Growing up, I learned from both the good and the bad experiences I had with coaches, leaders in sport, and the clubs in which they operated in. Those early learnings were massively important to shaping my sporting and coaching philosophies, and my desire to always keep things fun for athletes. But as I approach my ninth year coaching soccer and working in the industry (yikes), I can’t help but feel so many still get it so wrong when it comes to community development in sport, and actually operating with an athlete-centered approach, no matter how much they preach that they do. So with that, here are some of the principles I would have if I were to build my own soccer club.
Now, after my experiences the past two years, I do not intend to run a soccer club again in any kind of leadership role. It is far too much work for far too little pay, unfortunately. But nevertheless, I find this still worth sharing as perhaps some of these ideologies may be useful to someone else.
PRACTICE ONLY ENVIRONMENT
Before I lose you within the first paragraph of this, hear me out. Playing the game itself will always be the best teacher of any sport. But, unfortunately, coaches and parents often let their own egos get in the way when it comes to games for youth and children, and put unnecessary amounts of pressure on their athletes. This can often result in kids developing a hatred for the sport they used to love, and quitting their participation altogether. Practices, with game-realistic activities and small-sided games structured in, could be a sporting model that negates the parental pressure imposed on children. And instead of worrying about the score, the performance of their athletes and who deserves to be yelled at for their mistakes, coaches will begin to focus on mastery of skills and development, rather than winning. Athletes themselves will also focus on mastery and skill development, which they can then use to play games against other clubs when they reach high school.
By focusing on practice and not on winning the game, coaches could also spend more time developing social bonds with their players, and work to establish greater relationships within the team itself. Think of how many children could be saved by this model. Think of how many kids quit before they even get to high school, because it’s just no longer fun. Once you think about that, then come back to me with your complaints.
SEPERATING BY ABILITY, RATHER THAN AGE
Everyone who works in sport knows that a December born child can be very different from a January born child, in not just ability, but also size, strength, and even sometimes motor skills when they are young enough. When you separate kids by age, you always end up with some that are above the level, and others who are well below the level. Keeping in mind the relative psychological and social skills of various age groupings, kids can easily be grouped into different categories by the technical and physical traits they possess, rather than the year in which they were born. 2010-born players can play a year up in the 2009 category when appropriate, and can also play down if they are not at the level expected. It’s about finding the best fit for each kid and putting them up against other players of a similar ability, maximizing their chances for success.
You could still allow friends to be together to maintain that social side of the game, so long as their ability to perform is close enough, and close enough to those in their group. After all, it’s always been that way in the current “tryout” model that still dominates sporting landscapes. Instead of tryouts, players in this model would simply undergo assessments, where qualified coaches would evaluate what level or grouping would allow them the best chance to succeed, and enjoy their sporting experience. Some clubs already do this, but I’d be surprised to hear that any other sporting club out there, particularly in soccer, separates purely by ability, and not age.
ZERO TOLERANCE FOR NEGATIVE BEHAVIOURS
Every single club out there will claim they have a zero tolerance for negative sideline behaviours from both coaches and parents. Yet, these behaviours (such as yelling at referees and kids), still persist. Firstly, we’ve already done away with half of the battle here by removing games. But if that’s not enough, my club would take a severely harsh stance on any parent attempting to coach from the sidelines, or any coach exhibiting poor behaviours that ruin the experience for children. Parents would get a verbal warning on their first offence, and on the second offence would be forbidden from attending. If that makes the parent or coach pull their kid out of our club, so be it. We need everyone at the club to be on the same page about exuding positive behaviours (such as positive encouragement and cheering), that benefit kids in the long-run and maximize their chances of staying in the sport. This is what sports for kids is all about after all. Less than 1% of youth athletes make it to a professional level. The other 99% play sport because they love to play, and we need to inspire them to continue playing year after year. Negative sideline behaviours actively get in the way of that, and would not be tolerated whatsoever at my club.
So there it is! Just a few of the innovative ideas I would take into consideration when constructing my dream soccer club. If this inspired you, be sure to give it a clap below! Thanks for reading and see you soon!
P.S. you can read more about my sporting philosophies here….
-> Why Fun is an Underrated Aspect of Leadership
-> Why You Shouldn’t Punish Your Players
-> Innovation in Community Sport Organizations during COVID-19