Soccer Parenting Summit: We need joy and collaboration … and maybe pro/rel

One of the earliest Ranting Soccer Dad podcast guests was Skye Eddy Bruce, who played overseas back before pro women’s soccer was widespread and has gone on to coach and, most importantly for all of us, formed the Soccer Parenting Association. (If I were branding it, I might have called it “Polite Soccer Mom,” but her name gets to the point pretty well.)

This weekend, she hosted the Soccer Parenting Summit, which included a staggering 21 guests from diverse backgrounds — current and former pro players, coaches, soccer executives and academics.

It’s a lot to take in. I’ve made it through more than half the sessions, and I plan to go back to listen to a couple more topics.

I say “made it through” not because it’s some sort of ordeal to listen to all of this. These are great discussions. It’s just that it’s a lot to digest, like an all-you-can-eat barbecue buffet. You might need to pace yourself.

At some point, I’ll revisit these sessions. But here are a few takeaways I discussed on Wednesday’s pod:

Where’s the JOY?! (16:30) 

Julie Foudy was the first guest at the Summit, and this was her question as a soccer parent. Bruce brought it up again with many of the guests, and one session was devoted to discussing “fun” with a sports scientist:

(Before you write off this Summit as something stuck in a “rec mentality,” bear in mind there’s a session with Gary Kleiban, the coaching guru who frequently laments such a mindset. We’ll get to it. His session was a good conversation-starter, along with many of the other sessions here. And another session that stressed “fun,” “laughter” and “not shutting out players there for social and recreational reasons” was the session with Johan Cruyff’s son-in-law. Read on.)

“Joy” shouldn’t be controversial, but in the echo chamber of Soccer Twitter, it sometimes is. Soccer is supposed to be a deadly serious pathway for kids to get out of poverty and make something of themselves. I find that more than a little condescending. If we want people to get out of poverty, we need to be investing in STEM programs, not soccer. We have hundreds or thousands of wanna-be soccer pros for every current soccer pro. The supply of U.S. tech talent is debated in the immigration context (in other words: Do we really need to be granting tons of visa to fill open programming jobs?), but the bottom line is that your odds of finding a job as a hard-working dedicated programmer or network specialist are just a bit better than finding a job as a soccer pro. A bit. Say, a few thousandfold.

And in any case — if having a booming economy means we have fewer poor kids who see sports as the only way out, that’s a trade I’m more than willing to make. Besides, the way things are going, the much-derided habit of sitting around playing video games will soon be a better pathway to pro “sports” fame and fortune than soccer is.

So economic incentives aren’t enough. You need to make 6-year-olds fall in love with the game.

John O’Sullivan, of the Changing the Game Project, sees no contradiction between loving the sport and chasing excellence in it. “Find me an elite athlete, and I’ll find you someone who loves what they’re doing,” he said.

Play multiple sports (19:20) 

Oh, you don’t want to take my word for it or O’Sullivan’s word for it or any stack of academic papers you can find? How about Jay DeMerit, who believes his rise from obscurity to the Premier League would not have been possible had he not played basketball. He hadn’t played much defense on a soccer field before college, but he found that the ball-hawking he did on the basketball court helped him adjust to the role that put him on the national team and at the highest levels of the game.

DeMerit has been doing some coaching at the elite youth level, and he’s borrowing techniques from improv. Yes, improv. Comedy. Drew Carey’s influence knows no bounds.

(You could also ask Costa Rican Paulo Wanchope, who scored 50 goals in the EPL. Yes, 50.)

On a more basic level, a lot of learned folks believe we’re so obsessed with sports specialization that we’re failing to teach basic athletic movement. “You’re building an athletic foundation in sand, and eventually, it’s going to crumble,” he said.

I know. This is heresy. The philosophy du jour says soccer is all about skill, like golf or music. We’ll repeat the 10,000-hour myth even after David Epstein’s research blew it up, at least as it applies to most sports. We Americans are the only ones who think it’s athletic. Just look at Xavi or Iniesta!

OK, I’ve looked at Xavi and Iniesta. They’re not Usain Bolt or Kevin Durant. But they’re athletes. On the podcast, I tell a story about Messi’s athleticism playing a vital role in a terrific goal. (Counterargument: Freddy Adu had plenty of skill but not a lot of speed and strength.)

Sure, the USA has typically had more athleticism than skill. “Shot putters,” they said of the 1930 World Cup semifinalists. Anson Dorrance built his North Carolina dynasty and the U.S. women’s program on athleticism and determination, though he has since brought in wonderfully skilled players like Crystal Dunn, Tobin Heath and Summit guest Yael Averbuch.

