Ten years after creating the U.S. Soccer Development Academy for boys' youth soccer, the U.S. Soccer Federation will launch a corresponding U.S. Soccer Girls' Development Academy on Saturday, with 69 total clubs and more than 6,000 players across four age groups: U-14, U-15, U-16/17 and U-18/19. According to U.S. Soccer, "the program's philosophy is based on increased training, less total games, and more meaningful games. The Academy values individual development of elite players over winning trophies and titles. Training is the priority, as clubs are required to train at least four days a week during the season and no outside activity is allowed."
Development in girls' soccer needs and deserves attention in this country. And it needs to be done smarter, not just winning-comes-first. As we have all seen, the pay-to-play model of clubs often reinforces only the winning-comes-first mindset. It is time to think through development differently. Though I will never be a fan of requiring girls to only play soccer, and to forgo playing with their high school teams, I commend U.S. Soccer for stepping up its support of girls' development in this country.
It seems to be working on the boys' side of development. According to U.S. Soccer: "Now entering its 10th year, the Boys' Academy players accounted for 92 percent of youth national team players during the 2016-17 cycle. The number of teams has exploded, from 125 in 2007 to 461 for last season's campaign."
My only hesitation with this new academy is how this model works with girls. Development academy teams can be intense and singular in their focus (that's the whole idea after all; you immerse in your sport), and maybe that is a good thing -- but I also know girls and boys can be very different in how they attack sports. I needed balance as a player. I needed some time away from the sport. I needed other sports, other interests in my life.
Don't take me wrong. I was intense and competitive and wanted badly to play and train. But I also realized that I played best when I enjoyed the heck out of the sport. And balance fed my love of soccer. This girls' development academy will quickly give us an idea of the needs of girls versus boys and how they could be potentially different. The success of it will depend on U.S. Soccer's flexibility in its approach.
It's also important to see NWSL teams support youth development. The NWSL teams will all launch girls' academies, which should help create a pipeline for their teams, and I'm thrilled to see some former and current women's national team players involved with these clubs. Tobin Heath is serving as the assistant youth technical director for Portland Thorns FC Academy. Lori Lindsey, the former U.S. national team player and Washington Spirit midfielder, will serve as the Spirit's Virginia academy's strength and conditioning director and as an assistant coach. Brandi Chastain is the executive director for California Thorns FC (Santa Clara, California) and head coach for the club's U-14 team.
I especially love that Chastain is also using this opportunity to focus on complete development, not just of the player but of the person as well. I had a chance to chat with Chastain recently about her new role and her club, the California Thorns FC.
Julie Foudy: What made you want to get involved with the development academy?
Brandi Chastain: I didn't particularly like the way our local club was functioning. Players were like tokens. You could change these tokens for those tokens. I always felt that players were moved around too much. There was no synergy and loyalty to one team. This was with boys and girls. I saw friends of mine who had kids playing deal with it; their kids wouldn't know until the last minute if they were playing on a team that day. There was no chemistry. It was not the youth sporting environment I grew up in, when parents all knew each other, there was a camaraderie and players hung out together with teammates.
Youth sports should be about enjoyment. The learning comes because they want to be there. They enjoy process, teammates. Good stuff happens. You must enjoy it to learn. I was seeing less and less enjoyment, seeing kids stressed out and playing on two-three different teams and guest playing on a bunch of teams. I was seeing kids who come to every practice every day not playing because guest players step in. I didn't like it. It didn't feel right.
I knew I wanted to do more coaching and have aspirations to coach at a higher level. I wanted to be in an environment where I am coaching through an entire season and dealing with all that comes in a season. The girls' side of our local club was breaking off from the main club. The development academy was about to be formed. And Jeff Baicher, the director of coaching who has three daughters and a son, recognized that the girls need something different than the boys -- not a different kind of soccer, but something else that connects them to the game, besides just the physical side and competition.
