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Will U.S. Soccer’s early-specialization decree trigger unintended consequences?

This article originally appeared on SoccerWire.com and is republished here with their permission.

With the recent news from U.S. Soccer announcing the launch of a Girls Developmental Academy in 2017, and the mandate that players in the DA will not be allowed to play other sports or in other competitions, I am reflective of the lessons I learned as a multi-sport athlete – and as the parent of one, too.

What athletic qualities will the young athletes affected by the DA soccer-only mandate have five to 10 years from now, when they are entering the college and professional ranks as a result of their non- participation in other sports?

The boys DA has mandated DA-only participation for the past four years, as part of a move to a 10-month season in the fall of 2012. Has there been an overall increase in the quality of player we are producing in the boy’s and men’s national teams and other U.S. Soccer programs as a direct result of the “DA soccer-only” mandate?

Will U.S. Soccer players have better performances in the future because they are focusing on only one sport from the age of 13, instead of being sidetracked with multiple sport participation?

Maybe. Maybe not.

This is not a discussion regarding high-school soccer participation. There are positives and negatives for the MOST TALENTED youth soccer players who play high-school soccer.

What we need to also discuss is THE OTHER SPORTS – the OTHER SPORTS that our athletes will no longer be participating in if they are mandated to only play Development Academy soccer.

Will limiting sports participation to DA soccer – and therefore having these athletes participate in DA soccer for more hours over the course of the year – make a positive impact on their long-term soccer development? Or rather, might it hurt their long-term athletic development?

The research and science tells us that young athletes that participate in only one sport are more likely to be injured (Jayanthi, 2013), and are more likely to burn out (R.E. Smith, 1986). Will this happen? Only time will tell.

We discuss the winning vs. development debate a lot in youth soccer. Isn’t this the same debate framed in a new way?

With the increase in programming for our youth national teams, and the increased pressure for our youth national team coaches on winning, are we losing track of the DEVELOPMENT of the well-rounded athletes for our senior national teams?

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Tony DiCicco

Tony DiCicco

Former U.S. Women’s National Team coach Tony DiCicco and his wife Diane visited my family recently on their way to a vacation in the southern states. My daughter told them she was running track this spring instead of playing high school soccer. (Those who read my previous post “High School Soccer, to Play or Not to Play” will want an explanation … She decided it would be too difficult to have fun in her high-school soccer environment, so she decided to run track instead.)

I chimed in and mentioned to Tony and Diane that I had also run track in high school, middle distance being my best races. Tony told a story about Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak – one of the USWNT players when he was an assistant coach under Anson Dorrance in the 1990s, and also a player when Tony became the head coach in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

In 1994, while the WNT was in a training camp in Southern California, Tony saw Tiffany after a training session, looking a bit stressed. She was trying to muster the nerve, as a high-school player in with the full national team, to talk to Anson.

The camp was taking place in California, and the next day, Tiffany was due to participate in the 800-meter race in the state track and field championships. She needed to ask Anson if she could leave the training camp for the day to go participate in the state finals in SoCal. After Tony gave her some sage advice for the conversation with Anson, permission was granted. Tiffany ran, and WON the race the next day, with a VERY impressive time of 2:11.63.

The 800-meter is a mentally and physically grueling race. It requires a level of grit, determination and mental fortitude that few people can mobilize. As an athlete running the 800, you learn each time you race what your body is capable of accomplishing. It’s a level of toughness that would be hard to arrive at during a soccer match as anaerobically – you are pushing your body to its absolute limit while strategically maneuvering the race.

Sitting there listening to Tony tell this story and thinking about Tiffany and what she brought to the game with her gritty performances demonstrative of a warrior-athlete, I couldn’t help but wonder if the lessons Tiffany learned on the track impacted her future performances in soccer.

