When Coach Keith Ferrara got his first university strength and conditioning job, he literally had to build his program—and facility—out of a storage closet. Read on to discover the six essential steps he took to successfully build a collegiate sports performance program from scratch.
“Flex on three, Flex on three! One…TWO…THREE…” A dramatic pause, three crisp handclaps in unison, and sixteen pre-teen voices rise as one: “FLEX!”
On cue, all sixteen girls flex their biceps—they are strong, they are committed—and then rush to take the pitch. Sixth and seventh graders, they wear jerseys from their home soccer club and line up in a fluid 4-3-3, switching positions tactically and supporting each other in open space. The field this particular afternoon is massive—a regulation-sized pitch at a north coast high school—and the game is physical, one rough challenge after another. The late summer heat radiates from the rubber in the turf, and for long stretches the team regresses, losing shape and losing possession.
Still, the game remains scoreless late in the first half because first and foremost these girls know how to compete. Several of them bounce among gyms and sand courts up and down the coast for high-flying volleyball clubs, while others dig in against the most fearsome pitchers in the county for Select and All-Star softball teams. Some play basketball, or “Friday Night Lights” flag football, or field hockey. One versatile, wide-channel player is a competitive gymnast; a tall and rangy defender is a swimmer. Our creator in the central midfield splits time with her rock climbing team.
They do it all. But this is a different game. Participating in San Diego’s competitive Presidio League, all sixteen athletes on the roster are playing their first season of non-recreational soccer. And in this league that is new to them, they are something entirely new: a “Flex” team, specifically designed to support and encourage multi-sport athletes.
- To bend (something pliant or elastic)
- To bend (a joint) repeatedly
- To move by muscular control
- Pliancy; flexibility
–American Heritage College Dictionary
Youth sports today are, in a word, inflexible. Practices, games, scrimmages, local tournaments, travel tournaments, skills clinics, private coaching sessions, speed and agility training, team functions and fundraisers–the dominant theme is commitment. For the parents, the commitment of time and money is substantial, driven in equal parts by the desire to see their children succeed and the fear of allowing them to fall behind.
For the players, there is a commitment to being available and game-ready. Always. Particularly in areas like Southern California, where there is no seasonal impediment to playing outdoors year-round. Pick any major sport, and for kids as young as 7-10, there will be games to be played in January, in May, in July, in September, and in December.
Debates about early specialization frequently spotlight the most glaringly proactive: Type A tiger parents going all-in on one sport for their elementary schooler in a (yes, delusional) pursuit of a prized scholarship. They misunderstand their child’s actual ability, the statistical improbability of any one athlete reaching the university level, and the non-linear nature of long-term athletic development.
In my coaching and parenting experience, however, such cases are outliers. More often, the road to early specialization is reactive, a grudging capitulation. Club soccer, club volleyball, club basketball, travel baseball and softball–these programs and their professional coaches don’t forbid their youngest players from playing other sports or demand exclusive specialization. They simply impose an inflexible, year-round playing structure that is so time-consuming that few players can squeeze in the hours to compete in a second sport.What was once a sport’s traditional off-season is now a de-facto weeding-out season, says @CoachsVision. Click To Tweet
What was once a sport’s traditional off-season is now a de-facto weeding-out season, during which the most committed players maintain a regular practice schedule, participate in skills clinics and scrimmages, and enter competitive, weekend-long tournaments.
For the vast majority of youth players, there is no 10-year plan to land a D1 scholarship, no let-it-ring-from-the heavens decision to specialize from this day forward. There is merely the short-term reality that if they’re not available and game-ready throughout a sport’s off-season, when the regular season does come back around, some other kid will be out there playing their position.
Changing the Game
Question: What would it look like if we relaxed a player’s commitment to being perpetually available and game-ready in a single sport and freed them to compete at an equally high level in others?
Out on that sprawling high school field, scoreless at the halftime whistle, the Flex girls are frustrated as they trot to the sideline. Throughout the half, every time they used their superior speed and mobility to gain a step, slower defenders countered with the guile and positioning to knock them firmly off their runs. Hastily-lost possessions consistently allowed the opposing side to build into space with patient and well-drilled passing combinations.
On multiple occasions, the opposing striker’s ability to create with her head flummoxed our back line—the girls have just reached an age where heading is allowed (per US Soccer regulations). After starting our practice schedule no fewer than four months behind the other teams in the Presidio League, our squad’s technical coach and I have barely begun to introduce the skill.
It is a work in progress.
On the field, and at the administrative level, our home club has a well-established system. They’ve been fielding teams in the Del Mar/Carmel Valley area of San Diego for nearly 50 years, and the program director is a former USWNT star and US Soccer Hall of Famer. This fall alone, the club is supporting over 100 teams in its recreational program (girls and boys, U6-U19), as well as nearly half that many teams on the competitive side.
