Single-Digit Soccer is a book that will make youth soccer parents and coaches laugh, then push for change.
Youth soccer at this age (9 and below, hence “single-digit”) is fun. And funny. There’s no shortage of fun stories to tell, and I put a couple of them in the excerpt in SoccerWire.
But we also get into more serious topics. U.S. Soccer is trying to step up its game so we’ll have better players emerging from youth soccer. Yet the most obvious solutions aren’t always the best, and in the unique landscape of the United States, they’re often counterproductive.
So that leads us to some of the topics Single-Digit Soccer covers:
1. When do you start travel soccer? In most cases, we’re starting far earlier than development-minded coaches want. U.S. Youth Soccer actually says we should be holding off past the Single-Digit years. We’re obviously not.
2. Help! I’m coaching! What do I do? The book steers you to some good information online and reminds you that you can’t coach 6-year-olds the same way you’d coach 16-year-olds. It also gives you some fun prototypes to consider. Are you The Superfan? The “Fun” Coach? Mr. Passion? Take a look and take your pick!
3. How much do you emphasize winning? None. That’s the short answer. But it’s really hard to drill it in people’s skulls. And, at times, I see a few reasonable exceptions.
4. Are we inclusive? Or are we driving kids away from the sport because it costs too much, is too elitist (especially at too early an age), and stresses vague long-term interests over just making the dadgum game fun for kids to play?
5. Should we be doing more “free play”? Yes, though it’s sometimes a challenge when you don’t just have fields sitting around for the whole neighborhood to race out play pickup games. The book offers some ideas.
6. When should we teach … heading? Team tactics? Diving like Robben? The first two are addressed in the book. Not the third. Shhh. It’s a secret.
7. Why do we have so many different organizations telling us different things we’re supposed to be doing? The follow-up question: What do you do about it?
Should coaches of really good players from U9 to U19 pay attention to Single-Digit Soccer?
Until time freezes and no one ages, yes. U10s have a funny way of growing up to be U16s.
And while Single-Digit Soccer casts a wide net over everything — rec soccer, semi-serious travel soccer, TOPSoccer and extreme travel soccer — there’s plenty to hold the elite coach’s interest.
One major issue for these coaches: soccer’s dropout rate.
Here’s Kevin Payne, who has dealt with elite players as an MLS executive and continues to do so in his role as U.S. Club Soccer CEO, sums it up:
At the ages of 10, 11, 12, kids’ developmental age can vary as much as plus or minus four years from their chronological age. So you could have a 12-year-old kid and they might be developmentally closer to a 16-year-old, or they might be developmentally – especially physically – closer to an 8-year-old. So when the sport is losing 70 percent of its participants by the age of 12, there’s no way that anybody can tell you they’re not worried about that because that 70 percent is a cohort with no chance of becoming elite players.
The fact is, within that 70 percent there undoubtedly are players who could’ve become elite players. They just never got the chance, because they were subjected to such an intense and unpleasant experience, largely shaped by a very outcome-driven culture that they just said, ‘this isn’t fun any more, so I’m leaving.’
Those kids and the people around them never got the chance to figure out whether maybe they could be a serious player. It’s way, way too early to be expecting young players to exhibit the qualities necessary … We think it’s an absolutely critical element of player development in the U.S. to keep a much higher percentage of our soccer population involved in the game longer.
So if you’re focusing on the top 1 percent at U9, you’re not just missing out. You’re cutting down our country’s future player pool.
4. Kobo (they’ve actually pulled a small sample from the rough draft)
5. Scribd (not yet as of August 7)
6. PageFoundry (not yet as of August 7)
7. Oyster (not yet as of August 7)
I’ll update this list as I see new links.
This book, like coaching youth soccer, has been difficult but rewarding. I’m so grateful to everyone who has helped out. Here’s a partial list:
People I interviewed (the last four indirectly): Sam Snow (U.S. Youth Soccer), Christian Lavers (U.S. Club Soccer), Rick Wolff, Robin Fraser, Julie Foudy, Tiffany Weimer, Garth Lagerwey, Alexi Lalas, Kofi Sarkodie, Andrew Driver, Mike Chabala and Bobby Boswell.
