The Loneliness of Visionary Leadership
The penalty of leadership is loneliness. - H. Wheeler Robinson
In 2013, Eagleclaw had a radical thought: Tryouts at young ages are the enemy of soccer education and talent development. More thought followed and then a vision. What if instead of hosting massive tryouts for young players age 6-12 and cutting most them in order to form teams, youth soccer clubs actually provided each player a quality soccer education along with time and space to grow and reveal their potential? What if we could bring together the best, most talented, passionate coaches and let them focus on educating players in this way, rather than worrying about winning pointless league games and tournament? Perhaps we let the first 150 kids to register join the club and we train them at a top-class facility with high quality equipment. And what if we teach, cultivate, incubate and nurture these young players until they get to age 13 where tryouts make sense? Would we be able to develop more and better players than the "big box" so-called "Premier" clubs that dominate the American youth soccer landscape?
We thought so. So, we did it. We built a unique youth club structure that focuses on educating young players and sticks a dagger straight through the heart of the tired tryout/cut, low-education model of the typical American youth soccer club.
At the time, everyone thought we were crazy, absolutely crazy. And we do mean everyone - soccer bureaucrats, soccer coaches, soccer parents. They dismissed us out of hand. "Your teams will never win", they said, which of course spoke volumes about their approach to youth soccer. "Your best players will leave to go to the big clubs so they can play with the best players." Years later we would learn some of the names other clubs and coaches would use to refer to the Eagleclaw project and its players. "The Island of Misfit Toys", "The Club That Soccer Forgot" and a few others that don't deserve to be printed. Where the dominant youth soccer institutions in Washington state saw pointless challenges, we saw seeds of potential ready to explode with talent, if only given the right conditions to grow and a guiding hand committed to education.
There is deep loneliness in visionary leadership. You alone are responsible for the vision that started the whole thing. You have to do all the planning, the legwork and the heavy lifting. There may be others around you so that to outsiders it looks like a joint venture, but that's never really the case. You are alone. You work like a missionary to persuade others that there is a better way, but that task itself is often harder than actually executing that "better way." Once the project gets off the ground just a little bit, all those who joined the project are counting on you not to let them down, not to let their belief in the project be for nothing. The pressure and the weight of the entire project sits on your shoulders. And to top it off, everyone still secretly thinks you're crazy and that you'll soon fall flat on your face.
"Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your inner voice." - Steve Jobs
Despite all that doom and gloom, the fantastic thing about being a lonely visionary leader is that it comes with a built-in advantage. Everyone will underestimate you and they will never see you coming! They will dismiss you and ignore you. It is a blessing, trust me. In that lonely zone, you can work hard and bring amazing things to life. And you will be given incredible opportunities to succeed, but only if you can recognize the opportunities and exploit them.
Within 4 months of launching the club to the public, Eagleclaw's reputation began to grow. Our players were starting to be recognized for their technical abilities and some grudging respect began to emerge. Parents of players at other clubs began to call asking if we could train their kids to play like Eagleclaw kids. Still, the public and the "Washington Youth Soccer Empire" remained confused and confounded. How are abilities like this developed at a club that does not have tryouts for players between the ages of 5 and 13, does not cut players and does not play in the fancy Regional Club League (RCL) league? We kept our heads down and continued to work, one player at a time.
It was at this time that the US Soccer Federation decided to double down on exactly the thing Eagleclaw had set out to fight. For the 2013/14 season, US Soccer decided to create a U13/14 division of the Development Academy. The result of this decision was to drive increasing numbers of young players (and money) to a small number of enormous clubs for high pressure tryouts. The results of this selection culture left many talented players (and parents) disillusioned and alienated from the sport. US Soccer did not anticipate the damage they were doing, nor did they apologize for it. Two years later in 2016, came the triple down when US Soccer launched the U12 Development Academy, driving the low education, high pressure selection culture down to even younger ages of children.
The stampeding herd of players and parents beating a path to the "big box" "Premier" "DA" clubs was deafening. It was bad and good. Bad because US Soccer was really sticking it to the conscientious and more focused clubs who were working hard to make player education the centerpiece of their programs. Players and parents were brainwashed into believing that their kid needed to be at a "DA club" in order to have a chance of making it to the US Men's or Women's National Teams. Along their hurried journey to the mirage, they bypassed the clubs and coaches truly committed to educating, incubating and developing players for the long-term.
The good part was that we were once again left alone to continue our quiet work. Laboring in obscurity is a blessing that brings rewards. Our players and teams continued to grow in abilities and reputation. Our teams played a unique, effective and beautiful style that continues to confound opponents and critics. "How the hell are they doing it?" Underestimating Eagleclaw on game day left many teams and players stunned on their drives home, not so much by the result, but by the style of soccer they just witnessed.
