National Soccer Camps offer a channel for kids interested in soccer to pursue higher levels of competition, gain exposure to many coaches (often world class coaches), a chance to build unique memories, and to gain exposure on a much larger stage for those interested in college or professional soccer careers. This experience is not for everyone, but for those it serves, it can be a life changer.
Our club, the Damascus Soccer Club in Maryland, formed a partnership with Global Image Sports (GIS) and the Stoke City Potters Academy in England to bring camps like this to players in the Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and DC region. Several kids came though our first camp this summer. A handful of kids qualified. I traveled with them to Georgia as they completed their National Camp experience.
What follows will give you an insiders' look at the process we went through to bring National Camps to our region, to play through them as a player, and to coach through them as a coach.
Getting To Camp
Getting to a National soccer camp is a process. The big steps are (open the tabs to see the bullet points within):
Laying the Groundwork
Hosting ID Camp
Initial Performance and Evaluation
Payment and Travel
Performance and Evaluation
Getting a single player to a National camp like the one we just participated in takes a a team of people several months to coordinate. It can take years, depending on local competition, for coaches and players to get individual players ready to compete effectively for the slots available.
The process from a player's perspective is pretty simple. 1. Get into shape and have the desire to compete. 2. Find a Club in your area that's hosting a camp 3. register 4. Pay special attention to those non-technical items like attitude, sportsmanship, work ethic, etc. 5. Show up and give it your all!
From a parent's perspective, recognizing and supporting desire in your child is probably step one. This means getting them into club or school practice and play environments, driving, paying the bills, shopping for gear, getting to know others in the space, volunteering to help out (this shows commitment on your part and tells the child that what they are doing is important enough to deserve your energy), and finding joy in the process. The more you enjoy it, the more your kids will feel free to enjoy it themselves.
From a coach's perspective, keeping training age-appropriate, injecting fun into the learning process, and making sure you're developing athletes along the four pillars is important. Well rounded players will go further in the process.
- Technical / tactical development
- Physical development
- Psychosocial development
- Emotional development
The Initial (State Level) ID Process
Not everyone qualifies to come to a National camp, unfortunately. Coaches coming over from overseas need a base level of skill and temperament to work with. They are looking to grow the game in the US as well as find talent that might one day fill the benches of their first teams. After more than 150 years of producing soccer players, Stoke City academy coaches know what the glide slope looks like as a professional soccer player. While it is now clear to me that Stoke is not focused exclusively on developing first team players, I assume that their involvement in the US is considered an investment from their perspective. They are growing a love for the game at many levels - from community service to world-class field performance. At the National Camp, the emphasis is on field performance. This is not the place for beginners.
From the player's perspective, initial ID camp is a chance to prove that they can hang with the top 20% of the players in a given region. Coaches will be running players through a series of sessions that last from 2-5 hours per day x 3 days. Our camp ran from 9AM - 3PM with an hour lunch break between 12 and 1PM.
During camp, players are sorted into age grouping initially. Players are later grouped by skill set and athleticism, size, and skill as coaches get to know everyone. Players don their cleats and shin guards, take a sip of water, pick up their ball, and follow the coach's guidance.
Parents should consider a shade canopy if sticking around for the camp. Shade and something cool to drink in the summer makes the time pass pleasantly. If you're lucky, you'll get some good company and good conversation. Bring a camera too! Your player is having an experience that few soccer players get.
Coaches can offer to help out, but be prepared to sit and watch. The coach who is running the camp is the coach in charge. Camps like these are great opportunities to take notes, generate new ideas, and pick up some tips. Be sure to talk with the visiting coach during breaks if possible and compare notes.
I found that our visiting coaches managed multiple age groups better than I'd seen anywhere else. The system they used for organization was well suited for large groups and multiple age groups mixed together. I learned quite a few things I had not seen before.
Everyone should expect to spend a few days at the ID process. Coaches need that much time to see everything they need to see. In the mean-time, players are getting some excellent training and parents should be bonding over all sorts of things - maybe talking about their favorite episodes of The Soccer Sidelines!
The next step in the process happens up to two weeks after camp has finished. Letters (or emails) detailing whether a player has been invited to National Camp or not go out to parents. If you get a letter, expect to pay another $600 - $1,000 to take your player to the next (National) level.
Only the top 20% of players who show up to ID Camp will get letters. The visiting coach has a clear picture of what candidate players should look like & can identify who has the raw talent and current skill to succeed at the National Camp level.
Players who are chosen will be instructed to bring both indoor and outdoor shoes - perhaps both soft field cleats and turf cleats - for a grand total of as many as three pair of shoes. They also need to bring socks and shin guards, a water bottle, and although our camp called for players to bring an age appropriate ball, we found that players were all given balls when they arrived as part of their welcome package. In that case, it was a good thing that we brought a Sharpie. Everything looks alike in camp. It's a good idea to label everything from shirts and shorts to balls so you don't lose anything.
Travel to the camp location is not included in the price. In our case, we chose to drive to Georgia from Maryland - an 11 hour beautiful drive along Route 81. Your budget will need to include fuel, food, and lodging if your trip takes more than one day. We plowed through in a single day and landing in our hotel in Rome by dinner time, but we know players that came from as far away as Iowa and Vancouver, Canada. A National camp draws the top 20% of talent from all over!
