The Cochrane Minor Soccer (CMS) Association is a small community club located west of Calgary within sight of the Canadian Rockies. In the spring of 2014, we made some big changes to our programming to improve the skill development of our younger players, and to align ourselves better with Canada Soccer’s Long-Term Player Development (LTPD) model.
The changes weren’t easy, but they are paying big dividends for our players. I’m sharing our story because I know there are other soccer clubs facing similar challenges in Canada.
What could be so controversial about the changes at our club? With only a few hundred kids split between competitive and recreational U6-U12 programs, we decided to cancel our recreational soccer program. Entirely.
Guest post by Catherine Decelles
Catherine is a CSEP-certified exercise physiologist and stay-at-home mom. She volunteers with the many different sport organizations her children are a part of and tries to stay one step ahead of them on the ski hill and bike trails. They have already surpassed her in soccer juggling skills.
We also cancelled our U8 competitive program. And agreed to phase out our U10 competitive program over the next two years. With the exception of our U10 to U18 competitive program, we even got rid of teams.
What did that leave us with?
Easy! A program that is now delivering more skill development and more fun.
Challenging our old approach
Prior to the changes, back in the spring of 2013, my then-six-year-old son played U8 Competitive Developmental Soccer. This meant he attended one practice with his team coach, one technical practice with a club technical coach, and one league game per week for 8 weeks.
He had a highly skilled parent coach who was excellent, and he loved the technical practice with our paid technical coaches. He also enjoyed being a part of a team. But at the end, he hadn’t scored a goal outside of practice and he had spent more time riding in a car to games than he did touching a soccer ball.
I sent the president of CMS an email questioning the logic of our program. And I soon found myself in charge of implementing the LTPD model as part of the board of directors.
Designing the solution
Luckily, I wasn’t coming into this blind. I have a degree in Exercise Physiology, and I had recently sat on the Sport 4 Life Cochrane board which has deep ties to Canadian Sport for Life and the physical literacy movement. For me, the implementation of the LTPD model was a no-brainer.
I was further convinced by a meeting that featured Sylvie Béliveau, Canada Soccer’s LTPD Manager, and John Clubb, Alberta Soccer Association’s Manager of Grassroots Development. Sylvie said it best when she said soccer isn’t either recreational or competitive – it is about how much soccer a child wants to play.
Instead of the typical fixed teams and rigid league schedules, Sylvie and John presented the idea of jamboree format programming.
In the jamboree or “festival” format, the kids rotate through skill and drill stations at each session, and then they play small-sided games. There are no fixed teams for the season, but teams are simply created on the day with coloured pinnies. It’s a throwback to pond hockey where the sticks go into the middle and teams are decided by which side of the rink your stick lands.
We decided to use the jamboree format for all of our recreational divisions. While we had 160 kids in our U6 recreational division, we only had 29 players registered for U14/U16 recreational, so the jamboree format made sense for our ages and registration numbers.
Launching the program
Fast-forward to the start of our outdoor season on April 26, 2014. With full board approval (and full disapproval of many U8 and U10 competitive parents) we launched our inaugural Outdoor Grassroots program.
We asked our paid technical coaches to run the new Grassroots program. These coaches, who are almost all Provincial B License soccer coaches, became our Grassroots coaches. We also hired junior coaches from the ranks of our older competitive program who took the Active Start and FUNdamentals coaching courses for working with young children. And finally we asked parent-assist coaches to help.
We allowed players to register for two 60-minute sessions per week, and we capped session numbers depending on age groups. For instance, we offered five different U6 sessions to accommodate all 160 registrants. Each U6 session permitted a maximum of 36 kids.
At each session, our Grassroots coach ran a 20-minute “skills and drills” component with age-appropriate drills and a ball for every child. The players were then divided into teams. All of the kids played with no child sitting out. They were supported to be creative and to make mistakes. Sideline coaching was discouraged and a spare ball was always on hand when the ball in play got kicked too far from the game field.
The parent-assist coaches were a key piece. As they assisted our professional Grassroots coaches, they were learning important coaching skills. We know that they will be our competitive coaches one day, so this was the start to developing their coaching toolkit.
Reviewing the numbers
By the end of the 2014 outdoor season, all 546 Grassroots U4 to U16 players had played the ball at their feet for at least 320 minutes if they attended every session over our 8-week season, and that didn’t include game play. They had also played every position on the field, and they had received more individual coaching than previous years.
And by the end of the season, the players were no longer looking to the sidelines for direction from coaches or parents. All of the players were confident to make their own decisions and participated in making their own plays. There was no better feeling than seeing a “superstar” player make a brilliant pass in front of goal to ensure a “weak” player had a chance to score. They functioned as a team without adult interference.
Competing with skills
Had we taken the competition out of soccer? No! Every child wanted to win, and they kept score even though adults didn’t. But that wasn’t the point. The most important thing was that our kids developed a lot more skills and had a lot more fun than previous seasons.
The defining moment came when I met with a group of U12 Competitive division parents. There had been disputes over the player assignments between two of the U12 teams, where one team had a more elite rank than the other. I was asked to talk about the LTPD model and why it was a good thing in terms of individual development for some of the children to be placed on the lower-tiered team.
After I finished talking, one mother asked me: “Why did I register my child for Competitive soccer and pay all of this money when I could have registered my child for Grassroots soccer for a fraction of the cost and had more skill development?”
Sticking with success
Our club really accomplished something. We listened to the advice of experts, we made a decision, we stood by it, and we implemented and executed an awesome program. Now we are gearing up for our new fall session of Grassroots soccer, and our parents can’t wait to register their children.
As our club continues to shape our player and coach development pathway, the LTPD model is now at the forefront in our planning. Our precise format might not fit all clubs of all shapes and sizes, but it has definitely been a success for our small community club, and we plan to stick with it.
By the way, we didn’t give out participation medals this year. And our players didn’t miss them. A fun season and great skill development were reward enough!
We have spent the last year continuing with our parent education and working hard to maximize skill development, touches on the ball, and a love of the game. Our U10 competitive program only lasted the 2014 season. We now run a U10 Development Training program with skills, drills, small-sided games, and friendlies with outside clubs.
We have discovered that we can create a “league” structure ourselves without the costs and travel associated with joining a traditional league. Our U10 athletes are developing into strong players, yet they still get to go away camping with the family without feeling that they are “letting down” their team. Our program design is helping young players to strike a balance between playing a sport and just being kids.
Parent education is one of the most important parts of our program. As new parents and families join our club, we are careful to explain what we are doing and why we are doing it. Who knew that using balloons to teach ball-handling skills would create such parent backlash?
We are constantly tweaking our program because we want to continue to get better. Status quo doesn’t cut it. And this June, our club stands ready to cheer for our Women’s National Soccer Team as they compete in the FIFA Women’s World Cup on home soil. You can be sure that we will be doing our best to help our kids to reach their own personal soccer goals – and perhaps even play in a future World Cup!