The Kitsap Pumas “Pro Youth” program has competed for players and regional importance with Kitsap Alliance (formerly WestSound FC) at the higher, premier age levels. Suddenly an announcement came from both camps — they had decided to work together. It was a surprise to say the least. One forum poster even suggested hell had frozen over in Kitsap. Now Cammy MacDonald, head coach of the PDL Pumas and Director of Coaching for Pumas Youth, takes off his kit and speaks not as an employee but as an individual…giving us an inside look at how and why this all came about.
Changing The Game – A Personal Statement by Cammy MacDonald
Many people are asking why. Why are we doing this, why so quickly, why right now? This is my personal statement.
I’ve been told by many people in the past couple of days to “keep my head down for a while” and that I should do some “damage control.” My understanding of those expressions is that they are for someone who has done something wrong or who wants to avoid attention. Frankly, that’s acting in a cowardly manner. That is not me. While most people are scared to expose themselves, I’m
scared not to. I’m scared of the moment that occurs when people decide NOT to use their voice because they’re afraid of the reaction. I’m not afraid of the fallout of standing up for what I feel is right, I’m afraid of losing myself when I don’t. I’m afraid of what happens when instead of showing people what I believe in, I choose to nod quietly and let them get the wrong idea. As a parent, that should terrify you, as well. How many coaches and directors are there who are afraid to tell you the truth about your son/daughter’s soccer or character development and are happy to simply tell you what they think you want to hear and in some cases, collect a pay check for it!
It’s much scarier to let people assume what you believe and make opinions off of that, than to just tell them. It’s scarier to me to lose a player/family by not letting them see me and what I believe in, than to lose one who saw and just didn’t like it. Because at least that way, I gain players/families that are with me because they like what I do and what I believe in. Then I create real relationships that will last and don’t spend my time trying to paper-over the cracks of a flawed system over and over again.
I arrived in Kitsap County in 2013 somewhat abruptly after a UK soccer experience that had seen me progress from local club training to boy’s club level (select) to professional youth (premier) to full-time professional player and eventually player/coach. Some viewed it as a strange move when I announced I was transitioning more into a coaching role than a playing one at such a young age (23). More than once, my passion for the game was questioned. I will always have a passion for the game. I am an athlete and a competitor. The only people who question that are the people
who do not see how hard I work and how diligently I prepare to be the best I can be — year after year. I take those things very seriously. But my wings spread a lot further than the acceptable athletic stereotype. My focus has always been on becoming a better me. I truly love teaching. More specifically being able to use such a wonderful sport like soccer to teach kids valuable life skills such as respect, communication, and teamwork that will benefit them beyond the field hopefully developing high-level players along the way.
The youth soccer set-up in the UK is vastly different to that in the US. However I didn’t feel as though I was walking in to the unknown arriving here. My uncle is the director of one of the most successful youth programs in Texas and a former colleague holds the same position at an equally successful club in Virginia. I talked with them and was filled with excitement at the prospect of playing and developing the game of soccer here in Kitsap County. Almost immediately I learned this was not the same type of environment I was used to nor was it like anything I had been told about. What I found was a professional team, who despite overwhelming success on the field, was struggling to grow off it. I found a lack of quality playing opportunities for adults. But perhaps most disturbingly, I found a fractured community harboring a caustic environment of mistrust and animosity fueled by personal agendas and recruiting wars. In other words, I found a mess.
My leadership qualities (fostered through a well-rounded youth soccer education) and belief in the strength of community meant I was never going to be able to just sit back and watch an area continue to not realize its potential.
Somewhat naively I believed that change would be simple and that I could succeed where others have failed. After all, I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are many communities across the US where soccer at all levels is blossoming in a harmonious way. One of those models would surely fit the bill for Kitsap. However the more I integrated with the larger soccer community, the more I realized just the size of the task at hand.
