In the lead up to the United Soccer Coaches Convention taking place in Philadelphia, PA from January 17-21, I contacted one of the leading coaches of youth and high school soccer in the New York area to chat with me about how we can fix our soccer problems in the United States.
Steve Mastronardi has had success at numerous developmental levels as a soccer coach including high school, club, ODP, and on the United Soccer Coaches education staff. His fundamental principles of having fun, teaching integrity, being consistent, and playing with passion have provided players throughout the years with a basis for on and off field success. Steve is a certified school counselor as well as a licensed mental health counselor. The following ideas are Steve’s thoughts on how we can move towards a better soccer product within the United States.
What have you seen at the youth level of soccer that coaches do wrong in the development of a young soccer player?
Steve: Training youth soccer players requires a curriculum based approach featuring age appropriate development. The foundation of the curriculum are the four pillars of the game which are the technical (How?), tactical (Why?), physical, and psychological parts of each player. All of these factors are different at each age and for each individual player. It comes down to breaking down the game at sessions at any level with well-defined goals and planned practices that promote fun, development, challenge, and a growth mindset. This all starts with the coach or facilitator. In the US, we are too coach driven without putting forth knowledge in understandable terms to players. Coaches instruct too much at times and should encourage the players to make the decisions on the field. Soccer is not like most American sports that require a coach/team to call specific plays constantly and make decisions to manipulate an offense or defense.
Allowing players to be creative, diverse, and technical through facilitating their own decision making abilities and instructing at correct moments in sessions is the key…how does this happen?
Every coach needs formal coaching education through the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) or United Soccer Coaches (USC). Looking up activities, skills, formations, etc. online is good but only takes a coach so far to teach the game the way it should be taught. Session planning and understanding the variables of the age coaches are huge to make the game better. Formal licensing courses or diplomas are required to coach at the majority of levels within youth soccer. Grassroots or recreation soccer looms large as the most untapped source to educate coaches on how to properly instruct the game. This is where it all begins so this should be our biggest investment to make the game better. In other countries, control of soccer governance is mandated by one organization. In our country numerous different leadership groups run their own soccer organizations. Each organization coming under one umbrella that would focus on coaching education, player development, and parent education could go a long way to moving youth soccer in the right direction.
What can you do as high school coaches to correct development and make the players the best they can be?
High school soccer is unique to the US as we are the only country in the world that has it. At this level we do the best we can to instruct the game to players that are true soccer enthusiasts or multisport athletes looking to fill their year with other activities. High school coaches can have a huge impact IF they run a complete program where every level is on the same page imparting the four pillars of the game, putting systems in place, and starting in the elementary grades with soccer activities to gather interest to start a love of the game. Continuing to gain knowledge as a coach through formal coaching education, mentors, clinics, and self-study is also going to help the high school game become more important and respected in the US.
Do you think it is a popularity issue with the sport in the United States that all of the best athletes are playing other sports?
Soccer is the most popular sport below age 12 in the US. We have so many other sports to choose from in our country that natural attrition takes place after a certain age. Having choices is a great thing especially at this stage as no child should be limited to one activity as burnout and disinterest can occur. We have a solid professional league and youth soccer is huge at the club level. The argument that we do not have the best athletes is inaccurate. We have superb athletes but it is how we train and develop them as a soccer player that is the issue. Our soccer players are just as good athletically at any level in comparison to all other countries. Improve the technical and creative side in combination with “athleticism” and our country will see dynamic improvement at all levels.
How important is a guy like Christian Pulisic to youth soccer to influence kids to like and get involved with the game?
Christian is the epitome of a player that has been developed with creativity, flair, and love for the game. A lot of the latter comes from his innate desire and passion to train on his own. Another key to his development that was instrumental were his parents. The positivity and love they showed him to support (without a self-serving agenda) his dream is a monumental key to his success. Developing more Pulisic’s in the US will come in time with the infusion of a concerted effort to develop ALL youth players with the SAME ideals in mind.
At the national level, what can the USMNT do to get better and qualify for 2022?
New and fresh leadership from the US president to National team coach with ideals to shake soccer up at all levels to maintain the pipeline with CLEAR objectives featuring development at the forefront. Play our young talented players and be willing to motivate them which has been lacking for a long time. We have the players to reinvent ourselves for 2022 but it comes down to an innate ability to put egos aside for the betterment of the game.
What can be done to push the game at a youth level?
We are a diverse nation that needs to start the “passion” in the streets with futsal courts and soccer fields in neighborhoods and parks. The passion and excitement from the game will ignite the fun, find players, and bring more interest without formal training. Once adults give the game back to youth soccer and limit control, the sky is the limit. Once the formal training is needed, coaching education is the key to future development, success, and creativity for all levels and players.
How influential is the “pay to play” system in youth soccer and at the high school level?
Youth soccer in this country struggles because of this concept and backwards mentality. No other country in the world has this problem on as large a scale as we do. Is money required to a certain extent? Of course. But we lose players on a grand level because we price them out of the game at a certain point or they just cannot afford it. Most countries will subsidize their most talented players so this isn’t a factor. Club soccer in this country is a cut throat venture at times with millions of dollars at stake with children at the forefront. Absolutely horrendous but that is the reality all across our nation. Club hopping, poaching of players, selling a brand, the pursuit of the college scholarships, and unfulfilled club promises all lend themselves to the unrealistic multi-million dollar regime it has become. Change the landscape by working together as soccer entities, pooling resources, breaking down the “versus” mentality, and let soccer knowledge rain free to be imparted on all levels with open arms. This will improve youth soccer at every stage on and off the field.
Thanks so much Steve for all of the great information and sharing it with the EducatedCoaches.com readers!!!
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