The North Carolina Youth Soccer Association is considering the formation of a new ‘Academy’ division to go along with the existing Recreational, Challenge and Classic divisions. It is a significant addition to the state soccer organization and while it is nothing revolutionary, it will likely result in a contentious debate during this weekend’s Annual General Meeting.

I know things differ from state to state so for context, our Challenge programs are travel teams that stay within a regional area of the state while Classic is akin to what many states call ‘select’. These teams tend to travel farther and have the best players. Many larger youth soccer leagues already have academy programs. While specifics can vary, most follow a fairly standard format. Kids are not assigned to teams. Instead they are all grouped into a league ‘pool’. The kids train 2-3 times a week in large pool based skills sessions, not with a ‘team’. There are no rostered teams. Players play on teams that are formed based on criteria set by the academy director – usually based on skill, progress, or even random selection. Matches are played against teams from other area academies. No scores or standings are kept.

The main driver behind academies is the belief that kids in the 9-12 year old range don’t handle competition well and quit sports because of the over emphasis on winning. An article in TIME Magazine is often quoted where they found 73% of kids quit youth sports by age 13, often because they are no longer fun or there is too much pressure to win from coaches and parents. So is a quote from John Hackworth, coach of the U.S. U-17 national team:

”The emphasis on winning is a detriment to young players because it prevents us from developing technically proficient players. And we’re not giving them the ability to make decisions. ‘We want competition. They’ll always be competition and it’s not bad. The bad part is the emphasis on winning.”

So are Academies the answer? Should soccer associations start doing away with competitive teams for U10-U12 and not allow kids to ‘compete’ until they’re almost 13?

The proposal being brought to the NCYSA Board of Directors (disclaimer – I’m a league president and thus a member of the board) would establish a fourth soccer division called ‘Academy’. It would be a full division just like Rec or Challenge with all the administrative overhead to go with it, including a director, governing council (made up of the academy directors from each participating league), guidelines, and a ‘handbook’ (not written yet) which are the detailed rules governing play and administration of local divisions in each affiliated soccer league. Here are some highlights of the Academy Program organization:

  • Associations must apply to be ‘admitted’ by the Academy Council. You have to re-apply each year.
  • Each league must submit a curriculum which is submitted to the state for approval.
  • Each league appoints an Academy Director who must hold a National Youth License. In many smaller leagues this will probably be their Director of Coaching.
  • The program is limited to true U10 players only. No U9s.
  • All coaches/trainers that are part of the academy must hold a Youth II License.
  • All associations must create a Parent Education program.
  • Players are part of a ‘pool’. No fixed teams are formed.
  • Players train 2-3 times a week in large ‘pool-wide’ training sessions (everyone at once) – no team practices are held.
  • Matches are scheduled via state administered ‘scheduling meetings’, similar to Classic, between regional academy programs with teams made up from each league’s pool according to as yet defined criteria.
  • No scores or standings are kept. Players play a minimum of half a match (this suggests rosters of 10-12 players for 6v6 U10 which makes sense)
  • Leagues are encouraged not to send academy teams to bracket tournaments – only festivals.
  • Players are allowed to participate in an academy AND in other divisions (Rec, Challenge, Classic)
  • Players are evaluated twice a year with written reports given to the parents.

On the surface this seems simple enough and a reasonably good idea. The state is trying to organize an alternative training method for 9 year olds while reducing the need ‘to win’. Fair enough.

However, after reading this I did have some concerns and questions.

  • Why is it limited to just U10? A number of leagues have U9 development/academy programs meant to prepare kids for U10 Challenge. If this is meant to just provide an alternative style of soccer education, why not provide it for U9-U12?
  • Why are there such strict licensing requirements for a new program. I absolutely understand the desire to have the trainers and directors on the same page in terms of coaching philosophy, but for many associations, it will take more than one year to get everyone licensed.
  • Why isn’t there more information on how teams will be formed for matches. Will it be random? Skill based? (similar level kids are grouped) How likely is it that one league may form a team at random while another forms based on skill and the highly skilled team hammers the randomly formed team?
  • Why do leagues have to be ‘admitted’. If a league has a curriculum that meets the requirement of the state guidelines – what is the purpose of the approval step? If a league doesn’t change their approved curriculum in subsequent years, why the need to re-apply?
  • Why are the matches scheduled via scheduling meetings? It seems that something at this level would be better served by grouping academies based on regions, either via the existing scheduling leagues if they agreed to handle it OR via the new districts that are being formed (this could finally kickstart the district formation in some parts of the state)
  • Why is this much administrative overhead needed when a) many larger leagues already have academy programs and b) it is limited to just U10. It seems like overkill – though I expect this is the first step towards implementation for U9 or U10 up through U12. I don’t understand why they didn’t do it for U10 through U12 to start.
  • Will leagues that currently lack recreation programs be allowed to offer academy programs?
  • Why is the academy approval process different than the process used to admit leagues at all the other levels? Each league’s application for NCYSA membership at a given level must be approved by the Board of Directors. i.e. a Recreational only league must ‘apply’ and be approved by the board of directors to start a Challenge (Level II) or Classic (Level III) program. Yet for Academies, only the existing academies vote on new membership which is ripe for things to get very territorial (not in my back yard!)
  • Will Academy Council voting be ‘weighted’ with larger clubs having multiple votes or will it be one vote per league?
  • How will this impact an already overloaded referee system? Will Grade 9 referees be allowed? Will they even need to be certified?

