Tom Farrey on the State of Youth Soccer via the Soccer Parenting Summit
Soccer Parenting Association – Inspiring Players by Empowering Parents
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Tom Farrey and Skye Eddy Bruce

Tom Farrey on the State of Youth Soccer and Sport in America

I am thrilled to be able to bring this interview with Emmy Award winning journalist Tom Farrey to SoccerParenting.com.  Tom’s book, Game On, was a catalyst book I read years ago as my children were getting involved in sport, one that started me down this Soccer Parenting Association journey.  Tom is the Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s Sport for Society Program – Project Play where they are Reimagining Youth Sports in America.  Tom is a visionary leader, player and play advocate and an extremely important voice when it comes to youth sports.

This interview is a part of the 2016 Soccer Parenting Summit – where I interviewed 21 expert leaders in youth soccer, sport psychology, physical performance, coaching, parenting and nutrition during a 3 day on-line event. Most of the interviews from the 2016 and 2017 Soccer Parenting Summit can be found at the SoccerParentResourceCenter.com. I am making this one interview available to you here on SoccerParenting.com because I believe it forms the foundation of the conversation we need to have as we move to a more positive developmental environment for our children.

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TRANSCRIPT:

Skye:
Welcome to the Soccer Parenting Summit. I am so excited to bring you this conversation with Tom Farrey. Tom is an investigative journalist. He's won two Emmy Awards. He's the executive director for the Aspen Institute's Sport and Society Program. And really, the reason that I started down this path with Soccer Parenting is because I picked up his book, Game on. Got it right here. And really is thought provoking. And this conversation is wonderful.

One, it was enjoyable. Have found myself laughing and having a good time with Tom. I was a little nervous because I'm sitting here, I have no real interviewing skills and I'm interviewing a journalist. My questions were somewhat long and rambling at times. At one point he said, "What was the question?" But we really got to so many good points. I don't want to edit any of that out and just put it all out there for you all to hear it.

Gosh. He just says what we need to hear. And what I really found interesting from my conversation especially, is that with the Aspen Institute and their Sport Society program, they're trying to look at the big picture issues of sport and society and what the problems are and how we can solve them. And the Aspen Institute takes this top-down approach to it.

They're talking a lot about how we can organizationally change it, how we can impact the organizational structures within the leagues and the programs and the different models that we have in the United States. And we're looking at a bottom up approach with the parents. It was really interesting conversation to hear how those two things can mix.

He has a great soccer background. He played, his kids are playing, he has a son playing in college. Really, really thoughtful, thought-provoking conversation. Lots of calls to action, calls to action for us as parents, calls to action for our clubs so that we can really see the changes that we want to see in the game so that all of our children, regardless of their levels, can thrive. I am so excited to introduce this next speaker to the Soccer Parenting Summit, Tom Farrey.

Tom, thanks so much for joining us at the Soccer Parenting Summit. We're thrilled to have you here. Just you have such a great background and just all the research you've done into youth sports. And I know you've been on a path of understanding how we can make them better. Thanks so much for joining us.

Tom:
Great to be here, Skye.

Skye:
My first introduction into my soccer parenting journey that I've been on these last few years was reading your book, Game On, which I have sitting here right next to me.

Tom:
Woo hoo.

Skye:
I know that you wrote that back in 2008. What drove you to write that book?

Tom:
Well, as a journalist, I've been a long form investigative enterprise journalist for 25 years now. And I've always been fascinated with issues of how children interact with sport and how the sports system treats kids. And by the way, let me apologize for my voice here. I am sick so it's going to get a little bit raspy.

But I've always been interested in that topic. And then I had kids. And I was standing on a soccer sideline when my kid is five years old. And the parents are starting to go crazy. And my kid's feeling pressure and the coaches don't really know what they're doing. Some of them did, a lot of them didn't. And the fact that my kid's in a uniform at all is interesting. Because when I was growing up in Florida, yeah, I played organized sports, but it started around age eight. And we didn't create any travel teams until age 13 or so.

