One of the slides I often use in presentations to soccer coaches, parents and club directors depicts the various issues/problems/inefficiencies with our youth soccer landscape. We discuss the power struggle between coaches and parents, the stress parents feel, the lack of coaching education, the referee crisis, and the results all these issues have on player development, inspiration and participation numbers.
One of the other discussion points from the slide is the idea: “Coaching is lonely.”
Coaching is lonely
I am often struck by the nods of heads I receive from coaches when I say out loud: “Coaching is lonely.” It’s as if they have never verbalized the idea before, but when I say it out loud the affirmation of this idea resonating with them is demonstrated with a reflex nod of the head.
Along these lines, I recently received an email from a youth coach who has become a friend through Soccer Parenting. Reading the email created emotion within me which has been lingering in the back of my mind. He said:
I LOVE all the fantastic things you are doing. I sometimes feel alone on my own little island trying to push things in the direction I feel they should go, it’s a battle and I do get frustrated, pretty much doubt everything I am doing and feel a bit down. Then you come along with your webinars and all the experts which completely reenergizes me to keep moving forward.
This loneliness is real.
And, what I have come to realize in the work I am doing with Soccer Parenting, is that parents feel it also.
I was on a plane returning from speaking in Minneapolis earlier this week and was listening to one of my favorite podcasts – Finding Mastery – with Michael Gervais. He often asks his guests: What drives you? Why do you do what you do? What were your foundational experiences that changed your life?
As he asked one of his guests these questions I paused the podcast and starting writing, answering these questions for myself. What drives me? Why did I decide to pursue this work with Soccer Parenting? What were my foundational experiences in life?
I found myself using words like passion, finding my place, energy, community, family, and joy. As I sat on the plane scribbling, the idea of belonging wove its way into my words.
And this idea of soccer and feeling a sense of belonging is what drives me. The game provided many foundational experiences in my life.
As a young child, on no other place than the soccer fields did I feel content and comfortable with my athletic body and ferocious desire to compete. Even when I played in the neighborhood with my older brother and his friends, competing often felt like I was doing something wrong, knocking into the boys seemed to be a problem. How energized, confident and safe I felt on the soccer fields with my female teammates.
As a middle schooler attending the No. 1 Camps as a camper, I will never forget looking around at the sea of aspiring goalkeepers and thinking "these are my people."
As a young adult in high school, how inspired I was on an ODP trip to Europe, attending a game between the Netherlands and the Soviet Union men’s teams, witnessing the passion and potential of football to unite – knowing that despite the language and cultural differences - I had found my tribe.
The list goes on an on….how soccer was my means of finding and establishing belonging. As a college player, as a No. 1 and SoccerPlus Camp director, as an employee at Lanzera, as a collegiate coach, as a business owner – all bringing a powerful sense of belonging as I found my place in the world.
What unites and inspires us
As I sat on the plane and wrote about what drives me, why I am putting so much energy into Soccer Parenting, it became abundantly clear to me that our soccer landscape has in many ways lost this sense of belonging – and this is what I am attempting to help resolve.
Over the years, I felt this lack of belonging myself both as a youth coach and a parent. The stress I felt as a parent when my child was not feeling inspired or living up to their potential and I didn’t feel comfortable speaking with their coach...and then completely the reverse....The deep sadness I felt when a parent complained to the Director of Coaching about my performance as a coach instead of talking to me directly about how they were feeling.
There is not enough collaboration and support amongst the coaches and more often than not – closed doors between parents and coaches exist that facilitate power struggles and feelings of isolation.
There is nothing we care more about than our child, yet for parents the path to the opportunity to connect with coaches, often a significant role model to our child, is not always cleared for us.
As soccer has grown, as opportunities have increased, as youth sports have become professionalized – we have lost the sense of belonging that both unites and inspires us.
My appreciation for a sense of belonging propelled me to fall in love with the game as an elementary school child, and feeling the lack of belonging in our youth game today as both a parent and coach is what inspires me to continue to push forward with the mission of Soccer Parenting.
What does Parent Engagement mean to you?
At one of my recent talks in Minneapolis I asked parents
What does Parent Engagement mean to you?”
It’s a question I often ask coaches and parents – usually the question posed to parents leads to conversation about volunteering, getting our kids to practices on time, not complaining about referees, attending meetings, helping our children develop a growth mindset, and more….This time, however, thanks to the comment of one of the parents in the room about establishing friendships with other parents as being “Parent Engagement” the conversation went in a different direction.
We started discussing BELONGING.
Parent Engagement is feeling like you belong. Understanding, appreciating, embracing your role in your child’s youth soccer experience and doing everything possible to create an environment that you, the coach, other parents and of course your children – feel like they belong.
Our Soccer Culture
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Everything you need to help your child be inspired by the game!
Yesterday morning I was a guest on The Daniel Workman Live Daily Show. We found ourselves in the midst of a rather esoteric conversation about our U.S. Soccer landscape and the common themes that run from the top down….We discussed the LACK OF TRUST and how that is felt from U.S. Soccer all the way down to the coach-parent relationship. We also discussed, along this same line, what I called “CONNECTION.”
We desperately want to believe in U.S. Soccer – we want to say, as I said in an article I wrote in 2018 about my friend and mentor Tony DiCicco: I want to feel confident in the direction of U.S. Soccer and I want to look up and say: "Yes, I believe in this. I trust you. This is a culture I want to be a part of."
But we don’t.
We will not be living up to our potential as a soccer nation until we can create a soccer culture in the United States where everyone feels like they belong.
What can be done
Clubs can create belonging by finding a place for parents in their structure, welcoming them as key influencers of the players, and opening the door to a well-defined relationship between coach and parent. Clubs can empower a sense of belonging by developing more collaborative relationships with their coaches and being more than a soccer club that develops players, instead a soccer club that impacts the lives of their players, and also their families.
Parents can create belonging by not allowing the hectic schedules and travel distances to get in the way of the opportunity to develop better relationships with fellow parents, to talk freely and without an agenda to coaches, and to embrace the learning and life skills every player on the field is developing in the process of soccer participation.
Collectively, coaches and parents must work hard to, as Julie Foudy said in a SoccerParenting interview, “Bring back the joy” and go out of our way to create memories for our young players.
We have not protected the playing environment for our children as a conduit for joy, friendship, solidarity, and camaraderie. Instead, we have allowed assumptions about intentions, stress about performance, and a lack of perspective to rule. We have lost the pool parties, sight seeing on tournament trips, fun team dinners on a random weekend, spontaneous post-game ice cream – and replaced those important memories with a looming sense of competitiveness, overwhelm and stress.
The mission of Soccer Parenting is to Inspire Players by Empowering Parents. I am regularly asked about this concept of “Empowering Parents” and what this means. I often stumble a bit on my reply saying something that feels generic such as “empowering parents will make youth soccer better.”
Now, I am clear….
Parents need to be empowered to understand they belong and that they have a responsibility to ensure everyone belongs. Of course, coaches and clubs must lead and feel empowered in this regard as well. If we commit to facilitating this sense of belonging from the ground up, as we lose the feelings of overwhelm, disenfranchisement and disconnection – we will find the joy, improve our youth soccer culture and environment, and even enhance player development.
When we all feel like we belong - then, and only then, we will be on the path to reaching our vast potential as a soccer nation.