Interview by Mike Woitalla
More than a third of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America’s 30,000-plus members are high school coaches. So we spoke with NSCAA CEO Joe Cummings about the tug-of-war for players between high schools and elite clubs, who often urge their players to skip scholastic ball. The conflict intensified when the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, which is comprised of 78 clubs and includes more than 3,000 of the nation’s top boys players, announced that about of a third of its clubs have moved to a 10-month schedule this season and by fall of 2012 it expects all of its clubs to do so. Cummings' career in soccer has included high school, college and youth club coaching, as well as administrative positions at the pro level with MLS’s New England Revolution and WPS’s Boston Breakers.
SOCCER AMERICA: You’ve heard from high school coaches regarding the Development Academy’s move toward a 10-month season, which would keep its players out of high school ball?
JOE CUMMINGS: Yes. High school coaches are one of the most active constituency groups we have.
They want to know, first of all, if this will be a topic at the NSCAA Convention [Jan. 11-15 in Kansas City] -- and yes, it was last year and will again be this year.
And they want to know what our position is.
We have a committee that has come up with a position paper -- it’s being wordsmithed now for the NSCAA -- relative to what we call “personal choice.”
It’s our position that players have a personal choice to decide whether to play for high school and youth soccer programs whenever possible, but we appreciate the position of the Academies as far as player development being at their core.
We appreciate and understand the Academy side of things, but we also appreciate and understand that our high school coaches would have some questions about this.
We just want to make sure that the decision being made by parents and players is being made so that the players’ personal, social and soccer development is always considered.
SA: Comments from some club coaches about high school ball is quite disparaging. They’re basically saying that spending a couple months of the year with high school coaches is a major detriment to a player's development …
JOE CUMMINGS: I think it’s dangerous to make statements like that and make them sound like facts.
We [the NSCAA] this year put 7,000 coaches through coaching programs, residentially and non-residentially. Well, thousands of them are high school coaches.
We have high school coaches we feel comfortable saying have received a level of coaching education that improves their ability to present the game. And to say that that a high school coach isn’t going to help in the development of a player – that just doesn’t seem fair.
That’s why I have trouble with the statement that sending a player to high school program means he’s not going to develop.
If someone had ever said that about me when I was coaching high school, I would have been pretty upset, knowing all I’d put in to become the coach I was at the high school level.
SA: The less severe argument for keeping players out of high school ball is that it allows Academy clubs to spread their season out and maintain a more reasonable practice-to-game ratio …
JOE CUMMINGS: It just may not be practical or possible for a young athlete to participate in multiple levels of the game. We understand that.
What we want to make sure is that as these decisions are being made, the players' personal development, social development and soccer development are being considered.
If that means 10 months a year in the Academy, we support it. If that means opting to play high school, we support that.
SA: While club coaches may say high school ball puts elite players in a sub-par, less challenging environment, high school coaches respond that playing at a different level can be beneficial. For example, an average player at an elite club could be a playmaker, team leader at the high school level. That he carries a bigger burden and that will help his all-around game ...
JOE CUMMINGS: Yes, that could be the case. In my opinion, players should always have the opportunity to play at a level in which their development can be enhanced.
I also taught school for 21 years. I’m going to say this to you as a teacher, an educator and a coach: If a child has an opportunity to play, practice, train – no matter what their love for the game is – at a level that provides them with greater development, then I think that’s an opportunity they should explore.
SA: I have heard legitimate complaints from club coaches that high school ball sometimes doesn’t mesh well club ball. For example, a high school coach putting a player, fresh off a club season, into a rigorous preseason training regime the player doesn’t need at that point. Couldn’t something like that be solved with more cooperation between the factions?
JOE CUMMINGS: It’s definitely possible when the coaches on both sides of the player have the player's development as a key concern.
SA: High school sports in America have traditionally been considered an integral part of the elite athlete’s development and I’m not aware that other high school sports, such as basketball, are under fire the way high school soccer is. Any idea why high school soccer is considered by many a weak link in an elite youth player’s development?
JOE CUMMINGS: That’s an interesting question. Do they question high school football? Do they question high school hockey, high school track & field?
That’s a great question. Perhaps it’s because our sport is perceived to be playing catch-up internationally.
SA: Even if the nation’s top 3,000 boys players opt out of high school ball, it’s not as if the USA has a shortage of soccer players. Could the case be made that the opportunities they open up for other players raises the overall level of players?
JOE CUMMINGS: I would agree with that. A high school that loses its top two players for an Academy team will still be represented by full rosters.
A boy or girl who was on the junior varsity team -- they have an opportunity to play on the varsity. They are going to be challenged to improve.
In theory, it makes sense -- like moving a child up to an advanced class knowing they’ll be challenged to work harder and keep up with the material.