Kevin Payne on the US Club Soccer Players First program and our Youth Soccer Landscape - Soccer Parenting
Kevin Payne and Skye Eddy Bruce

Kevin Payne on the US Club Soccer Players First program and our Youth Soccer Landscape

When I scheduled this interview with Kevin Payne, the CEO of US Club Soccer, I knew it would be informative for parents and coaches.  I didn't realize just how inspired I would feel at the end of it.  It is incredibly refreshing to hear someone with such influence in our youth game speak so passionately about the need for culture and structure change. 

We discussed the US Club Soccer's Players First program - and the cultural and structural changes that are happening based on the standards clubs must meet in order to become a Players First club.  And then we jumped into conversation about the overall youth soccer landscape and the essential role that parents play in the culture change we are all seeking.  We discussed serving the needs of all the players (not just the top level players), the importance of club-coach-parent collaboration, and so much more.

The complete, 45 minute interview is below in video, audio download or transcript.  Let's keep the conversation going in the comments - it is through our shared conversations we will develop implementable solutions.


AUDIO ONLY:


VIDEO:

Skye: The mission of Soccer Parenting is to: Inspire Players by Empowering Parents, and that's just what we'll be talking about today, the role that parents need to have in the youth soccer landscape, and how we can give them a place and work intentionally to give parents a place in the landscape so that we can make sure that we're supporting the players to that they're feeling as inspired as possible. Thank you all for your support of Soccer Parenting and the SoccerParentResourceCenter.com.  One of our belief statements that I think it really relevant to the work that we're doing today as this conversation is about collaboration.

At Soccer Parenting, we have four belief statements, and this one that: We believe that a more collaborative environment between coach, parent, club, and player is in the best interesting of player development. This concept of collaboration and trust will be something that we weave into this conversation that happens today as well. Again, I do encourage you to visit the SoccerParentResourceCenter.com and check out our membership platform. I have solved the parent education dilemma that many clubs have by creating this parent education and coach education platform that is really serving as a force of collaboration within parents and clubs and coaches in terms of their ability to connect with one another and learn important information.

So, without further ado, I want to dive in and introduce Kevin. Kevin, thank you so much for being here. We appreciate it.

Kevin: Well, it's great to be here with you Skye.

Skye: Kevin has a huge 25 year history, if not longer, in soccer in the United States, just a wealth of experience. He's currently the CEO of US Club Soccer, and has done a great job in his role there. Previously, he was the national administrator for US Soccer back in 1989, then went on to be the executive vice president of Soccer USA Partners, which served as a marketing firm or a marketing coordination, I would say, with US Soccer. He then went on to be the president and general manager of DC United, had a huge role within MLS, just in supporting them from a marketing perspective.

He was a board member for US Soccer from 1994, I believe, to 2014, so up until quite recently. And he's still involved with the US Soccer Foundation. So a wealth of experience. Again, thanks Kevin for joining us.

Kevin: Thank you. It's been a journey.

Skye: I know, really. I was going through all of that and I skipped so many different other little ancillary roles that you had along the way, but has soccer always been your career? What did you do before soccer?

Kevin: Well, I'm pretty old. I actually had two different careers before that, but I always played soccer. I was in the radio news business in New York, and then I was in the resort marketing business, a special events business, in Vale, Colorado.

Skye: There you go. So it's always kind of been a bit of a marketing twist to that.

Kevin: Yeah.

Skye: So let's dive in, and I want to learn more about Players First or make sure that the parents and coaches listening are aware of this program because it really is starting to change the landscape and have a really big impact. So, for those people that are listening that aren't familiar with the Players First program, can you give us sort of a brief overview on the program?

Kevin: Yeah. Players First is intended to be a support system for clubs and a means of identifying clubs. Our hope is that it becomes, in parent's minds, synonymous with clubs that take a very holistic approach to player development, and worry about all of the players in their club. We believe strongly that giving parents a vernacular that they can understand, but helps them make better choices about where their son or daughter should play, is very, very important. We need to get away from the idea that they only should be playing at the club that wins the most on a Saturday. That has been destructive in many, many ways. That has hampered our ability to produce players at the top level, but I think it also has contributed to the attrition of players at lower levels who leave the sport because there's so much emphasis on winning and performance, and there's so much pressure.

