Rapids Youth, Junior Development Academy
As youth soccer players age, they have several options available to them. If they enjoy a lower commitment environment that’s more focused on the social aspects of the game, they can play recreationally. If they’re interested in investing more time into their craft, they can move into the Competitive divisions for an extra challenge. And for the small number of kids who are deeply passionate about the game and have developed a more finely tuned skillset, they may have a chance to play at the top levels of competition. Within the Rapids Youth Soccer Club, these elite levels include the Junior Development Academy and ECNL.
Looking across all teams that competed at these elite levels over the past two seasons, there was one coach who led his team to the highest Coach Score (a measure that combines all the parent survey questions). This team was the 2008 Boys Junior Development Academy team coached by Tom Poole in the Fall of 2019. While there were many coaches at this level who scored well, Tom managed to lead his team to the highest parent survey scores for both player enjoyment and improvement.
The purpose of this coach profile is to attempt to uncover what Tom may be doing that makes these exceptional results possible.
Tom, thanks for joining us today and being open to sharing your thoughts. When you look back on your Fall season with your 2008 boys, what were some key factors that may have made your parent survey scores possible?
Thanks Adam. Firstly, I had a very good group of players who were brought into putting the needs of the team before themselves. As a group, we sat down and identified some team expectations and standards and those were used throughout the season and players held each other accountable to the standards we all had set.
We committed to being better every day and that was communicated regularly to parents. I pride myself on keeping parents in the loop on the club’s plan for their child and their team. When parents feel informed and understand there is a plan, and the coach is prepared and organized, good things will happen.
We had success on the field and those successes reinforced the standards and expectations we set. This is the second year I have had most of these boys and they’re fully aware of the standards I have for them. It certainly helps I have a group of players who all want to play at an elite level.
Can you explain more about your process for identifying the team expectations and standards? I think it might also be helpful to explain what you’ve done to uphold those standards and how you’ve guided the players to hold each other accountable.
We sat down at the start of the season (The players and I) and we spoke about behaviors that were and were not acceptable and characteristics that we wanted to define us. Of course, the players being 11-12 years old they needed some guidance but we fell on a collective set of behaviors we all agreed upon. From there, the players felt part of that decision-making process and in turn, that created a little more buy in and accountability. I started as the enforcer of those standards but over time, players started to hold each other to the standards we have set which was great to see.
In the Fall, your team achieved exceptional player enjoyment scores on the parent survey (nearly all parents scored a 5 out of 5 on this question). While I’m guessing the work you put into building the team’s culture and standards play an important role in that, are there any other things you do that might have positively influenced player enjoyment?
Kids want to play games, be engaged, learn, compete and feel a sense of camaraderie with their teammates. I think the game playing nature within our curriculum and game methodology allows kids plenty of opportunities to play games in a structured training session. We aim to pull topics out within game-like environments in training rather than having kids stand in line where they lack engagement, lose interest and fun often disappears.
All of this starts and ends with my relationship with each player as an individual. The more trust created between myself and the player, the easier it is for me to develop sessions geared towards their development. The more a player trusts I have their best interests at heart, the easier it is for me to sell my message as a coach. The way I sell that message is different for every player.
I do think regardless of level (Pro all the way to Rec) players who truly love the game and have fun are the ones who will be lifelong participants and the ones who develop at an accelerated rate. Of course, at the higher levels winning becomes more important but if a coach can allow a kid or athlete to fall in love with the day-to-day hard work, grind, and process, results will often take care of themselves.
Your team uses the pool system, correct? First, would you describe to readers what a pool is? Second, is there anything you do differently as a coach of a pool than a coach of a single team?
The pool system is used in our 9v9 format where we roster 20-26 players for a given level of team, in this case the Academy Youth level. This is also done across all our Competitive teams at these 9v9 ages. On a weekend, those 20-26 players are split into an ‘A’ and a ‘B’ team. Sometimes, the coaches make an even ‘A’ and ‘B’, and sometimes the ‘A’ is stronger than the ‘B’ but that is up to the coach’s discretion. We trained as a big pool, so we rarely split into ‘A’ and ‘B’ during training, however, there were times I would get players together in training to develop a relationship which could help on the weekend. For example, I would often pair my GK with my starting center backs in training ahead of the weekend’s games. The pool system allows us a club to better use our coach’s resources and it provides a platform for all players of all levels to develop.
In regard to doing things differently between a pool and a team, there is more week-to-week management with the pool system. Regardless of where players fit in the pool, your job as a coach is to make every player feel valued, appreciated and worthy. That can become a challenge when you split the ‘A’ and ‘B’ by ability. Managing the expectations of those ‘B’ players can be a challenge but when the coach is prepared, has a plan for each player’s development and can justify their reason for placing a certain player on a certain roster, parents often understand the reasoning.
Given that parents are the ones who complete the end-of-season surveys, how would you describe your relationship with your team’s parents? What do you do that might be helping build the trust and commitment you’ve seen with your team?
Regular communication about my plan for the week ahead, debriefing the week prior, explaining ‘why’, being open to communicating and being genuine and honest. This is a special group of parents because many traveled with me and the team to England this past summer so we managed to spend 10 days on the road which really helped me develop a relationship off the field which in turn, helps them better understand some of the decisions I make.
Thanks Tom. It’s exciting to see coaches this dedicated to building great teams and great individuals. It’s obvious that much of what you do isn’t by accident. We appreciate you sharing your time and thoughts on these subjects. To wrap things up, do you have any parting thoughts to other coaches who might be able to learn from your experiences?
Thanks Adam. Development takes time, consistency and patience. Do not expect to see miracles overnight and dedicate yourselves as coaches to making your players better every day. Build relationships, be open to feedback, find coaching mentors and practice your craft as often as possible.