Tony DiCicco on Reflections on Our Youth Soccer Landscape

TRANSCRIPT

Skye:
I am so thrilled to bring the final speaker for the Soccer Parenting Summit, Tony DiCicco, to each of you that are listening.

Tony is the most winning coach in US Soccer history. As the head coach for the Women's National Team in 1996, he won the Olympic Gold medal. In 1999, they won the Women's World Cup. He also coached the U20 Women's team to a World Championship, as well was an assistant coach for the U20 Men's National Team. He's had phenomenal experiences with our National Team programs.

He's also had a massive impact in the women's game as the commissioner for WUSA. Also then moved on to be the head coach for the Boston Breakers. Tony also has a lot of experiences within the club game, having formed a club in Connecticut. We'll reference those experiences that he had at that club, within the youth game, a lot during this conversation.

In addition to all of that, and how I was fortunate enough to get to know Tony so well, is through his Soccer Plus camps. Soccer Plus is a phenomenal youth camp for kids, where it is a challenging, emotionally, physically challenging week where kids learn the power that they have within themselves, to find new limits. It's a camp that I am thrilled to say that I was part of, as a staff coach and as a director for many years. I look back on that, for me personally, and it was truly a foundational highlight type experience for me as a coach and as a person.

I'm thrilled to have Tony here, really appreciate the conversation that we had, just sort of the different places that we went with it, between coaching education, between developing players, between his experiences as a soccer parent himself. He has four boys. I'm thrilled to introduce Tony to the Soccer Parenting Summit. Tony DiCicco.

Tony, thanks so much for joining us at the Soccer Parenting Summit. I'm really so excited to have you here and to have the chance to interview you. I don't think I've engaged with you this way, despite the years and years that I've had the honor of working with you at Soccer Plus. Really thrilled to have you here at the summit. Thanks for joining us.

Tony:
My pleasure, Skye. Yeah, this is a little bit more formal than our normal conversations, but I'm happy to be part of Soccer Parenting.

Skye:
Thanks so much. You've had such an impact at the highest level of the game, obviously with your national team experiences. You also have had a tremendous impact at the lower levels of the game, through your Soccer Plus camps and the thousands and thousands of children that have come through the camps. From your experiences at all these levels, what role does fun play in this sport?

Tony:
At every level. I also ran a youth club. We had kids, very young, and it had to be fun for them. Remember, I have four sons. I was coaching them, when they first started the game, at five, six, and seven. Fun is part of the game, whether I was coaching very young kids or my national team. If it wasn't fun for my national team, believe me, development stopped. It's critical that it's fun.

Now, fun doesn't have to mean just games like tag and everything. It can mean those, but I think players have fun when they're engaged, when they're challenged, when it's competitive, and it's not a boring sort of session.

Skye:
That definitely seems to be a core concept that we keep coming back to, the challenge that parents have to find the appropriate environment for their children. Some children don't have the athletic potential or the mentality to play at a high level, so their fun is different than somebody who might have a little bit more athletic potential or have a stronger mentality, in terms of wanting to compete. That's a big challenge for parents, in trying to find the right environment.

Tony:
Yeah, that's very interesting. In addition to my other companies, I had a consulting company called Soccer Plus FC, that worked with clubs that were not premier clubs, clubs that were kind of town clubs. We have a lot of those in New England, maybe less where you are. Clubs that were losing their players at 11, 12 years old to premier clubs because it was a better experience. Even though parents were paying a lot more money, they thought it was the way to go.

What we tried to work with those youth clubs was to create their training by ability groups. Because we saw that our research and research that we read, that kids are leaving the game at 11 years old, 12 years old. We get this big group of kindergarten kids in at, say, five years old, but they're out of the game by 11. That was strange.

I think for kids that are going to develop more slowly, or don't have the athleticism at that young age that the man child has, or just aren't that interested in it, they like it but it's not something they're going to train away from the session. Those kids, we always felt that we should have ability grouped those kids, so that they would have more success and be in with kids their own level. Whether they were the top group, the middle group, or kind of less athletic, trying to achieve.

Now, you can imagine where we would get the biggest kickback on that, and that was from the parents. Once we established this, and we couldn't do it with any existing program, so we did it with the entry level kindergartners, once we established this and then reevaluated and moved kids around, it worked quite well. Those kids that were less talented, they had a chance to perform, because they weren't performing against the best kids at those age groups.

