Danny Jackson on the Pitch
Danny Jackson on High School Soccer and the U.S. Development Academy
Daniel (Danny) Jackson is a former Major League Soccer (MLS) player and was captain of the Seattle Sounders. SN is pleased to bring readers Danny Jackson’s column with insights into the professional world of soccer.
Let’s talk about the U.S. Soccer Federation’s new policy on boys’ Development Academies – the move that will require nearly year-round training and prevent players from joining their high school teams.
Obviously, there’s been some hot debate since the policy was announced last month, with parents, coaches and players coming down both for and against. Our national soccer gurus argue that breaks from premier training harm elite players, that they learn bad habits in high school soccer and must be retrained. I do understand national officials’ overarching reasoning: that a more rigorous model must emerge if American players want to compete more effectively on the world stage.
But we must acknowledge that high school sports provide a powerful experience for Americans, and play a significant role in this country’s culture. And that taking this opportunity away from young soccer players might do more harm than good.
Admittedly, I have no personal model for the kind of experience American high school sports delivers. In England, where I was raised and trained, high school soccer has no bearing or influence on athletic or social prowess. Competitive players participate on school teams for as long as they can, but club play takes over early – around 14. In England, professional academies rule the roost. These fortunate young players receive free high-level training, focused on pushing those select groups of players into the professional ranks as quickly as possible.
In many ways, players are a commodity for their clubs. The lower division teams often invest what they can to develop good local talent, and then attempt to sell players on to higher-level clubs with deeper pockets. This funding will then help sustain whole programs for years. The entire system is designed to identify, develop and profit from talented youth players. It’s been this way for generations in England, and every serious young talent just hopes to be spotted and ushered into the system.
I myself played school soccer until I was about 14 years old. I played on the High School U-19 team, a young buck amongst men. I was barely even shaving. But I was always protected. I’ll never forget one of my older teammates, a Rugby player named Andrew, threatening a forward who was roughing me up when I was on defense. Andrew told him calmly, “If you touch him again, I’m going to break your legs.” It was a great lesson in protecting your own, that who you have around you is important. It was also my first introduction to how sports can have a profound social impact on a young boy.
I enjoyed playing on this team very much. I was respected, even as a young player, and this, of course, felt very fulfilling. I was fortunate to have always played on successful school and club teams, but they were always for my age. This was different. I was suddenly around older players and older peers. I was welcomed into the group, and worked hard to prove myself. But, aside from the social impact it had on me, that experience taught me how to look after myself, play against much stronger and more aggressive players, and how to carry myself with maturity on and off the field. I can clearly see the parallels of a freshman playing on a varsity team in the U.S. But I had to give up school soccer when my training at Leeds United no longer permitted it. For me, and every other talented youth player, the goal was always to join the professional soccer scene. But I will never forget that year playing school soccer, and how it benefited me in so many ways.
In America, soccer is one of many sports that make up the high school experience, a unique piece in this culture’s social fabric. And while high school sports have always been a stepping stone for professional athletes of all stripes, for many players the experience is mostly about camaraderie and community. High school sports hold an iconic place in the hearts of Americans. It’s a world that’s often portrayed on TV and in movies; the experience of playing, and then receiving your letters and letterman jacket. This is an attainable goal, compared to college and professional play. And because it is possible, and because of the way it’s elevated in our hearts and minds, it becomes very influential.
High school sports are also a powerful shared experience in America; if someone says they played varsity soccer, basketball, football or baseball, everyone knows what that means. A letter in Texas is the same as a letter in New York, and it’s something people treasure for a lifetime. In many communities around the country, families are intimately connected to their high school and athletic programs. Generations can share the same experience of representing their community and school, and playing against their rivals. Sitting around the dinner table, telling old stories. Sitting in the stands, reliving their own high school athletic experience, as they watch their son or daughter, grandchild, and even great grandchild play. There are very few families that can share this experience at the college level, and much less at the upper echelons of premier youth soccer. The connection is at the high school level, and it is very special.
