Structure of Youth Development and Player Pathways in the US with Lisa Cole

Skye Eddy is joined by Fiji Women's National Team coach Lisa Cole for another High Performance Week interview - all about the pathways and structures to High Performance in the US and abroad. Lisa is currently the head coach of Fiji and the Technical Director of Centre Soccer Association in State College, PA.  Before becoming head coach of Fiji, Lisa was the Papua New Guinea U-20 Women's coach, and has held several roles in the US professional, collegiate and youth soccer system over the past 20 years.


Leave your thoughts in the comments box below, and as always you can find the transcript below too.


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Comments on Structure of Youth Development and Player Pathways in the US with Lisa Cole

  1. ann agurkis says:

    How do parents find college coaches who are interested in seeing the potential in kids coming from areas that have less opportunity for club, travel etc but play multiple sports for their schools, show leadership, have character, etc like you mentioned?

  2. Juliana Eshun says:

    Excellent Coach Lisa, we always have to care and show concern for the players first before everything else. We have to treat all players the same which will help them jump into high performance. Thank you

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TRANSCRIPT:

Skye:
Hi, everyone. Welcome to more of High Performance Week. This is going to be a fantastic conversation with my good friend, Lisa Cole. Welcome to Soccer Parenting and to High Performance Week, Lisa.

Lisa:
Thanks for having me, Skye. I appreciate it.

Skye:
I know that right now, you're internationally in Fiji doing some amazing work. Just because it's so interesting and your bio says head coach at Fiji, can you just give a quick synopsis of where you are and what you're doing right now?

Lisa:
Yeah, currently I'm in Fiji. We just got back from Australia, played a couple games there. I'm preparing the Senior Women's National Team for World Cup qualifying in July through Oceania. So yeah, I'm here helping them develop their Women's National Team program and taking a look at how we can also develop their player pathway to the Women's National Team.

Skye:
I love it. Love it. Personally, I love the impact that you're having globally in the women's game with all of the phenomenal work that you've been doing. So we're excited to have you here. Thanks for making the time for us. This is High Performance Week. So this is a week that is dedicated to parents and coaches who have players with big dreams. Let's start it out with, I'm just curious for you, what does high performance mean to you when you're thinking about the youth player?

Lisa:
Yeah, I mean, it's kind of hard. I always hate when we start to jump into high performance and we jump into elite and we try to categorize kids so early. Personally, I don't like to categorize kids until after maturation because you don't know. You don't know how tall a kid's going to be. You don't know what their coordination's going to be. So we develop these players thinking that they're going to be high performers and sometimes they're just, they walked early. Just because you walk first doesn't mean that you're going to be the better walker. It just means you walk first. There's no real reward to that.

So there's no correlation to being high performing because you have experience. If I'm a younger sibling, I'll either not join the sport or I'll be ahead in the sport. So am I a high performer or I just have experience that players don't have necessarily?So I think what we have to be careful about is labeling players high performance, and more importantly, labeling players not high performance too early, because that's really important. I think some players are late to the game, but then once they get started, you have that kid that doesn't talk, doesn't talk, doesn't talk and then starts talking with full sentences. They were just late to talking, but that doesn't mean they're not going to be a high performer.

So I think not to those players that show that they are more experienced or show that they have special qualities early, we just have to be careful of labeling people too early when we talk about high performance. For me, I think we should treat every player the same. You look at what Sweden's doing, you look at Germany redoing their youth soccer environment. What they're doing is they're saying, "Okay, we don't know who's going to be a high performer. So we're going to make sure we touch all kids with an elite or a high performing environment so that every kid, if possible, can come out of that environment and be a high performer." I think that's what we should focus on is creating a high performance environment for all players.

Skye:
Yeah, absolutely. That's definitely been one of the themes that's emerged this week. On Friday, we'll talk to Jonathan Harding who just wrote the book Soul. In that book, he evaluates environments across the world that are meeting the needs of the players holistically. So we talk about this concept of as many as possible, as long as possible in the best environment possible, being really foundational to this concept of supporting players with dreams. So I love your comments and they're really relevant to this conversation. So I appreciate them.