Lots of kids just want to play. They just want to have fun. They don't want to feel like they've failed if they didn't win the game. I think it puts a lot of pressure on everybody, so we're trying to create a way for parents to think a little differently about their kid's experience.

Skye: How does Players First specifically do that, because - kind of dive in a little bit to how a club gets named a Players First club and what criteria they need to meet.

Kevin: Well, first of all, we try to take a very realistic point of view on this. So you hear in the Academy environment a lot that Double Pass talks a lot about pay to play. It's such a, in my opinion, it's a complete chivelous to even talk about that. Somebody always pays. It's not free anywhere. So when they talk about the environment in Europe, yeah okay, the player may not be paying, but somebody's paying, a club is paying. So what we want to do is recognize that this is a business. It doesn't mean it has to be bad. It doesn't mean that the businesses have to do a bad job.

So today, in today's environment, doing things the wrong way, or at least what we consider to be the wrong way, often provides a competitive advantage to clubs in the marketplace. What we're trying to do is create an environment in which doing things the right way becomes the competitive advantage. So it's actually in the best interest of clubs to do things the right way. When I say do things the right way, what I mean is worry just as much about kids that are never going to play Division I college soccer, for instance, but they're still members of your clubs. Worry just as much about them as you do the kids that you think may be on a National Team track.

Then we want parents to recognize that. We think it's really, really important that clubs talk often, take advantage of programs like yours, and find ways to engage their parents in a conversation, an ongoing conversation. So we try to provide support to clubs in five basic areas. We talked about the five pillars, club development, coaching development, player development, parent engagement and education, and player health and safety. We're kind of the ones who coined the phrase parent engagement and education. We didn't want to just call it parent education because that sounds like you're going to be lecturing the parents. The idea is you want the parent to take a really active interest in the way clubs do things. Yes, there is an educational component associated with that, but the parent has something to add too. It's a two way street, and it really should be a dialogue. And that's what we're trying to encourage clubs to foster.

Skye: So any club that is labeled a Players First club, a parent can say this a Players First club, they need to meet certain criteria within these five pillars in order to even get named a Players First Club.

Kevin: Right. It's quite a rigorous application process. It's almost entirely objective. We try not to make too many subjective judgements related to this. It's not a popularity contest. It's about does the club approach their job the right way? Do they have the right kinds of coach to player ratios? Do they have the right kinds of number of licensed coaches, and licensed at the right levels? Do they provide ongoing educational and development opportunities for their staff? How often do they train? Do they have their own facilities, which is an important one?

 An important thing is they cannot be approved for Players First if they don't have an ongoing parent communication program of some sort. Because we think, in many ways, we think that's almost the most important aspect of the club's relationship. This is a shared experience really between the parent and the player, and we want clubs to always keep that in mind. They need to talk to the parents more often than when they tell them how much it's going to cost, and when they tell them where the pizza party is at the end of the season. They need to be talking to them on an ongoing basis.

Skye: How does this translate down into ... So a club that gets a Players First criteria or meets your standards and has 3000 rec players or 2500 rec players in addition to their higher level. They need to be meeting this criteria for the recreational level players as well?

Kevin: Yeah. Look, we understand that they're not necessarily going to have fully licensed professional soccer coaches for every one of their rec players, but they need to demonstrate that they're providing educational and continuing educational opportunities even for those coaches, so that at least the parents are being taught the right ways in which to introduce kids to their soccer experience. So it's quite a ... It's a very rigorous process. It's about a five page application, and it's ... There have been a number of clubs. In fact, when we opened the application process the first time, several of our board members clubs applied and were not initially accepted because they didn't meet all the criteria.

