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Chemistry – If Kids Were In Charge

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Written May 18th, 2017 by Mike Slatton

Good Players Don’t Necessarily Equal Good Teams

This may come as a shock to some people, but politics are just as common in youth soccer as they are anywhere else.  That means that some players who are obviously NOT top tier soccer athletes are going to make the “A” team, just because their father is the team manager or their grandfather is the Academy Director. In fact, the A team is RARELY made up 100% of 1st team quality players, but maybe that’s not a bad thing.

In reality, a true top tier team should be made up of the best athletes that COMPLIMENT each other.  If you look at the Academy programs of Europe, clubs consider many factors before offering a player a spot on the team.  One of those factors is PERSONALITY.   Of course in Europe, the unspoken first qualification is talent, which leads us back to the top paragraph and POLITICS.

Trials vs Tryouts

In Europe, most clubs have trials.  They’re similar in scope to tryouts, in that you’re trying to find or ID talent, but trials are a little different.  Trials usually entail a week or two of actual training with the club coaches and team.  A trial is intended to see how you will act in the actual organizational environment of training and playing.  Coaches want to see how a player takes instruction and criticism, as well as how they get along with the members of the current squad.

Tryouts on the other hand are usually an open invitation to scrimmage and participate in exercises hosted by the team coaches, but they rarely include members of the current team – unless of course the team or club starts from scratch every year, and makes EVERYONE tryout for a spot, regardless of their participation the previous year (which is very common with high caliber  organizations and those that WANT to be considered high caliber).

Dogs & Ponies

Holding youth soccer team tryouts in the United States is like shopping for a puppy:  At the pet shop, the puppies that show the most activity and make the most noise garner the most attention.  It’s the same thing for soccer tryouts;  The players who are creating the most activity and are the most energetic tend to get the most attention from the coaches.  In fact, if you were in any car on the way to any youth sports tryouts, you’d hear parents telling their players to do just that: “Get their attention.

In the end, nearly every tryout ends the way everyone expected it would.  Since every coach wants players that have lots of energy and great ball skills, the top tier team tends to be made up of self-centered alpha personalities and high energy players.  The 2nd level team on the other hand, is usually made up of unselfish, quiet players who may or may not be out of shape, and may or may not possess more finesse and better game vision.

The problem with the tryout system of most youth soccer clubs is that the coaches aren’t building teams during tryouts – they’re identifying individual players.

Balance, Harmony & CHEMISTRY

During tryouts, coaches are usually too busy categorizing individual players into haves and have-nots to pay attention to anything else.   So what ends up lacking on nearly every youth soccer team in America is chemistry.  The top tier team lacks skilled, unselfish visionaries, while the lower tiered teams lack alpha-personality goal finishers & hard-nosed defenders.

And of course EVERYONE neglects the goalie.

Coaches

Organized soccer has lots of problems, but it’s biggest is the COACHESThey always want to be in charge.  Whether it’s practice or games or tryouts, they want control of the entire process.  Even in the professional leagues, when clubs are negotiating for a new coach, one of the main issues is CONTROL –  who controls the rosters, who controls the line-ups, who controls the training and philosophies of play.  The result is that there is no critical thinking or common sense taking place during tryouts, because the primary concern is CONTROL.

CONTROL doesn’t equal EXPERIENCE, and experience has shown that chemistry is more vital to winning and player development than anything else.

If Kids Ruled the Pitch

When coaches host tryouts, they should ALWAYS consider relationships between players and player experiences with each other.  The first thing a coach should do at tryouts is allow the boys to pick teams and scrimmage.  There should be no coach interaction at all at this point.  It should be just one directive:

“You guys break up into teams and scrimmage.”

While they play, coaches should analyze player interaction, passing combinations and CHEMISTRY.  At some point the coaches will see the relationships and be able to form a team or squads around those relationships.  This is much more effective than categorizing types of players as “A” or “B” and then trying to rewire players to play differently, in order to accommodate the coach, or patiently waiting for chemistry to develop between the players.

We all know that kids learn better from kids, and players recognize talent as well as (if not better than) their coaches.  So why not let them pick their teams?  When CHEMISTRY is addressed from the start, STRATEGY has a head start.  From there, it’s easier to address individual player development concerns.

