What would you do to overhaul your national player development pathway if finance was not an issue? Founder of Changing the Game Project, John O’Sullivan discusses the financial position of US Soccer after it was revealed they had $100 million in the bank.
What would you do with $100 million to improve the sport you love?
It’s kind of a magic wand question, isn’t it? You have enough money to make a significant impact in a sport on every level, how do you spend it?
Recently in the news, it has been reported that the US Soccer Federation has $100 million in the bank. This is amazing news, and its leadership should be commended for managing in a fiscally sound and proactive manner. Yet they will be judged by what they do with that money. Hence my question. How should they use their tidy chunk of change?
Much of the discussion has been centered around building another national training center for elite players, similar to the one in Carson, CA that is currently shared with the LA Galaxy, and now the new Los Angeles football team (formerly the San Diego Chargers). US Soccer is getting the squeeze in Carson and has floated the idea of building a national training center similar to St. George’s Park in the UK or the Clairefontaine in France. National training centers are big, beautiful, sexy legacy projects. But is it the best for a country that already is awash in some of the world’s top sports facilities? Is it the way to best grow the game, by throwing more money at the 1% at the expense of the 99%? I say no. There are four better uses for this money.
1. Build Thousands of Sport Courts and Safe Places to Play
The US Soccer Foundation has been giving grants for the last couple years to organizations that are willing to build small sport courts rather than mega-turf facilities with full-size fields. This has proven an incredibly wise pathway as it gives access to facilities at a far greater cost per capita, as a field sometimes costs as little as $15,000. Building sport courts for under $50,000 is far better than building full-size turf fields for $1 million apiece, never mind the costs of acres of property to build upon. These fields can go into inner cities and throughout towns and suburbs without substantial space needed, and provide safe places for kids of all ages and abilities to play and enjoy the beautiful game.
Countries such as Iceland, Spain, and of course, Holland have invested in these types of facilities for years and the qualities of players that they are able to produce per capita are huge. They provide communities with safe places to play, and could also help bring back pick up games and free play opportunities for kids. “Think Small” by investing in more access to facilities and better use of them is one of the eight plays that the Aspen Institute Project Play initiative has recommended. US Soccer could go a long way to toward making this happen and growing grassroots soccer by giving some of this windfall to the US Soccer Foundation to expand its work.
2. Subsidize and increase access to coaching education
To be fair to US Soccer, they already do heavily subsidize the costs of high-end licenses and should be commended for that. According to this excellent article by Will Parchman, though, we could still do more when compared to the rest of the world. The more qualified coaches that we can produce in the United States, the better off our players will be. The USSF needs to continue or perhaps even increase subsidies towards higher end licensing. More importantly, they need a huge investment in opportunities for grassroots coaches. We have such a need for more online education, not just in tactics and techniques, but on how to communicate with, motivate and inspire children. We need to teach all our coaches the soft skills of coaching and relationship building, especially at the youngest levels. Most of this can now be done online, so the costs are minimal once courses are developed.
We also need more female coaches as well. According to Nicole LaVoi from the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, when she asks female coaches for suggestions on how to get more women involved in coaching, the top answer is “all-female coaching clinics.” It’s time to stop pretending that coaching license courses with thirty men and two women are OK. Let’s create coaching education environments where more female coaches are comfortable participating.
The numbers are staggering when you look at the dropout rate between players who are coached by a trained coach (5% dropout rate) and players who are not (26%). The numbers are also eye-opening when you compare the retention rate in youth soccer from age 9 to 14 (61%) as compared to USA Hockey (91%). USA Hockey clubs using their athlete development model and certifying all coaches retain nearly 50% more players than soccer clubs do!
According to Tom Farrey of the Aspen Institute, soccer signs up nearly 20% of all US six-year-olds but by age 12 that is down to 13%. We lose millions of kids before they ever have a trained coach. This must stop. US soccer could use some of this money to create both free and low-cost online and in person clinics where clubs can train their entry level coaches. They could even create courses to train the high-level coaches on how to teach entry level coaches the most important things.