People who helped me gather interviews: Monique Bowman (NSCAA), Lester Gretsch (Houston Dynamo).
People who’ve kicked around ideas with me: Kate Markgraf, Brandi Chastain, Joanna Lohman, Charles Boehm, Jon Townsend, and tons of anonymous people at BigSoccer.
Editors who’ve put up with my self-indulgent soccer writing: Boehm, Chris Hummer, Deb Barrington, Steve Berkowitz and Gary Kicinski.
Editor who is making this book much cleaner and coherent: Laurel Robinson.
People at my club: Mike Allen, Pete Wacht, Jane Dawber, Eddie Lima, Mike Gurdak, Ryan Phair, Andrew Ritter, Lee Chichester, Jason Steiner, Damon Lee, Michele Sullivan, Chris Hegedus, Rob Lancaster and Mike Lyons.
My workplace: Mary and the crew at Starbucks at Vienna Marketplace.
Every player and parent on my teams, especially my two sons and my remarkably patient wife.
In the new ESPN “30 for 30” documentary Of Miracles and Men, we see footage of Anatoli Tarasov, the man given the unlikely job of starting Soviet ice hockey from scratch. In a 1992 interview, he says he was told he would have little to see of other countries’ games and would need to “work on his own hockey.” “They were right!” he exclaims.
More footage from his coaching days shows him imploring players to smile, have fun, and love each other. He borrowed more from ballet than Canadian hockey.
His daughter, Tatiana Tarasova, picks up the thread in the present day with a brilliant quote:
“If you follow someone else’s road, you will never get ahead.”
Does this apply at all to U.S. youth soccer?
(Tarasova, incidentally, coached and choreographed figure skaters such as Michelle Kwan, Sasha Cohen, Johnny Weir, etc.)
The brilliance of the TV show Friday Night Lights is that it’s not about football or Texas or even Taylor Kitsch’s abs. It’s about identity.
Jason Street is the All-American QB with his college and pro future neatly laid out for him until an accident leaves him in a wheelchair. Matt Saracen is a quiet, nerdy guy who is thrust into the spotlight as the team’s QB. Lyla Garrity’s perfect life is shattered by boyfriend Jason’s injury and the gossip that pushes her away from cheerleading. Tami Taylor is tired of being “the coach’s wife” and nothing else.
This may be our developmental system’s biggest problem. When losing a game or losing your starting spot means losing your identity, you panic. Your fight or flight system kicks in and stress completely subverts all your best intentions and reasonable considerations. Quick, accurate decision-making and performance is impossible. Fear makes us forget what we know. Those thoughts don’t even make it to the frontal lobe once the emotional brain gets hold of them.
Seems like a bad idea in general to tie one’s identity to one thing. Even worse to tie it to something as ephemeral as athletic ability. And even worse to start tying it to one sport at an early age.
(Granted, it’s a bad thing to do as an adult, too. I say that as a flimsy excuse to play the following video for comic relief:)
And this is in highschool. In soccer, we’re asking whether our players should be specializing at age 8. From my research so far, the answer is surely not.
A high school sports blog has a good list of benefits from playing multiple sports and quotes on playing several sports from luminaries like Wayne Gretzky, Larry Fitzgerald and the ubiquitous Alex Morgan.
I’m not sure how to verify the “42 out of 47” stat. Is it Meyer’s first two years at Ohio State? The two most recent years? Ohio State did have 47 recruits in 2013 and 2014. Ohio State’s site doesn’t always list every player’s extracurriculars, so I was only able to verify these:
LB Raekwon Macmillan
WR Johnnie Dixon
ATH Marshon Lattimore
CB Damon Webb
OT Jamarco Jones
LB Dante Booker Jr.
