Editor's note: Dan Woog is the longtime boys soccer coach at Staples High School and a freelancer writer who has authored 16 books on soccer and gay and lesbian rights.
His print work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated and his “Woog’s World” column has appeared in the Westport News every Friday since 1986.
American youth soccer has never been stronger. Youngsters across America – including tens of thousands in Connecticut – play the sport, at every level from recreational to elite.
Mickey Kydes has seen it all. He was born and raised in Norwalk, and became a star at Norwalk High School and a Connecticut Olympic Development Program player in the early 1980s.
After earning Division I All-American honors twice at Long Island University, he went on to a nine-year professional career and a spot on the national team.
In the 1990s, Kydes founded Beachside Soccer Club, one of the first premier teams in the state and now a national powerhouse. At the same time Kydes serves as director of coaching for the Westport and Old Greenwich Soccer Associations, designing programs and hiring coaches for boys and girls just starting their soccer careers. He also work with kindergarten through second-graders in Wilton. Kydes’ programs encompass over 5,000 children.
Recently, Kydes discussed the state of youth soccer.
“You can’t talk about youth soccer without mentioning the environment,” he says. “There are all kinds of leagues, all kinds of administrators, all kinds of parents. It’s become a big business. But in the end, you can’t lose sight of quality. It’s not about quantity. It’s about creating a positive and healthy environment through integrity and education in which kids can play, learn and grow, both personally and athletically.”
Soccer in Connecticut “used to be easy,” Kydes says. “There was recreation and travel. Then came another level: premier. That grew and grew, but without any criteria. Lots of teams started calling themselves ‘premier.’ It got top-heavy. That diluted the concept of premier soccer, but it also hurt mid-level travel programs by drawing players out of them. It became a vicious cycle. I’m really concerned, because I want the best playing environment possible for every player in Connecticut.”
Kydes "is a big proponent of rec soccer. It’s where the masses are, and it’s a kid’s first experience to the game. It’s where we make a huge impact, and pay a lot of attention to. First impressions last a long time.”
Kydes believes that in the U.S. our best coaches should coach 5- to 10-year-olds. In reality, though, “we totally neglect recreational soccer in Connecticut.”
Although Kydes created and runs one of the most successful premier clubs in the country, he believes that in this state, “premier starts way too early. And there’s no standardization. We need maybe two divisions –with promotion and relegation for the top and bottom teams – or even better, one division, which teams have to qualify for.”
Unlike some premier club directors, Kydes is a big proponent of high school soccer.
“It’s part of our culture,” he says, recalling his own days as a Norwalk Bear. “Kids really want to play in front of their friends, representing their school and town.”
Kydes is adamant about the need for coaching education.
“The game is constantly changing," he said. "Players are getting stronger and faster. The more experience a coach has, talking with different people and learning, the better.”
Kydes traveled to Barcelona last year to observe that famed club’s youth coaches. He came back with plenty of ideas, and is eager to share them with all coaches – not only those in his Beachside club.
One of those concepts involves simplicity and repetition.
“Soccer is a very simple game,” he notes. “At one point in my coaching career I tried to make it complex with fancy drills. But there’s nothing fancy about the game.
Soccer success, Kydes says, "comes from simplicity, repetition, passion, discipline, commitment and a strong work ethic.”
In his roles at Beachside and with the town programs he runs, Kydes meets many parents. They play a vital role, he notes, “not only in terms of their child having a positive athletic experience, but for a club’s success, too.”
He supports education of parents as well as of coaches, to create “a culture that is driven by supportive and patient parents.” Such a culture enables parents to understand that losing as well as winning, and coming off the bench as well as starting, can be learning experiences that last a lifetime.
Kydes does think we need to improve soccer coaching in America. The biggest problem is that “at the youth level we’re more concerned about winning than developing.”
Personal development should be the highest priority, he says.
“Character, attitude and playing an attractive technical style are far more important than winning a state cup," Kydes said. "Coaches are the catalysts in creating the environment, and one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. When we stop building coaching resumes on wins and losses, and focus more on the impact we have on the development of young children, that is when we will all see progress.”
He is encouraged that a new generation of youth coaches and administrators – including many parents -- grew up with the game. They’re helping create the environment he believes is so important.
“You see people of all different backgrounds and ages playing and talking about soccer," he said. "We’ve made great strides so far. Our problems are solvable. The only place to go is up.”
Of course, Kydes says, players are the most important part of the American youth soccer landscape. He believes they need standards, expectations, discipline and structure. Once that environment is in place, it is up to each player to take advantage.
“Times have changed,” Kydes says. “Most children have everything they need, and we allow kids to get away with so much. That does not help young people. But set the personal standards high, and the potential in all children will flourish."