The Soccer Upbringing of Christian Pulisic – Improving the Youth Game

SPEAKER INFO: Mark Pulisic

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Mark Pulisic was introduced to the beautiful game by his Croatian father while growing up on Long Island, NY. He went on to play four years of college soccer at George Mason University, followed by eight years of professional indoor soccer for the Harrisburg Heat. Since retiring from playing, Mark has coached at every level of the game—notably: head coach of the men and women at Lebanon Valley College, head coach of the Detroit Ignition (Major Indoor Soccer League), youth coach at PA Classics and Borussia Dormund, and assistant coach of three lower league professional teams (Harrisburg City Islanders, Rochester Rhinos and Pittsburgh Riverhounds). In 2015, Mark moved to Germany when his son Christian was signed by Borussia Dortmund. Christian debuted for both Dortmund and the US Men’s National Team as a 17 year-old in 2016. While in Germany, Mark gained invaluable insight into youth development overseas. He holds his USSF ‘A’ and UEFA ‘A’ coaching licenses.

TRANSCRIPT:

Mark: No, it’s great. Of course, I want to thank you Skye for having me on. I’m looking forward to the next hour and the conversation.

Skye: Awesome. I’m really excited to have you here and there’s so many topics I want to talk about. First, I kind of have to just start with, because most of us are parents that are listening in right now. How cool has it been for you to just go through and see Christian going through this amazing experience? I know, as a parent, that must totally fill your heart with such excitement.

Mark: It does. It’s been a great ride here for him and he’s had some great success the last few years. As a parent, you’re there for them and proud of course. You never expect to happen to you, but the most important thing is we’re there for them as well during the tough times, which there are some major ups and downs obviously, with a lot of pressure mounted on them, but it’s been a great ride.

Skye: Good. Awesome. Well I really appreciate Kelley’s support of the work that I’ve done. For those of you who are watching, Kelley Pulisic and I grew up playing more against each other than with each other. We played together on the Regional Team, but against each other on club teams. So Kelly’s been nice enough with her time to support the work that I’ve been doing with the Soccer Parenting Summit. You can catch a couple of her interviews on the site as well. You all always have such levelheaded conversations that I’ve read and listened to, whether it be on your Soccer Unplugged podcast or in the interview I did with Kelley, so I’m especially excited to dive into some of this levelheaded mindedness and try to have that be a lot of the focus of our conversation.

Skye: Why did you start the Soccer Unplugged podcast? What are the key messages you’re trying to get across with that?

Mark: Over the past few years, people find you, whether they get your cell number or your email address or Twitter and such. I just get flooded with questions, mainly from parents just wanting the special formula of raising a young soccer player. Everyone kept saying to me and my wife, you should start some type of podcast just to get … I never wanted to really. I just wanted to be a parent and experience my son’s successes without really exploiting any of that, but the questions just kept coming in and kept coming in. Then I’m taking the year off from coaching, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to start this podcast and just have a few topics each month that we discuss. It’s very casual and sometimes I get a little excited as I’m talking about things, but it’s been fun. A lot of it has been parent geared because obviously a lot of the questions come from parents of young players.

Skye: Yeah, for sure. So is there a special formula?

Mark: No. I wish there was. If there was, we’d be a pretty successful country right now I think. No, there’s no special formula other than just being a parent and loving your kids, and just making sure that you’re extremely realistic in what your child’s abilities are. I think sometimes we get caught up in your player’s good for their local team or for their state area, where they live. Some parents don’t understand there’s another thousand or two thousand kids that are better than them. So you’ve just kind of got to just be very realistic and supportive and loving, and make sure you don’t make soccer just the focal point of their whole life. That’s what we try to do, although it becomes difficult as they become successful. When we talk and just hang out, we try to keep things very light and non soccer related.

Skye: Yeah, that’s so important and often is a message that I’m relaying to people. Let’s talk about realistic standards and just what parents need to be thinking about when it comes to their child. If you’re a parent and you have a child that is doing well in their environment, what are some things that parents should be thinking about for their children in terms of what next steps might be for them, or putting them in the right environments, just some decisions that parents need to be thinking about.

Mark: Well whatever environment they’re put in, obviously you’re going to start with your local leagues as they’re younger. Whatever environment you’re putting them in, just make sure they’re really enjoying the experience and they’re surrounded by good people, whether it’s a volunteer coach … and that those adults in charge are there for the kids and are there to make sure the kids are having a good time, enjoying what they’re doing. Not even about really teaching them, especially at those young ages of three, four, five, six. It’s just about gathering them together and drawing all out and making sure that they’re enjoying what they’re doing, so that at the end … so they feel no pressure and they really enjoy the game and they love the ball so that, when they come home, they’re more likely to take the ball outside.

Mark: If they go to an organized structure that becomes … at a young age, that becomes too structured and too difficult for them with too many different types of drills, it just makes it difficult for them to really have that true enjoyment.

