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Youth Boys Apr 30, 2010

High school versus club soccer; ten mistakes coaches make

The annual tug-of-war between club and high school soccer in many states has been around since the first days “travel” club soccer was invented and became a year-round option for players. Since then, it only seems to be getting worse, especially as more “showcase” travel events and elite leagues crop up and place additional demands on the upper-echelon players.

It’s not just the elite players either. Just about all players good enough to make their Varsity teams also play for clubs, and are obligated to do everything they can to attend tournaments with at least some promise of college exposure. And of course, ODP doesn’t sit idle for anyone either.

The result for many players is they play nearly seven days a week for at least three months straight each high school season – on top of their already nearly year-round, four or five days a week club schedule.

The players can hardly be blamed for wanting to play as much as they can. After all, it is the world’s most popular sport, and the most successful players in the world all have stories about having played sun up to sun down when they were young.

But those players never had to deal with the over-scheduled, win-at-all-costs, and uniquely American world of organized soccer. And in that world – this world – it sometimes seems like no one wants to “give in” for the benefit of the players’ health and/or long-term goals, and by ‘no one’ I mean coaches with big egos.

Even where you find a coach doing the right thing for one player’s team, the odds are not very good for any player to have a coach like that on both “sides” of the high school vs club conflict that “get it”.

The result? Pretty much every player ends up paying the price at some point for the ego of an adult who is supposed to be putting the players first, but can’t stop treating their role as a YOUTH coach as if they’re really only one or two career steps away from coaching in the Champions League.

The coaches that “get it”, are the ones who accept the fact that their players are playing for two teams, and find a way to manage the conflicts to the best of their ability given the situation they’re given – always erring on the side of the players’ health and/or long-term goals.

On the other side are the coaches who do not “get it”. They pretend their players only play for them, run their players as hard as they can, and talk about how other coaches don’t know what they’re doing. All the while, they are ignoring reality and what’s best for the young athletes they are responsible for.

Why they do this is more of a mystery, but I’m sure the excuse of needing to win is used quite a bit. They’ll rarely admit that sometimes less is more – like running less at practices when kids are already playing seven days a week – can actually improve the chances of winning in games.

This doesn’t mean the “ego coach” or the “get it” coaches in either case aren’t good at the three things most people use to measure whether or not a coach is “good”. Coaches with huge egos who forget to put the players first come in all shapes, sizes, and experiences. They may still run a world-class training session, teach technical or tactical skills like nobody’s business, or have the tactical prowess to out-coach someone else in a game.

Or not.

Parents aren’t immune to fault here either, but it’s hard to blame them when their kids are the ones saying they want to play, or when they don’t understand how to recognize a good or bad coach.

Whether you’re a coach or a parent, below are ten things to think about (because everyone loves lists). These are areas where I see the most mistakes in helping over-worked players get through the season healthy.

Ten Ways to Better Manage High School v Club Soccer Conflicts

1.    Unnecessary Running
The kids are playing every day – they’re already in shape. You don’t need them to run sprints to help win the next game, or worse – threaten them with running if they don’t win. You need them to be rested, so they have the energy to perform when it counts. If you‘re going to “run” them at all, use a ball.

2.    Shorter Practices

If the pros can do what they need to do in 90-minutes, so can you. Anything more than 90 minutes means you’re not efficient enough in progressing through your practice plan (usually because there is no plan). That extra 30 minutes (or more??) saved from the more typical 2-hour sessions is valuable time players could be using for homework among other things.

3.    Manage Playing Time
Every coach likes their best players on the field, but you need to manage their minutes. A two goal lead in the second half should be more than enough cushion for a good coach to give their best players a rest. And so is being down three goals against a team that is clearly superior. The minutes add up, and tired legs equal more chance to get injured.

4.    Injury Recovery

We all have players who will chew their own foot off to stay in the game. We also all have players who think a slight twinge is an ambulance-requiring injury. The trick is knowing your players, and knowing when it’s okay to get them back in the game. But the last thing you should do is ignore a trainers’ requests, or discourage your players from seeing a doctor because you’re worried the doctor will only tell them to stay out of the game longer.

