Elite Level Club Soccer Axes Player Opportunity For High School Play

About two years ago (actually March 7, 2010), I wrote a piece titled Club or High School Sports: Why do I have to choose?. In it I discussed the trend of some club and high school coaches (programs) pressuring athletes to play their sport for them exclusively.

I drew a distinction between:  (A) a coach either talking with athletes about their potential (and the type of training it would take to reach that potential) or simply allowing the highly competitive nature/skill level of a particular club or high school program to dictate what an athlete might have to do to compete, or (B) a club or high school coach creating arbitrary “rules” or biased guidelines in order to force an athlete to make a choice that limited other possibilities.

About that I stated:

I think it inappropriate, and ill-advised, for anyone to create artificial rules and expectations that limit an athlete’s choice to participate in both high school and club, or in one to the exclusion of the other [And I might add to play other sports if he or she so chooses].

To me, it is one thing if the natural course of a circumstance, meaning the skill level of other players are so good that an athlete decides (on his own) that he needs to spend more concentrated time (outside of his or her season) training their skills in order to catch up or improve, and a coach or a program forcing that decision on them.

I went on to talk about how much better it would be, for all concerned, if athletes were truly invested in what they were doing (whatever that might be) because it was completely their choice to do so and not based on some ultimatum. This, in addition to listing positives for both high school athletics and club athletics.

To continue, with regard to this idea above of being invested in what one is doing, it has been my experience that a coach or program will get much more out of athletes, and thus, increase the chance of them reaching their potential, when athletes have pure ownership over this kind of choice. You know, the ones where they decide what they want to play, what team they want to play for, and the time they want to commit to those athletic endeavors.

Then in June of 2011, I read an article in the Washington Post that highlighted the push from elite level soccer academies to have their players forgo playing for their high school teams. In fact, it was in that W.P. piece that I first heard of the shift from a seven-month club season to a ten-month club season, something that would remove the high level soccer player’s ability to play high school soccer altogether. Basically, they would have to choose one over the other. This prompted a second piece from me titled Washington Post Hits On Youth Soccer Trend To Play Club (Academy) Over High School.

The concerns I raised in this piece paralleled some of what I detailed in my earlier article. However, this time I took it a step further, asking what happens to the large number of athletes who are basically forced to choose club (academy) soccer over high school (at least if they want the benefits of that type of training) but aren’t able to make the grade so to speak? In the end, they simply weren’t good enough.

After all is said and done, those “not good enough” players can’t hit a rewind button and do it all over.

John Cook discusses this same issue in his recent piece RIP, High School Soccer? at Forbes.com. In it he mentions that the U.S. Soccer Development Academy will be adopting the 10-month schedule of play for all its teams beginning with the 2012-13 season. This, according to his piece, encompasses 78 elite clubs nationwide affecting 3000 players.

In effect, the new season length would negate any possibility for these athletes being able to choose to play on their respective high school teams, if they wanted. Basically, an “us or them” mentality―an absolute.

Now before I continue, let me state that I do “get it.” I know what it is that the U.S. Soccer Development Academy is trying to accomplish (see Development Academy Quote Sheet: Academy Moves to 10-Month Season). I understand the concepts behind what it takes to become the very best one can be at their sport.

I am very cognizant of the likely need for athletes to spend more concentrated time on mastering their skill set outside of the three-month high school season (my definition of sports specialization); the commitment, “right” training focus, and competitive play/situations necessary for one to make it to the top. I am also aware that we [the U.S] do not follow the international model for developing soccer talent.

However, as I’ve stated in previous writings, I question the Academy’s implementation, the absoluteness of it all. I question whether there is a better way to accomplish what the Academy wants, the development of more elite level skilled players, and still allow for more freedom of choice―of opportunity. Do they really believe that the international model is the only way? That it is the best way? Is it possible to maybe, I don’t know, think outside the box a little (instead of placing yourself inside one) and come up with a plan that might be better for all?

How about working alongside high school soccer programs, and their staff, to raise the level of everyone’s game across the board, instead of isolating them? Might this actually increase the talent pool and accommodate the late bloomers that we all know exist. Could this possibly bring more positives to the table for both environments (club and high school)?

How about adjusting things so that the ten-month season includes the high school season? If training were to become consistent, more developmental, and foundationally sound throughout, whether high school or club, then wouldn’t combining seasons be a possibility?

And one other thing, why make rules so that a talented athlete absolutely has to choose one over the other to even be on an academy team?  If they are good enough, can hold their own (maybe even exceed) against other players, who are solely in the club environment, while still playing high school (or even other sports), why negate that option for them?

Hey, if you believe that can’t be done, that they would never develop to be good enough to compete at the higher levels, then why not let that individual’s own choice, and attrition, be the determining factor, not some arbitrary rule that forces their hand.

I don’t know about you, but for me, just following what others do (international soccer model) without giving critical thought to avenues or unconventional paths that might be better for all, while still accomplishing your outcome, seems foolish.

Sometimes, it behooves us to look beyond just the surface.

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