Now, they all went back and satisfied the criteria and were eventually granted status, but it is not about who has won the most, it's not about who has the biggest reputation. It really ... We've tried to keep it very objective. Ashley Lehr, who runs the program, has done a great job of determining who does and who doesn't, and she asks a lot of questions. In many cases, clubs that initially don't get accepted end up going back and addressing their shortcomings. I'll give you one really good example that we talk about a lot. A club, and I don't think they mind me mentioning their name, New England FC, NEFC. A very important club. It's a club that has a lot of success on the field, a very respected club in New England.

They were initially turned down. They didn't ... turned down is not the right way to phrase it. They didn't qualify initially, and they asked why. We said because you don't have an ongoing program, a regular program, to engage with your parents. They went back and addressed that, and sent us a note probably a month or two later when they reapplied, and said that they had held, for the first time ever, a parent meeting with their entire staff at a New England Revolution game, at Gillette Stadium. They had over 500 parents show up, and they said it was the single best thing that they've ever done as a club.

Skye: That's great.

Kevin: They are now making it a regular part of their club experience. So that was extremely gratifying to us, and we really appreciated them taking the time to tell us. That's something we talk about a lot.

Skye: Yeah, I can understand. Just that concept. It's interesting to me though, and maybe the role that standards do have, and clubs and organizations needing to implement standards, what that greater role is within the culture change that we're seeking. Because you're mandating, so to speak, if you want to be in this program, you're mandating ... we don't like to use that word a lot, but that you have these programs in place and that you're meeting these needs or meeting these standards. We can say the same thing could maybe result from mandating coach education for recreational level players or mandating parent education.

There's a club in Florida that just mandated that parents that are in their club get parent education through our Resource Center, and that was a risk they took to mandate that, and the result was phenomenal. Their club culture is so much more positive, their sidelines are better, just because they mandated this. So I think we need to dive into what the bigger role is for standards just in order to change culture. Is that something you all evaluated as you were coming up with this program?

Kevin: Well, we're going to be ... Obviously, this is something new. Nobody's ever done anything like this. So we're trying to change the conversation. We're trying to change the conversation with parents.

Skye: That's great.

Kevin: We're doing a lot to promote the clubs that are in, and we give them tools to promote themselves. For instance, we just approved Boston Bolts in the last, in the same part of the country as NEFC.

Skye: Yeah, they're a club member with us.

Kevin: And they sent out a massive email blast basically touting how important it was for them to get this designation. That's what we want. We want clubs to think of this as important and to make it part of the message that they send to the marketplace. So they're basically saying to parents, this is a good place for you to entrust your children's experience because we're doing things the right way.

Skye: Yeah, fantastic.

Kevin: It's all part of a process, but I truly believe that the conversation with parents is the most important element of us improving the overall soccer experience for young players, including the very best players.

Skye: What do you mean the conversation with parents? The communication that happens between the club and the parents? Is that kind of what you're saying?

Kevin: I think parents ... I joke a lot when I talk about this a lot. I give a lot of speeches on this, and I joke that there's not too many parents sitting around the dinner table at night saying, "How can we give Ashley the worst possible soccer experience that could ever be?" Yet, often unwittingly, they do. There's been a ton of research done on why kids play sports, and there's been a ton of research done on why kids stop playing sports. We know that the two main reasons they play sports are to have fun, they enjoy it, and they like to play with their friends. Then what happens is, as the pressure ratchets up, basically as the interception with adults becomes more and more overbearing, so whether that's coaches or parents, or a combination of both, the fun part of the experience starts to diminish. The obligation part starts to increase, pressure increases, and in many, many cases kids say, this isn't fun anymore. So I'd rather do something else.

Skye: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kevin: One of the reasons why you see kids turning away from, I believe, why you see them turning away from organized sports toward either individual sports like skateboarding or something like that, or even things like video games, which none of us wants to see that, it's because they do those things alone. They do those things with their friends. There's no adult at the skateboard park telling them, oh you did that wrong. What's the matter with you?

