Considerations for Choosing a Playing Environment with Tom Shields

A native of Hull, England, Tom Shields is currently the technical director of STA Soccer in New Jersey, and the Global Director of Club Development and Coach Education at Beyond Pulse. He joins Soccer Parenting founder Skye Eddy for another High Performance Week interview, with a focus on choosing the right playing environment for your child, and how to assist them with their High Performance dreams.

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TRANSCRIPT:

Skye:
Welcome everyone to another interview. Part of our high performance week. We are so excited about this week and providing some education and guidance, support, thought to parents who have children who have big soccer dreams. And no one better than to have that conversation with than Tom Shields who we're joined with here today. Hi Tom. Welcome.

Tom:
Hi Skye. Thanks for having me.

Skye:
Oh, absolutely. You're one of my favorite soccer people to chat with. I you've talked about these topics quite a bit, and today's conversation about considerations for playing environments, things that parents need to be considering, as far as that, is such an important one. In fact, the other day when I was doing the high performance week interview with Ryan Hodgson ... is that how you say his last name? Hodgson. I think so. From the pre-development academy. He and I were talking about, or he had mentioned that this is like a generational thing.

Skye:
Like the generation of parents that are here today, making decisions for children often grew up playing the game. And so we've made a lot of progress, but what struck me as I was thinking about this topic, is that the environment that I grew up in is absolutely no longer the expectation for the environment the children these days are growing up in. In a great way, and that we've gotten so much better. So kind of peeling the layers back, we'll dive into what this environment looks like, but before we get there, why don't you give just a little bit of background on you and your experiences in the game? I know you've been a guest in Soccer Parenting a number of times, but for parents who haven't heard you or don't remember, unaware, why don't you give a little bit of your background?

Tom:
Yeah, so obviously originally from England, as you can tell by the accent. Have been in the U.S. for coming on 12 years now in a full-time capacity. Have coached at a range of levels in the game, both overseas and here, from youth to pro and everything in between. In the U.S. have been fortunate to be a division one assistant on both the men's and women's side of the game. And at the youth level, have worked with players that have gone on to professional contracts and play in the MLS, represent the youth national teams. Obviously go on to play a high level of collegiate soccer or those that just enjoyed their youth experience and exited into a great collegiate environment that was more prone to their academic ventures than athletic ones.

Tom:
Academically have an undergrad degree and a master's degree in sports coaching and sports psychology, and have spent time as a university professor across those areas as well. So kind of have a relatively unique background and perspective to share. And then obviously from a coach education perspective, have gone through every level of licensing that the U.S. has to offer. So in a nutshell, I guess that is me.

Skye:
And then when I ask about your various titles, it's like, do you have five jobs? Like how do you do all that?

Tom:
Probably more, to be honest, over the years. But yeah, obviously look, I like to keep busy and I've been really blessed with the environments that I've been fortunate enough to be a part of. And ultimately for me, it allows me to be involved across a variety of different domains that I'm incredibly passionate about, underneath this banner of sports coaching or soccer coaching. So yeah, obviously without diving too deep into those, being busy is something that I certainly enjoy.

Skye:
Love it, love it. Now we often at Soccer Parenting say that the most important decision that a parent can make is about the playing environment for their child. So if we're framing that around kids that have dreams, kids that are potentially on a high performance pathway, or of dreams of high performance, what are those considerations for parents? What do they need to be thinking about?

Tom:
Yeah, look, I think we can go and I'm sure you have already in a ton of different directions with this. What I would say is there's two questions that I think any parent should be able to ask and should be able to receive a comprehensive answer. And that would be, what would I expect to see from said training environment and why would I expect to see it? So basically does the programming question or the coaching question, do they know why they do what they do and do they understand really the reasons behind how they do it, the way that they do it as well? So there's been a term that's kind of colloquialized called a club ecosystem. And an ecosystem, a club ecosystem basically is referencing that at the very top of the program, there should be a vision of how that club, or that team, or that coach wants the game to be played.

Tom:
So from style of play perspective, there's a clear idea and identity around what you would see on the grass. Underneath that, there's a game model that underpins the actions, behaviors, tactical triggers, positional responsibilities of players, that allow that game to be played in the way that said club and coach want the game to be executed. Obviously layer down again, the curriculum that the club or coach then follow or propose allowing, a very purposeful and thoughtful, considerate approach to coaching and player a development to be witnessed, obviously covering all the topics and developing the competencies that are necessary for the games to be played in the way it is. Under that, and this is where the why I do what I do or how I do what I do comes into it, is there's a clear and concise coaching methodology.