But here you are in little small town Connecticut and the kids are in uniforms at four or five and now it's three and four. And we're creating the travel teams when kids are seven. And parents are confronted with this decision of, "Gee, do I hop on the bullet train or not?" And in my town it absolutely was the equation. You looked at the high school team and every kid was playing travel starting in grade school, many of them were playing club. You didn't have the luxury anymore to say, "Well, I'll just let my kid decide to take up soccer in middle school."

I mean, it's just you don't have that time. In our town, you couldn't even feel like your kid would play rec until he or she was 11 or 12 years old. You had to jump on early and you had to have the resources to do it early and usually, two parents in the home to get the kids to all these practices and games two counties away and everything else.

And it just really got me thinking about, "Gee, our sports system has changed dramatically over the course of just one generation. And why is that exactly? What are the policies in place? What are the forces in play? How has the economy around youth sports been created and shaped as we've moved along? And is this really serving the public good? And even the sports system itself?"

And I was really fascinated with the idea that we got more kids in soccer uniforms than any nation in the world. And certainly on the men's side, we have not created even one truly world class field player yet. Goalkeepers, yes or no. Dempsey, I love our best guys, but they're really not that good on a world level. Why is our system failing so consistently? I mean, it's amazing the level of failure in the system. I just tried to understand it. And it took 384 pages and here we are.

Skye:
Let's get into some of your conclusions in your book. What were the key two, three things that you drew from it that we can relate potentially to soccer, to all youth sports?

Tom:
Well, the fundamental problem with our sports system is we are sorting the weak from the strong well before kids grow into their bodies, their minds and their interests. That's what happens when we create these travel teams. We hold tryouts when kids are seven years old. And we pick the kids and we think are going to help us win the most games because that's how we define success in this country is winning games.

You end up picking the kids with the relative age effect benefit, the kids with early birthdays. You pick the kids who are a little more physically developed, a little more cognitively developed. And you push aside the kids who just are 8, 9, 10 months behind other kids. Or maybe just they just haven't grown into this idea of, "Hey, soccer's kind of fun and cool. Or baseball's fun and cool." We're so impatient to sort the week from the strong.

And that's the fundamental problem because when you do that as well, you're also picking the kids who have access to resources, the $300 bats and the club teams and so forth. And then that creates an access issue for kids in lower income neighborhoods and homes. And next thing you know, we got kids stuck on couches and don't have an opportunity to play at the high school level or anywhere really. And haven't even fallen in love with the game.

It's this total impatience and desperation by parents to sort the weak from the strong. And it's huge problems throughout the system. And that's what we're trying to fix with the Aspen Institute's Project Play.

Skye:
Yeah, so tell us a little bit about that and I do want to jump back to one of your statements. And we'll get into this with some of the other summit speakers, I feel like we're starting to develop some of those world class players. And Anthony Latronica is one of our bonus speakers we're adding in. He was the assistant coach for the U17s down in Bradenton on their last few cycles.

And I find it fascinating that 20 of those players that came through those cycles signed professional contracts before the age of 18. Internationally, they're playing in Syria ah, they're playing the Boondall circuit. I mean these are legit players. I think we're on to a little something. We need to figure out what that is and we'll talk to Anthony about that.

But I hear you loud and clear. And when we separate the week from the strong, we're forgetting the kids that are the rec players oftentimes. Forgetting them, not giving them the environment that they deserve so they can keep playing. Do you see that as a big issue?

Tom:
I do. I mean rec, in town rec league ball is incredibly important. It's more inclusive because it's nearby. It doesn't ask as much of a parent. A kid might be able to ride his or her bike there. The costs are much lower, they're playing with their friends. And that's what, if you actually ask kids what they want, certainly at the grade school level and in the middle school level, is to play with their classmates and their friends.

