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Advice Apr 14, 2015

LeBolt: How to build a successful travel team without ever cutting a player

WendyLeBolt-HeaderSo, here’s an idea: what if, instead of coaches selecting the players, we let players select the coaches?

This is exactly what happened with Leesburg, Virginia-area coach Chas Sumser. Twice.  The first time, he succumbed when a father called to say his son wasn’t going to play again unless Chas agreed to coach. That assent lasted 10 years and 20 seasons with the Loudoun Vipers.

+READ: LeBolt: Real parents don’t need instructions

The second time, a 4th-grade neighbor came to visit Chas in the hospital where he was being treated for a life-threatening illness.  “When you’re better, Chas,” she said, “I don’t have a coach…”

That moment turned into 17 seasons with the Leesburg FC Avalanche.

Whoa! Twenty seasons with the boys and 17 seasons with the girls, and he didn’t have a kid on either team. What’s this coach’s secret?

ChasChas was kind enough to share some stories with me about his coaching and connecting with these kids. So much of what he told me reminded me of what’s healthy about youth soccer when it’s conscientiously directed with heart and commitment, patience and persistence.

In spite of what I hear so much about – parents and coaches behaving badly – there are people out there doing it really well. Their approach holds secrets to getting it right. Not their method, per se, but simple principles which underlie their practices that anyone can put into play.

In the next three posts, I’d like to share pieces of the wisdom I gleaned from Chas which, I think, set the stage for him to get it so right. In three words they would be: cuts, development and team.

Today’s wisdom is the value of a simple boundary: “I didn’t cut anyone, ever!”

It’s the only adamant statement Chas made over more than 90 minutes of storytelling. He coached both rec and travel, but the players he had, he had for keeps. No one told him he couldn’t make cuts, this was simply the general rule he followed.

So what happens when we make “no cuts” our boundary? That means coach must get creative, parents better get generous and players have to become more supportive. All of this in an effort to field the best team possible because competitive play depends on every kid playing his best.

I wonder if we have gotten this whole player selection thing upside down. As it is now we have this pyramid: players who are selected by coaches, who are selected by parents, who pay the coach and raise the players. A bit incestuous, wouldn’t you say? Certainly not a recipe for success.

+READ: LeBolt: Strategies to ace your first college soccer recruiting visit

What if, via no-cuts, we inverted the pyramid and let the players select the coaches?

11046652_10153038703694300_2704852575425877083_oWe have a system for this already in place: we call it house league. Coaches can’t select players, but players can request coaches. When kids are supported, have a positive experience, learn something and have fun with a team, they often request that coach the next season. The good coaches are inundated with requests. Presto: we have our pool of “select” coaches.

This is how Coach Sumser’s girls rec team became the Leesburg FC Avalanche. Wanting to offer the kids an opportunity to stay together, he formed a new (travel) team and, voluntarily, all his kids moved with him. He didn’t go recruiting players; they found him. His reputation preceded him, players followed, and they stuck around. In fact, 10 girls from the original roster were on the team in the final season.

So, really there are only two kinds of coaches: those who cut and those who don’t cut. What difference does it make?

Let’s imagine a league where there was a no-cut policy. Then, it would be the coaches we would be evaluating. The standouts would be the ones who are good at motivating players, fielding them well, subbing them successfully, cautioning, teaching, comforting or confronting as the situations (and individual player personalities) demand. Everything else being equal, the most creative and best prepared coach would come out on top. The kids would win every time.

This is the power of a dedicated, no-cut coach. Committed to what they have, they build success by making the best of what comes. They field their teams capably, strategically and without looking around. They don’t envy other teams for having “better” players. They don’t look to trade up, pare down or cut their losses. They are committed, completely. They take the boundaries they’ve been given (or in Chas’ case, have adopted for themselves) and create the game beautifully within them. That is the definition of ALL IN.

+READ: LeBolt: Should your kid be a specialist, or general practitioner?

The players would be the beneficiaries. In fact, the no-cuts environment may be the only place where a kid can discover how good he can be. Knowing the coach will stick with him opens the door for that kid to be completely himself and keep getting better at it.

This could be the new process of natural selection in youth sports. Let’s call it bottoms up: the inverted pyramid. Players select the coach, who is approved (and yes, background-checked) by the parents, who then happily bring their kids. Coaches left with sparse or empty rosters know, without anyone telling them, they should find another pastime. What we’re left with is a league of select coaches with healthy, high-achieving players.

Of course, the most effective coaches will be swarmed with players. They’ll need to pass on their wisdom, mentor their replacements and spread the wealth. Funny, their ability to do these things is what made them a good coach in the first place.

Next up:

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