THE BRIGHT HORIZON
"It's so much easier to produce a consistent level of high performance when you nourish youngsters, help them develop and provide a pathway to success...It's like turtles in the South Seas. Thousands of them are hatched on the beaches, but few ever reach the water."
- Alex Ferguson, Former Manager of Manchester United
I've been thinking a lot about baby turtles lately. It's amazing to me how hundreds, sometimes thousands of baby turtles hatch at about the same time on the same stretch of beach, and all head in the same direction. Scurrying across the beach, the turtles face many obstacles. The blazing sun will claim a few. Crabs and sea gulls will feast on a few others. And some may fall into small holes they are too weak to climb out of. Those that survive the beach, the sun and the predators reach the sea and then face an even trickier journey. It's a marathon!
The youth soccer experience is, in many ways, like the beach on which baby turtles hatch. There are hundreds of thousands of kids who play soccer in the United States. They join all sorts of soccer clubs and programs hoping to reach their destination, their "sea." But what is their destination? Ask a young player and they'll typically provide a vague but happy description. They'll say they want to play in games, score goals on the weekend and be professional players, like their heroes. Many want to be like Ronaldo, Messi or Alex Morgan. Those are their dreams and inspirations. It's simple. But how will they get across the beach? What do they need?
Ask a young player what they need and they'll probably list coaches, training, soccer balls, uniforms, boots (probably expensive, colorful ones!) fields, teammates and usually nothing more specific or definite than that. The specifics of training regimens, nutrition, curriculum, systems of play and a proper or ideal training environment for long-term player development likely never make their list.
Long-term player development is always on my mind, mainly because its fundamentally at the core of Eagleclaw Football Club's mission. It's what we do. It's a very tricky thing, though. At its core, long-term player development is about teaching and managing a young athlete today and over a period of years. Its about being mindful of the things young athletes need to be doing at certain ages and stages of growth in order to achieve success and providing those things effectively. Yet, that is not everything young players need.
Perhaps the most interesting fact about newly hatched sea turtles is their instinct. Immediately after hatching, they head straight for the water. Its a complex instinct. They do not hatch and emerge from their eggs knowing they must reach the water. It's more complicated and interesting than that. Scientists tell us the turtles' instinct is to head to the brightest direction. And on a beach, the brightest direction is the light of the open horizon. Think about it. After months in a dark shell, the baby turtle's driving instinct is to head toward the exact opposite environment - the light. By aiming for the bright horizon, they reach the sea!
The baby turtle does not know its parents and never will. After laying their eggs on the beach, female turtles head back to the sea and never return. So, the baby turtle is on its own, armed only with a powerful instinct to pursue a destination. The stretch of beach from egg to sea is a perilous journey. Baby turtles move slowly, so it can take several days to reach the water's edge, and they face obstacles and predators along the way.
Like baby turtles, hundreds of thousands of young soccer players across this country join all sorts of soccer programs. The kids supply their dreams, passion, joy, instinct and drive. Trust that. They want to be better players and want to grow and progress as players. And, at least for a while, every young player operates on instinct and drives toward those goals. But to reach their destination, their "sea", they will need help to navigate the beach. They will need education, nurturing, nourishment, a consistent positive training environment focused on their long-term development.
So, they join one of thousands of soccer clubs or trudge off to tryouts. And for hundreds of thousands of American youth, its precisely at this point that they are thrown off course. Instead of aiming for the true bright horizon of a positive learning environment, they are sharply diverted toward "premier soccer." It's a shiny thing that promises our kids a path to their "sea", but its a lie. A false horizon.