They're much less interested in playing against strangers from towns two counties away they've never heard of. There's the outlier kid who does and just has to be that kid at age nine or so. But most kids in a quality in-town experience is a great thing. It keeps them in the game. The key, Skye, is there has to be good coaching and there has to be a good concept. And there has to be an understanding of what player development looks like.

This is not an argument for rolling out the ball and being all lah-di-dah and not taking the rec ball experience seriously. It's saying no, rec ball being done right, methodically, quality coaches, quality concept of athletic development is a good thing. It keeps the pipeline as open as possible for as many kids as possible. And ultimately, can create as good or even better players because you're not asking them to specialize in one sport with a club from a very early age.

I mean I've seen that in our town of a couple of the best players. And we've got a very good town here, soccer town in Connecticut. I've seen that with a few of our best players. They were playing soccer only since age six and they got to age 17 and they were really good technically, they were. But there wasn't the passion for the game anymore. They'd just been doing it for 10 years. They were looking to do something different.

And there's the occasional outlier kid who still has that passion and goes on to play a D1. And continues that passion into maybe a pro opportunity or otherwise. But it's rare. It's like throwing eggs against the wall and seeing which ones don't break.

Skye:
Yeah, well, I think the bottom line is that playing in college is rare. The kids that actually statistically have that opportunity are rare. And so, one of the themes that I've seen emerge from this weekend is people saying over and over again is, "We need to provide our children with the appropriate environment based on their mentality, based on their athletic potential."

And in all of those varying levels for all of those kids, there needs to be quality coaching. Even at the most recreational level, where it doesn't need to be super focused and intense because those kids don't want it, we need to keep those kids playing and healthy. The quality of that coach needs to be commensurate with the quality of a top level coach as well.

Tom:
Absolutely. You're right. And the statistics, I mean they are long. I wrote about this in my book, the D1 level, one out of every 67 high school seniors goes on to play D1 men's soccer. One out of every 42 goes on to play at any NCAA level.

On the women's side, the numbers are better. It's one out of 19 at D1 and one out of 15 for any college at all. But you got to remember this too, especially on the men's side, that does not factor into that equation. Foreigners who are increasingly taking a lot of the male spots. And parents often don't understand that even if your kid plays college soccer, like mine does, he plays for a very good D3 college, Babson College outside of Boston.

But there are no scholarships. Even at the D1 level, it's very little money that's being offered up. There are large rosters and kids get injured, kids get injured. And it's been a good experience for my son, absolutely. I wouldn't trade any of it but I'm also realistic about how long the odds are to make it and how many families don't have access to this. And how many kids just get burned out and dropped along the way because they weren't exposed to the right environment.

Skye:
Yeah, for sure. I think one of the interesting points of your statistic is how many kids are actually playing high school soccer. You think about that statistic and you have a nine-year-old, a 10-year-old playing and you just assume they will keep playing.

But statistically speaking, there's only a 25% chance that your child at the age of nine will be playing high school soccer and then be part of the next statistic that you mentioned. We just need to keep that perspective on things.

Let's go back to your book for just a second because something that I found really interesting about that was what you found about organized play and when it makes sense. The right age that you found through all of your research for there actually to be that organized play.

Tom:
Sorry, I got to fix the voice. Organized play's fine. My book certainly doesn't argue. Well, first, my book is a work of journalism really. I'm just observing the culture. Through my work with the Aspen Institute and Project Play, we spent more time thinking about solutions.

But the bottom line it's not that organized play is bad. Organized play is good, it is good. You need to have it. A quality coach can be a huge thing in a kid's life in terms of sparking a love for the game, helping them develop technical skills or otherwise. Is the question of the balance between organized play and unstructured play. And that's something that Americans don't seem to quite fully understand even after all of this time.

We tend to think as Americans that we can just manage success. That if we just organize, we're managers at work and then we go coach our soccer team, or our basketball team. And we draw all these plays and tell kids to do this or do that. And we have a win or a loss at the end of the game or to tournament to tell us that we succeeded or not. But success in sports and in particularly soccer, is so much more nuanced than that.

