Some people say that I live, breath and drink the game of soccer, and to those people, you are very correct. I have a passion for the game that I want to share and instill into people that I come across, especially younger players. I want these young aspiring athletes to respect the game and all of those that are involved within it. With this I hope that the more they play, the more they gain a thirst that cannot be quenched.
This past Christmas will go down as the best one I have ever spent. I was fortunate enough to go back home to England with my son, Owen and girlfriend to spend the holidays with family and friends. It was great seeing my parents and friends tell my girlfriend about me as a child and how I grew up just wanting to be involved with football. I was fortunate enough to have made a career in the world’s best sport on both sides of the Atlantic and I am still blessed that I can keep giving back.
The highlight of the trip was being able to take Owen to see my (and now his) beloved Liverpool(Red’s) play at Anfield. The result might not have been great but it will be an experience that will forever be etched in my memory. He cheered, jumped up and down as his football hero’s Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez played on the hallow turf. Since then, trying to explain the whole Suarez racism incident with a six year old has been complex, but it made me realize even more how much of an influence the professional players can have on the life’s of fans and young children. I remember idolizing players as a kid and as I attempted to understand the Scouser’s with their broad accents during our half-time conversations, you could see their passion for the club going as far back as the great Bill Shankly and how they really do live for the game.
As the final whistle blew at Anfield, disappointment set in as the Reds only managed a 1-1 draw against struggling Blackburn Rovers. So we trudged through the crowds to the club shop to purchase some souvenirs. However, the highlight of my day was still to occur. As we were walking back to the car loaded with bags, we noticed the players leaving the ground and Owen stood there in awe of Martin Kelly as he attempted to hold a two minute conversation with him, shaking his hand the whole entire time.
These are memories that I will never forget and as I start to read the Bill Shankly Autobiography, I keep trying to fit the American game (square peg) into the lifestyle that is lived and played in other countries (round hole). For the past decade we have been looking to improve the style of the game, the fan base and the professional leagues, but even as I watch events unfold at the NSCAA convention including the MLS Draft I can’t help but feel we are still quite a bit off.
Over the past 10 years, the MLS has come a long way and it is great watching fans in stadiums creating atmospheres like they do in Portland and Seattle. I can see change happening and the league gaining more strength, I hope one day we do have the players being idolized like Gerrard and Suarez but before all of that occurs we have to make it free for the elite players to play and give them opportunities to test themselves in elite environments.
The MLS may be growing and people starting to follow the game, but I never see fans for any of the sports in the US having the same passion that they do for their clubs in England, Spain, Argentina and other nations where they simply live for the weekend. Prior to my trip back home I was instructing a USSF “D” License in Northern KY and as I sat eating my breakfast in the hotel lobby I watched fans from the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Stealers shared tables and discussed plays for that afternoons NFL game. I thought, “ this would never occur in any other country”, but as civilized as it was I missed seeing the fans who whole heartedly feel like they are kicking the ball with their hero’s throughout the 90 minutes.
Now I am not a big reader of books but I do like reading the trials and tribulations of professional players through their autobiographies (IE Bill Shankley Autobiography). Many of you know the first chapter always starts about how they started playing and how much of an inspiration their parents were in their life. Some may say we have and advantage in this country because we offer programs that start for children as young as 4 years old. The difference is that it costs to play and it’s organized in the United States where as in other countries it is free (both in cost and free from coaching, organization, and structure.)
Overseas, everyone can play and emulate their hero’s, and with everyone playing the pool becomes bigger for the elite clubs to pick from. They learn how to work for it, but here most kids have everything handed to them. I will never tell a parent on how they should parent their own child (I have my own son to deal with) but I will always look back and gain inspiration from my own parents. They made me work for things in life including the opportunity to play football; It’s only now that I am older I can turn around and see how much of a help my parents were. In the United States we criticize them for being over bearing, however if we are going to insist on charging kids to play we need the parents and they will forever feel like they have a right to voice their opinion.
