From the street or parking lot, club soccer looks like a well structured, purposeful machine that is busy developing the future of American soccer. From the sidelines and the clubhouse though, it’s obvious that club soccer has no real direction at all. Over the last couple of decades, clubs have started PAYING their volunteers and treating youth soccer like a franchise. Soccer clubs are acting like publicly traded companies, putting revenue ahead of everything else, most importantly: player development. The youth players of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s are now all trying to make a living in the game that they love. The predominant reason for the MASSIVE increase in youth soccer club fees over the last few years is that soccer clubs all around the country have started paying their volunteers. From the top to the bottom, EVERYONE is getting paid (see the article: Where does all the money go? (Youth Soccer Fees). This means that most youth soccer clubs have moved past the role of community (oriented) service provider to just service provider. The service, of course, is to provide a safe, controlled environment for children to play soccer. The PURPOSE of youth soccer clubs has nothing to do with training or development. There are however a few hold-outs; there is a minority percentage of clubs that are still community oriented and have volunteer coaches, administrators and facility maintenance, and charge fees that are a small fraction of clubs that are just in the business of service soccer clubs. This therefore leads to the question, “Which is better: Paid or Volunteer coaches?“
American youth soccer coaches are becoming more educated every year, thanks to two major organizations: US Soccer (USSF) and the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA). Each of these organization offers dozens of certifications & licenses which graduate in content, complexity and cost – ranging from a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars. The courses are essentially hands-on classes, conducted outside on soccer fields, and taught by highly experienced amateur and professional level coaches.
The completion of all possible licensing and certification through these two organizations would take a decade or two, and require some deep pockets – kind of like a college degree. However, just because you have an education, doesn’t mean that you’re good at your job. Youth soccer in no different than any other industry and good help is hard to find, so most clubs (community or service oriented) look at licenses and certifications first to find qualified coaches.
Finding qualified, volunteer soccer coaches among a group of parents is as difficult as finding healthy fast-food. Most parents are either too busy with their full-time jobs or children to make a commitment, or just lack the confidence to coach any sport at any level, especially competitive-recreation (the majority of “competitive” youth soccer teams fit this category). To combat the shortage of qualified volunteers, many soccer clubs have just increased fees and HIRED qualified coaches. (It’s amazing how offering incentives, like a paycheck, ensures that clubs have coaches for all of their competitive teams.) To ensure that coaches they hire indeed know what they say they know, clubs require USSF and/or NSCAA certificates & licenses as proof of education and qualifications. Like any profession however, an education and experience doesn’t make for a good or passionate coach. It just means that they took some courses and coached some teams.
The FEES being charged today by the majority of youth soccer clubs in the US would indicate that “club soccer” is an integral part of American player development, and that they’ve hired only the most qualified and passionate soccer coaches available. “Qualified“, it turns out, is relative to who’s doing the hiring. Parents of players 12 and older are paying thousands and thousands of dollars a year under the assumption that they’re paying for nationally licensed (aka: “professional” or “qualified”) coaches to train their kids to be the best their potential will allow. The WAY clubs are being run, however, is contradictory to the massive fees being shelled out. Actual club operations suggest that club soccer is little more than a haphazardly run recreational endeavor intended to combat our nation’s obesity epidemic. Low wage employees (aka: “professional” or “qualified” coaches) punch the clock and do little more than what their supervisor asks of them. Parent concerns are deflected by the coach toward the team manager or program director. Employee (coach) turnover is as common in this industry as any other.
Club soccer is once again becoming the sport of the privileged upper-middle class… which is kind of ridiculous. Who wants the “privilege” of spending thousands of dollars a year for the dream of spending tens of thousands of dollars a year for their child to play soccer in college? Even Division I? Private institutions like IMG Academy brag about developing your child to be a great athlete and that “60%” of their graduates get Division I college athletic scholarships. Meanwhile they’re charging you private college-like tuition for your child to attend! In fact, school tuition and sports training together equal about $70,000 annually at IMG for middle and high school students. Why wouldn’t you just put the money in the bank and send your child to engineering camp instead?
The reason we struggle to win a World Cup every 4 years is because we don’t have the “best of the best” athletes playing soccer. Instead, we have the best of what is left, of those who could afford it in the first place. Player attrition in youth soccer is increasing at an alarming rate, as older athletes move on to football, baseball, cross-country, basketball, etc. Who can afford to spend $5,000 for their 14 year old to play soccer when football, volleyball, cross-country, tennis or basketball is a couple hundred? A D1 soccer scholarship is only worth about 5k a year, so what’s the real value of playing soccer beyond 12 years old? Academic scholarships are much more plentiful.
