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EDP Soccer Featured Club: Albany Alleycats

By Evan Unger, 04/15/20, 10:45AM EDT

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Q&A Session with Albany Alleycats

Name: Christopher Le, Girls Coordinator


What is the philosophy of your club?
To build confident, hardworking, intelligent, self aware, and creative people using the game of soccer as a vehicle for fostering those characteristics, with training and competition stages where young people can express themselves in a safe and supportive environment.  We believe that coaches, managers, and parents are all guides on the soccer journey our kids travel on, and it is our responsibility to provide the roadmap for kids to meet their goals while giving them the freedom to choose their own path and provide support along the way.  Kids learn best when given the support, love, and care necessary to thrive, and that is our most important job as educators in the sport of soccer.  

While we value team development, we do so in the context of the team being a vehicle to promote individual growth, and that the two occur not in isolation of one another but in conjunction.  Development does not occur when we are in our comfort zone, and we help our kids, families, and staff learn to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable” in order to promote learning and growth.  We operate by being mindful of best practices in the coaching world, while also taking into consideration cognitive, educational, physical, and psychological theory and practices. We believe strongly that in order to be successful as a soccer player, thousands of hours of intentional and purposeful practice on skills are required, but that this needs to be done while holistically developing the traits to allow a young person to successfully enter adulthood.

 

How does your club make that philosophy come alive for your members?
We are very lucky to have a club president in Afrim Nezaj who sets the stage by allowing our staff the freedom and support to creatively tackle our club’s mission and goals.  Our youth academy really sets the stage for our philosophy to come alive, where Betsy Drambour and Juan Garcia do a tremendous job respectively as the youth academy directors on the girls and boys sides respectively.  In the youth academy, the emphasis is on creating a fun, skill forward environment for our players to grow in. Individual skill and flair are both fun for players to execute at those ages, as well as developmentally appropriate.  

The youth academy ages (U8-U12 for us) fall right in the transition from Pre-Operational (egocentric worldview) to Concrete Operational (rule oriented, concrete logic) thinking.  We try to take advantage of a child’s egocentric worldview at these ages by making the ball an important part of that world, and strive to help them fall in love with the ball. Also, knowing that kids at these ages can tend to be hyper focused on rules/logic, we are mindful to not over coach them at these ages, and focus on options as opposed to absolutes.  

We introduce them to a variety of systems and tactics, and we encourage them to have fun in the game and continue to build their toolbox of skills as they grow older.  These are foundational elements that continue to be woven in at the older age groups, with the understanding that children entering adolescence will be more capable of processing abstract concepts IF they were given freedom and creative license at the younger ages.  

Even as we implement more tactics of game play as the girls get older, ultimately having skillful, creative, dynamic players and leaders we believe will dictate tactics, not developing players to fit a specific system or style of play.  From our experience, when we are able to successfully shape the environment in these ways, from our youngest players to our oldest, we find that we often are able to develop players that are confident, hardworking, intelligent, self aware, and creative consistent with our philosophy.

 

How does your club help your student-athletes balance their training/playing with their academics?
We put a lot of trust on our players and parents to communicate with the coaching staff around academics in order to make sure we strike a proper balance in the context of our training program.  We are lucky to have not only highly motivated and capable athletes, but ones that also excel in the classroom, and historically our kids and families have done a great job collaborating with the coaching staff around striking the balance.  We help our families by not having an absolute attendance policy in place, taking away the pressure that an attendance policy can put on them. Additionally, we regularly communicate out additional practice opportunities with other age groups or genders so that families have a level of flexibility to navigate their schedules.  We have found that in the majority of cases players and parents responsibly navigate the level of dedication necessary to be successful at our club, but we try to give them a reasonable level of flexibility to do so.