A massive investment in coaching education and lowering the cost has been proven to be successful throughout the world. In Europe, for example, the three nations with the lowest cost coaching education are Spain, Germany, and Iceland. In Iceland, there is a UEFA qualified coach for every 500 citizens (compare that to England’s one per 10,000). Spain has over 12,000 UEFA A Licensed coaches. The most expensive country in Europe (and consistent underperformer)? You guessed it. It’s England (check out this in-depth article by Mark Lomas from 2013.)
3. Create a model club program that rewards organizations that do it right
Finally, US soccer should follow the lead of USA Hockey, which has recognized and rewarded model clubs throughout the United States. These ADM Model Programs are held up as an example to others in their community of programs that do it right. They give kids time off, they better utilize ice time, they focus on skills training, they retain players, and many other important aspects of the USA Hockey ADM program. These clubs are able to put their distinction on their website and all their materials for their community to see. Their coaches and parents can point to the fact that they are doing things based upon science, research, and what is best for kids. It allows them to do things the right way even when the youth hockey charlatans in their community are trying to sell kids on practices and developmental strategies that are not based in research, medical and coaching best practice. They can remove some of the fear parents feel when choosing a club for their kids.
I hear all the time from soccer clubs that are trying to do things the right way, but that their players are poached by neighboring clubs who promise the world. What if US soccer put its money where its mouth is and actually recognized the best organizations, not only US Developmental Academy programs, but community clubs that do things the right way. Ones that train all their coaches and get them licensed. Clubs that give kids time off throughout the year, and follow small sided games and substitution practices that ensure all kids get meaningful playing time. US Soccer could come up with a list of standards and recognize those who uphold them. They could give real teeth to the words “developmentally appropriate.”
To make this program meaningful, US soccer would need to reward those clubs. They could provide equipment, send staff coaches out to these clubs for additional coach training, give free access to online training, provide discounted licensing, and a host of other things that give tangible rewards to clubs. It would incentivize these clubs to continue doing things the right way and keep putting players first. It can’t just be a logo on the website; there have to be rewards for clubs to point to when attempting to attract and retain their players. Parents and players have lots of choices and US Soccer could improve the grassroots game by providing more guidance in this area, and recognize those who do it right much more publicly than they do now.
4. Invest in Referee Training and Retention
If we want our game to grow, we must develop and retain more referees. In some places over 70% of first-year referees do not come back for year two. I meet parents who never miss a game their child is officiating, for fear of his or her safety. Many kids never recoup their initial investment in the referee class and 2-3 uniforms because it is so hostile. We must find ways to get more referees in basic certification, find them mentors, and keep them coming back. This means holding organizations accountable for providing a safe environment to referee, assigning senior and junior referees, and helping/incentivizing local associations to identify the next generation of referees.
To conclude, I think the idea of another national training center is nice, and an important piece of the puzzle for our elite .01% of players on our national teams and high-level coach training. That being said, pouring all this money into a facility for such a small number of players and coaches, especially when we already have some of the best facilities in the entire world, seems to be a less optimal way to invest in the game.
Instead, let’s build more places to play for grassroots and inner city kids, the backbone of our game. Let’s give them safe places to show up and be a kid.
Let’s better educate all our coaches, and use technology to reach the moms and dads who are the gatekeepers of our sport, as well as better train our more experienced coaches.
Let’s start rewarding and recognizing clubs that are doing player and coach development better than others.
And finally, let’s train and retain enough officials to keep our game growing.
$100 million dollars is a tidy chunk of change, and we should be excited that our US Soccer leadership has built this great nest egg. Now they have a chance to create a legacy, not by building a monumental national training center, but through an investment in the players, coaches and local organizations that are the foundation of the game. That is how we can go about putting the United States among the world powers in men’s soccer, and keeping us there in the women’s game.