I’ve seen families shun one another because of the colors they wear and coaches scared to make true development decisions for fear of parent backlash. I’ve listened to malicious statements said about clubs/parents/coaches/players in hopes of destruction.
I believe there are many factors that can determine the success of a particular sport in an area. Most obviously there has to be a high volume of people passionate about the sport. Without passion or volume there is no room for growth. Kitsap County certainly has a high volume of extremely passionate soccer fans and participants. Crucially though, there has to be a clear pathway for the development of the sport from grassroots (recreational) all the way to the professional level as well as frequent, transparent communication and cooperation between all organizations involved in that sport. Without the latter, the former soon disappears. This is where I felt Kitsap was going wrong. Previous misgivings, lack of follow-through on promises and general deceitful behavior like I mentioned above ultimately had led anyone who believed they could truly unite Kitsap soccer to leave the area, quit the game or simply accept the way it is and just focus on their club/team/player. I came to this area with no knowledge or preconceptions of anyone, something I view as a distinct advantage. Now, I could end up looking back and seeing myself in that category of those who tried but failed, however I’m determined not to let that be the case. The competitor in me will just not allow it.
Since taking the reigns of the Kitsap Pumas Youth Program and Professional Team, I have made it my business to not only focus on excellence and best practices on the inside but to consistently reach out to the wider soccer community in a selfless way hoping I can repair damaged relations and build for a successful future. I mean could you imagine having a thriving professional and
semi-professional men’s, women’s and indoor teams that were able to offer structured, year round, low cost or even free programming for the area’s youth? It’s not unobtainable. But it takes complete dedication to a shared vision from many organizations. Supporting the adult teams through attendance at games, the purchase of merchandise and even just friendly interaction with players and staff increases revenue and potential sponsorships for these clubs. Increased revenue and sponsorship then results in the ability to provide the aforementioned youth programming to local clubs.
An example of this is the work I’ve done in the past twelve months with Tracyton Soccer Club. Reaching out and supporting this program is something that I felt would be naturally reciprocated over time if done properly. I was able to structure some free and low cost programming with them that was open not just to their members but anyone at all regardless of playing experience or club affiliation. We had four extremely successful free Fun Friday sessions before Christmas that saw over 125 families experiencing an enjoyable soccer event. Graphics, flyers and videos were all
made promoting the event. Our dedicated coaching staff gave their time to coach so all kids had a chance to be exposed to high-level training. Photographers, videographers, team mascots and volunteers were all coordinated to assist with registration, provide tents and offer free hot drinks all to a background of holiday music. I arrived at the field consistently three hours before the event to set up the fields, lay out the pennies, place the sign boards around the field and put out the goals I had paid for myself. All this, simply to show the community there are people who care about doing things the right way for the right reasons.
Most recently and currently still underway is the first ever Tracyton Spring Academy. Another round of programming which has been developed to get kids and equally as importantly coaches to fall in love with soccer. Because of this programming there are 95 kids in the area who now have an opportunity to play soccer in the spring, which previously they haven’t had. In fact, because of field space, we closed the number of registrations at 95. I’d imagine at the rate of sign- ups we could have hit the 150 mark if we’d left it open. If these kids are playing in the spring and enjoying it, the likelihood of them continuing to participate in the sport is greater. We have qualified coaches’ working alongside volunteers to provide on the job coaching education through fun sessions for the kids. Not only does this develop those coaches who volunteered their time it might encourage other parents/guardians to give it a go too. This program worked out at $5 per session for the kids and could have been even cheaper had we been able to attract a sponsor for it. Still, like the Fun Fridays, I’m doing this as a volunteer. Some have accused these programs as being a tool for player recruitment. In some ways, they are! It’s not their primary purpose, though. In fact, it’s far from it. And what those who are under-educated in soccer development call recruiting/stealing players, I call talent identification. Out of 95 kids, there might be one, two or even a few who through lack of exposure or poor evaluation haven’t been identified as high-level players. That doesn’t mean we “steal” them away from anyone but it does present us with an opportunity to educate them on the various levels of soccer available which allows them to make an informed decision of where to play.