Tom:
So are you a club that's going to coach through the use of games? Do you believe more in individual and an isolated skill development? Is it heavily play based? Is it heavily coach centered? The game is gray and full of opinions, but ultimately can you rationalize and justify the approach that you are taking, relative to something that is not just opinion? Don't cloud your opinion as fact. Can it be theoretically or empirically underpinned? Go another level deeper and obviously within that, especially when we're considering these high performers or elite youth players, is the concept of individualization and differentiation. So what are you going to do in a session to challenge, push, stretch the top performers? Are you a club that believes in vertical integration and pushing people on, and training age groups up? Do you train girls with boys?

Tom:
Have you got a senior team that you can expose exciting young prospects to? Obviously with a physical periodization consideration in mind, and referencing bio psych social readiness. We don't want to put people in an environment where they're going to drown, but ultimately we want to stretch and challenge. And then layered in with all of that is your behaviors as a coach and how they influence and affect the player experience, both through their learning and obviously enjoyment and integration into a group. So when you peel back the layers of a practice, it shouldn't simply be just cones, throw down, ball rolled out and off we go.

Tom:
Why is the coach interacting in the way that he or she is? Why are they asking questions versus, stocks stands, still, freeze moments? How much instruction is used, how much is ... there's so many different obstacles and challenges that could be put into to that, that basically that would be my green check or my red light, my red warning that says, "Look, if a coach can't answer those questions or a club director can't answer those questions, then you're probably in a place that I guess might not be the most conducive to their overall development."

Skye:
Yeah. I mean, you obviously layered in a lot. I want to dive into a few of those topics with a little bit more clarity or kind of double click on a few of these concepts with you. Big picture. What you're saying is that considerations for a playing environment is that as parents, we should have some expectations. Like if our children are expressing their desire to continue to play and to play at a high level, and they have these dreams and we're trying to support them, we need to be looking for an environment that has really quality leadership, is what I'm here from you.

Tom:
Yeah. And I think it goes beyond that, Sky, to leadership, leading the team and that individual as the coach. Absolutely. And then obviously club leadership. But I think it's more broad that what you've referenced at the start of this conversation is the evolution in the youth experience. I think it's aligned to the development of our ... the professional development of our profession, right? So in the U.S. youth soccer coaches are the highest paid youth soccer coaches in the world. There is a full-time pathway for people to work in the youth game, in a manner that is not replicated as, I guess, comprehensively anywhere else in the world. So as a result of that, there should be expectations.

Skye:
Let's stop just for one second, because I'm sure parents are like really. Many parents are. So can you just dive into that just a little bit about how our structures and the way we organize our leagues are such that we have coaches that are coaching a U11 team that in most countries would be considered grassroots and would have a volunteer coach.

Tom:
Look, I think you nailed it, right? And, and it's a stigma, but the pay to play model that exists in this country allows for a higher percentage of qualified coaches to live and work and operate here. I really don't think it's a surprise that you see the development of the game and the continued success of both the men and women's national team on a world stage, and the amount of professional players that are now occupying the top leagues in the world across both genders from the U.S.

Tom:
It's no surprise when you peel back the layers and see what their formative experiences were like. And ultimately, if you go back to the people that were responsible for their development, it was probably, or certainly nowadays is highly credible, highly qualified, highly experienced individuals that have been able to make it career for themselves and invest in the development of those exciting and high potential youth players.

Skye:
Yeah. I love that you kind of had a positive spin on the pay to play environment that we have, because what I've often said is like, this is the world in which we exist here in the states. Like we're not going to be able to remove, pay to play. And what I'm kind of hearing, I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I never really thought about like, well, what a great thing this is that this pay to play model is actually creating environments in which coaches can do this more full time. And if they have the desire to get educated, to put themselves in a good environment as a coach, to get better, then kids will have, the players will ultimately have even a better experience.

Tom:
Yeah. Look, I think if you, and I'm going to make, I said earlier, don't cloud your opinion as facts, right. But I'm going to make an assumption that there are ... the volume of youth players in the U.S. that are coached by professionals is, should be in one of the highest proportions in the world based on everywhere.

