Let's get to the root of the problem!
There was been some discussion the last few days on a proposal to improve game day experience. We have had some good discussions on twitter and some good points have been made on the subject. This was initially brought up in the district I lived in a few years ago in 2013 and now in 2015 a pilot project may be approved for play in Spring 2016 by the Ontario Soccer Association. The proposal would see a player added if the goal difference is 4 goals. If the difference is 8 goals then they would play 2 players up and so on. If it goes down to 6 for example a player would be removed and if it goes below 3 then it would be even again. How did it get to this and does this really improve game day experience or does it provide a band aid approach to the real problem?"
I posed some questions and I think we can all agree with all the problems we face in the game and many of the short comings in the sport. Many shared their opinions and most were very similar.
I posed the question already but how did we get to a point where a game may be demoralizing to a child? That there is such a huge difference in calibre between two teams? There are no benefits as many mentioned to be on either side of a 11-0 scoreline. As mentioned our district 2 years ago introduced this to help bridge that gap. It was called the S5 protocol. It was updated in 2015
S5 Protocol 2015
Objective: The aim of the S-5 Protocol is to provide a better “game time” developmental opportunity for U9 – U12 players (both genders) in which the performance gap during festival games has widened to the point that the goal differential is a score of 5 goals (i.e., 5-0, 6-1, etc.). The resultant implementation of the S-5 Protocol will help to reduce excessive match scores.
This proposal was greeted with mixed reaction. It went from this being ludicrous to this idea might actually work. With any document that comes into play it always is a work in progress. For example if a goal difference of 5 came into play here were some suggestions
f) The teams switch goal keepers for a portion of the match g) The teams switch on field player(s) for a portion of the match h) A total randomization of players is reconfigured which mixes both teams i) The size of the goal is adjusted wherever possible using mobile posts/nets (e.g., target to larger size goal for weaker team, target to smaller size goal for stronger team)
These solutions as I have mentioned offered a band aid solution and in the end would resemble more of a pick up game and perhaps some of the kids should play more pick up games but thats another story. Not sure if any of this happened but I do know when many people read this they felt that soccer was not taken seriously by the masses and in fact they are right. There is no real identity in the game from U8-12. Depending on where you live or what club you are at it may be and probably is different. SAAC which was the first standards league is well known and has created the identity of what it means as a player to be part of SAAC. The U13 and up High Performance leagues have standards and are creating an identity that have to do with their standards as well. The training to game ratios, the number of games, the standard of coaching required are all part of the league and the education that has taken part to educate parents.
We have roughly 850000 players in Canada and most of the country's coaches are parent volunteers that many have anywhere from no knowledge of soccer to a quite knowledgeable parent. We all know coaching is the key and the beginning to improving the overall quality. We have all been amazed and have read all the articles written on what Iceland has done in their country to improve the overall quality and qualify for EURO 2016 as winners of their group. I have said and many have asked, "Why can't we do what Iceland has done?" We have heard many reasons, that Canada is not a soccer country, that Canada is unique and battles other sports, that soccer was born in the streets and the North American pay to play model doesn't work. That Canada is a huge country and its difficult to implement all of these changes across the country with multiple provincial associations, multiple districts and 1000's of clubs that may or may not believe in the same things to improve the game. My next question is
When will we stop putting bandaids on our soccer wounds and finally start laying the proper foundation that our players deserve?
