How can we help American youth training?

In part one, I looked at the differences between German and American youth training methods. In part two, I look at the different ways American youth training can be improved and what needs to be done in terms of investment and changing mindsets.

Are American Youths Getting Proper Training?

The biggest problem for American youth training, according to Jim Dower, co-founder and executive director of Urban Initiatives, and coach of the Wilmette Wings, is that, despite that there are hundreds of kids playing soccer on the weekends, it’s impossible to know if any of the kids engage in proper skill training.

Dower himself played AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) soccer, and Dower described the training as, “some guy looking in a book, trying to do a drill, not really understanding what the point of it is, and really can’t give the little coaching technique tips — paying attention to the part of the foot you use, or the amount of touches you have on the ball. Building up from doing this exercise, and building up to a bigger exercise, then building it into a structured semi-game play, and then sort of a full or small sided game, and working into a larger field game.”

Dower’s proper training began when he trained with a coach who had actual professional experience with Sheffield United. “I didn’t understand the real important shifting and shape aspects of soccer until I got to high school, and trained with a guy who trained in Europe, and knew how to teach these concepts to kids. I’m not saying there aren’t Americans who don’t know how to do that but they’re definitely in much shorter supply.”

Dower’s personal experiences are indicative of how Americans are catching on to the trend and employing people who, while probably having played competitively, probably also have a British accent.

“Nowadays, you go to any travel competitive soccer club in the Chicagoland area, and there is at least one foreigner who is part of the curriculum development team or part of the head coaching staff, so they make sure those types of training exercises are incorporated.”

Simply having a foreigner with an accent, though, doesn’t guarantee successful training technique.

“I went down and watched a practice downtown, and there were some British guys there who knew soccer but by the way the training session was run, I was appalled.

The folks who were watching the practice, the parents, have no idea what a really good 90-minute skill session looks like, so they don’t know what to expect. So they see their kids standing around, and the guy just talking, and they don’t have anything to compare it to so they can’t complain.

Because I have been around it and seen what a good session looks like, I think, ‘wow, if I was a parent paying $1500 for this, I’d be upset.'”

Tom Dunmore of Pitch Invasion, agrees that sometimes a top price will not equate the top technical skills necessary to become a talented player; it may just be the money necessary to keep the clubs in business. “Chasing trophies to justify high fees is necessary for independent travel clubs, but fortunately, MLS academies can change this as they will have less imperative to win youth trophies, and more need to just develop technique and skill for the future.”

The MLS youth academies are new, so it’s yet to be seen how successful they will be in training and attracting younger players.

“It’s only very recently (within the past year or two for all but one MLS club) that MLS teams have started really investing in youth academies, and even more recently that MLS changed the rules so that clubs must have a youth academy and can sign two players per year direct to their roster (rather than the players having to go through a central dispersal draft),” said Dunmore.

“This will change things dramatically. Clubs are offering these academies for free, and so can attract the best players who previously played for expensive ‘travel clubs’ or those who could not even afford to play for local teams due to their fees. They may never be as good as Europe, but I see them as becoming far more important.”

The Impact of Mass Interest and Money

Hamburg SV’s goal for its youth academies is just as the MLS’s – to get the younger players into the senior team, and if not Hamburg, another professional club that they have existing relationships with. Still, the differences are stark between the two – the competition is still not as advanced as that in Germany, and the salaries in the MLS still pale in comparison to the other major American sports, let alone other European soccer players.

“MLS is earning more respect in American sport, which will help, but salaries are still too low to attract many of the best athletes, who see the riches available in other sports more easily,” said Dunmore. Not all of this is the MLS’ fault, but the product of years and years of soccer taking a backseat to other major American sports.

“The biggest downfall is the perception of the game (even if it’s not really true), that it’s mainly a white, suburban sport for soccer moms to give their kids a safe sport to play in. Its biggest strength is that ultimately, there is a huge youth soccer movement, and massive resources to invest in it — it just needs to be funneled into the right kind of training and infrastructure,” says Dunmore.

Adam Spangler of the blog This Is American Soccer would probably agree that there is a disconnect between the youth soccer movement and massive resources that need to be better organized. Spangler cites as an example China, who just came off of a fantastic run as hosts of the Olympics, and he believes they set an example of how putting their mind and resources toward something with the world’s biggest population really translated in athletic strength, as they topped the U.S. in gold medals. Money-Resources-Implementation is what Spangler believes to be most controlling in growing soccer in America.

Still, China possesses many differences that set it apart from America, and the concept of throwing money at this problem is difficult because of the MLS’s limitations with salaries and club independence, and also because China seemed to take a great interest in seeing their country succeed as a whole, whereas the majority of Americans still can’t be bothered with soccer.

Recreating the emphasis that Americans have with other sports and making soccer a priority sport is necessary to grow soccer in America but the task is difficult. “Its just American culture. Of course the sport would grow should kids choose soccer over American football or basketball or baseball, but as a development rule, we can’t depend on that or think we can change it in any foreseeable time table,” believes Spangler.

Dower agrees that the fact that soccer is not ingrained in the American fabric is a problem for soccer’s expansion. “People who coach in Wilmette, their families have a much better understanding of their kid becoming a great basketball or baseball player, and that’s definitely from a parent perspective what I see come out. They say, my kid is a great athlete, I know baseball or basketball more than soccer, so I push my kid in that direction so I can be more involved.”

What Can Be Done?

It appears the difference between American and German youth training can be summarized as a lack of popularity in the sport. The lack of soccer knowledge, and the fact that there is still a majority of the population complacent in the unknown of soccer, has manifested itself into some drawbacks: a lack of advanced, soccer specific coaching techniques, a misunderstanding among those who play soccer about what the best coaching for American soccer should be, a lack of a competitive top league for youth players to aspire to, and a lack of encouragement from parents and the public in funneling support to the sport.

These are issues that countries like Germany have never had to encounter, at least not as recently as America has. Every passing year will see these problems lessen, but for now, a time frame just cannot be accurately set. “I don’t think 5 years is enough time to see any big changes,” says Spangler. “The changes will come, if they come at all, in 25-50 years, no sooner than 10. Its incremental changes that are hard to quantify and measure.”

Dower believes that exposing Americans to top notch soccer overseas, rather than the MLS, is the key to attracting more interest. “I had friends who went and studied abroad and really got into soccer,” said Dower. “When they were here, soccer wasn’t a real sport to them but after seeing a top league they really got into it.”

America has decades of catching up to do if they’re trying to mold their youth programs and professional players into what countries like Germany already have. “It would be naive for any individual or group to think they can change soccer in this country quickly,” said Spangler. “Culture isn’t changed from outside, it is an inward reaction to the outside. So you change the outside and hope the culture comes around. In the end, all the money and marketing in the world may never make American soccer equal to its international competitors.”

Spangler may have a point, but it’s the small steps that can help this inward change move outwards. Soccer has already grown in popularity in the last 10 years, in part because of the strong youth programs that American kids participate in at a young age. The establishment and growth of the MLS, the popularity of the World Cup and other major competitions in American viewership, and the exposure that the sport has gained may not be enough, but it’s a start.

The more kids who begin to play on their own, on the streets, from an organic love of soccer is what will begin to change the sport from inside out, and begin to force the existing soccer industry to change. Taking cues from what other countries like Germany have done indicates that America isn’t that different — what is different is the inherent love and interest in the game, which is also most frustrating as it cannot be taught. But if soccer lovers in American keep trying, it could possibly be learned.

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  1. Steve 25 September, 2008
  2. Todd C. 26 September, 2008