Skye:
Our structures.

Tom:
Yeah. Like everywhere across this country has got highly established professionally ran youth organizations. And don't connect professional to just the MLS clubs or the NWLS clubs. But any club that has staff whose primary income is driven by the coaching job or the soccer industry that they're a part of. And yeah, look, I think it's wonderful. I see ... it's quite inspiring when you walk along the sidelines or you take all the courses and you see how invested some people are, but they're able to be that way because it's their full-time career.

Tom:
You can't do ... it's a consideration, Sky, and an expectation, but we spoke just very briefly offline about the relative value of professional programs. The time that a coach can invest in IDP or player evaluation process, the availability that they have to speak to parents and engage in a development conversation, the ability to click video and provide feedback to players, the ability to support a college recruitment process. Like all of these things that are so unquestionably beneficial to the long term player development journey, especially at the elite or high performance end of the spectrum.

Tom:
Ultimately, if it's your primary focus and with all due respect, you're not teaching for nine hours a day. And then rolling out of a classroom onto a field, or you're not in surgery as a doctor or in the courthouse as a lawyer or whatever the wonderful volunteers are doing across the country. Ultimately there's certainly a very positive spin on the ability for people to be professional in this country.

Skye:
And just to give parents some perspective, just my personal perspective, even with all of my experiences, the game, like things that are being talked about within the last five years amongst youth coaches, like even you and I talking today about methodology and game models. I literally don't think that I ever said the two words, game model until three or four years ago. I didn't even, I know what it was like. And now in my coaching, I'm imagining, what are my expectations? And I'm thinking about coaching better than I've ever been. I've become such a better coach. So, I think it's important that we highlight that to parents when we're thinking about what their expectations should be.

Tom:
Yeah. And look, I think that's aligned with how accessible education has become on both a formal and informal perspective, right? You've done such a wonderful job at sharing insight from across the coaching community, with people that might previously have been unattainable, right? So there's that best practice perspective that has filtered down. And ultimately in the role that I perform in the club, I'm going to expose my staff to concepts and theories and ideas that perhaps they're five or seven years away from having access to independently based on the pyramid that they've got a climb from an educational perspective. But I also think it comes down to what we said earlier, where players and parents should be redefining their expectations, based on what good looks like, based on what best practice looks like, based on what professional looks like.

Tom:
And ultimately, in the decade that I've been here, I've seen a very noticeable trend and shift in the necessity for youth coaches and club directors to catch up or they're going to be left behind. Right? And it's kind of an unapologetic perspective when you're as passionate about these things as I am. And you've heard me on this platform and many others in the past, talk about coaches going and asking their players to get better. Go and invest time to make yourself better. But what are we doing as club leaders, as coaches? What are we doing? And parents, you should be able to ask your coaches that. Are they investing in continuous education? Are they up skilling? Are they professional in nature? Again, I will reference this because it's the soapbox that I sit on, but teachers take four years of education, right? They have to go to school. They have to know about learning theory about skill acquisition, about how children learn, about methods of feedback, about questioning.

Tom:
We are getting to a place where the expectation on coaches is similar, but it's far less formal. There's still those, and they might be wonderful, great people, great connectors, but ultimately there will be a barrier to their influence if we continue to just accept average is okay, in terms of the formal investment that people have made, in knowing how the players in front of them learn and develop, and knowing what strategies and techniques are most effective at supporting that development.

Tom:
And I think, that's really where I see our game going, is the relative expectation on conversations like this, is that there's an inherent understanding of concepts that like you said before have been alien. And that's a really exciting thing for me. That's something that I think, wow, what a great opportunity for coaches to actually embody and exemplify the type of growth mindset or mentality that we ask our players to show. So I had a [crosstalk 00:19:07].

Skye:
I love that thought and a couple things that kind of come to mind as you're speaking. One is, I think it's important that we maybe pause just for, just a brief moment and also say that, you're talking about coaches that are coaching at some of our largest, what we would hope to be most, not even necessarily the largest, but maybe most competitive top tier competitive clubs in the United States.

Tom:
The nature of this conversation.

Skye:
Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. But I also want to say like, for those parents who live in Northern Maine or who live in Wyoming and more of a remote area, that don't have access to maybe their children playing at these top ... within these top organizations, what's your advice for them? Because, I think our expectations just need to raise across the board for everyone that's interacting with our children, but what might be just a little bit of thought for them?