That was a little bit different than what the programs had been used to. It took a lot of convincing, but I think it helped us keep kids in the game longer.

Skye:
No, that's a phenomenal idea. For me, as a parent of one of those children, of a less athletic definitely recreation mindset child who's now 13, trying to keep him in the game and keep him having experiences that are fun and enjoyable for him and he doesn't feel too intimidated or overwhelmed, sometimes that can be challenging, even finding that environment. To think that clubs are moving to try to establish that from the beginning is encouraging, for sure.

Tony:
Yeah. The key is communication. The key is reevaluation regularly. Say we had a 100 kids. Probably the top 10 of those kindergarten kids we would push up to an older age group because they could deal with that. Then we'd break up the other ones 30, 30, 30. We'd keep reevaluating and moving kids, and eventually that lower group got smaller and smaller as we moved kids out of there. They had a chance to compete with kids their own level, and they learned at that same rate. We thought it worked very well.

Now, the clubs struggled with it. We had to start it before anybody had any history of doing anything different. Those kids, we thought, became some of the more technical kids in the club, two, three, four years out. They kept more their young players playing within the club, rather than leaving to go to other sports or other disciplines.

Skye
Yeah, that's really interesting. We've talked a lot this weekend, Sam Snow talked earlier today, about what we can do to improve the recreational environment and our modeling for our most novice players. What I'm hearing you say is, it's a lot of work. You can't necessarily just put the teams together in a recreation program and say, "Okay, I'm done for the year." It's going to take some work, in order for our most novice players to have a better experience.

Tony:
Yeah, it is a lot of work. To be honest with you, that's where we should have our better coaches working with players, because they have unbelievable capacity to learn at that level and improve. But we generally put parent coaches with them or we're trying to find coaches. "Yeah, your kid can be part of the program, but can you coach?" It's unfair to the parent coach, and it's mostly unfair to that young player. They don't learn the early basics of ball manipulation, movement, exercise, meaning can they gallop, can they skip, can they backpedal, side-on run, all those little things. That's part of the curriculum for those entry level kids. But as we stated early on, all of that's gotta be fun, for them to continue in the game.

Skye:
Yeah. Do see a time where we're going to require coaching education, just across the board, all levels, parents, volunteers, everyone?

Tony:
Yeah, it's happening now. I mean, clubs want their parent coaches to get certification, and the do the F license online or they do the level one or two, three, with the NCAA. Some of these courses get very robust and difficult, and it intimidates that coach. We always have to be conscious of that, to make sure that they're getting education but it's not like pulling teeth to get them into a course because they're just intimidated by the level that they need to either perform at as a player, or the amount of homework and pre-course assignments, et cetera, et cetera. We need to have education ongoing in this country for coaches. Ultimately, they're the ones that are going to make the players.

Skye:
Yeah, for sure. Let's talk a little bit about your coaching philosophies. When you look back on all of your years coaching, what are some of your core philosophies that you keep coming back to?

Tony:
Well, I'm a teacher by trade. I used a lot of my teaching background as part of my coaching philosophy. Competition is really important. Just picture we're working with a young kid, side of the foot passing, and we're passing back and forth. That can be an incredibly boring thing, and hopefully we're not doing it in lines. Now you make it a competition. You have the two coaches, or a coach and a player, do it for 30 seconds. How many passes can they make back and forth, two touch, or whatever you want it to be? Now see if they can beat the coaches. Now it's become a little bit competitive, a little bit more fun, a little bit more engaged, a little bit more focused and concentration. Competition for me was always important.

Now, at the higher levels, it became challenge. I needed to challenge the players. It had to be a real challenge. If you challenge them, and then guide them to success. When I say upper levels, you're getting into lower competitive levels, right up to the Olympics level, if you can challenge them and guide them to success. You see that when you used to work our camps at Soccer Plus. If they're successful, you guide them to success, what they get is a higher level of self-esteem.

There's a direct correlation between self-esteem, self-confidence, and performance. Anytime you feel good about a challenge, like maybe this interview is a bit of a challenge for me, if I get off the phone later and I feel like, "I did a pretty good job," it's going to make me feel good. That's kind of my underlying principle of coaching: challenge, guide them to success, build confidence, which builds performance.