Tiffany Sahaydak

Tiffany Sahaydak

So – I asked her! This is what Tiffany told me about her high-school track experiences and how it impacted her soccer career:

The mental aspect of track helped me prepare for the national team. The individual struggle and accountability you have on the track, the strong desire I had to perform to my individual best, these things helped me learn how to deal with pressure – and I needed that mental toughness with the national teams. Soccer helped me become a better 800m runner, and running helped me become a better soccer player.

U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeeper Brad Guzan recently discussed the long history of exceptional goalkeepers coming from the United States in a recent interview with the Cruyff Football Player Development Project magazine.

I think it’s possible that given the range of sports that require excellent hand-eye coordination in the USA, such as baseball, basketball and American football, this might be contributing to the number of goalkeepers at top level in the USA,

speculated Guzan, who didn’t concentrate seriously on goalkeeping until he was 17 or 18 years old. Before that, he played mostly as a field player and his athletic role model growing up was Michael Jordan.

Abby Wambach, in an USA Today article published on July 3, 2015, said:

Playing basketball had a significant impact on the way I play the game of soccer. I am a taller player in soccer, in basketball I was a power forward and I would go up and rebound the ball. So learning the timing of your jump, learning the trajectory of the ball coming off the rim, all those things play a massive role.

By mandating DA-only soccer, are we taking away these supplemental learning and developmental opportunities from our most promising young soccer players? Will the eventual result be athletes who don’t have the depth of experiences they need to help them be the soccer player they are capable of and dream of becoming?

Our USWNT, when surveyed last July, indicated they played a total of 14 different sports growing up. Would the team have been comprised of better soccer players, more skillful on the ball and tactically more astute if they had not played those sports and instead only played soccer from the age of 13?

When we decrease the opportunities our children have to learn and grow and develop – even in the hope of them developing and fine-tuning their soccer abilities – there will be a result.

The question is, what will the result be? Maybe it won’t be significant in the long run to the quality of our national-team players and our national teams.

Or maybe it will.

My daughter had her first track meet today. She texted me after the 400m and said, “I think I might die.” It’s a tough race, for sure. Will the effort she exerted today in the 100, 200 and 400 impact her on the field? DEFINITELY. She grew in her confidence today. It will play out next weekend at the Jefferson Cup showcase tournament, when she needs to make another run forward from the wide back position – or make a long recovery run to defend in the third game of the showcase.

As I listen to her upstairs right now, getting ready to head to bed, I know she is a more confident athlete who is more in tuned to her deeper, physical reserves and capabilities as the result of her races. She knows that when historically she has been tired and worn out during a soccer game, well, it’s nothing compared to how she felt after that 400m race.

She is a mentally stronger athlete and more technically proficient runner than when she woke up this morning.

A better soccer player is going to bed tonight – and she didn’t even touch a ball today.

  • How is that Boys DA working out for the MNT? The DA is a complete joke, and the girls DA, will be an even bigger joke. 22-30 player rosters, no re-entry, 3 subs? what sense does it make? The ECNL is doing a great job of preparing our girls for college soccer, which is the realistic end game for 99.9% of female players playing today, not the WNT. It is all about the $$$$. If clubs are going to offer both the Girls DA, and ECNL, my belief is that the majority of the ECNL teams will be better than the DA teams at individual clubs. How can you get better, and adjust to the speed of the game, if you are never able to get on the field? What parent is going to spend that kind of money to travel, knowing the kid will never see the field because of the sub rule,? What kid is going to want to do that? My daughter plays U14 ECNL, and has grown so much over the course of the season, with adjusting to the speed of the game, which the DA will not approve upon.