Those are just the logistical concerns which probably could be addressed. However, anyone involved in youth soccer knows that politics are a BIG part of it, usually to the detriment of the sport. Politics are a fact of life in soccer since you have dozens of independent non-profit organizations trying to do what they feel is best, yet there is also the issue of ‘I can do it better than you’ or ‘I don’t want anyone else on my turf’. So, here are some concerns that I personally have and that I’ve heard from other folks.

Many of the larger leagues in North Carolina’s metropolitan areas already have academy programs. They will be able to meet the requirements quickly if they don’t already and join this new division. Most smaller leagues in rural or suburban areas will likely struggle to get everyone licensed in one year. The national youth course alone costs over $500, plus $25 or so for each coach to get Youth II. Not a huge deal over time, but within one year might present a challenge. Smaller associations also may not have a big enough player pool to sustain an academy program in addition to their other programs. SO expect the big leagues to join right away while the smaller leagues work to meet the requirements – thus applying for membership later, with the big leagues holding the approval votes.

This sets up the following scenario that has some people nervous. There has always been some tension between the larger leagues and smaller leagues in North Carolina. Our league experienced it firsthand when we applied for state affiliation. The membership committee recommended we not be allowed to offer a Challenge/Level II program because a nearby (within 30 miles) city league, who had a Challenge program, objected. We fought ahead anyway and during the meeting, our membership vote was broken up primarily along the divide between large city leagues (opposed us) and smaller rural leagues (supported us). This matters because the large city leagues get multiple ‘votes’ while smaller leagues (< 2000 players) get one vote. We got in by a 31-19 vote, however at least 9 of the 19 no votes came from three large leagues. Three leagues, nine votes. So you see how things can align. This is important.

So about the scenario. First, the Academy council, when it first forms, will be made up primarily of representatives from larger leagues and in NC, the council voting setup is similar. While it is not explicitly defined in the proposal, one would expect the Academy Council to grant the large leagues multiple votes. Now remember – leagues have to be ‘approved’ to form an academy program and that approval comes from the academy council (those already in) not the NCYSA Board of Directors. So you could conceivably have the larger clubs resisting the acceptance of smaller clubs wanting to form an academy program, arguing that any player within 30-45 minutes of the big city leagues should attend their academy instead (paying fees to their league, not the player’s local league).

The question is why would they do this? Well, this is where things get interesting. This proposal is seen by some as step one towards the elimination of Challenge (travel) level play for U10 through U12. Once the academy program is in place, composed primarily of academies run by larger leagues, there is the worry that Challenge will be eliminated for U10-U12 statewide. At that point the only remaining option for U10-U12 players wanting to play a higher level of soccer will be via an Academy program. However if it is hard for smaller leagues to sustain an Academy or get all the necessary licensing and approvals, then the players will go to the nearby city leagues. Once players reach U13 where they can play Challenge/Classic, it is unlikely they’ll return to their local league to play, instead opting to tryout with their academy league. Thus the larger leagues can get the best players for their travel teams, leaving the rest to play with their local club. While that was always an option before (players trying out for nearby league’s travel teams), this would institutionalize that a bit more. Eventually you could see smaller associations folding their travel programs as the best players stayed away and doing only recreational soccer while the metropolitan leagues continued their travel programs with talent from an extended geographical area. This could leave many mid level players wanting to play competitive soccer out in the cold. This could represent a significant shift in how soccer is handled in the state. The question is will it be good for the kids? What happens to the kids who don’t make a metro travel team and are part of a league whose travel program faltered due to a talent drain initiated by a scarcity of rural academy programs?