One thing I noticed when I went to France, I went to Clairefontaine to see how the French develop soccer players over there. And yes, I mean the French are known in everything they do, not just soccer, for their technical prowess and their architecture and so forth. But one thing they build into their system, their very methodical system is making room for free play.

They limit the number of games that kids play over there in an organized setting. They encourage kids to play with the ball. And it's sometimes easier in that culture to do so outside of a soccer environment because everybody's thinking about soccer all the time. You might be at a party and your uncle's kicking a ball around or otherwise. Here your uncle doesn't know how to do that, has no idea what a first touch is. They have more opportunity.

We, as Americans, if we're going to develop that love of the game and that technical proficiency with the ball, we need to be more intentional about it here. It's not going to happen as naturally here. It's going to require coaches to set aside part of their practice for free play or loosely structured play or set up competition structures, small-sided stuff where, whatever, the team that scores most often with kids opposite foot. Or whatever else it may be is the winning team or whatever else it may be.

But being very intentional about letting kids spend lots of time in small-sided settings with the ball and rewarding creativity. And not punishing that kid who dribbles in front of the goal instead of booting it all the way down the field. Being a little bit patient. And understanding that winning, certainly at the 12 and under level, is not the priority. It's about development. And development means letting kids be kids and to a much greater degree than we allow them to do right now.

Skye:
Yeah, I would totally agree. Tell me a little bit about what you found when it comes to what the best coaching is. What have been your observations from your kids, from the book and the research that you did on just what you feel like quality coaching is? Because we've referred to that a few times.

Tom:
Well, through our Aspen Institute Project Play initiative, we convened about 30 of the nation's top coaching leaders at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. And we asked them that question, we said, "Well, how do we train?" There are about 6.5 million youth coaches in this country for kids 14 and under.

The vast majority are not trained in anything. About half of them are trained in CPR. But effective coaching, motivational technique, skills and tactics, concussion management and otherwise, it's all well below one third of coaches. But there are any of 20 different things that coaches could be trained in. And we can't, for the volunteer coach especially, who's busy and holding down one or maybe two jobs, they don't have all the time in the world. They just want something as plug and play and simple and they want to be effective coaches.

We asked this. Say, "What is the minimum ask of a volunteer coach? And how do we get them trained up in that?" And it came down to, well, they need to have a general philosophy about coaching. They're like, "What are we here for exactly? Is it to win the game on Friday or is it create athletes for life?" A general idea of how you fit within the system and how you fit within a child's life.

Second of all, they need to be trained in skills and tactics. Because if a coach doesn't know how to run a practice or teach a first touch or otherwise, or bring in an outside assistant. Maybe a kid on the high school team or the local college or otherwise to be a good demonstrator. If a kid is not getting better at the sport, it's going to be double gold for them to stay involved and stay interested. Kids want to get better, they want to compete and they don't want to be excluded. They want to be able to compete and approve. That's really important.

And then basic safety. Not just CPR but emotional safety and physical safety and otherwise. Free from abuse. If you ask kids what they want and researchers at George Washington University and elsewhere have done this. And they'll tell you kids they want to coach who respects them and listens to them. We've got to do away with this abusive environment where coaches are screaming at kids. It just, we don't allow third grade teachers to do this. Why are we allowing adults in other settings to do this to kids?

Skye:
No, you're right. And though, I love this conversation because you're hitting on all of these themes that keep coming up throughout these conversations. And so, what that's doing for me is just really solidifying this path that we're on with this summit. And in terms of, we had a great speaker on Saturday morning about ridding our sidelines of the bully coach.

And the other thing that I really liked about what you were just saying, Tom, is you're talking about coaches need values and we need to bring these life skills back into youth sports. Jerry Smith and I talked about that in my conversation with him. That'll be posted on Monday night. And that's what his whole Life Skills Academy or Leadership in Life, I'm not exactly sure what the name of it is, I'll post it on the bottom of this talk. But is all about why have we forgotten that? Why have we moved away from? I mean, don't you think that those were more prevalent when you were growing up in sports than they are now? Those life skills the coaches are teaching.

