3 Important Things Parents Can Do to Improve Youth Soccer

3 Important Ways Parents Can Help Improve Youth Soccer

​​​​​​​​I spent the better part of the past month conducting the 21 interviews with youth soccer leaders, experts in leadership, sport psychology, parenting, nutrition, fitness and sport in society for the Soccer Parenting Summit. Although the Summit weekend-long event has passed, parents and coaches are still able to listen to most of the interviews at the Soccer Parent Resource Center.

Upon reflection of the interviews, I am struck by some common messages from the broad range of speakers.

There is a lot to do to improve youth soccer.

Some must be handled from the top down – from our organizing bodies and leagues with new policy implementation. Some of the improvements are the responsibility of the clubs and coaches in the form of heightened personal standards and clearly defined methodology.

Some of the improvements we seek in youth soccer are the responsibility of the parents.

In fact, after a weekend of non-stop soccer talk I am more struck than ever before by the tremendous role parents can play in improving the youth game.

Here are three of my key takeaways:

3 Important Things Parents Can Do To Improve Youth Soccer

1. Encourage Free Play

All of the youth soccer experts at the Summit mentioned the need for us to allow for more Free Play when it comes to the soccer development of our children, but it didn’t stop there. Dr. John Cone, the fitness expert mentioned the importance of Free Play for athletic development and Dr. Jerry Lynch, a sport psychologist, discussed Free Play when talking about the development of an authentic love of the game.

As parents we understand it can be hard to find time for our kids to get outside and play and then when our kids do go outside, there’s often no one there! Everyone seems to be in structured activities most of the time. To combat this, many clubs are starting to offer “Free Play” evenings – where the kids can get dropped off and just play.

At the Summit, John O’Sullivan with the Changing the Game Project said,

“Clubs offer an extra skills session, and parents sign their kids up. Clubs offer an extra session of Free Play, and no one shows up.” 

We need to change this dynamic.

If your club offers a Free Play session, rally some other parents to send their children, and GO!

There’s more to Free Play than just the soccer development that happens. Our kids are free of coaches watching, free of constraints, free to experiment and be extra creative, free to make mistakes, free to have fun. I just asked my daughter why she likes free play and her response: “Because it gives me a chance to just be able to hang out with my friends and have fun. It’s REALLY fun.”

When we can combine healthy and fun and development – we are doing something right.

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2. Always keep the focus on the process

Another reoccurring theme of the Summit was to keep the focus on the process, not the outcome. Of course, we hear this a lot – focus on development, not winning. I have written articles about this subject and interviewed soccer experts about “Winning vs. Development.” However, I was struck by sport psychologist Dan Abrahams’ comments about this and how focusing on the process is the best path to helping our children learn the important life lessons we seek for them through sport.

Jerry Smith, legendary coach at Santa Clara and executive director of the Coaching for Life Academy suggested discussing the process, not the results, be the foundation for the coach/parent relationship. I think defining the coach-parent relationship that way is a great step towards improving the nature of the relationship.

But it doesn’t stop there….

Erik Imler and Lori Lindsey, former National Team members and Olympians both commented on the process and how different the developmental pathway can be for children and how as parents we need to maintain perspective when it comes to the goals and aspirations our children have, not putting too much pressure on children too soon.

And no conversation struck me more than when Kevin Hartman, legendary goalkeeper, a 17 year MLS veteran, the most decorated goalkeeper in MLS history, a former USMNT member – talked about the process that was involved in his personal developmental pathway.

Kevin wanted to be a professional goalkeeper since he started playing in goal at the age of 13, yet in his Junior Year in High School he played on the JV team. In his Senior Year in High School he split time on the Varsity team. He wasn’t heavily recruited to play in college and started out at a Junior College before finding his way to UCLA where he saw limited playing time until his Senior Year. He paid his own way to a MLS combine and then was drafted into the MLS.

What was consistent for Kevin from a very young age was that his number one focus was on the process of continually improving, taking personal responsibility for getting better and focusing on what he could learn and develop. If his focus had turned to the results, the team he didn’t make, the game he didn’t play in, the college scholarship he didn’t get – there is little chance Kevin Hartman, a 17 year MLS veteran, would have continued to play.

3. Expect more in the Coach-Parent Relationship

We must move beyond the rhetoric of the “crazy soccer parent” that has overtaken the Coach-Parent Relationship where coaches assume all parents are crazy and parents choose not to speak up because they don’t want to be perceived as a “crazy soccer parent.”

As parents, we need to recognize that we are often simply stressed about the process for our child and need some guidance and support in helping them thrive. When we are feeling this stress, the coach should be someone who helps us, because helping and guiding the parents, helps the players.

Coaches need to expand their job description and realize that if they are a youth soccer coach part of their job is to educate and guide parents, not avoid them.

We are all on the same team here, and our goal is to make the youth soccer experience of children who play, one in which they can thrive.

On Friday night of the Summit, Christian Lavers said that he anticipated more growth in the youth game in the next 5 years than ever before in that period of time as coaches and clubs start engaging with parents more and the coach-parent relationship improves.

