Rethink the typical youth player pathway by replacing the pyramid

Check any soccer club’s website or some of the presentations at the United Soccer Coaches convention, and you’ll see a nifty “pathway” graphic.

At the bottom, you’ll see recreational programs for young players. Then everything narrows as you move upward, through vague words like “select,” “academy” and “elite.” Near the top, you may or may not see “college.” You may or may not see a pro team the club runs or simply a non-specific “pro” tier. At the more grandiose clubs, you’ll see “national team.”

This pathway is the wrong shape.

Let’s say you have 400 U-8 rec players (boys and girls combined) in a given birth year. Then let’s say you send one of those 400 to the national team.

Where did the other 399 go? Are they still involved with your club? Are they still involved with the sport? We’d all certainly hope so.

The typical pyramid pathway isn’t even an accurate depiction of the U-8-to-pro pathway. A club that has 400 U-8 rec players likely has only 80-100 travel players at U-9, so the graphic should immediately shrink by 75% from one rung to the next. Then the numbers slowly drop through each age group until maybe 36 -- an 18-player boys team and an 18-player girls team -- finish out their travel soccer careers with the U-19s.

Clubs also tend to omit high school soccer from their pathway graphics. That’s a mistake. You may have a couple of families thinking of a potential pro career and a handful of families thinking of landing on a college team. You also have dozens of families each year -- some in your recreational league, many in your mid-level travel teams, even a few on your top-level team -- who are just hoping to get through high school tryouts.

So instead of a pyramid, we’d ideally have a square, with 400 players at age 8 and 400 people involved with the sport at age 19. At least, we’d hope for a trapezoid, with the top only slightly smaller than the bottom.

Or, given the fact that adults will have many more ways to engage with soccer than 4-year-olds do, maybe we should be looking at a baobab, the “upside-down” tree with many branches from which Disney’s Animal Kingdom derives its “tree of life.” Or, if you prefer soccer tactics references to nature, call it an inverted pyramid.

So let’s consider what pathways (branches) would be on the square or baobab model. In this hypothetical, we’re talking about a mid-sized club that plays boys and girls ECNL and occasionally send a player to the pros.

Level 1 (bottom): Preschool programs.
Level 2 (U-6 through U-8): Recreational programs, including TOPSoccer.
Level 3 (U-9 through U-12): 25% travel, 70% recreational, 5% TOPSoccer
Level 4 (U-13 through U-14): The ECNL pathway branches off. The other pathways start to mix. Some players go from travel to rec and vice versa. Some players leave TOPSoccer for general rec.
Level 5 (U-15 through U-19): More tangled branches. Travel and rec also connect to high school. Also, a branch turns up for “referee.”
Level 6 (early adult): The smallest branch is “pro.” Top-level travel and other travel go to “college varsity.” Many branches connect to “college club / intramural,” as well as “adult leagues.”
Top level: A thin branch for “national team” parallel to “pro.” Then we have “player,” “referee,” “coach” and “parent.” Maybe not “journalist.” And they all feed into “supporter.”

This graphic is for parents, first and foremost. But everyone within the club -- every coach, every employee -- should see it as well. It will resonate more deeply than the typical mission statement.

Because your club shouldn’t be focused to the very top of a pyramid that applies only to a handful of people. Your club should be focused on an experience that keeps everyone involved in the sport.

And parents and players should know that before they sign up.

11 comments about "Rethink the typical youth player pathway by replacing the pyramid".
  1. humble 1, January 15, 2021 at 4:50 p.m.

    I read an article a while back, might have been on SA, can't recall, within the last two years, this German soccer guru was asked, can you describe the American development model.  He said, more-or-less, no I really cannot.  Why is that?  People get confused about the pyramid.  The pyramid you show above it not the key pyramid to (1) develop and (2) ID players and (3) provide competive enjoyable games for all levels.  Those pyramids are the youth soccer leagues.  Plain and simple.  You must have one league in a region.  YOu can't have competing leagues that do no play one-another.  When you list all the rec teams for an age group - then the competivies - then the academies - it looks like a pyramide - with the elite league at the top.  That sums it up. As it relates to devepment - at it's core - develoment for kiddos is simply - what can you do with the ball at your feet - and can you do it in a game?  Do not look to USSF or English FA for this.  The book written in English that best describes what a national devepment program should look like and that can be used for individual development as well is written by the Croatian Football Association, called aptly enough Development Curriculum.  So the pyramid structure is your local leagues - and - it is broken if there are silos - because you don't have the best playing the best.  And the development pathway is just building as many skills as you can and progressing them from your backyard to the practice field to the game.  Not so complicated.  Thanks a million for the stimulating article!