Tom:
I mean it's hard. There's no scientific study and we can all look at the past through rose-colored glasses. And I do remember abusive coaches and I do remember crazy parents. Let's not kid ourselves. This is not an entirely new culture that has risen up. However, what has changed, Skye, are the incentives and the disincentives around youth athletic participation and performance.

The amount of money that is being handed out, even though it's still chumming the water by NCAA colleges related to scholarships. And its part because college is so darn expensive now. Has gone up by five-fold since the early '90s.

Again, while it's rare, parents see that. They'll see some potential in their kid when he is eight or nine or she's eight or nine years old. And they're scoring all these goals and they get these ideas in their head. And next thing you know, they're loading them up with, they're specializing in private clubs and out-of-state tournaments and they're spending money and they start to look for a return on investments.

And when you're looking for ROI, then you're going to start placing pressure on your kid and other people in the environment. And there are other, not just the scholarship incentive, but there are a lot of, and this has always been there, athletes they generally do better in high school. I mean they're respected, they have the social status, they have lower drug use rates in general. They more often go to college or otherwise. We see the benefits of making sure our kid is in that system and has a chance to play at the varsity level.

Second of all is we know in this country we're dealing with an obesity crisis. And we as parents don't want our kids stuck on the couch, period. People take measures to make sure that isn't going to happen. They're just a lot of pressure points and it all comes down to the incentives and again, the disincentives of keeping your kid, allowing them to become inactive.

A lot of pressure on parents and there's been frankly, a failure of sport governing bodies to provide a better pathway for parents. I know the NGBs appreciate this and they want to get there, but we haven't seen the policy adjustments and the tools provided to parents to allow their kid to have a more reasonable sports experience. One that is tailored to the needs and the interests of the kid as opposed to the parent or the sports system itself.

Skye:
Yeah, I would agree. Do you think that parents need to rise up and ask for these environments for their kids that are less focused on the road potential scholarship? I mean it seems like we're lacking those opportunities sometimes for our kids to keep playing because there are just not opportunities for them.

Tom:
Right. Right. Well, mean parents need to know a couple things. They need to know what quality athletic development looks like, number one. Number two, they need to know how that fits in with child development. And they also need to have a conversation with themself about, okay, what is the end game here?

Again, my son plays college soccer, but for me, the end game was always, I always thought, "At age 25, I want him to have a love of the game. And I want him to be healthy enough to want to continue to and have the skills to play the game in recreational settings, just as I do." I play over 40 soccer for my town and otherwise, and it's great. I mean it's social, it's physical. I get a lot of my needs met through that kind of experience.

For me, that's the carrot. With that in mind I think, you can begin to organize your child's experience. For me, what that meant based upon all the research that I did is, you know what? Love a game is incredibly important. I don't want to get to a point where I put any kind of pressure where I can tell my son or my daughter are not loving the game. That's got to be a priority.

Coaching, I knew quality coaching is super key. Fortunately, my son got that. And when we finally let him do the club thing, he was U14, we held off until U14 with my eldest son. And fortunately, he got in with Tony DiCicco's club here in Connecticut. And Tony had absolutely the right philosophy. Three to one practice, the game ratios, all about development. They never agonized about whether you won or lost the game. It was all about in the game whether you were applying what you learned in practice during the week. It was technical proficiency and otherwise.

And just those two years with Tony's club made all the difference in the world for Cole and has been catalytic. I think parents need to basically know what needs to happen at each stage. Zero to five, what their priority ought to be. It's really just about keeping kids active and having them enjoy the ball really. And have adults around them that are supportive.

And then, six to nine there's certain fundamental skills, but again, don't ask too much of them in terms of spacing and the whole stop bunching up kind of thing. I mean you understand how a child's brain is developed and it'll come. They'll know how to space out at some point, but it's not then.

