Yesterday I got sight of a US Youth Soccer blog that Beau Dure posted on his twitter discussing the pros and cons of playing high school soccer versus academy soccer. To read it, click here. It got me thinking to my own experience this past fall of getting a first hand view of high school soccer in Connecticut. I was the assistant coach of a varsity team here from August-November.

The first thing that struck me in our first meetings, was that as coaches we were made aware that, the players were ONLY allowed to play high school soccer in the fall. Any participation in any outside soccer would make that player ineligible, and possibly affect the team results as well, if this “ineligible” player continued to play games.

Any time I hear players being forbidden to do anything, I don’t like it, as I think the girls and parents should be making the decision about what is best for the girls, not any other entity. As I’ve seen at home in Canada, when players are “banned” from participating with other groups, it has more to do with the organization doing the banning, maintaining control and power, as opposed to what is best for the athlete.

Secondly, in my mind, if a group of kids are going to be told that this is the ONLY soccer instruction that they are going to receive from August-November, then I would hope that it would be of the highest quality. Since everyone is playing high school soccer, this includes the top kids, the ones that could potentially in the future be leading the national team. 3 and a half months is a long time in the development of a 16 year old. And yet many people leading high school programs in the state, and being the only people that these players would be able to look at for development in that period of time, have never played the game themselves past high school, or some have never touched a ball at any kind of a competitive level.

Not only is that problematic from the standpoint of being able to teach sophisticated technical and tactical principals, but also, because it is far too easy for players to be missed in tryouts from people who don’t have a soccer eye. As an example, there was a player at our tryouts that was not flashy in the least. But as the tryouts wore on, I watched her, and she was unbelievably talented. She made every single tackle, and was unbelievably composed on the ball, making smart, simple decisions, every time. Yet when it came down to picking the team, I had to fight hard to have her even considered for varsity. And I’m not saying, that I’m some incredible talent scout, but just like I wouldn’t appreciate the nuances of what makes a great player in baseball, people who haven’t lived the game, wouldn’t recognize these qualities in a non-flashy defender. As a side note, this player ended up starting and playing 90 minutes for us in almost every game this season. I shuddered to think of how her development would have languished, had she been on the 24 player JV roster. Yet I’m sure that very scenario happens repeatedly in high schools across the country.

The third thing that didn’t sit well with me with high school soccer was the insane amount of games that the girls had to play. At one point, because of a couple of make up games, the girls had something like 6 games in 11 days, and playing in a competitive conference, every game meant something. By the end of it, the girls were exhausted, some were injured, and with a basic knowledge of the importance of rest and recovery, it did not seem like a smart way to treat the girls’ bodies.

That all being said, I do agree that the basic concept of playing high school soccer is a wonderful thing. I am sickened the more I see of what a money grab youth soccer is, and I think playing for your school, is about as pure as what is left in the soccer system in North America. For me, my best memories, and some of my best friends, are still friends that I made playing for my high school team. That being said, when I played, we were still allowed to play for other teams, and a group of 5 of us would go from our school practice to our club practice 3 days of the week. It was busy, but we were happy, and had a great time. In the business that youth soccer has become, I think savoring those pure moments of enjoying the game with friends is important. While it may be not ideal for development in the short term, in the long term, the most important thing for any player should be about the love and enjoyment of the game, and I believe for the most part, representing your high school is an important part of that.

That being said, my suggestion is that it should not be an all or nothing affair, whether for club, or for high school. As I mentioned before, I am wary any time that players are being told that they are banned from doing anything. It should be on a case-by-case basis. Perhaps there are coaches that would be ok with a star player missing a couple of practices a week to play club, if they are able to have that player contribute for their high school in big games.

From what I have seen, I don’t think the high school game is ideal for developing quality players. At the same time, I don’t think the premier system in the state I am in, at least on the girls side is from a quality of coaching perspective, much better. Because of this, I don’t think, at least on the girls side, that the players would benefit immensely from not playing with their high school teams, and playing premier instead.

I think the solution is to have more stringent conditions of coaching credentials for those coaching the highest-level players in general. In any case, if you are going to force kids into doing anything, you better make sure that what is being provided to those players is of the highest quality, and at the end of the day has their best interest at heart. And I don’t think anyone makes that decision better, than the athlete and their parents.

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