In our quiet working space, we were perfectly positioned for the "wave" of DA casualties. The first wave showed up in 2016. These players had been part of the inaugural U13/14 DA teams and were leaving the program pissed off, burned out and in some cases suffering from repetitive overuse injuries, the result of insane overtraining. First they came in ones and twos. They all had the same story and request. "I hate the DA." "The training environment sucks." "I'm not learning anything." We tried to help, but these players were older, too set in their ways and, frankly, beaten down and broken by the "big box" "Premier" "DA" clubs.
The second wave was close behind in 2017. These players were part of that inaugural class of U12 teams and had the same complaints as the first wave, but weren't as beaten down, broken or injured. There was still a spark of soccer passion in their eyes. We can work with these players! With us, some of these players are re-born! The passion is back! Their desire to learn is back.
Fast forward to November 2018. The Royal Dutch Football Association (KNVB) announces a new initiative - The Equal Opportunities Youth Football Project. The problem? The Netherlands is just not producing enough talented players and they are sure many quality players are falling through the cracks at the youth club level. They suspect the structure of youth soccer clubs might be the problem. The theory is that the tryout selection process is narrowing the funnel for players by selecting only a few players and excluding many more. Moreover, the players that are selected may not really be the ones with the greatest potential. What would happen if Dutch youth clubs stopped doing tryouts with cuts starting at age 6 or 7, and had no such tryouts until much later when the players were older. In the meantime, provide all the players the best coaches, facilities and opportunities possible. Allow players of mixed ability levels to play on the same team. Sound familiar?
The KNVB recruited a handful of youth clubs to spearhead the project, including Be Quick 1887 located in Groningen. According to Benjamin Sietsma, a coach at Be Quick 1887, "We're going to try and organize it in such a way that it is fun and challenging for everyone. Every week we form training and competition groups in a different way, not in the traditional way, by putting the best together, but completely randomly. We fill in all sorts of questionnaires for the KNVB, so that they can keep track of our findings, step by step, this is quite a cultural change in football."
And the KNVB isn't stopping there. They are also investigating the accuracy of historical player selections by the youth clubs that used traditional tryout methods. Think about it. Imagine if your club had to compile a list of all the players chosen through tryouts and tell us where they are today! At KNVB, there will be a comparison of the players selected through tryouts and those who are trained in the no-tryout/no-cuts environment. The results of this research will be fascinating.
Now, I challenge you to think about something. While US Soccer was actively working to bring selections and tryouts down to even younger players, the KNVB was working to do exactly the opposite. Which federation is focused on not missing out on any talented players? Which federation is the visionary?
Something else to think about. Eagleclaw Football Club was working on this problem in 2013! That was six lonely years ago. While we were working to solve the problems of talent development, US Soccer was working in exactly the opposite direction to stifle player development by creating an ultra competitive, low-education rat race for young players.
In the battle to improve outcomes for youth player development, the youth club is ground zero. From our perspective at Eagleclaw, we have seen the bruised and emotionally-scarred players that are the casualties of the traditional American youth soccer system. Is US Soccer paying attention to the damage they've inflicted on players and clubs through the Development Academy experiment? I doubt it. I'm pretty sure US Soccer hasn't spent time interviewing the non-DA clubs or the players who have abandoned the DA to learn where USSF went wrong. No one at US Soccer has asked us anything. We just continue to rehabilitate the players and the youth club system they damage.
In December 2018, US Soccer announced they were abandoning the U12 DA. It wasn't really publicized heavily by US Soccer. It was a rather quiet announcement by US Soccer's standards. But it is actually huge news! Some media outlets just parroted US Soccer's press release. Other writers took the opportunity to explain how the DA program, not just the U12 DA, tilted the youth soccer landscape to a few giant clubs, damaging a large number of youth soccer clubs in the process. Is it a sign that US Soccer realizes its made mistakes with pushing the DA to the younger ages? Probably. I think so. By itself, eliminating the U12 DA won't fix the problem. Plenty of U12 kids (and even U8-U11 kids) will probably stay at the "Big Box" "Premier" "DA" clubs waiting on their tryout for the U13 DA teams. Eagleclaw's work is not done.
Do you have what it takes to be a visionary? Can you handle the long, lonely years of toiling in obscurity and taking the criticism coming at you from all sides? Do you have the guts to stand up to the soccer establishment and tell them there is a better way of developing young players? It's lonely work, but it is vitally important work. Visionaries change the world. We need more visionaries.