Tom:
Yeah. It's certainly hard, because I personally feel that the biggest challenge with youth soccer in this country is the geography of the U.S. And having the same type of experience accessible to all. And we've spoken a little bit offline about that. And somebody will be a hero when they kind of figure that. But look, I think it comes down to, again, irrespective of level, our practices is the learning environment thoughtfully considered. Is it well prepared? Are coaches engaged? Are they invested? Are children active? Are they coming home with a smile on their face? Are they learning?

Tom:
So you don't need an A license and 20 years of experience to do that. Need to just be, you need to be committed and dedicated enough to take the time to thoughtfully prepare the session you're about to deliver and go and deliver it with the biggest amount of enthusiasm and energy and investment, and a preparedness to connect with the players. And that's it. And if coaches are doing that, whether like you said, you're in Maine or Wyoming, then ultimately the players should have a positive experience with the game, they should learn. They should want to go back. And the parents should feel safe and secure in the knowledge that this coach has invested in my son or daughter.

Skye:
Thank you for speaking that population, because that it is. With our such a vast size of our country, our top level leagues are not necessarily reaching everyone who is raising children that have these dreams and expectations. So let's shift back to that top environment. And what I've heard you say a couple times, Tom, is that parents should feel comfortable asking these questions of coaching directors, of coaches. Asking questions about, do you have a methodology? Do you ... what is the eco system of your club? Can you describe it to me? Those should be questions that parents feel empowered and should be totally okay for them to ask when their child is considering a shift to a different club or whatever their learning environment might be.

Tom:
Here's my perspective, Sky. I'm not a parent, but I imagine when you are, that your child is your most prized possession and you're entrusting them into the care of another person, another program. So absolutely, why wouldn't you be able to do that? I can't assume that trust is given. Right. I've got to earn it. I've got to demonstrate, and look in most highly competitive landscapes, there's going to be a plethora of opportunities and options for parents to look for and explore and say, "Okay, this program versus this program, this league versus this league."

Tom:
And again, I just think what you are demonstrating is an intentionality and a professionalism that underpins the process, as opposed to, hey, again, I may have had success two years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago. Doesn't mean that it's the going to continue. The game is evolving. The profession is evolving. How are you getting there? Or how are you going there with it? So, no, I think ultimately clubs presenting that information in some way, shape or form, whether it's accessible on websites, whether there's recordings, whether it's, "Hey, I know in the past we've done presentations, so a tryout season." We've stood there and we've spoken a little bit about what you would expect to see. And ultimately it holds everybody to a degree of accountability.

Tom:
And that no club, director or coach would sit there and say, "Oh, I want this, I want the learning experience to be worse." Right. Ultimately, I should be in the pursuit of excellence, whatever excellence looks like for the industry and the environment that I'm in. I should want to make it the very best that I can. And we know that as humans, you might get a hundred percent of 70% from me tonight, because that's all I've got in the tank, depending on the day that I've had. But I'll give you everything that I've got to make tonight and this week, and this year, the best experience it can be. So ultimately for parents being safe and secure in the decision that you're making and confident that, hey, there is thought and consideration and a genuine investment from these people into my child.

Tom:
And we're not just assuming that, hey, we've got a name, we've got a badge, we've got a league, we've got a level that says, I don't really have to explain or educate or rationalize why we do what we do. You might, hey, you might not agree, but this is the way that we do it. And then you've, again, parents, then you've got a decision to make. It's this versus this. And what most closely aligns with your values. And I think that's super important and ask about the profile of the staff and ask about the investment in continued education, and ask about, just like in a classroom when the higher ups or the administrators sit and watch sessions, what's going on in your club? How are the staff held to levels of accountability? Ultimately it's a demonstration of professionalism from the top down. And I think that's super important.

Skye:
And I love the fact that these conversations are more welcome now, because of course what's historically been done. And like a big reason of why I started Soccer Parenting is the lack of connection between coaches parents, and the stress that often existed in those relationships. And so foundational to our work at Soccer Parenting is establishing trust in the coach, parent relationship. That doesn't mean that the door is wide open, and that doesn't mean that there's no boundaries in those relationships. But that means that the relationship between a parent and a coach and a club leader is defined and there's clarity around it.

