Youth Soccer – Player Evaluations. Communication is key.

As a Club Director and Coach, I find myself and fellow coaches to be at the time of year where player feedback in the form of evaluations is needed.  Feedback and evaluation are an important part of the development process but often very difficult to get right. The balance between training/development and competition/results puts the process under scrutiny from the start and communication has a direct impact on the outcome.

We are now close to half way through the seasonal year having completed the fall outdoor training and playing season and just over 1/3 of the way through winter training.  Providing an assessment of where each player is at this stage of the year has a lot of benefits.  There are several points of view about the timing and frequency of evaluations.  For me, I have found that the mid-year is a good time because enough time has passed and each player has a amassed a solid body of work in training and games.  There are arguments both for and against more frequent evaluations and the point of this is not to infer that our approach is the right one and that others are not, it is merely a statement to set the background.

There are multiple tools and templates available that have been created and widely used by clubs at all levels. I have leveraged on line systems, checklists, MS Word and MS Excel based documents, etc.  Nearly all of the systems, programs or templates provide very similar evaluation criteria including: technical, tactical, physical, mental and social.  While it is certainly not Rocket Science, it is also not as simple it would seem. There is often a breakdown between intent and interpretation, regardless of the guidance provided to the evaluators as well as the explanations provided to the parents about the purpose and intent of the evaluations.  I have not seen a tool or system that remediates that risk.

Purpose vs Interpretation

Number system – What does it mean? What is the standard of measure? Is it a Stack Rank? These are common and obvious questions. The purpose of the numbering system is to evaluate players on a numerical scale. 1 to 5 is typical.  In some cases, coaches interpret 1-5 in relation to where that player compares to his or her teammates.  Some may consider that 1-5 is based on where they should be based on their age developmentally, while others may consider it based on where the players should be at their age compared to the standard at the regional events they participate in, like leagues, tournaments, ODP, etc.

Stack rank – Many of the systems calculate the numbers and create a hierarchical ranking for the players based on how they were scored on the various Attributes. Even though the intent is for Clubs and Coaches to keep that information for their own internal use and not share, my experience has been that many parents get to that question almost immediately upon receiving the review. Further, parents also want to ask where their player ranks in relation to the rest of the team or specific individual players.  As a coach, it is common knowledge to not talk about other players when talking about one child’s evaluation and it is best practice to refrain from comparing performance, attitude, attendance or otherwise. It is just a natural question that is influenced by our current society.

Games vs. Training- At younger ages, and in particular in under 12, everything you read as well as what most clubs do in terms of player development, is focus on individual player development, technical skill acquisition and training over games. One would think that if the ratio of training sessions two games is 2 or 3 to 1, that player evaluation systems would give more credence to training than games, yet almost every evaluation that I’ve seen or used has a much greater emphasis on game performance. So, if the message to the families is to emphasize training, what benefit does a performance or competition-based evaluation really provide?

This brings me to my next point in regards to age specific curriculum – age specific evaluation.  A lot of these systems evaluate things like vision, field awareness, decision making, as well as physical attributes like speed, power, Etc. In reality, while that is all very important, it should also be given different priority at different ages.  The evaluation systems should be based on the age of the players and what is developmentally appropriate.

So, you can see the dilemma that most coaches have as well as clubs when it comes to evaluating players. The idea and the intent are to provide the parents and the players with some feedback and guidance on how they are progressing, what they should be working on, and provide a general overview of where that player is at that snapshot in time. And while most parents are anxious and eager to see them, I have found at least, that there is so much room for interpretation, and it seems that there is a lot of concern or defensiveness, as well as an interest in the justification by the coaches, for the scores that they provided. It is often a much more tense and anxious process than most people anticipated when they sought to evaluate players in the first place.  I have learned directly and from other coaches and administrators, that like everything else, clear communication and expectations are the cornerstone of an effective evaluation cycle.

Guidance for Club Directors

Be sure to communicate the intent to the coaches, and set some clear guidelines to ensure the evaluations are approached from the perspective of developmental priorities based on their current age.  The evaluations should support your methodology and curriculum but should be influenced by best practice guidelines on a national and worldwide standard.

Guidance for Coaches

Be clear about the intent, take direction from the club. If you have more than one team at that age group, be consistent across all teams. If you employ a staff at the age group level or have team-based staff, be sure to coordinate and collaborate with the other staff to ensure that everyone is consistent with the scoring system etc.  If and when you review the evaluations with the players, focus on the positive, point out the area of focus.  Be sure to encourage the parents and players to maintain regular attendance which demonstrates commitment and to train on their own, outside of the team activities. Avoid discussing other players and refrain from answering questions about comparisons with other players. Focus on that player only.

Guidance For parents

Seek to understand the intent. Use the evaluation as a tool to capture feedback and validation. Recognize that this is about player development and the purpose is meant to drive positive outcomes. Avoid the urge to challenge the evaluation but do have a healthy discussion. Avoid the questions about other players and minimize the comparisons with other parents about their and instead focus on your child.

Overall, it is a very important part of player development and the relationship between player and coach, player and parent and coach and parents.  Communication is key. If communicated properly, executed consistently and discussed openly, player evaluations can be a very helpful tool for everyone involved.

Feel free to comment and share feedback, and good luck with player evaluations.