And then nine to 12 or 13, that motor skills window, where you can really grind technique. Where a lot of coaches think, "Well, that's now the time to have kids go win a bunch of tournaments." And next thing there's one ball in the field and 22 kids and nobody's getting any touches. But no, that's actually the time when kids should have a high practice to game ratio.

I mean just knowing these things. Knowing what good looks like in athletic development and then picking the environments that are going to best support that. And then, demanding from your local sport programs and your local recreation council or otherwise quality coaches and quality development. Asking these questions.

What kind of certifications do your coaches have? From CPR to concussion management to all of it. Skills and tactics, do you have a US Soccer Federation license or otherwise? The trouble right now, Skye, is that parents, they know that stuff is important but they don't have a checklist exactly to work off of. And so, I think that there's some work to do by groups like ours to give parents those type of tools and we will.

Skye:
Yeah. And I think that they would be really well received. And talking to Jerry Smith the other day, he was talking about his value statements that he has for his teams. And that got me thinking of we pass around all across youth sports and youth soccer, the parent code of conducts. But really maybe what we should also be passing around and really living up to and reading and thinking about are what are our value statements in youth soccer?

And I have those posted through the Soccer Parenting site. I do have our six core value statements talking about coaches, talking about the parent relationships, talking about love of the game, talking about healthy children. We need to start internalizing those things into our youth sports. I love that you talked about Tony DiCicco. He was one of our speakers for the summit.

Tom:
Yay. Good.

Skye:
He talked a lot about that club in his session, that will end our summit on Sunday afternoon. And about the culture that he created. You were lucky that he created the culture. You had a club director, coaches that established that culture. Can the parents do that? If they're in a club that doesn't have that culture, can that happen from the parents do you think?

Tom:
They can. If they're not going it alone. Well, A, if they have the tools, if they know the right questions to ask and then they do... If sufficient number of parents ask those questions, then the club isn't going to either adjust and get the coaches trained or move more toward, whatever, a three to one practice to game ratio. Or the parents are going to be sufficiently educated that they'll go some other place that will provide it. It'll be the marketplace at work.

Right now, just parents are lost. I mean just, they're talking to the parent next to them who has some ideas, but they're not working off of any real idea of what quality athletic development looks like. I think it can happen. But we do need empower parents. This is a responsibility of leading organizations that touch the lives of children. And parent code of conducts just aren't enough. Parent code of conducts, I mean they cracked me up.

It's basically what the organization wants the parents to do to stay in line. And that's not giving parents tools. That's not giving them tools to make quality decisions for their kids. It's just telling parents to be quiet, we don't want to hear from you.

Skye:
Yeah. Well, let's talk about that. You've raised kids, you've been involved in the youth game. You're very familiar in all of your research with a phenomenon of the crazy sports parent. We talk about the crazy soccer parent a lot at soccerparenting.com.

And when we're talking about them, we actually say, "Let's just push them away. The crazy parents have ruined it for us non-crazies. Us level-headed parents, we've lost our voice because we are so fearful of being perceived as a crazy parent."

And then in addition to that, the second dynamic of that is that the coaches have just used it as an excuse. They've said, "All parents are crazy, so therefore, I don't want to engage with you or I'm not willing to collaborate." When can we, how can we change this environment that exists, the relationships that exist between parents and coaches?

Tom:
I mean, I've seen exactly what you're talking about. Coaches who you're paying, who are with clubs where you're writing a check for $2,700 a year. And the coaches don't want to give you the time of day. Or any email to them is seen as intrusive or a burden.

And that's just, that's totally, that's not acceptable really. But I don't put it on the coach because especially at the club level, at the elite club level, there are a lot of crazy parents. I mean I can see why they just want to put up a firewall. I mean it really, it starts with the club. I mean whoever's running and owning that club, they need to create a culture that says, "Look, this is what you can expect from us and this is what we can expect from you." There needs to be that type of statement in place. And it's up to the club to do more than just collect your check.