TODD & RICH
 If Todd (the prolific goal scorer) likes playing with his best friend Rich, why not have Rich on the team?  In the coach’s mind,  Todd is an obvious “A” player and Rich is barely a “B”, but Rich and Todd have been playing together for years and have mastered the give-and-go, chip-and-dip, eat-and-run, and every other pass-and-move combination imaginable.

Rich subconsciously knows Todd’s pace and delivers perfect passes to him every time.  Rich’s quiet demeanor means he’s listening, his short legs have resulted in great game vision, and his loyalty to his friend is reflected by his unselfish play. Rich’s chemistry with Todd also means that he knows EXACTLY where to place the ball from a corner kick, so that it ends up on Todd’s head, or at his feet.

The most successful teams in the world, like FC Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, and Manchester United all consider team chemistry FIRST when trying out a player for their squad.

Kids Learn (Better) from Kids

Put a street-wise juvenile delinquent in the room with a sheltered, suburban kid and the suburban kid is going to come out knowing more about sex, alcohol and starting fires than when they went in.  Children learn better from other children, and even better when it’s something they WANT to learn.  Young soccer players want to be better with the ball, but they don’t want to display their weaknesses to their peers, and they aren’t interested in taking instruction from an old man or woman.  Youth soccer players are great at watching a peer, reverse engineering one of their tricks or skills, and reconstructing it into their own signature moves.  You don’t even realize they’re learning until they perform the trick, acting like they were just concealing it until the right moment.

Kids want to learn what they want to learn, when they want to learn it… and usually when they think no one else is looking. 

The prime fallacy of competitive soccer – that better kids are on the “A” team – leads right into another fallacy of believing that a weaker player playing on the “A” team WILL get better.  What about the  top tier players on the team?  How will they improve, by playing with weaker players?

Year after year you’ll witness weaker players playing with better teams, and the only thing that happens is that that player sits the bench, watching his teammates play and improve.  The other side of the coin is that, if the weaker player is the coach’s kid who plays the majority of every game, then resentment builds among parents, and trust and faith are diminished in the coach.

Not Good Enough

Most youth soccer club coaches are no more qualified to identify talent or potential than a gambler picking a winning horse.  However, anyone can tell when kids like each other and any parent who’s been around the game of soccer for a while can identify a good pass.  By putting kids together that already have chemistry and keeping those kids together for the long term, a passive coach can consistently create a championship team.  If you have “B” or “C” level players playing on a top tier team, then you really don’t have a top tier team, but you can still have a quality 1st team.  That’s where chemistry takes precedent.

QUESTION: By focusing on chemistry first, aren’t you sacrificing development that will hurt a player’s chances of advancing beyond club soccer?

ANSWER: Does working with people you like hurt your chances of getting a job with another company?  Does going to college with your friends hurt your chances of getting a job later?

The Ability Grouping CON

There is a common practice among most soccer clubs to hoard as many good players as they can, thereby choking out local competition and increasing club revenue.  Player Hoarding has evolved into another ridiculous practice called “ability grouping“.   Player hoarding and ability grouping have turned youth soccer into a menagerie of crap that resembles a child labor camp, more than a children’s recreational outlet.

All of the top tier players don’t get to play against top tier squads, because a couple of clubs hoarded ALL of the top tier players, and “ability grouped” them by their own club’s politically motivated standards, resulting in top tier players playing in lower tier leagues or divisions, and forcing smaller & newer clubs to put teams with weaker talent into upper tier leagues or divisions.

That means that highly skilled players aren’t getting the competition they need, week after week, to continue improving.  Meanwhile, weaker players and teams are playing competition outside of their skill level, meaning that they WILL improve, provided they get past the feeling of hopelessness, game after game.

The appeasement promoted by “the management” is that the “ability grouped teams will be fluid, and will allow players to move up and down based on their development during the year.”  In theory, better players will be moved up and weaker players moved down, thereby creating the best top level team possible.

This of course is just a ruse to get more kids signed up in the club.

Leagues usually operate under the guidelines of the state governing body of soccer (in Florida, it’s FYSA), and most leagues state that top tier teams cannot move players DOWN, but lower tiered players can play up with a top tier team… “when the game does not conflict with their own division game“.  That means that multiple teams within a particular age group within the club CANNOT BE FLUID.  Once a player is a full-timer on the 1st team roster, they can’t move down, no matter how far out of their league they may be.