Skye:
And in those boundaries, the conversation that you're encouraging parents to have, the questions to ask, those need to be welcomed. And within those boundaries, those should be encouraged. So I love the fact that we're having this conversation, because I am positive that five years ago, when I was doing my work with Soccer Parenting, that this would've been a much more like, "Whoa, Sky and Tom are talk about that. That's like really cutting edge, or that may makes me uncomfortable." That's what coaches and club leaders would've been thinking. And now what I'm so excited about, is that I know that there are club leaders and coaches that are hearing you say that and are going, "Yes, ask me those questions, because I'm so prepared and I want to have your children a part of our organization. We want to engage in those conversations."

Tom:
And that, Sky, I think is a really poignant part from my side of things, is I want the opportunity to demonstrate to you how invested I am in my club, because every time a child signs, whether the parent knows it or not, they're demonstrating a belief in me and my vision, right? And the subsequent vision upheld by the staff and our investment in the players that are our responsibility and the parents that are an extension of that.

Tom:
You're demonstrating a vote for us. And sometimes that might be, instead of look, again, there's opinion is part of this game and clubs operate in different ways. And coaches operate in different ways and cultures are different. But I think if we're more open to these types of conversations and there's more rationalized thought that goes into every decision, because look, some parents will jump at league titles and levels ahead of learning environments, practice environments, and the people that are working with them. It happens and we understand why it happens. But I think the more that this can become the norm, the better the game will be. The less issues that will likely exist within seasons, because expectations are clearly defined and this process aligns itself to expectation management.

Tom:
And yeah, I think the game will be a better place. The apprehension that you spoke about is maybe because in the past coaches feel like they're trying to be caught out, right. Or like, tell me something, I'm going to hold that against you, or we're going to slip up. No, like if it's just genuine curiosity and it's questions about, look, I just want to know what to expect, not just tonight at training, but in the winter or at games, or talk about it. Just have an honest conversation. I think if it's based, if it's grounded in a place of reasonable curiosity, sincerity, honesty, and it's just look, "I want to make the best decision possible for my child. And please give me all the information to do that." Wonderful.

Skye:
Yeah. I love it. I love it. I was going to ask you for like any wrap up advice or thoughts, but I think you just sort of hit so many nails right on the head. I don't want to put you on spot, but this conversation is such an important one for parents to hear and to feel empowered about. And it's also such an important one for coaches and club leaders everywhere to hear, that these are the standards in which we need to support our children, especially, not especially, but also those with ones with these high performance dreams.

Tom:
Yeah.

Skye:
Yeah. So, any last minute comments, are we ready to wrap it up?

Tom:
Yeah, look, the final thing I think is the value of the person that you're entrusting your child to, because clubs are large entities. And I think exploring and digging down into the role model that person will be, the standards that they will try to uphold are critically important. The consistency in their behaviors, the game is an emotive one, but ultimately how invested is the coach in my child and their team and ensuring that look, there's a framework in place that will support them way beyond their journey as a youth soccer player, irrespective of the level. And there's obviously so many, there's so many quotes and phrases that abandoned around surrounding levels of accountability.

Tom:
But I would just say if you've got a coach who is genuinely looking out for the very best interests of the players in their care and are willing to have difficult conversations and are willing to look at finite detail, especially in this high performance space, to make players better. Their job is not to tell you something that you want to hear all the time. Their job is to have honest conversations that can be difficult, can be emotive, can be uncomfortable. But ultimately if it's coming from a place of care and parent and culture in the same place with the genuine best interest of the players at heart, then that's when I think we'll see a real meaningful evolution in the game, beyond where we've got to so far.

Tom:
Because I think that's, as a club, the value of the people that you have in your program, ultimately, that's a defining characteristic. So I would just say to parents, explore that. Learn about that person as much as you can, and ultimately understand that maybe that person could be more important than any perceived level of competition, or even at some ages, the exposure that they receive and things like that. Because that's why the professionals in this industry, as we start at the start of the conversation, have invested so much to make them the best possible role models and leaders that they can be for the kids in their care.

Skye:
All right. Wrapping it up with some words of wisdom from Tom Shields right there. Hey, thank you so much for your time today. And for being willing to kind of go to this place, so that we can support parents, so they can support players. And so that ultimately we can make you soccer better. Thanks, Tom.

Tom:
Welcome Skye. Thank you for having me.