Skye: Do you think, in our youth soccer landscape, that we are putting kids in organized structures, you use your words, too soon, too often?

Mark: Yeah. I don’t have a problem so much with these little kiddie kicker leagues as they’re playing, as long as the environment is a good environment and it’s fun for the kids, and the adults and the coaches that are in charge are doing it in the best interest of the kids. Obviously we can get into a whole topic of … and I did a show, my third episode of my podcast was about over parenting and making sure you don’t have these kids doing too much in structured environments. That they have time after school a couple days a week to just go outside and be kids. We get lost sometimes in wanting every night to have them in an organized situation.

Skye: Yeah. I agree with that. I think there’s a couple angles of that though. One, in one situation, often times clubs are having three nights a week already at young ages of structured training. Some of them, I think twelve, four nights a week is a lot to ask in some situations for some kids. Then there’s the flip side of that of there’s no one to go play with. So what I’m seeing pop up … have you seen these? I’m sure you have. We have one here, it’s called Own Touch. It’s basically like free play, but we pay for it because kids aren’t just going out and playing at the park anymore or playing in the cul de sac like I did growing up. So now, as parents, it’s almost like we have to facilitate this free play environment. Are you a fan of those situations?

Mark: Gosh, it is so different now the way things are structured. That’s a little different in Europe. In Europe, it’s like you go back in time. When I go to Europe, because I travel there a lot, I go back in time because I see kids playing in the streets. I just don’t see that here. They don’t need to have a training session four days a week because seven days a week they’re becoming comfortable with the ball because they’re outside knocking the ball around and passing it. So we do have to adapt in this country though to what we are given. Right now, obviously with the kids having so much distraction with so much to do, social media and video games and things of that nature, we do have to adapt. If it’s somewhat free play structured where you have to pay for it, if you think it’s suitable and best for your child, then there’s no problem with it. As long as it’s, like I said, every night of the week it’s not structured in the way that it’s a training session.

Skye: Yeah. Martin’s just popped in with a question. He’s asking … and I’ll ask this question and then I’ll make a comment and then let you respond. He’s saying, “What is too much? What is a good amount of training for a ten year old?” I’m reminded of when I interviewed Kelley, and I think we talked about this on your podcast too. She talks about how important the year was that she went to England for Christian where he was just playing outside all the time. You just couldn’t get him off the field, she said, every day. I think you mentioned that same story in your podcast. Maybe, with that thought in the back of our mind and then answering Martin’s question, what’s a good amount of training for a ten year old?

Mark: Two days a week structured, I would say, for nine and ten year olds is more than enough. Again, these are my opinions. You can go some research and some might say more or less, but I think two days a week, and I think those have to be no more than 90 minutes long each session. Then there needs to be availability for your kids to express themselves in an unstructured environment, whether it’s with a ball or without a ball. Then, once the passion comes and they really enjoy those two nights a week, they’re going to be hungry for the ball and to get out and maybe do some things on their own, and find some friends or something where they can knock the ball around.

Skye: Yeah. Well some kids will and some kids won’t. I think that’s one of the things I try to say. If your kid doesn’t want to go outside and spend time with a ball, then you can’t force them to. They don’t have that type of mentality and they can still love the game and they can still be healthy with it. It’s like, it feels like there’s so much pressure on these kids to spend this extra time with the ball. The bottom line is that some kids really will want to and some kids won’t.

Mark: Skye, I think what it comes down to is you cannot … what’s the word I’m looking, fabricate a thought. You can’t make your child into a professional player or a player that’s going to receive a full scholarship to a university. It’s an evolution of their childhood of what’s inside them. A few lucky breaks here or there. So everyone wants this, like we talked earlier, this secret formula or this magic formula. The only thing I think a parent can do too much of is really over parent them, or force them in a way where you’re telling them to go outside and play, or you’re telling them they need to train more, or you’re telling them to go to the year older training session so that they’re on a field every day, and you’re pushing them to do that. Then you’re really going … it’s going to have the reverse effect. It’s not going to be what they truly want to do. It’s going to be what you as the parent want them to be.

Skye: Yeah. So true. A word that’s often used when I talk to other parents or even when I talk to pro players that I’ve interviewed in my pro player series. I’ve interviewed Peter Vint, who’s a high performance expert, used to work for the Olympic Committee. They use the word “obsessive” in a positive way, but for kids who truly have this high performance mentality, there’s this sense of a little bit of obsessiveness about learning skills or sticking with it. Is that something that you related to with Christian?

Mark: For sure. He was born with that. I think there’s a book out there. It was maybe five, six years ago that, if you get a child and you train them a certain amount of hours a week or a year or whatever, you can turn them into a superstar in anything.

Skye: Yeah, The Talent Code. The “ten thousand hour rule”.