Going forward, I have enabled the creation of a player development director position that, using only revenue from camps, will see a professional, certified coach from the area’s premier club actively lead the coaching and player development of the already established Tracyton Recreational Program. The Player Development Director will be responsible for developing and maintaining relationships with players, parents, coaches, and helping to bridge the gap between all local recreational programs and the select and premier programs.
With North Kitsap Soccer Club, whom we directly competed with for field space and players, I was able to help a mutually beneficial agreement be reached for field space in a relaxed and positive environment. We’ve also been able to arrange scrimmage matches against their teams, without the fear of players being stolen/recruited.
I, along with our other youth coaches have naturally become friends with a lot of Kitsap Alliance coaches through our shared vision for soccer here and philosophy on player development. We have been able to interact in social environments and have conversations at fields together which twelve months ago would have been nigh on impossible.
In October, one of the other youth coaches and myself went to Jefferson County to deliver a coach education clinic to their program, which was thoroughly enjoyable, and we were delighted that we were paid with a slice of pizza, some cookies and warm conversation.
At the grass-roots level, there is definitely exciting progress being made around the Peninsula. As long as I’m around and people remain willing to cooperate I fully expect that to continue.
The major sticking point is when we reach the competitive side of Kitsap Soccer.
Many have avoided the subject, and others who are well aware choose not to talk of it publicly for fear of retribution. Kitsap County is too small to host two premier soccer clubs. By having competing premier clubs in an area this size, you end up with an incredible dilution of talent. Clubs fielding teams with a huge variance in ability or mixed age groups do so simply to keep those players (often just the best one or two) at that club and not strengthen their rivals. Even when morally, they know it’s just not right.
Coaches recognize this variance in ability. They then try to balance their time keeping everyone happy rather than truly on development. The more they focus on the lesser players of the team, the more disgruntled the higher end is and eventually they leave to clubs in Seattle/Tacoma that are able to field balanced rosters. When they focus on the top end, the bottom end become
disgruntled and they then leave for a team they feel they will stand out on. It is a well-known fact that grouping players based on ability within a team produces larger improvements in performance than mixed ability grouping. “It is healthy and appropriate to group players according to ability level, but movement between groups should be open and fluid in order to reflect changes in ability and individual development from year to year or every six months.” – US youth soccer
Playing up is also a huge issue. Many times, unfortunately, parents want their children to play up for the wrong reason – they want them to play with a certain player, they assume if they are playing up they are developing better (say, on a stronger team). When it is appropriate for soccer development, the opportunity for an exceptional player to play with older players must be available. If your child can have the same creative influence, time on the ball, and opportunities playing up, then they should be afforded the chance to play up. In other words, if your child, in a training session or game, can match the technical and physical elements of the game, then go for it. If your child is barely hanging on, make sure that there is no pressure from neither the club, coach, or, gasp, you to play up. If your child is limited in their role playing up, then they should not be playing up. Sounds simple. Yet when these premier clubs get eight U13s and eight U14s at tryouts, what do they do? They form a U14 team with eight U13 play ups even if those eight U13s aren’t ready to play U14. It’s that or risk losing 16 kids from your program and a wage for one of your coaches. Some parents can even be resistant when they are told their kid should reset to their natural age group. Just because a player has shown the ability to play-up at that particular stage of their development (be it a season, six months or a whole year) doesn’t mean that they are always going to be a play-up. And if they are advised to play the following season/year at age, it is usually a decision based on soccer development that is carefully evaluated by coaches and administrators familiar with the particular and not on team cohesion.
I know both these things are true. I was guilty of forming mixed ability teams and teams with too many play-ups. However, it kept those kids playing the game right now in a system that if I didn’t take them might not have had a home for them. You do it, even though it might not be absolutely what’s best for their development or risk losing them from the game completely. As kids start to get into their teenage years they realize if they are on a team they are either too weak or too strong for. Trust me on that. From there if the balance isn’t addressed, it creates huge problems for everyone.
