When it comes to youth soccer, the term “parent engagement” needs some clarification. Understandably there is some confusion around this currently popular and trending term.
I've heard from parents saying they feel like they are receiving mixed messages: “Let your child lead the way” on one hand, and “Be more involved in their soccer journey” on the other. The confusion is understandable.
In once sense, level headed parents see the value and importance of being “disengaged,” to ensure that their child’s path in soccer is, in fact, their child’s. Yet, simultaneously, the best clubs and coaches are working to establish positive relationships between coaches and parents by encouraging parents to be positively connected to their child’s experience from a young age, to learn more about the game, and to find new ways to support them in soccer.
Therefore, the concept of Parent Engagement, an essential step in improving our youth soccer landscape, must be more clearly defined so parents and coaches understand their roles, and can work together to inspire players.
To be clear – the reason for parent engagement is simple: So players are inspired.
This applies to all players, not just top-level players. At the end of the day, what we want for our children is that they develop healthy habits, gain valuable life skills, and develop a life long love of the game.
From a club or coach perspective, Parent Engagement involves:
1. Club-Wide Communication
2. Coach Communication
3. Parent Meetings
4. Developing Policies around Sideline Behavior
5. Putting a Player Feedback Process in Place
6. Parent Education Seminars or Programs (Check out the SoccerParentResourceCenter.com)
From a parent perspective, Parent Engagement should involve:
1. Attend all meetings, respond to coach emails, and get your child there on time!
I know this may seem like a no-brainer but unfortunately the collective behaviors of (the outlier) parents speak for themselves. I frequently hear from coaches who are frustrated with the lack of parent support or response to their communications, or who have players who are repeatedly late to training and they are not sure if there should be playing time ramifications for the player. If you are having trouble getting your child to training on time because – well – life is busy!!! – talk with the coach to develop a solution.
2. Find Moments of Ignition for your child.
Moments of Ignition are magic moments where our children develop a deeper connection to the game. My friend Erik Imler talks about his dad bringing him to meet Johan Cruyff when he was a child and that sparking something in Erik that lead to a successful Olympic Team, Collegiate and Professional career. We never know what affect connections to professional players, or even seemingly small experiences may provide. Maybe it’s a camp experience, finding a professional team to support, or playing futsal. Going to a MLS, NWSL, College or lower level local professional team game. For me, going to a local day camp when I was 10 with a goalkeeper coach from England who called me a “Lion” was the spark I needed to find a deeper connection to the game, and position.
3. Work with your child to set a goal, and help hold them accountable to it.
As parents, we are trying to balance the fine line between not being overbearing or pushy while simultaneously supporting our children in their quest to make the team, score a goal, or get a new juggling record.
And then, for those of us parenting a child who doesn’t tend towards goal setting and who isn’t motivated to train independently, we see the tremendous value soccer has to teach them essential life lessons in developing these skills…and the balance becomes even harder.
Talk with your child, regardless of their age, to determine a realistic and appropriate goal. For younger children, this can be a fantastic first foray into the concept of goal setting. For older players, it can be a lesson in grit, determination, and resiliency. For all of our young players – goal setting (and accomplishing) helps develop a Growth Mindset. As parents, we can all agree, this is one of the greatest lessons sports can provide.
4. Attend games in the Attentive Silence mode unless asked otherwise by your child.
The unruly sideline behavior of parents, other spectators, and coaches is a problem we are all aware of. You must understand the difference between supportive (“Good Job” “Keep Going”) and distracting (“Shoot” “Pass to Michael”) communication and eliminate distracting communication.
As a parent, you owe it to your child to ask them what they want from you during games. My daughter has asked me to be at her games in Attentive Silence. When she hears my voice, even if I am supporting her or the team, it is a distraction. I put my phone away and am silently attentive during her games. My son, on the other hand, likes to hear my voice of encouragement so I focus on supportive communication with him during his games.
5. Educate yourself about the Laws and nuances of the game.
One of the Soccer Parent Value Statements is Soccer Knowledge: We foster our children’s love of soccer by seeking to educate ourselves about the rules, nuances and intricacies of the game.
While it’s certainly not necessary for you to become an expert in the game, having a basic understanding of the Laws of the Game or a general grasp of the various systems of play, positions and tactics can make the experience with your child much more gratifying. Want to learn more? Check out the Soccer Parent Resource Center to learn more.
6. Follow your instincts and seek 3rd party advice regarding your child’s playing environment.
Both the Soccer Parenting Association and the thousands of level headed soccer coaches we work with believe parents will be difference makers when it comes to improving our youth soccer culture. Parents who are feeling stress about their child’s coach or playing environment often do so for valid reasons. Sometimes the coach is not meeting general expectations, sometimes your child is simply playing in the wrong environment based on his or her athletic potential or mentality. Having the confidence to follow your instincts and seek an appropriate environment for your child that suits them from an athletic potential and mentality standpoint can be the difference in them sticking with soccer.
There are amazing coaches and clubs in our youth game – and parents who understand what a positive environment looks like will be the rallying cry for the improvement we need!
7. Go outside and play with your child.
This fall, we will be launching a video series of ways you can interact with your child and the ball. We are excited about this series as getting outside and playing with your child has been proven to be a decisive factor in them continuing to play sports. There is a large drop off of players in the 6-9 year old range – and often the difference here can be a child developing a connection to the sport (and finding a bit more success) because they have been practicing outside of team time. Soccer tennis games, a month long juggling contest, or some wall-ball are all simple ways you can get outside with your child.
I was recently vacationing with a friend who is the principal of an elementary school. She and I had a fascinating conversation about Parent Engagement in her school. Many of the same issues we find in youth sports carry over to schools.
My friend mentioned the challenge schools face when the same 15% of parents are the primary parents involved, and the importance of reaching the other 85% when it comes to having a successful learning environment.
Research demonstrates that schools that have more parents who are more engaged have heightened school scores, kids who attend school regularly, more satisfied teachers and parents, and kids who are less likely to drop out of school.
Doesn’t that translate into much of what we are seeking in soccer?
More talented players (regardless of their eventual potential), kids who go to practices regularly, more satisfied coaches and parents, and players who don’t quit, instead continue playing regardless of their athletic potential, therefore developing into a healthy adult who loves the game.
Parent engagement solves many of our issues in youth sports.
The Soccer Parenting Association is therefore working closing with coaches and clubs, providing education and support related to best practices for parent engagement and communication skills training for coaches. Parents who are seeking to learn more and help their child can join the Soccer Parent Resource Center where they will find educational content and a healthy community of like-minded parents who want their children to be inspired on the soccer field – and life.