In this day and age, soccer camps come in all sorts of shapes and sizes: skills camps, indoor camps, fun camps, and team camps. And for better or worse, I've worked at all of them.
What I've found is that regardless of packaging, advertising, and the number of coaches with British accents milling around, the camps are all essentially the same. Kids really couldn't care less what they are there to "accomplish" because, in the end, all they want to do is play.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in specialized skills camps that promise to turn your child into a master dribbler or the world's deadliest finisher. The problem is that kids normally aren't willing to devote much of their time to drills. Before long, you hear the usual, "Why can't we do something fun?" or "But we want to scrimmage!"
In my experience, it's best to let the kids run loose at the beginning of each day, let them mess around in a game without restrictions. Of course, this is a bit risky for the counselor.
I used to work with a guy who thought it was more important to be friends with the campers than it was to teach them anything useful about soccer. Without fail, I would see him running around the field with a child on his shoulders, shouting something about a "Free Piggyback Company."
This sort of counselor is a problem on a couple of levels. His antics rile up the campers to an unruly level of hyperactivity, so when it does come time to do something instructional, the kids ignore directions and clamor for more piggybacking.
Furthermore, being the "cool counselor" is a double-edged sword. Yes, it's important to establish from the beginning that you're a friend and that camp is about having fun. But piggybacking can also undermine your position as the disciplinarian. Kids simply don't listen to you because you've placed yourself on their level. And when it comes time to be a little harsh, it's a disaster.
My preferred method of interacting with the kids is to make fun of myself. On the first day, I'll introduce myself as G.I. Joe or a former "American Idol" winner (complete with a song). This gives me the players' attention and also allows for a few disarming laughs.
With the campers hopefully realizing that learning some new things about soccer might be a little fun, we jump into a few games and then progress on to the instructional stuff, which I try to work in surreptitiously.
I add a few small things to the games. Players now only have three touches with the ball or must make five passes before shooting on goal. I sometimes require one of the players on a team to do a move before a shot can be taken.
My objective with these additions is to get kids to work on their game without thinking it's a chore. And at the end of the day, I'll sit them down and say, "Did anybody notice a difference between how we played in the morning and in the afternoon?"
The hope here is that the players start to make the connections themselves and associate positive, fun soccer with things like trying out new moves or quick passing.
Working at a soccer camp is the ultimate balancing act. Keeping kids well behaved, providing entertainment, and actually teaching them about the sport. You have to do it all.
But as long as you remember that the kids are there to have fun and that playing a game of soccer is the most enterprising thing to do, you should be in pretty good shape. Just don't start your own piggybacking service.
(Joe Addison, a senior midfielder at Amherst College who played his youth soccer in the Richmond, Va., area, is spending the summer as an editorial intern at Soccer America Magazine.)