Owen with my parents prior to a Liverpool match at Anfield
I always tell the kids to thank their parents for what they do, even now I would like to thank mine for driving me all around England when I was growing up so that I could kick the ball around. My biggest gratitude to them is for giving me some tough lessons when I made mistakes on the field. They may have been upset with me on occasions but I learned that if I created the problem, I had to solve it. However I know that I could have never played had we been forced to pay over $600 for 12 weeks of soccer. I guess we have to be thankful that some organizations are working out ideas to make the game free.
As those organizations grow it may have a counter reaction to the professional leagues because they are feeding the colligiate game. NFL, NBA and MLB need college sports but does Major League Soccer? I just watched the draft and saw young men aged 21-22 years old about to embark on a professional career, if you have not made it a another league somewhere in the world by this age you chances of ever making it become very slim. Some people may say the Premier League is detrimental to the growth of the English National team, is college soccer hurting the growth of the US National Team and Professional Leagues?
Many of you may have seen the opinions of Fox Soccer analyst and Former US Men’s National Team player, Eric Wynalda at the NSCAA convention and he does have some great opinions on how the game needs to change. What frustrates me is how so many people can sit around and pick the game apart and tell us what we are doing wrong, but how many people are willing to try to change it.
I may never have the opportunity to affect some of the major issues on a national level to have an impact, but I do know that every child I work with, I will try and install a love for the game, respect all that are involved in it (including their parents) and give them the best opportunity to accomplish the goals that they want to reach. And hopefully help them find a Hero or two along the way!!
I remember as a teenager growing up in England thinking that we live in such a contradictive world. When you are trying to establish yourself at school or starting a career, you were told that that “It’s a big wide world out there.” However, when you met somebody who where acquaintances with people you knew it turned out to be a “small world”. The one that frustrated me the most was when I would do something wrong and as a kid and would turn around and say “well my friends did it” the response I received was “I don’t care what they do.” However when your friends did something good for their parents your parents would highlight that, which left me thinking- what am I supposed to do?
Contradiction still seems to find me, it many different forms and makes me wonder what is the best approach to take. Back in October I sat in a meeting with my fellow peers to discuss some new coaching material and while brainstorming, led into a discussion about children playing multiple sports. As you may be aware from some of my previous blogs I do have my own child playing multiple sports and do see some benefits to getting children involved in more than one activity. Playing multiple sports provides many benefits; learning the fundamentals of athleticism as a whole develops different movement skills, improves speed and agility, and helps to develop core strength they may not get from just one sport.
As I seem to be playing devil’s advocate I ask the question “What other sports do kids in Brazil, Spain and other nations play?” These countries seem to be producing world class soccer players and all the time we wish that the children in the US would play street soccer and play more often like they do in these nations. There has to be a happy medium found as we want kids to play soccer, but we don’t want to over exert them. We want kids to play multiple sports but what if they focused on playing soccer only? Could the US start producing world class players?
I am not sure I have the answer as I see the importance of playing multiple sports. However I do believe it should be kept to one sport a season. With that said, I contradicted even myself as I also feel obligated to help produce better soccer players within this country. The US is a nation that loves its sports, hence why there are five major sport leagues. The percentage of those that make it into the elite level is very slim but with the sporting society in the US being different it is obvious that parents want kids to play multiple sports. I will be the first to admit that I have been reluctant with former players about playing other sports and even started down the same path with my own child. Still I wonder why some coaches are never open to realizing that there are some benefits to it. One thought is if a child only plays one sport a season it can also allow them to play other games in the streets (were the world’s best players learned their trade.)
With time my opinions may shift greater to one side of the argument. I do feel obligated to help kids gain a passion for soccer and keep trying to build a bigger pool of elite players in this country. But through playing multiple sports at younger ages, they can surely gain athletic and life skills to help them when they decide to specialize in soccer as an elite soccer player. As the game continues to grow in this nation, who knows, maybe more and more athletes will focus on only one sport.
I started as state Director of Coach & Player Development for Kentucky back in October 2005. One of my very first jobs was to deal with the Olympic Development Program and more specifically the try-outs which were scheduled to take place at the start of November. For many US Youth Soccer state associations the program has changed dramatically over the past few years but the concept still remains the same of attempting to find the best players that are available from the local clubs teams to go on and represent the state association and possibly beyond.