The difference between winning and losing teams in this area can have little to do with actual coaching and more about whether the coach would be successful in recruiting a larger talent pool than the other clubs team at that age group.
That’s not to say that we don’t have talented coaches. We have tremendously talented coaches. In a county with a population of over 250,000 – with many families having roots in soccer-playing countries – we are bound to have talented player too. We just don’t have a depth of talent that is commensurate with our population yet. Once we do, we will be able to comfortably field D1 and D2 teams across all ages for boys and girls.
On to the collaboration with Kitsap Alliance.
As I mentioned, I’ve heard all sorts of malicious comments about Kitsap Alliance/Westsound/FC Kitsap in my time here. As I’m sure people have heard about myself and about the Kitsap Pumas Youth Outreach. One thing I know that’s a fact is that an organization can’t cause drama. A name cannot give people bad experiences. PEOPLE within organizations do that. I sat around a table on Monday evening in the company of the majority of both the Kitsap Pumas Youth and Kitsap Alliance board members and throughout the course of that meeting it was clear to me that the people I was surrounded by (from both sides) were good passionate people who all want to create the best youth soccer experience for everyone in Kitsap County. And in that regard, there was unanimous agreement that the only way to do that is through working together to create a proper development pyramid in Kitsap (Recreational > Select > Premier). The first step towards achieving that was to eradicate the recruiting wars that create a huge variance in team’s ability that we currently see. This one, simple, step will allow the creation of complete premier and select teams beginning this tryout period. Families now should see unquestionable separation in team’s abilities. The most talented players with a desire to pursue the highest-level youth soccer experience will be at the premier level. Those who wish to play competitively and have the potential to do so but who at that moment might not be ready to will be able to play the next tier of premier. Those who are simply not ready to play premier level, or who have no wish to play premier and merely want to play competitively and with familiar teammates each year will have the opportunity to be placed at select level.
That’s the easy part. Convincing those who have had bad experiences that things are wholesale changing for the better is another story. There is the issue of coaching assignments, questionable styles of play, the higher cost, even the logo and uniform design and colors that has been brought up. What I can say is, it’s a work in progress. For everyone currently playing who has previously had that bad experience, there is a generation of players below you just starting to crawl, walk, run and eventually kick a ball that haven’t. Even writing about that next generation of soccer players is exciting.
It’s up to us what type of community they grow up in. Do we spend the next however many years on opposite sides hoping we can get our group of mainly volunteer board members together enough (remember the majority of people on these boards have full-time jobs and families usually with kids playing soccer – and we know how time consuming that can be) to
discuss names, logos, fees, colors, coaches, philosophy and then come together? We could. No question.
However each day, week, month, year that passes without a proper pyramid system in place not only is the next generation of young players getting exposed to this confusing soccer landscape but the current generations opportunities for progression are being hampered. I have a five month old first born. I have vested interest not only as a soccer professional but a potential soccer parent to make this right. How many kids from Kitsap are getting Division 1 scholarships each year? How many State Cups have Kitsap teams won in the past 5 years? How many kids quit the game before 18 in the past 5 years? How many of those kids would have loved to have gone in to coaching or refereeing (something that is desperately needed) if it wasn’t for a poor and confusing experience. How many kids playing today do you reckon travel from Kitsap County to play for teams in Seattle? How many quality coaches have left the area in the past 5 years?
I fully believe that by bringing people together immediately who share and understand a vision for an evolving better soccer experience in Kitsap will see more immediate and certainly longer-term benefits to all.
