The Blame Game Isn’t Working Anymore

It’s been almost 10 years since the greatest paradigm shift in youth sports was first introduced in Canada – Long Term Player Development (LTPD) also referred to as Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD). Aimed at building better athletes through greater emphasis on technical proficiency and a reduced emphasis on competitive results in the pre-teen development stages, LTPD was a major shift in the way society thought and was always going to be hotly debated.

Few argued that change in the way we developed and retained athletes in our youth sporting systems needed change. With the exception of a handful of sports, Canada has long been considered a poor to mediocre sporting nation and seldom viewed as a competitive threat, especially in the team sport of soccer. The reasons for this may well be infinite but the one that many touting LTPD preached routinely in Canada’s soccer circles was the suggestion that some studies show as many as 70% of youth stop playing organized sports around the age of 13. While recognizing there are many reasons for this, not the least of which included increased school and life responsibilities and changing interests, a lack of fun and skill development was often cited as large contributors for the participation drop off.

Armed with these studies and ‘facts,’ LTPD was generally sold to the youth soccer community at the expense of volunteer coaches. The rhetoric labelled many as unqualified, “win at all costs” coaches and singled them out as a primary cause for lack of player development and loss of interest in youth soccer across Canada. This of course isn’t without merit. Indeed the majority of coaches were in fact unqualified volunteer parents by virtue that despite it’s huge registration numbers, soccer in Canada was and still is considered a summer recreational activity. It is however unfortunate that it took the demonizing of these people for the administrators and power brokers of the game to actually focus attention on coach education and make a serious effort to help these volunteers receive the proper education and qualifications needed to better serve the youth to which they have dedicated their personal time. With coach education a significant part of the LTPD paradigm, we are seeing a record number of coaches be given much better tools to serve their youth than those my coaches had when I came through the youth soccer system some 30 years ago.

Having been fully implemented across the majority of Canada for the better part of 5 years now, LTPD, despite the grumblings of a minority that will never fully cease, is generally accepted as the way forward for soccer in Canada. The LTPD paradigm leaves plenty of room for interpretation and variation between clubs, associations and leagues while enforcing consistency in it’s core values across the nation. We are starting to get our first glimpses at the youth being produced through this system with varying degrees of success across the country. For those clubs where LTDP implementation has gone well it’s business as usual.  But where perhaps it hasn’t gone as well, there are signs appearing of a situation analogous to what we see in business and politics routinely. The implementation or sale of a new paradigm is often framed or supported by a couple of key central arguments to keep people focused and remind them of its purpose. However when an argument becomes irrelevant or is no longer effectively focusing an audience, it must be refreshed in order to breath new life into the paradigm it supports.

In a minority of soccer circles there are signs that the demonizing of parents is replacing that which coaches use to be subjected. After all, with coach education and the installation of provincially or nationally certified club head coaches a major plank of LTPD, it would hardly lend credence to the paradigm to continue exclusively faulting unqualified coaching for a lack of or perceived lack of player development. In essence that would be an admission of failure of the model and that is never going to happen this early into its lifecycle.

Unfortunately, there are some clubs and coaches that fault parents for a perceived lack of development in their children or for negativity within the club atmosphere. Citing examples of coaching from the sidelines, after practice / game criticism of players, clique’s complaining about coaches and other players, etc. Sound like you? Why not, most parents, myself included, are guilty of one or more of these actions at some point in their children’s sporting development. But to suggest these actions even in moderation as a cause for slow or nonexistent development or to suggest the opinions of a few can adversely affect an entire club of several hundred, many of whom you will never interact with? One needs to give their head a shake. I suspect or at least hope these coaches and clubs are referring to extreme examples like those featured in the documentary “Trophy Kid.”

Trophy Kid follows four extreme examples of parents that place an abnormal amount of pressure on their children to develop in their chosen sport that it affects the athletes negatively in their player development and/or personal welfare and happiness. Sadly these people do exist and they most certainly have the ability to affect their own children’s development and growth; however, they represent such an extraordinary minority that to even suggest there are enough of these parents to hinder an entire team, club program or sport is utterly asinine. It’s unfortunate because the documentary attempts to shed light on a valid issue in youth sports but it chooses such extreme examples that it comes off contrived and insulting to the point it actually does a disservice to the issue.  Parents who think they might be on the cusp of being problematic to their children, team or club will view this and think their behavior is angelic by comparison.

So previously poor coaching was to blame, we took measures to correct that and problems still exist. Now it is poor parenting that is the problem, so some are putting a great deal of time and energy into parent education. What happens when that is no longer the pressing issue and we are still seeing problems? What then? Who do we blame next? The coaches again? The player’s commitment? The clubs, associations, leagues governance?