Skye:
How important is failure to development?

Tony:
It's incredibly important. The worst thing, in my opinion, is failure to act because of fear of failure. "I don't want to try it because I might not be able to do it." We've got to understand, whether it's working with Mia Hamm or Alex Morgan or young players, we've got to instill in them that they're human beings. They are going to fail. If they try things, they're not going to be able to do everything. The object is to try to get them to play right on their cutting edge, where they keep pushing that ability to perform to a higher and higher and higher level.

We're humans. We're going to fail, not only on athletic fields but in other things, but we can't be afraid to fail. That's something that parents and coaches need to instill in the young players.

Skye:
Yeah. Well, you're a soccer parent yourself. You alluded to that. Was that ever a struggle for you, raising your kids, raising your boys, seeing them fail or go through that? Did you ever feel challenged by that?

Tony:
Sure. My situation might have been a little different because my kids got so much soccer just being around me, that I didn't push the game on them. My son Drew, he played at San Diego State, close to making an MLS team, but he didn't play premier soccer until he was 12. I never pushed him. Then one day he came to me, said, "I'd like to try out for this team." I said, "Great, let's pursue it." I was a little bit different than most parents.

The key is, support them. I have four sons. Two played in college, two didn't. They were all different. I just wanted to support them all, in whatever they were trying to achieve, in and out of the game, and never try to overanalyze what they were doing. It's tough being a parent.

When I was a youth coach, coaching U12B players, my rule with all my teams was, "After the game, we'll have a meeting. I want all the parents at the meeting with the players." They're sitting on the grass. I want all the parents there, because I didn't want the parents to get in the car and say, "What did the coach say at that meeting? What do you think about the game?" When that meeting ended, I wanted that day of soccer to be done. Do something else as a family. Don't linger on the game, win or loss.

The best thing for a parent to say is, "I love to watch you play the game." And not kind of get, "What did you think of this play? What did you think of the refereeing or the coaching?" Or whatever. Coaching and educating the parents was part of our club. I think it needs to be part of every club, because they're so important to their child, but they can also be a hindrance.

Skye:
Yeah, for sure. We talk a lot, and it hasn't come up so much this weekend, but sort of that crazy soccer parent. They take the conversation away from us level-headed parents. A lot of us are just seeking education and seeking a little bit more guidance. There's been certainly over the course of the weekend, a constant them of we need to engage with parents more, the clubs, the coaches have to want to collaborate with them. When they do, we'll see a tremendous improvement in the game, just as far as that's concerned.

When you were coaching at that level, after the game you're having this team meeting, are you talking to the parents at all? Are you letting them know ... Just wondering, from a collaboration standpoint. "Hey, this is exactly the message. Let's have this be it for the day." Just wondering.

Tony:
Well, I'm talking to the parents, but I'm addressing the players. I'm talking to the whole group because they're a part of the team. That's the way we address it with our parents. "You're part of the team. If you're disruptive, if you're yelling at the referee from the other side of the field, if you're trying to coach all the kids ... We just want you to be supportive. You're part of the team. If I have a disruptive team member, we're going to kind of carve them out." We used to say that even in our tryouts.

I'm no longer involved with the youth club, just my camps, but it was a great experience for me because it really helped me as a coach. When you're working with a young player, you've got to break it down to a point where they get it and you can build on that. That helped me work with more accomplished, elite players as well. But yeah, the parents were part of our team. We had them sign a document at the beginning of the season, on how to behave. Players, too. Just to kind of get everybody on the same page.

Skye:
The bully coach. Sadly, the bully coach is still permeating our youth soccer sidelines at times. Why do you think that is? What role do parents play in eliminating them from our sidelines?

Tony:
Yeah, you're right. The bully coach is a challenge. Look, coaches get excited. They may raise their voice at a player. "You gotta get back!" That's understandable. But when it goes beyond that and they start belittling a player or being overcritical, whether it's a boys team or a girls team, then I look at that coach and what I'm seeing is their own insecurities, their own feeling that they haven't accomplished enough in the sport or whatever.

I used to say that to our parents. "We don't need to win to validate me. I've won. What I want to do is develop your players. Sometimes we're going to do things that you ... We're going to dribble today. I want all our players to just dribble, B players. I'm telling you this because I don't want you yelling pass the ball, because that's not the object of today's thing."

