By Christian Lavers
While the coach interacting with the players on a daily basis is the key influencer in their individual development, there are many structural factors surrounding the club that will impact the likelihood of a player reaching his or her potential.
Some factors are more obvious than others, but having an understanding of how club structure impacts growth is helpful both: (i) as a club director considering how to build your organization; and (ii) as a parent looking to make long-term decisions about where your child should play. Some examples:
* Controlled Coaching Turnover: In general, it is very difficult for a coach to remain with the same group of players for more than four years. Over time, the messages from the coach tend to get stale (since they’ve been heard so frequently), and the opinions of the coach about individual players (and of the players about the coach) tend to become rigid and inflexible. For this reason, controlled changes over time within the coaching staff working with a team are important.
At the pivotal skill development age groups of U12-U14, where players change physically and mentally very quickly, it is advisable that the coaching staff changes somewhat even after two years. When you see the same coaches staying with the same group of players for six-seven years, (which many of us have done at one time or another), it is usually a sign of a very special relationship between the coach and a group of players, or a lack of depth in the club’s coaching pool.
* Coaching Development: Just as coaches should be in the “business” of developing soccer players, clubs should be in the “business” of developing soccer coaches. Clubs that take seriously the need to develop their own coaches tend to be better at developing soccer players.
Clubs can help develop coaches in many ways, for example: (i) using younger coaches as assistants with more experienced coaches; (ii) having senior coaches regularly observe and assess sessions run by younger coaches; or (iii) having a required continuing education program for all coaches within the club.
* A “Program” Structure: The model for building a successful soccer club in the 1990s involved having one coach for one team, where, within this team, the coach was king and almost entirely independent. This model has become outdated.
Now, the most enlightened clubs are structuring their teams and staff into “programs” that cover multiple age groups. This structure means that one staff of coaches is responsible for several teams over multiple age groups (U12-U14, U15-U18, etc.). This structure: (i) ensures developmental continuity over time; (ii) allows coaches to specialize in coaching different age groups; (iii) provides multiple coaching perspectives at each age group; and (iv) allows for more roster flexibility and movement of players between teams.
* Training and Roster Flexibility: The clubs that are most serious about player development have a player-centered, not a team-centered, approach when it comes to where players train and play. This is most obvious by looking at the number of players who are playing or training with older players within the club.
The opportunity to train with older players, and for the most special players the ability to regularly “play-up,” is a key factor in individual development. In the best environments, this means that there is regular movement of players between various age groups and levels in training and in games. (Of course the leagues that the teams participate in must have rules allowing this type of roster flexibility in competition in order to allow playing-up.)
* A Developmental Base and History: There are some very “successful” clubs in this country that are very good at recruiting entire teams from other clubs at older age groups, putting them in the same jersey, and then winning games. This “recruitment” model is very different than a “developmental” model.
While it is a reality that the best clubs will attract better players over time, and that this attraction tends to occur more at older age groups (U14 and up) when the disparity in development between clubs begins to show, the core of any successful youth team should consist of “homegrown” players.
A club with (i) a vibrant youth program, potentially even a recreational base at U6-U10, and (ii) a history of successful players with 8-plus years in the club, is typically better at developing players than those without these elements. (On a similar note, clubs with competitive adult or U20/U23 teams provide good opportunities for “senior” youth players -- U17 and U18 -- to be challenged by training or competing with men and women.)
* A Professional Management Approach: Successful businesses are led by individuals who are hired for their expertise in a particular field and then are given the freedom to make decisions.
Successful soccer clubs are led by coaches hired for their developmental expertise, and then given the freedom to make developmental decisions without undue outside influence. While the involvement of parental expertise can be very positive in certain aspects of club management (financial management and controls, facility development, etc.), when untrained parents or parental boards become involved in decisions regarding team structure, roster selection, and league/competition participation and scheduling, bad decisions from a developmental perspective are almost always eventually made.
At the best clubs, the governing body of the organization hires the Director of Coaching, allows him or her to structure the program based on their own expertise, and then holds him or her accountable for the developmental outcomes of players and coaches.
(Christian Lavers is the Executive Vice President at US Club Soccer. He holds the highest coaching licenses in the United States - the USSF "A" License, the USSF "Y" License, and the NSCAA Premier Diploma, and is the USSDA Director and ECNL Director with FC Milwaukee Nationals in Wisconsin.)