Before the article begins i would like to make you aware of a meeting that is happening on April 22nd with myself, Will Cromack and former Whitecaps Assistant coach Paul Ritchie to discuss Youth Soccer coaching in Vancouver. Please RSVP if you are a coach and would like to join us: Youth Soccer Coaching in Vancouver
In the last couple of years while I have been living and coaching soccer in Canada, I have often been asked what I think it would take to improve Canadian soccer. On the men’s side the Canadian national team currently sits 110th in the latest FIFA rankings for April 2014. The team hasn’t played a game since November 2013 so perhaps if they don’t play again they can continue to rise up the rankings as they have done, by a place each month, in March and April!
Whatever you think about the merits of the FIFA ranking system isn’t really that important in this discussion because one thing is for sure: The Canadian men’s soccer team has been on a disastrous run of results since the 8-1 mauling at the hands of Honduras in October 2012. The team hasn’t scored a goal in the last 10 matches it has played. Canada’s record is: 0-12-3 with 2 goals for and 27 against in the last 15 games. The team is certainly a long way from the high of playing in the Mexican World Cup Finals of 1986.
I have lived and coached in Scotland, the USA and Canada. I have studied soccer with a passion and have been around every facet of soccer in each of these countries. From these cross-cultural experiences I believe there are a number of really obvious problems that Canadian soccer has to solve if it wants to be considered competitive in the world of soccer.
Growing up in Scotland it was very clear that football was the number one sport, the number one topic of discussion and the subject that dominated all media. That is not the case with soccer in Canada or the USA. Therefore, most of my opinions on what needs to be done to improve Canadian soccer are based on my years involved in soccer in the USA and Canada.
When I first visited the US in 1994 there were many people who thought the World Cup was a boat race and many others who thought I was in their country because I was playing in the World Cup. I may have been slower to correct the second misconception! Suffice to say soccer was way behind where it is today. There were virtually no soccer fields, I didn’t see hardly any kids playing the game and when I coached youth players at soccer camps that summer it was clear that the standard of play was very low. I remember setting up a drill at a soccer camp and telling the defender to tackle the striker only for the defender to flatten the poor little kid NFL style. It was his only point of reference but I have to admit I still find myself doubled up laughing when I recall that scene. When I spend time in the US now I see plenty of soccer fields, a lot of kids playing and a much higher standard of soccer on show. Things have changed. The US national team sits almost 100 places above Canada in 13th position and many of the challenges that Canada face in developing soccer are the exact same ones that exist in the US.
I believe I have set the current scene fairly accurately and here is the first major problem that I see with Canadian Soccer: There is not enough private enterprise in Canadian soccer to allow it to ever be successful. I truly believe that one of the reasons soccer has flourished so quickly in the US is that private soccer enterprise exists everywhere. There are so many organizations coaching soccer, running camps, setting up tournaments, running clubs, operating overseas tours, developing private facilities and the list goes on and on. When I lived in Cleveland Ohio for three years there were soccer clubs, indoor soccer arenas, tournaments, leagues, camps and an entire industry built on youth soccer. Former players of the Cleveland Crunch/Force professional indoor soccer club were running almost all of these enterprises. The team had been very high profile and extremely successful in previous years so when all of these players ended their careers and decided they wanted to stay in the area they simply planted their flag in the ground and started their own soccer club or program. A very similar scene is present in North Carolina, where I also lived and coached for three years. From my time in the US I have found that all over the country there is significant opportunity for hard working, qualified individuals to make a living from delivering quality soccer programs. There simply is not the direct opposition to soccer entrepreneurship in the US that seems so prevalent in Canada.
There may be similar soccer programs in Canada, but there is one subtle, hugely significant difference. When an individual person is relying on the success of their soccer business for their livelihood it changes everything. If I own my own soccer club, for example, I am thinking about how to make it successful all the time. I know that if I recruit one kid to my club that can be worth, for arguments sake, $3000 per year. If I recruit 10 players to a team that becomes worth $30,000 and if I keep those kids with me for 10 years it is worth $300,000. If I lose a player from my program because I don’t do a good job, because I don’t hire the best coaches or because I don’t have good facilities, etc.… than I effect my own personal income. If one of my coaches doesn’t turn up on time or offends a parent they affect my personal business. They affect my ability to pay my bills and take care of my family. The stakes are so much higher so I have to gain more coaching qualifications. I have to get sponsorship to cover costs. I have to hire the best coaches possible. I have to get the best facilities and I need to make sure that I am doing a great job of developing soccer players. If my company is not helping players improve and get to the next level of their development than I won’t survive, but my competitor will. As a result of this the people who run these companies have to get better and better at what they do. They are convincing kids to play soccer instead of other sports, starting them in quality programs from a much younger age, convincing them to play more soccer, play in more tournaments and be committed to the game. Players get better, teams improve, competition increases and as a result there are better players being produced. Young players who are not on elite teams at the youngest ages are still getting great coaching and playing competitively in good facilities. Some of them develop into good players and excel by the time they are 17 and 18 years old which is a much better time to be the best player.
In my experience of youth soccer in Canada the landscape is completely different. Almost all of the youth soccer programs I have been around are operated by local not for profit organizations where the vast majority of the coaching is done by parent volunteers. Ironically between the ages of 5 and 11 there seems to be minimal coaching being delivered to young players by highly qualified coaches. This is the crucial age range where the best athletes decide what sport they are going to play and where the best opportunity for skill acquisition exists. In the US this age bracket is the one that is often operated the best because this is when the business owner can attract customers for the next 10 – 15 years. The best coaches need to be coaching the youngest players but instead the best coaches tend to be paid the most and they end up coaching at the older ages. By the time the players are 16 or older it is very difficult to fill in the gaps they have missed and I believe there are so many of these gaps. Except for the few players on elite teams, the young soccer players in Canada are coached by parent volunteers who have had little or no coaching education. The chances of these players maximizing their potential without high level coaching, facilities or competition is very slim. As a result of the system, Canadian soccer is making it almost impossible for a youth player to develop into an elite level soccer player if they are not streamed into the top tier of soccer by the time they are 12. Can you believe that is when the decisions are unconsciously made? How can you possibly not put elite level resources into the vast majority of youth soccer players at such an incredibly young age?
The not for profit organizations that run Canadian youth soccer want to do a good job, but they don’t have to. Only the Head Coaches of these clubs really make a living from these clubs and they are paid a salary. Unless they treat people badly or are grossly negligent these coaches will be in their position for many years. They don’t have to produce successful players to make their business succeed. They don’t have to convince the best athletes to play soccer instead of hockey because they will be paid the same amount of money regardless of the registration numbers. I could go on and on about this and I realize some people won’t see any relevance to this perspective. However, I can assure you I have lived and breathed soccer in the US and Canada and I have no doubt about this. Until individual or syndicated private soccer enterprise can operate with no barriers to entry into the marketplace, Canada will never develop into the soccer nation we would all like it to be.
This is only the tip of the iceberg in my opinion. Tell me what you think, defend this broken youth system if you can, offer your solutions and if there is a genuine interest in this topic I will be happy to share my opinion on some other significant changes that need to take place.
This is Part 1 of 4 articles on the subject of Canadian Soccer.
- Does Canada Need it’s Own Domestic Soccer League? [Pt 2/4]