Bullying coaches need to be carved out. That means if a parent has a child that's being bullied, or even if it isn't their child, that needs to be a discussion with the coach. If the performance doesn't change, then it needs to be a club discussion. We need to get rid of that type of person working with youth sports, whether it's soccer, little league, any sport.

Skye:
Yeah, for sure. Let's talk a little bit about suggestions that you might have for parents, if they're in a situation that just isn't necessarily meeting their expectations. They're in a youth soccer environment that they just feel could be better, should be better, what are suggestions to parents for how to address that?

Tony:
That's a bit of a tricky question. Sometimes parents feel it's not meeting their expectations because we're not winning enough, or not going to enough tournaments, or not playing enough games. I used to tell my parents, "We're not going to play on every Saturday and Sunday. We're going to play a lot of Saturdays and Sundays, but if we don't play both days of the weekend, don't think your child's soccer career is now in jeopardy. Do something other than soccer."

I know how it is during the soccer season. You wake up. "What time's the game?" You kind of arrange your whole schedule around the game. Well, if you don't have a soccer game, do something else as a family. That balance will help your child in the long run.

However, if there's a situation where you feel that the coach is being overly negative or there's not any learning or the coach is coaching two teams at once, which shouldn't happen but I've seen it happen, you've got one team on this field, one team on this field, coaches get real busy just trying to consolidate their day. If you see something like that, that's going to impact the quality of your child's youth sport experience, you need to bring it up. Again, I would go to the coach first, and if you're not satisfied, then you need to speak to the DOC or whoever within the club you can speak to.

Communication is the key thing. I had player and parent meetings every season. Sometimes they were just phone conversations, but I had a few parents that wanted to do it in person. That was fine. You kind of clear the air. Look, not every parent is going to be happy with their playing time or where they're playing or whatever. I need to hear that, as a coach. I have to evaluate if I'm doing a good enough job for that child and the team, or if I just think they're being overly critical. If your child isn't getting the experience you think they should be getting, you need to take action and not just let it fester under the surface.

Skye:
Yeah. Thanks. Let's talk a little bit about the game, just sort of big picture and the game. It seems another theme of this weekend, Todd Beane, Erik Imler, Ian Barker all talked about this move that we're seeing in coaching education and in developing players, from a real strong technical focus to more of what Erik referred to as sort of "that ugly practice," where you're engaged and you're learning a lot, but it's maybe not on lines, on cones, those types of things.

Now, that technical focus has helped us over the years. Do you think that is sort of what brought us here, to this point? Or is it holding us back from getting further?

Tony:
I'm not exactly sure how to answer this, but I can tell you this. When I watch players in this country, and the U20 Women's World Cup is going on now, I watch U17, we're just not technical enough. We have to look at the best technical countries in the world, countries like Japan, a lot of the Asian countries, North Korea is incredibly technical, but the number one team is probably Japan. German is up there.

We're just not technical enough. Technical training shouldn't be players in lines, just kicking and receiving balls or whatever. It needs to be functional. It needs to be done in a hundred different ways. We are not technical enough.

We're seeing this could be the worst year ever for US Soccer, meaning the Olympic team went out in the quarter finals, the U17 team went out in group play, and our U20s are doing well, but they won one out of three games in group play. They did win the group, because they had no yellow cards and France had one yellow card, so they won the group because of that. Expect to see them at least in the semifinal, so that's better. B ut remember the focus for the USA has always been to win every tournament. I think that's going to be an uphill battle for our U20s, but hopefully they can do it.

What I'm saying is, when I watch these other teams, they're more technical. We have other advantages in America, with our players, but we should not stop coaching technique. Here's the key. We talk about the youngest kids entering the game, that's where it should be technique. When you're five or six, even maybe a seven year old, you're not into team concepts. You're not interested in passing the ball. It's you and the ball. That's the focus, and that's what it should be. We shouldn't worry about kids playing positions at that age. We should worry about them mastering the ball.

Skye:
Yeah. That I think maybe could go back to uneducated coaches that are doing their best, are trying, but they're a parent volunteer. They just do what's maybe comfortable or what they think is the right thing. Just getting the right coaches in, at that youngest, most impressionable level. What role does free play do you think have in this development of the technical player?

