How to navigate your child's path

By Christian Lavers

The choice of where to have your child play youth soccer can be very difficult. Multiple clubs, “select teams,” or leagues will tout their services or programs, often with promises of glory down the road. There is no shortage of choices for where your child can spend the next year of development – and in the United States, parents have more choice than in any other country.

The number of choices can be overwhelming -- especially to parents without a soccer background. When there are different people selling different services, often in different leagues, and all emphasizing the importance of choosing their club, it is no surprise that people make choices that they will regret in the future. This raises a key question:

How do I choose a soccer club for my child? While there is no easy answer to this question, there is one key principle that should guide your decision: the single most important external factor in any player’s development is the quality of the coach working with the player on a regular basis. The impact of this individual, especially at U8-U14, far outweighs the league the team plays in, the success of the team, or any other factor. Quite simply, great coaches at these ages help motivated players maximize their ability. Because of this huge impact and influence, consider the following in trying to evaluate your options:

* Being a great soccer player does not automatically translate into being a great teacher of soccer players.

* Beware of any coach who takes credit for the success of his or her past players; the best coaches understand that players earn their own achievements.

* Beware of any coach advertising the number of college scholarships their players have received, (and run the other way if they promise one to you).

* Though earning coaching licenses doesn’t guarantee a great coach, it does show effort on the part of the coach. (That said, a license does not certify honesty or integrity.)

* Be sure the “name” attached to the team will be the coach attached to the team; bait-and-switch is not uncommon.

* Is the coach offering a training-based program with appropriate training-to-game ratios (at least 3-1), or is the coach promoting a program overly emphasizing competition?

While these guidelines help narrow your choices, you may still have several options. If that happens, consider having your child attend a training session with the potential coach, and evaluate the session on the following criteria:

* Did your child enjoy the session, and does he or she want to go back?

* Is your child receiving coaching points that are detailed, personalized, and technical, or are they general, vague, and primarily focused on hustle and attitude?

* Are the players consistently engaged and active, with frequent contact with the ball?

* Does your child leave the training feeling that he or she has learned something new, or excited to try something new?

While the quality of the opposition in games and training gradually becomes more important as players age, (and is very important at U14 and above), these factors are far less significant when the player should primarily be learning individual technique and decision-making.

Unfortunately, no matter how much you research your decision, you may make a mistake -- the world is full of great salesmen. To minimize the impact of a bad decision, you must be able to recognize when the coaching your child is receiving is slowing their development. Without being a “helicopter parent,” be mindful when watching your child’s team play:

* Are players encouraged to solve problems and think, or are they simply running around and kicking?

* Does the team try to possess the ball (good sign), or do they seem in a rush to go to goal immediately every time they get the ball (bad sign)?

* Is coaching in the game given to players away from the ball (good sign), or is the coach joysticking the player with the ball (bad sign)?

* Is most of the coaching concerned with “working harder”? (What do you do when “working harder” is no longer sufficient because of a lack of knowledge or skill?)

* Does the team rely primarily on serving the ball forward to a fast player up front to score, and on a fast player in the back to cover for mistakes? (Very bad sign)

* Does the team play differently at the end of the season than it does at the beginning? Is your child a noticeably different (and improved) player?

While the focus of this article has been primarily on coaching, it is important to realize that if parents do not encourage self-directed play in the hours their child is not with their coach, to some extent the selection of a club, team, or coach is a moot point -- the player’s ceiling is already established.

(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.)

12 comments about "How to navigate your child's path".
  1. Mark Zimmerman, February 18, 2011 at 11:11 a.m.

    Many excellent points. Nicely done.

  2. ed hernandez, February 18, 2011 at 11:21 a.m.

    This article really hits home. I just pulled my son out of club soccer at U12.

    How about this one. Coach tells me that he provides the physical not the mental development. The player should show up with a winning attitude. Why, to make his job easier.
    How does a player develop a winning attitude. There are some youth players that truly have it. They practice off field without being told and really work at improving their game. Those players are the minority in youth soccer. Now let's take the player that finds soccer fun and really enjoys the orange slices at half time. How do we as coaches take these players and make them winners. Isn't this the mental development of the player? Of course it is! We as coaches need to be able to help the youth tap their ambition to be better, at everything. We are very influential to a youth player and with the parents support we can help the child develop a winning attitude, developed by self confidence, esteem, YES YOU CAN DO IT.

    So parents when choosing a club team or even deciding at what level of play should my child play. Ask yourself can the coach/club help develop my child's winning attitude. Unfortunately with my son the coach did not feel it was part of the job.

  3. Rick Figueiredo, February 18, 2011 at 12:44 p.m.

    Well said. I believe that John Wooden is the prototype of what a great coach should be. For any sport. There are, unfortunately, very few JW's around. If a coach needs to focus on results, I understand the motivation. But I also clearly understand that the building of a good character in a player naturally translates into that person becoming a better player on the field. So it's actually all worth. Again: Very good article!