Now I’ll admit right up front that much of this is speculation and tinfoil hat stuff. However, having seen and read about how many new membership applications were handled, soccer can be very territorial. The above scenario or even part of it is not out of the realm of possibility. So what on the surface seems like a reasonable proposal, could also set the stage for a consolidation around the larger metropolitan leagues. Remember, they have weighted votes so the key to this, elimination of Challenge for U10-U12 is not out of the realm of possibility.

On the surface I think the academy concept is a good idea if it’s optional. I don’t think we are where it should be mandated in PLACE of competitive teams. Some kids thrive in an academy format and others in a competitive environment. I also can’t shake the feeling that we’re trying to address a problem indirectly. You hear the merits of festivals and academies trumpeted to eliminate ‘coaching to win’ because scores and standings aren’t kept. Instead of putting all these resources into a fourth type of soccer program, why don’t we address the root cause head on – bad coaching. If you have a coach who ‘coaches to win’, they’re going to coach to win regardless of the format. I’ve seen it in U6. Even Coach Hackworth, who is so often quoted when advocating the elimination of scores and standings, realizes that our kids may not be competitive enough. That’s reality. Wouldn’t the kids be better served if the state organizations strongly encourage or even require that leagues develop a comprehensive coaching and parent education program for ALL levels? It can be a struggle to get coaching classes scheduled locally – why don’t we work to strengthen the instructor pool? This would benefit ALL players, not just those who are in an Academy. We often see a 6 year old survey cited whenever we eliminate another facet of competition from youth soccer. Has anyone found that non-competitive setups turn out better players? Could you ever really determine if they did?

I’m not against the Academy idea as a method for teaching soccer. If a league wants to do it, great. But why setup the program to be so controlling from the top down? Why make the membership/approval process different than any other division?

While I think the effort and resources used in establishing an Academy program could be spent better elsewhere (strengthen coaching education), if we’re going to setup an Academy program, I think there are some changes that could be made to the proposal that would make it more acceptable to smaller leagues and less worrisome.

  • Loosen the licensing requirements a bit. Allow two years on an ongoing basis like they do with school teachers. You can coach in an academy while pursuing your Youth II license as long as you get it within two years.
  • Possibly subsidize the National Youth License course for leagues with less than a certain threshold of players. $500 doesn’t sound like a lot, but some clubs only have 300 kids and if they want to move to an Academy format, this may present a significant obstacle.
  • The academy council should not have the authority to approve or deny admission of leagues wanting to form an Academy division. Either use the same method as is used for Levels I through III (Board of Directors), or base membership on the league’s curriculum and program meeting the requirements laid out. Leagues can write their own rules for Rec, Challenge, and Classic, but they must fit into a set of limits and restrictions. I see no reason to do it differently for the Academy program.
  • Don’t require leagues to re-apply every year. This just makes more paperwork. If a league doesn’t change their curriculum, have them fill out a simple form affirming they’re continuing the program, their trainers all have the proper licenses or fall within the exemption time period, and that’s that.
  • Expand the concept to U9 through U12. It makes no sense to just do U10. Too many leagues will find the narrow focus results in too few players to make forming an Academy worthwhile.
  • Orient the program more as a ‘Rec Plus’ type of program and not an eventual replacement for Challenge.
  • Consider expanding the Recreational program to include Academies. Why have all the overhead for such a narrow group of players? Do we really need a completely separate governing body to handle academies?

Finally I think this proposal needs to be tabled until the mid year meeting. The league presidents were sent this proposal yesterday,  three days before the Annual General Meeting where it will be voted on. That is not enough time for them to discuss this with their own board members and really digest what the impacts are. Why wasn’t this sent out earlier? It came up in early December at the Challenge Council, so many Challenge leagues are only now beginning to really talk about it (our regional league discussed it earlier this week) Why the short notice?

I know this got long, but there is a lot at stake here. Competition is being tarred as something evil when, in fact, it’s the coaches and parents who ‘must win’ that are the problem. Taking the competition out of soccer will NOT solve this as a coach who wants to win will coach to win regardless if scores are kept. We also risk developing players who, when they reach U13, aren’t prepared for the pressure of competition. An argument can be made that players should be ‘eased’ into competition, something that can be done via proper coaching easier than via mandates. Why aren’t we creating programs that fix the root cause of the problem?

I’m sure many of you have thoughts on this, even if you live outside of North Carolina. Does your state have a similar mandate? How does it function. How successful is it?