I'm hearing some variation of this over and over again: "My kids looked forward to playing varsity soccer in high school, but they (or we) have been disappointed with the experience." Why?
In this article, let's explore the downside of the varsity experience and what we can do about it.
The Varsity Experience Summary
Where we live, our Varsity players play 12 games in 6 weeks. After tryouts, selected players get a few weeks of preparation, then a rapid fire schedule of games and practices. There are playoffs at the end and teacher-coaches along the way. Kids play in front of their peers for school pride. Wins are lauded during the school day. Losses lamented. Cheer leaders turn out to fire up the crowds and all manner of fast food is sold, along with $5 tickets to get in.
Games are lunchroom, hallway, and even the occasional class time discussion. In other words, varsity sports are very much part of the fabric of the school and everybody knows about them. To get on a varsity team is a big deal. Cultures for each sport evolve each year. Everyone knows the "Lax boys," the "soccer players," the "football players," and the swimmers. Everyone knows how the various teams are doing, and even if a student is not a player on a team, it's often school yard conversation about what happened at the last game, who beats who, and what players are the play makers. To be on a varsity team in high school means a certain amount of celebrity.
Youth sports in high school is meant to be "an extension of the classroom" with a focus on developing "the whole child." In our area, this is made clear through pre-gam announcements before every match. Have a listen to this:
Listen to this opening announcement from earlier this week.
Challenges Faced By High Schools
Out of the gate, I have to admit that although I coach and parent kids of High School age, I am not a High School teacher or coach and I am not privy to the internal politics and budget constraints of high schools in general. I have some very specific experience that I am extrapolating to a bigger picture. My experience as the coach of high school players, as a father of high school students, as the host of this show who reads and listens to feedback from listeners, and the weekly reading I've done on the subject (found in the show notes for every episode) informs my opinion. My opinion doesn't represent every situation. Your situation may be different from what I describe here. These issues are in no particular order:
I spoke with athletic directors, coaches, and teachers from several schools. They are unanimous about the fact that there are not enough people around who are willing to coach. At least not around here.
"We're lucky to get anyone to take the job. It pays $15/hour. It takes up a lot of time. And it's a thankless job that comes with a lot of parent hassles." said one person who I spoke with two weeks ago. I heard similar comments from several different people in the last two weeks. I got a sense from those discussions that "we'll take anybody. "
I want to be clear about something. I'm not saying that if somebody steps up and takes a job that no one else wants, that the person who stepped up is somehow lesser quality than the person who wins a job that has stiff competition. I'm a fan of taking on jobs that nobody else wants. For the right person, these kinds of jobs are pure opportunity gold. When a hard working, creative, visionary type person steps up and takes on a job that nobody else wants, they often have an opportunity to turn it into whatever they want. The right kind of person can break paradigms, overhaul an antiquated system, bring value beyond anyone's imagination...
However, when someone takes the job to avoid doing another job, just because they need the $15/hr, because they're not qualified to do anything else, because they don't want to go home to their spouse at night, or to act as a placeholder until someone better comes along, kids aren't going to get a lot out of the experience.
Teachers Get Priority
Giving teacher's priority might seem to make sense to some, but consider this: coaching done right takes an investment: reading, courses, licenses, diplomas, in-person and online training, and networking with other coaches are just a few of the activities coaches need to do in order to understand how to be effective in a kinetic learning environment.
Communication skills should already be part of most teacher's tool box, but communicating with teenagers on a sports field is a different thing than communicating in a classroom. I'm not going to claim to know which is harder, but I will claim that it takes practice, mental and time investment, and often money to get either style right.
Deep diving into athlete-specific subjects like the Female Athlete Triad are not required in the course of classroom setting instruction, but can have a profound impact on athletes in a kinetic environment. In my region, coaches are required to take a Fundamentals of Coaching course online, and an online course on recognizing and managing concussions. That's pretty much it. Fundamentals through NFHS takes about 20 minutes to complete. Concussions fundamentals about 45 minutes. 65 minutes of online training and some schools accept that as coach material. On the plus side, most varsity environments I've seen so far come with an Athletic Trainer.
I live in an area populated by educated coaches. They hold high level licenses, or diplomas, accreditations or certifications. They've invested time and money to understand what they are doing in a kinetic learning environment. I know few, however, who are willing to work for a $15/hour rate, to put up with the education system bureaucracy, or put up with sideline behavior and game strategies typically seen in a high school setting.
Time is Short
Consider the fact that coaches in the Fall get about 3 days to conduct tryouts. They do these tryouts in the beginning of the school year or a few weeks before the school years starts. In three days, they need to evaluate whoever is willing to show up, decide who are the best players they can find, and get them to commit. The kids who show up had better have some background in soccer, because soccer players are not made over night. The process of developing real talent in a game like soccer is one that starts years before.