Skye: Yeah, but you also have to look at the role that all of the leagues and organizing bodies and structures that we have. I say over and over again, my probably most common response on Twitter is, This is a cultural and this is a structural issue. Our structures that are in place support this stress that we then impart, whether that's the adultification, whether that's the stress that parents put on, whether that's the stress that leagues put on with the basis of your tournaments, or whatever it is. Or the distance that kids have to travel to play and the financial pressure that that underlies their whole experience where the kids feel that pressure, the parents feel that pressure. All of those things come into play.

This is not one ... there's not one solution to this. This is a large problem. Where do you think that you all need to be addressing this structure, which you're doing in Players First, but what other ways does the structure need to change that we're giving players what they need?

Kevin: I think that the structure is a reaction to what people who organized the structure believe the marketplace wants. That's why I stated, I think the parents really need to be educated.

Skye: Okay.

Kevin: So I'll give you an example. My grandson is six years old. He's a good little soccer player and he loves it. Between my family and his father's family, he's from Ecuador, so he's been around the game since he was born. He really does like it a lot. So he's six. He plays in a program that's organized by a local club, a fairly large club, and this summer they asked him to play on their U6 travel team. I saw you wince, and I don't blame you. That was my reaction too when I was first told this. His mother ... He talked to his mother, and his mother said, well what about skateboard camp that you want to do. What about the trip to Cape Cod. He said, yeah I want to do those things. So he didn't play with the U6 team.

Well now, what's happening is, now he's playing with the kids who weren't invited to that team. He's a little better than them, so he's kind of confused. This isn't that much fun for me because I score 10 goals a game, and these other kids were training three times a week. It was costing them over $1000 to be in this U6 travel program. By the way, to any parent that's watching this, it is absolutely fruitless and it has been proven to be fruitless to try to identify talent at that kind of age. There is a 0% correlation according to a major study done in German, of German national team players. A 0% correlation between early talent identification and eventual talent achievement.

There's a negative correlation between early specialization. So what happens is, if you're on a U6 travel team, and now you're spending your whole summer doing that, that basically pushes you into early specialization. There's no time left for anything else. We know that physiologically that is not the best thing for the development of the young athletes. They need to be playing multiple sports and engaged in different activities so that their bodies develop properly. It's such a flawed-

Skye: Yeah, let me interject because this happens all the time, these comments. In many ways, I agree with you but, Kevin, would you be saying the same thing if he was in neighborhood where he was outside playing pick up soccer four nights a week in the neighborhood for three hours at a time, more than he even ... It's the structure that's potentially the issue.

Kevin: Yeah, I agree. Actually, what I would say to parents is ... I have a good friend that I went to high school with up in the Connecticut area. I went to high school with him in New York, but he lives in Connecticut now. He sent me a text a while back saying, hey, one of my best friend's son is a very good soccer player, and they're thinking ... and he wants to play for a club in North Carolina. Do you have any recommendations? I sent him back a note. I said, well where do they live? He said, New Jersey. I said, well why does he want to play in a club in North Carolina. He said, well they would move.

I said, well how old his he. He said, he's 11. I said, ask your friend for me, has he lost his mind? Why would you move your family for a kid 11 years old. By the way, there's plenty of good ... In fact, there's probably, over the years historically there have been better programs in New Jersey than in North Carolina. But he should be playing with his friends. He should be playing where he lives, and the whole family shouldn't uproot themselves because they think that somehow maybe this is going to get them one step closer to whatever dream it is that probably the parent has. So yeah, I think I would say to parents, at certainly prepubescent, while it's important, it's good to be part of a structured system because there are things that you can learn in an structured way. Not everything can be learned organically.

But many of the best lessons and most important lessons in our game, in football, are learned in the backyard, are learned playing with your friends, trying stuff where nobody yells at you if it goes wrong.

Skye: Well we just don't have that structure anymore. So now what's taking the place of that are these indoor places, whether it be futsal or ... By in large, our children just culturally are not outside playing pick up. They're over structured. So we have these challenges that have been served. But let's talk, if you don't mind, about your grandson because I think it's a perfect example of what happens in our landscape all the time. Two things are happening. He's missing out on potentially better coaching. So not that he needs to have that structure, but he's missing out potentially on an environment that suits him also emotionally where he's inspired. He might have been more inspired with those kids that are a little bit maybe more athletic at that age or a little bit more mentally into it.