I mean they need to say, "What you can count on us to do is to create a quality athletic... An appropriate athletic development environment. Our coaches are going to play by this code. They're going to play by this level of communication. This is what they should respond to and not respond to. And on the parent side, here's what we're asking of you. And we're going to give you some tools to also make sure you ask the right questions of us." I mean that's how you get to a healthy place. Unfortunately, we just have an environment right now that's run by entrepreneurs who they just see it as a business and they're abdicating that responsibility.

Skye:
Yeah, I would agree. I keep thinking about these three concentric circles and where they meet. And so, you have the coach over there, you have the players here and you have the parents. And at some point we meet and that's where we need to collaborate. The coach can focus on the results if they need to, focusing on that environment. The kids can focus on putting themselves in the best situation to compete, depending on whatever that level is for them. And the parents can support the kids uniquely in some ways. They can have a relationship with the coach uniquely in some ways.

And then where it meets seems to be where we need to collaborate. And Jerry was talking about the other day, and this got me thinking also. I've had this last two weeks of these conversations, I've been like, my brain's been exploding with all these ideas.

But one of them is about if the only thing that coaches and parents and the kids should talk about is the process. If we just keep the focus on the process, instead of anything to do with the results, that is where we're going to find that collaboration. The second that the parents starts talking to the coach about a result or has an opinion about a result is when things get a little bit off. How can we keep the focus really on the process?

Tom:
Well, I mean one thing has affected me when I talk about how you want your kid to develop, you want them to advance through the system. And the endless games and the endless tournaments where there's just literally one ball on the field and 22 kids on the field. And another 10 to 20 kids sitting on benches. Are they really developing very much? And parents go, "Huh, okay. Yeah, you're right." That, I think there's kind of an opening there. I don't know, I don't know. I mean what was your question?

Skye:
I was just asking about how we can focus on the process. Once the focus gets pushed on the process. It feels like that is when we're going to see some real improvement in the game. When the focus gets on the process for the coaches, where they're thinking about developing life skills and developing these kids into the best form of the athlete they can be. And as parents, we think about what we want from character development for our children. And the players can focus on the whole playing thing. It just feels like that's where our focus needs to be.

Tom:
Yeah, I think essential to the process is, and this might seem out of left field, but keeping small roster sizes. A lot of the craziness in sports, the pressure points come from just having all these kids on the bench. And as a parent, especially if you're stroking large checks, you want your kid to get playing time. And so, clubs or teams that hold these large rosters are really being irresponsible and creating all these problems they'd hate.

If you want the parents to chill out, have three to four kids on the bench. Five max, that's it. Because then they'll get all the playing time they need. The kids, they'll get the development. It'll relax the parents. And frankly, up through age 12, it ought to be equal playing time.

I mean if we truly believe in development in the process, then we're going to invest in the development and the process around every single kid up until they grow into their bodies, their minds and their interests. There's a time to sort the weak from the strong. It is not at 12 and under.

Again, these clubs, they need take the lead here on all this stuff. These are not crazy ideas. They're just, they make sense for kids and families and frankly soccer in general or baseball in this country [inaudible 00:37:26] sport.

Skye:
Yeah, you said it a couple times and in one of our previous conversations you mentioned that too, is let's not have tryouts until kids get older. But I also think, and just interested in your opinion about this is that, I mean some kids want to compete in a more competitive environment.

My son at the age of 10, would be much happier in a less competitive environment than my daughter at the age of 10. How do you find that balance if you don't have trials? I mean, aren't we going to then potentially go the other way with the kids that are just innately more competitive and more athletic and want to be in a more competitive environment? Are we going to lose them because they're going to get bored?

Tom:
No, no. And I think it's look, certainly nothing that I'm saying or nothing that I believe is anti-competition. mean everything, every idea that has merged from Project Play or Game On has been pro-competition. It's about creating as many competitive opportunities for as many kids as possible.

