Understanding that an ultra-competitive training environment is the most important element when it comes to development in structured club soccer is crucial if you are trying to make the best decision for where your player needs to be.
The training environment is oftentimes hard to judge. That is why things like clubs and leagues tend to be more persuasive recruiting tools than individual teams with proper training environments. And we want to clear some of that up today.
In the previous 3 episodes, we’ve discussed:
- Solutions to the competitive environment problems for individuals, such as playing up one or even two age groups.
- The need for coaches to strike a balance between fun and competition during training – so that players fully embrace the highly intense, every day, competitive process.
- The developmental benefits of teams playing against opponents that are significantly superior and inferior.
Now, we’re going to discuss the most important element when it comes to player development in structured club soccer. That is the ultra-competitive training environment. Because with all of the recent changes to the youth soccer landscape, you might be struggling with the question of where your player should be in order to maximize their potential.
So, if you find yourself in a situation where you need to decide where to put your player, you need to consider how much of an impact the training environment has on them compared to any other element.
The Most Important Element
As we’ve discussed before, there are five major components that influence player development. Those are:
- The household/parent/family influence.
- The playing on your own influence.
- The pickup game influence.
- The structured club training influence.
- The personal training influence.
Recently, we started dissecting the structured club training influence.
This was prompted, in part, by some major changes to the American youth soccer landscape. Specifically, the closure of the USSF Development Academy, formerly the top youth national league in the country, that was in operation for just over a decade. The league serviced hundreds of clubs and tens of thousands of players during its reign.
When it closed, a lot of people rightfully panicked. I think a lot of people thought that the elimination of the league meant that players wouldn’t have the proper arena for development. But what they failed to realize is that leagues offer just a small fraction of what a good, competitive training environment can do for a player.
Then, an even smaller and more exclusive youth league, led by Major League Soccer, was announced. Comprised of just 95 clubs and franchises, separated into two tiers, the MLS youth league immediately claimed it was going to serve the ‘elite’ category of players in this country. Again, people panicked.
As Soccer America’s Paul Kennedy pointed out, “The youth soccer landscape on the boys side will not fundamentally change.” While he cited commonly talked about issues such as geography and access, he left out the single biggest reason why nothing will significantly change.
It is the fact that leagues are far less influential in regard to player development than the actual day to day training environment that a player is in.
The new MLS youth league will give its franchises, future franchises, and sixty other clubs and franchises an opportunity to play games, but there is no indication that this will vastly improve the insufficient training environments the majority of these players will still be in.
Thankfully, you can receive high-quality training no matter what team or club you play for, or whatever league you play in. So, it’s not the end of the world if your club was not selected to be part of this new MLS youth league. It might even be more beneficial to be left out at this point because those on the outside (coaches, teams, and clubs) are still free to operate as they please.
And there are other very important reasons to consider not being involved with an MLS academy, at least not initially. But that’s a topic for another day.
So, if you happen to be in one of these rare ultra-competitive environments, it’s probably wise that you stay in it, regardless of what league your team plays in. If you’re not in a competitive training environment, then that is what you should be searching for, regardless of what club or league you land in.
Historically, providing ultra-competitive training environments are where American soccer has fallen short. While exceptions exist, the general feeling from professional players and coaches that have experienced higher levels in other countries is that our country is soft. And if we’re talking about serious player development – legit top-level professional player development – we must improve and offer, at scale, more ultra-competitive training environments.
If you’re not really aiming to be a pro, this is still a requirement for a player to fulfill their potential.
A lot of that comes down to how good the coach is. Because the coach is responsible for finding the right balance between fun and ultra-competitiveness and using that balance to properly cultivate technically and tactically adept players, as well as players with rock-solid mentalities. Coaches are often unable to find this balance and err too much on the side of fun because they don’t have the expertise, experience, or incentive to do so. This is just the reality. It’s like any profession, there is a bell curve. There are very few exceptional practitioners, a great majority who are average, and the rest who are poor. Worse still, average here in our country translates to below-average to poor globally. And guys, average doesn’t get it done.
All this to say, we have a huge void when it comes to having a proper, highly competitive training environment. Again, this being more important than what league you are in.
Ideally, one would have both. Competitive league and the competitive training environment.
Unfortunately, without the merit-based mechanism that is promotion and relegation, the truly exceptional practitioners generally don’t rise to the top, and the mediocre to poor practitioners aren’t filtered out.
The bottom line is that if you’ve found an exceptional coach and you’re getting that competitiveness in training – it’s probably wise to stay there.
What does an ultra-competitive training environment look like, sound like, and feel like?
As I said earlier, it can hard to judge whether or not the training environment is good.