 

When does the blame game stop and everyone from the top down involved in soccer start being accountable for their own actions?

 

When does the player admit they haven’t put their best effort forth? When does the parent admit that maybe they don’t know what’s best and they ought to just enjoy watching their child play? When does the coach or Technical Director admit development isn’t a one size fits all solution and that maybe they can’t be all things to all people? When does the club administration work with its membership and admit that they can do things better? When does the league, provincial or national association implement tough standards and hold members to account?

Having been entrenched in discussions with people from various soccer circles across Canada and around the world since the inception of LTPD to its present form, I can say that great progress has been made but I now humbly ask all to stop looking for the next scapegoat and start looking in the mirror! We have had issues with player development and retention in youth soccer in Canada and despite a much needed and well intentioned paradigm shift, until we ALL stop playing the blame game and finally accept accountability for our own decisions those problems aren’t going away anytime soon.

Nights Like This Are Why I Love To Coach

Tonight was the best night I’ve had as a coach in years! I want to thank my U5/6’s for helping remind me why I love to coach.

Lately I’ve been caught up in my frustration with the politics and systemic issues plaguing youth soccer in Canada. I’ve been coaching my eldest son for 9 years now beginning when he started playing Timbits mini soccer around 3 years of age. As he’s progressed through the years from mini soccer into the competitive stream of soccer things have changed, not just for him as a player but for myself as a coach and a parent. Once you cross that threshold from mini soccer to competitive youth soccer around U9, the “games” begin and it’s not long before all know where they stand in the court of public opinion. Players begin to identify their place on the club totem pole, coaches and technical staff are routinely added, dropped or re-assigned on the basis of their perceived motives while parents are identified as either disruptive or brown nosers. Yes, the issues with youth sport in general are many, the frustrations are very real and together can cloud the memories of why players, coaches and parents alike got involved in the first place. I’ve been living under the veil of this cloud intermittently for sometime now.

However, also coaching my 5 year old, I’m fortunate enough get a break from it all twice a week. My U5/6’s whisk me away to a time and place where soccer is fun again, where all motives are innocent and genuine! Don’t get me wrong, it can be as big a challenge as any trying to get ten 5 and 6 year olds on the same page and keep them there for an hour all by yourself. Some nights, like tonight, are easier than others; nights when a vibe runs through the team and all the kids are excited to be there, nights they’re having the time of their lives, fully engaged in the exercises and the game, nights when everything outside of the pitch stands still and all that matters is what’s happening right now on the field. Nights like this are why I love to coach!

Devoid of the politics and games, the whispers and bias, for one hour twice a week I can help these kids fall in love with soccer and unbeknownst to them, they too help me fall in love with soccer… again. It’s been an absolute pleasure watching all of the kids I’ve coached over the years grow and develop a love for the game.

Paternal pride alert, it’s been particularly gratifying watching my youngest develop. Now in his third year of mini soccer I’m seeing the love he holds for the game shine through. Everyone expects the coach’s kid to be one of the best players but that doesn’t always hold true. In his first season, my youngest was the very definition of a “grass picker.” Spending 90% of his field time plopped down by a corner flag or rolling around signing, he didn’t fit the stereotypical view of the coach’s kid. In his second season, he started much the same way he ended his first and I thought to myself, “perhaps soccer isn’t his game.” Not that I would mind if it wasn’t but I was very happy indeed when he proved me wrong, as though a switch had been flicked, and played a very strong second half of the season. Now in his third season, from the very first game he’s been a little terror, in all the good ways. Strong on and off the ball, compassionate towards friend and foe and a thirst to always want to play more. It is perhaps the sweetest sound any parent coach will hear, coming home everyday to “Daddy, is it my soccer today?”

I’d like to think I’ve learned a lot from my first experience coaching my eldest through mini soccer that today my youngest is benefiting from a more relaxed introduction, allowing him to discover and grow into the game at his own pace. I’d like to think the coach education I’ve received over the years since have helped me grow as a coach. Most importantly, I’d like to think that a better soccer experience awaits us all by the time my youngest reaches the next stage. In the meantime, I’ll grin and bear this roller-coaster ride, thankful that the lows of youth soccer are outweighed by its many wonderful experiences.

