Problems in Youth SportsSoccerSportTeam Culture

This week I am headed to Chicago to speak at a youth sports conference called Rev, for clients of one of our partners, the web development and online registration organization Sprocket Sports. I have been tasked with moderating a panel called “The Secret Sauce of Taking Your Club from Transactional to Transformational,” and I am gathering a collection of club sports leaders to discuss this critical topic. It reminded me of another panel I moderated in January 2017 at the United Soccer Coaches convention on “Reimagining Youth Development in the United States.” An audience member asked us very interesting question. He spoke about how families were always jumping ship to the neighboring club that focused on winning and not development. The neighboring club promised high level tournaments, exposure to college coaches, and scholarships. He spoke about how his club focused on player development, but the better players still left.

“How can we build more loyalty to our club?” he asked.

That is a legitimate question, and one many youth sports organizations face. Many clubs feel like they are simply stepping stones for athletes, who jump ship as soon as the opportunity arises. As the expert panel answered him, a question popped into my mind:

“What are you giving your families to be loyal about?”

That is the million-dollar question most organizations fail to ask themselves.

I was reading this great blog by Seth Godin about transactional relationships. He was discussing how many sports teams treat loyal fans transactionally. You bought a ticket, thanks for sitting through all those losing seasons, but you got what you paid for. We owe you nothing more.

The article got me thinking about the panel discussion in Los Angeles. How many sports organizations treat their members in a transactional manner? You paid for two tournaments and that’s what you received. You paid us for coaching. You paid us for winning. You paid us to expose you to college scouts. You paid us for facilities. We owe you nothing more.

The club didn’t promise that your coach would treat your child with decency and respect. The association didn’t say anything about investing in your child the person, only your child the athlete. They certainly didn’t say anything about investing in you, the parents!  Sure it might say that on some obscure web page or code of conduct, but they don’t actually mean it. In their mind, they owe you nothing beyond the field.

This type of relationship is it is a transactional one: you pay and club’s deliver what you paid for. Organizations that focus heavily on player development have lost sight of an important fact: development is also transactional in nature when the only thing you are developing is the athlete. In other words, you are not giving members anything to be loyal about aside from producing better athletes. The coaches teach them how to skate, how to pass and shoot, how to dribble the ball or play a certain formation, but these are simply transactions.

Transactional relationships do not build loyalty. And especially in the COVID/post COVID youth sports world, our athletes and families need something much more than a transactional relationship. They need, and should demand, transformation!

You don’t like your favorite coffee shop because you paid for the coffee. You like the service. You like how they treat you. You love how it tastes and that it is consistently good. You like that they admit when they are wrong and give you a free coffee when they mess up your order. You like that the servers smile and are energetic. These things have nothing to do with the transaction of buying a coffee.

Whether a club is selling development or selling winning and scholarships, both are still transactional. Parents pay money, clubs deliver what they paid for. As a result, parents are deciding which transaction sounds like a better deal, and sadly, the transaction about development is not nearly as exciting to a parent as a transaction about winning or getting a scholarship. Think about how the following statements make you feel inside:

“We focus on developing young soccer players by teaching them the fundamentals of the game like passing, dribbling, and shooting. We let all the kids play a significant amount of time and learn different positions. We teach them to play the game the right way.”

That is a good developmental philosophy, but how does that make you feel? Does that excite you? Are you envisioning your future child with great fundamentals? This club is doing everything right from a technical sports perspective but I don’t feel anything. They certainly have not outlined anything that would make me feel loyal to them.

The winning-comes-first organizations in the youth sports world might say something like this:

“Over the past five years, we have won 19 state championships. Our teams go to tournaments with hundreds of college scouts lining the sidelines. Most of our players go on to play in college and get a scholarship to do so, and we have these kids come back and talk to your kids about what it is like. We provide the environment for the elite players who are serious about taking their game to the next level.”

I am not saying in any way that this organization is unethical, or is not developing players, or that winning is a bad thing. All I am trying to point out is this: Can you picture your future child playing in front of college scouts? Can you picture her playing in college or raising a state championship trophy? Yes you can, but what if you do not?

In other words, both of these clubs are engaged in a transactional relationship. Doing the right thing in terms of development is not a very engaging transaction for many people. And if you fail to deliver on that transaction, there is nothing to fall back upon. Hence when you do not win, people leave.

We can do much better. We can demand that our youth sports organizations become transformational in nature.

A transformational organization puts the needs of the child in sport above the needs of the business. It focuses on developing the person AND the athlete. It demands that its coaches are trained and held to a standard of excellence. Its coaches are trusted not only for their sport-specific ability, but their dependability and connection with athletes. They are evaluated and trained in motivation, communication, and being a positive role model. Individual athletes and teams come first, and the needs of the coach and club come second. It does these things because its leadership and membership demand it of the club.

Why don’t more of our youth sports organizations do the same? Why don’t we demand it of them? Why do we settle for shelling out thousands of dollars for a transactional relationship when sport could be so much more? Here are a few things we should demand from our coaches and youth sports organizations:

If you are part of a youth sports organization that cannot understand why parents take their kids and leave, instead of looking to blame, why not start asking the right questions. Yes, some folks will still leave, but as we have said before in this article, so what, we will miss you! Instead, serve those who stay by asking what more can we do? Are we transactional or transformational? You will never compete with the big, “winning” clubs on development alone!

And for those clubs already at the top, why not do more? Why not give your athletes a transformational, life-changing experience? Why not teach leadership and focus on developing high-character individuals? Why not mandate service work in your community and beyond? Why not create more brand loyalty that exists not simply because we won, but because we were deeply invested in children who happened to play a sport, and the families who loved them?

It’s time we stopped telling parents and players “you got what you paid for, we owe you nothing.” We must realize that we owe them, and their kids, everything! Let’s start doing more.

Let’s be transformational.


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