Additionally, several of our staff have backgrounds in education, be that degrees or significant work experience.  Our club president, Afrim Nezaj, is a strong proponent of education, and reinforces with staff that they should be lifelong learners and to support their players educational goals and dreams.  Our girls youth academy director has been working in special education for over 20 years, and my own personal background is in the field of school psychology. We strive to take that experience and apply it to our club philosophy and practices.  On the soccer field that can look like considering what the proximal zone of development for individuals and teams is, or differentiating instruction by using small group instruction and push-in/pull-out models. Off the field, it allows our staff to be educated and informed on the learning strengths and needs of our players, and be in tune with the academic rigors that players are navigating.

 

How does your club balance individual player development, team development, and the pressure to win competitions (leagues, tournaments)?
Like any developmentally minded club, we factor in the inter-play between individual development, team development, and competitive results.  The reality that most clubs won't readily admit due to concern that it would label them as "not putting development first" is that without having consistent results, the competitive opportunities that can be provided to players and teams will be limited, and this will limit the individual and team development that can occur.  Being competitive is not a sin and is something we strive to foster at a young age with our players, with that said, we are constantly looking at what is the proximal zone of development for our players, as education literature identifies that as the sweet spot for growth to occur. When you find the right level of competition, you don’t have to sacrifice results for development to occur.  Some of our best seasons from a club standpoint have occurred when we finished middle of the pack in the league standings, as that means the girls were appropriately challenged.  

Whenever our teams need to be moved up or down in competition level to foster growth, we have always moved teams to make sure that placement positively impacted development.  Do we strive to win each and every time we go out? Absolutely, but when we consistently have success at a certain level, how we stay developmentally mindful is to identify the factors contributing to that success, and addressing them if they are potentially weaknesses.  For example, if we are winning because of athleticism instead of skill, then we will find older teams to play to negate that or in the case of the girls find boys teams to play in order to reinforce the importance of playing with skill and negate any athletic edge. By thinking and acting in that matter, we ensure that we can always compete at a level that will challenge developmental goals of our players and teams.

 

What does your club do to emphasize fun (which if not present is a major reason young people drop out of sports)?
The most important thing that we do to reinforce fun for our players is having coaches that build great relationships with the kids they work with and have fun with the kids all of the time.  Coaches like Ross Cardinell and Kendra Campana engage very well with our kids and make sure that spirits and energy are high in training. Having professional and knowledgeable staff is important, but we also look for staff that are fun and relatable to our kids.  

With that said, we try to inject fun in what we do in different ways systematically.  Our coaches all strive to set aside time every practice to allow the kids some form of free play, and we work to make sure that training is competitive as kids have fun when competing.  Our teams generally do a couple of team bonding activities during the course of the season, both when we are home in Albany and when we go away for tournaments and showcases. Every year our youth academy has a lock-in that our older girls get involved with and that has been a lot of fun for the kids and staff.  Finally, our teams usually get involved in community service during the course of the season, and contributing to their communities has always had nothing but positive benefits to the community and our players.

 

How does your club work with parents to maintain appropriate sideline behavior?
We are lucky to have the majority of parents who do a great job being appropriately supportive to their children on the field.  With that said, we make sure that we have clear policies around parent expectations that we go over throughout the course of the season.  It starts with when parents register they sign off on parent expectations as part of the registration process. We revisit these expectations at an initial parent meeting for each team, and then as needed as subsequent parent meetings.  Our coaches and managers are expected to work closely with our parents, and both our coaches and leadership staff are accessible to parents, with the expectation that communication goes both ways. In the event there are issues, we seek to first have our coaches educate the parents if it is systemic in that team, and then follow up with individual conversations with families that continue to have issues.  Most of the time this remediates any issues, but in extreme situations then the club will intervene, which can include a verbal warning, restrictions being placed on rule breakers, or ultimately expulsion from our academy. With that said, we found that by devoting our efforts towards building positive parent-coach partnerships more often than not prevents these problems before they even come up.

