The other day, I was sitting in a room full of Directors of Coaching across the state. We were taking part in a presentation by a representative from US Soccer. At one point, we got onto the topic of the recent age group changes, and a relentless onslaught of interrogation and damning of the changes ensued. While a few coaches seemed to have a grasp on how they would handle the changes at their organizations, most of them expressed frustration and worry over having to find a solution, claiming that no suggestions have been presented by US Soccer. Many coaches were concerned about parents becoming upset and players leaving their clubs for ones who could ensure that they play with their friends.
It’s understandable. There haven’t been any substantial solutions or ideas presented yet. So I’m providing some.
Everyone’s Solution is Different
It is important to recognize that every club is unique and has a different environment and different resources (which is why US Soccer can't provide an easy solution for everyone). Some clubs are large, others small. Some are located in small rural areas with minimal competition, others are in large metropolitan areas with hundreds of clubs nearby. Some clubs serve the most committed, high-performing players in the area, others serve beginners who may or may not choose soccer as their primary sport. It is important to first recognize the environment of our clubs and consider what the best solution is for us based on our membership, resources, and environment. There is not one blanket solution for everyone.
Communication is Key
First and foremost, it is crucial that clubs are open, honest, and clear with the parents in their organization. Poor, unclear, and vague communication is the cause for most problems at most clubs.
We must be open about the changes and what they mean. We must be understanding of parent concerns and take them into consideration. If we don’t know our plan of action yet, be honest about it, but reassure them that we will have a solution in time for the changes to take effect. After all, we have until 2017.
Parent Education is a Must
Most clubs fail at educating and consistently communicating with parents. If your club is one of them, start doing a better job now. Coaches should be providing multiple outlets to keep parents informed of best practices and how they can help their kids succeed.
If clubs start providing this service to parents now, they will establish trust and recognizable value. By providing exceptional value and going above and beyond expectations, clubs will build loyalty from parents. Since the changes do not go into effect until 2017, clubs can begin to solidify the foundation of the club-parent relationship now, to help better ensure retention later. Start educating parents immediately about how to define success (hint: it’s not winning, nor playing in the top flight of the league), that kids don’t really care about playing with friends – they just want to play, and what it takes to be a successful soccer player.
Remember how many coaches were concerned about losing players? The reality is that if our organizations are providing a great service, players and parents will want to stay. If clubs take the kids’ best interests at heart, provide excellent player development, and deliver exceptional value through parent education and communication, miscellaneous factors like winning and the “need” to play with friends become insignificant. Clubs who are doing the right things and acting honorably have nothing to worry about.
Everything Will Be Okay
In the grand scheme of things, the age group changes are nearly insignificant in making a difference in the success of our players. That comes down to how clubs, coaches, and parents develop the kids. Remember when the age groups used to be based on the calendar year and got switched to how they are now? Everyone freaked out then, and everything turned out okay. Also, for those of us who may not realize, youth hockey follows the calendar birth year, and they seem to be surviving.
The age group change puts us on the same schedule as the rest of the world, which is important in the big picture. We must remember that we are all small pieces to a much larger picture. Even though it may not seem like it, all of what we do in our own small communities makes an impact on soccer as a whole in the country – even if our kids do not take the sport “seriously” or will never play at a high level.
Implementing the Change
I will restate again: everyone’s solution will be different based on our unique club situation. Maybe one of these suggestions will be perfect for your club, maybe you will have to adapt one or use a variation. We have to be creative and think outside the box.
One of the biggest concerns is the transition into middle school and/or high school – some kids will be in a higher grade in school, which will leave the club team with half their players gone for part of the year. If we have enough kids to have multiple teams in an age group, simply have them work together and combine the Aug-Dec kids from the same age group for part of the year. This will also lead to better club unity and cohesion as the kids get older and inevitably get shifted from team to team.
If there are matches to be played and we have too many kids (e.g. 15 kids combined at U10) we can either have them play as two teams (the kids don’t really need, nor want many substitutes – they want to play), or rotate who gets rostered each game – all kids will have to sit out one or two games, but will play in the majority of them.
If we don’t have enough players for this, we can simply have the Aug-Dec kids train with the team a year younger. This will allow them to keep playing and getting better. If we want to get matches in, we can set up unofficial scrimmages with teams at a similar level and/or enter a tournament/competition at the older age group and have some of the players from the younger team play up in that competition.
And for the record, the above ideas apply to the oldest age group when half the team goes to college and half are left as seniors in high school… they can work with the year younger and/or the college players can still play at U19.
Changing Age Groups
If we “must” keep the kids together and/or want to keep the kids of the same school grade together, we can simply have them play up a year. Keep in mind, in order to have them compete at an appropriate level, we may have to have them play in the 3rd flight instead of the 1st, which is perfectly okay. Be careful with this option – we don’t want any physically late-developing kids playing with way too large of peers. They will struggle and could get hurt.
Making the Change
So at this moment, we have teams and players set a certain way. We’ve picked how we want to structure the teams with the new age groups and it’s going to jumble everything up. How do we make this a smooth transition? It depends on the structure of our clubs.
If we already partake in an “open tryout” style of allocating players to teams, this transition will be very easy. Simply have the players tryout for their new age group and make the teams.
If we have a smaller club or do not partake in an “open tryout,” take each set of teams individually, and selectively move the players based on what is appropriate for each of them. Communicate clearly and early with the coaches, players, and parents to keep everyone on the same page.
Start having players work together early. Take the age groups that will be combining with each other and have the players start getting to know each other long before the change happens. Have two teams occasionally practice together and mix up all the players. Get them used to each other and the idea of being part of a larger club, not just their team. This will make them (and the coaches and parents) more comfortable when it comes time to implement the changes.
In the end, life is all about the relationship of expectations and reality. If reality falls short of expectations, people are upset. If reality exceeds expectations, people are happy. We need to communicate with our club members early, honestly, and realistically. Tell them upfront what will happen, how it will happen, and why it will happen. We must not have surprises, and we must not make promises we can’t keep.
Remember, we are all here for the kids. All of this has nearly no effect on them. They just want to play soccer. Most of the stresses and worries we have do not even cross their minds (until we start expressing them to our kids and make them worry for no reason). As long as the players are doing their best, learning, and enjoying themselves, we are serving them well.