We had tons of great conversations this week during tryouts with families from just about every soccer club in the North Austin, Pflugerville, and Round Rock area. Most had nearly identical questions and almost every family with players being exposed to "Select" soccer for the first time seemed to be confused about how to compare their options.
It's often difficult to differentiate one club from another, especially when external sources are providing extremely biased information. Namely, a club director or coach who is effectively recruiting your child (and making big promises), a family friend that may be trying to convince you to join their team, or another soccer parent that may be misinformed about how it all works.
We wanted to help our families sort through the chaos and make the most informed decision possible to ensure your child ends up in the development environment that is best for them. The following are the 5 things we'd encourage all our advanced families to consider.
Your child will be spending 5+ hours per week with the other players on the team. Can you say that about anyone else in their social circle (outside of classmates)? Speaking of which, the mandated age group changes will make it a near certainty that your team will have a collection of players across different grades, which has both benefits and drawbacks.
You'll want to assess...Is the group a collection of kids that could become best friends? Are they positive influences that will build your child's confidence? Is it a diverse group of unique personalities and perspectives? It sure would stink to just be joining a group of training partners.
We'll discuss later how select soccer requires a substantially larger commitment than recreational soccer. You'll want to be sure you are joining a group of families that have comparable expectations (whatever those may be). They say it takes a village to raise a child, so be sure you choose your village wisely.
If you are a soccer crazy family, you'll be disappointed if you aren't surrounded by other families that share your passion. Likewise, if you are not a soccer crazy family, you'll be in for a very long season if you are surrounded by parents who only want to "talk shop". We aren't necessarily advocating for one or the other, but be aware that you'll be spending 5+ hours at practices and games each week too.
Beyond the Field
The peers and families supporting your child will also influence your child's "off the field" activities. Team events (perhaps celebrating a good game over dinner) are part of it, but so is everything from thousands "micro-interactions" that take place during the season to a full blown get together or sleepover. Even just gossiping about school during water breaks, kicking the ball around after practices or heading to the park with teammates after the game will influence the development of your child's social and emotional intelligence. It can be hard to tell during a short tryout, so be sure to ask other parents on the team about what the culture is like beyond the field.
Any good director and coaching staff should ensure your child ends up playing against the appropriate competition. But you should consider more than the kids wearing another jersey.
As you move to increasingly competitive teams, odds are that you'll be facing increasingly competitive parents. While there are definitely benefits to exposing your child to competitive situations, you'll want to be mindful of where your family draws the line so the environment doesn't become one that you'd consider toxic.
WBSA and most other clubs have a strict "zero tolerance" policy. Yet, it's impossible to control the behavior of opposing parents - or even the parents on your team for that matter. Negative comments directed towards referees, players, coaches and other parents can unfortunately become a regular occurrence if folks lose perspective.
While there are plenty of capable recreational coaches that are quite knowledgable about soccer, the traditional model is a volunteer who has likely never played or coached and is often learning on the fly. On the contrary, most select programs are comprised of paid directors and coaches that lead teams based on a standard curriculum unique to their club.
US Soccer offers certifications that start with a basic "F" license (online training) all the way up to an "A" license, which would years to earn. While this can be an excellent proxy and is experience that coaches rightfully tout, they are not the only indication of someone's soccer knowledge.
Not all "C" license coaches are created equal for example, and you don't necessarily need extensive playing experience to move up the certification scale. Likewise, you may have an exceptional coach that simply has no desire to pursue formal certification for whatever reason. That's why the following factors are also very important to keep in mind.
"Those who can, do; those who can't, teach."
Okay, so that's not entirely fair. Just as a coach could theoretically earn a "B" license without ever playing a minute of soccer, there are plenty of professional soccer players who would be terrible instructors. That said, it's probably better to lean towards someone with extensive playing experience if you want your kid to get proper technical instruction.
"I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand."
