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 each of the interviews at SoccerParentingSummit.com.
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.
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 he 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.