A lot of the people that I'm interviewing for this week are operating in academy structures that are top academy structures or also operating in what I would refer to as soccer hotbeds across the United States. The work that you are doing with your club at Centre Soccer Association in State College, Pennsylvania is a little bit different because in many respects you are a bit isolated when it comes to those type of environments. So how are the experiences that your players are having in State College different than maybe some of the other players that might be in more of a hotbed?

Lisa:
Yeah, well, I think the neat thing we've been able to do with Centre Soccer and with our club Mountain District Union, which is our classic division which is our higher level team, is we've been able to partner with people next to us. We've been able to say, "Okay, Centre Soccer's in State College. Then you go next to Huntington." You go to Mo Valley and you grab the best players that are looking for an elite or a high performance environment, and have them opt into that.

Where I feel like what happens in some towns or some other places, I was in Boston, I was in Washington. I worked for the Washington Spirit DA. So I know that environment. But the difference between the Washington Spirit DA team that I coach and the Mountain District Union players, they're the same. The difference is just one group's in the middle of this rat race, trying to find the best environment, chasing this, "What do they think is the best thing?" Where in State College, they're just happy for the opportunity, to be in a consistent coaching environment, to have a curriculum that is based around player development, to have us going to more elite tournaments and things like that, that allow us the opportunity to showcase the players.

So I think the good thing is that we're not part of the rat race at times. Parents don't get lost in that. Really the goal is how does my player play for the high school? How do they go to college if they want to go to college? Most of the time those players are also the best basketball player. They're also the best track star. So they have a more balanced sporting experience, I think, than if you're sitting in the middle of Washington DC, for sure, because that opportunity to do multiple sports is not necessarily there.

I'd tell you that some of the players that play for me in Mountain District were as good, if not better than some of the players that played for me in the DA. That's the reality. So how players develop in one environment or the other, players are developing in both environments. So we just need to make sure that people that are in a place like State College are also getting exposure.

That's the thing we're missing, is the exposure. Not that we aren't developing talented players, we are. But if you want to play on a DA team, you got to drive three hours to Philly, or you got to drive three hours to Pittsburgh. If you want to play on a GA team, I'm not sure where the closest one is. So that opportunity just isn't there. That's why ODP is important for places like us, those other additional opportunities to go to college camps or things like that are really important to clubs like mine.

Skye:
Yeah. Just to get the additional exposure and opportunities to be able to compete against other athletes. There's actually some really cool research by Dr. Jean Côté about this and about how the majority of Olympians come from small, or I want to be careful about the majority, but a large number of Olympians come from a small town, which is sort of surprising, you would think. It's sort of for what you said, because in my conversations with him and in reading his research, it's about the concept that these athletes get amazing opportunities to be leaders in environments.

Also, they learn so much in an environment in which they're not the best athlete. So maybe they're the top soccer athlete, but when they play basketball, they're struggling to make the starting lineup. The learning that happens through those experiences for these athletes really builds a lot when it comes to developing the mindset, awareness just within the sporting environment.

Lisa:
That's why I'm so against this idea of having they play for one club. You and I grew up in a similar time. I played ODP. I played high school. I played for my local town team and I played for my whatever elite team or premier team, I played for the FC Royals at the time. So I had four different football experiences, not one football experience, one coach, one person.

We've talked coaching before and somebody who may motivate me and inspire me may not motivate and inspire you because coaches and players are different that way. So I think this idea that it's all focused on one club controlling my destiny or whether I am a good footballer or not is really risky.

Skye:
Yeah, no, I agree. Let's keep going down this line. I'm interested in your perspectives on structures as it's the structures that we have that leads to opportunities. We kind of dove into this a little bit. I'm just curious about your thoughts on the structures that we have when it comes to youth development in the United States, opportunities that we might have there to make some changes or just your general thoughts on it.

Lisa:
Yeah.