So how do we solve that problem if giving him an environment that suits him and helps him stay engaged in the game, that isn't this three day a week or that isn't the $1000? What is the solution for that, Kevin?

Kevin: This particular situation is wrong on so many levels, basically every level.

Skye: But it happens. It's not this particular situation. This is soccer in America.

Kevin: It is. So my daughter asked the club, or the person that she deals with at the club, why are you doing this? They said, oh the parents want it. Well, I think there's probably some truth do that, but it doesn't mean that the club can't say to the parent, well we're not going to do that because it's actually not the right thing to do. There's no reason for you to pay $1000. By the way, so you've taken one group of kids at six, and told them you're the best.

Skye: Yeah.

Kevin: Now, you have almost surely the majority of those kids were born early in the birth year.

Skye: Exactly.

Kevin: So nobody has any idea what they're going to look like in 10 years when they're 16, and maybe now they should be thinking about a serious soccer track. But you've also, all the other kids, you've told them you're not good enough. That's why kids ... US Soccer was doing a study last year, and they didn't really follow through on it, which I was disappointed in. But that was one of the reasons why kids leave the game, because they basically ... There's all these different points in the process where they're told, you're not good enough.

Skye: Yeah.

Kevin: In Iceland, they discovered ... They did a bunch of research trying to address their issues a number of years ago. One of the things they concluded was that they were losing kids at a similar percentage that we do. They only have 330 thousand people in the whole country, so they can't afford to lose two thirds of their kids. They found that kids were leaving because they were being told in a lot of different ways that they weren't good enough, and then their experience suffered. What they found is that, by improving the experience for all kids, they now have the highest ratio of licensed coaches to players in the world. What they've tried to do it, at let's say the age of eight, whether you're on the team that is considered to be the top U8 team or the bottom U8 team, the experience is relatively the same. You're just playing against kids that are at your own level of development.

So what they believe is that a number of their most important players on the National Team now would never have made it that far in the past because they would have quit the sport. So they've gone all the way down to something like a 30% attrition rate. So they've cut their attrition rate in half in 10 years. It's achievable and it's a little harder obviously with a larger scale like we have.

Skye: It is.

It comes down to coach education, it comes down to club philosophy, it comes down to there being some leaders that are willing to say kind of what you were just saying. I was just talking to a State Association who was considering changing their structures, and their fear is that the parents will be upset and they'll leave, or they'll go somewhere else. John Barrata just mentioned the same thing. He's like, yes, but then the parents go up the street to the next club that offers it. There's this fear that we have and, at some point, we need to just stop and just say, this is what works, this is what the research says, this is how we're going to be doing things, and we need to believe that, if we communicate, if we establish trust with these parents, then they will follow what makes sense for their children.

Do you feel like you're getting to that tipping point with this Players First program or with clubs that you're working with?

Kevin: I don't think ... One of the best things that has happened is that, of the 88 clubs that have been approved so far, and there'll be another 20 or so in the next quarter, many of them are among the top clubs in the country. So they're clubs like NEFC, clubs like North Carolina FC, NCFC, which is the largest ... I believe the largest club in the country.

Skye: You're saying top clubs in the country because of winning?

Kevin: They're recognized as the top clubs.

Skye: Okay, all right. Good name, okay.

Kevin: They are clubs that other clubs took to, and they're clubs that parents traditionally have looked to. So I think that we are trying to convince those top clubs, those clubs that are perceived to be at the top of the chain, that they should be doing things a little differently. I don't pretend ... There's nobody more competitive than me. I don't pretend that competition shouldn't be part of the experience.

Skye: Right.

