Soon after I came to the United States, I experienced one of my most pivotal memories. My mom and I were on the bus, heading to D.C. We passed by a field with kids playing soccer. A beautiful, green field, two opposing teams with nice uniforms, and a referee! As the bus drove away, my face was glued to the window as I stared back at the field. I wanted so badly to run out of the bus and jump on the field with those kids.
Before coming to the U.S., I had never seen an organized game for kids. I grew up playing in the streets. We didn’t have cleats and whenever we couldn’t find a ball to play with, we would make one out of plastic bags and cloth. Our parents never worried about what we were doing, it was guaranteed 99.99% of the time that if we weren’t home, we were playing soccer. I always dreamed of playing soccer at the highest level, but had no outlet to make it happen. Fast forward to that moment on the bus, in an instant, I realized that my dream of playing soccer at the highest level could finally be possible. As soon as we got home I asked my mom for a ball and cleats. I haven’t looked back ever since.
Nearly four years ago, my desire to become a coach was sparked by another event. One summer evening, after training with the Real Maryland PDL team, Coach Daniel, Coach Kodjo and I stuck around to watch one of the “top coaches” of our area run a training session. We realized our dreams of playing professionally were all but finished, but we were still full of passion and love for the game. Who better to learn from than the “top coach” of our area, right? That evening, we were convinced that if he was the standard, then there’s a serious problem.
Not too long after I started my coaching career, I quickly came to realize that most coaches don’t invest in the progress of the kids they are entrusted with. They sell false hopes, lack the true passion to want to properly develop players, have no desire to change the game, and they sacrifice the purpose of coaching to appease parents. Most coaches have made coaching about themselves or the parents. They have made it about business, profit and status. The way soccer is structured in America is perfect for these bad apples to thrive on the ignorance of those they are serving. Coaches are no longer making the game about the kids; they are making it about business. When I was on that bus 16 years ago, I didn’t see dollar signs running around, I saw kids who were enjoying the game, learning and possibly hoping to represent their high schools and even maybe play professionally.
Let’s pause for a second, to consider the question I know you’re all asking yourselves, “If you’re so against the way the system is structured and how coaches are coaching, then what do you think parents should be looking for in a coach or club, Coach Kokou?”
Here are some things I think parents, should be focusing on:
Is my child being taught the sport properly?
Is creativity and imagination being encouraged by the club or coach?
Is my child’s skill being developed?
Is soccer being used as a tool to teach life lessons and character building? Or is playing the sport the only thing that matters?
Of course there are more things you should be looking into as a parent, but those are a few things I think are important to examine.
You didn’t think I was going to shed the spotlight on coaches only, did you? I believe, whenever there is a problem, the solution lies in both courts. Growing up, when we would play around and something would accidentally get broken, I would usually be the first to tell on the person. I thought I’d be spared punishment because I told first. Unfortunately, it never worked that way.
I have been reading tons of articles and blogs and they all seem to be shouting one thing: The structure of soccer in America needs fixing. We are placing too much emphasis on winning at the youth level. This is where parents come in.
If you are a parent reading this, you need to let go of what you want to see your child achieve, and let your child achieve what they are capable of achieving.
Misplaced expectations are causing coaches to forgo development and focus on winning. The following scenarios are perpetuating the problem. Parents are competing among themselves for bragging rights. So, if John is on team A and his team wins trophies every season, then Bobby’s parents will go find team A+ to join, so Bobby’s parents can have something to brag about. If Elizabeth plays forward and scores every game, then Vanessa’s parent will email the coach to complain about how Vanessa is always playing defense, and should get a shot at forward. If David plays five minutes more than Matthew, then Matthew’s parents will email the coach and complain that it’s not fair that everyone is not getting equal playing time. Parents love the coach whenever the team is winning. Yet, God forbid the team is not winning, every parent has an opinion on what the coach should do.
Coaches feel the pressure to win so they don’t lose their players/teams. They stop challenging players to earn their playing time through hard work and instead, they do what is easy and tell parents what they want to hear. For that reason, we came up with participation trophies. In the real world, not everyone wins. Not everyone gets an equal opportunity. The American dream is, if you work hard and sacrifice your comfort, you can make something of yourself. Why aren’t we teaching our kids these lessons through sports if they will eventually learn it in the real world?
Since becoming a coach, I have realized one thing, I will either be part of the problem of Youth Soccer in America, or I will stand with the few who are willing to sacrifice our personal gain to be part of the solution. I will advocate for a change and I will be the change. Will you join me?
Thinking back to that day on the bus 16 years ago, I didn’t notice the coaches or the parents of the kids. I just remembered seeing kids playing soccer. But now, as a coach, both coaches and parents are hard to miss. I have been blessed to not have received many complaints from the parents I work with, but I have gotten one or two that made me wonder, who is this email really about?
Kokou Assigbe, Coaching Director at World Class Premier