  4. Kerry Ogden, February 18, 2011 at 1:04 p.m.

    I wish this article was written a couple of yrs ago, it would have saved me 10's of thousands of dollars on soccer. Living in the North East suck's for kids due to much higher costs to parents for indoor facilities and longer travel to preimier club game, as it is I see coaches and managers of the current club my son belongs to as only supporting parents who have very good incomes and not supporting parents and players who can't afford it, so this is going to be my son's last yr with this club.

  5. Todd Santana, February 18, 2011 at 2:01 p.m.

    does the cost have any connection to the abilities of the coach? if i pay only $100 am i only getting a basic coach? how far is to far to take your kid to play on a team? is it better to play for a club team or a high school team? these are some of the questions i have as a parent new to this level of play.

  6. Miguel Dedo, February 18, 2011 at 2:05 p.m.

    If I made a living selling soccer training to parents I would try first to convince parents that these are the relevant criteria.
    "Its not about winning" but do not put a player on the field unless at least three/fourths of his/her time is spent practicing rather than than playing.
    Come on, soccer for 99.999 percent of its participants is a game -- play it with your neighbors, enjoy playing it, do not let your satisfaction be held hostage to success.
    The best coaching philosophy is the one espoused by the Cat in The Hat:
    "Look at me, look at me look at me now!
    "Its fun to have fun but you have to know how."

  7. David Delk, February 18, 2011 at 2:46 p.m.

    I played at a low level but strive to teach/coach at a higher level. Here are the points that really hit home directly from my observations:
    1- Being a great soccer player does not automatically translate into being a great teacher of soccer players. (it's all about communication and being able to relate to and motivate kids)
    2- Though earning coaching licenses doesn’t guarantee a great coach, it does show effort on the part of the coach. (When is the last time your coach made any effort to learn from someone else?)
    3- Did your child enjoy the session, and does he or she want to go back? (One of the most important things as long as the fun is soccer-related and not because the coach hands out ice cream after every practice)
    4- Are the players consistently engaged and active, with frequent contact with the ball? (Or does the coach spend significant amounts of time talking to the kids while the kids are just standing around)
    5- Are players encouraged to solve problems and think, or are they simply running around and kicking (the players ultimately have to rise or fall on their own abilities- does the coach encourage failure, or put more positively are the kids given an environment to experiment, take risks, try something creative and learn from their mistakes).

  8. Kent James, February 18, 2011 at 3:16 p.m.

    Many excellent points in this article. I want to elaborate on the importance of different things at different times in a player's career. At the youngest levels, enthusiasm, and proper structure (activities that kids enjoy and give each child the opportunity to have plenty of time with a ball) are most important. So in the right environment, with the right direction, coaches of the youngest kids (U8 and below) don't need to be great soccer players, they just need to be good with kids and have the right direction (so it should not be expensive to play at the early ages). The next ages, U10-U14 or so, you need to have coaches that know proper technique and can demonstrate it, as well as having the right approach (focused on skill, ball possession, etc.). But they do not have to be in the most competitive leagues, nor do they have to have the most skilled teammates (though that's obviously a plus); learning technique is more important. Above U14 players who want to improve need to play with and against the best players they can. So at this level, a playing with and against better players may be more important than having the best coach (not that coaching is not important, but an adequate coach with great players in a competitive league maybe better for the player than staying on a team with an excellent coach who is stuck in a less competitive league).

  9. Gary Stidham, February 20, 2011 at 9:34 a.m.

    This is a really good article. Many execlent points. I have to remove my son from a preimer team, because of a bad coach also.I did not want to have my son quit soccer( which he loves), because of a bad coach.Most coachs now forget about the fun of the sport, because of the competiveness.Hope a lot of coachs read this article.Hope leagues watch each coach and not just to fill the spot.

  10. Tyler Dennis, February 21, 2011 at 10:47 p.m.

    Excellent article. Very well done.


  11. Peter Granders, August 31, 2014 at 11:32 p.m.

    Thanks - just a great article.

    Too many choices for club soccer and many people still weigh the pros and cons of club vs. town/rec.

    I started a couple of years ago that focuses on all the factors to consider making the selection perhaps a bit easier.

    Thanks again,


  12. Jordan Harbour, September 25, 2014 at 2:03 a.m.

    Hows that saying go opinions are like butts everyone's got one and they stink!

    Anyways some of this article is alright. Really coaching and your child is case sensitive. To under-estimate the ability of a former player with tons of experience as a teacher and coach ...would be a mistake and again is really case sensitive. Its like age before beauty. Experience over a shinny certificate any day(usually).
    What is sad is the apathy being displayed in leagues is just utterly about build our nation by giving our children strength and foundations not only in education but in sports like soccer. Its not about everyone gets a turn. Its about learning the abc's and rules of soccer finding a position your child is strong in and developing the best they can be and then learning other positions learning to be universal. And striving to become excellent in all things they do. Another thing is some children are being signed up and have no desire to play or maybe their maturity level shows they are not ready and maybe they should wait to signup a year or two later. Another issue is apathy with some coaches they refuse to coach the foundations of soccer and go straight to jungle ball and dangerous playing...these coaches should stick to street ball at a local park with other adults. Its time to open doors for our children and their future. Its time to build soccer up and rid the chaos and apathy that has been aloud in our nations youth soccer. Its time to build our children boys and girls into a stronger nation.

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