Skye:

I know you have a lot of thoughts here, so lay it on us.

Lisa:
Yeah. So first thing I'll just throw it out there. I don't believe in national leagues at all. I don't know why in the world I have to fly to California to play a team that lives down the road from me, or when there's three or four good teams down the road from me, I don't ever play them because they belong to a different league. It was so much better, and I know there's reasons for this, but I think what we need to do is to not go, okay, this didn't work or isn't working. I think we need to lay out what should work. I think what works is that as a team evolves, or as a player evolves, they move up a level. You don't sign up and there's great teams in ECNL there's great teams in the GA, but there's also bad teams in both of those leagues.

So being part of those leagues doesn't necessarily mean you're in a high performance environment. I think people are chasing being in that environment. They're spending lots and lots of money on it. 93% of athletes don't go on to play college sports. 93%. So you're spending all this money. If you enjoy that as a family, if that's what you want to be doing on your holidays, great. But I think there's also value in the fact that create a good local structure and the players and teams that rise out of that structure, then go on to additional opportunities. Not this idea of if I pay enough money, I can get into this high performance club. I pay enough money, I get to be here. No, you earn it by being there.

I just remember competing for a state championship in Washington State when that was really what you were. You were state champions. There was only one state champion, not President's Cup, not this, you know what I mean? There was one. There was one thing. So, when you went to do that, it was an amazing accomplishment. Now you could be a championship in, there's a hundred state championships. It doesn't have the same meaning and conduct. So I think creating an environment where you don't opt in, you earn in to the league that you're playing in.

The good thing about these national leagues that has developed is this idea of a standard within clubs, that you have to have a technical director, you need to have this. So I think those things need to stay, that clubs need to have standards. This idea of having a club that's all run by volunteer mom and dads is great in concept, but you need to be following some sort of curriculum or guideline. I think that's what Germany's doing great work. They're coming in and they're saying, "Okay, here's the guidelines and here's how you'll play."

In State College or in PA West right now, down the road from me, they still play 8v8 soccer and 6v6 soccer when US Soccers come down with 7v7 and 9v9. So if I go play a team down the road from me, they play in a different format than I play in. So I think that has been good about the national leagues. Other than that, the idea that I can't go down the road and get the same level of competition is a little bit ridiculous. I think the intent initially was really good, but I don't think execution-wise now, we've done the best thing for players. Players are just paying more to play.

Skye:
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, a couple points that I want to raise from what you said. So you mentioned that 93% of athletes don't go on to play in college. Now I do think it's important to realize that of all the national leagues and many of the top players in the area that we are talking about that are potentially playing in those national leagues, those percentages are higher. More than 7% of players that are playing in ECNL or GA go on to play in college. So that is kind of speaks to what you're saying is that, you're earning this, the top are rising to this, but the execution of the structure or the playing structures is maybe a little bit off. I just wanted to raise that point.

Lisa:
I would say the same thing, Skye. So of my Mountain District Union team, who has not played in the National League, hasn't done anything, more than 7% of them are also going and playing in college. Everyone who wants to play in college is going somewhere and playing. So an ECNL player or parent is spending thousands and lots more money than a player. My players are getting the same result. They're getting to go and play at the level that suits them. So I just think this idea that there's one way to develop players is really, yeah, it just isn't the way forward, I don't think.

Skye:
No, I totally agree with you. I just wanted to raise that point. The other point you raise is that these are conversations that coaches, thought leaders, club leaders, people like yourself have amongst each other all the time. This isn't a new phenomenon. It's just that I think the issue is, well, what possibly could be the solution? Because this is structural in nature, what we're discussing right now. This is the fact that there are multiple organizations that are competing against each other for the same players, and that are essentially pushing out very similar systems.

So it's just sort of flooding our markets with this competition. So while competition can sometimes be good and it can lead to some progress, which I will say it has. I do think that big picture, we have gotten better in the last 10 years or so as these national leagues have evolved. Now we're running into an issue is like, what's the end game here? What is all of this for? The structural nature, the fact that this is a structural issue is one that, for me personally, I get a little overwhelmed with. Does that overwhelm you too? How are we going to fix that?