Is this the Pumas Youth giving up? Certainly not. Despite how it may look or have been communicated to you this is a collaboration of the best volunteers, coaches and resources between two organizations. The Pumas Youth isn’t something that can be put down on paper and simply stopped. It’s far more than that. It is recognized as a style of play. It is a sense of togetherness amongst the club and each team within the club. It is putting community first and developing the game at all levels. And most importantly it is pride in doing what is right for these young players every time. All of that will continue to exist. It will exist through players, through coaches, through families and through volunteers. It will just be wearing a different logo and called by a different name.
So you’ve heard rumors about coaches on either side. Or know someone who didn’t like a certain coach. Or even had a bad experience with that coach. People change; coaches evolve and develop just like players. Much like forming mixed ability teams, coaches can also be placed with an age group not suited to their particular skillset. In this area, we have been competing for coaches, not just players oftentimes resulting in coaches taking teams at age groups not ideally suited to them. There is a huge difference in coaching U10 girls and U18 boys. Before tryouts, why not go visit some games of prospective coaches and see for yourself? Don’t make assumptions. See for yourself! By combing the best of two organizations and utilizing affiliations with the Kitsap Pumas professional team and the Olympic Force indoor, outdoor and women’s teams we should be able to produce one of the most desirable coaching line-ups in the state.
You’ve also heard the fees are astronomical. They are not. In fact, if you compare with any other premier club in the state competing at those levels, they are on the lower end. That doesn’t mean it isn’t expensive (remember I come from a system where I paid around $200 total to play youth soccer from U8-U16). It is expensive and nobody wants to see the parents bear that cost. In fact, clubs and coaches would much rather that the parents didn’t have to pay. We realize, as others are quick to point out, how many kids the US system of pay-to-play manages to exclude each year. However, that is the system we are in. Below is a little explanation of why in order for club level to change; the professional game needs to change.
Today, in the rest of the world, transfer fees are widely recognized as a reward to clubs that are successful at developing youth players into professional athletes. The transfer fee is a payment for training and developing players. For instance: Aside from being one of the top professional teams in the world, Ajax is one of the planet’s top producers of professional soccer talent. The Ajax
Youth Academy has earned millions of dollars in transfer fees over the years by training young players in the Ajax style of play and eventually selling them on. They use the money from these transfer fees to support the academy, paying for coaches, administrators, travel and facilities. In the US however, our youth soccer clubs are feeding Colleges. Colleges who don’t have to pay the youth club who’ve spent years developing the player. Then even if that player is selected for MLS, the youth club they played for are still not compensated. Therein lies the problem. Coaches do realize just how much time, effort and financial commitment a premier player and their family gives to the game. That is why; above all else, they try to get that player developed to a level where they are able to earn a collegiate scholarship or a professional contract. Yet only 2% manage it.
The desire of kids to play collegiate or professional soccer will still remain though. More exposure than ever before to MLS and European soccer will ensure that. I believe we have to create more fans of the game so that MLS becomes successful economically. With that, more MLS clubs will have free youth programs, and hopefully eventually the MLS clubs will have satellite youth
clubs. This is the potential long-term solution. Until then, professional coaches will remain a necessity. Finding qualified, volunteer soccer coaches among a group of parents is as difficult as finding healthy fast-food. Most parents are either too busy with their full-time jobs or children to make a commitment, or simply lack the knowledge to coach the sport at a high-level. The question isn’t should these highly qualified coaches be paid, it’s who should be paying them. If they were able to get paid by an independent source (USSF, MLS Club), then there’s not so much criticism of what you’re doing developmentally in your training sessions and how you are approaching the game.
So does that mean all of this is perfect? No. Nobody is claiming it is. Not yet anyway. I believe that with most people, positive thinking requires some effort, whereas, negative thinking comes easily and often uninvited. This has much to do with the environment one has been living in. If you have been in a happy and positive atmosphere there is more probability that it will be easier for you to think positively. However, if you have been around difficult situations (in this case, Kitsap Youth Soccer), you will more probably be attracted to negative thinking. All I ask is that you believe in what we are trying to achieve and allow us time to do so.
Optimism, after all, is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.