How to navigate your child's path

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 President of the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL). He is also the Technical Director of FC Wisconsin, and has been an assistant in the NWSL with the Chicago Red Stars for multiple years.  He holds the USSF "A" License, the USSF "Y" License, and the NSCAA Premier Diploma. (This article previously appeared in the Youth Soccer Insider in 2011)

5 comments about "How to navigate your child's path".
  1. R2 Dad, January 3, 2018 at 6:01 p.m.

    Good advice! My personal "favorite", perhaps the most egregious:
    "Be sure the “name” attached to the team will be the coach attached to the team; bait-and-switch is not uncommon."
    Unless this has happened to your kid/kid's team, it's hard to fathom club management would actually do this as they end up holding captive players (and their resentful parents) for the balance of the season. I have seen good coaches forced out just before the season starts, in order to entrap the team (after the money has been paid for the season). Ethics is a foreign concept in youth soccer, unfortunately. Leagues should harshly punish clubs for this but don't.
    For some reason club management seems to think players are attached to a club rather than a specific coach. In a better world families would be, if clubs actually cared about development, since the same high level of instruction would be provided no matter the coach. But time and time again clubs do what is convenient for themselves: boring repetitive training sessions with no thought given to individual requirements, coach not attending your matches in order to coach their other club team that day/weekend and sending a club representative no one has ever worked with before in their stead, team meeting at the end of the season instead of beginning when parents could be socialized and carpools formed, lame "company" coaches that tow the party line but can barely run a practice.

  2. Nick Daverese, January 4, 2018 at 2:56 a.m.

    I think the quality of the club is more important then any one coach. I think it is dangerous for any one coach to be more important then the club. Let’s say the team is good and the coach says he does not want his players to move up in class if they are capable of playing on a better team like trying out for ODP. The player should be free to do that and not told he can’t By his club coach.

    this happened to our under 16 team players by their coach. The team was one of the best teams in the United States at the time. Plus their were players who were capable playing up on our under 19 team that was also one of the better teams in the US.

    the coach wanted them to play just on his team and no one else’s.

    both teams played in their leagues best division in their age group.

    i think when looking for a team for your son. Ask the players parents already playing on that team. If their kids are learning and are having fun playing on that team.

  3. frank schoon replied, January 4, 2018 at 10:58 a.m.

    Nick, good advise

  4. Nick Daverese, January 5, 2018 at 4:38 a.m.

    In our case the coach was told he could not tell his players they could not play for any other team with the club or try out for ODP. The players did love the coach. So what does he do he pulled the team out of our league and wanted to start his own club with just that one team. The league told him he could not do that. Plus that coach did not have enough of his own money to do it himself. The Long Island junior soccer league would have took them but the home field would have had to be in Long Island. He could not make that happen. So they had to sit out the balance of that first season.

    Our club told that to his players. So we still lost half of the players on our under 16 team. So we finished our season using under 16 and under 14 players. 

    His under 16 had to wait to the next season to play for him. At that time a new league was added the big apple league. Which was a terrible league to play for. Plus he had no money to send them to tournaments and no invitational tournaments. By that the time most of the rest of our old players wanted to come back with us. But a lot of bad blood was between our club and their parents and their players. If we had took them back we never would take back that coach.

  5. Ray Lindenberg , January 11, 2018 at 6:22 p.m.

    As someone who has been coaching teams, groups of kids, and lots of one-on-one sccer tutoring at all ages, novice to pheenom, since 1970 ... and as a parent ... I can tell you that the biggest consideration of who I would have coach kids with their soccer hasslightly less to do with the soccer coaching ability and more to do with the emphasis on a myriad of behaviors and standards that, ultimately will serve the child more as a good citizen, which in turn will yield a more successful player and career.

    Yes, developing skills and game knowledge is key -- as is ensuring that the child has fun and develops at an optimum pace.. but nothing, NOTHING, is as critical as developing good teamwork instincts, sportsmanship, and respect for teammates, coaching, adminstrators, refs, opponents and the game. In the grand scheme of things, a coach building character far outweighs skills development ... and ironically, better chararcter opens the door wide open for better skills learning in the long-run. 

    Far and away, the greatest talents, stories and successes in all sports can be traced to greater disciplines and respect that the athlete learned early on from coaches who cared more about the player and his/her personal development (and often their scholastics!) than the sport. It almost sounds counter-intuiive but many of the greater coaches that impacted pro players' lives were those that pursued greater human behavioral performance rather than athletic success. Superior athletic perfomance follows maturity and good basic human behaviors, and not the ther way around. Ask Duke's Coach Krzyzewski.

    Be happy with coaches who emphasize good behavior, attitude, respect, manners and teamwork ... and if they happen to be good experienced soccer coaches, that's a bonus. Beware of coaches who are so consumed wih the game and player's skills development that they overlook the fact that there's a human being in front of them that will need to be a successul and productive member of society for far longer than they will be a good soccer player.

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