Lisa:
I don't know if it's overwhelming. I think it just takes people to really, like you say, we are constantly having conversations about what should happen, what can happen. It's just people in those power positions being willing to make the right steps forward to say, "This is how actual youth development happens. What we're going to do is what's best for players and not what's best for coaches, not how do I keep my job, and how do I keep getting to travel and go do these fun things. But what's actually beneficial for players."

I think that will then be when we start to make the right decisions is when we start to put the players first and say, yeah, kids enjoy going on these trips initially. But what they're remembering is the time at the pool with their friends and jumping in and staying in the hotel room. Well, you can do that down the road at a local tournament without flying across the country. I just think what we're doing is making sport inaccessible, specifically soccer, to everyone.

Whether you come from a bigger family and your family can't afford to do all that with six kids, whether you come from a family that has two working parents and they can't afford to travel. Whatever it is, there's high performers out there, people that have potential that we're not necessarily going to find. Who's going to find Meghan Klingenberg? Meghan Klingenberg came from a place down the road from State College, Pennsylvania. So who's going to go find her now if ODP is not looking?

Skye:
Yeah, exactly. Now we've talked in the past about how the general idea of ODP and the general nature of the structure of that is, it was a great thing for us growing up in terms of giving opportunities for truly the top players to really be able to play together. Do you think there's any opportunity for that to come back into play stronger?

Lisa:
I would hope so. I think that from a structural standpoint, that was a very good opportunity. You made your district team, you made your state team, and you talk about earning the opportunity to play up. But I think it also had some issues. It politically did turn into a bit of a disaster and who was in charge. The structure was sound, just the people engaged in the ODP in different areas was either good or bad based on who was engaged in ODP.

So when US Soccer started the DA, I really was hoping that they would take over ODP and that they would run that program, take the control away from the states and put people, talent identification people in each state, actually picking the best players from each state, getting regular coaching out. I see the next Skye Eddie Bruce. I can go, "Okay, hey, she needs regular goalkeeper training." I find someone in that area to make sure she's getting that. Really putting players first and making sure the environment they're in is good for them.

They went in the other direction and started the DA and actually became a competitor of ECNL and the Youth Soccer Environment. So I wish they would go back that way. I wish they would go and say, "Okay, we're going to take over what ODP is, because that's supposed to be an Olympic Development Pathway and create opportunities through there so that players don't have to be chasing ECNL or GA or whatever other brands are out there selling." This is the way. That they can do what suits their life from a family perspective, they can play other sports. If they're the best, they go to ODP and they get picked. It's not about [crosstalk 00:21:00].

Skye:
I want to speak to the parents that are listening now who have kids with big dreams, who seem like they are on a good pathway that the child is excited about, motivated about, and who maybe are in a more of what we consider a soccer hotbed type environment. But who as a family decision just can't afford, doesn't want to dive into the traveling across the country to play in the tournament four or five times a year. Can you give some advice to those parents about what they should be seeking for their child, so that they could support them in their journey?

Lisa:
Yeah. I mean, I think the big thing that's worked for us is to create a network of people that you trust within your soccer environment. But I think the biggest thing is to have yearly conversations with your player to say, "Okay, what are your goals in," sorry, I keep saying football because I'm in a different country, but, "What are your goals in soccer this year?" Those might change year to year. So I think it's an important conversation to have regularly, because I may be a freshman and I'm like, I want to start, my high school dream is to do this or whatever. Or I might just be playing for fun initially, but then I start to get good at it. So now I don't want to play for fun. I want to be more serious.

So I think having good conversations about what your child's goal is in the sport each year is important. Then that can dictate, do I need to sign them up for extra camps? Do I need to see about signing up for ODP? One thing we've done really well with Centre Soccer with Mountain District Union is we've created relationships with clubs that are DA and GA. So they go and train sometimes with those clubs and they're able to go into that club environment during spring break. So they go and they spend a couple days there, they get the environment, and then they come back to our environment. Now they raise our environment as well.