Tony:
Oh, it's incredibly important. Because I'm a geezer, Skye, I grew up when there was no real organized sports at the youngest age. There was little league, but we just went out in the school yard, whoever showed up played. It was multiple age groups. When you played with the older kids, your role was much reduced, whether it was basketball or football or whatever. Your role was much reduced, just get the ball, give it to an older kid. There was a learning process there. I think free play, there's no referees, no uniforms, free play is so critical.

The best players, quite honestly, the great players, are self-motivated. They do their training with the team, but then they train on their own. They'll find ways to manipulate the ball. They'll create games by themselves in the backyard. I've seen my sons do that. We've kind of lost that a little bit. The great players, if you look through history, are kids that just grew up playing in the streets, in the sand lots, no coaching.

They became great players for a lot of reasons. One reason is they became so technical because nobody was telling them to pass the ball. We just gotta be concerned with eliminating free play and not encouraging more free play.

Skye:
Yeah. I was talking to a parent the other day in California, who was relaying an experience that her son had had. They had an outdoor free play place, where the kids would gather. It's like an outdoor football place in California. The parent was saying how much her son loved that experience, and would literally come home and say, "I had so much fun! I tried this move. I did this. I would never be able to do that at training, because I would be afraid I'd get in trouble, or I wouldn't start the game maybe." There's all this pressure on these kids to perform at training. We've created this competitive environment for them so they can play on the weekends, and maybe we're holding our kids back in some way.

Tony:
You know, Skye, the best example of this is Brazil. Brazil is still a wonderful, wonderful country of beautiful soccer players, but now these kids ... It used to be that these kids just played in the streets until they were discovered as mid-teens. Now they're discovered much earlier. They're put into an academy program and then sold to clubs later on. Clubs are more organized, so they're picking up kids younger and younger and younger.

What they're doing is, these Brazilian players from the past, you're not seeing as many of them anymore. You're seeing a more player that's come through the ranks of structured improvement. They're a little bit different than they used to be. Still a great playing country, but a different type of player. I think we see that in US a lot, because it's also structured at the earliest age groups.

Skye:
What role do you think that parents have? Any advice for parents? What role do you think they have in improving the game? The title of this talk is Collaboration Between Parents and Players and Clubs. What role does a parent play?

Tony:
Well, I think once the journey of a young player starts, the parents are part of that journey. If they celebrate it together and they enjoy it together ... One of the great things that I saw in this latest generation is young girls and fathers going to games. They're both passionate about the game, and now they're going to watch the US Women's National Team or a soccer game. When I grew up it was young boys and dads going to a baseball game. That's still the case. To see this new dynamic is really neat.

You can imagine, when you have a dad and a mom passionate about the game and the journey for this young player is continuing, it just makes it more enjoyable for the player and I think for the family. They have a role in the enjoyment level, the fun, but also the success of the player.

At some point, that player may decide ... Set high goals. I'm always encouraging players to set big goals. But at some point they may want to go in another direction. It's okay. What they achieved playing the game of soccer, no one will ever be able to take away from them. Parents, support them. That's the best thing they can do.

Skye:
What about parents and clubs collaborating? What type of improvement will be see in the game, when we see more collaboration between parents and coaches, or parents and clubs?

Tony:
Yeah, I think anytime there's communication with the coach and the parent or the club and the parent, it's a positive. There's tremendous resources in parents, by the way. They want to be involved.

I mean, you may want to set up a banquet, where you're celebrating your club. Believe me, you have somebody who's a leader, who can set up committees, and you go out and get raffle gifts. You have a ticket sales committee. You have a sponsorship committee. Now you have your parents engaged in the success of the club. By the way, now you've created some revenue that could go to scholarships, or maybe to a foreign tour for an age group, or whatever it is. You've engaged your parents. They are part of it.

One thing that my son Anthony, who ran our club, did a tremendous job with was creating community. The club was a community. Now that we've merged in with a bigger organization, and it's a couple years now but right when it happened, I heard so much from the parents, "It's different with this new club. They have great facilities and everything, but they've kind of lost the community aspect." I hope they get it back because that's so important for the players, for the club administrators, for the coaches, and the parents.

Skye:
Yeah. What about collaboration amongst clubs? If we're thinking about ultimately what we're seeking here is educating, engaging, and growing the game in general. Across our vast country, how can clubs collaborate to improve the game?