Mark: Yeah. I just … I think it’s crazy. I think so much of what … you’re born with. You say the passion, the obsessiveness … those were traits we had almost tamed down on Christian because he just wanted to be out all the time with a ball and wanted to watch so much. He just loved seeing himself improve and seeing himself be able to do with his left foot what he could do with his right foot. So it was nothing I taught him or I forced on him, or my wife did. It was funny Skye, because at times when that would happen, I would say stop, and we’d go get a football, basketball, Frisbee and I made sure that he was not overly obsessive. He had a mind that would just free himself in the game. I don’t know if that makes sense.

Skye: Yeah, that does totally. So why do you think we’re not developing, as a country, more Christians? Is there … What do you think that … that’s maybe a little bit the magic formula question, but maybe interlaying that with our youth development model or culture, those types of things.

Mark: What a question that is. I think there are so many reasons. I think the biggest one obviously is our culture isn’t suited for soccer. We don’t have the type of culture where kids wake up in the morning and they just are dying for the game that night of whoever their superstars are, or their team is. I lived it for three years in Germany where I was around kids and coached kids from 10, 14, 15 years old. I never had to motivate them. I never had to give them anything.

Mark: I was absolutely amazed at just the passion every day for them wanting to be a professional player, just inside of them what they had in training and how competitive they were. I said it on my podcast once, I had to tame them down at times. We don’t have that in this country. In this country, we’re constantly trying to motivate kids in training or on the field, to work harder or to commit themselves more. So it’s the culture. I think the media, I think again, when you say about having more good players … I don’t want to just say my son because there’s a lot of good talented young players in the system now, but I think the media also plays a big part in it as well, where they expect so much and they want this massive superstar. They just put so much pressure, whereas in other countries, they just let these young talents develop on their own because there’s so many of them. Then, the ones that do, they do and it’s just a little bit more free.

Skye: Yeah, that’s actually insightful for me to hear you say that because you often wonder, do you and Kelley’s background in the game … how has that impacted his pathway? I think that’s quite possibly maybe the most significant way … Well, I don’t want to say that, but a significant way you impacted his pathway is by having better perspective than maybe some other parents who have had children that are high performers historically able to just hold things back and maintain some really levelheaded perspective.

Mark: True. The past two or three years when everything is going great, and Christian was selected for the National Team at 17, and he played and scored goals and whatever, everyone’s so excited. I said, hold on, no one knows Christian. You need to go easy. There’s going to be some massive ups and downs, and that’s really where you’re going to learn from is when you see a player or a child go through difficult times. That’s what’s going to strengthen them and not just constantly being on them to do better. Just supporting them through the good times and just kind of staying levelheaded. Don’t get too excited or too high when things are good. Then, when things are not going so well, you’re just there and similar type attitude.

Skye: Yeah. Tom’s asking, “At what age do you feel that a good player should just focus on soccer if he, I’ll interject, she – is at a high level of play? Do you feel playing multiple sports is beneficial?

Mark: Yeah, I have no problem playing multiple sports. It’s not an issue at all. I think you have to be … I’m sorry, just go back to the question. Was it-

Skye: Yeah, so the first was, at what age should a child focus just on soccer?

Mark: That’s what I thought it was. I think it’s different for every case. It’s not something across the board. You could say at 12, at 14, freshman in high school and such. I think this is where you as a parent come in and it’s very important that, if your child is being pressured to concentrate solely on soccer, not play high school soccer or whatever, you as a parent need to look at them and say, and be realistic in what their abilities are. If their abilities don’t fit the match of just going into one sport or one area, you want to make sure that they just continue doing multiple things and multiple sports because they need that social aspect of their life. It’s so important.

Mark: On the other side, if you see that their talent is extremely at a high level and they have that passion to want to solely focus on it, then when they get in to their teenage years, that’s when you can have that discussion. But anything before 11, or 12 it’s just difficult to really want to do that to them.

Skye: Yeah. I mean, some kids will want to do that. Some kids, that’s all they want. Other kids, if there’s just this inkling of anything else, just really letting them find their pathway and determine that. I think it’s important.

Mark: Yep.

Skye: There are so many questions. For people that are asking questions, some of them are related to Christian and specific to your experience maybe with your child, I’ll get to them, but you can always hit Mark up on Twitter and listen to his podcasts and ask questions there. I know you even have, on your podcast you have an ask segment there as well.

Mark: The easiest thing is to go to MarkPulisic.com to my website. Then, everything, all the information is there on how do you contact me.

Skye: Yeah. There’s so many questions. It would be impossible for me to get to all these. Thank you everybody. I am reading them though and I’m trying to get to them. Let’s talk about our youth soccer environment. You talked about sideline behavior a little bit. You briefly mentioned it. I think sideline behavior can be focused on two areas. Let’s talk about coaches first. So what is your opinion of coaches behavior during a game, what their sideline behavior should be like, if you need to break up different age groups, how that might change then go for it.

