Last week, Mike Singleton was appointed the new Executive Director of Mass Youth Soccer Association (MYSA), the second largest state youth soccer organization in the country with over 200,000 members. MYSA represents the US Soccer Federation and US Youth Soccer in Massachusetts and is a FIFA member organization.
For the past seven years, Singleton has been MYSA’s Director of Coaching and on the national staff of US Soccer and US Youth Soccer. Singleton, 32, attended the University of Pennsylvania and played soccer there before taking a position as psychologist and men’s coach at St. Joseph’s College. He later served as director of Kirkwood Soccer Club in Delaware and another in Chicago before returning to Massachusetts where he was raised through the soccer development system.
During World Cup, one of the hottest topics of discussion was how to improve youth soccer development in the United States in order to create more and better players at the international level. ESPN analyst Jurgen Klinsmann, who was a top goal scorer for Germany, a former Bayern Munich coach and later a candidate for the position of USMNT coach, described the U.S. soccer pyramid as upside down from the rest of the world. Recently, U.S. Women’s National Team coach Pia Sundhage suggested that teaching the values in the game itself would improve the U.S. level.
I spoke at length with Singleton about ground level changes he’s working on, including a new web site, to improve the quality of player in Massachusetts. One of his greatest challenges is streamlining the structure of the Massachusetts youth system. “The root of the issue is we have 457 different organizations – clubs and towns – in Massachusetts soccer and that’s one of the most absurd things I’ve seen. The problem is we don’t have 457 top quality coaches, we don’t have 457 top quality leaders.” – Singleton
The interview is posted in two parts. Part 1 is below and find Part 2 here.
LE: A lot of people talk about changing the focus from winning to development, and you’ve talked about putting this into practice by increasing the ratio of practices to games and even scheduling practices on weekends instead of games. Parents would see how the coach conducts practices, what the kids are working on. Why hasn’t this been implemented?
Singleton: It’s a push out there. And with US Soccer coming out with the Academy a few years back, one of their bigger stresses was that we need a better practice to game ratio. Children need to practice and improve skills in order to show they can perform them in the game situation. With kids these days, 12-14 year-olds are playing 100-120 games a year. Just look at there being 365 days, and that leaves so little practice time. We need time to work on things and different life skills. I’m a big proponent with younger kids, especially 8-9 year-olds and parents who are trying to figure out what it’s all about, that they run parallel training with parents and kids together. Have all the parents of those 8 year-olds run it with the coach and actually physically do it. So when it comes a question of what are we doing, why are we doing it – well, experience it and see how hard it is. You can understand it if you’re doing it as opposed to watching.
LE: Parent education has been talked about for a long time, but I don’t see it being implemented at the town level.
Singleton: Now there’s online coaching education and power points for parents, but it would be helpful to have regular meetings and communication with the parents. From a U-12 team experience coaching them, we’d try to get them to understand zonal defense and that’s a huge transition. Man-on-man marking is very simple, straightforward – follow this person, don’t lose sight, don’t let them go – that’s an easy concept. But when you go to zonal defense – understanding zones of danger, space, and passing on players – that’s difficult for them to grasp and the transition is kind of ugly. It takes a while for them to get good at it.
I had a group of players who were going through that transition and the parents understandably were concerned because we were giving up some goals, so one of the things that we were able to do was we went to a family’s house and had a competition. I’d ask the groups – broken up kids versus parents – questions and had a point system for thoroughness of answer and I’d ask questions related to zonal defense and the different things you had to do with concepts involved in it. We had 20 questions and we asked both groups and me, the assistant coach, and the manager would score the thoroughness of the answer and had them compete against each other. Everything was done verbally and openly, and the parents right there got to see how much more comprehensive and full the players’ answers were. They realized these little 11 year-olds had a much greater understanding of defensive concepts and zonal defense than any of the parents did.
LE: A Massachusetts state curriculum has been in existence for eight years, yet many town coaches and parents know nothing about it and it’s not being implemented.
Singleton: The leadership of each town or club should be talking to all the parents. We even tell them if you need help, we’ll do that for you. Come with the president of your organization and we’ll have the technical person there and we’ll talk about what the goals are for the kids this year.
LE: U.S. Women’s National Team coach Pia Sundhage recently spoke with me about the importance of coaches teaching the values in the game of soccer. Can you talk about teaching those values?
Singleton: There’s much more than ‘are you an elite player.’ There’s so much that goes into leadership, figuring out how to work as part of a group, self esteem, communication skills. If we groom a player who turns out to be a phenomenal technician when they’re older and don’t know how to do some of these other things, they might not be a top player. If you’re looking at future national team professionals, these are values that you have to have to be a part of a successful team. When you look at a lot of Fortune 500 companies and consultation firms, they put pretty high on their list of criteria that the people they hire will have experience in group sport.
LE: With the economy as bad as it is, how many kids in Massachusetts are getting scholarships to play recreational soccer?
Singleton: That’s an undetermined number, but it’s in the thousands. Thousands and thousands.
LE: Are you keeping track of those numbers?
Singleton: No, I can’t. Framingham will have some set-ups, Pembroke will have some set-ups – they’ll all have some set-up to help families, but we don’t check in and overlook their finances to see what they’ve allocated. But our goal in MYSA is to get all the kids to play, regardless of financial issues. Programs we run as a state organization, in ODP last year alone we did over $30,000 worth of scholarships. The district program we run in the summer, we’re constantly giving out free spots. We’ve been helping people with coaching courses and we’ve helped build soccer in Boston and playing fields in some other areas. We’re constantly telling people we do this and it’s the responsibility of the local organizations to do the same and make sure people have the awareness.
About a month ago I sent out an article to everyone that had 20 granting opportunities for everybody in Massachusetts and offered services that anybody who wants to apply for grants from any of these organizations I’ll sit with them and walk them through the grant-writing process and go through it hand-in-hand so they don’t have to be intimidated by it. It’s amazing what’s out there. There’s grants from US Soccer Foundation, from Liberty Mutual, from organizations that give grants to help increase opportunities for players and to help with coaching education, to help with building fields, to help with any issue the affects the sport of soccer.
LE: How do you go about getting more coaches appropriately licensed? Parents often don’t know that coaches should hold specific licenses for each level and that their kids’ coaches often don’t have them. I keep hearing you say that it’s the responsibility of the individual organizations, but isn’t that like letting Wall Street regulate itself?
Singleton: If I had my druthers, we’d just mandate it through the state. There’s many leagues now that do mandate it, even MaPLE for this fall is going to have mandatory coaching license to coach in MaPLE, so that’s a huge development. Some of the town travel leagues now mandate coaching education. MaPLE is mandating E license, Pioneer Valley has different age groups and in order to coach at U-14 you have to have an E license.
LE: Going forward, what’s your biggest challenge?
Singleton: The biggest challenge is communication. We’re trying to figure out how we can get this information, the things we’ve talked about here, directly to our members. If they know they belong to MYSA they can get an education, but as it stands now there are many members who don’t know they belong to MYSA. They know they belong to Framingham Youth Soccer or Beverly Youth Soccer, but they don’t know there even is a state organization. That’s a big challenge for us.
Read Part 2 of my interview with MYSA executive director Mike Singleton here.
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