A New Series on Creating Good Leadership In Youth Soccer:
Red Flags, Strategies, and Solutions For Youth Soccer
As the popularity of soccer increases all across America, it is more important than ever that we have excellence in leadership on all levels of the game … from youth soccer to the professional. Here is Part 4 of the 4-part series from Ruth Nicholson on a major part of the turmoil in youth soccer.
Who Responded to the Youth Soccer Directors of Coaching Survey?
In February and March 2020, GO! conducted a survey to gather information about Directors of Coaching (DOCs) who have left youth soccer organizations through termination or resignation. The purpose of the survey in youth soccer was to gather information about the issues and concerns that lead youth soccer clubs to separate with their DOCs.
Who was Surveyed?
The people who participated in the survey included DOCs, executive directors, coaches, board members, and regular members and volunteers of youth sports organizations. The 78 respondents came from 26 states in the US and two Canadian provinces primarily from the soccer community, with additional participants from track and field, Nordic ski, and lacrosse. Most of the organizations represented in the survey had 200-1,000 youth soccer players and offered programs for recreational, mid-level, and high-level athletes.
Youth Soccer Survey Results: What are the Most Common Red Flags?
Survey respondents indicated more than half the time, they noticed issues and problems within a year of a DOC being hired, and 31% noticed problems in six months or less. However, in 10% of the cases, people said that the DOC left or was let go without any warning and without any observed problems.
Both DOCs and Board members identified these as the top key issues:
- Lack of understanding of the DOC job description or the scope of the DOC’s work
- Poor communication
- Poor program management
- Poor relationship between the DOC and the Board of Directors
One survey respondent said something I hear a lot: “For profit organizations would get rid of many of these problems.”
Swapping out a Board of Directors for an owner or ownership group does not magically address any of the four key issues and problems identified in the survey. Changing the legal and governance structure of soccer clubs from non-profits to for-profit organizations does not affect the need for clear roles and job descriptions, good communication between staff and those responsible for overall club management, and quality program management.
The good news is that all four of these issues can be addressed by any club.
In Youth Soccer: Three Areas the Need Improvement – Purpose, DOCs, and Boards
The survey highlights needs for improvement for clubs, for DOCs, and for Boards of Directors.
One of the themes in the survey comments was the importance of clear purpose and direction for the club.
- “If the club has no mission, vision, structure, board purpose, and the link between members (players, parents), staff, coaches, and board, any paid DOC will be running around doing what they think is best, only to be criticized due to lack of purpose as an organization.”
Another respondent noted the critical importance of institutional memory. I have heard many stories of DOCs who received good or excellent performance appraisals just months prior to being fired.
- “I think the lack of institutional memory is severe. And with the understandably high turnover of board members (kids leave, families, move, job changes, conflicts, etc.), this appears to me absolutely imperative. Most of my separations occurred because I was hired by the existing Board to do X, Y, and Z. Then, as the Board changes, something akin to A, B, and C now has replaced X, Y, and Z. Worse than that, there is generally no understanding by the new Board members of the rationale behind X, Y, and Z to begin with.”
From a DOC perspective, the skills needed to be a good coach are different than those needed to be a good DOC. Experience in the game is important in both roles. However, the communication, staff management, and leadership components of a DOC job require more than expertise in the game. Not all good coaches and former professional players are qualified to be DOCs.
- “In my experience, personal relationships play a big role in who gets put in these DOC roles (friendships, former teammates, etc.). Sometimes this works out fine, and sometimes it leads to the DOC being unqualified for the role.”
- “In the last seven years, my children have been players at multiple clubs. The first club’s DOC was asked to leave due to mismanagement and financial mismanagement. Another club, one of the DOCs was a founding member and although he was not very organized, he will never be forced to leave because he co-founded the club …”
The board would not listen to any complaints about that DOC, so we left that club.
- “The club my children are currently at has a DOC who has been in the position for a little over a year. When he is present, he is a good coach – not necessarily a good DOC. His soccer resume is very impressive, and he is still an active pro athlete which unfortunately does not allow him to be present with the club on a regular basis. So is the club just paying for a big name to attract more players but not necessarily getting a DOC or just one in name only? I think it hurts the club more so than helps it.”
A great many comments in the survey indicated frustration with parent-filled Boards of Directors.
- “In 24 years of coaching, 9 of 10 times the biggest problem around is an incompetent, parent-based board of directors that has no clue what they are doing and no business running a soccer club.”
Often, these concerns are rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the responsibilities of a Board of Directors and the roles of individual Board members. Many survey respondents included stories of Board members misusing their power or inappropriately intervening in coaching work and decisions.
- “Questionable bookkeeping as one family was holding two important positions within the Board of Directors: The husband is president, the wife is treasurer, and a friend of the couple was secretary.”
- “We need board members whose child is no longer playing in the club and as many as possible with some background with the game.”
In Youth Soccer: Strategies and Solutions
What are the solutions to increase board competency, improve the relationship between boards and DOCs, and decrease the number of DOCs who are terminated?
- Know the purpose of your club. It is not good enough to have a vision and mission statement that sounds wonderful and lofty. Boards should ensure that their club’s program priorities match their vision and mission and clearly identify how the DOC position fits in and supports these programs. Boards should regularly update their program priorities and expectations for their DOCs in consultation with their DOCs. The success of club programs is a direct reflection of the collaboration and joint leadership between the Board of Directors and the DOC.
- Set clear expectations for Board members and DOCs with written job descriptions for each and every position. Be realistic with responsibilities, tasks, and the time needed to accomplish them. Ensure that your DOC has designated days off to avoid burnout.
- Hold an Annual Planning Meeting with your Board members, DOC, and key club staff. This is a critical meeting to train Board members, clarify roles and responsibilities, and outline program priorities for the year. Even if there has been little Board member or staff turnover, this meeting is critical to your club’s success. The purposes of the meeting are to remind Board members of their organizational responsibilities, set the club’s programs and goals for the year, and clearly identify how the DOC, club staff, and coaches will implement those programs with the support of the Board.
- Provide regular feedback to the DOC. Outline specific evaluation criteria at the start of the year so that the DOC understands what is expected. Do not rely on a single, annual performance review. Create monthly or quarterly check-in conversations between the DOC and Board members related to specific program priorities. This fosters good communication and relationships between DOCs and Board members and enables the club to meet its goals.
- Gather feedback from club members through surveys and parent meetings at least once a year. Ask for input on club programs, the Board of Directors, and DOCs, coaches, and key club staff.
Ruth Nicholson is an internationally certified professional facilitator, mediator, and organizational alchemist helping youth sports organizations better support coaches, teams, and players. She is the founder of GO! offering proven governance, leadership, and administrative tools.
As a coach for TeamGenius, Ruth helps sports organizations develop assessment and feedback programs for players, coaches, and referees. She was a co-creator of the international Think Tank to Improve Youth Sports which engaged over 60 speakers from two dozen sports.
In 2018, Ruth was a finalist for the Hudl Innovator of the Year award for youth soccer. Her work has engaged coaches, sports professionals, and organizations in North America, Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and South America.