Kevin: But we need to have a sense of context about all of this. And I really and truly believe that parents don't understand what their roles should be. They want nothing but the best for their kids, but they often don't understand how to help ensure that that's what their kids get. Too often, they think that it's ... I went to a little league baseball game, the absolute beginning level of baseball from the same grandson, and there was a great sign up on the way in. It said something, it was a message to parents. It said something about this, that, everybody's a volunteer. Please don't yell at anybody, worry about the umpires. Then it said, and by the way, there's no college coaches or scouts at these games.

I thought that was great. Parents seem to have this idea. I often say that I think parents, in their own minds, there's this unspoken contract with their youth soccer club, even at a young age, which is ... I'm going to say this and this might offend you.

Skye: I'm ready to defend parents. Bring it on.

Kevin: Can you get my kid into Duke? That's the part that I was afraid of.

Skye: Oh yeah.

Kevin: The Duke reference. But I think that parents, it's so competitive to get into schools, and they're thinking at such an early age that my daughter or my son needs to be traveling to this tournament so they can be scouted. They need to be playing in this league so they can be scouted. In the meantime, the kids are ... Sasha Cirovski and I talk about this. He goes crazy about the fact that kids are driving five hours, six hours each way to play at a 90 minute soccer game. It's insane.

Skye: Okay, just stop, Kevin. That's what we have to do with the ECNL. I had to drive my daughter 11 hours to go play a game. What are you going to do about that, honestly. I just have to call that out when I hear you say that.

Kevin: Well, I can't do anything about it. We don't operate ECNL. ECNL ... we sanction them. I think ECNL, certainly the leadership of ECNL is pretty enlightened. I think they know that there are issues with these things that need to be looked at. It is a continuing problem and it's almost like nobody ... So the point the State Association made to you, it's almost like nobody wants to be first because they're afraid that they're going to lose their business.

Skye: Right.

Kevin: That's the whole point about Players First. We want NEFC or NCFC, or whomever the club is, to trumpet the fact that they're doing things the right way, and hopefully they will change their approach to these kinds of issues, because they're still going to be inclined to get the most kids because they're the most well known club in the area. That's our hope is that we don't think we can just tell people, no you can't do this. We have to ... It has to be a carrot and a stick, and our hope is that they'll make more money, frankly to be completely blunt about it, by doing things the right way.

Skye: Yeah. No, I totally agree, and I think that ultimately that that is going to play out. I believe that, years from now, we'll be looking back on this and saying, see there was a solution there. We just weren't able to quite see it or believe in it.

Kevin: You have to try.

Skye: Exactly, and that's what I love about this Players First program. You all are trying. We're doing something that is making a difference and that is changing clubs and cultures and connection and collaboration that's happening. How can we better serve ... I'm really happy that you brought up rec players and the majority of players. How can we better serve our recreational level players?

Kevin: I think that we need to ... I do think it's important that we provide relatively simple education for the people that are going to be guiding them in their initial soccer journey. US Soccer has begun that process with their Grassroots courses. I think we need to find ... we need to dramatically increase the number of people who are instructors at those levels. And US Soccer, again, is trying to do that. I think they can be a lot more ambitious personally. I think they need to look at turbo charging this. I don't think it would cost that much money, frankly, to triple or quadruple or quintuple the number of instructors out there so we can treat this like a multilevel marketing scheme.

It's a little bit like Amway. If one person is an instructor and they instruct multiple other instructors, before you know it, it's geometric progression, and before you know it one instructor ends up producing a couple of hundred coaches.

Skye: Yeah.

Kevin: So I do think that's really important. We want to coach them the right things, and I do think that the criteria that are included in the US Soccer grassroots courses are the right ones. It's not about tactics, it's about teaching kids how to enjoy the game, but at the same time learn how to play the game properly.

Skye: Exactly. I'm a US Soccer Grassroots instructor, so I went through that licensing pathway. It's a long process and I think that establishing the right culture for these coaches, leaving the ego, the historical thing that we think about where the coach is behind. So I think it has been maybe a longer process to get started, but I know Zac and his staff are ... Well, Zac is a lot of times the staff, is doing a great job of trying to get those courses through. But we do need to have more instructors, and that will be a continual challenge that they have because, to get your license is quite a process and a commitment financially. Somebody has to pay for eight days away to do that.