DE Jalyn Holmes
OG Demetrius Knox
S Erick Smith
LB Kyle Berger
ATH Noah Brown
WR Terry McLaurin
DT Dylan Thompson
OT Marcelys Jones
K Sean Nuernberger
OT Brady Taylor
QB Stephen Collier
DE Darius Slade
CB Eli Apple
CB Gareon Conley
LB Trey Johnson
S Vonn Bell
ATH Dontre Wilson
DT Joey Bosa
TE Marcus Baugh
OT Evan Lisle
LB Mike Mitchell
DT Michael Hill
S Jayme Thompson
DT Donovan Munger
WR Corey Smith
LB Christopher Worley
DT Tracy Sprinkle
S Darron Lee
DE Tyquan Lewis
OT Tim Gardner
That’s 47 recruits. Somehow, that doesn’t include punter Cameron Johnston, who played Australian rules football.
Also, “invited walk-on” Khaleed Franklin was all-city (Columbus) in basketball. Another invited walk-on, Logan Gaskey, played basketball and has a black belt in taekwondo. (At 295 pounds, that’s not easy.) Joe Ramstetter considered college baseball.
And from the year before, Pat Elflein was a distinguished wrestler and participated in track and field. Cardale Jones, another recruit from the year before, played basketball.
For comparison’s sake, I decided to look at a good women’s soccer program with a good website. Hello, Virginia:
GK Morgan Stearns: HS basketball
GK Kelsey Kilgore: HS and AAU basketball
D Megan Reid: All-conference basketball, track and water polo
D/M Meghan Cox: Starting kicker on football team; also played basketball, field hockey and softball
M Tori Hanway: HS lacrosse, basketball and track
M Morgan Brian: All-state basketball
F Kaili Torres: HS track
M Campbell Millar: HS track
F Mary Morgan: HS basketball
D Julia Sroba: HS cross-country and track
So that’s at least 10 out of 24, including a couple of the better-known players and one U.S. national team player.
Now if only we could find enough programs for the kids who can’t make multiple varsities.
On Saturday, I had the honor of speaking at the NSCAA Convention, presenting what I’d put together toward my Single-Digit Soccer book, sharing ideas, and making bad jokes about my youth team being named Athens Applejacks.
In case you couldn’t make it — or in case you weren’t writing things down — here’s a synopsis. It may even have some things I forgot to mention. U.S. Youth Soccer will also post slides later.
About the book
Single-Digit Soccer is an exploration of issues, a guidebook for parents, a collection of fun stories and so forth — all in the U-Little age groups (U10, U9, etc.).
The book will come out sometime this year, but I’m still seeking input. Please chime in and let me know what you think.
About me (writer)
USA TODAY, Long-Range Goals, Enduring Spirit (if you’re on this blog, you already know I can be found here). My youth soccer work started in earnest when I covered the unveiling of the U.S. Soccer curriculum for ESPN.com.
About me (parent coach/player)
Yes, I was the starting sweeper for the U14 Athens Applejacks 1970. As a player, it’s been all downhill from there, and I recently retired from indoor soccer goalkeeping because my hand didn’t recover from a couple of saves.
As a coach, I’ve been involved with House league, All-Stars and a “crossover” program in which our U7s and U8s sign up for extra training and play against teams from other clubs. I have an “E” license and will get my “D” this year.
The age we’re talking about
I love this video:
There’s a chasm between what we say and what we do. U.S. Youth Soccer says we shouldn’t have competitive tournaments, tryouts or a split between “recreational” and “competitive” at U10. Then we have U9 State Cups.
We worry about kids not having enough fun, getting too serious too soon, and then quitting. So at U9, we’re telling kids they’re not good enough. You don’t get to train with the great coach. You don’t get the fancy warmups. You can’t play in a tournament.
The kids who make it
Then we tell other 8-year-olds they’re hot stuff. These kids strut around school like they own the place. “Hi, Coach Beau! I’m really good — I made travel!” Then coaches wonder why these kids aren’t devoted to improving themselves. It’s like Nuke Laloosh with the quadraphonic Blaupunkt.
And it trickles down even lower. U8 ID Days. U6-U10 Tryouts. And if your club isn’t doing these hyperserious things, the club next door is. In our “crossover” league, we took 48 kids who just signed up, split them into four teams and took them into games against teams that had tryouts for the top 12 players. It was House players who signed up for additional training vs. a travel team in everything but name.
The idea here is to frame the discussion. Some of these issues don’t have simple solutions. Some are just things to weigh in the balance when making any sort of decision about soccer — how to set up a club, how to coach, what parents should look for, etc.
