Choosing the right youth soccer club for your child can be difficult. Paraphrasing the infamous words of Forrest Gump’s mother,
Youth soccer clubs are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.
While parents want to make the best choice for their child’s enjoyment and development, the process can be frustrating. The decision often boils down to playing the coaching lottery and hoping for the best. And like Mr. Gump astutely pointed out – in the world of youth soccer, you don’t know what type of club (or coach) you are getting until it’s too late.
As an enthusiastic soccer dad, trainer and coach – I have seen my fair share of youth soccer teams. Some were well-coached – most were not. When I consult parents on choosing the right club for their child- the anxiety is palpable, with their minds overwhelmed by millions of factors.
In this post, I will provide a practical rule of thumb for breaking through the noise in order to better initially assess the quality of coaching and their program. Disclaimer – I won’t address any of the non-soccer factors. Those priorities are individual choices that each family must make for themselves. Assuming you are comfortable with the club’s non-soccer factors (ie. location, cost, potential teammates, etc.) – here is my advice for screening potential clubs.
Attend the team’s game (or practice scrimmages) looking for two things:
Does the team consistently connect at least five passes in a row?
In possession, do the players on the ball instinctively look-up and check for options?
Wait a minute. Surely there are other things to consider? What about a focus on skill development vs tactics? What about the coach’s demeanor with the kids? Size of the club and competitive level of my child’s team – doesn’t that matter? And in a previous post, didn’t you say that winning has a role in evaluating development? Are you saying that these things don’t matter? Yes and no.
To provide perspective, my background is in management accounting. In short, management accountants distill complex business information into the few metrics (aka key drivers) that significantly move the needle of performance. Equally important is that changes in those key drivers explain changes to a myriad of factors within the entire system.
Let’s use a simple example from business. When a company improves Net Profit as a percentage of sales and improves sales growth – it’s safe to assume that they are growing and becoming more efficient. Does that tell the whole story? No – but if they are not growing sales and are also becoming less profitable; the CEO has some major explaining to do. The same principle applies to youth soccer.
Consistently connect at least five passes in a row – The ability of a team to consistently connect five passes (at a minimum) indicates a number of positive factors that one looks for in a youth soccer club. Firstly, the program has to have a clear vision of how they want the game played. It’s too difficult for kids to randomly connect five passes during a game on a consistent basis without the coach implementing a clear vision and plan as to how the game should be played. The program is also ensuring that the majority of players acquire the basic level of technical ability needed to play the game effectively. This means that special attention had to be invested in players who started behind the curve in skill level – signaling a growth mindset. Otherwise, the sequence would invariably end when those players have the ball.
Moreover, teaching and learning have to be occurring regularly during practice. This includes movement into space on and off the ball. The training sessions must place a heavy emphasis on producing players who have a high-quality first touch and can make accurate passes. Players must be utilizing the entire field – wide, behind and of course, going forward. Finally, a basic level of soccer IQ must be taught to achieve this level of possession; in part because it requires that players identify and exploit numerical advantages. That is a fancy way of saying, if three defenders are on me, my teammate must be open – or if I move in this direction we can play a 2v1 or 3v2, etc.
Instinctively looking-up and checking for options – How many times have we seen a speedy wing player get the ball in their own half and dribble until they run out of real estate with no idea of the situation around them? Or the defender that kicks the ball out of bounds when the closest opponent is 20 yards away? Or the midfielder who only goes forward – regardless of the situation? The list goes on and on.
One of the most crucial steps in developing a youth soccer player is getting them to relax, look up and make the right decision with the ball. This is not intuitive – so a number of positive factors must be in place within the training environment in order for multiple players on a team to demonstrate this skill. Technically, each player must have a handle on ball mastery basics – (passing, receiving and 1v1 to avoid pressure). You can’t relax on the ball if you don’t. Players off-the-ball must be constantly moving into open space – making themselves available. Communication and trust among the players must be good. Anticipation and scanning of one’s surroundings must be happening before the player receives the ball. Technically, players must be able to open up and in most cases pass with both feet. Finally, players (and the ball) must be moving into wide spaces, moving back and occasionally switching the field. Good coaching is required to accomplish this consistently at the youth level.
So you are saying that good youth clubs need to play a possession style of soccer? Let’s pump the brakes. I don’t care what their style of play is. The game of soccer requires teams to successfully pass and receive the ball maintaining some level of possession. There is no way around this fundamental fact. A possession style of play (in its most basic terms) has more to do with trying to keep the ball 60, 70 or even 80% of the time – and how hard a team is willing to work in order to regain the ball quickly. The ability to connect five passes consistently is a basic criterion for playing the game – period.
What about 1v1 and individual skill development? It’s called individual skill for a reason. Yes, a coach should devote some time to it, but most coaches will tell you that players improve individual skill and creativity during free play and by the hours of work they put in above and beyond team training.
Sounds like you just want to see a bunch of one-two touch players with no creativity? This couldn’t be further from the truth. Smart players recognize the situation and where they are on the pitch. You want players who have both the technical ability and courage to dominate 1v1, 2v2 and numerical advantages but the soccer IQ to recognize when it makes sense to do so. In the final analysis, soccer is a game of passing and movement. Even the greatest dribblers in the world understand that – after all,
Beating multiple defenders on the dribble is called a highlight for a reason – it’s rarely successful.
What about defense? Again I have provided measurable indicators for insight on the quality of training a team is receiving. Is it possible that there is a program that has all the positive factors mentioned above but completely ignores defending? Yes, I guess – but highly unlikely.
We decided to join the club but not sure which team or coach my child will receive? Use those metrics as a simple way to evaluate your team during the season. This will help you make a more informed decision during your next move.
What about referrals from other parents? Umm, proceed with caution. The few sane “parent/trainers” out there know how difficult it is to trust the opinion of the typical American parent when it comes to youth soccer. I am going to leave it at that.
Does this answer all the questions about a club? Of course not. The reality, however, is that no matter what you do, you won’t truly know what you are getting before your child joins. Personally, I have mitigated this risk by joining a relatively smaller club with the same staff and leadership. The decision to join a smaller club brings other challenges – at least, however, I know and am comfortable with what happens between the white lines.
Here is one sequence from my son’s U9/U10 team. Please share yours. I love watching good youth soccer.