Mark: Coached behavior. It’s funny, you’re hitting on all topics that we, Dan and I who works with me on the podcast, just covered. It’s crazy. Sometimes I, as a young coach growing up, was just … it was shocking to me going to these soccer tournaments where lead games for young kids and just seeing how coaches would act on the sidelines. How they were just over coaching and not allow the kids to have a second to think about how they want to try something, or just having the freedom to play. So I think, and I’m going to try to get these questions done. I know you have a lot of questions and stuff like that, from youth age, from the really young ages from six to nine, to twelve … six to nine, six to ten, that’s just a fun phase.

Mark: Even when you get into your 11, 12, 13, now you’re starting to structure them a little bit more tactically, but you’re still limiting the amount of coaching you’re doing during the game. You should be just watching. A lot of the coaching should have been done during the week, but not a lot of coaching really needs to be done. Just general organization of your team and obviously putting players in positions where you and they feel the most comfortable, and just making sure that they’re expressing themselves and just starting to really understand what the game is. But during the actual game, once in a while, you want to say some encouraging words, stand up a little bit, but a lot of the times you can even just sit down and just watch and really enjoy. Unfortunately, if parents in this country that think coaches aren’t good because they don’t stand up and yell all the time. Think how nuts that is, if you really think about that.

Skye: Yeah. I wrote an article a few weeks ago about “When coaches get it wrong, parents and clubs must get it right.” There’s like 35, 50 comments in this article. A lot of people were saying, Skye you’re so wrong. There’s different ways to coach. This coach that I was writing about was the worst of the worst I’ve ever heard. Literally, the kids were fearful of him, listening to every word, doing what he said. It was crazy. But I have to say that, at the end of the season, with my team individually, parents on my team were upset with me for not doing more coaching. They were feeling like the kids were regressing because you’re not talking enough to them and you’re not helping them focus.

Skye: Hey, there’s always ways that I can improve. I’m good for feedback, but at the end of the day I’m not going to be telling these kids what to do all the time. How do we get parents to really understand that that’s not necessarily helping? Can you maybe dive into that fine line between guided information to a player in the moment to help them have clarity, versus joy sticking and how you would maybe define the two so parents could maybe have some insight to that?

Mark: Well it’s when the play is going on, it’s difficult for kids to really process anything you’re … I don’t want to say yelling because obviously when you’re coaching you have to raise your voice, so it’s not really yelling. During the course of the play, I coach … obviously I coached my son for all those years growing up, and a lot of his friends and things like that, but I would never really give information during the flow of play. Now, if there’s a quick water break or an injury and you want to go up and pull a kid aside and say whatever, stay a little bit wider or come inside, those are the times to do it, at halftime. What I would do during the course of the next training session, I would always have two or three kids that I knew I had some ideas where I could work just some information I can help them with. We just would have a nice cool conversation about it and I would make sure they were implementing that in that next training session and the training session after that.

Mark: But to yell during the game, the problem with that is its information that goes in and goes out. So they might do it once, but then on the other hand, some kids will be intimidated by you coaching on the sideline. Sometimes they won’t even want the ball. So there’s such a fine line. I’m not saying never to say a word or never to really express yourself in any way as a coach, but it should be more motivational and positive. If they are not playing well or you feel that their energy isn’t good, maybe just get in here, come on guys, come on girls, just a little bit harder, push yourselves. Come on, we’ve got to work a little harder. Just very positive in a good positive manner. As far as coaching tactics and stuff during the course of the game, very difficult.

Skye: Yeah. I appreciate you saying that. Thank you for sharing that. That’ll be a good little tidbit of video to push out. Let’s talk about winning and our potential obsession with winning. I also just want to kind of mention, you said a second ago that, oh wow you’re hitting on all these same topics that I’m hitting on in the podcast. What I’m coming to feel like and understand is that there are four or five key things that, once we do shift this culture, the behavior, the focus on winning, then I think we’re opening the door to there being a lot more potential for growth and development, and more kids feeling inspired. So I think it’s interesting, as I’ve been doing this work more and more that are really key focus areas that we can concentrate on, one of them being winning.

Skye: So what happens … Let’s focus on parents. What happens to youth soccer when parents are focusing too much on winning?

Mark: Well that’s America right?

Skye: I have hope that it won’t be.

Mark: I was just … My wife and I were just over in Europe and we were watch a U11 game, Dortmund Youth Academy, U11, U12 game. I was there for three years so I knew about it, but just to kind of get the story rolling quickly, we were standing on the sidelines like the parents of both teams and it was like you were at a funeral. I’m not kidding. We were in shock. It was so quiet. What was great about it is you heard the players and how they were communicating with each other. It was their game. It was an experience that I had for three years fortunately to not have parents … even the coaches I trained in Europe, the parents were never involved in anything other than going to the game and watching their kids play.

