Winning is not everything, especially for younger soccer players. In fact, it may be the winning team mentality that stunts individual youth player development that could result in a deeper talent pool — and more wins — down the road.
That is the basic thought behind the soccer academy concept, one that has now been implemented in Sampson County.
“The academy is removing the American winning mentality to make way for development,” said Scott Wells, who serves as director of coaching for the Sampson County Soccer Club through Premier UK and runs the club’s new Soccer Academy.
Bill Furjanic, technical director of Coaching Education and player development for the N.C. Youth Soccer Association, created the program for the state in an effort to find a better method of developing talent among the youth population. However, the idea is not new. It is one Wells sought to bring to the growing soccer playing population locally.
At the main core of the academy concept is that true player development focuses on the development of the player, not the team. Up to age 12, through the academy, player development is the sole criteria used in designing and running youth soccer programs. It is a proven method that has curbed issues that often see players quit early — the sport is no longer fun, it is too competitive or they are left behind because the team’s winning has trumped the improvement of all players.
The academy, Wells noted, emphasizes the technical development of each child without the pressures of winning and losing attached.
“In academy, you’re not keeping score, there’s no league, there’s no standings, there’s nothing — you just go to these play dates. They’re not called games,” said Wells. “We’re trying to take away the term ‘team’. We want to use the word program and groups.”
Within the play dates, there can be chosen topics of focus, a technical aspect that coaches want to work on — or simulated situations that target various aspects of the game, whether it is attacking, defense or anything in between.
“You’re not just having a game of soccer,” said Wells. “And the referee is an Academy-certified referee where they can stop wherever they want. So if you do a bad throw-in, the referee can stop the game and show you how to do a proper throw-in. It’s like a normal game, but it’s a scrimmage because you can stop and start.”
Contrary to the well-known Challenge and Classic leagues, where a team might travel an hour or two away to play one game, an academy can take several groups of players and play several matches within the laid-back scheduling of play dates.
“With academy, you go there and three or four other teams go there too, so you’re playing like three weeks of games in one day,” said Wells. “It’s amazing.”
This past weekend, the Sampson Soccer Academy had its first fixture in Jacksonville, deemed a huge success by all involved. Next week, the academy will be traveling to East Wake Soccer Association for a play date. Coaches have agreed to two “freezes” each per half so there can be what Wells called “a coaching point,” to teach players in the constant goal toward further development.
“What the academy is trying to do is take a recreation player and have them in there for U8, U9 and U10 and then when they get to U11 they change from 6 a side to 8 a side but then they skip Challenge and go straight to (upper level) Classic,” said Wells. “You’re building your soccer club into a Classic-level team, rather than Challenge.”
When Wells first brought the idea of conducting an academy, it was just not possible. With a recreation department totaling between 300 and 400 players, having an academy would cut the recreation participation in half.
“We couldn’t figure out a way of doing this without killing the recreation program,” he said. “We decided to go for it, but we decided to go for it with players we knew weren’t involved in the rec to start with it, so we weren’t hurting them. We never got enough for a U8. We basically have a U9 and a U10 group.”
The way they got the players was advertising and word of mouth. Some did opt out of recreation, but there were others that came from Newton Grove, Roseboro, Goldsboro and Warsaw.
“People heard of it and they wanted to be part of it,” Wells said.
The end result was some 50 players, enough to put together a full U9 boys group and two U10 groups, one boys and one girls. Within that, there are seven groups that go away to games. Those seven groups are placed into groups that will compete at certain talent levels. Regardless of where children are put, the goal is competition and continual improvement.
“When they’re competing and they’re winning games, their confidence goes (up) and they get better,” said Wells. “Because they’re actually being able to put into practice the things they’re learning rather than getting trampled on.”
Currently, the U9 and U10 boys have two teams apiece, while the U10 girls has three teams.
There are 24 girls in all, so each team consists of eight players. That means, at six a side, there are two girls substituted in and out and, with each team playing three matches, the game experience spikes in quick fashion. That is the reason many academies do not schedule play dates every week, however for the first year Wells has done just that — in order to build a sturdy foundation for the new endeavor.
“I want it to be so strong, I want the parents to get what they paid for and I want them to go to these places and see how it’s done,” said Wells, who has a group of volunteer coaches committed to working with him.
He knows that the experience of the youth and their parents will make or break the academy in Sampson. At first, the reception was rocky, Wells conceded, with concerns about the absence of wins and losses, teams being split up and that parents, while on the sidelines in support of their players, were not as involved in traditional rooting for teams because it is a training and teaching environment rather than a competitive match.
“What we made them realize is playing with different talent levels all the time, playing with different places, is only going to make you a better player,” said Wells. He noted the academy had its first in-house matches recently. “The feedback since then has just been phenomenal.”
Wells, who played at the collegiate level in America and professionally in England, is a product of the academy style.
“The mentality was the same,” said Wells. “Moving up and down, trying to develop the player. I’d rather you win a high school championship than win a U9 Challenge division league. Just the fact that Sampson County has gone out and said ‘we want better for our kids,’ it’s just awesome.”
He praised parents for getting on board with an idea novel to Clinton and Sampson County.
“I didn’t want it for myself, I wanted it for their children,” said Wells. “As soon as they understood this was best for their child, then it changed.”
Play dates are not solely about soccer either. People get together, grill out and have fun, with soccer at the center of the day, but not the only focus. Wells called it a “massive festival” that not only enriches a young 9-year-old boy or girl’s life, but also serves the local Sampson County Soccer Club.
“The goal right now is to have U8, U9 and U10,” said Wells. “We don’t even have a U8 right now, but we’re authorized to. The academy does go further, up to 17 and 18, but you have to have authorization for that and you have to have a big soccer association. We’re small. But there are so many people hearing about it, in three or four seasons’ time we want it to progress to the point where we have the ability to have players opt to rec for a year.”
That is how the academy usually works. There is a certain minimum talent pool in the academy where players’ talents are further honed. Right now, the Sampson academy is accepting any and all players because it is just starting.
“It may seem like a ways off, but we will have a larger rec department because we will advise the kids who don’t get in to go in rec for a few years and move up,” said Wells. “So you’re building your recreation department at the same time.”
Within the academy, it is a fluid process, with players assessed based on their attitude, on-field performance and intangibles every four weeks and moved around as seen fit.
Furjanic came to Clinton earlier this year and held a meeting at the Bellamy Center, introducing the parents to what the academy is and what it could mean to player development.
Wells said that helped to get local parents on board, but without the constant support from Soccer Club president Jeff Smith and Dee Smith, the club’s registrar, none of it would have been possible. He credited them with making a personal dream of his come true, and doing it to the benefit of young kids in the community.
“It’s a massive process, but the idea is to have an improved level of competition in Sampson County Soccer Club,” said Wells. “There is some great talent in Clinton, but you want to bring the best out of them. We’re just trying to develop them the best we can, and this is the best way we do it.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.