Kevin: I do believe all of these things are really important, and I think that we have to have faith that, if we can change the culture of the youth experience in our sport, we really will see dramatic changes over time. We have to be willing to tackle it. I use two other sports as examples. Tennis has a big problem right now because the youth levels, younger levels, not the higher levels, but kids that are playing, let's say, 14 and under, even kids that are playing at a decent level 14 and under, they can't afford umpires at every game. So, in a lot of those tournaments, the kids call their own lives. They've had a huge problem because the parents pressure the kids basically to cheat.

So tennis is turning to golf where you watch a golf event and Jordan Speath is in the rough. There's nobody within 30 yards of him. Nobody's close enough to see what he's doing. He'll turn around and say, my ball moved. He might cost himself a million dollars by calling a foul on himself because that's the culture of the sport. That has always been part of the sport and people take pride in the fact that that's part of the sport. So I think that, if we can overtime convince parents that there's other ways to think about this, that the objective should be for their child to get as good as they want to be and enjoy themselves at the highest level they want to enjoy themselves at, and if that's with the National Team, then God bless them. But if it's with their friends and no higher, God bless them too. And that's enough.

The parents need to be satisfied with that, not worry that, oh my God, I need to drive my kid because they need to get to college.

Skye: I'm so happy to have this conversation with you, Kevin, because you have such influence and US Club (Soccer) does within our landscape. I think it's just finding this balance between is it really parents that are driving that, or is it clubs and our structures that are driving this? If we had coaches that were better educated and supporting parents, and if clubs were communicating more with parents, would we see this culture change? I do find the need a lot to defend parents and say not all parents feel that way. We're just not communicating with them. We're not giving them the verbiage that they need or the understanding. I think you said ... and Ryan Hodges just jumped in here. "A shared set of beliefs and values." That's what we need to have this collaboration between clubs, coaches, parents and players around what our values are and what our vision is for the game, for our children, and allowing them to lead this process.

So all this is so, so important, and of course I appreciate so much you championing the role that a parent needs to play and supporting clubs and encouraging clubs to make that more a part of their values and appreciating the role that parents have.

Kevin: I think that the parent-club-player relationship, right now, too often is a vicious cycle. It needs to be turned into a virtuous circle.

Skye: Oh, I like that.

And we do that by exactly what you talked about, by continuously emphasizing what are the things culturally that we want to celebrate. We know that works. If you look at the different ... Just look at the playing styles of different countries, and you can see that there are certain things that are celebrated from an early age and they become culturally embedded. So, in Brazil, it's the samba soccer, dancing with the ball, creativity. In Argentina, it's the central midfield and it's precise and runs the show. In England, it's the strength and commitment and courage. We know that culture can absolutely influence outcomes, so we just have to be brave enough to try and change the culture, and I think it's doable.

Skye: I love that. I love to hear you say that. Of course, I agree.

I have a couple questions here and you have like three more minutes, so I want to honor your time. Maybe what I'll do is follow up with you and get you to answer a couple of these questions just in writing form if we can ask that of you, put you on the spot. Then I can push that out as an article as well. So just a really quick question, just a quick answer. Why are there some states that don't have any Players First clubs? Colorado, for instance, has no Players First clubs there. Why is that the case?

Kevin: Yeah, I don't know. I don't know the answer to that. I was looking at that myself on the map. I don't know. There are good clubs in Colorado, certainly in the Denver area.

Skye: Yeah, well get Ashley on that.

Kevin: Yeah, some of it is the markets where we are strongest, like New England, where virtually every important club program is a US club soccer club. Same thing with Nor Cal, Northern California, where ... So that's some of it, but I don't know why. We'll probably actually reach out to some stronger clubs and say, why don't you apply for this?

Skye: Yeah, good. Final question. Do you think that there's more that US Soccer should be doing to support the youth landscape?

