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The World Catching Up To the USWNT is NOT the Problem

There has been important discussion about the World “catching up” to the USWNT (U.S. Women's National Team) program in the weeks since their exit of the World Cup following a Round of 16 loss to Sweden. Vlatko Andonovoski, the head coach of the USWNT resigned, the contract of Kate Markgraf, the GM of the USWNT, was not renewed and there is a sense of anticipation lingering that replacements will solve the problem. 

In order to “solve” the problem with the USWNT, we must first properly identify it.

To be clear, the world “catching up” to our USWNT is not the problem. Rather, it is a testament to strong leadership in the global women’s game and a resolute demonstration of the power of people to claim what is due to them. Nations with Federations that historically barely supported women’s football progressing to the knockout stages of a World Cup doesn’t happen because suddenly their Federation decides to teach women how to play football! The teaching, learning, and passion began at the grassroots level where some girls found a way to participate. Regardless of the differences between “grassroots” in Zambia, Columbia and Jamaica and the structured “grassroots” we have in America, a player’s introduction to soccer matters.

The USWNT’s failure to progress in the World Cup is a shockingly loud call to action that the way we teach soccer in America must continue to evolve.

I founded Soccer Parenting on the heels of my 8-year-old daughter quitting soccer. Cali was bored and uninspired in her club training, felt too much pressure to perform, and was not having fun. I had coached her in a recreational program up until her tryout and acceptance into ADP (Advanced Development Program) at the local club. While she started the year genuinely excited and looking forward to the experience, her enthusiasm waned about a month into training. To hear her deflated, bored voice say from the backseat after practice “we always do the same thing” made my heart hurt. When a couple of weeks later it started to become hard to get her motivated to get out the door to soccer, I knew I had to evaluate the environment for myself.

I watched a couple of practices and quickly understood her apathy. The players stood in lines, lots of them, and did repetitive exercises more conducive to teaching them patience than soccer. Simply put, the learning environment was not conducive to keeping the attention and enthusiasm of the young players, let alone inspiring them to learn and play with joy, creativity, and passion.

While it was clear to me the environment was failing my daughter when it came to teaching and inspiring her, when I asked other parents with players in the ADP program at the club how they felt about the learning environment, I was shocked to realize the other parents were satisfied. In this moment it struck me that until parents get curious and understand what a quality learning environment looks like, kids will keep quitting too soon and we will not be developing players who have the game intelligence to compete with the rest of the world. This was the moment Soccer Parenting was borne.

Our mission at Soccer Parenting is to Make Youth Soccer Better, and I am positive this is happening. It’s been phenomenal to see coaches across the country eager to learn, improve, and evolve the way they teach players, clubs and Boards improving processes and systems, and to see sincere efforts being made to better educate coaches. I am so grateful for all I have personally learned about youth development after hundreds of interviews with experts now available on our parent education platform: SoccerParentResourceCenter.com. Right here at home, I am tremendously proud of the changes made at the Richmond Strikers, were Cali played (and quit and ultimately returned to soccer) ADP, now providing a much-improved environment for young players. 

That being said, as a nation, as leagues, as clubs, as coaches - we have a long way to go when it comes to adequately teaching and inspiring players.

I found it impossible not to be amazed at Spain's individual and collective game intelligence in the Final. How we can design learning and playing environments to better develop game intelligence in players in America?

The issues we face with grassroots development in America are complex.

What do you think needs to happen to grassroots soccer in America in order for our men’s and women’s national teams to consistently compete on the World’s stage?   Please comment below.

  • Skye,
    Thanks for all that you are doing and this great article!

    I humbly offer some of my thoughts and observations that I believe correlate to a lot of your points.

    There is so much to touch on so I’ll try to keep it as brief as possible! First off, let me say that for me your points are spot on. I remember when taking the US Soccer F license course years ago (when they offered it) a couple things that really popped out to me came from the studies done by psychologists for US Soccer. They studied why kids turn out to play soccer. There were 4 or 5 main reasons if I recall, and the 3 that really popped to me were:

    1) Fun. They want to have fun and they believe they will by playing the game.
    2) Sense of belonging and being part of a team. Getting the jersey is symbolic for them.
    3) A sense of control or autonomy. As they go from being heavily guided at the youngest years they are (by nature) developing and want to explore their own thoughts, choices and consequences.

    To me the US youth soccer experience, especially these days really gets #1 and #3 wrong. We immediately start to play to win and overvalue those who score goals and give us the win. We overvalue it so much that coaches and parents will often instruct them to do things (dictate or “joystick”) so that they can get the win. Yes, most coaches and parents know more than a 7 or 8 year old does so we can dictate things that get the ball forward and yell at them to shoot and since the person in the goal is not a goalie yet it will usually be a goal. We cheer like crazy and the message to the players is clear, this is what it’s all about. I’m no saint, I’ve totally gotten caught up in this frenzy especially in the early years of coaching and watching my daughter.

    The big problems with this are:

    1) We are teaching them that results are more important than learning, development and growth.
    2) We are robbing them of the opportunity to learn for themselves. To be able to look, think, try and learn from mistakes. They are not looking at space and deciding what makes sense, evaluating probability, protecting the ball. Just go hard and go forward and shoot.

    To make it worse so many youth problems are very hard on mistakes. A lot of blame and shame out there which of course does not foster more exploration and creativity.

    We are stealing both the fun and the sense of control and autonomy from them. The top reasons they started the sport in the first place.

