Parents Guide to Competitive Youth Soccer- Part 1
Parents Guide to Competitive Youth Soccer
Who are we and why do we know what we’re talking about?
NTX Soccer Wire is made up of parents just like yourself who’ve spent many many years on the sideline watching our kids through academy and select soccer in North Texas. In some cases at the very highest levels of youth soccer in Texas. What we’re going to go through are things we’ve learned over those years through experience, from great coaches, and more often than not they’re things we learned the hard way. This guide is our hopeful attempt at helping you avoid some of those same mistakes and improving the experience for both yourself and your child.
-Part 1: U7-U10 Academy Soccer-
Rec isn’t challenging them and they want more, now what?
Once you and your child have decided it’s time to move on from recreational soccer it’s time to find a club team. This is the part where it gets tricky. The focus in finding a team absolutely MUST be about your child’s future development as a player. This is not about where your friend’s kid plays, who has the nicest field, or what club is closest to your house. It’s about finding the right coach and the right fit for your player to grow in the game. If your first thought is finding the team with the most wins or the most prestigious club then you’ve already put them behind the 8-ball. Below we’ve compiled a list of what we believe are the 4 most important things to consider when selecting a club to begin your FAMILY journey into the world of competitive youth soccer.
This will be touchy for some but ruffling feathers is sort of our culture at NTX Soccer Wire. Regardless of what you’ve been taught your whole life winning doesn’t matter in academy soccer. Yes, that Vince Lombardi poster with the “Winning isn’t everything, It’s the only thing” quote looks cool on the wall but, Vince was talking about professional athletes, he wasn’t talking about 8-year-old children. Here’s a little gem a fantastic youth coach once told me, “At no point in the history of ever has a college recruiter asked a teenager how many trophies they won as an 8-year-old.” With all of that in mind when you begin looking for a club team the first factor should be finding a coach that plays the game the right way.
Long balls over the top to athletic forwards will win you lots of games from ages 8-12 but if your child isn’t that athletic forward what do they gain in those 4 years lumping the ball to the one that is? If you watch practice and every defender is told to boot it up as far as they can every time they touch the ball, you’re in the wrong place. Today’s U8 defender could very well be a U14 central midfielder and limiting their on the ball development early in favor of the most direct approach to winning games is doing a disservice to the child and the game. Academy soccer is where mistakes should be made. Training focus at the U7-U10 levels should be about on the ball development with additional focus on movement, passing and team play as the players become more comfortable with the game.
Below is our list of the most important focuses for academy age players. Some players will need time to work up to certain aspects of this but you can see in the older teams at a club how much focus they have on these aspects of the game.
-Major focus on the technical foundation during academy years-
-Playing out of the back and decision making-
-Encouraging and promoting passing the ball (yes even backwards)
-Strong focus on the mental aspects of the game (communication, off the ball movement, sportsmanship)
With training focus covered it’s also important that you are able to recognize the level of the training environment. Stay and watch the training sessions for a while before you commit to a club. Make sure that there’s some intensity and focus in the training session. It doesn’t matter how good a player is, they're not going to improve optimally if they're in a slow training environment that doesn’t push them to work hard. It’s also important for you to recognize and accept the level that your player is currently at. If your player isn’t able to keep up in training they could fall behind and get discouraged. While if they’re moving at a much higher pace and intensity than everyone else their growth could be limited. Do your best to find a club that will appropriately group your player with others that are around their level and again BE HONEST with yourself about your child's level. Sticking them with the top group may feel great for you but your focus should be their development, not your feelings.
The player pathway could go by 1000 different names. We chose this one because it conveys the right idea. After a few months of coaching your child, their coach should have a very good idea of what the next 12 months looks like for them in development. Some of the best coaches will even have an idea much further out of the plan they have for them. While you don’t want to be too heavily involved you also have to remember you are paying the club/coach for a service. That service should include fairly regular updates on where your child needs work and what progress they are making. As well as how the coach plans to get them to those goals. That also doesn’t mean you should go crazy and ask for an update after every practice. As a parent, you need to understand that this is a marathon and not a sprint. Most developmentally focused clubs will have preset time frames for sit-downs with parents. The clubs should be doing these at least twice a year.
