and effort.
  • Clubs and teams should focus on building character and can communicate to parents what aspect of character development they’re focusing on each week or month.