I really need to find more time to read the blog posts over at US Youth Soccer. There can be some really good stuff over there, but also stuff that makes you scratch your head. Like this recent post from Susan Boyd about free skills camps:

Lately I’ve been seeing a number of clubs advertising spring skill camps for U-9 and U-10 players. These camps have no fees attached, are open to any child in the correct age range, and don’t require a reservation. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going on – these are camouflaged tryouts for kids too young for any select program. Clubs know that if they can snag potential players when they are still learning cursive writing they may be able to snag and retain the next Landon Donovan or Abby Wambach. Anxious for little Molly or Mikey to be discovered, parents have no problem bringing their children to these camps. It’s either a win-win or win-lose situation with the clubs always winning.

While this certainly may be true in some cases, as someone who runs one of these clinics, this characterization annoyed me.

A little background first. Our local soccer league has around 1100 players each year. About 200 of them play on travel teams, with the rest playing in Recreation (or our TopSoccer program for special needs children) Our league is only 8 years old and given the #’s we had – all of our Recreation teams are coed. For girls especially, that has pros and cons, which I’ll touch on in a separate post. Almost since our inception, we’ve had 60% boys and 40% girls at all age levels, +/- a couple percent. Except when it came to travel. Suddenly we had a ratio of 75% boys to 25% girls. Part of that may have been that we had enough boys to field teams at most age levels, but not girls. My ’96 Girls team was sort of a fluke and for a while we had no true age ’95 or ’97 girls travel team. Only now as kids ‘grow up’ in our program are we seeing more players and teams. But overall, we noticed that girls just weren’t trying out for the travel teams. The boys were leaving Rec in large numbers for travel at U10/U11, but not the girls. Suddenly the Rec games that used to be dominated by stronger boys were seeing stronger girls make the plays. It was puzzling.

Now many clubs get accused of pushing their travel programs for the $$$. In programs where coaches are paid, that very well may be true. But in our league, our coaches are ALL volunteers. We pay an outside soccer academy to ‘train’ our travel teams once a week. This ‘independent contractor’ setup works very well as it keeps things in check in terms of what we pay for our training and it provides a level of abstraction so those setting the training payments are not those receiving them. For us, we just want to field competitive travel teams so kids with solid skills can play in a suitable environment. This not only helps them, but also avoids situations where older Rec games are dominated by a few talented players.

So for us, the puzzle was – why aren’t girls trying out for travel? We found a few interesting things:

  1. Because the girls grow up playing on coed teams, their parents and coaches subconsciously compare them to ALL of their peers, including the boys. So girls who may show a strong potential will actually have parents saying “she’s not good enough for travel” when she’d likely be one of the top players.
  2. Girls have a LOT of other activities available to them that go year round (dance, gymnastics, cheer) and these programs are VERY strict. You miss practices, you don’t compete and there are sometimes even fines for parents if you miss too many practices or decide to quit to play another sport. Crazy Stuff.
  3. Most people think travel soccer means jetting around the country. The myths that abound about travel soccer still amaze me. When I tell parents that at younger ages, travel programs are basically Rec (practice twice a week, play a game on the weekend) except the practices are 30 minutes longer and 4-5 matches are at most 60-90 minutes away, they’re shocked.
  4. The girls don’t want to leave their existing teams – it’s a comfort zone. This is a HUGE deal.

Now don’t get me wrong. If a child is having fun playing soccer in Rec and is comfortable. Great. But all too often we heard from older girls who regretted not having tried out for a travel team when they were younger. So some of our league officers and girl’s travel coaches tried to figure out ways to give younger girls a chance to explore new opportunities, learn new skills, and possibly get comfortable with the idea of playing travel. The result was a program called ‘Kick it Like A Girl’. Every Sunday afternoon, a few of our experienced coaches would hold a free 90 minute session for any U8-U10 age girl to learn some soccer skills and play scrimmages with just girls. In our coed league, this was a new experience. The goal was NOT to recruit girls like Susan describes, but just to give them additional learning opportunities. If the clinics helped the girls get more comfortable with the idea of playing on an all girls travel team – great. We DON’T specifically recruit anyone at these clinics and they are open to all. As I’ll touch on in a separate post, the MAIN reason for this clinic was to give the girls more ball touches, something they were lacking in coed.

So while I’m sure some big clubs sponsor these clinics and camps as recruiting tools, not all of them are doing it for selfish reasons. Some of us are just trying to provide players with a way to get past some of the fears they have about ‘the next level’ and if not, a chance to improve their skills. Some of us in youth soccer do this because we love kids and love the beautiful game. We try to do what we believe is best for the kids when it comes to soccer. So being lumped in with the darker forces in youth soccer touches a nerve:

Be wary of coaches courting your child at age eight or nine. They may well be a wolf looking to devour Red Riding Hood. Take their flattery with a grain of salt. Come watch some practices over the course of the next couple weeks to see if the coaches have a Mr. Hyde personality when the clinics are over or continue to be patient and nurturing with these young players. Talk to other parents, particularly parents of older players, to get their opinion of the club once players hit the select stage. And most importantly listen to your child. If he or she is unhappy, then prestige and winning are empty gifts. Soccer should never cease to be fun.

I’m not the big bad wolf. But he’s out there in youth soccer and Susan’s advice is VERY good about doing your research. But like many things you see coming from state and national soccer associations, the assumption seems to be that we’re all doing bad things. It’s all or nothing. In articles such as these it would be nice to see the positive side of a ‘new concept’ presented along with warnings about the possible negatives.