I'm not saying that all high school soccer players need to show up as best-in-class players having started playing at 3-years-old, can juggle 1,000 times, and know their position on the field. I am suggesting that in an optimistic scenario, 3 weeks of conditioning and team practices are not going to make a team. I've been training the same kids for many seasons and some of them are only now getting the concepts they need to be effective on the field. Time is not on the side of a high school coach.
A lot of times coaches will choose those they feel will be the most coachable. I would likely do the same thing. But understanding who needs what is a season(s)-long process. It's virtually impossible to know where everyone should play or what their real talents and characteristics are after observing for such short periods of time.
The Tide Floats All Boats - or Grounds Them
The "water level" or depth of understanding and experience with the game is set by the environment. If the majority of "coaches" are self selected from teacher pools, have 65 minutes of formal coaching education and maybe a few seasons under their belts. If the majority of players have had three weeks of training and conditioning before their first game, the game itself can be a simplified version of what soccer can be under better development conditions.
If we only have time to teach one thing, then everyone shows up hopefully knowing that one thing. The complexities of bending runs, time management, weather, energy management, sports psychology, running physiology, etc... don't look for them.
The game I've seen on the varsity field is a very physical game. It's simple and direct. I sometimes refer to some of the soccer I've seen as "thug ball." It's full of contact, power kicks when a light touch would do, an an emphasis on basic physicality - outrunning or overpowering the opponent vs having a superior strategy and technique.
If US Soccer's Development Academy requires a minimum of a USSF B license for all of their coaches, and high schools require a minimum of 65 minutes or online training, what is a high school coach - no mater what their personal level of training and experience - to do? If a coach takes a technically superior, but less physical team into a match where they are likely to get trucked by a linebacker who's cross training from American football through soccer in his off season, is that smart? Some coaches default to the kinds of players they know will be able to handle the physicality of a series of matches against less technically proficient teams.
Playing on Multiple Teams
A word about players who play on multiple teams. I have kids to play for their varsity or JV teams AND play on my team. I like to think they get more of a development experience when they play on my team, but as coaches we need to be careful here. Overuse injuries can happen a lot easier in situations where kids are playing on more than one team. I do not have my two-team kids run a lot, for example. I have them use the time the rest of the team is working on running to stretch.
The other thing to watch for is scrambling their training. I watch other training and games if/when I can. I also like to talk with the other coach to find out what, if anything, they are working on, so I don't undo the work that the other coach is doing. If the other coach is training a high school player to be a defender, and I have them working on a wing or up top when they are with me, it can confuse the player. Remember, at the high school level, players are beginning to specialize. Every position has a "job description" and a set of skill and qualities that players deep dive into. If I'm training one thing and the other coach is training something different, I believe the player suffers. I usually relax my agenda to bolster the agenda of the other coach in these situations. But my club is more of a support club than it is the main show in these situations.
I would also keep an eye out of commitment. One time two years ago, a player of mine who just made his JV team showed up to my practice. Normally, that's a good thing, but I knew his JV team had a game that day at the same time as my practice. "What are you doing here?" I asked. "Don't you have a game today?"
"I do." he said. "But the coach is terrible and I'm not learning anything over there. I thought I'd have a better experience if I came here."
I used that opportunity to talk about the team mates he left behind, about the importance of following through on commitments, and about the example he was setting for others to just leave a game and go somewhere else. It turned into a great session for life lessons, and that player got the message.
Varsity is not a Bad Thing
I don't want to leave this episode with you thinking that I'm throwing mud at Varsity soccer or advising you to avoid the varsity experience. There is a lot of value to kids of this age to be able to walk down the hallway of their school and be asked about the game last night by peers. There is a lot of value in supporting school pride, in promoting the game at the high school level, and in some of the coaching provided at some high schools. I know several high school coaches who know what they are doing and provide a great training and development experience for the players in their care. I also know several coaches who know very little about the game and are actually scrambling young soccer player's minds. The point is that I don't see a standard or consistency. There are many things about the games I've been watching lately that I believe could be much better, but if I'm being dispassionate and keeping it real n the show, I have to admit that inconsistency isn't limited to high school fields. I have a good bit of inconsistency in my own programs - which are certainly not without fault.
I am a fan of the National Federation of High School Coaches (NFHS) educational program. I completed both National Accreditation and National Certification myself back in 2015. It was some of the best, most wholistic training I've been through.
That said, I'm also a fan of raising the bar on coaching standards. Development should still be individualized and emphasize elements of sportsmanship, teamwork, and respect. When I talk about raising the bar on coaching standards, I don't want you thinking of your high school coach and how terrible you think he or she is. I want the school system itself to value kinetic learning experiences. By "valuing" kinetic learning experiences, I mean truly respecting coaches as people who go above and beyond ordinary teaching credentials to understand and implement "whole child" development on and off the pitch.
I mean moving beyond recorded pre-game announcements and into the teacher's break room. I mean extending the development message into communication with parents, highlighting development achievements (beyond the scoreboard) in newsletters and in school announcements. I mean culture and parent engagement that helps everyone involved understand the true meaning of sport.
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