Tony:
Well, your club and your cross town rivals, you guys are doing some collaboration now, right?

Skye:
We are, and I'm very proud of it.

Tony:
And it was a pretty bitter, adversarial situation for a while, right?

Skye:
It is. Frankly, it's still a huge rivalry. Our club, the largest rivalry we have with the Strikers is the Kickers. What the Strikers and the Kickers did in terms of collaboration, that again I'm extremely proud of, is that at the highest level, for the boys DA and for the ECNL, we actually formed a completely new entity.

We went to US Soccer. Well, for US Soccer, oddly, we both had DAs in this small town. There were two DAs, which didn't make any sense. Either of the teams were performing. They were all very average. On the men's side, we went to US Soccer, who actually said, "You need to join together, or you're going to get both kicked out." That sort of prompted that.

Then with the ECNL, we opened up the ECNL. The Kickers didn't have that, so we said, "Listen, it's in the best interest of these kids if we can make this happen." So we formed Richmond United, as a totally separate entity that supports the kids. It's shared coaching, shared fields, at that highest level. It's been phenomenal.

Tony:
Yeah, that's a model of what should be done more around the country. You're right, competing entities, they want to hold on to their players. You end up with two okay teams, instead of kids really forming a special team, where they're competing every day with players on their team, and then they're competing at a higher level when they play.

Skye:
The greatest thing about it is that the kids that are now in Richmond United, they all want and deserve and should be there. They're in the proper environment.

Tony:
Right.

Skye:
The kids that didn't make it, as disappointing as that obviously was for the kids that didn't make it, now they're thriving within the Richmond Strikers or the Richmond Kickers. They're at the top level of that club, and they're thriving. They are the ones that weren't getting much playing time. Now they're the captains of the teams, starting, leaders, and in the right experience. They're also able to play another sport in high school, or do other things, and can have other experiences, which really probably best suits them from their standpoint, athletically.

Tony:
Yeah. That's the best model of what I've seen. Now, there's other models. Connecticut, again, players have been pushed over to Oakwood because they had the boy's academy. We would push boys over. "You should try that, if you think ..." The parent would come and talk to us. "Absolutely, you should try that. We think you're good enough to play there." It was an informal relationship. This is a better model, and I hope more competing clubs, at the upper end, create that type of model. I think it would be better for the sport.

Clubs are very territorial, and there's not a lot of rules. If you're a college coach, you're limited in how many times you can call up a student athlete. As a youth coach, you can get a parent to call up another parent from another club because you want that player on your club. There's often very territorial, ill feelings, clubs versus clubs sort of things.

But I think at the elite level now, there's a little more cooperation, of moving the best players into the best environments. Not across the board. It should be done more, so that the best players, if they want to play in the boy's developmental academy and they play for another club, they should be encouraged to play at the highest level, so they're playing with and against the best players. I think that's good for obviously the student athlete, but it's good for the elite levels of the game. I think we're seeing a little bit more collaboration, but we're still alphabet soup in this country, as far as the development of the soccer player.

Skye:
Speaking of alphabet soup, just all the different leagues and clubs and everything that's evolving, even between we have the DAs, the ECNLs now, for boys and girls, do you think that there's going to have to be a time in the future where everyone just steps back and says, "This is our top level. This is our next level," so then it's a real clear pathway for players? Is that possible, with a country our size?

Tony:
It's difficult because there's so much political garbage in the way of navigating through that. That's why I think the development academies came on. US Soccer just couldn't figure out how to really take charge of development. They just said, "We're going to do it ourselves."

I'm not saying that it's been a total success, even in the boy's development academy. It's been around for eight years. I think there's a lot of very, very good players, but is it ... I mean, their whole initiative was to drive top players to our national team program, so our national team program would move up the FIFA ranks. Has that happened? I don't know. I don't think so.

I think the player development, with the MLS clubs especially, because they're job is not as much to win games, they're looking to develop players to play on their teams, maybe be sold to another club. They have a slightly different incentive and outcome than a youth club that knows if they win games, they're probably going to attract more players to their club, which as a business model enhances their business.

Skye:
Yeah. I always get sort of frustrated when I hear anybody say, "Oh, come play for this club, or the DA, or anything, because this is the pathway to the national team." With a country our size, the chance of really making a national team is so slim that for that to be the carrot that's dangled in front of the parent always, to me, makes me just get a little frustrated. It seems like the focus really should just be on your child being in the best competitive environment possible that's suitable to them.

