By Christian Lavers
Over the past 5 years, the landscape of the youth soccer world has changed dramatically, and the pace and magnitude of change shows no signs of slowing down. With the creation and growth of new and different leagues, competitions, identification programs, and clubs, the expectations and demands on coaches have also changed significantly.
Importantly, many of these changes are providing opportunities for youth coaches to become more professional, more educated, and better at their craft.
For much of youth soccer history, the “best” coaches were almost always considered to be the ones that won the most games, or that won the biggest championships. Winning was the only barometer for success that the American culture recognized in youth soccer, and chasing results was the primary way for coaches to find respect, or sometimes even to keep their jobs.
These pressures have resulted far too often in a reality where words like “development” are given only lip-service, where recruitment is the biggest factor in success, and where the soccer being played isn’t attractive to watch, much less challenging and inspiring to play.
It seems to me that we stand on the edge of a new opportunity to change much of this past culture; where there is an opportunity to redefine youth coaching as a “profession,” and to establish leaders within this profession that can impact the game for generations.
Giving credit where it is due, much of the genesis of this opportunity was created when U.S. Soccer got directly involved in the youth game with the creation of the Development Academy. Now, four years into this project, coaches within that program are, often for the first time, beginning to be reviewed, assessed, and measured on things beyond just success on the scoreboard. For the first time, things like the style of play, behavior on the sideline, and the number of players developed for higher levels are being noted, measured, and publicized.
Whether there is perfect agreement on the specific system of play that is best for development, the best way to train certain techniques or tactics, or the perfect coaching tone of voice is irrelevant; what is important is that this discussion is occurring in many places, and the measurement of coaching success and talent is beginning to move away from a sole focus on results.
From the starting point within the Development Academy, there have been a growing number of coaches and clubs outside of the Academy with a desire to change the structure of the programs, leagues and competitions that their teams and clubs participate in in order to be technically and developmentally better. There has been significant movement toward limiting numbers of games at all ages, of increasing the focus on the importance of training, and making many other changes that are designed to make the youth game better for the players.
Inextricably linked to this process, there is also more discussion between coaches about what it means to be a master coach – a professional developer of soccer and athletic talent for long-term success. This desire for change on the competition field has begun to foster ideas for changes on the sideline, the training field, and in the coaching classroom. While this “movement” is still in its infancy, and ideas don’t always lead to practical and permanent change, the fact that there is a movement at all is very important.
In the youth game, for the first time, it is not only the coaches with the biggest trophies who are being heard, recognized and respected. There are now voices being heard and elevated who make it clear that you can have success on the field without sacrificing style, that you can have long-term success by developing players and sacrificing short-term victories, and that being a professional requires more than knowing technique and tactics.
Culture change always requires a platform from which leaders can arise and be heard. This platform is beginning to grow within the American youth soccer landscape, and more people are stepping on board. At some point, as the message gets stronger and the incremental changes add up – hopefully we will reach a tipping point. That point will be the beginning of the coaching renaissance that is absolutely necessary for this country to have a chance to develop the next Lionel Messi or Marta.
As eloquently put by U.S. Soccer Development Director Jill Ellis: “It is certainly time for us as a soccer community to acknowledge the coaches who inspire a love of the game, and to truly appreciate the coaches who develop our future national team players. It is time, perhaps, when getting one special player to the next level is recognized as more important than a 19-0 season.”
When more coaches and clubs recognize and support this truth, the future of the American game will be brighter than ever.
(Christian Lavers is the Executive Vice President at US Club Soccer and the President of the Elite Clubs National League. He holds the USSF "A" License, the USSF "Y" License, the NSCAA Premier Diploma, and is the USSDA and ECNL Director at FC Milwaukee Nationals in Wisconsin.)