An Accidental Experiment
I am navigating an inadvertant mess for which I am partially responsible, and it has to do with the fact I think the high school team I coach in the fall will be stronger after the players break up for a while.
The question for which I do not yet have an answer is this: Do teams fair better if you keep the group together year round or can individual growth pull a team along to a stronger place?
I am the Men’s Varsity Soccer Coach for a high school in western Wisconsin. We are a one-high-school town with one traveling soccer team per age group, starting at u10. The highest level we have traditionally been able to compete in club soccer is at the C2 or C3 levels. The conference where our high school team competes has schools that can field teams with premiere and academy-level players. We have won one conference game in six years.
During our post-season exit interviews this past fall, I told a few of the freshmen and sophomore-aged players that it would be worth considering trying out for a C1 team in a neighboring town. My opinion was based off of observations of their play during our season, the level of commitment those players have demonstrated (i.e. involvement in other sports, etc), and because I was of the opinion they were ready to take that step. It was not information I shared with every player because I do not believe every player was ready for that next level.
The biggest problem is I have disrupted the group as a whole. The entire situation, and partially thanks to the challenge of a parent who shared he wouldn’t have guided the group the way I have, makes me feel as though I need to reflect upon and better clarify my philosophies about building players and this particular high school program.
Understanding my philosophies begins with where I’m coming from. First of all, I’m not from here. Here is a small town known primarily for its stellar football team. The town’s philosophy, and often mimicking the successful football program, celebrates a cohesive approach to team building. There is a lot of support for the idea that successful sports programs can be (and should be) grown in town with year-round togetherness.
I do love the idea of that…on paper. In reality, however, it has never worked to advance the development of our high school soccer team. There have been a few factors responsible for that, but I would argue that one of the biggest challenges for soccer development in our town is tied directly to resources.
Both human and physical resources have been generally lacking for club-level soccer in our community. There are a handful of mediocre fields and less-than-a-handful of adults willing to coach kids how to play. Young parents are not traditionally soccer savvy and there are no highly qualified coaches, paid or otherwise, sitting around waiting for a team to coach.
The other factor in my perspective has to do with my experience. My last head coaching gig was as a college coach. I built teams by recruiting players with high levels of skill, character, and game sense. The boys I coach now are all still acquiring those things. I am always looking for ways to help teach the guys from where they are so they can improve. I know I cannot do it by myself and I am dependent upon off-season and club coaching to maintain momentum.
Soccer is a skill sport. Players need fields to play on and knowledgeable coaches to coach them, but also, at some point, the players need the right level of play to enhance confidence and challenge growth. An appropriate level of competition advances skill, creativity, and game awareness.
The in-house, community-team-build approach works with the right recipe of resources and passion. Traditionally, the town’s lukewarm soccer passion matched the minimal soccer resources and the average soccer talent. Now that there is a growing level of passion and skill-level in our community, the need for challenge and opportunity has increased. Unfortunately, the available resources have not kept pace.
Only Time Will Tell
For the high school soccer players in this town, keeping the group together to play in the off-season has not worked to create a competitive team. My guess is, improving five or six players to the next level will certainly enhance the team’s level of play in the fall, but the choice to encourage that is problematic. Most summers it is incredibly hard to scrounge up enough committed players to field even a C3-level high school team, but with players leaving for other opportunities, there are not enough players for an in-town team at all. This was NOT my intention, but I acknowledge it is a direct result of my encouragement for some players to seek C1 programming.
I continue to work with our youth board to create a solution for all the players stuck in no-man’s land, interested in playing this spring and summer. I still firmly believe every player on our team has the capacity to come in next fall improved from where he ended last season. It will always come down to what work a player is willing to do on his own, what pick-up games he is willing to find or organize, and what opportunities offered he is willing to pursue. It doesn’t have to look like the traditional youth sports model.
If I’ve learned anything in this it is that I need to be more transparent about offering opportunities. If players/families want to know how I think a player would fair in a higher-level tryout, I will offer my honest feedback. And then it will be up to the families to decide what off-season experiences they want to pursue.
The parent who challenged me to think harder about this decision illuminated a difficulty I may face when this group of players convenes next fall to compete together. Team building after they’ve been broken up for a while could be hard, but I think he knows what I do, that this is a great group of kids who care a lot about one another. I am supremely confident they will work hard to come together as a team, every chance they get, because that’s what good teams do.