How much is this going to cost?
Big issue, especially for parents. Travel teams can easily cost $1,000 per season not inclusive of tournament fees, uniforms, postgame stops at McDonald’s, etc. And one elite league in my area has a four-hour, 35-minute drive between clubs. For a league game.
How much time will this take?
Again, see that travel distance. Now all these other commitments. Welcome to the U9 Academy, where you’ll spend three days a week training for your 30-35 games in a 10-month span.
What do parents really want?
Not that simple. Some are chasing college scholarships. Most just want their kids to do something fun and healthy. Some hope their kids can play high school soccer. Some hope their kids get the social experience of playing travel soccer with other kids who love the sport. And some don’t want to drive more than five minutes to practice.
Should we play year-round?
Probably not. That’s what orthopedists and psychiatrists would say. But parents are terrified of their kids being left behind. Or they play indoor soccer in the winter because they get something different from that than they get from their house leagues — they can play with their buddies.
Winning vs. development
The big one. Entire rooms at NSCAA tackle this issue. And we all say development. Are you rotating everyone on defense and in goal? Are you selecting only small numbers of players, like some teams do in our crossover and All-Star tournaments? Are you teaching your players to foul, dive and do other acts of wanton gamesmanship? I saw it at a U9 tournament.
Fun vs. development
Some kids are content playing “Mr. Wolf, What Time is It?” Some want to play actual soccer. And then there’s the whole notion of keeping score. A lot of kids want to do it.
Fun vs. structure
How many of your clubs have time set apart for free play, where kids can come in and play in mixed groups with parents and coaches told to shut the bleep up? We say the game is the best teacher. We warn against joystick coaching. Is that message getting across? A program near me has three training sessions for every game at U8 — the games are every other week, and they just play other kids in the program. I can’t think of a kid I’ve coached, and I’ve coached some very good ones, who would enjoy that.
Fun vs. parity
Kids like to play with their friends. Some groups of friends have greater interest in and aptitude for soccer than others. So the typical house league might bust them up. Fair? Perhaps. Fun for all? Maybe not. Are there other ways this house league could be fair without splitting up all the groups of friends?
Development vs. parity
Are unevenly matched games a good challenge? Or a waste of time?
What kind of development?
Some clubs and curricula think we should teach passing at early ages; some insist that you can’t. When Claudio Reyna unveiled the curriculum, he warned against “overdribbling.” Coaches at the back of the room were puzzled. (I bumped into Reyna soon after the curriculum presentation — he used Barcelona as an example of a team that takes 1-2 touches and then passes, rarely dribbling.)
Do “A” players need to train apart from “B” players? Will it drag down the “A” players to be around other kids? Should we ban them from playing at recess with their buddies? And what’s an “A” player at age 8 anyway? Can we do it differently, perhaps putting everyone in one pool and only pulling them out for voluntary extra training and merit-based tournaments?
Are we burning these kids out? Mentally and physically?
This part will work best when you can see the slides. I list the issues on one side of each slide, and I highlight the ones that are addressed by each idea.
These are not Commandments. These are discussion-starters. Some of them actually contradict each other. Some may make sense for one club and not another, depending on your geography, your schools, your staffing, etc.
Tailor practices to your team, not vice versa
By all means, try to follow a curriculum, but meet reality at some point. Your curriculum may tell you to do a completely different set of exercises each week, but your kids may not have that kind of attention span. The kids I coach usually don’t, and I can’t spend half of every practice explaining the new exercises.
Put more coaching education online
This is actually happening — through NSCAA, U.S. Soccer, AYSO and others. That’s great. We need to train parent coaches, and they can’t always drive 90 minutes for two weekends a year to get a “D” license. We’re asking them to volunteer as soccer coaches, not join the Army Reserve.
Don’t push specialization
We need to make what we say match what we do. I’m not sure how. Maybe just talk to your parents. The trouble is that if you don’t offer something, they may sign up for a program somewhere else. But we can encourage kids to do other things. Basketball will help teach team tactics. Swimming will keep them fit. Martial arts can teach discipline. Chess, music, acting — everything else will make them well-rounded people. That, moreso than a singular focus on soccer, will help kids at college admissions time.