Do we honestly think that a player can go through a U6-12 program that doesn't lay the foundation properly and then $5000 for U13 in a High Performance league and all of the short comings will be erased and replaced with a technically and tactically capable player on par with other U13 players around the world? We all know the answer to this question. I have mentioned a youth license many times and it has been mentioned that it will come out in 2016. That's a positive step in the right direction but why can't we begin to restructure the game so we can build that proper development foundation for our players? We all know that its impossible to give 850000 players the proper coaching. But why can't we structure things so we can manage them with what we do have and grow from there? First of all, house leagues from U4-8 are not the best way for a child to learn and I know for some clubs this is a huge revenue generator but restructuring needs to happen. We need to structure this with two parts, a developmental soccer school and game days. Why can't clubs operate a developmental school where each player does the same thing as laid out by the club and oversee it? This is starting to create the foundation in that player and a lot of coaches are needed for your traditional house leagues but less coaches are needed for a school. You will need some qualified coaches to lead but certainly volunteers can be used to assist and work alongside the leads but also learn at the same time. Kids also need to do age and stage appropriate sessions that are fun. I mentioned money related earlier and I know some have said to me that they think this is a good idea but parents won't buy into it and they will lose players. You may lose some but better to have less that are committed to get better and in the long term will help the quality improve. Secondly at these age groups "games" can still be played. You don't need formal games and may be difficult for some clubs to grasp the concept but informal games are all that is needed. The pitches are set up and teams are formed once you get there. If the format is 4v4 then 4s are formed as they arrive and placed on a pitch. You can rotate teams so they play different teams every 10 minutes or so. But what is important again is to educate parents on what development stage these kids are in and their traits. The concepts taught in the previous session should be what the focus is on. 1-2 development stage concepts per session is all you need at this age and a lot of fun!!! Most of them would be in a egocentric stage where its about them and the ball so focus would be on individual concepts like dribbling, shielding, running with the ball etc with not a lot of emphasis on team concept but some players may be further along and may understand some team concepts. It really can be simple as that, soccer in the streets so to speak in a safe and friendly environment. We don't have to be complicated and bigger clubs may have more difficulties organizing. But more players mean more revenue and that money can go back to developing players.
Once we get to U8 through U12, again this is where we can create the two streams, recreational stream which still may be similar to the development school and game vs the stream of development where the standards must occur. Creating these standards at this age group will help create that needed identity in the game at this age group. With training standards of 3 to 1, a longer season and early engagement in this sport, that needed development foundation starts to be built. There still is an opportunity to do other activities but a commitment would be made to soccer. I know some will say that we'll lose players to hockey and people won't commit. You're probably right but we have to do what is right for the sport. Remember this is not specializing in soccer unless people think 4.5 hours/week is specializing? I don't feel it is. You will definitely lose players from the "competitive" side but there is always the alternative to be part of the recreational stream. The pathway is never blocked and there should be free movement between the streams. We need to keep as many engaged and in the sport of soccer for as long as we can. I have always felt and really not sure where the notion of every player having the right to play competitive soccer came from in Canada. Many parents have told me that their kids are fast and they have a powerful kicks and those are the two prerequisites in Canada to play competitive soccer. I have always countered that my son can skate fast and has a hard shot so he should play AAA hockey. I have always been laughed at by parents when I have said that. They always responded that hockey is more than that and just because you can skate doesn't mean you can play hockey!! And soccer is a sport where running alone doesn't make you a soccer player but many do think that.
This tweet from Jason deVos is exactly right. Most parents have no idea what development is and have little to no knowledge of the game. Coaches don't know what development is. We don't have enough qualified coaches to support this and we don't have the amount of quality players to support everyone playing competitive soccer. Standards must improve and this is why we are trying to create these solutions like playing a man up or two or the other example of mixing teams, or switching a player has come. These solutions are a quick fix and unless part of a bigger plan usually do not do much in improving the quality or helping the game grow.
Many probably won't like to hear this but I think it's time to scale back the numbers on the competitive side and allow soccer to become manageable again and grow from there. This is an important step but once standards are set for U8-12, clubs have to take a good look in the mirror and ask themselves, "What can we do in an effective manner and contribute to the overall growth of the sport?" A very simple question which I think most clubs would struggle with. Clubs need to be honest with themselves where in the soccer puzzle they belong. Can they offer a soccer developmental school/recreational stream, can they offer developmental/get to , can they offer High Performance at U13, can they do it all? With standards based leagues a club can work towards being a standards based club or if that is not in the cards, then a grassroots club that offers a development school to help move players to the next level. As we all say every day, if we do what is right for the player, we will do what is right for the sport to move forward.