So, how does moving players from team to team affect a team’s chemistry?  That system really just creates resentment and animosity later on.

The Development Lie

American youth soccer club directors will tell you that ability grouping is necessary for the “development” of each individual player, and that “weaker players will get the necessary training they’re lacking“, while better players will get the opportunity to enhance their skills in a faster-paced environment.

Experience, however, has shown quite the contrary: Lower tiered teams get inconsistent coaching that lacks the skills and fundamentals training the kids need to improve, while the majority of focus and resources are put into a top tier team, that isn’t a top tier team at all.

The fallacy is that the A team is the best team that could possibly be assembled, of all of the kids that registered.  The truth is that the “A” team is usually NOT the best possible collection of players.  In fact, there is a consistent formula for assembling the “A Team” that usually consists of the coach’s child, the assistant coach’s child, the club director’s child,  and anyone else’s child the coach may be close to or influenced by.

POLITICS IN SPORTS
Politics plays a major part in team selection, but this isn’t an anomaly to just local youth soccer clubs.  It actually happens at every level of soccer and in every level of sport across the globe, all the way to the top.  Go through the rosters of 100 random professional teams and you’ll find half-a-dozen father-son combinations –  and those are just the obvious relationships. Nepotism is as ripe in American soccer as it is in government or business.

Since talent is abundant in Europe, most clubs focus on certain innate abilities, beyond just soccer skill.  Most clubs focus on chemistry FIRST, when accepting kids to their academies, and work to develop players that get along together.

Ajax in Amsterdam, Holland is internationally accepted as the #1 youth academy in the world.  They have just 4 items to consider when deciding whether or not a player is eligible to even have a trial with them.  They call it TIPS.  They items are:

  • Technique
  • Insight (what we might call “vision“)
  • Personality 
  • Speed

Ajax understand the value of chemistry and consider personality to be a top level consideration.  Barcelona F.C.’s La Masia also follows a similar method of training (more: How to Play Like Barcelona), with an emphasis on team chemistry that starts when the children first arrive to the school.

The majority of top tier professional teams consider chemistry as a top priority, BEFORE a new player is signed.  Long before a contract is negotiated, prospects are flown in to practice with the team for a couple of days, to see how they get along with the current squad.  If there’s tension, the deal is off.

The Evolution of Youth Soccer

From the beginning, youth soccer was considered a community service.  Coaches, administrators and board members were all volunteers.  In fact, even the first referees were volunteers (That didn’t last very long though. Read: Being a Referee SUCKS!).  Since everything was run and funded by parents, costs were kept low, and soccer became the most popular youth activity in the nation.  Then the registrar said “My job sucks too, so I should get paid as well.”  It has since snowballed, and almost 20 years later, the community service of club soccer has turned into a 100 million dollar industry.

Parents are paying thousands of dollars a year in club fees and fundraisers for the opportunity to JOIN a competitive soccer team. However, that does not mean that they will play.  Through some ridiculous form of reasoning, club directors, coaches and personnel don’t see a need to guarantee playing time to every player registered on a competitive team.  That means that even though a child may have been good enough to make the team, and they paid all the same fees as everyone else, they may very well be deemed not good enough to play.  (That topic warrants it’s own article: Athlete Development and the Importance of Playing Time.)

NEWS FLASH: Youth Players in European academies don’t pay-to-play.

FAKE!

Most American youth soccer clubs try to emulate and operate like European youth academies.  Here’s the glaring difference, though:  Professional European club academies are financed by professional clubs, while American youth soccer clubs are 99% financed by the parents of the players.  Professional clubs make money by developing players and then selling to other clubs the right to negotiate a playing contract with them. That right is called a Transfer fee.  Transfer fees are essentially the value of a player who has been developed by a club.  Transfer fees are separate of the player’s salary, which is usually negotiated at the same time as the transfer fee.

TRUTH: Most American youth soccer clubs aren’t affiliated with professional teams and therefore have no ambition to develop players.

Many parents get wrapped up in their child being on the 1st team or A team, ignoring the fact that their child will NEVER put that on their resume, and will statistically NEVER play soccer at any level beyond high school or their youth soccer club.  Due to the political factor of creating the “A Team”, the talent level is little better than any B or C teams.