Mark: Yeah, I’m not saying those parents didn’t want to win or the kids didn’t want to win. Winning is what you always … I mean, I hope everyone wants to win. Even kids at young ages, they’re watching Bundesliga games or Premier League games and they know the importance of their teams winning. So I don’t want to say there’s not an importance to that but, at such a young age or as they’re growing up during their youth careers, that should be one of the furthest things down the lines is how many games you won that season.

Skye: Give parents an insight, because some things are coming to my mind, really why it doesn’t matter. Kids are trying to learn new skills. They’re invariably going to be messing up on these things. Can you dive into that just a little bit more for a parent who is saying, yeah I’ve heard that before, but I still get on the sidelines and I really, really care if we win or not. Why does it not really matter?

Mark: Oh gosh, it’s just there’s so much – more importance needs to be put on how are you getting there. What’s the journey to get for your team to win? Maybe your team just doesn’t have the talent.

Skye: Or the goal keeper.

Mark: Or the goal keeper, or bigger players, stronger players. Or maybe your team, the coach is there for the right reasons. So the right reasons are to make sure the players are enjoying themselves, and developing technical skills, and being allowed to be creative on their own on the field, and make mistakes. That’s a good coach. Throughout that, that coach might not win every game because I know, when I was coaching U10, U11, U12, I wanted the goal keeper at times to just play out to the back to your defenders and not punt the ball. I did not want the ball punted ever. So we would lose games because sometimes we gave up goals. I just wanted kids to get touches in pressure situations. Even at those younger ages, the need the ball around their feet during games. They need to feel that decision making process improving.

Mark: So winning is a good bonus, but unfortunately the way our society is with the tournament … I think there’s a tournament every weekend in the United States. I think you can find a tournament to go to.

Skye: Definitely.

Mark: Everything just falls into getting that trophy.

Skye: Yeah.

Mark: Doesn’t really translate to creating great players or good players.

Skye: I really, really appreciate that. There’s such truth to that. I’m thinking about my team that lost in the tournament. My defender or my wide player, she just made a mistake. She didn’t block a ball. I know that after the game she realized that and won’t make that mistake again. So that, to me, is development. Okay whatever, we scored a goal … they scored a goal, but I know that this one player just learned a really important lesson that she’ll take with her for a long time.

Mark: I just want to add something to that because I think this is such an important part of that. That player who lost a ball or didn’t block a ball or whatever and you lost your game, parents need to understand that she knows what happened. The last thing she needs is for you to go in the car on the way home and remind her what happened. Let it go. Let it go and let you, who’s the coach, take care of finding solutions, better solutions in that same situation.

Skye: Yeah, that’s fantastic. I guess that ties into making sure you have a coach you trust. Let the coach be the coach and you be the parents, and seek a coach that you trust. Did you always feel good about Christian’s environments in terms of his coaches? Was that something that you and Kelley put a lot of thought to when he was younger, like six, seven, eight, nine? Or I guess, were you guys just coaching him then?

Mark: Yeah. We did coach him. I coached him as he started to get to ten, eleven, but there were some younger years where he was, I remember, just playing for local rec league where the coach wanted to just win the game, and because Christian was the fastest, he put him in the back and he told him not to leave the penalty area. So he’s playing like a second goal keeper. So he’s standing in front of the goal keeper. So we quickly found a new team.

Skye: Yeah.

Mark: If anything, we wanted him to run and get exercise.

Skye: Yeah.

Mark: So of course, if there’s situations where you know the coach is just doesn’t have the same beliefs or development phase that you feel your child needs, or just the enjoyment part of it, don’t hesitate to just … You don’t have to make a big ruckus about it, but it’s not free to you and you feel it’s not free, it’s okay to change.

Skye: Yeah. That’s a lot of the mission that we’re doing. It gets confused a lot because I talk about empowering parents. It feels like often times it’s like a parents versus coaches environment I’m facilitating. By no means is it that. It’s empowering parents to make good decisions that are in the best interest of their children that involve positive experiences, positive coaches, positive clubs. When clubs and coaches start collaborating with parents more, that’s when I think, especially at the younger levels, that we’ll see some real improvement. We can’t really fault that coach either that much. You kind of can, but at the same time we have a long way to go from a coach education standpoint in our country.

Mark: For sure.

Skye: I want to keep focusing on winning though, and I want to flip this to coaches. What happens to youth soccer when coaches care too much about winning?

Mark: Yeah, I think we touched on a lot of it just then. How are you playing as a coach? Are you playing to use your two best, strongest, fastest players to win? Or are you playing to help develop a bit of a system and a style or have the kids understand that every piece is important to the puzzle? I think coaches sometimes get caught up in, they know in their mind they can win that tournament on the weekend if their keeper gets it and punts it up the field, and puts his three fastest guys up top and they chase the second ball. Now they know they’re in. So I think that’s a big problem and I see it a lot. I see it a lot in not only youth games but even in the lower division professional games, college games, because I watch everything. I watch all soccer, women, men, pro, armature, so I just think it’s important that coaches are stressing winning when winning is important.