You'd ideally have a coach who has mastered the most basic fundamentals as well as advanced individual and team concepts. Not only will they ensure your child "hears" the right things, but they can demonstrate to help you child "see" the right mechanics. Finally, a coach with playing experience can help your child "do" a given activity the right way.
Not everyone can play Premier League or World Cup soccer. However, a coach with college or high school varsity playing experience is great. Competing in state and regional championships at the club level or participating in the Olympic Development Program (ODP) during their youth playing days is also a good indicator of a successful playing career.
Of course, having a coach that is physically fit, modeling healthy behaviors, and still capable of playing alongside the kids during practice sessions also fosters a fun environment.
A fancy license, tons of playing experience, and strong instructional skills don't mean jack if a coach isn't good with kids. This is arguably the single most important factor when considering someone that is responsible for leading 10-18+ young men and women. Perhaps even more so at the younger ages, but obviously still important for the older age groups too.
I don't pretend to be a child development expert, but kids obviously have different needs at different stages. The social dynamics are also going to be very different between boys and girls teams. You may also have a team that requires more praise and positive reinforcement than a team in need of more discipline and constructive feedback. At that's just at the team-wide level.
Ideally you'd find a coach that is not only an expert at balancing these unique team dynamics, but someone with strong "individualization" skills. The coaching style that will bring out the best in your child is likely very different than the style that brings out the best in a teammate. The best coaches are those who are able to be 10-18 different coaches for the 10-18 different personalities on their team.
A lot of established clubs in the North Austin, Pflugerville and Round Rock areas take pride in the high school or college stars their programs have produced (and rightfully so). Parents understandably expect to see technical growth when you are shelling out that kind of money for an advanced soccer environment. Even if your child isn't the next Messi or Mia Hamm, one of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of the game should be mastering new challenges and becoming proficient at the craft. It's the same as learning an instrument or a second language.
That being said, team sports provide a much larger platform for the development of young leaders through valuable life lessons. It's important to find a coach that can do more than teach players to win and lose gracefully (thought that's a great start). Working through differences with teammates, fostering collaboration and creative thinking, responding to adversity, emerging as a role model for peers, and seeking success through hard work are all lessons you hear athletes credit to team sports.
So seek out a coach that takes as much pride in the off-the-field successes of their players as their development as a soccer player. Find the club that takes pride in developing top students, servant leaders, creative thinkers and persistent dreamers. You want someone that coach more than just soccer.
Legendary coach John Wooden made his 4 laws of learning famous:
"The four laws of learning are explanation, demonstration, imitation and repetition. The goal is to create a correct habit that can be produced instinctively under great pressure. To make sure this goal was achieved, I create eight laws of learning — namely explanation, demonstration, imitation, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, and repetition."
In other words, you want to find an environment where your child is getting tons of touches on the ball every practice session. They need sufficient playing time in small-sided games and scrimmages. They don't need to be standing in lines. The can't be neglected of 1v1 instruction because coaches are stretched to thin. They shouldn't be riding the bench for a team that prioritizes winning over player development.
Don't let the allure of being on the "best" team or with the "best" coach reduce repetitions.
As the name implies, Select Soccer means that players are "selected" to their respective teams. Long gone are the days of registrars pursuing balanced rosters to ensure parity. Teams are formed based on skill and what's best for the club. You may have your request to be rostered with family friends approved initially, but that's subject to change. The harsh reality is that your child can be "unselected" just as quickly as they were "selected" to a given team.
In addition to thinking about their immediate needs, parents should find a development environment that allows their child to be excited about soccer for as long as they want to play. You should ask directors and coaches about the development plan for the players at your child's age group.
What happens when rosters increase from 4v4 (U6-U8) to 7v7 (U9-U10) to 9v9 (U11-U12) and eventually 11v11 (U13+)? What happens if an influx of new players tryout next season? What happens if your child either excels or falls behind peers on their team?
The initial sales pitch may sound sweet the night after your child rocks a tryout. Dig a little deeper to make sure the long term strategy for all those players (NOT the team) is sound as well. Coaches will make sure their TEAMS are just fine from season to season, but will the PLAYERS (which should be the priority) all be okay too?
