Optimism. The foundation of courage which is firmly rooted in hope and confidence. A choice we make on how we will react to a presented situation. An essential ingredient of forward progress.
Optimism is hard to come by these days amidst COVID shut downs, school closings, seasons being cancelled, continued distancing, and all the deeply felt loss and instability we are experiencing as a nation.
Despite the COVID chaos – there are some silver linings for soccer in America! Some positive changes in youth sport have developed as a result of the COVID chaos that can give us hope and confidence - and that have the potential to make youth soccer better!
1. A Deeper Understanding of Motivation and the Importance of Autonomy
Self-Determination Theory is the important research from Deci & Ryan regarding the science of motivation. According to Deci & Ryan there are three key components that form the foundation for the development of motivation: Competence, Autonomy and Relatedness. Before COVID, when I would speak to groups of parents and coaches in the work I am doing with Soccer Parenting I would teach about Self Determination Theory. In my coach and parent education seminars I’d specifically talk about the need to develop more opportunities for our children to have autonomous interactions with the game. We had too many coach-led activities or parent-generated experiences: team practices, personal trainers, paid fitness coaches. There is an inherent risk of these coach and parent led activities resulting in a lack of motivation for players – resulting in player burn out and children leaving the sport early.
To be autonomous, players must develop a self-driven love of the game that pushes them to want to train on their own, set their own goals, and develop a personal connection to the game that will lead to stronger motivation.
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Fortunately – COVID has brought these lessons in autonomy front and center. There are great apps like Techne or Beast Mode that have been utilized by clubs and players during COVID for individual training. The drive to perform these extra tasks when no one is looking has provided tremendously needed opportunities for the autonomous activities that are essential to developing the motivation that will keep our players in the game and healthy for life.
2. Intentionality Regarding Individual Player Pathways
One of the most important things a parent can do for their child when it comes to their sport experience is to ensure they are playing at the appropriate level based on their mentality and athletic potential. Unfortunately, in today’s youth soccer environment – this is not always the case. The misplacement of players often happens for good reasons: small towns with limited teams, amazing coaches who are inspiring but coaching at a different level than the child needs, multiple years of the same players on a team who are great friends but that over time morphed into varying levels of athleticism and aspiration.
Taking a step back during COVID has led to deeper evaluation on the part of parents and players. Is this an appropriate level of commitment? Is my child happy and satisfied with the level of play and the mentality of their fellow teammates?
3. Clarification for Parents on What Quality Coaching and Quality Clubs Look Like
I often discuss the “professionalism in youth sports” as a negative when it comes to our ecosystem. However, in this case – the well-managed, professional clubs have really risen to the top when it comes to the continuation of services and support provided to their players. It’s been quite impressive, in fact, to see the efforts on the part of some clubs to continue to provide value and support to players and their families during the COVID shut down via Zoom calls, individual player meetings and developmental plans, at home technical training plans, and more.
There is an important caveat here, though. Quite often the clubs that are doing an exceptional quantity of work are the clubs that have full time, professional staff. While there’s been some impressive work also done by volunteer clubs, there’s certainly been a significant difference between the quantity of engagement from clubs with paid versus volunteer staff.
However – QUANTITY aside – it’s the QUALITY OF ENGAGEMENT and COMMUNICATION that has been the point of division that has separated the poor from the average from the exceptional.
Whether paid or volunteer driven, COVID has provided an opportunity to see through the hyperbole and determine who really is in this to holistically develop players and who authentically cares about the players' well-being.
4. Serving of Players Needs in New and Better Ways
A big weakness in our youth development in the America has been the lack of tactical awareness on the part of our players. While players train with their teams multiple times a week there is a general lack of understanding about the tactical side of the game. American players too often make decisions without understanding the why behind their choices and have a lot of weaknesses when it comes to their Soccer IQ.
One of the key narratives to help players develop this tactical understanding has been the idea that players need to develop their Soccer IQ by engaging with the game outside of practice by watching more soccer on TV.
COVID has provided numerous opportunities for growth here. Coaches are spending Zoom sessions breaking down a game tactically for their players, players are receiving “homework” assignments related to analyzing a match and sharing a report with their teammates, coaches are able to think outside the box and teach the game in new ways that is going to greatly impact a players tactical understanding once they are back on the fields.
If these practices continue past COVID – (maybe instead of practicing in person the day after a match the coach holds a Zoom meeting to reflect and break down key moments in the game) – we will see an entirely new level of tactical understanding on the part of players.
5. Development of New Skills for Coaches
The foundation of the coach education I do with Soccer Parenting is related to relationship building, establishing trust, emotional intelligence and communication. COVID has provided an incredibly exciting opportunity for coaches to develop these skills. Many coaches have been forced out of their comfort zone to get to know players and their families like never before and the result has been phenomenal. Coaches now understand first-hand the importance of knowing a bit more about the player than what they see on the field. They have met the family pet on Zoom calls, gotten to see the player interact with their teammates in different ways, learned about the individual learning styles of their players, and formulated newly structured and engaging relationships with parents.
6. Clarity on the Role of the Parent
So many parents have reached out to me with stress regarding their young child’s lack of desire to train on their own during COVID and how this misaligns with their child’s stated desire to play soccer professionally or in college. In fact, at the height of the lock down, Soccer Parenting hosted a webinar with parents, coaches and a sport psychologist about this specific topic.
COVID has helped parents wrestle with their role in their child’s youth soccer experience. Finding the balance between nagging, supporting, encouraging and the child leading can be tricky - and more and more parents have learned valuable lessons around how they can best help their child. Also – many parents have had to back off a bit and learn that lessons in autonomy aside – there is little correlation between an 11 year old not wanting to do an extra 20 minutes on the Techne app and their ability to play college soccer 8 years down the road.
These silver linings amongst the COVID chaos are important lessons in optimism. And optimism is in high demand during these stressful times. Giving our children hope and confidence and reminding them (and ourselves) of the good things that are happening will help us all keep an eye on the forward progress we are making towards the future and a successful return to the fields.