Advertisements

We need to teach our players to Honor the Game

I recently participated in a pretty elite tournament in Maryland and left the weekend more disappointed in the environment surrounding the event than the games themselves.  The way some coaches treated the officials and the way some players acted towards the referees without consequence from their coaches was baffling.  Parents routinely yelled obscenities towards the referees all weekend.  I have to say that I was happy with the way the players that I coached responded and was (mostly) happy with their parents but overall I felt like it was an ugly weekend for youth soccer.  I recorded this synopsis on the way home, it is unscripted and a bit raw but it was the essence of what I was feeling about the disappointment of the weekend.

 

US Soccer – Grassroots Rant

It has been about a month or so since the US Mens National Team failed to qualify for the World Cup.  There has been a ton of backlash about the current state of the game and about development.  What I find completely crazy is how much the current climate is being blamed on youth coaching at the grassroots level.  As someone who has been very active at this level, I will tell you that I have seen great progress over the years, not so much in the system or in the process but more so in the quality of training and the abilities of the young players.  I recorded this little Rant a couple of weeks ago after getting fed up with the dialogue about Youth Coaching.  Check it out on YouTube.

When you steal someone’s content, at least know what you are taking!

So for the past 10 years or so I have been building a brand around specialty technical training. I would like to think that I am pretty well known locally. It may be in part because of my training, but also because my son is a pretty good player and relatively well known in the local community as well. This has to be one of the all time best. Snagging a picture from my website, and posting it as their own. Here is the deal, of the 2 pictures on the front page, 1 is my son and the other, was posted with permission from his father.

Snip20171108_30

Do we(the experts) even realize what we are doing?

I have been around the game of soccer in the US, first as a player, then as a coach and administrator for over 40 years.  I have probably learned more and have seen the game advance more by a factor of 2 or 3 times in the last 10-12 years than in the 20 preceding years.

As part of a large club with about 40 teams that compete regionally, I have the opportunity to train, coach and watch a lot of soccer across both boys and girls from about 4 years old to 18.  I have noticed over the last 2 years that for the most part, very few teams or players for that matter, are good in the air at all.  When I look at all of the teams that I train or coach, the only players that are dangerous in the air are the players on my 2000 Boys team.  When I point out the poor air play to other coaches, I rarely get an opposing view.

This is what I think we did to ruin this part of soccer, from about 2008-2010 or so, all of the experts said that sports specialization was critical and that players needed to pick a sport.  The prevailing thought was that Soccer in the US is behind the rest of the World because the athletes are playing too many sports. The players that are about 2001 and older were 9 to 10 years old at the time but still played football, baseball, basketball etc and developed their hand eye coordination.  That ability to catch and throw also required them to understand how to track the ball, we routinely scored goals on headers from crosses and corner kicks when those same 2000/2001 players were U11, U12 etc.  To me, it seems like a large majority of players born about 2002/3 or later probably didn’t play a lot of other sports, if they did, it was likely organized, they probably didn’t play pick up football, wiffle ball, playground hoops or even throw rocks (snowballs) at each other.  I find it crazy how many kids cannot throw or catch a F’ing ball these days.

And US Soccer just took heading out of the game for 11 and under.  As a safety concern, it is a good thing, but as someone who’s focus is on player development, it could contribute to my argument.

In the last year or two, early sports specialization is suddenly bad and multi sport athletes are back in favor.  As an educator in the sport, I have a lot of go-to articles that I keep handy when I am trying to support an argument with players, parents and fellow coaches.  I recently sent a response to an article written by a highly credentialed and respected authority on youth soccer, who is a good twitter follow (I wont call him out and will protect the unknowing).  His article was about the importance of multi sports participation.  My comments included a link to an article that he wrote in 2009 supporting specialization which essentially said that US Soccer is behind because too many kids are playing too many sports.  The original article said that our young athletes are not specialized enough and are behind developmentally as a result.  So my question was really…which is it?  He did not respond by the way because I asked if this is supporting the argument that eggs are good for you, no they are bad for you, wait no, they are good for you. Perhaps if I took a less sarcastic tone, I may have elicited a response…perhaps not.

The point of all of this is that everything is seemingly coming full circle. We have coaches, trainers and administrators who are working hard to stay current and follow best practice guidelines in an effort to advance the game.  Collectively, it would seem that we are doing a pretty good job overall.  But back to my original question and title of this article. “Do we really know what we are talking about?”  It would seem that we have a generation of very good athletes who have selected soccer as their primary sport who are actually, not very good athletes when you consider that while they may be able to juggle a soccer ball 100s of times, they couldn’t juggle 3 tennis balls.  The lack of reps of throwing, catching, avoiding and tracking a ball, rock or frisbee has corresponded to players who struggle judging the flight of the ball to effectively get the ball under control or win the ball in the air.

This is not intended to be a debate about specialization vs Multi-Sport.  It is really an observation that the prevailing thoughts of the day may be causing unintended consequences in the future.  Will the current multi-sport benefits of injury prevention, cross-sport training and the creation of more rounded athlete result in better soccer players 5 years from now or will be blame multi-sports on the then current state of US Soccer? I suppose that time will only tell.  Who knows what will be said about eating eggs.

For the record,  I have no answer for why kids just don’t play outside anymore where they have fun, get tons of reps and develop all kinds of skills in the process.  Not just physical skills but organizational, leadership, conflict resolution and how to take a hit to name a few.  Another topic for another day.

Thanks for Reading.