But are we overcorrecting on the skill/athleticism scale? Probably. I’ve seen plenty of signs of this, particularly a terrific NSCAA session on “Kindersoccer” that showed how counterproductive it was to coach a U6 team like they’re teenagers at Barcelona.

Winning vs. development (or Players First vs. Team First) (26:30) 

US Club Soccer’s Kevin Payne, another RSD podcast guest (I’ve piled up the audio players at the bottom of this post), joined the Summit and talked about his organization’s Players First initiative, which will soon be morphing into a program that certifies clubs. Meet the criteria (and work with US Club to do so), and your club can be a “Players First” club. That includes some criteria dealing with safety, something we don’t often talk about but was mentioned a few times at the Summit.

The basic idea is that the focus needs to be on player development, not winning as a team. I get it, but I have some misgivings. The vast majority of players who play youth soccer will not have a professional career. They’re in it for fun and life lessons — chief among them, playing as a team.

“Winning vs. development” is another area in which I wonder if we’re overcorrecting. Sure, we’ve all seen examples of coaches with misplaced priorities — my least favorite was the guy whose U9 team was still pressing the terrified defenders on goal kicks when his team was up by 15-20 goals, and managing playing time should be a bit different for a U12 team that it would be for a pro team. But the lesson we’re trying to teach, whether a player is going to play professionally or go on to something a little less interesting, is working as a team to overcome adversity.

But Payne and Bruce were careful not to say teams shouldn’t be trying to win. Payne says Barcelona’s academy teams are always trying to win. (I did have a chance to see a Barca academy game on TV while I was in the city last month — they certainly seemed happy to take the lead.) Bruce mentioned that her daughter played with far more intensity for her high school team than she saw in the ECNL.

We’re also sending mixed messages here. US Club can preach “Players First.” Then they set up their own leagues and their own State Cup competitions. Why?

Pay-to-play (31:00) 

One session indirectly talked about pay-to-play, and that’s the Anthony DiCicco session on artificial turf. He has worked in the industry and sees progress being made to get turf — a “necessary evil” for those of us in the youth game who would rather practice on something other than gravelly dirt — a lot better, more shock-absorbent, less prone to heating up like a rubbery frying pan. Maybe even with fewer black pellets in your clothes, car, house, etc. But it’ll cost you. We’re talking about fields that are more expensive to install and maintain, and someone has to pay for that.

For a more typical talk on soccer costs, check the session with Payne. Bruce asked: If we can’t eliminate pay to play, can we at least pay less? Payne sees the issue as the race to get in front of college coaches. There’s an unspoken contract, he says, in which a coach will try to get a player into Duke. (Yes, he said Duke. I’m not sure why he picked my alma mater, though the women’s team just had an awesome season and the men finally made it back to the tournament.) Maybe it’s not Duke, maybe it’s not Division 1, but maybe it’s admission to a good school in Division 3. So parents think that if they go to a lot of tournaments, they’ll get in front of a lot of college coaches.

I posted this thought elsewhere: Way back in 1980, everyone knew the best high school football player was a kid from a tiny Georgia school named Herschel Walker. There was no Internet. No sophisticated recruiting systems. But everyone knew how good this guy was. Then he had what is still widely regarded as the best college football career by any running back. Pretty decent pro, too, aside from Donald Trump’s influence and his unfortunate role in a trade that posited him as Superman.

So why can’t we do that in soccer? Why are we asking players to travel to be seen by scouts and coaches? (One of the more intriguing, if possibly unrealistic, ideas in the USSF presidential race comes from Paul Caligiuri, who posits college and high school coaches as part of a giant network of scouts.)

Regardless, no matter what the next U.S. Soccer president is able to achieve in cutting back youth soccer costs, there’s one thing he or she won’t be able to control:

Parents. Parents who want their kids to go to Duke or some other good school that happens to have a soccer team. Parents who will pay good money for their kid to get the “right” coach or the “right” club or the “right” set of tournaments.

Until Skye Eddy Bruce and I (and a bunch of other people) figure out how to educate parents to make better choices.

Topics I didn’t cover on the podcast …

The USSF election matters

Payne ran for vice president two years ago, when Carlos Cordeiro won it. His buzzword is inclusion. He doesn’t believe in a top-down approach — not even at D.C. United, where he said everyone had a voice and they did a lot of things by consensus. USSF hasn’t been doing that on things like the Player Development Initiatives. (Just ask me or any other parent pissed off about the age-group changes.)

Should USSF pay the president? Payne is torn. Yes, that might encourage more people to run (though, given the NINE candidates this year, perhaps that’s not an issue). But would people run just to get paid? (My thought: Maybe don’t pay them that much?) He has advised candidates not to talk about it during the election, but I think that’s unavoidable. You’re going to have people asking about it. People like me. Sorry. I have to.