For those unfamiliar, the difference between a competitive team and a recreational one is like the difference between a catered meal and a potluck. One is not, in all cases, superior to the other. In every potluck, however, the word’s second syllable is the operative one: the guest who volunteered to bring a side may arrive early to emulsify the dressing for their world famous grilled steak ceaser, or they may show up mid-meal lugging a bulk-store tub of expired potato salad.
The choice is stark. Youth players can try out for a year-round competitive team, with the structure in place to play “real” soccer week in and week out. Or they can sign up for a draft-based, 10-week fall recreational season, where the action on the field sometimes looks an awful lot like soccer, sometimes not at all, potluck depending.
The Problem: In the existing model, there is no passable option for those skilled and athletic players who want to play a competitive version of team soccer but cannot manage the year-round commitment due to time conflicts with other sports.
At the club level, that problem is not actually a problem—meaning the issue hasn’t yet shown an appreciable impact on their financial bottom line or their ability to field quality teams. They’ve been at this for nearly half a century and have a functioning model in place. To overcome that systemic inertia, someone engaged on the playing side needed to dig in their heels and push. Yes it’s a bumper sticker platitude. No Gandhi didn’t say it, but “be the change you wish to see in the world” can be simple enough advice.
In this case, that change began with a proposal to the club’s directors and executive board: a new “Multi-Sport” team concept, filling the gap between the recreational and competitive programs. These Multi-Sport teams would allow athletes to train in the summer, play in a fall competitive league, and compete in summer and winter tournaments, but with a looser, seven-month schedule in place of a year-round commitment.
Flex: to move by muscular control
- The club legitimately believes that year-round, academy style training is the path to higher level success in soccer.
- The club relies on professional coaches in the competitive program, and those coaches need to earn a stable living, or they will go and coach elsewhere. For coaches to get paid year-round, they need players to coach year-round.
- Though a non-profit community organization, the club is also a brand with a reputation to uphold. A competitive-type team playing sloppy, disorganized soccer under the club’s umbrella would be a bad look for the club.
- Research indicates that multi-sport participation provides athletes a greater opportunity to thrive in different team dynamics, dramatically improves mobility and physical literacy, and promotes a higher game IQ. It also reduces burnout, overuse injuries, and performance plateaus.
- “High school athletes who specialize in a single sport are 70 percent more likely to suffer an injury during their playing season than those who play multiple sports.”
- “Numerous research studies that have conducted over the past 10 years indicate that females are indeed more susceptible to ACL injuries; most studies report that females are 4-8 times more likely to tear this ligament.”
- 88.5% of NFL draft picks in 2016 played multiple sports in high school.
The Result: This year, on a trial/pilot basis, the club agreed to field a pair of non-year-round teams that occupy a grey area between the competitive and recreational programs (my team plays in the Girls 2005 age bracket, and there’s a Girls 2007 team). “Multi-Sport” was considered too unwieldy a name—the club didn’t want to limit the teams only to multi-sport athletes or somehow imply that the club was fielding teams across multiple sports. So I needed to rebrand the program before we even got underway.
Bringing us to Flex.
To Bend. Repeatedly.
Back to the game. Returning to the field for the second half, the Flex girls suffer a tough break in the early going as the referee awards the opposing team a dubious PK, breaking the scoreless draw. The momentum shifts and the girls begin to look worn-down, gassed from chasing the game in the smothering heat.
During that downswing, a defensive miscommunication paves the way for an “excuse-me” goal, making the score 2-0. Even so, these girls know how to compete. We push numbers into the attack and spend the final 15 minutes furiously pressing for a goal, creating chance after chance and dominating the run of play, but without finding the back of the net.
Walking off the field at the closing whistle, the Flex girls want exactly what you hope to see from a losing side—more time to play. “Just give us another 15 minutes, we can SO beat those girls.”
That outing has been their only loss through the midpoint of the regular season, kicking off with a 4-1-1 record. Meanwhile, the ’07 Flex team hasn’t found anyone in their division capable of running with them; they’re off to a 6-0 start with a 42-1 goal differential.
For proof of concept, these early results validate one of the basic truisms of youth sports: if you want to win more games, start with better players. Simple enough. Except:
- Winning games is easy: play weaker competition and you’ll mostly win. If “how do I win more games?” is the primary question you’re asking yourself as a youth coach, you’re asking the wrong question.
- More importantly, how do you foster and develop athletes who will continue to be better players year after year after year?