Also included in this should be the way you think about this process as a whole. Not every child comes out of rec soccer directly to the top team in their age group at their chosen club. Sometimes they’ll start on the 2nd or even 3rd team (maybe 15th depending on the club size).I can’t stress enough how unimportant this is especially in the academy age groups. Players will get the vast majority of their development in this time frame from practice and work they do at home on their own. The game is just a reward for their hard work all week. I’ve seen the very best player at a club in the U8 age group end up on the 3rd team by U12 and a mid-level 3rd team player be a leader on the top team by U10. Be patient with your child and their teammates. If you can see your child making progress there’s absolutely nothing to be concerned about. Always ask the question "Are they getting better?". If the answer is yes what is your issue?
Club Culture- When we talk about the culture of a club there are so many things that go into it but, for me, it boils down to one thing. Are the coaches, admins, and parents there for the kids or themselves? Is your child a dollar sign or are the people you’re trusting with their development in this game truly interested in them becoming the best version of themselves? Is your coach forgoing your players' development by making them stand and do nothing for 25 minutes in order to secure a league point? Are the other parents eyeballing you and your player over playing time? These are examples of terrible team culture.
The tone of the culture is really set by the coach. Even at the biggest clubs, you will find that some of the coaches manage to make their team feel like a small family despite being within a large organization. Other coaches can make the whole process feel like you’re just a number in the machine. It’s your job as a parent to be willing to ask the hard questions to discern which is which then act accordingly. When a coach or club shows you their true colors accept them and find the right place for your family.
Parent Culture- While parents aren’t usually the driving force in the culture of a club/team they can absolutely derail it. You have to remember that you’re not just joining a team like rec ball. You’ll be spending a ridiculous amount of time around these parents and their kids. While it may not seem like a big deal it’s very important to find a group of parents you can at minimum get along with. You don’t want your player to find a great team that they love only to have to move along in a year because you’re miserable having to sit on a sideline of 12 parent coaches screaming at the kids and the ref. Finding a fit for your player and the whole family will lead to a much greater level of comfort for everyone involved.
While we’re on this subject let’s spend a few minutes talking about parent etiquette. First and foremost if you need to go to every game and coach little Johnny or Jenny through every single step of the game why are you paying thousands of dollars a year to a coach? You have to find a way to let them make mistakes and grow as a player. They’re never going to develop if you or their coach is joysticking them through every moment. Stop sideline coaching, stop yelling at the refs, and R-E-L-A-X. Find a way to separate yourself from the results of the game and just enjoy watching them play. It’ll save you a massive amount of heartburn in the future.
Value for Investment
When we talk about value for money you need to consider what you are getting for the flat fee (generally yearly, bi-annually, or monthly) you pay to the club for training. Most of the time league and tournament fees are separate so we’re only focusing on club fees.
Training Opportunity- What does the club offer you beyond the standard 1-2 hour practice twice a week? Does your player have opportunities to train with other teams in the age group on off days? How much time is the club willing to give your player if they’re willing to work? For instance, both of my son’s train a minimum of 3 days a week and sometimes up to 5 days. We aren’t paying extra for these days they spend with other teams and their club encourages players to come in for extra work on off days.
If your player is a goalkeeper does the club provide specialized keeper training? If not, what can they work out to compensate you for that lack of positional training? Goalkeepers can benefit greatly from on the ball training and using their feet but in the end they are goalkeepers. They need to be given training in their role as the nuances of being a good keeper are too intricate to learn in standard field player training.
Does the club offer extra skills or shooting sessions beyond standard team practices? Are they included in the fee or will you have to pay extra on top of the club fee you already pay?
What you’re aiming for here is to make sure you are maximizing the return for your investment. While overseas clubs make an investment in each player by training them for next to no cost. Our pay to play model demands that the parents make the financial investment. Make sure that you’re not throwing money into bad situations that are offering you little more than 2 practices a week.
In soccer, much like in life, sometimes you have to go backward to go forward. Find the patience in yourself to let your child grow and develop at their own pace. At times the trajectory of growth will be straight up and other times it will plateau. When you stick a bag of popcorn in the microwave every kernel doesn’t pop at the same time. If you’re with a coach that is teaching the game the right way, they communicate with your child in a way that they understand, and your child is happy then what does it matter what the score was on Saturday? Find a coach that will help your child unlock the mental aspects of the game that will take them far beyond their athleticism. Once you’ve found that coach STICK WITH THEM! Don’t let the allure of a higher division or better early results trick you into leaving a coach that is already developing your player. Be brave enough to focus on long term development.