Recharge the Batteries

“The reason [I left] is tiredness. If it wasn’t, I would have liked to continue. […] I have given everything and I have nothing left and need to recharge my batteries.” Pep Guardiola (25 May 2012)

“I have taken a decision to return to coaching, but beyond that no decision has been taken. I don’t have a team to go to, but I would like to go back to coaching. I will receive all calls with pleasure, but for the next [few] months I have to recharge my batteries and my mind. I will be ready [to return] if one club wants me and seduces me.”  – Pep Guardiola (7 Jan 2013)

Sound familiar? Many coaches experience this feeling at some point, even the world’s greatest professionals. The lucky ones recognize when it’s time for a break before it’s too late. They recharge their batteries and rekindle the passion through rest and rejuvenation while the unlucky wait till it’s too late and risk losing their passion forever.

There are three different kinds of youth soccer coaches in Canada: (1) the well intentioned community servant guilt tripped into coaching or risk program cancellation, (2) the coach with a vested interest, be it personal, professional or financial and (3) those who coach out of passion for the game, often but not always includes the former. Coaches of this group are the ones most likely to experience burnout sometime in their coaching life.

Officially I began coaching my son at U4 in 2006. Technically he had been training and I coaching him in soccer for two years already before that. As registration drew near I began reflecting on my own soccer path and the coaches that helped shape me growing up – I quickly concluded that my kids needed and deserved better! All my coaches were category one or two, I question if I ever had a legit category three coach. My coaches were not bad people, on the contrary they were great people but great people don’t always translate into great soccer coaches. Much has changed in the Canadian soccer landscape since I began playing in 1983; nevertheless, some 23 years later it had not changed enough for me to trust the early stages of my sons development in the hands of someone guilted into or unqualified to do the job. Thus another category two coach enters the system… or was I?

I volunteered to coach so that my son and his teammates could learn from someone who had grown up playing the game, who understood the game and who had the knowledge to get them started out on the right foot. I remember getting my roster and attending a brief “coaches meeting,” looking around I knew not one of those parents had ever played the game at a reasonably competitive level. I suspect most were likely learning the basic laws of the game at that nights meeting. The community centre gave us each a bag of balls (not even one for every kid), a whistle, a timer/stopwatch, four cones and said “bring it all back in two months.” If while reading this you find yourself shaking your head then we are likely still on the same page. I thought to myself, was this really going to be these young boys and girls soccer experience? Suddenly memories of confusion, contradiction and thoughts of “what could have been” came flooding back from the 80’s and 90’s. I didn’t want anyone to reflect on their soccer days and feel they could have been more if not held back by anything other than their own lack of effort and ambition. I knew I was only one of many coaches these players would work with over the years and a lot could go right or wrong for them along the way but I wanted them to reflect positively on their time spent working with me.

It takes several years of practical coaching experience before encountering and learning how to deal with the many issues youth sports coaches will inevitably face. Over the past eight years of coaching I have learned a lot, much of which cannot be found in the training manual of any coaching badge. Did I make mistakes along the way? Hell ya and still do. Beware the coach that claims to have all the answers, they are only kidding themselves. I’ve borne the brunt of the occasional angry parent but without those experiences I would not have grown as a coach. Every club members “two cents” of advice, every complaint, every compliment, they all have something to offer you; how you interpret and handle it will have significant bearing on the coach you eventually become. Becoming a coach isn’t about completing a series of badges, it’s a lifelong journey filled with experiences.

So I told you why I began coaching but not why I continued. I realized my passion for coaching was equal to my passion for playing, I continued because it offered me a connection back to the game I fell in love with 30 years ago. I always knew I would have to let my son go with another coach eventually, if not because I’d reached the limits of my abilities, because I knew kids benefit most learning from a variety of teachers with different ideas and methods. I took the difficult decision to take a break from coaching last fall while my son trained full-time at a top academy in Manitoba. It was a nice break to watch him play from the other side of the pitch, to really focus on and enjoy the talent he is becoming. But as I sit and watch, as nice as it is, a part of me is missing. The game … it’s calling me back.

Upon reflection, I honestly believe the vast majority of players I have had the pleasure to work with will remember our time together positively and for those who don’t, I am deeply sorry to have failed you. Today I enjoy friendships with many of the players and parents I have worked with in the past, particularly in the 2002 and 2003 age groups. Now as I repeat the process with my 4 year old, hopefully a much wiser coach, educated by experiences, I am forming new player and parent bonds with a group of 2009 and 2010’s.

Managing player, parent and club expectations while providing real player growth and development is a demanding science you will not find explained in any national curriculum. Ironically it is the passion of those coaches to which all these things matter that leaves them mentally, emotionally and physically drained over time and in need of rest; and it’s the same passion that always keep them coming back to the game they love!