In premier youth sports, players are proud of their clubs. But they tend to attach themselves to specific teams at very specific points in time. Clubs are made up of highly ambitious individuals who play there until opportunities take them elsewhere. In high school, the four years that players spend on a team link them to a larger tradition; players know who has come before them, and in turn, set the stage for the future.
High school sports are place-based, linking athletes to a lifelong community and family web. As players get older, those experiences become a point of reflection. And when students come “home” from college – or wherever they might move as adults – they can support their high school teams at big games, and tap back into that connection. Playing for the Leeds United academy team, we never had that; after our pre-professional training, everyone moved on to far-flung corners of the world. My teammates and I still try to stay connected, but it’s tough.
And clubs just can’t compete with high school teams for community visibility. In places like Mercer Island, outside Seattle, for instance, the local high school inspires unbelievable passion. Maroon sweatshirts are everywhere, and star athletes become local celebrities.
That’s because high school players enjoy the irreplaceable opportunity to shine in front of a broad audience – their
peers, teachers and neighbors – not just coaches, parents and scouts. Everyone celebrates great games and wins. And, if players are really good, they get to be superstars on their high school teams, while they might be just average on their academy teams. That feel-good factor is very special for athletes. Nothing can really replace that feeling of playing well, winning a big game, and people patting you on the back to congratulate you.
As a young person, that kind of adoration doesn’t come around often enough. There are so many pressures on young people today. The demand for good grades to go to college, the competition in youth sports, and the evolution of social media has accentuated every piece of a teenager’s life. But high school sports are still pure. There is a generational connection, in which many can relate to players’ performances and experiences. When you think about the personal interests and technological gap between the average 15-year-old and the average 75-year-old, it’s vast. But if they both played high school sports, there’s something to talk about.
I do think the benefits far outweigh the negatives when it comes to high school soccer, even for premier players. And the season only lasts about six to eight weeks. That’s just not enough time to make or break the training of any player. If it does push them down into a chasm of bad habits, then coaches need to re-think how they’re teaching their players. I would hope their good habits are so strong that being surrounded by players of different skill levels is not going to negatively impact them as strongly as some might fear.
I also believe academy coaches could approach the high school season differently, and help players get more out of it. First, they could recognize that it’s a break from the intense pressure of competitive soccer, which is important. They could also challenge players to focus on leadership during high school seasons, demanding the development of different skills. Hold weekly team meetings during the high school season to keep the social connection, and reiterate the message you want to convey. Coaches can set goals and create checkpoints during these types of meetings, as well.
I think preventing youths from playing high school soccer could also create some problems. At the U-15 and U-16 levels, for instance, what if a player cannot play high school soccer, but then does not make his academy team the next year? Now he has to try to integrate himself onto an established high school team, which can be tough.
I also wonder what will happen to those naturally-talented high school players who either can’t afford academy training or are not exposed to the premier system. Will they still be seen and recruited for opportunities? Will they suffer and stagnate when the level of high school play goes down, as talented peers are confined to academies?
One of the things I really like about high school sports in this country is that money is not a factor, like it is in premier-level play. It’s about winning, about pride in your team, school and community. There is no guarantee of playing time, and for many players it’s their first exposure to a more competitive level of play, where they could spend significant time on the bench. Players must earn their places. In club soccer, there is definitely an expectation on the part of players and parents: I’m paying, I should play.
For me, the following questions really capture the issue: Why do high school players commit themselves wholeheartedly to their teams, year after year, when some don’t get much playing time? Would they work that hard in the academy system? Would their parents allow that?
And that tells you why high school sports are important to American kids and families. They want to be part of a larger experience, a legacy, a community.
And that’s a powerful motivator that no amount of premier training can match.
Danny Jackson's recent coaching experience ranges from youth soccer at Eastside FC and the Sounders FC / ODP youth development program and speaks to high schools and youth clubs regarding the far reaching impacts of youth sports. Danny also is serving as the Director of New Business for Korrio.