He asked if I could help him do this, and it was my chance to try and help start something and focus on developing players to see themselves as whole people, not just soccer players. Now that I've been away from the game I realized I learned so many things in soccer -- being injured, cut or not making a team -- that helped me get through tough moments in life. And I've used my teammates and players around me as barometers. Is this what Mia [Hamm] would do? Is this what Tisha [Hoch, née Venturini] or Millie [Tiffeny Milbrett] would do? You all helped me make decisions. What we learn from our teammates are as valuable as having a coach teaching you to pass the ball properly or trap a ball properly.
The other big thing for me is the girls' lack of willingness to use their voice to command and demand and instruct. They are great with chitchat during warm-up, but when asked to instruct others, they are silent. I want to teach them that our voices matter. If we have information and we have knowledge and don't say anything, you are as culpable as the person making the mistake.
Foudy: What's the philosophy behind the club?
Chastain: Creating an environment that supports proactive, fearless decision-makers under pressure -- and a commitment to those moments, right or wrong -- and a lack of worry in those moments. For young girls to feel like they can be decision-makers. I want them to be able to see the game in a way that is like chess, three or four steps ahead. I want girls to give themselves credit when things are good and be OK when they're not good. To say, I can do better. To hold each other accountable in those moments and not fear an emotional bruising if someone says something uncomfortable that we don't like. And when you do something good, own it. Have a big smile. I want others to own it as well, to recognize it, call it out, put a high five to it, because it FEELS GOOD. I want there to be moments when you make eye contact and recognize great moments together. It's uplifting. It's that spiritual moment that sports provide. Girls need to embrace those moments.
Foudy: How can this development academy help girls?
Chastain: Girls deserve this attention, but there's still a lot we need to learn to see if it's set up in a way that is beneficial to both the players and U.S. Soccer. And there certainly are some really neat perks that U.S. Soccer has given us. We got to go watch the U.S. women's national team train in San Diego in July. We also got to see two [Tournament of Nations] games. We got to see it up close. I am certain that has changed these players. That connection is overwhelmingly positive. U.S. Soccer has embraced that impact and helped facilitate it.
Foudy: At the end of the day, what do you want the girls to learn from your academy?
Chastain: I want them to be strong. I want them to have a confident voice. I want them to feel they can tackle hard challenges, and although they may be nervous, that they can go forward and achieve -- whether that is on the soccer field or off. I want them to know that teams function together. They help each other. The players can influence their communities as well. We are a very diverse group of players and people. That also helps us learn more about tolerance and acceptance, and makes us more comfortable with each other. Soccer is the conduit for all these lessons. My goal and my mandate to myself and other coaches is our players must improve. They cannot stay the same. That is our responsibility as coaches, without fail.
I gave the players notebooks yesterday. We have been doing goal setting on a weekly basis. I have them write down what they hope to gain out of a practice and how they can implement that in a game so they can monitor their own progress. And take some ownership in their development, instead of just a coach just saying this is what you need to do.
Foudy: Where do you fall on the high school playing limitation?
Chastain: I hope they look at it again and provide some flexibility. Maybe the rule is too stringent. I coach high school boys' varsity soccer and I see it is a different environment. Some of the players may not be the leaders on their club team, but they are in high school. They have to take on new roles. They get to listen to a new voice. It is a valuable experience. There are lots of young memories. To be amongst your peers and wear the school letter has a wonderful social element as well. Some people say the level of soccer is not good enough, but there are a lot of positives. How do you go from being a role player to THE player in high school? That's an important experience. But yes, we also have to acknowledge there are some kids who just don't want to play high school soccer for many reasons -- the team is not good, the field is not good -- and that is understandable.
Foudy: Tobin Heath, Lori Lindsey, Justi Baumgardt and Jen Lalor are also all involved, as are nine female technical advisors supporting the 69 club teams. How important is it to get more women involved in the development academy and coaching in general?
Chastain: It is important for women to see that it is a viable place to work and you can do this work. It is so important for young girls to see women doing these jobs. But I also want the best person possible to do it. That is genderless for me. As my friend Andrea Montalbano has said: "Women who have had experience playing in college or at a high level, and don't step up to coach, are missing an opportunity to be a positive influencer ... they are missing that moment to give young girls the courage and example to do these roles." Andrea has given a wonderful call to action to women by saying, yes, yes you can. Coaching can be for you, mom, not just for dad.