Teach positions, or at least basic tactics
My first youth sports experience was at the Athens YMCA playing four sports a year, mostly under the guidance of football coaches. In football season, we ran plays. The coach could call “32,” and I knew it meant a running back was going run into the hole between me (the right guard) and the center. Then in the spring, we all played 11v11 soccer, and it wasn’t a total train wreck.
One reason this is important: “Magnetball” can easily drive skilled kids out of soccer. They can’t get the ball, so they can’t use their skills.
Do programs through school
We ask parents to pick up their kids from school, take them home for an hour or three, then drive them back to a soccer field that might be right back at that school. Meanwhile, the local karate school is picking the kids up in a van. Parents who strain to make one soccer practice a week will gladly sign their kids up for five days of karate. It’s not because they’re chasing a karate scholarship.
Don’t travel more than 90 minutes for league games
Some people in the audience objected because their geography demands such travel. That’s understandable. In the metro D.C. area, it seems ridiculous.
This is what I see in our local baseball, and guess what? We produce a lot of good players without segregating people. The players all play Little League. A few of them also get “elite” play on a travel team that just plays a handful of games.
Group by skill level, not age group
Another idea borrowed from baseball. If you start playing at age 7, you don’t just get tossed in with U8s who have been playing for years. You’ll likely start at Rookie baseball while more experienced 7-year-olds play Single-A. People progress through the ranks at their own pace. By the time they’re 12, they’re all in the same league.
Doesn’t that sound better than splitting into “recreational” and “competitive” at a tryout at age 8, with little opportunity to bridge the gap?
Have a program between “House” and “travel”
Another idea for keeping late bloomers in the game and for rewarding players who are serious about soccer but can’t match the elite players’ athleticism. Ideally, give everyone who wants professional training and evenly matched competition the chance to get it – maybe not every day or every week, but at some point each season.
THE ULTIMATE GOAL: Be inclusive
The one thing of which I’m firmly convinced is that THIS is the ultimate goal for all of us who care about youth soccer. We need to meet the needs of elite players with good competition, at least on occasion. We need to meet the needs of those who are not elite yet but might be. We need TOPSoccer. We need basic rec league for people just starting out. We need to give all players a good time — these are our future soccer fans and our future youth club volunteers.
And I want this project to be inclusive. I want to hear from you. Comments, email, Twitter, skywriting — anything’s fine. (But get a move on — I’d like to get this book done!)
We’re a multicultural nation. English, Irish, German, Scottish, Mexican, Chinese, Korean … we can hardly list all of our influences.
We’re also a rabidly capitalist nation. Sure, most of Europe is capitalist as well. But we take it to another level. Everything competes in the marketplace — sometimes fairly, sometimes not.
And we don’t kindly to taking orders from one entity. If we did, the Boston Tea Party would just be a polite weekly gathering, perhaps to watch Foxboro United take on Arsenal in an English Premier League game.
So in youth soccer, we have myriad entities calling the shots. Want something that U.S. Youth Soccer isn’t providing? Try U.S. Club Soccer. Or just form your own league. These organizations and others can also offer their own approaches to coaching education, curricula, club standards, etc. They all co-exist under the big tent of the terrific convention held by the NSCAA, which has its own thoughts on some of these matters.
In one popular NSCAA Convention session, “Building Champions: German Player Development,” German coaching guru Bernd Stoeber compared this chaos to the German way. Number of entities in charge of such things in Germany: One.
And the German system has a lot of advantages, as the classic Guardian examination shows. It’s certainly an improvement over the English system, which seems to boil down to “‘ello, your lad ‘asn’t played well for a fortnight, so he seems daft to me, and we’re releasing ‘im. Don’t worry — he’s only 17, and he ‘as a fourth-grade education, he does.” (Seriously — one of the factoids from the great Guardian examination of Germany’s system shows that their kids are going to school as much as any American child would, while English teens are going a mere nine hours a week.)
Could U.S. Soccer borrow a page from Germany’s book and take charge of everything here? Should they? Probably not, on both counts.