So I think creating opportunities like that is important. Getting to a good camp can help your child realize whether they're at this level or a lower level. Help them frame what you should be spending. But chasing somebody else's dream is not the way to go. Make sure you're chasing your player's dream and really do your research on, okay, are you enjoying the environment here? If you have a good coach, you have competitive training or playing opportunities. You're not winning all the time. You're not losing all the time. In fact, I tell my parents, if we're at 500, I'm happy as a technical director. That means we had opportunity to lose. We had an opportunity to win. So we're growing.

I think we chased this opportunity. Oh, I play on this team. We're 10 and O. Great, but how much did your kid play? Oh, 20 minutes a game? Okay. Well maybe that's not the best environment for them and you won every game, and your kid was starting. Great, but what did you learn? You don't learn from winning. You learn from losing. So it should be a competitive environment, a fun environment, and are they learning? If they're learning, then that environment's good. You don't need to be chasing something else, really.

Skye:
Yeah. Yeah, no. Lisa, that's fine wisdom from you, for parents. Really, I love the fact that when I peel back the layers there, that this applies to kids all over, regardless of the environment in which they are. Whether they're in more of an environment that has lots of soccer opportunities or not, we're really just looking for the people that surround our children and making sure that the right people are supporting them and that the child is leading the way.

The other big takeaway from all of this conversation that I just need to highlight as we're wrapping up here is leadership and how leadership really, really matters when it comes to whether it be supporting children on these pathways or whether it means just making sure we have the right structures in place, just the value of the leadership. Wrap up question, have you seen an improvement in leadership? Do you think we're getting better here in the United States when it comes to our soccer leadership?

Lisa:
I don't know. I want to say yes sometimes because I see friends starting to get involved and the great work you've been doing with Soccer Parenting and trying to educate people on the pathway. So I think there's more information out there than ever before. Are we heading in a positive direction? I can't really say. I think we're at a, it sounded like we were going to do something and then we stalled. So I don't think we've changed.

We're just sitting in a place where we all know that change is needed, but we don't know how to go about the change. So somebody's got to pull the trigger or something to say, "All right, let's go." Somebody's got to lead the way. Or US Soccer's got to do something like Germany. Say, "Hey, at this age group, we're going to play 2v2 soccer," because you know why? Developmentally as kids at this age, I can only focus on me and one other person, that's all I can focus on.

We know that developmentally, so why are we putting in teams? I'm picking daisy's over here and I'm picking daisy's over here, you're over there digging in the ground, and one person's running with the ball. If we just put each other on the field, it's going to work. So if we know where kids are developmentally and we support them with where they are at that level, I think better things will happen for us. But I think it's happening in some places, is what I'll say. I think in some places, in some clubs, people are getting it right. In other places we just aren't.

Skye:
Yeah. Yet. Let's throw a yet caveat into that because we can end with some hope that we have the potential to get better. We're just such a unique country with our size and our geography and just so many unique features. I think it's really important to realize that one structure, one system will not solve and meet the needs of such a large country with so many people with different backgrounds and such. Maybe that is part of it is that there needs to be a variety of structures that can meet the needs of the various people that we have.

Lisa:
Yeah. That works. Again, that it should always go back that the structure should support the player first. If it does that, then we'll head in the right direction. What works in New Hampshire and what works in California are going to be two totally different things.

Skye:
Yeah, absolutely. Lisa, thank you so much for your leadership and lending your voice to Soccer Parenting during High Performance Week. I so value you and our friendship and just the great work that you're doing in the game. Also, the fact that you're somebody that will speak up and have these conversations, because these are the conversations that need to happen to sort of push parents and coaches and club leaders, and those that are influencers into rethinking what we are providing our children. So thank you for just your willingness to have this conversation with us today.

Lisa:
Yeah. Thanks, Skye. I appreciate it.