Values & Vision
Youth soccer is changing drastically and America's obsession with sports is only growing. Sadly (and illegally) recruiting is also happening at increasingly younger ages. It seems any solid recreational team has an opposing club's director circling games like a buzzard, following families to the parking lot after games to "inform" them about Select options within their club.
We all want our kids to reach their full potential and it's understandable that parents will search far and wide for the best opportunities for their children. It's validation of your child's hard work, dedication and progress when they are presented with advanced playing opportunities. Both players and their families SHOULD feel immense pride when they navigate an intimidating tryout process and earn a spot on the team. What a great feeling and a great way for a young player to experience the rewards of hard work.
Any club worth considering will want (and empower) families to make the most informed decision possible. Timely decisions are certain important out of respect for other players trying out, but being pressured to make a rushed decision should raise some red flags. A truly great club will realize that THEY are trying out for you just as much as YOU are trying out for them. You should be also very cautious with any club that either a) acts like your kid is dispensable because their spot is so sought after, or b) acts desperate to get your child on the team because they need numbers.
You should do your homework and capture feedback from other families. If you are only hearing the good stories, you haven't talked to enough families in that club. Find parents that can tell you all the stuff they love about their club, as well as the areas for improvement. Heck, any strong leadership team will gladly be very candid about their own club's shortcomings and opportunities for growth. If they are only pumping sunshine and rainbows, be worried about all the future (uncomfortable but necessary) interactions regarding your child's development they will also mishandle.
Finally, while most if not all clubs are 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations, don't let that fool you. If you are paying big time money for Select soccer, there are people making big time paychecks (well, relative to clubs that are entirely volunteer driven). And just like with any job (because it is a job for those coaches and directors), with big time paychecks there comes big time expectations. And what's the most tangible metric families will (mistakenly) use to determine if expectations are being met? You got it - wins and losses. Which brings us back full circle to a something OTHER than total player development being the top priority.
So think through a club's guiding principles, the coaches' philosophy, and the overall mission and vision before making your choice.
Registration Fees, etc.
We have a whole blog post dedicated to the Economics of Soccer in the North Austin, Pflugerville and Round Rock Area. It's a great read for anyone seeking high level data on the typical costs associated with Select soccer. We won't repeat that information here, other than to say you'll be paying for a lot more than just registration fees. Expensive uniform kits, backpacks and warmups, "commitment" fees, volunteer buy-out fees, and tournament travel and entry fees are also typical.
Families should also think through any hidden costs they might incur during the season. Rushing kids to practice after work can be a challenge. Getting creative with homework routines, family dinners and bedtime can be tricky too. Planning for tournaments and offseason training will also likely be an expectation.
We sacrifice for our kids and juggle these things as parents all the time, so it's nothing new. Just be sure the costs of competitive soccer, both financially and otherwise, are not higher than what your family is comfortable spending. We each have a different "budget" based on our family dynamics, so find the right balance (field proximity, offseason expectations, registration fees, etc.) to meet your needs.
Keep in mind that everything mentioned above can, and most likely will, change at some point. Families will come and go, coaches will be asked to change teams, players will be moved "up" or "down" between competition levels, registration fees will be increased, and your child's interests and goals will inevitably evolve with time.
Knowing that things will get shaken up, it's important to understand what would cause the most disruption for your family. Priorities will obviously be different from family to family. Price may be the most important factor for some, while others are most concerned about finding a great coach. Playing time and immediate development opportunities might be what your child wants the most even if that means they are playing on a different team than their best friends.
Where will you find the most stability for the things your family cares about the most? Where will prices stay affordable if you are on a tight budget? Who will keep teams relatively constant if you've found a great group of friends? Is there a credible volunteer coach that is sure to be around next season because their child's on the team? Which has a clear (non-political) path for moving to more advanced teams if that's your child's goal?