Following try-outs, I would always delight in receiving the phone calls from the parents that were disgruntled that their child had not made the training pool. How could this be the case? They are the best player on their club team; she can run faster than anybody else, he can kick it further than any player in the state. No matter how much I would try to explain that those elements within a player are not necessarily ones we are looking for, I would always get comments such as “you only select certain players from certain clubs” and “obviously the selection process is all political.”
For many years I would argue the case that there was nothing political about our selection process and even though we may not have the perfect try-out procedure, the door was never closed on a player. Of course very few people walked away satisfied with my response. After a few years, I will now agree that all try-outs for any teams (Select Teams, ODP State and Regional and even those for the USSF Academies) are political. It is political because it’s about opinions; and unfortunately in the opinions of the coaches making the selections they may feel that the player is not ready for the next step or suited for the style of play we are looking for.
Today, I will only accept phone calls from the players because they are the ones that I can help. That is our job as youth coaches to communicate with the players and give them feedback that they can use to develop. Players typically don’t use the excuse that it’s political but sadly very few will contact me to see what they can work on to accomplish their goals. Anson Dorrance, University of North Carolina Women’s Coach said “If you're a good player, you are going to make it. If you're marginal, it may be left up to politics (opinions). If you want to be assured of making a team, be one of the 'top three or four players.”
You can only be in the top three or four if you work at it and sometimes getting knocked down is part of the process. Perhaps if youth soccer players would take the mindset of those that ride skateboards we would have fewer players and parents making up excuses for their failures. If every kid stopped riding a bike or skateboard after they fell off then the world maybe without the likes of Tony Hawk and Lance Armstrong.
When you fall down; you get back up again and learn from the process. But as long as we continue to place the blame on politics we aren’t getting better. Don’t blame the politics of it because that’s just about the opinions of those making the selections.
Whether you are from the Baby Boom Generation, Generation X or Y we’ve heard from parents tell us stories about how their lives were so much tougher than ours because they had to walk to school uphill both ways in five inches of snow. There are some major differences between each generation and society has definitely played a part in these changes. However, to me each of these eras share a similar title that is sadly becoming extinct.
As a person from Generation X, I recall playing in the streets from dusk till dawn; well actually till the street light came on. I remember making up games and spending all the summer months with friends causing enough havoc to keep us out of big trouble. We even had playtime at school three times a day which gave us the opportunity to play football (soccer) with about 15 people on each side with a ball from Woolworths which cost less than a pound. These days are gone, but I can guarantee most people reading this will be reminiscing about your own childhood memories and realizing that you are part of this multi generation that has since died.
Unfortunately the generation of the Sandlot Kids may be a thing of the past and we can now only moan to our children that their lives are so much easier than ours. The question that can be raised is are we a culprit for causing these great times to no longer exist?
Some people blame technology and video games, but people from the Baby Boom era had televisions and those of Generation X were the proud owner’s to some of the first game consoles. Others say that the world and especially the neighborhoods we reside in are not as safe as they were 15 plus years ago. To some degree I can understand that argument but there have always been predators in our towns. Having grown up a country which seemed to have a terrorist attack every week, I don’t recall my parents ever having a problem letting me go down to the park to put our jumpers down for goal posts and playing a game with whoever showed up.
Why is the Sandlot Kid generation a cause of our own death? Maybe we simply forgot what it was like to be a kid. I look at the play life of today’s children and I see a schedule that is as busy as an adults work life.
Monday = Soccer
Tuesday = Baseball
Wednesday = Soccer
Thursday = Swimming
Friday = Basketball
Saturday = Basketball & Baseball
Sunday = Soccer
We are also missing school, homework, visiting grandparents, church and being a kid. The Sandlot Generation may be a thing of the past which has been lost by those that lived it because it does not always suit the schedule of an adult. If we are not willing to allow our children to be young, care free and play in the streets because some sporting organization is scheduling playtime for them, then let’s not become a generation that moans that our future is full of people unable to solve problems and expects everything to be done for them.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with some structured play. After all I need to keep my job, but let’s see if we can evolve to where at least kids spend a couple of hours each week playing outside in unstructured environments! Then perhaps you may see more success when they do go to participate in organized sports.