Check out any soccer “how to” article and you’ll see a list of the best ways to evaluate and choose a club team. Many, if not most of the tips, are helpful and include sound advice, depending on your goals.
But while it is certainly important to pick the best soccer team, that should also mean it is right for you in other than the most obvious reasons. To that end, assessing your goals and what you want to get out of your experience is the first step. You may check all the obvious boxes (e.g. top competition; successful coach; playing time), but there’s more to that check list than you may have considered.
It was great youth club experiences that paved the way for Techne founder Yael Averbuch West to a long and fulfilling soccer career, and an enduring involvement and love of the game. Surprisingly, the highlights of her experience often don’t make it on to most lists of what to look for in a club team.
What Matters More Than You Might Think?
People sometimes erroneously believe there’s a clear definition for what the “best” club team is. It’s usually the team that goes to the top tournaments, often traveling far and wide. Going coast to coast and everywhere in between to play in a tournament is not uncommon these days. A “big-time” team might be part of a prestigious league and include fancy uniforms. But the truth is, these “bells and whistles” are not necessarily things that create the enduring measures of satisfaction, or even success.
The key is not primarily the high-level competition, which is actually a fraction of your experience (league games maybe 20 times a year; a showcase tournament perhaps three times a year). It’s your day-to-day experience that matters most. It’s the place where you are excited to go to practice. It’s where you find coaches and teammates you enjoy being around and sharing your time with.
In fact, despite hard work and inevitable challenges, the “right” or “best” team or league to play in can be defined by your level of enjoyment and enthusiasm. That puts every other requirement in second place.
This was true for Yael, who like many players, fondly remembers her club team. In fact, so much did she love that team that when the whistle blew signaling the end of the final game of her youth team experience, she uncharacteristically began to cry with sadness for the ending, and didn’t stop for the next several hours.
Below are many of the qualities she was fortunate to have encountered in her club playing experience, and that formed the basis of her continuing soccer journey.
When assessing what to look for, ask yourself these questions.
Is the atmosphere supportive and positive?
Coaches who believe the end-goal is winning in order to polish a resume (for either the club, coaches, and/or players) or getting players into the “best colleges” (a questionable term) may be missing the bigger picture. While this may be part of one’s goal, the true focus should be on a positive and enriching soccer experience, one in which the table is set for individual growth and improvement.
A player should feel excited to arrive at training sessions each week, leave each training session wanting to talk about what happened or what they learned, and this should drive a desire to play more at any chance they get.
Does the team/coach encourage a wholistic soccer experience?
The best teams/coaches are those that bring in the entire soccer menu: personal playing development, and a love of the game. Do they care what you do when you aren’t with them (your individual training)? Do they stress that individual relationship with the game? Do they encourage watching, enjoying, learning and becoming a fan of the game?
Often this experience stems from the coach’s own attitude and demeanor about the game. A club with coaches and employees who genuinely love what they do and are excited to share that with the players is just as important - if not more - than any coaching credential or license.
Does the team/coach have a flexible and creative attitude?
The best learning experience, including challenges and fun, is available in many different environments. Are you allowed to play with other teams, including even pick-up or rec? How about playing up with older age groups? Are other players brought into the mix, including boys playing or scrimmaging against or with a girls’ team?
While it’s not ideal to skip around from club to club, it’s important that a player’s youth soccer experience includes playing with a variety of players and for different coaches. It’s wonderful if you can achieve this within a single club.
Does the team/coach have alumni that are still involved in the game?
Having a list of players who are still in the game--in one way or another-- is a good sign that there is a history of all of the above qualities being a deeply-instilled part of the team/coach culture. It speaks volumes that the alumni of the team are still playing, coaching, fans, or in some way active supporters of the game.
The Bottom Line
Every person is different, and therefore connects to a team and a coach in a different way. And after all the basic requirements are checked off, ultimate “chemistry”--what’s a good fit--is difficult to assess without doing some homework, and if possible trying out some different teams. It’s very important to go train and guest play with a team or club, as many times as you’re able, to feel out the environment before making a commitment.
Just remember that if you’re looking for the ideal environment to develop as well as enjoy the process, it is worth taking the long view. That means how you define the value of your experience, as well as how the club team you choose may impact your ultimate success. The best measure of that success is if and how you believe the team you join will help you grow both on the field and off, and hopefully develop an overall and enduring love of the game.