Too many large "premier" soccer clubs across this country are largely built to satisfy adult ambitions of forming and leading winning teams and, if we want to be really honest, making money. These clubs are intentionally designed for the purpose of sifting through hundreds of young players and focusing only on a select few to sit on the top of a pyramid. The rest of the players form the base of this financial pyramid that is intended to provide the funds necessary to advance the players at the top of this pyramid into tournaments and highly competitive leagues where coaches satisfy their ambition of winning. These clubs are a false horizon that underserves, under educates and strands far too many young players far too early in their soccer journeys. Yes, they strand players on "the beach." Too many young players find themselves in development holes they cannot climb out of, and the "premier" club has no interest or incentive to provide the training necessary to lift them out of these holes and point them toward the sea. Their solution: encourage them to seek outside training and invite the kid to try out again next year and remain a paying customer in the financial pyramid that will continue to benefit only the kids on the "A" teams.
Be honest with yourself. Why did you pick your child's soccer program? Was it the biggest? The winningest? Does it play in a "top league"? Is it because all the "top players" belong to that club and you want your child to play with "the best"? Is this really what your player needs for their soccer journey?
Consider this formula: Pressure squared, plus Low Education equals negative Development. That's precisely what the vast majority of "premier" soccer clubs offer. The pressure of tryouts at too young an age, the pressure to win meaningless games and out-of-state tournaments and coaches who are driven and incentivized to rearrange their teams annually by cutting players and adding others who can help them win. Young players in "premier" clubs face these unnecessary pressures daily.
Low Education is another problem of "premier" clubs and its a little known fact the problem is structural. You see, "premier" clubs are, in reality, a confederation of coaches who are treated as independent contractors. This is important, so really take this in! Each coach is given 2 or 3 teams and signs a contract with a list of expectations and some statements. Typically, the contract states that each coach is solely responsible for running their teams and requires the coach to have 12 practices and 4 games per month. The contract also reminds the coach that they are solely responsible for coaching content. In other words, the coach is solely responsible for deciding what players learn, when they learn it, what system of play is used, what style the team will play, etc. The "premier" club cannot mandate or require that coaches use any particular educational curriculum, style or method. To do so would likely be illegal! The club could make such demands from an employee, but cannot do so with an independent contractor. So, the typical "premier" club coach is a freelancer. They can teach whatever they want, and often its not the soccer education kids need or parents expect. That's precisely why training experiences and development progressions at "premier" clubs differ so wildly from team to team.
Why are "premier" clubs organized this way? Frankly, it comes down to two reasons. First, its about money. These clubs need hundreds and even thousands of kids in order to exist. In Washington, they likely belong to Washington Youth Soccer (WYS) and play in WYS's league called the Regional Club League (RCL). In order to be part of WYS and RCL, "premier" clubs need to ensure they can deliver an appropriate amount of revenue to WYS and its sanctioning affiliates in the form of player card registrations. The tradeoff is that these "premier" clubs can sell parents on the fact that by joining the "premier" club, their player will be playing in this exclusive RCL league that is off-limits to non-WYS member clubs.
Second, its difficult. Developing a unified curriculum and system of play is hard and mandating compliance with it is even harder, requiring considerable effort on the part of club administrators. To properly manage coaches and curriculum in this way for hundreds and thousands of players would require a much larger and more expensive staff. By treating coaches as independent contractors, "premier" clubs avoid payroll taxes, workers' compensation premiums and unemployment compensation premiums. In short, creating a structure that provides higher quality soccer education and more consistent education is difficult and expensive, so "premier" clubs avoid it.
Of course, we don't mean to say there are no outstanding coaches at "premier" clubs because there certainly are. The point we are making is that by joining one of these "premier" clubs, parents are essentially buying access to a so-called "elite" league like the RCL, believing that a club's record of league and tournament wins is a valid predictor of their child's success and rolling the dice on whether the assigned coach will properly teach their child. For sure, they are not buying into any sort of unified curriculum, game model or system of play that all coaches are required to follow.
If we want to help our baby turtles across the beach of their youth soccer development and reach the sea, they need help. They need less pressure, more education and more support. Parents, please choose wisely! Watch out for crabs and sea gulls, and certainly don't let your player fall into a "premier" soccer club hole they will not be able to climb out of. Choose a learning-first environment for them and stick with it for the long-term. Choose a bright horizon!