According to Gary Kleiban, 3four3’s Founder, you should be able to, “see it, hear it, and feel it.”
He went further by saying:
“Players must be going at each other. Physically, psychologically, and verbally.
They need to be getting stuck in.
It needs to be intense in every action.
It’s not, “Oh, you’re my friend. You’re my buddy. I’m sorry.”
It’s not, “Let’s bring joy and happiness to training.”
No. That’s soft.
When a player shows up to practice, it needs to be:
- “Hey, I’m here to compete.”
- “I’m here to establish myself within this team.“
- “I’m here to do whatever it takes to earn my spot.”
- “I’m here to prepare myself for matches on the weekends.“
- “I’m here to prepare myself for next year.“
- “I’m here to prepare myself for my ultimate goals and dreams of being a professional player.“
Without a proper training environment, a player won’t develop to their potential.” End quote.
Coaches must be experts in their craft in order to elicit this mentality, encourage this type of behavior, and manage these types of emotions on the training ground. They need to extract all of this out of players in a way that is productive for the team and not destructive to the locker room.
Yeah, it’s challenging.
That’s why it’s rare to see such an environment. It’s much easier to take the other route and allow a soft culture. But once that happens, it’s very hard to turn back the other direction.
The “Elite” Mentality
In general, American soccer has been lacking ultra-competitive training environments, formidable coaches, and hard-nosed players for many years. The soccer scene here has been dominated by those with recreational mindsets and soft mentalities. It hasn’t always been this way, though.
American soccer fans might remember the identity of the Men’s National Teams throughout the 1990s. The team was frequently described as blue-collar, hard-working, and gritty. They weren’t known for their technical flair or tactical savviness, although they had players like Tab Ramos, Hugo Perez, and Claudio Reyna. Instead, they were defined by their toughness, competitiveness, and fight-to-the-death attitudes.
At some point, this mentality disappeared from the national teams, though. Eventually, it seemed to disappear from American soccer altogether.
Men’s National Team players playing in Europe slowly began coming back to MLS. When they arrived, they appeared to shift into cruise control. They left from ultra-competitive cauldrons like the Premier League and Bundesliga, where they had to fight for their spots every week. Now they were in MLS where they were guaranteed to start, offered high wages relative to their true field value and their teammates, and would suffer no punishments for not even making the playoffs.
This “elite” mentality, which is actually better described as privileged mentality, seemed to start creeping in after the start of the Development Academy in 2008.
American soccer became privileged with little credence among the actual world’s best. The league even went as far as claiming “world-class” status. Unfortunately, this privileged mentality infected many players, parents, and coaches across the country, especially those in the MLS circle that demanded even further separation.
Closed-leagues, driven by parity, seemingly discouraged American coaches from creating an intense and fierce atmosphere for players in training.
Well, put simply, they didn’t have to. Nor did they have an incentive to do so.
Our Men’s National Team’s blue-collar identity slowly diminished before our eyes.
Over the years, I had asked Gary Kleiban, and his brother Brian, what their guys would say when they returned home from National Team camps? Their answers never failed to shock me, no matter how many times they had told me before.
They would tell me whenever the guys came back from National Team camp, whether it was U14 or U18, they always had to readjust to the club environment because the national team environment was significantly less intense and competitive.
That seems backward, right?
Occasionally, I had the opportunity to witness this and confirm it myself.
I would hide in the bushes and spy on training sessions at Home Depot Center. Sometimes I would get to see the full Men’s and Women’s National Teams. Other times it would be the Youth National Teams.
I’ll never forget the time I saw one player, seemingly uninterested in listening to the coach, or participating in any more activities, walk away to go sit down on top of a soccer ball while his teammates finished a drill.
It wasn’t because he was injured. He played 90-minutes in the upcoming match. It was because the environment allowed it.
I remember asking myself, “Is this softness really acceptable at the National Team level?”
Sadly, this has proven to be true time and time again.
And like many fans, the image of American players being carried over puddles before losing and being eliminated from the 2018 World Cup Qualifying is burned into my brain. To me, that image also represents the culmination of years worth softness being accepted and applauded from top-level and down the ranks.
Here’s the thing, when people in American soccer circles talk about a competitive environment, they mistakenly talk about leagues, as if a league is responsible for a player’s development. And that’s not true.
The truth is that a league doesn’t really matter when it comes to your player’s development.
Neither does your club.
Or your national team call ups.
Or your facilities.
Or your summer tournament schedule.
It’s the ultra-competitive training environment that matters most.
But, of course, spending your developmental years in an ultra-competitive training environment doesn’t guarantee that you’ll make it to the pros, but developing in a soft environment will almost certainly ensure you won’t achieve your potential at any level.
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