 

What does your club do to help your student-athletes decide what to do after graduation from high school?
When our players get to the college search age and showcases begin, the coaches assigned to those age groups and teams play a vital role in the college search process with regards to those interested in continuing to play in college.  On a club-wide level, for interested players we have college panels that involve bringing in local coaches to discuss the college selection and recruiting process. This year we were planning on having the EDP Foundations program come in to speak with our families, but with the COVID-19 suspension of activities that didn’t come to fruition.  With that said, we will be working with ScoutingZone to set up webinars and assistance for our families around navigating the recruiting process. 

More specifically, any player interested can start the college process at any time, but U15 is usually when our coaches start laying the groundwork with starting the discussion around college and acclimating them to showcases and the schedule of training and competition inherent with it.  Additionally, this is usually around the time when coaches will go over the timeline and what to expect over their high school tenure to work through the college admissions process concurrent with college recruiting timelines. At U16 and U17 our players are encouraged to start making more concrete plans with regards to potential schools they are looking into based on academics and general fits, with the coaching staff providing guidance and support around the athletic portion of those schools.  We work with players around reaching out to coaches in preparation for showcases, and flexibly navigate ID clinic participation our players choose to participate in. U18/19 for most of our players they have winnowed down the search process and really it comes down to making decisions, and we offer support in that process if needed.  

Two things that we make sure to reinforce with all of our student athletes in the college search process is that it is critical that they prioritize academic and environmental fit over athletic fit.  At the end of the day would they still be happy at that school if athletics were no longer an option? The second piece is to be mindful and humble around the recruiting process. Getting recruited and potentially playing in college means that more development needs to occur to prepare for that level.  It is imperative for players to not be content with just getting to that stage but continue to strive to take their game to another level.

 

How does your club judge success?
We judge success through a variety of means, some of which is data driven, and much of which is anecdotal.  From a simple level, we set clear, observable and measurable goals for our kids so that they can identify success in-line with the coaching staff.  In the youth academy this can look like juggling goals, and our youth academy players will work to join the 100 Juggle Club, something we’ve done for many years informally in the academy.  As the kids get older, while we continue to focus on process goals (i.e. skill development, tactical knowledge, fitness, etc.) and providing players with the environment to work towards these process goals, outcome goals become increasingly important.  

Success with that in mind is helping our players reach outcome goals on an individual (making high school varsity teams, earning recognition and opportunities locally/regionally/nationally, college interest and opportunities, etc.) and team (successful EDP league season, competitive tournament/showcase results, etc.) level.  As a club though, the most important ways we define success internally, even considering all of those areas important to the kids and families we work with, is whether we were successful with helping to build a love for the game, creating a community that will be available and supportive to our players, and instilling values and work ethic that will lead to success on and off the field in the future.

 

What is your club doing to stay active with its members during COVID-19 quarantine?
During the COVID-19 suspension of activities and social distancing precautions, we have taken several steps to continue to provide programming for our players and families.  Thankfully we were able to collaborate with Yael Averbuch before the season to implement Techne in our club, which we were working to build into our culture prior to the pandemic.  Techne has ended up being incredibly fortuitous under the circumstances and an invaluable resource for our staff and kids. We have also had several coaches step up to be creative with the implementation of Techne to make it fun, with several coaches creating challenges and competitions within their age groups, and creating a Champions League competition competing girls age groups against each other. 

Additionally, we have had coaches come up with fitness challenges, soccer trivia, social media challenges to add some fun/flair to the mix, and setting up Zoom meetings to stay in touch or go over developmental pieces.  We are in the process of setting up college webinars for families soon, and we have some of our older girls doing skill tutorials that we will be providing to the youth academy and putting on our website that we are updating during the suspension in activities.  The hardest part of working and training remotely is maintaining the sense of community, and we are trying to stay engaged with our kids day in and day out (without overwhelming them) not only to keep their skills up, but to further their development while maintaining social connection that will reinforce a sense of normalcy during this uncertain time.