  2. R2 Dad, January 16, 2021 at 1:29 a.m.

    I appreciate the inclusion of officiating/referees at the youth levels. I always wonder if it would be possible to pull in more kids between U8 and U12 that, instead of leaving the sport, can be encouraged to officiate. You can't get a badge until you're 12 and for many kids that too late--they've gotten discouraged and have left the sport by then.

  3. Kent James, January 18, 2021 at 11:29 a.m.

    This article highlights the problems with the conventional model of player development that focus resources on a few select players, preferably identified at a young age.  In an effort to become competitive on the world stage as quickly as possible has led to the creation of a system that doesn't work for most of the participants, and arguably doesn't do the best job of reaching its goal (because it excludes people who might have become stars had they been included).

    The only thiing you've missed in your chart is the role of pick-up soccer, which can expand to include anyone who doesn't have the time to commit to a regular team, and can accomodate any age/skill level (if done properly).  It also allows players who are immersed in a competitive environment to develope skills without the pressures created by the need to win.  

    Well done Beau.

  4. Richard Crow, January 18, 2021 at 11:51 a.m.

    This is the most complete pathway I have seen; it needs to be promoted. 
    I would also like to see a coaching pathway for players U-12 and up. If they know the skills, young players can teach and model them as assistant coaches and eventually as head coaches. 
    An officiating pathway is important to train referees for high-level matches, but referees aren't really needed in rec leagues, and they don't teach skills.

    If you're training players in cohorts and coaches commit to developong all players in their club, let the two coaches ref the games and focus on player development instead of scores. Having used young coaches, I am convinced that that a coaching pathway is more nurturing for young players and way less stresful and intimidating. If young players coach and officiate their games this coaching pathway and soft entry to officiating could also produce some pretty decent referees after a few years.

  5. Mike Lynch, January 18, 2021 at 9:36 p.m.

    Good article Beau. Your proposal is "form follows function." The pyramid model is "form follows financials." Unfortunately, there is not much left today that is not "form follows financials."

  6. James Madison, January 18, 2021 at 10:59 p.m.

    The name of the game for any club or AYSO( region should be to generate and maintain a olove of the game.  This shold be the mission of very youth soccer entity.  There's no reason why players should not be inspired to continue playing into adulthood (and beyond), even though they never play professionally, or even college or high school varsity.

  7. Bob Hartmann, January 19, 2021 at 8:56 a.m.

    Interesting perspective.  My problem with the traditional model is that it fails to consider that players as individuals all mature (physically mentally, maturity) at different ages.  Players identified at, say, age 12, may flame out (from a professional player prospective) while someone overlooked at age 12 may blossom at age 15.  Most successful clubs have A, B anc C teams for each age group, rotating players in and out of those groups based on their progress at the time.  Again, the focus should always be on player development, not wins and losses.  Ultimately, the pool of players, whether professional or recreational, continues to provide for a solid base of support for our great game.

  8. Shanti Rao, January 19, 2021 at 1:53 p.m.

    It sure would be great if US Soccer would let recreational leagues organize players by school grade, rather than birth year. The simple fact that kids won't be with their friends sends the signal that the governing bodies care only about the "elite" players, and motivates many families not to have their kids play soccer in the first place. I hope the new leadership of US Soccer will do more listening, and less commanding.

  9. Phil Love, January 19, 2021 at 3 p.m.

    Not sure why you included the Atlanta Falcons logo in your progression block, but I believe your model is better than the typical pyramid.  Clubs should work to remove the stigma of not making a travel team to get more kids out and playing in any way possible.

  10. Beau Dure replied, January 19, 2021 at 9:02 p.m.

    Phil - James Madison Warhawks, though I did grow up in Georgia. 

  11. Marty Apple, January 19, 2021 at 3:19 p.m.

    Nice thought Beau. What I like is the fact that your thought is for youth clubs to widen their perspective and take the consideration for all their customers/members and what is best for the sport, not just a short sided view of the club and the top players.  Quite frankly, it feels like an overused marketing angle to get families that don't know any better to pay more attention to your club because you have a 'pathway'. To your point, a very small number of players go on to play in college. My job requires me to see a lot of youth club websites and not one that I have seen yet says 'we want every player to become a lifelong fan of the sport'. Why is that not the focus?  What form does a fan take?  All the ones you mentioned.  While the US desire is to advertise the top is what everyone wants correct?...Maybe.  That is 'the American way'. But if you are a parent and not knowledgable about this sport, that sounds like the American dream.  Why not just develop a player into a lifelong fan and provide the tools and techniques to identify the top players that show promise and desire and promote them to whichever club in the area that specilizes in top player development. It always feel strange to me that every club in every local neighborhood seems to advertise they can develope to top levels.  Really?  I do believe that our system is so far past the point that changes like what we are discussing are not realistic.  An entire overhaul of the way in which US Soccer is managed across the entire US is not a feasible change.  Too many things are built around $ and that is hard to alter. I like the thought behind your article though.

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