Not that the USSF has to be passive. Surely some of the extremes can be reined in. Maybe youth clubs should be required to have a director of coaching who has been through some basic licensing work, so I’ll be less likely to see a U8 team doing heading drills. Maybe they can ban State Cups and other hypercompetitive tournaments for U10 and below, when we really need to focus on development. A handful of mandates wouldn’t be a bad idea.
But the chaos of American youth soccer is simply a fact of life. We’re diverse — ethnically, economically, geographically, etc. The realities and opportunities of Southern California will always differ from those of Vermont.
In my Single-Digit Soccer session, I had coaches from Nebraska, Michigan, Alaska, Georgia and surely several other states. Some were in urban areas. Some had to travel substantial distances to get decent games. I feel a little more sympathy for the Omaha club needing to drive a few hours than I do the suburban Maryland club that bypasses the entire D.C. metropolitan area to play a league game elsewhere. Every club’s field situation is different — some are on school fields, some on county fields, some privately held.
So when it comes to reforming youth soccer in this country, you have to adapt the old prayer’s line about having the serenity to accept what you cannot change.
I’m not sure Jurgen Klinsmann has ever gained that serenity. He says the right things about accepting players for how they are, not forcing them to be something they’re not, and he has accepted the notion that players are going to take different paths at age 18 — college, MLS, Europe, NASL, etc.
But he’s also one of the people pushing kids to play a 10-month Development Academy season with one club. One environment. The Academy is running down toward U12 now, a notion that perplexed several speakers I saw. Non-Academy clubs are running similar schedules. Why is that the best path forward in such a diverse country?
Klinsmann’s native land, Germany, actually mixes things up, at least for younger kids. Back to the Guardian piece: A lot of kids stay with local junior clubs and get supplemental training from the federation’s traveling coaches.
That seems like a program even more appropriate to a vast country like this one. So does the idea of being exposed to different styles of play, different coaches, etc. Some serious games, some recreational, some just flat-out fun.
U.S. youth soccer today might be too chaotic. A light touch of regulation — perhaps mandating basic education for coaches — would help. But does anyone think an overbearing set of commandments from Chicago will work in this country?
One unique aspect of soccer development as opposed to football and baseball is that we in the USA are all worried that other countries are doing it better. Little League and Pop Warner coaches surely don’t spend quite as much time absorbing the lessons of Barcelona, Ajax and Tahuichi as those of us in soccer.
In basketball, the USA is just starting to ease into that discussion, thanks in part to one U.S. star raised in Italy — Kobe Bryant, who shook up the basketball establishment a few days ago by saying European players are getting better skill development than the AAU-bred Americans.
This isn’t the first time Kobe has said something like this. Here’s what he told Jack McCallum nearly two years ago (“Chaos Theory,” SI, Feb. 25, 2013 — I couldn’t find it in the online vault):
I feel fortunate that I was over in Italy (from ages six to 13) when AAU basketball (got big) over here. They stopped teaching kids fundamentals in the United States, but that didn’t affect me. Over there, it wasn’t about competition and traveling around and being a big deal; it was about fundamentals, footwork, spacing, back cuts — all of those things. Look at Pau Gasol. Look at the skills he has compared to the guys who grew up playing AAU ball.
The irony is that this is the opposite of our concern in U.S. soccer — to an extent, anyway. We’re worried that U.S. soccer players don’t spend enough time playing on their own. Not enough “free play.” I haven’t heard anyone raise that concern about U.S. basketball players, who typically go to the gym or the playground for some pickup games if they’re not practicing.
As long as college coaches use AAU and travel teams, rather than high school sports, as the basis of their recruiting, and parents continue to spend their money and time putting their kids in the youth sports machine to reach lottery-like dreams of a college athletic scholarship, the system will continue as we know it. Plus, in every profession, the road to developing talent and actually getting the job you want is not always the same.
Mike DeCourcy, a soccer guy in his own right, has a few related and sensible prescriptions for U.S. basketball, including more USA Basketball camps for younger players and hockey-style draft rules in which NBA teams can draft players and maintain their rights while they stay in college.
The latter would make sense; therefore, we shouldn’t expect the NCAA to do it.