Can a US Soccer Girls Development Academy Prevent Overuse Injuries?

us-soccer-logoDid you know there is yet ANOTHER league to consider if you’re interested in high level girl’s soccer these days?

Yep. US Soccer has announced that it will be launching a Girls Development Academy in the Fall of 2017. This will book-end the boy’s Development Academy (DA) which they formed in 2007, created then to address what they perceived as a ‘broken system’ in boys youth soccer training in our country. Now, they are tackling the girls side, which by some accounts, seems to have run a bit amok.

ECNL logoThis comes as something of a surprise as a) the US just won the Women’s World Cup and b) the ECNL, the Elite Clubs National League, which formed in 2009 to bring a higher level of competitive play for girls in the US has, by most accounts, been highly successful. The stronger, faster youth game should make their jump to college level play a bit more manageable. The over 1200 ECNL commits to college programs this year would probably attest to that.

Apparently, the US Soccer DA for girls will seek to do the same thing on their own, as conversations about combining efforts between US Soccer, US Club Soccer and the ECNL broke down in negotiations earlier this year.

My objective is not to take sides in this discussion, but to take a look at some differences in the DA approach which may make a difference in a player choosing one league over the other. Because while the higher-ups discuss the policy and approach our nation should take to train its players, families are now faced with an even greater confusion about what to do with their girl who really wants to play great soccer.

So let’s say your girl played and excelled with her neighborhood team. She tried out and made the local “competitive” team. Then she was invited to play for the “elite” team. The elite team was part of the elite league, and that required much commuting to practice, much travel to league games, and perhaps very expensive trips to regional events, tournaments and showcases. While she was at it, her high school really needed her and the ODP (Olympic Development Program) offered even more high-level training her coach thought she should “really consider.”

That’s a lot of one sport. Over-lapping leagues, daily practices that are sometimes back to back training, and all year long without stopping. Not to mention time spent on the roads and in travel costs that will rock your family finances.

James AndrewsEnter the voices of let’s-change-the-youth-sports-culture-to-make-it-healthy folks because we have a national epidemic of overuse injuries in our young athletes. Dr. James Andrews, renowned orthopedic surgeon, is prominent among them, lamenting the increased number of kids coming to his medical practice after suffering injuries and needing surgeries that used to be reserved for adults. What he is seeing is overuse injuries in a youth sports environment he calls abusive. Watch his compelling video here. Andrews recommends:

  • don’t play the same sport year round
  • take 1-2 days off from your sport each week
  • don’t compete in two leagues at once
  • allow time for rest and recovery, and
  • limit repetitive motion that puts great strain on joints (especially in younger athletes)

Overuse injuries are preventable, according to Safe Kids Worldwide, and they offer tremendous resources and tips for parents and coaches who want to prevent sports injuries.

The thing is, how do you follow through on those recommendations to reduce the abuse when the culture of our game has become play more to play better, and take advantage of every possible opportunity that might give you a leg up on the competition?

dsc_0623The kids I see are playing on multiple teams concurrently, shuttling from one practice to another on the same day, and playing their sport year round. If they want to play more than one sport, they have to double-up, because their soccer doesn’t take a break. Even if they were to ask off their soccer team for a season, they certainly couldn’t guarantee they’d be welcomed back. Not many girls I know are willing to take that chance. Thus, overuse injuries are rampant.

Given this dilemma with our girls, I find some features of the Girls DA Academy platform intriguing, and all seem to be controversial in current soccer conversations.

  • Combined age groups (U14/15, U16/17, U18/19). This design attempts to encourage clubs to challenge their advanced players to play-up rather than rewarding coaches for holding onto their star to insure a win.
  • A minimum of 4 days/week training but fewer games. This ratio of training/games is designed to focus more on development and learning and less on game performance.
  • A ten month season, probably September to June, which would leave two months off for rest, recovery and fun doing something else for a bit.
  • Coaches required to have US Soccer A or B licenses and zero tolerance for poor behavior from coaches. Obvious benefits to the positive environment.
  • No cost for a club to become part of the DA, minimal cost to register players and coaches, and US Soccer foots the bill for refs and events attended. Scholarships available for qualified players.
  • No other soccer. No high school. No ODP. Only Academy play.