Mark: Winning is important, yeah I understand. You’re going to high school, you want to win the state championships. You want to go to college, you want to win tournaments. You want the pros. Winning is important in that manner as well, but as younger ages, coaches need to make sure that it’s not the only priority. I’m not saying now that every time every coach should be playing a ball to their defenders, passing them to their midfielders and going forward. No, they need to understand that’s one way to play, but you can also show them other ways and just find different solutions and make sure that every player understands and gets a lot of the ball and is able to be a part of the game.

Skye: Yeah, fantastic. You talked in your last podcast, I think it was your last one, about this concept of Keine Ausreden. I’m saying that really badly. Sorry.

Mark: That’s okay.

Skye: Keine Ausreden, meaning no excuses. You talked about how that’s something you’re feeling right now with our U.S. Men’s National Team program. We have no excuses now. We have a coach in place. We have everything we need right now. Let’s stop making excuses or talking about why it’s not going to work. Let’s put our energy forward to making it work. Can you relate that or you can talk more about that if you want, but relate that also to our youth culture? Do you think that this is a concept that we can bring into our youth culture to see some improvements?

Mark: Yeah. To me Skye, it’s one of the biggest problems in our youth culture today. I think parents allow too many excuses and kids are coddled too much. If they’re not performing to the level that they feel they should be performing, a parent might feel a little embarrassed and then lean on an excuse. “He had too much sunburn.” Don’t laugh at that because I’ve heard that before. “He was sick all week.” That’s why he wasn’t able to run as much. I just think we’re creating kids now to always have the ability to lean on those types of things and not just say, hey not everything always is going to be perfect. I’m going to have good days. I’m going to have bad days, but I should just always look back at me. Parents, the same way.

Mark: We need to be teaching our kids that they need to hold themselves accountable for playing a sport and understanding that not everything is going to go well. The more excuses we make, and the more times we’re getting our kids out of ruts by making these excuses, we’re really not strengthening them. We’re almost weakening them and having them not take that responsibility as a player themselves. It’s a very important topic to me. I’m not saying a parent, if a kid comes over … If your child comes over to you after the game upset and crying because they lost, that you should turn to them and say, “just play, don’t make any excuses.”

Mark: There’s ways you need to go about addressing your child, and also as a coach. If they’re trying to … If a player comes to you and says so many things other than, hey I just need to be better. Coach, I’ll work harder. As a coach, you need to make sure that, in the appropriate way, you’re making sure that those players, even at young ages, are understanding that every time you do make an excuse, if you blame someone else or blame something, you’re becoming a bit weaker as a player, as a person, and you’re not really strengthening yourself.

Skye: I’m going to instill that as a cultural value of my team this Spring. I really like that idea. I think maybe one of the other themes we can add to this list of ‘sideline behavior’ and ‘focus on winning’ is the general concept of parents living vicariously through their children.

Mark: Right.

Skye: When parents live vicariously, whether that be caring too much about winning or caring too much about different things within the structure of what’s going on for the child in that moment, there’s a parent that I reference a lot that I love. He’s really kind of abrupt. I remember when our kids where younger and his daughter wasn’t getting enough playing time or something … I don’t even remember what it was, but his response was, “you need to get better.” So okay, let’s take responsibility and do what you can to control what you can control.

Mark: Yeah, and maybe for some of the listeners here that are tuned in, I talked about that Keine Ausreden means no excuses in German. When I was in Germany I put that up on the wall because I knew the difficulties that were going to come when I bring my 15 year old son to a new country, into a high school that doesn’t speak English and learning a new language. I knew that there were going to be some massively difficult times. So I put that up and we kind of had a reminder that we don’t want to make excuses. Oh, I don’t know the language or that kid doesn’t like an American. He won’t pass it to me. No, we said every time. He knew. My son knew I never wanted to hear an excuse. It’s always like, hey, we knew this was going to be difficult. Go to work.

Mark: I think just having that, and still to this day, he’s going through some dips in his performance right now up and down, and he knows not to call me and say, oh dad, my leg, I’m tired. Hey, you just need to be better. You need to keep pushing yourself. This happens. This is part of being a player. You’re going to go through some tough ruts and some tough times, but don’t make excuses and just get better.

Skye: Excellent. Love it. Okay, let me pop over to some of these questions Mark. This is from …actually I can’t see. I think it’s Mario. Yep, Mario or John Mario maybe. In U.S. youth soccer, is too much emphasis placed on the size of the player, their physical attributes? Is this the same in England or Germany? Did this effect Christian and his development?

Mark: I don’t think it’s as big a problem as some people are trying to make it. I think yeah, there are coaches that are utilizing bigger stronger players and sometimes they turn their head towards the more technical smaller player, but I think that happens everywhere, even in Europe. I think they’re battling that as well. Again, that comes down to the winning aspect of it. I think it’s important, as coaches, that you’re not turning your head towards a player because of their size. I think it’s absolutely ridiculous, when everything comes and evens out, when they’re 15 and 16 and their body’s changed and everything, you might lose a very good technical player because when they were younger they weren’t able to hack it because of their size.