Soccer clubs everywhere are paying their coaches, and coaches are trying to turn their stipends into a full-time income by working 6 and 7 days a week, coaching multiple teams. More experienced coaches with higher caliber resumes are coaching just one team and charging parents additional “coaching fees” that total more than some professional league coach’s salaries. Youth soccer clubs everywhere are looking more like government WELFARE-TO-WORK programs, as you have a dozen coaches waiting at the club house to “clock-in” at 6pm and begin the first of their 3 practices for the evening.
Since the coaches are responsible for so many teams (3 , 4 or 5), they don’t really know their players, so actual player DEVELOPMENT is pushed off onto private trainers who charge $25 to $120 per hour, which just feeds the machine. Watching many of the clubs practice “from the hill” is reminiscent of dinner at the Rainforest Cafe, where you spend $200 in the gift shop while waiting for your name to be called so that you can spend another $200 for dinner. Was dinner good? Yes, but was it worth the money you just spent? Not really.
Team practices at the majority of American youth soccer clubs are little more than conditioning workouts scattered with some fundamental game strategy (diagonal runs, quick keeper distribution, etc.). 2 and 3 day-a-week practices seem to be a complete waste of time as you’ll watch a game on Saturday and see entire teams of kids that can’t trap the ball. If a player can’t trap the ball, it doesn’t matter how good the pass was, how quick the diagonal run was or how loud the coach yelled – and there’s LOTS OF YELLING!
Inside the clubhouse, game days look like sand-lot (American) football as the Academy director or DOC draws out spontaneous plays trying to establish coverage for all of the games that weekend, due to coaches quitting or calling in sick. Since it’s a job now for all of the coaches, there is a lot of turnover and sick-calls. Yet, fees continue to rise, and the quality of our coaching continues to decline.
By “quality of coaching“, we’re not referring to qualifications. To say that youth soccer coaches are less qualified today would be saying that soccer coaches over the last few decades have learned nothing about the game, and we know that’s not the case. By QUALITY, we’re talking about CARING.
Paid club coaches tend to treat their positions more like a job than a community service. They coach as many teams as they need to call it a “job”. Parents who have questions are usually deferred to the director or team manager. As kids get older, parents are told up front that playing time will vary player to player, depending on their skill level, which is of course, COMPLETELY counter-productive to player development (read more: Athlete Development & The Importance Playing Time). Since the overwhelming majority of soccer coaches aren’t developing players in the older age groups, that means that parents have to pay even more money to private trainers to teach and work with their child.
In the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, nearly every soccer club in the nation was run by volunteers. The structures of the clubs were simple and straightforward, and no position was created unless it was absolutely needed. Bathrooms were clean, concession stands were manned, and every team had a coach. Today, that scenario is an anomaly.
As opposed to their paid counterparts, today’s volunteer coaches RARELY coach more than one team, usually have a vested interest in the team they coach and always have an open dialogue with the parents. Player development may suffer a little, because the volunteer coach doesn’t have the necessary experience to teach the nuances of the game to create impact players, but it’s suffering even more under qualified paid coaches.
Experience and passion are what usually separate the paid coach and the volunteer coach. Paid coaches tend to have much more playing experience and more coaching licenses, but don’t have a vested interest in the development of players. Volunteer coaches tend to have full time jobs outside of soccer, but are close to the parents and have a vested interest in seeing the team and individual players succeed.
So what’s better: Paid or Volunteer coaches? Getting a paycheck makes a coach an employee, and employees are responsible and subordinate to their employers. Volunteers on the other hand are responsible to those that they serve. With that in mind, the volunteer coach is obviously the better coaching choice. That doesn’t mean that all paid coaches are uncaring, or that all volunteer coaches are unqualified, but taking all factors into consideration, your child is better off in a club that utilizes volunteers in every aspect of it’s operations.
Every youth coach in the United States coaches for Team USA. Our local youth soccer clubs should be the FRONT LINE of player development, training kids for the next level (MLS Academies, US Development Academies, Olympic Development Programs, etc.). Instead, the majority of America’s soccer clubs look like money making schemes, insinuating that you get what you pay for, but failing to deliver. U.S. Soccer needs to go back to it’s roots and re-prioritize itself if we’re ever going to be competitive on the world stage.