We also drove on our return trip, but we added a few days to enjoy some vacation time with family. Asheville, NC was a great stoping point for us. It's foodie town with lots of lush mountain hiking trails, kudzu blanketing just about everything, and a Division One university at UNC Asheville. In an unexpected turn of events, my daughter enjoyed Asheville so much that it got added to our list of colleges to apply to.
If you get the opportunity to travel with a teammate or a friend, a trip like this can be a real bonding experience. Friendships can and do happen as a direct result of these camps.
The National Camp
National camp is a place of "wow" for soccer players. Great talent gathers in one place - from great coaching to great players. The atmosphere is one of mutual respect and admiration for just about everyone walking around campus. One just knows that they are about to see and play with some of the greatest talent available. First-time players are a mixture of nerves and excitement.
The schedule runs from 7AM through 9PM - with plenty of activities along the way. Parents are not permitted to attend with the players (just as it is in the Actual Academy in England), so be prepared to find food and activities if you don't plan to stay to watch from the observation areas. Every activity is chaperoned by adults who have been cleared for youth protection purposes. Once camp begins, parents are no longer allowed in the dorms or the dining hall. They are welcome to set up in designated observation areas. These areas are conveniently far enough away from the field so as to prevent parent sideline coaching - a feature I particularly enjoyed.
Our camp was held at the Darlington School in Rome, Georgia, but these camps can be held anywhere in the country. The Darlington School was set up well. A sprawling campus with lots of soccer and lacrosse fields, it was perfect setting for hosting a few hundred soccer players, golf carts, and wandering parents.
National Camp is staffed with professional world-class coaches who have dedicated their lives to developing youth soccer talent. The training here is second to none. You can expect your young player to come away a better player when it's done.
Expect to run into other players and their families while in camp. Friendships can and do come from camp experiences like this. Knowing other soccer players and enthusiasts from around the country and into Canada is an awesome benefit!
Players aren't the only ones who benefit from this gathering of the best of the best. Coaches - particularly coaches from the hosting organizations - can be lucky enough to participate in coach's-only training sessions. In my case, I was invited as the Maryland host Club and got training - once again - from the Stoke City Academy Director, Gareth Jennings.
This camp goes on in parallel to the camp that players are participating in. In this case, coaches moved off to the lacrosse fields (#11 on the map above) while kids trained in Chris Hunter's Stadium (#4), and the Neville Soccer Fields (#14).
In a future post, I'll go into more detail about this coach's camp & the things we did and talked about. In general, we had morning sessions and afternoon sessions on the field, with a lunch break and classroom sessions in the middle. Good coaches are always learning. Learning from a coach of Gareth's calibre is a treat every time!
Parents and Players (the Dark Side)
One thing to be aware of when rising through competitive tiers in just about any sport: testosterone levels seem to go up the higher the competitive ladder you climb. I was disappointed to find some mean spirited kids and parents that seemed to drive their kids a little hard.
One mother was yelling at her daughter literally no more than 5 minutes after camp ended. They hadn't made it to the car yet. She had yelled at her kids during breaks (even though the observation areas were supposed to keep parents and players separate). She talked about "those other kids" who play "lesser" levels of competitive soccer "only being out on the field to have fun," "...not something I allow our kids to be exposed to." She went on to talk (brag) about her daughter being "First Division," a regular camp attendee, and in such a better place away from those lower division kids.
This mom initially presented herself as a laid back, easy going, supportive mom, but when she spoke (or yelled as she did with her kids), it was quickly obvious that the pressure was on from home. What's interesting in this case is that the attitude flowed down to her daughter. Initially presenting as a laid-back, friendly young lady, this girl turned out to be pretty mean spirited and uber competitive - often referring to the other girls in her suite by derogatory names and seemingly expecting them to do things for her.
I didn't have the heart to tell that mom that the young lady who was performing so well next to her daughter was, in fact, a girl who plays soccer in a recreation (fun) program, that she had out-performed other "travel" kids, or that she really only plays for fun and the social benefits of being on a team.
We met another dad in the hotel with a younger player. This little guy was truly good on the field, but during breakfast seemed to be distracted or disinterested in what they were doing there. Dad was cracking the whip and clearly full of stress. That same dad paced the sidelines while junior was training.
Highly strung parents are everywhere, for sure, but in my experience, the higher the level of competition, the crazier parents (and players) can get. If you chose to pursue this channel, and after going through it with my kids, I sincerely hope you do, it's more important than ever to stay focused on the stuff the really matters. These are development opportunities, memory making opportunities, and opportunities to expand the vocabulary and social circles for young players. Enjoy them and have fun experiencing camps like these with your kids!
Resources Mentioned in this Post
- “Homepage | Stoke City FC - Official Website of the Potters - Latest News, Photos and Videos.” Stoke City FC, www.stokecityfc.com/.
- “Meet Our Partners.” Global Image Sports - GIS - Home, www.globalimagesports.com/.
- “Damascus Soccer Club Home.” Damascus Soccer Club, David Dejewski, www.damascussoccer.org/.
- “Welcome.” Darlington School, www.darlingtonschool.org/.