Flighted in a C-League, the Flex girls have so far held a demonstrable edge over their opponents in explosive power, closing speed, and aggressiveness to the ball. We consistently dominate two of my primary in-game KPI’s—winning a higher percentage of 50-50 balls and covering more ground than our opponents in the same space. Being able to win possession of the ball at a higher rate, in turn, allows us to hold the edge in a third key performance indicator–maintaining possession for a greater balance of the game.
With their combination of raw athleticism and relative inexperience, the Flex girls have improved at an exponential rate since we began–basic technical elements like first touch and juggling as well as advanced tactical concepts like overlapping and executing passes that eliminate defenders. Even while progressing in leaps and bounds, none of the players are within a broomstick’s reach of their individual ceiling.
The team’s technical coach and I share giddy asides as we plot our training sessions, thrilled to see how the girls swiftly apply each new tool and skill we teach. In these heady moments, there’s a very real temptation to push and push and push, hammering down the accelerator to see how far we can go during the limited time left in the season.
What would this team look like if we could compel all sixteen players to make our technical practice and our team practice week in and week out? What if we scheduled additional Sunday scrimmages to get more touches and game experience? What if we all chipped in to pay for a second weekly session with our technical coach? What if we planned an aggressive slate of post-season tournaments?
Hitting that gas pedal, though, would crash headlong into the Flex team’s entire raison d’être, all while pecking about to answer the wrong question. Could we raise our expectations and demand more, setting a goal to go undefeated during the second half of our season? Sure, but so what? If our Flex team was bumped up and entered a B-Flight in the Presidio League, all of a sudden our cool 4-1-1 record would be it’s inverse (or, more likely, even worse). The teams in the B-Division started with better players.
So while more more more soccer would make each Flex player more effective in a C-Level game today, my core coaching beliefs center around the philosophy that playing more more more everything will either:
- Make our players more effective on the field five years from now, when they have more personal agency and will be closer to reaching the physical maturity to play the sport(s) of their choice at a peak level.
- Do no harm (and be way more fun).
Managing more more more everything requires a willingness to bend. Repeatedly.
Because, sure enough, our Flex soccer season cuts through the thick of the weeding-out seasons for the other sports our girls play—largely with coaches who have yet to embrace the Flex mindset. More common, instead, are flawed interpretations of the “10,000 Hour Rule” and the valorization of phrases like “the best ability is availability.”
Coaches like to control what they can control, and getting kids to show up is easy—dock their playing time if they don’t. Miss practice, miss a game, say hello to the bench. The players will get the message and get to the field, or they’ll quit—in which case they’ll be replaced by kids whose best ability is availability.Kids show up or they’re replaced by kids whose best ability is availability, says @CoachsVision. Click To Tweet
A few of my Flex girls never miss a thing. But some have to leave practices early for other commitments; some miss an entire practice occasionally. Others miss at least one practice every week. Some will miss the occasional game because they have a tournament or conflicting competition in another sport. But what if, by missing one of my practices, the players are helping themselves become more accomplished athletes in the long run?
Because the best ability is and always will be superior ability: the combination of physical, psychological, technical, and tactical qualities applied in the run of play.
On the field, I rarely talk about responsibilities or assign my players a job. Instead, I encourage each of our athletes to bring their unique talents and personalities to impact the game. Our softball players attack balls out of the air with the direct pursuit angles and proper drop steps developed by tracking flies at shortstop and centerfield.Pitchers and catchers on our soccer team strike balls with sheer #force learned on the diamond, says @CoachsVision. Click To Tweet
The pitchers and catchers on our roster strike balls with a sheer force grooved-in by the weight-transfer and hip rotation required on the diamond. It takes most of our opponents an entire half to adjust to how far several of our softball players can uncork a throw-in, springing their teammates for fast break transitions deep downfield.
Meanwhile, the volleyball players on our roster contribute a completely different skill set. They possess an uncanny sense of width. They understand combination-based attacks and are accustomed to a pattern of securing possession from a central space to set it to big hitters out wide. All game long, these net sport athletes spread our attack out toward the corner flags, delivering dangerous crosses back into the box.
Operating in the space behind them, our rock-climber—typically the smallest player on the field—possesses the strength-to-body-weight ratio to excel in that discipline and picks her way through larger defenders with the same creativity and anticipation she might use to choose handholds and footholds on a free climb.
I could go on and on. These observations support a question I do consider worth asking. Not “how do I win more games,” not “how do I lock down maximum player availability,” but:
What would it look like if we relaxed a player’s commitment to being perpetually available and game-ready in a single sport and freed them to compete at an equally high level in others?
If you’re willing to bend—repeatedly—the answer is out there on the field, with kids playing the game.