Playing on More Than One Team
This episode was inspired by another great sideline chat. This one was between myself and a soccer day on the side of our futsal court last weekend. His son is looking at playing for more than one soccer team at the same time in the Spring. He was asking me about it & it reminded me of you, of course. You should hear what we talked about.
We talk a lot about multi-sport kids and the advantages kids can have by rounding out and improving their overall athletic IQ, but how about those kids who love soccer and want different experiences from different levels of competition and/or different groups of friends?
What is a Multi-Team Kid
Both my son and daughter were both multi-team kids. They played for more than one team each season. My daughter played on two teams at the same time. My son played on three. They got something different from each environment.
A multi-team kid is a kid who plays for more than one team in the same sport at the same time. Many of you should be cringing when I say this, but it’s not uncommon. It’s also not without its risks. What follows will be a discussion about some of those risks, the rewards, and what families and coaches should consider when dealing with multi-team kids.
Why Would Kids Play on More Than One Team?
A lot of it comes down to friends. Kids have friends on other teams that play in other leagues. They connect with one another in school. They say things like “You should come play with us. We have fun!” Kids hear about different styles, different experiences, and they want to go where their friends are and try new stuff. This is all very natural.
Other reasons to play on more than one team might be to find new challenges. Many kids love to play in a relaxed environment where fun and friendship rule AND in a more challenging environment where a crispy through pass is received by a competent player who can use it to the team’s advantage. I’m not saying that either is more or less fun or that there are not competent players in recreation or classic programs. I’m merely pointing out that there are multiple reasons why players might like to play on more than one team.
For some, it’s about exposure. Though I fear this is too often more of a marketing gimmick to attract parents willing to pay big bucks, than it is an actual opportunity to be scouted. Clubs, coaches, or parents move kids from platform to platform hoping to find the right platform so their kid can have the best chance of being discovered. While discovery is possible, see my episode describing US Soccer’s alphabet soup for reasons why this might not be the best strategy.
As a coach, I want to be clear right out of the gate that playing on multiple teams in the same sport in the same season has risks. It can be made to work, but there are things we need to think about. Going down this path will require additional communication and in some cases, checking with your medical professionals.
So what are the risks?
- Overuse Injuries: rest and variety are important to the human body. Injuries occur when we perform the same task over and over again. Running too much can lead to shin splints, tendonitis, hip pain, back pain, and even fractures. An exclusive focus on one sport (one set of similar actions) doesn’t allow other supportive tissue structures to form. This, combined with repetitive stress placed on the same structures without adequate rest can result in injuries. These can be serious enough to take a player out of the game – or worse. It’s important to avoid overuse injuries.
- Confusion: at the younger ages – below 13 – specialization really shouldn’t be the primary focus, but for 13 and above, kids are starting to identify with positions and will begin to take deeper dives into those positions in terms of what skills and attributes those positions need. The coach often has some input as to where players fit together on a given team to make an effective unit. If a player is being developed in one position on one team, to simultaneously develop them for another position on another team can, for some players, lead to confusion. This is not always the case, of course, but it is a risk that should get some attention from coaches and parents in the event that players are straddling more than one team at the same time.
- Good vs Bad Habits: this happens on all teams, but the effect can be pronounced when a player is on multiple teams in the same season. If one coach is teaching bad stuff and the other is teaching good stuff, then players can have a harder time learning the “right” way to do things. An example might be where one coach plays only dominant feet and forgets (or doesn’t know) to bring the week foot into practice sessions. If the other coach is teaching players to use both feet, the player that has dominant foot habits reenforced by another coach may have a harder time embracing two footed play.
- Strategy Conflicts: This one happens a lot. This one shows itself when one coach has a style of play or strategy that is very different from another one. You may have some direct experience with this if you’ve been to games with loud parents. The coach, if she or he is doing their job, likely has some strategy for each game. Coach may be teaching the team possession, how to pull apart a defense, or getting wide, for example. Parents are sometimes on the sidelines yelling “SHOOT!” every time they think they see an opportunity to score. That command “SHOOT!” has, on more than one occasion, been in direct conflict with something I’m trying to do with the team. I don’t want them the shoot yet. I want them to try to get five passes in so they can see what it feels like to change the point of attack. Parents in these cases confuse players with two sets of commands – often undermining the coach. Likewise, when coaches have conflicting styles – one direct and the other indirect, a player can slow down mentally because he or she is adding yet another input to consider while playing.
So what are the benefits?
- Different Styles: There is hardly a better way to for a player to compare and contrast different styles than to experience them. A recreation style is more focused on fun and learning, life skills and friendships. A more competitive style is more deliberate about soccer specific development with emphasis on teaching kids to win soccer games. Playing in the NFHS system is different form playing in the US Youth Soccer, DA, ODP, Club soccer, or AYSO.
- More Friends: This one should be pretty self explanatory, but having pockets of friends in different social circles does tend to make kids more resilient. If things go badly in one group, they can lean on another. Support structures can be great for kids.
- Different Coaches: Every coach has a different background, a different skill set, a different emphasis, and a different way of communicating. While we acknowledge differences in skill sets and education, this isn’t a statement of better or worse. The emphasis here is on variety. It’s also on the fact that out of two really good coaches, each of us connects differently with a particular player. I’ve had players that have performed better on my team than on another team because there was something about the culture, mix, player dynamics, and coaching on my team that appealed to that player better than they did on the team they came from – and vice versa. Variety can be good for developing players to help them find their fit. Also, one coach might not teach a lesson better or worse than another, but the fact that the lesson is taught in two different ways may make the difference between a player “getting it” or not.
How Can We Address Our Considerations?
I can tell you what I did to make this work. I coach one of my kid’s teams, but I know the coaches from the other teams my kids play on. I pay attention to what the other coaches are doing. I’m looking at things like position, style, and skills training. I adjust my own team to accommodate. In other words, if the coach from my son’s varsity team is playing him one way, I take care to play him in a similar fashion on my team. He’s a Junior in High School now so he’s in that specialization window. If he were younger, I would probably approach things differently and go for more diversity. Whatever matching we do needs to be age appropriate.
One thing I do as a coach is deliberately avoid overuse injuries. In practical terms, this means I ask my athletes in the beginning of the season “Who is playing on another team or doing another sport this season?” My high school-aged players sort themselves based on who’s already been running when they show up on my field. They already know I won’t make them run twice in the same day.
Anything to do with running (track, cross country, soccer, etc) puts my on notice that that athlete may not need or be able to tolerate the same level of physical activity as my other player. I separate those multi-team kids from my others during hard physical training. They work on stretching, basic training, or tactics during those times. If I want to run the beep test on my kids, for example, I try to coordinate with the other team coach so ensure I’m not dropping that test on top of a 7-mile run.
As a general statement, I don’t believe that playing on more than one team at the same time is for everyone. There are some players that thrive in a multi-team environment as my two kids have. It takes a higher level of communication and careful attention paid to the risks involved, but it can be made to work.
I think an ideal situation is one where the two clubs or teams see themselves as complementary, not competing. I think that in cases, as with my own club, where we see ourselves as support for players no matter where they end up playing, it can work. But it’s critical to keep an eye out for over stress and burn out.
My own kids played all the way through high school and continue to look forward to playing in college – as an extracurricular activity. My son was trying to meg me in the kitchen just this morning – before school nearing the end of his junior year. No doubt that the beautiful game will be life long companions for both of my kids.
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