    • Thanks, Travis – for joining the conversation. For the life of me I can’t understand how no re-entry and limited subs is going to help develop the players – yet this was one of the primary reasons U.S. Soccer sited for not collaborating with the ECNL and instead starting the DA. I just don’t understand how this is going to help. Yes, this is how International matches are played…but…leaving 5-8 kids sitting on the bench that never get in the game….? Scratching my head here…

      • Great article and something as a former DOC of a top club and current director of coaching education for Next Gen Coaches Club I’ve been wondering the same these past 18 months. Your article Skye points to the proverbial bubble that is about to burst. I left my club for several reasons but one being the pre academy for u12, u13 and u14 and not allowing them to specialize in other sports as well as the kids going from a 10 month season to a 4 month season at U15… Leslie Osbourne who played for the USWNT cited in a webinar with the NSCAA that tennis and basketball helped prepare her for playing in the World Cup and taking a penalty. She’s one of hundreds of thousands of professional athlet s across all sports that have been a multi sport athlete.
        US Soccer are flexing their muscle and they have a lot of it to flex. We’ll see an “uprising” from top clubs in the near future pulling away from both the boys and girls DA as it’s not working and will not work in a country the size of a continent. Thanks for the great read.

    • The da is nothing but a jerkoff..club money maker ..does not have the childs best interests ..all an ego and bragging rights for uniformed parents …a kid who is talented will be noticed at any club he plays at..dont fall for this ponzi scheme

  • Excellent post and agree 100%. Kids are happier and healthier by playing multiple sports. Soccer isn’t an early bloomer sport so asking them to commit at such a young age robs them of other opportunities and promotes burn out. Everyone’s been talking about Tom Brady after Sunday night’s historic comeback. Guess what? He didn’t play football until High School. Instead he played seasonal sports including soccer (lots of soccer), basketball and baseball. And he’s not the only big league player with a multi sport background. Kids should be encouraged to be kids.

  • There are a huge number of considerations. One commonly ignored is the unique nature of the U.S. and what works here sometimes makes no sense anywhere else.

    The majority of sport originally incorporated in the U.S. was directly involved with the primary & secondary education system which is based in community. This made it relatively easy for short, compact seasons: development wasn’t a well thought out process. This contributed to a multi sport approach: good athletes played all sports.

    Multiple sports that parlay into cross training as well as enjoyment can coexist. Interestingly enough I find that the same parents who voice concern over “burn out” are oddly the same ones registering their youngsters for multiple sports, sometimes overlapping seasons, resulting in lack of commitment and missing the most important element of athletics in order to excel: training.

    The important part of changing the environment is information.education to understand what the trade offs are athletically, socially. What’s in the balance is long term production of talent or short term decisions that give us temporary outcomes.

  • This is a great article. My opinion on US Soccer is that they need to fix the club culture. The major issue is that the development plan for these local soccer clubs is all over the place and many soccer clubs in the US don’t even have a plan. US Soccer sanction teams in the DA based on what? I believe that the US Soccer federation should implement their development plan across the country and if clubs refuse to work to the plan, then they do not get sanctioned by US Soccer. Take away their rights to become a DA if they do not have a Technical director who believes in their development plan. Countries like New Zealand, Canada and Germany all have a national plan that clubs follow. We should do the same. US Soccer need to hire enthusiastic coaches that will travel across the USA implementing the plan and proper teaching techniques for coaches. This is the only way forward and the only way we will eventually see the rewards of our national teams. All we like to talk about is ‘Elite’ soccer. Well all our ‘Elite’ players came through grass roots soccer. Put more into grass roots and you will reap the rewards.

  • Since your daughter plays ECNL, I am assuming she practices soccer all year round. So, she is still playing soccer at a high level, not just running track in the Spring, right? Your point seems a little misleading. To me, she traded the mediocre play of high school soccer for track, she didn’t substitute soccer all together.

    • ECNL is not year round. ECNL lets the girls play high school soccer and therefore my daughter’s ECNL team doesn’t train during the high school season. However, that’s not what the article is about…so not sure where the comment is coming from. The article is about the value of being able to play a second sport to overall athletic development and mentality.

  • I think that a briefing with more recent info from the DA leadership and technical staff might help everyone’s understanding. High school soccer is not encouraged to be sure but, especially in the younger age groups, other sports participation is encouraged. The substitution limits are more restrictive, but not nearly as much as you describe.

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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.