Tryouts are just around the corner, and the conversation in my own house had turned to…”do we stay at our current club or do we look elsewhere?” While I’m a staunch advocate that the “coach is the face of the club,” it’s not that my son is with a coach that doesn’t care about his development– or is unqualified to coach soccer.  Steve Bellis, who coaches his daughters’ U10 maroon team, and I— we are probably the most overqualified U10 coaches in the state – with 40+ years of coaching experience. 

That’s not the issue in my eyes. It’s the lack of leverage within the club models that leaves coaches like Steve and me only working with one team each.  Between the two of us — we’re only impacting maybe 22 players in the age group. If you’re not on our team you might not have access to what we’re both teaching, how we’re teaching it and WHY we are teaching what we both teach and coach. 

Access is the first principle of our Coaching Academy

Yet the complex environment in club soccer is antiquated in the fact that it still organizes teams and coaches to pair up and work with only one squad. Part of the issue is financial. Parents on the team are required to pay for the coach that is dedicated to their team. The other part is organizational. Clubs are not structured to leverage the assets of their coaches’ time and availability. The access to quality coaches for each club is a problem. The scarcity of developed, mature experts in youth soccer is growing, thus limiting players’ opportunities to develop under great coaches. 

We won’t increase retention of coaches and players without questioning the diversity of player development in pools for skills and learning. We need to ensure that players are learning age appropriate skill development – if the top team is improving speed of play – then the second team better understand what that means, or else we’ll continue to keep the top team players on the top team with the top coach. Learning progressions for soccer help players and coaches support growth and development — but it’s a consistent value of the coach to invest their time in player development because they have to “abandon all of hope of fruition” when truly supporting player development — they won’t win the weekend tourney if they truly allow players to fail. 

Innovation as part of an isolated solution

And it’s these two problems- Coaching Access and Organized Learning Progressions that support LeftFoot as it pushes innovation and results in our growth. As a parent spoke to me yesterday, “ Aren’t you excited at how much LeftFoot has grown?” 

Well, yes — it’s growing everyday and it’s less reliant on me to provide coaching everyday. However the Problems of Player Development are still there — The best are still getting better while the gaps exist in the rest of the best. I still hear stories from parents and players – underqualified coaches – lack of supervision – lack of guidance at the coaching ranks. Coaching Directors that are more invested in the politics of team promotions versus the value of developing more qualified players. I’ve coached at my club for two years without an evaluation of my team or coaching ability, my organization or my players, but I constantly get hassled by parent complaints regarding playing time and positions — without any support from the organization. (That’s not the right thing to complain about — playing time is thinking in the immediate now – are they learning to play and compete?- There’s a reason the coach chooses not to play your player in that moment – do you know what it is – do you care?)

We can’t just expect young coaches or any coach to be an island without any support – no matter how qualified or well intentioned the club is. Would we expect this of our school system? Would you want your teacher to have no evaluation? — no continuing education – no benchmarks of classroom management? While it’s not easy to manage a culture of independent contractors with an ever expanding board of directors …for most clubs we have to begin evaluating — which clubs are the most organized in terms of personnel? Which clubs have built in coach development training and education? 

Pay to Play – Investing in Overall Systematic development

While LeftFoot has created more coaches and time slots for our players to have access to quality coaching in more time slots than ever before ( in 2012 we had only 40 sessions a week, this year we are running in excess of 120) – we are still only serving the players and families that can afford our prices and commitments. Yet working with long term commitments allows us to invest in Coaching Education for our own coaches to become better –we still have the expensive reality that running 12 hours of daily sessions is expensive if players aren’t taking up those spots with paying families. 

However, we have to ask the question and challenge the model of coaching in itself — do great coaches really ever ask themselves how much they make per hour? Do great coaches invest their time and energy from an altruistic motive in order to pass along their love of the game to children who want to “just play with the ball?” The best coaches in our academy and statewide truly love the game and are emotionally invested in giving players their time. And money has nothing to do with the return on our investment. It’s the emotional reward of watching young women and young men grow up to be phenomenal people who make others around them better. 

But who pays for their altruism? Where does that investment come from?

Our Investment in Our Players  – Thinking Seven Generations Ahead

In the Sioux tradition, leaders were asked to think “seven generations ahead” when evaluating decisions. I constantly push our team to think about the next generation of leaders in our academy, where are they coming from? Who are the interns in our academy that are ready to take the next step and give back to the younger generation of players? And the proof in the pudding the other day was when I was working with a group of players, and they asked for Anna to come back into their session as a training partner. Why would they want a younger coach to come back – because she represents that role model of friendship — she’s a living model of hope and their dreams to be grown up, playing college soccer. But most importantly, she knows them and she’s been there with them. 

Are our clubs doing this? On your club team – is there a young assistant coach who is still playing the game? Are they involved in running practices? Are they contributing and leading – or are they thrown to the wolves and burned out from the experience because they have no guidance – no mentoring – no structure to their development? 

It’s this final piece in the puzzle that I formed LeftFoot to address the Problems of Player Development. We need better coaches – and more of them. But we need this next generation of coaches to have a safe and supportive environment to truly develop into great coaches. We can’t continue to have coaches like Steve and I isolated on small teams — not influencing more players in innovative models of coaching. 

Access to Great Coaching

Our membership was designed to support all of the players that want to get better. For every child that wants to get better our membership serves the community as a whole to provide the space, the equipment and the coaches to “be together” in the game. That’s part of our “high elbows out” every day, “thank you and good job” signifies our investment in one another to create a space for all of us to have a home.

When a player and coach share the love of the game together– protected in the space of the Academy we are able to hold both of them in safe, supportive environment where they can both develop as people — entwined in the space of creativity, learning, relationship and excitement. 

For every player who walks out more confident than when they came in we succeed in creating a magical process — and we also fail. I don’t have great sessions every session – I fail, I experiment and take risks – But we have to give each other permission to innovate – to ask questions and to learn. It’s when we fail to give each other permission to innovate, take risks that we get “tight” controlling and disappointed in the results.  That’s one of the ideas behind the “coaching academy.” It’s for us to learn as coaches as well. 

I constantly talk to the coaches about taking the emotional risks with players to push them to the next level — “they might not like you” but we have to challenge them to become better — “I’m giving you the freedom and the safety” to push them, challenge them and take risks. 

But we have to see that as parents, coaches and players that safety isn’t a place to avoid growth – positive doesn’t mean “no demands” – good coaching isn’t cheerleading and quality isn’t devoid of blemishes. 

Keeping the doors open to all our mistakes, failures, struggles and opportunities is fundamental to our evolution of youth soccer.

It’s a priority to continue creating access to young coaches who are supported by experienced coaches, who take risks with how they teach, who they teach with and what they teach on a daily basis. While it’s our rights as consumers to question their tactics– if we can give permission to everyone at LeftFoot to fail, to see our investments as trials and errors in the game of mistakes, we will continue to solve the problems of player development. 

It’s when we close the doors and become isolated, fixed and stagnant that we fail to grow. 

Access is permeable and threatens to opens us to the vulnerability that we have to evolve. 

That’s why it’s our first principle to solve the problems of player development. 

It’s why We Are a Coaching Academy.™

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