    When I observed my daughter at 9 years old train and play in Barcelona and surrounding areas, it was a very different experience. The coaches did not dictate, and their emotional IQ was very high. Patient and controlled no matter what was happening. The parents were the same. There was no excessive exuberance about goals, but some were commenting when players made intelligent or difficult passes in the field. It seemed that they really valued the vision, decision making and quality of technical ability. It wasn’t just for their own kids, or their own team. For anyone on the field. It was just pure appreciation of these abilities. It seemed like a kind of patience that understood, if you allow them to have fun out there and think and try things, eventually they may develop into something really good. If you didn’t, at least you got to have a great experience and realize the reasons you turned out in the first place.

    Last year I was working with a lot of youth players from 5-8 years old on various teams. The environment was one of learning and growth. Freedom to make mistakes and learning to look and make decisions before actions. When we scored goals, the recognition was always given to players who helped in build up the play. I think I can say that each player enjoyed their experience, improved cognitively, technically and tactically, and enjoyed supporting their teammates. My goal was that every player came off the field from practice or a game feeling good about themselves and looking forward to the next time. Development was occurring and thankfully both my club and my team parents all were invested in this process and not needing immediate results or wins. This is rare though.

    There are so many studies now that show that learning and motivation grow much faster in an environment which is viewed non threatening. One that can be fun and allow exploration and risk taking. In many European clubs they pay attention to these studies and apply the lessons to their academy’s. TOVO Academy in Spain leans on these lessons in developing their curriculum. Their founder studied under Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola, two of the most influential coaches in modern soccer. I think it’s worth looking at and studying from these resources since Spanish soccer has.

    For me it really all comes down to the foundations and fundamentals of the youth experience, and you never have to completely eliminate these things out of the game even as you get to the highest levels. Just watch an FC Barcelona men’s or women’s training and you will see a lot technical ability and vision, but you will also see laughter and smiles.

    Anyway, thanks again for what you do. It’s a great and necessary conversation for those of us who care about youth soccer players and the future that lies ahead for them.

    • Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, Rob! My daughter attended TOVO for a semester and it was an absolute GAME CHANGER for her. After 3 months, she came back a COMPLETELY different player with game intelligence and motivation.

  • We are on the “pay to play” path and can’t get off. It seems that the travel team coaches, who want to earn their living from coaching, have too many teams, and not enough time to do the job properly. I’ve been coaching since 1976. In my experience, you are assigned a team, you do your own thing and, as long as the parents don’t object, you are left alone. There are so many teams in the US you will not be able to develop unity in the style of play. When the USWNT won the first World Cup, they did so with nine players from UNC Chapel Hill led by Anson Dorrance, their college coach. The Spanish women’s national team’s unique style of play came from nine players from the Barcelona women’s team. Barcelona was instrumental in the development of the Total Football style, and that has permeated throughout the world. It has taken 20 to 30 years and I don’t believe the US has that amount of patience.
    I believe the US women’s team had highly motivated and highly skilled players. Their coach chose the wrong style of play. The long ball to a striker, who has her back to goal , died 20 years ago. A cross to the striker from the left or right or a pass back from the baseline is much more effective.
    That the soccer community is interested in improving is, of itself, an improvement. Again, in my experience, about 2 players on any team like to do skills work. They are there to play and have fun with their friends. We must increase the amount of time spent in small sided, fun, games. This will bring them back season after season, and the cream will rise to the top. An athlete enjoys playing with people who are at their own level or above. Every player suiting up for a game wants to win and their coach has to help them without being belligerent. Winning teams are happier than losing teams. I wouldn’t sit on anybody’s bench. Pay to play is holding back growth of the game.
    I could go on, but I just ran out of gas.

    • Agree with you 100% ! The love for the game lives on the ability to be creative. In my opinion, wining 1v1 not with speed but with style comes with loving foot skills.

      Of course agility and physicality is a great part of it but foot skills is the corner stone. Look at the level of intelligence of those Spaniard players or even Martha or even the Japanese players. Their tempo. The trust the players have among each other when they can connect and win 1v1 or finish a shot with tranquility by dribbling the goalie.

      Kids in Brazil play on the streets, most families don’t have the money and time to do what we do over here. Drive to practice, drive to game, travel to games and yet they have a way to produce a better pool of kids.

      My daughter almost quit at U10. We pushed her too much, she got on the 1st best team of the state. Long story short, although her foot skills were better than most players, she became afraid of making mistakes because the team was playing older kids and mistakes led her to be on the bench. Less playing time, less touches, fear of mistakes, less confidence. We thought she needed agility training and we neglected the futsal sessions.

      It was all going down the hill and I could see her losing interested. As parents we understood that going to the 2nd team was inevitable and we took the coach’s advice. We even got her to play rec on weekends since the 2nd team had less practices and games. We were determine to find the fun back and build her up. And that was exactly what happened. We invested back on futsal, and she got more playing time on the 2nd team with more unstructured games with rec and voila.

      Today is she is back on a premier team on another club, not 1st but 4th in state. There is a coach who appreciates her. She is a CM and her nickname is samba. Her tempo improved because in futsal she practiced with boys. She can’t get enough of watching Man City on Premier League and has passion for showing her skills. She is beaming with pride. She is U12 now and we are still learning from all this experience but futsal is our #1 tool and changing the “eco” system was what saved her game.

      Maybe that is what the Women’s team need to do too. Get the grassroot program to invest in futsal, get professional players to be in Europe. Evolve the game by changing the environment.

  • My solution to the problem you so well describe: The Golden Keys – the 3 skills Only the greatest players know & use. Explaination at https://fingerlakesinternationalsc.com/. As you may note in that website, I consulted with the USWNT in 1995, and they have been using one of those Golden Keys ever since that point in time. The rest of the world has caught on to that specific technique; hence the results in Japan/Korea Olympics, and now this most recent World Cup. It is indeed a training challenge for the USA.

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    Skye Eddy

    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.