DiCicco, who wrote the definitive guide to who votes, did a short Summit session on the election, and he offered a good response to Bruce’s fretting over the existence of independent directors who don’t have soccer backgrounds (something you’re seeing from a lot of other boards as well): The Board have a couple of valuable voices in Val Ackerman (a hyperexperienced sports executive) and Donna Shalala, pointing out especially Shalala’s background with health issues from her time in the Clinton cabinet. DiCicco also hits upon the fact that most of the women on the Board are independent directors — what he doesn’t go on to expound upon is that the Board has used independent director slots to bring aboard Hispanics and women.

And DiCicco sums up Sunil Gulati’s tenure, making a point that especially interesting in the wake of today’s Jeff Carlisle report that the Board is talking about hiring a general manager and thereby limiting the president’s influence: “We’ve benefited from Sunil taking it 24/7, but it doesn’t have to be done that way,” DiCicco said.

Payne also would go along with less of a top-down approach, saying the D.C. United teams that were so successful in his time did a lot of things by consensus, giving everyone a voice.

Along those lines …

Teach your parents well 

Several speakers fretted over a lack of communication between coaches and parents. While Bruce has been working to get parents to talk with coaches at appropriate times, no one’s advocating yelling from the sideline. Learn more, then talk more.

“Silent Saturday” (or Sunday) — a special day many clubs (including mine) use to tell parents to do nothing but the occasional polite cheer or clap — got mixed reviews. United Soccer Coaches staffer Ian Barker thinks it impacts the wrong people. 

Teach your coaches well

Coaching education is a big emphasis for Payne and US Club. They might do it a bit differently than other organizations, just as AYSO has its own curriculum. What Payne wants from U.S. Soccer is a set of guidelines, not something more specific than that.

And US Club, like USSF, is starting to put more information online. Good.

Also one novel idea from Barker: Sure, we should still pay coaches (a point Kleiban also made), but maybe coaches could do 4-8 hours of volunteer work every month to reach players outside the expensive clubs. (I’m sure some already do that, but it’d be interesting to see it become a movement.)

This is also where Bruce brought in some people whose resumes are impeccable. Frank Tschan spent 15 years working with the German federation. Todd Beane is an educator who went to work at Barcelona and married Johan Cruyff’s daughter, so it’s fair to say his family dinner-table soccer discussion was a bit more advanced than most of ours.

One bit of consensus here: A bit of national guidance is good, but you can’t be too overbearing about it. Tschan points out the difference between states — some rural areas can’t really get on the “club-centric” bandwagon because their clubs are too small, and they need other programs.

Finally: Promotion/relegation

I had some trepidation when I saw Gary Kleiban’s name on the list of guests for the Summit, but I decided to listen to his session in the hopes that a conversation with the affable Bruce would be more constructive than the typical Twitter interaction with him. And it was.

But while the conversation was friendlier, the points weren’t any sounder. A few stereotypes of people who refuse to see things his way — a claim that MLS owners came from other sports (some yes, some no, and some of today’s owners also own clubs elsewhere in the world), and a finger pointed at the mainstream media that stands in the way.

I don’t know if I qualify as “mainstream” these days, but I’ve been coming up with pro/rel ideas for years. The reason I’ve been the punching bag for the Twitter fringe is that I think it’s impractical, to put it mildly, to simply throw open the pyramid and let the chips fall where they may. Actually, Kleiban sounded conciliatory on that front as well, suggesting there could be a transitional time so MLS owners can adjust. (I’d add that it would really stink if the Los Angeles Galaxy were relegated after a wayward season in which they were trying to get their once-hyped young players into the mix.)

My thoughts, which I’m now giving the hashtag #ModProRelforUSA, have only been strengthened by speaking with Bobby Warshaw and Brian Dunseth. More importantly for purposes of this Summit, I’m far less worried about the effects relegation would have on MLS/NASL/USL owners and far more concerned about the effects it would have on their academies. 

In short — if the goal is to have a couple hundred pro academies scattered throughout the country, why would you relegate their clubs to a level at which the academy is no longer sustainable? If it happens in England, why wouldn’t it happen here, leaving kids with no academy for hundreds of miles around?

DeMerit also touted the argument that pro/rel ramps up the pressure on players, something I’ve discussed several times recently. But he went on to cite another motivating factor — bonuses. Start, get more money. Win, get more money. Fine. But that has nothing to do with pro/rel. (A salary cap, maybe — that’s an issue for the next CBA.)

In any case, I said more about pro/rel in a reply to Kleiban’s session. With that, I’ll give it a rest. It’s Christmas. And we have an election coming up in which the issues farther up this page are far more important than whether D.C. United gets relegated in 2021.




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