April 12, 2011
'Coaching still a boys club'

Miriam Hickey, who has coached girls youth national teams in her native Netherlands, is the Girls Coaching Director at Vardar East and was U.S. Youth Soccer's 2008 Competitive Coach of the Year. She's also on Michigan Youth Soccer's board as Recreation Director. Hickey spoke to us for the Youth Soccer Insider's ongoing interview series on key issues facing American youth soccer.

Interview by Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America's Youth Soccer Insider)

SOCCER AMERICA: Have you seen an increase in women coaches?

I don’t see an increase, unfortunately. I took my UEFA B license and in my class we had four women. I got here, took my [USSF] B, and there were three women. At the A license, I was the only one.

We need to get more women to go to the coaching courses. But it’s pretty scary at times to go to a course to get your D license and you’re the only female and the testosterone is flying around like crazy because all these men at age 30 still want to prove how good they are.

It might be a good idea -- we did this in Holland -- to have courses for only females. We had male and female instructors and invited female coaches to the course.

SA: Why don’t we see more women coaches?

We’re not supposed to take the lead. More than even in Northern Europe, it’s still a boys club here.

Here you see so many male coaches. Most of the older ones are all from England and such -- and when they came over here there was no soccer over there for women.

When they coach girls now, they’re probably a little bit out of their element. More than that, they want to direct what happens on the field. The girls don't learn how to direct the game for themselves or for their teammates because the coach is telling them what to do every second. So they don’t feel like that’s something they could do.

SOCCER AMERICA: How do you see the future of recreational soccer in time when competitive clubs are courting players at younger and younger ages?

There should be a level for every child who wants to play soccer. And the better players should have an opportunity to go to a better team.

But the players who are not ready should not be pulled into travel soccer. Within our club, we also have a 700-member recreational league. Unfortunately, every year a lot of kids who are not ready get pulled to different clubs. A lot of times, it’s just to fill the teams and it’s not right. They should stay within the level they can handle and have success.

SA: You're saying that clubs over-recruit because they want the registration income?

Coaches want to make money. The more kids you have, the more teams you have, and the more money your club makes. All I want is that 6-, 7-, 8-year-olds to play until they’re in their 50s.

But if it’s just not fun because they’re not playing at their level, the coach sits them on the bench, or the coach screams at them because they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do because they’re not ready in the first place -- then they drop out.

SA: How does one determine when a child should move to a more competitive team?

Even with our 5- and 6-year-olds if we see they dribble past everybody and score eight, nine goals a game, yes, let’s get that child out of that system and let that kid play with more players their own level.

We want players to take players on and dribble, dribble, dribble at that age. But the other players have got to have a chance to play as well, and when you have two or three really good kids within one team, then the other six or seven just don’t get to play.

So players who are too good even at 6 or 7 should make a jump and play with kids their own level.

SA: How does this compare with your youth soccer experience in the Netherlands?

We played on the street and we might have 30 kids. We said, “No, you’re not good enough. This is the good group and you guys can play over there and have your own game.” And everyone was fine with that. It was ages 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 -- different ages playing together. But there were no coaches and no parents telling you what to do. We arranged it ourselves. That is missing here.

SA: How does your club cope with high cost of youth soccer?

We’re one of the more affordable clubs in our area and at the same time one of the better clubs in the area. But there are people who can pay more so they go to the clubs that are more expensive because they think that the more expensive it is, it must be better. It’s not about how much it costs. It’s about how much your kid improves every week.

SA: How do you keep costs down?

We just don’t pay our coaches as much as those other clubs. We’re going to lose another coach this year who’s been asked to go to another club that wants to pay him way more than we can offer. So he’s going to leave. A couple of years ago a coach left and took his whole team with him because they were going to pay him more.

We’re just not going to do that. I come from an environment where we thought a $150 a year was a lot to charge a kid.

SA: Why is American youth soccer so much more expensive than in other countries, such as the Netherlands?

There, only the professional clubs and top amateur clubs have professional staff. Everybody else can do with volunteers, but the sport has been there for a 150 years. In my family everybody played. My uncles, my father, my grandfather. That’s how it is in every family. So you have knowledgeable people directing the sport and so you don’t spend a whole lot.

The fields are city fields, and you don’t have to pay for them. There’s only one association that leads all the different leagues. So you have a really good pyramid going from 4-year-olds to 60-year-olds. And, of course, it’s a smaller country.

SA: Right. Travel costs are another reason why American youth soccer gets pricey. How does your club handle the tournament options?

We go to a local preseason tournament, and that’s it. We don’t play tournaments during the season. At the end of the season, we go to an out-of-state tournament to play teams we hopefully don’t normally face.

If you look some clubs, their Web site will say their U-11 girls team is 42-3. A lot of those games are tournaments. They pick tournaments where they can tell the parents, “Look how good we are. We can beat everybody.”

They take guest players. They sit their weaker players hoping they get guest players to join their club next season.

SA: What do you think about the proliferation of organizations running youth soccer in the USA?

There shouldn’t be four or five associations trying to govern a sport. All these new leagues popping up left and right are all pulling on the same pool of players.

It should just be U.S. Soccer and they have an office in each state. They have professional people who direct it. U.S. Soccer should direct the game from grassroots all the way to the national team level.

U.S. Club Soccer has their ECNL event for the girls at the same time there’s an ODP national championship. I got to believe they do that on purpose. Kids shouldn’t have to decide am I going to play for my state or am I going to play for my club.

That doesn’t happen in other countries. They work together. Trying to get the national team to highest level possible. That's not going to happen if we’re basically fighting against each other.

SA: You’ve coached both boys and girls. Do they require a different approach?

I never looked at it that way. I don’t see a lot of difference and I don’t want to see a lot of difference. To me they’re soccer players. There’s no difference to how I coach boys or girls.

SA: What’s your advice for communicating with players?

I ask questions. I’m not going to stop a training for five minutes to explain something or ask questions. If they don’t get it in 30 seconds, then I’ll give them the answer and I know he or she doesn’t understand it, and I gotta make sure I keep an eye on that and next time in training I’ve got to go over it again.

SA: What’s your club’s criteria for coaches?

First of all, they need to be good people. They need to be good with players. We look for people with extensive soccer background.

You’ve gotta have been a pretty good player because we want to make sure they can show the skills to the young ages. They have to be able to make a curriculum that makes sense for each age group.

At age 7 and 8, we don’t worry about passing. Let them dribble. If he loses the ball too many times, his teammates will tell him, “Hey, I was open. Give me the ball.” We’re not looking for play-by-play coaches.

SA: Should the U.S. Soccer Federation create a Development Academy league for girls as it did for the boys in 2007?

They should be responsible for the sport from top to bottom. Why only have an Academy for boys?

The reason then was the women were winning. The Federation needs to take away the power from all the other organizations and have a girls Development Academy where the teams are not playing 50, 60 games a year. They can train with capable coaches. I’m hoping they will hurry up and get it done before all these girls are pulled in different directions again.

(Miriam Hickey is the Girls Coaching Director at Vardar East of Michigan, former head coach of Louisiana State University [1995-96], and former staff coach for the Dutch soccer federation [KNVB].)