Mark: Christian was always a small one. Christian’s still growing. It’s crazy. He was always the smaller player. He was always a smaller player. We played him up all the time. He was playing against massive players, and it just helped him with problem solving. It’s like, you can’t dribble all the time. You need to pass now. But we made sure we monitored what was too much. If there was a team that was going to crush him because of just their size, then he wouldn’t play. So it’s just managing and making sure you’re putting him in a safe environment, but you’re pushing them in a way.

Skye: Yeah. Kelly’s asking when or at what age did soccer become the focal part of Christian and your family’s life?

Mark: At what age?

Skye: Yeah. Well I mean, that’s hard to say because you were coaching professionally. Soccer was always such a big part-

Mark: It was always a part of our lives. I just think, once it became real that he was being scouted and people wanted to give him contracts oversees and play in Europe, I think at 15, that was really when it became very real.

Skye: Yeah.

Mark: We even, the months leading up to that, it’s like well what can I do? Can I be a pro? We’d say, you have so many options. You don’t have to play soccer. You can go to college and get an education. That would be great, four years. You can play soccer in college. Or, if you want to go try and skip the college route, just gave him options. I think around 15, whenever he decided that he wanted to go, is when everything became real.

Skye: Can you look back and say that that was a moment? All these other opportunities he had when he was younger just didn’t quite make sense, and then at some point it made sense because of a mentality that he had towards it?

Mark: Yes. We had so many discussions with him because even at 13, 14, there were clubs that wanted him to go and going their league academies.

Skye: Yeah.

Mark: A lot of parents probably would have jumped on it.

Skye: Yeah, can you explain, because I’ve actually never dove into this topic. I think it’s important because I think there’s a lot of confusion there. The only reason Christian was able to even consider those things just because the opportunity for an EU visa. Can you talk to parents about why that was an option for you all and why it might not be an option for a lot of other parents in terms of an international experience?

Mark: Yeah, I’ll just make it quick. If you don’t have a European passport, you can’t play competitive games until you’re 18. So you can’t go so young, and it’s a critical time to go and try to become a pro at 15, 16 because those are critical years, 15 to 19 are critical years in developing and getting experiences and such. So, because we had a European passport, Christian at 17, or at 16 and a half, 17, was able to play competitive matches in Germany. So it will play a part in that type of … if kids are looking to go oversees.

Mark: Now, a lot of kids still go over and they just have to wait until they’re 18. So they just train and play games and things like that, and play friendly games and things like that.

Skye: Yeah. Thanks for chiming in on that because I’ve never really dove into that. How important was residency, U17 residency program down in Florida that is no longer in play? Do you think that that’s a program that should be put back in place?

Mark: I don’t think it’s necessary. I think it was good for … my son was there just for a year. That’s when he went over to Europe after that, but to have all the kids going there and playing every day and going to school was a good idea and a good … but we need to create cultures in every state, in every club, and we need to make it where there’s competitive games and it just becomes a more cultural thing because other countries aren’t doing that. Other countries don’t have those residency programs. So I think that’s why it was ultimately done away.

Skye: Yeah. So this is a question from Temitope. He or she is asking, how do you manage a kid’s competitive nature and help nurture it to be used in the right ways, prevent anger and things of that nature and teach them to channel it right? I hope that makes sense.

Mark: No, I understand it. The other day, like I said, I was watching the U12 game in Germany and the goal keeper for one of the teams that was playing against Dortmund let a goal in late and they lost. He was so angry and my wife and I were watching this goal keeper. The whistle blew and Dortmund was celebrating. The team they were playing against had their heads down and the goal keeper, you could tell he had some anger issues. He was in his goal, and he was just kind of trowing his gloves down. But I thought he did a great thing because he channeled all of that energy right after the game in his goal, on his knees. After like five minutes, he got up, and then he went to his team, shook hands with everyone.

Mark: I think as parents we know that we have … There’ll be parents out there now listening that have players that are very emotional and get very angry. There’s times you just need to sit them down and just have good conversations with them, make sure you communicate well with their coach, and not allowing it, at times where everyone’s going to be able to see it. You just have to help manage it. I don’t want to take away that competitiveness because a lot of it could just be a very strong competitive desire. My son hated losing. After games, in the car, he wouldn’t talk for an hour. So I know what it’s about. You’ve just got to let them be if it’s appropriate to let them be and be angry. Just give them their time and space. That’s fine. But if they’re expressing it in a way where it’s not going to be helpful, then you have to learn to address it.

Skye: Yeah. You’ve talked about the car ride home a couple times, and then you just sort of opened the door to how you would interact with Christian. Did you have sort of a philosophy or routine so to speak of post games with him?