This whole, kids know what the score is in early age. They generally, they like to compete. Most kids want to compete. It's the rare kid who does not want any competitive environment at all. What they don't want are environments where they're excluded if they lose or if they're not really good at an early age. That can be problematic.

The idea of holding off on trials until age 12 is just a general idea of saying, "Look, we don't need to sort the weak from the strong at super early ages." If we invest in every kid and we give them quality coaching and we create a series of environments where they can compete with kids who are better than them, or at the same level, or less than them. All of which is good, you shouldn't always compete with just better kids. Colleen Hacker, the psychologist, the US National Women's Soccer team previously. I don't know if she's still doing it or not.

Skye:
She's not still anymore, but she worked with Tony through with the 96 and 99 team.

Tom:
She made that point. One third of your competitive opportunities should be with kids who are better, one third the same level, one third below. If you play with the kids who are a little bit not as good as, you develop some confidence. And you are able to do more things creatively on... It's okay, it's okay to play.

We just need to create these mix and match environments when kids are younger as opposed to segregating out at age eight who we think are going to be the next generation of great soccer players. And most of them don't turn out to be so anyway. It's just foolish. Let them play with their friends, invest in coaching instead of just this manic desire to weed kids out.

Skye:
The pendulum has definitely swung this way. And we understand that the thing that's pushing it oftentimes is money because coaches are getting paid, they're full-time coaches now. We need to keep feeding this money train. How is it going to swing back knowing that? I mean how are we going to get back, do you think, to what is maybe a more healthy environment for our children?

Tom:
Well, I mean let's look at the sports that have swung back. Starting with hockey. Hockey had an issue a few years ago. Participation was down, the concussion issue was rising. Parents were starting to become concerned. And they introduced the American development model. Borrowed from Canada and elsewhere, reframed through an American and a hockey lens.

And they did a lot of messaging to parents about what quality athletic development looks like. They began to place a real priority on getting all of their coaches trained in a key competencies of working with kids. And then they took some bold policy steps.

One of the things they did was ban national championships at 12 and under. Can you imagine? I mean that's like, wow, we're going to turn away from a revenue source and something that a certain number of parents want. They said, "Yeah, because it creates too much craziness down at the grade school level." Some parents starts trying to aggregate all the best kids on one team and then next thing you know, they're specializing. It's year round this and it's too intense. And it's not healthy and it's not consistent with quality athletic development.

They looked at all these European hockey players who are so much better technically than the players we are producing. And they said, "How do we replicate that model?" Well, number one is get rid of the national championships. Number two, they said, they got rid of body checking at the 12 and under level, which helps address the concussion issue. But also, helps develop better players because you can't develop a good hockey player if they're constantly looking up because they're going to get blown up.

By doing that, they're able to focus more on the puck that's right in front of them. And now they introduce contact and practices. And they get them to the point where they can at 13 and older, you can start hitting kids in that way. It was just, it was messaging to parents, insisting on coach education and then strong policy adjustments. All of which were controversial in the first year or so. And now, nobody talks about it or very few people talk about it.

And so, every sport has to do this. Soccer has to buck up and start doing this. Basketball is starting to do it. Just a month or two ago, the USA basketball and the NBA introduced a whole new set of guidelines about what good looks like in youth basketball development.

Every sport needs to do this. And then they need to create incentives for organizations to adopt these changes. And then they need to have the courage to make real policy adjustments that are in the interests of kids and families and communities.

Skye:
Hey, Tom, I think we're going to leave it there because that was a just amazing ending to your conversation. I appreciate your pushing through with your voice. I know you'll probably be recovering all afternoon. Really appreciate your comments, your thoughts, your perspective. I know that this is something you think about all the time as the executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports for Society program. I really, really appreciate your time here today and the insights you provided.

Tom:
And Skye, I want to thank you as well for being such a effective and consistent and persistent voice on behalf of parents and what good looks like in youth soccer. You're making a difference and we need 1,000 more of you. Keep going.

Skye:
Aw, thanks. That means a lot. Appreciate it.


About the Author 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.

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