The last item, especially, has created a great deal of controversy. Limiting kids to only academy play and preventing them from playing for their high school seems extreme and will extract them from the “character and community-building” opportunities that happen at school. And what about sport-sampling? Aren’t we forcing kids to specialize? What if it doesn’t work out? Then the kid is left without a sport to turn to? And only soccer? Wouldn’t that invite overuse? This sounds like a bad idea.

10458015_10152335258799300_2319686488637039350_nBut not so fast. This approach is designed for the kid who has decided they LOVE soccer and they want to pursue it. They’ve been sampling till now and they’re ready to take the plunge. This promises high-quality training with no overlapping sports or teams, leaving time for school work and even a social life. With fewer games and two guaranteed months off between seasons to rest, this actually looks like it’s following Dr. Andrews’ recommendations. As long as training days don’t require kids to execute 50 long balls or 40 corner kicks in succession or run an excessive number of sprints without rest or hydration, this may well be a decent recipe for development.

Plus, with a single head coach overseeing all of their training (rather than multiple coaches vying for the kids’ time without regard for other coach’s schedules) he/she can monitor and rotate the demands while providing rest, recovery and a healthy approach to fueling, hydration, and psycho-social demands. Certainly, it’s not for everyone, but it’s not designed for everyone.

So, if you have a kid who is all about soccer and only soccer, the US Soccer Development Academy for Girls may be something to consider. Because playing club, high school and ODP in the same season — just to keep their options open — is wearing kids out and leaving them ripe for overuse injuries. We can’t expect them, and they shouldn’t expect themselves, to do everything and embrace every opportunity. Perhaps requiring them to say no to high school ball is just the permission they need not to feel the pressure to say yes to what may not be good for them.

Yes, on the surface, letting them do everything they “want to” may seem like a good and friendly approach, but our young players don’t need friends, they need boundaries. If we’re not willing to set them, then maybe a league that will demand them may be just what they need.

And, if it turns out they aren’t quite on par with the other kids in the DA, they can always fall back to ‘lesser’ league play, high school ball, basketball, swimming, hop scotch, or whatever. They’re not going to lose their athleticism just because they don’t make the national team pool. In fact, they may keep their love for the game or discover they love a new game they have never had time to try.

While US Soccer may seem the “bad guys” in the new direction they have taken on their own and apart from the groups already working hard to make headway, their way may be something worth considering. After all, they are concerned with oversight, policy, and national team prominence, but we are concerned with what’s right for our kid. What’s right may or may not be the DA, but their design at least promises to give us a clear answer.

Food for thought. And, if our kid doesn’t “make it,” think of the dollars and miles we’ll save!


Can a US Soccer Girls Development Academy Prevent Overuse Injuries? — 2 Comments

  1. I don’t agree with them not playing high school soccer because there are so many social skills learned by playing. Recreational Leagues are dying a slow death because of Travel Teams! To the point the Travel Teams in one local town wants to get get rid of the recreational league or limit them to allow travel tournaments Friday, Sat. And Sunday! I would hate to see this happen to our high schools! Than it takes away the very first thing that Dr. Andrews says about playing more than one sports! Playing another sports gives them a chance to get a break from their sport and uses differ muscles that compliments and strengthen to help prevent injury.

    • Hi Larry. I absolutely agree with you that most kids will do best playing high school. They want to play with their friends and against others from rival schools. The issue I am raising is whether playing on multiple teams at the same time is good for them. The DA forces them to choose – one or the other. The kids who are on track to be truly elite players can choose DA while the rest can play HS. What I see as damaging is the environment where we keep a large pool of kids playing at a high level and over-train and over-compete them. Not to mention the $$$ spent doing this. Those “well-rounded” kids are also playing other sports – which we would like them to do – but not taking time off their soccer.

      It is devastating to me to hear that rec leagues are falling off, but not surprising. We all want our kids to play top-notch. The irony is that most kids would have a much more positive sporting experience if they could stay with rec play and ONLY choose travel/elite if they are uniquely suited. Trust me, Larry, I’m with you. Most kids belong on the pitch playing with their friends, and playing many sports with those friends. I just see the DA as “calling the question.” It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. You have absolutely identified the divide.