Monday, September 24, 2018

Was I Out Of My Element (Revisited)

This was one of the first (maybe the first real one) articles I ever wrote for a blog about 4 years ago. I don't remember the exact date but that isn't really important. The thing is... NOTHING has changed in that time. It may even be worse really than it was back then. I know the more I learn about the system and the more I get involved in the system the worse things look.

Enjoy a piece of my story...

I am pretty sure I am in the minority here… a guy who went from being a soccer player to a football coach back to being a soccer coach. Mostly you hear of the former football player dad who gets “stuck” coaching his child’s soccer team and being totally out of his element, at this point in a movie the comedy ensues. Welcome to my coaching story in reverse.

From the age of 5 until a few years after graduation from High School I played soccer along with baseball, basketball and even a wrestling season… your normal American multi-sport kind of kid. I even snuck in a couple of seasons of coaching soccer for my younger brother’s team when I was 19-20 years old while still playing in various leagues and pick up games. School, business and my job of being a 4-H Agent for West Virginia State University all through my 20’s got in the way of continuing any kind of organized sports anything. That is until a schedule change cracked that window open and Mike Ferrell, one of my best friends and a supremely talented youth football coach, asked me to come help coach his football team. The Midwestern Big Blue A Team (11/12yr olds) were just starting a great run that continues until this day… winning multiple league championships (6 in 10 years) by working hard to develop all of his players. A lot of those players just went undefeated and won a WV AAA HS state championship for Capital HS this year. A few have even continued along their development path leading to playing college football on Saturdays.

Was I out of my element when I first started? Totally! I was basically there just to play “good cop” when coaches got on players and to make sure the kids didn’t get too close to the sideline on game day and get us a sideline warning. One thing I personally believe in though is if you commit to being a child’s teacher of a game AKA coach, you need to be the best one that you can possibly be.

I spent hours upon hours over the next few years talking to coaches, looking at videos on YouTube, reading books, going to coaches clinics and just trying to soak up the game and learn what, when, and how to coach the things these kids needed to learn to let them be the best players they could be.

Having wonderful youth coaching mentors at Midwestern like Coach Ferrell and Coach Paul Gilmer along with guys from Capital HS like Coach LaPoe gave me an excellent base to build off of. Add college coaches like the University of Charleston’s David Hill willing to spend their valuable time teaching me aspects of the game that a neophyte coach like myself would have never known I didn’t know helped speed my progress as a coach up immensely.

Next thing you know I am the Offensive Line coach… then I’m calling plays as the offensive coordinator and I am getting buckets of water dumped on me by kids after winning a championship.

I loved these kids and I loved working with my fellow coaches.

As all things in life are want to do… they changed. My wife starts back to college, my oldest daughter’s soccer team’s coach quit after spring season and my younger twins are busy playing soccer themselves. Naturally who do the other parents look to as the person who should step up and coach the team now that they are coach-less? Me, the former soccer player turned football coach, obviously.

After some prodding by my wife I agree to switch sports and become the coach of the Queen Bees. With my memories of some extremely bad father/coaches in my own sporting past I did not really look forward to the experience. I was already aware that I put pressure on myself to not only be the best coach that I can possibly be as an informed technically sound coach. Now here I was with the added pressure of my daughter being judged differently by the parents as the coach’s daughter and having each of my interactions under the microscope of them being from not “Coach Chris” but “Coach ‘Kaia’s Dad’”.

Once committed I dove in head first researching, studying and taking the USSF ‘E’ License course (thank you again Coach Thomas Olivier of Marshall Univ.) and trying to talk to other coaches at every level as often as possible to learn as much as I could.

Almost immediately several things become very clear to me. The culture of coaching in soccer in the United States is radically different than coaching football. The days of basically every single coach just wanting to talk shop, trying to learn from each other and improve as coaches were gone. Many of my newly found soccer coach peers didn’t want to hang around after practice and talk about what they were doing… how they helped kids get better at one certain aspect of the game… the nuances of how to improve the teaching of a drill. It was usually get in and get out, on the rare occasions there was actually conversations it was limited to tournament results.

My own kids had been playing indoor and outdoor for a few years, and my oldest daughter had been invited to try out for traveling teams. They each participated in camps and even a small group training session or two (we even drove 3 hours to Columbus so the oldest could attend a camp with the Crew). But none of this prepared me for the culture of “nothing is free”…at all…EVER.

Last summer when I start giving free weekly clinics to whoever showed up and started inviting kids who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford small group trainings the main statement I heard from parents and other coaches was the question… “So how exactly are you going to get paid if you are doing these for free?”… What? I was very confused to say the least.

I came from the football field, where coaches worked with kids 5 days a week in practice plus had a game every weekend. My fellow coaches raised thousands of dollars every year for equipment, uniforms, and travel expenses. Every day we went to single parent (and in many cases no parent) homes to shuttle kids to and from practice. I personally witnessed guys paying hundreds of dollars out of their own pocket so these kids could play. It was shocking to me that a free 75 minute session would be so out of the norm that people questioned my motivations.

So I start to research why things are the way they are in youth soccer in the United States. I read up more and more on this now culturally ingrained in to American soccer Pay to Play system and the immense and long term effects this closed system has on our player development at all levels from little kids to the USMNT and USWNT.

Those boys I coached came from the worst housing projects in the worst neighborhood in the poorest state in the United States and have a clearly defined path to the top levels of their chosen sport. The team of girls I coach every week are almost exclusively upper- and middle-class, come from two parent homes, yet their path to the top level of their sport is based on spending tens of thousands of dollars and praying a college coach happens to be at whatever tournament their team gets entered in…and that they get offered a partial scholarship to a college.

Just think of the irony in this situation. The poor black kids from the projects have the path to football success laid out for them where everybody can see, all they have to do is be good enough and work hard enough to take advantage of it. The rich white girls from the good neighborhood must pay for every chance they can get in soccer… Talent, work ethic, and potential are of no consequence, all that matter is if the check clears.

How many thousands of great men’s and women’s players have had their development cut off because of this closed “pay to play” culture supported by USSF policy?

A couple of common questions about the symptoms of this closed culture are always asked in the media… “What if our best athletes played soccer?” and my favorite one (posed by MLS PR) “When will MLS produce it’s own Messi” maybe they need to be changed to questions about the system behind our development issues… “Why do we not want more kids playing soccer?” and “Has the USSF already wasted an American Messi?”.

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