Clubs need to include parents in the process, explain their club-wide plan for player development at various levels, and educate coaches about areas beyond the game, such as communication strategies, building trust with the parent-coach relationship and best practices for giving feedback to players.

When parents become more involved, the game will improve because parents will hold coaches and clubs to higher standards and parents will be empowered to make the best choices for the children when it comes to the environment in which they learn and play. The clubs that are rising to these higher standards will stand out from the other clubs, and the result will be an improved playing field.

There is much to do to improve youth soccer. Our organizing bodies must do their part, leagues and clubs must do their part, and parents must step up and do their part as well.

There are many pieces to the puzzle to improve youth soccer, but as parents help their children develop a love of the game while keeping the focus on the process and ask more of the coaches, we will be well on the way.


About the Author Skye Eddy Bruce

Founder, SoccerParenting.com Skye is a former All-American goalkeeper, professional player and collegiate coach. She holds her USSF “B” License and USSF National Goalkeeper License and is an active youth coach, soccer parent and coach educator.

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  • Skye
    Reference to.
    Coaches need to expand their job description and realize that if they are a youth soccer coach part of their job is to educate and guide parents, not avoid them.

    Skye I agree with a lot of you say things HAVE to change. People like myself are needed in the USA for sure .
    I am a professional assessor with many years working and assessing players .This is what is missing .Coaches are coaches I have stated this many times on LinkedIn. They are NOT assessors in the true sense of the word assessor .
    Though they actually think they are and here lays the problem .

    Until the parents actually realise that a soccer coach is not an assessor of a player things will never change .

    Like my comments or loathe them that is a fact absolutely.
    Parents do not know that above a soccer coach is a person just like me that can report on there child with attention to detail covering every aspect of the players game .

    I don’t for one minute expect you to agree with me if you do I say Good on you as you know your soccer.

    A coach as you know and I have stated to you many many times and also to others Set drills for which he or she has passed a test to get a certificate .IN TRAINING .

    That is it in a nutshell, there are people with better skills to help the player improve .
    this is key ..on the pitch in live play .

    I myself am one of those people yet I am ignored by parents and coaches in the states .

    The parents have a valid excuse they have never heard or known just what an soccer assessor can do for there child far beyond what a coach can do .In the development of the player that shows promise to THE COACH .

    I am currently in Denmark meeting up with a young very very talented women player USA nation.

    I have told you the story of this young player very recently. So to cut to the chase I will remind you and others that do not know about this talented player .

    Her name is Nicole Robertson I would respectfully ask you to check her out on LinkedIn.

    To parents I say I have been mentoring this young player for 16 months ,since I saw her on a you tube clip . When at Purdue State University Nicole moved to San Diego State University at the beginning of 2016 .I worked with her in that last season 2016 Nicole played NOT ONCE .Yes you heard it not once .Yet parents at the end of Nove 2016 a Danish club signed her ,they have just informed her they world wish to resign her already sports director had a seen enough of Nicole to make that offer . \
    So why did the coach at San Diego Aztecs not see this player ,he is a top coach in the mountain west league programme. This is exactly what is wrong He did not have the skills to assess a plyer even though he saw her EVERDAY. So in ending that is the real problem .Coaches are coaches they are not assessors though parents think they are .Until this changes nothing will change within the USA system . So any parent that wishes to know more just get back to me .I will gladly show you work and how I work .For Nicole Robertson link with her as she is a real talent that got away from the us system by coaches thinking they know more than they do .These are not great words to read but they are very true .Nicole stats so far here is a very cold Denmark is played 6 games scored 8 with assists 6 .That is why I write what I have above . You ask about parents talking to the coach my feed back from parents is we cant do that he will take it personally .That is the problem and it does need addressing I doubt it will. Coaches mainly men have had it to easy for to long .I don’t expect anybody to agree but it is fact.\Get in touch with an assessor and your child will move on ,stay with the coach and not allot if anything will change. I do as always happens on LinkedIn no coach will reply except you Skye .
    The reason I know is they are out of their depth talking about individual player development. Not harsh just true .I hope this helps parents of talented young player who feel the coach isn’t doing enough for the player development it isn’t his/her fault they just haven’t the skills to do what is required. Though the real problem is they kid not only themselves but the parents that they do . I hope I have enlighten parents to some extent you didn’t know ,now you have an idea why not .try an assessor like myself .Brian

  • Tom says:

    Skye,,
    Thank you for all of your time and effort to interview youth soccer leaders, experts in leadership, sport psychology, parenting, nutrition, fitness and sport in society for the Soccer Parenting Summit. The paragraph below stuck out to me.
    “What was consistent for Kevin from a very young age was that his number one focus was on the process of continually improving, taking personal responsibility for getting better and focusing on what he could learn and develop. If his focus had turned to the results, the team he didn’t make, the game he didn’t play in, the college scholarship he didn’t get – there is little chance he would have continued to play.”
    Our children need to hear this message. Internal motivation is the essential ingredient.to success on and off the field.

  • Geoffrey says:

    Thank you for the article and some of the parenting/coaching ideas! I strongly disagree on many of the points though I can understand how we have gotten to this point of disconnection!

    Soccer is the biggest cultural sport played around the World. The World is a much bigger place then the culture of soccer!

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