Tony:
Yeah, I agree with that a hundred percent. Look, I know ODP has taken a hit over recent years, but there still could be a player or two or five that make it to the highest levels of the game, coming out of ODP, or ECNL, or the Development Academy. I know I had players, Christie Rampone, who didn't play any of that stuff. She was on a basketball scholarship at Mammoth College, but she was also a very good soccer player. I saw her play, and I brought her into the national team. Now she's going to go down as one of the great defenders ever for the US National Team.

You can find players in many different environments. The college game. Players will develop at different ages, so at 16, this may be the best player ever, but at 20 or 21, other players may have gone beyond that player. Players are going to develop at different ages.

That's why for the women, I'm most tied in with the women's game, the league is so incredibly important, the NWSL, because players will leave college and can still develop in the league and end up being national team players. A perfect example of that is Allie Long, who's always been a very good player. She got her chance to play on the US National Team last year. She came in, she was incredibly fit, and she started I think every game in the Olympics.

Her journey, now she's like 27 or 28, so her journey wasn't ODP to youth national team to full national team. It was much different, but she kept her dream alive. When she got her chance, she was ready. That's no little statement, because to be fit enough to compete with the women's national team, you've got to be very fit. But she was. She got in. she proved herself, and now she's a starter on the US National Team.

Skye:
Yeah, so the developmental pathway for kids is so varied. I know you worked some training centers for soccer, I seem to remember you saying that. I've worked them here in Virginia. You get these little 11-year-olds in, and they're in for this one training center. They're so excited, and you think, "They're just not really ready yet." You want to say, "This isn't your future that's being decided, when you're 11 years old. This is just a great opportunity for you." It is a confusing pathway to understand, just the developmental process.

Tony:
It is, and there's no straight lines. There's very few players, maybe Mia Hamm, but there's very few players that ... Even Alex Morgan. When I took over the U20s in 2008 from Jill Ellis, Alex Morgan wasn't in the pool. We went out, looked for more players. I was looking for a goal scorer, a little bit more athletic players, and we found Alex Morgan. She was in college at the time. Don't think it's a straight line from U11 to Carli Lloyd. It's not that at all. It's the players that can persevere. It's a very twisted, up and down line to achieve those goals. The players that can persevere, hang in there, continue to develop, those are the ones that get there.

Skye:
Looking back on everything that you've accomplished, through your camps, through your national team experiences, through your Olympic experiences, collegiately, what are you most proud of?

Tony:
Well, I'm most proud of I think our camps, Soccer Plus camps, touching so many lives. Yeah, there's players that are playing on the national teams, professionally, that came through us. But just the camper that would come and have to work so hard, but be successful, again, guide them to success, and leave that week exhausted. We would all be exhausted. But really having a different vision of what they could achieve, not just on the soccer field but in life.

I always say, "We're going to try to find your genius and pull it out, so that you can see it." Those are our greatest accomplishments, is impacting young lives so they know if they work hard, if they have a vision, if they have an action plan, they can achieve things that maybe before they came into our camp, they never even dreamed of.

Skye:
Yeah, for sure. Well, I've always liked your end of camp talks. I've never been in the locker room to hear your talk just before a game, but I can imagine they're thrilling, as well. You are ending the summit. You're the last speaker. This is the finale of a whole weekend full of education and engagement for parents. Any final words, thoughts, just to close this up for everybody?

Tony:
Well, the thing that comes to mind right away is what my national team read before every game. The last thing they read. I'd have two sheets of paper up, one was offensive sets, defensive sets, keys for the game. Then at the bottom, I would write, "Play hard. Play smart. Play to win." Then in capital letters, "HAVE FUN." That was the last thing the national team read, before they went out to the field. That's the lesson. Yes, play hard, play to win, play fair, play smart, but at the end, have fun. If you do, we've had a success.

Skye:
Great. Tony, thanks so much for joining us at the Soccer Parenting Summit.
We appreciate it. It's great to get your insights on the game and just how parents can support their children and helping them have the most fun experience possible. So, thanks so much for joining us.

Tony:
All right, thanks, Skye. You're doing good work here. Keep it going. I was delighted to be part of it.