Kevin: Yeah, but I'm not sure that they know why or how. They're trying to understand that better. We had a youth technical working group, but it was set up by us, and US Soccer, they met with us a number of times, but they didn't really want to listen, to be very brutally honest about it. Some people did, but a lot of people didn't. Now it's an effort that's been set up by US Soccer, so they're a little more invested in it, but we'll see what comes of it. It's very broad. The brief is very broad, and I think it's going to take quite a bit of doing to have anything substinant come from it. But it's a worthy effort and we support it, and we're part of it. We're on each of the different sub committees, so we hope that it will begin to help change the landscape.

Skye: Good.

Kevin: Sorry I talked so much. I am pretty passionate about this subject. I'd be happy to come on again at some point if you want and do nothing but take questions.

Skye: Oh, let's do it. Yeah.

Kevin: So we can hear what some parents are thinking and the challenges that they're facing.

Skye: I love it. Let's for sure get that on the calendar. You just committed that. I'm going to hold you to that.

Kevin: I will.

Skye: And I really, really, Kevin, do appreciate your time. Your leadership in this area, and again, I just can't tell you how refreshing it is for me, who I feel like for the last six years I've been beating my head against the wall sometimes trying to get people to understand the role that a parent does have. So to hear you talk like this, as you have before to me, is really refreshing and exciting. It personally gives me hope that we have the potential for this culture change and for potentially even down the road some structural change so that we can make sure that we are supporting all the players, not just the high level players, but all the players so that we can keep as many of them in the game for as long as possible.

Kevin: Well, you know we're losing 75% of kids, three out of every four quit before they're 13. So it's unquestionable, just based on the numbers, we have lost some Christine Lilly's and some Mia Hamm's, and some Landon Donovan's who didn't stay with our sport because we didn't create a welcoming environment for them at an early age. So, that's something we all should be thinking about.

Skye: Good. No, I love that you're thinking about that, and I do challenge you all at US Club to keep thinking about that and to come up with a model maybe that some clubs can utilize for their rec programing that is different, that is totally different. Let's solve this problem. It is solvable, but I do think we're going to have to create a brand new structure that's potentially even unique to the United States based on our size and our limited number of parents who are educated about the game still. Excellent.

Kevin: Sounds great.

Skye: Yeah, thanks so much for your time, and those of you who had questions, we'll be sure to get to them. There's lots of thank yous that are popping up here from Matt Tiano from Twin City Soccer Leagues, from John, from other people that are working with you all as well. So thanks, Kevin, for your time.

Kevin: Great. Thanks very much Skye.

Skye: And thanks everybody for joining in. Take care.

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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  • Yesenia Torpoco says:

    One of the issues with rec ball is that they did it to themselves. AYSO’s everyone plays, everyone plays together, everybody plays equal time was a formula destined to fail. I remember in the 70s when my parents tried to get me to play soccer, very few people did club ball…everyone played rec, and everyone from the future pros to the kids with some challenges played together. The problem, though, is that the athletic kid wanted some other challenges because he/she wasn’t developing if the teammates couldn’t pass the ball to him/her, and the handicapped kid never got the ball because kids are smart and his/her teammates knew he would lose it. It wasn’t good for either the athletic kid or the handicapped kid. I remember after my son’s first AYSO season completed, he wanted to keep training, in the hopes of maybe making the Extras team…his teammates weren’t interested (some of them played other sports, and some of them just preferred to hang out at Disneyland on the weekends, which is fine…not everyone needs to love soccer). But for the kids that do want a little more challenge out of soccer, those choices need to be provided or the kids will go elsewhere (which is in fact what happened to AYSO).

    The system in the UK is very different. Very few people are on the future pro track. Very few kids play academy. Virtually everyone plays rec, but that rec is a tiered system where like suited players play with like suited players. That’s why eventually AYSO was forced to move in the direction of diversification, and what they are doing is a step in a positive direction: keeping people in the AYSO family by providing them various opportunities whether club United teams, Extras, AllStars or Core.

    And I hear you on the college admissions. It has an enormous disruptive effect on the system of club ball, and the winning-is-everything mentality.

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