Started from the Bottom? USSF Licensing and Why Young Players are Underserved

“If you can get a little 3 year old to listen to direction and play in a game, you look like a genius.” Ben Mortimer learned this lesson the hard way as a young college graduate. After playing four years of varsity soccer at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Mortimer made a decision steeped in the sport from a young age: he became a full-time coach. Now, he coaches under-8 juniors, as well as under-9 and under-10 travel teams for DC Stoddert Soccer, DC’s largest youth sports club.

Mortimer has come a long way since his early days working for a company called Excite Soccer. He has achieved the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) National A Coaching License and the National Goalkeeping License, as well as the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) Director of Coaching Diploma.

Receiving the USSF coaching stamp of approval is an arduous process: after taking each course, participants must spend a year coaching with an appropriate age group before they can progress. The higher level courses require more than 40 hours of class and field work over nine days. Each can cost thousands of dollars in flights and hotels. Classes are offered every few months, in a variety of locations – E and D courses are offered by most state youth associations, while A, B, and C courses are nation-wide – but just getting there is a struggle.

These coaching courses are no walk in the park, either.

Before participants even arrive at the high-level courses, they are required to complete a quiz assessing their knowledge of the Laws of the Game; record themselves administering a practice plan on a pre-determined topic, as well as analyze their own behavior in the video; and complete detailed study of U.S. youth national team film. And that’s before even getting in the car.

Once there, it’s all business. In the current National A Coaching course, coaches spend 30 hours in the classroom and 40 hours on the field. Coaches study tactics, kinesiology, youth psychology, and how to organize a team of that particular age group. The coaching methodologies and tactical principles build on each other throughout the ages and their corresponding license.

Then, coaches hit the field, where each runs practice sessions, with the other coaches participating. Obviously, the nuances of child psychology can’t be practiced on 40-year-old men and women, but coaches do receive feedback on their coaching style, their number and method of interventions, and how they communicate their information.

For Mortimer, this was the real benefit of his licenses. “You find out exactly what boxes you have to tick in terms of when you stop the game, what points you need to make, and how brief you need to be,” he said in a phone interview. “Some of the instructors didn’t like certain things that I did, which is fine,” he admitted, but personalized criticism “allows you to look at yourself as a coach.”

An added benefit of the feedback is that it prepares you for the harrowing final exam process. There are written tests, video match analysis, a classroom assessment, active observation, and an on-field coaching exam. Mortimer says that the tests can be stressful: “I have friends and colleagues, and they’re panicked. They haven’t performed as well as they would because they get nerve-wracked.” Luckily, he managed to avoid the butterflies and complete the exams, but people do fail the class, wasting their time and money – one reason for the nerves.

Starting in 2016, the process won’t end when participants go home. The USSF announced last week that it plans to change its A, B, and C licenses to consist of multiple meetings, with assignments to be completed between meetings at a coach’s home club. These tasks might include videotaping practices while implementing certain coaching principles, incorporating match analysis skills, or self-analysis, which the USSF prizes highly. According to its website, the Federation aims to “improve the quality and increase the frequency of practical learning experience,” in part by incorporating an assessment at the coach’s home club.

The USSF has also swum into the internet age with the advent of its online-only F License. The barriers to entry are significantly lower than the E: the course costs $25, can be completed online in 2 hours, and is intended for all youth coaches and parents.

The object of the course, from ussoccer.com, is to “[create] a fun, activity-centered and age-appropriate environment for 5-8 years old players.” The course shares successful coaching techniques and age-appropriate drills, important medical and physiological information, and how to design practice plans for young kids: essentially, the colossal USSF youth development plan in miniature.

The aim of the F course is to spread coaching knowledge to parents and coaches alike, a problem which Mortimer quickly came across when working with young players and their parents. When he started with Stoddert, there were many miscommunications with the parents about the performance of the team on the field.

“I concentrated solely on players at first and never really had a relationship with the parents,” Mortimer says. When his teams struggled with playing the ball out of the back, parents raised questions about why Mortimer told the kids to play this way. He was annoyed at first.

But then he realized: “[The parents] are the ones that are really going to fuel the fire. They need to know what to do with [the players] when they get home from practice, how to talk to them. The parents hopefully have one eye on the bigger picture, not winning every day.” He began including the parents in the conversation, providing match analysis after the game and sending out his training plans via email.

“If you explain to the parents how we’re improving playing out of the back (with no punting), they understand why you’re losing some games, and that once [the players] finally do figure out how to play out of the back with speed and skill, there’s nothing the other teams can do.” This approach is an effective way to combat the much-touted problem of relying on young players’ athleticism at the expense of solid foundation.

Indeed, a lack of solid foundation is what draws Mortimer to coach U-8s. “My scope is bigger if I work with U-9s and U-10s,” and he gets more players involved and interested in the game.

After a moment, he admits: “the youngest age groups get underserved.” The certified coaches always aim to coach older players to further their education and licensing. “If you’re a youth coach, you don’t necessarily need to get the C license. I have friends that are professional coaches that don’t have their C licenses because they don’t work with players over the age of 12.”

Some highly certified coaches work with young players, but even at Stoddert (a club with a plethora of experienced coaches), 4 of the 10 coaches working with players under 12 have a C license or higher, and 3 have an A license.

Although many of the technical and tactical skills taught in the higher licenses do not apply directly to his U-8s, Mortimer emphasizes the development of his coaching, even with younger players. “It improved my delivery and quality of information, my focus on a whole team. They’re young and developing, but I can also see the bigger picture, see what we’re building towards with our formation and our style of play.  A lot of coaches, especially in the U.S., don’t focus on tactics.”

He says he can see the problems in his other job, as an assistant coach of the American University men’s soccer team. In a recent training session, when he asked a player who had just won the ball what his goal was, the player responded: “uh, to switch the point of attack?” No, Mortimer recounts. Wrong. “Barcelona mode doesn’t help anybody,” he says, which is too bad, because the U.S. is obsessed with it.

“If you ask my teams what they are trying to do with the ball, and they say anything other than ‘score’, we’ve got a problem. There are some things I teach my college boys that my U-9s already understand.”

A systemic ignorance of tactical and mental development plagues the American youth game, Mortimer believes. “I’ll say [to the college players], where are you getting this from? It’s the stuff they’ve been taught growing up.” The inability for youth coaches to develop beyond the specific needs of their age group means that the U-10 and U-12 coaches do not have the tactical depth of knowledge to ingrain basic versions of important concepts.

“The tactical side of the game is important for younger age groups. Young players have more of an intelligence than people give them credit for. I just give them a little bit more information.” That’s Mortimer’s style. But until more qualified coaches return to younger age groups, or knowledge is separated from player age, the younger levels of American soccer development will be systematically underserved. Maybe the USSF Academy Director license, an invite-only program to kick off in 2016, will help. Maybe not.

Luckily, Mortimer seems like the industrious type. As he hangs up the phone, he heads off to coach his American University students; except these ones have never touched a soccer ball in their lives.

His goal? “Make this the #1 sport for every kid that comes across it.” Through all of those hours in the classroom and on the training ground, nothing can dull the love of the game, and the desire to communicate it.

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Ben Mortimer is a U-8, U-9 and U-10 travel coach at DC Stoddert. He also leads the soccer camp FourSoccer, where they run summer camps, winter camps and clinics, with session plans posted online and resources for parents and players.