Mark: Yes. We would go to 711 and get Doritos and some sports drinks and Slurpees.

Skye: Awesome.

Mark: And ice cream. After games, I was looking forward to more than he was because I knew we’d go and get some food and chill out and have fun and go to the movies. That was our post game. I wouldn’t even want to go near talking about the game because he needs … it’s not just about soccer at those ages. He needs to be a kid. So I was just very conscious after games. I knew he would be frustrated at times or wouldn’t think he played well. He would just be quiet and sitting there. At the odd time, he would ask me a question about it, I would just say, hey tomorrow is a new day. This life, this is the game and you just move on and just quickly move away from it. So there were never long discussions or telling him how poor he played. Why would he want to go back to the field?

Mark: Those parents after games, they put their kid in the car. They’re driving home and they’re just screaming at their kid the whole time, you didn’t play good, you don’t work, you don’t hustle, you don’t do this, blah blah blah. The kid’s just staring out the window and he’s probably thinking, I don’t want to do this. Why do I want to go play a sport when, if I don’t do well, my parents yell at me? So that’s a major, major no no in my book.

Skye: We did a great webinar last month with two guys that have just written a book. The link is on my website but it’s a phenomenal process that as parents, some of us really have to get some more education and help with is this post game. Again, we’re talking about living vicariously through your child. We’re caring way too much about the soccer games when these kids are young, or even older. This is theirs, not ours. I thought it was good because I often way to my children what John O’Sullivan with Changing in the Game Project says. I love to watch you play. Their suggestion was just, how are you feeling? This isn’t about the game. I care about you. How are you right now? Just letting that be what your interaction is with your child.

Mark: Yeah. I know even to this day, I know my son struggles or whatever. I’ll just shoot him a text and say, hey be happy. You have a great life, and you should be grateful for everything. That’s all I say. I know he’s struggling. If I need to say, I just think big words and words that will help encourage.

Skye: Yeah, that’s great. Love it. Couple more questions here and then we’ll wrap it up. Thanks for your time. There were a couple questions that came about when we talked about this visa issue. Kelly is asking, do you know of any additional pathways for American players to play in Europe without violating the FIFA child labor practices? Do you know of anything else?

Mark: No, but it’s not important right now. That’s all going to be changing over the next year or two. There’s a lot going on with that. There’s really no other way. If you go to Europe right now, you’re not able to participate or be paid in any way until you’re 18 years old. So I don’t know any way around it right now, but like I said, I know, I believe over the next year or two there’ll be some changes to that.

Skye: Yeah. I know that Peter Vint’s son was playing in Europe when Peter was working there. He was there working full time, so obviously that opens a door a little bit to that. There’s a couple funny questions. When is Christian going to play for Liverpool? Nate, you can ask Mark that over on his other site. There’s a couple questions that people have about coaching. I’m going to let them post those questions. So John asked a question about a wide range … or Peter did about a wide range of skill levels. Guys, go hit Mark up over on his website. Make sure you’re listening to his Unplugged podcasts

New Speaker: Those are fantastic questions and ones that we’ll let him answer over on that site.

Skye: A lot of people are saying thank you so much for your time. Oh, and this is a good final question. So, Mark says, you were a good soccer player in your own right. In your prime, could you have defended Christian?

Mark: No, but it’s funny. Two years ago … Christian is 17 and during his winter break from Germany we were here in Hershey and we went to the local high school here. I told him that I could beat him in a race. So my wife has the video camera and we’re getting ready to start. I said, yeah, but you have to run backwards.

Skye: Oh, did he still beat you?

Mark: He still beat me, so I just want to … To answer his question, there’s no way I would have been able to defend him. I was slow. My wife was the one that had the pace and a little bit more quickness. So I was the slow guy, but no, that’s a great question.

Skye: Mark, thanks so much for your time today. Do you want to go over your contact information again for everybody so they can grab it here?

Mark: Yeah, I think the easiest thing is just going over to my website. It has all the information about how you can ask questions. Feel free to contact me. There’s also a section there I’m starting to go out and do some coaches workshops at different clubs. Just excited to help out and help out the parents as well as the young coaches out there. It’s just MarkPulisic.com and they’ll be able to pull up all the information there.

Skye: Fantastic. Thank you again so much for your time. It’s like, you’re like the father of all parents that gives us some guidance here, so we really, really appreciate it. Obviously we’ve all just loved watching Christian develop and grow and appreciate how much of a role you and Kelly have played in that in your own ways. Thanks for your time today.

Mark: Thanks Skye. Take care and good luck with everything you’re going. Check out her new website right? You got a new website.

Skye: Yes, please. SoccerParenting.com. It’s just all redesigned. All the same stuff is there, but it’s a lot easier to navigate. Thanks.

Mark: Very good. Alright Skye, take care. Bye, bye.

Skye: Okay everybody. Thank you for joining in.