5.    Team Tactics
I rarely see a team that doesn’t chase the game full speed, the whole way to the opposing keeper, every time they don’t have the ball. This can be effective for winning when you have unlimited subs and/or an opponent who turns the ball over constantly in their own end. But it’s tremendously taxing on the players, and also creates enormous gaps in your team shape if not done properly. A lot of times it’s much better to let the teams come to you while you rest, letting their backs come up to midfield to create space behind them. Then, when you do get behind them, your forwards will have the energy to win the race and put the ball in the net.

6.    Too Many Rules
Making a lot of rules about what players have to attend, or what they’re allowed to do often places players in a position where you force them to lie to you. You can’t be a high school coach and say “you guys are too tired, no one is allowed to play club this weekend”, and expect your players to skip their state cup games. You also can’t be a club coach and say “This practice is 100% mandatory”, because odds are some players have a high school game, or have 4 hours of home work due the next day after spending the last three days on a field, on a bus, or in a car. In the end, your credibility as a coach is undermined more by your inability to actually enforce your punishments – just so you can have 11 players on the field – than it is by being flexible with your players’ unique life situations at the risk of some players feeling like you’re playing favorites.

7.    Over-scheduled

Team building is a must. Watching film is helpful. Accepting a last minute weekend scrimmage invitation on a turf field when your league game is rained out is too good to pass up. And fundraising is a necessary evil. But think twice about too many pasta dinners, group outings, meetings, or community service. These are all great things, but the kids already have no extra time. Coaches who try to dominate their players’ schedules are usually just creating busy work so the can feel like they’re in control. During the high school season, do what you NEED to do away from the practice field, not what you WANT to do.

8.    Rest and Recovery
Some scenarios to think about.

  • Next time your fields are closed due to rain, cancel practice.
  • Your last high school game was Friday, and your next is Wednesday, so on Monday you plan to work the team hard. But you forgot most kids just played two club games over the weekend.
  • Club teams that have weekday practices know their players just came from at least a 90-minute practice at high school, but you still work them hard and yell about doing more.

Any of these sound familiar? Players HAVE to rest and recover. (See above for ideas for resting) The recovery starts on the final whistle. After every game and practice, players should be static stretching their big muscles for several minutes. Their feet should be in the air so the blood circulates through the heart. And recent best practices from the Federation say you don’t need the “cool down run”, because they just got done running. The sooner the players get stretching, the less chance of the lactic acid building up and the sooner their muscles will start to heal.

9.    Nutrition
You wouldn’t put milk in a Ferrari as ask why the engine didn’t start. So why do so many coaches completely ignore proper athlete nutrition and hydration? There’s an entire industry surrounding sports nutrition, so I won’t go into too many details here, but if you’re not thinking about it and putting it into practice, you’re not doing everything you can to help your players – let alone win games. The cheat-sheet version: only eat what you can buy at Whole Foods and drink water till your pee is “light” in color (assuming you’re not on any medication or vitamins, which will change the color).

10.    Injury Prevention

Lots of what was discussed above helps with injury prevention. In fact, preventing injuries is pretty much the whole point of this article. The more you can prevent injuries, the more you’ll get out of your players. It’s that simple, yet one of the best ways to both prevent injuries AND win soccer games is completely ignored or misunderstood by so many coaches… Active Warm-ups have been common “best practice” knowledge for many years now, yet most teams I play against or see preparing for games – especially in high school – still have players in big circles doing static stretching before the game. This is a huge mistake. Same as nutrition, look it up and you’ll find many articles and books. The cheat-sheet version: Run to get the muscles warm, then stretch them “actively” in motions that will be used in the game.

These are all drawn from experiences, observations, classes, and stories shared with fellow coaches and industry professionals. I’m not perfect. I’m not always right. And, I’m probably missing some obvious points. But hopefully these will help everyone who reads them find a way to put the players’ well-being higher up on their list of priorities. The secret message to the “ego coaches” behind all of these suggestions is in the end, they’ll help players win.

Got any of your own tips? Use the comments section below and add them to the story.