“Remember that time when…”

The notion of the A team is that it offers the best opportunities for development to the kids who deserve it most.  The idea is that since athletes only get better playing against better and faster athletes, there should be one special category for them.  But what about friendships?  What about memories?  Isn’t it better to play with your friends and lose, than to play with strangers and win?  What are they playing for?

Why do we put so much emphasis on winning, when what we’re winning will be forgotten in a couple of years?

Chemistry is cultivated, nursed and developed over time.  It’s what happens when people really know and understand each other.  The only way for any team to have chemistry is to have those players train and work with each other for years.  Soccer is a passing and moving game.  Fitness is as important as ball handling skills, but fancy tricks and unbridled aggression cannot beat the chemistry of decent soccer players who’ve played together for a decade.

Why Do They Play?

For the overwhelming majority of American youth soccer players, the sport of soccer is a social endeavor.  The kids don’t look at soccer as a way out of the ghetto.  These kids aren’t from the ghetto.  Most American soccer players come from middle and upper middle class backgrounds;  They’re in the gifted programs at school, they eat out three evenings a week and the only thing they worry about is when they’ll get their braces off.  They have college educated parents who have worked very hard to ensure that they get every opportunity available to be successful in this country.

As community service providers, club soccer need only provide an environment for kids to learn to be “detail oriented problem solvers who can react quickly under pressure”.  Promising anything else (without delivering) is criminal.  In fact, if you read the mission statements of most soccer clubs, that’s pretty much what club soccer DOES offer.  So why bother to have tryouts?

The Best Solution (for your player)

  • Keep the team together –  Youth soccer should be some of the best years of your child’s life.  Soccer should be a venue to form lifelong friendships and memories.  Don’t screw it up by bouncing your athlete from one team to another looking for the magic development bullet, and try to avoid clubs that make your child tryout for the same team year after year.  These same clubs will preach loyalty to the sport and to the club, but cut your child if it benefits the coach or someone’s political agenda.  Tryouts do more harm than good, as the majority of American youth soccer club coaches and directors lack any real skills at identifying talent or potential anyway.
  • Follow your wallet – Overall, volunteer coaches or paid coaches won’t make one bit of difference in your child’s development.  Most club teams only practice 3 hours a week, and the majority of that time is spend on conditioning and team strategy.  Real player development and ball handling skills will have to be learned away from the team, so paying thousands of dollars a year to play at the “best” local club in the area won’t help their chances of getting a D1 scholarship or a trial with DC United.Focus on your child’s experience, not on the club.  If your child wants to go further than just club soccer, it’s on them.  The harsh reality is that the club has no interest in developing players.
  • Don’t lie to yourself – You cannot will your son or daughter to play Division I college soccer or wish them on to the national team, and your local soccer club is in no position to help you.  If theory is correct – and it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any skill – take 10,000, then subtract every hour of practice, games and scrimmages that your athlete has put in, to this day.  Now, divide that number by the years until their 18th birthday and you’ll see how much time NEEDS to be put in annually to become a top level soccer player.  Divide that number again by 50, and you’ll find about 20 hours per week need to be put in to get your athlete on track. Are you committed to it?  Is your athlete?
  • Don’t let your local club lie to you – The carrot dangling antics of American youth soccer are much too obvious.  Club soccer does little more than subsidize the opportunities that YOU create for your child.  Most coaches are either interested in a trophy or their own child (which is why they coach in the first place).  Regardless, YOUR child’s soccer development is way down on THEIR list.  It’s a “what can you do for me today” attitude at nearly every youth soccer club in the United States, so get off your player’s back. You have to lead their development and your player needs to buy into it.  If they’re not sold, don’t waste your money on private trainers or waste your energy taking them to the field for a kick-around.

Mike Slatton is a nationally certified soccer coach, certified professional scout & player analyst,  a 30+ year youth soccer coach and Chief Editor of the Soccer Mom Manual.
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About Author

Mike Slatton is a 2nd generation American youth soccer coach since 1984, and the son of one of the nation’s first female licensed youth soccer coaches (Anita Slatton, 1978). He’s also a professional soccer scout, a player since 1977, and the father of three adult and teenage children who all play or have played the game.

“My job as a youth soccer coach is to develop detail oriented problem solvers who can react quickly under pressure.

This relates to life – not just soccer.”

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