Guardians Of The Next Soccer Generation
The American Youth Soccer Organisation (AYSO) is a national non-profit organization that provides children between 4-1/2 and 19 the opportunity to play soccer and get soccer coaching. The American Youth Soccer Organization is dedicated to providing: –
quality youth soccer programs where everyone builds positive character through participation in a fun, family-oriented soccer environment’ (from the AYSO mission statement).
American Youth Soccer Organisation was founded in 1964 in California by a small group of soccer enthusiasts with only nine local teams. The core philosophies of AYSO (see below) grew naturally from the desire to create a positive soccer-based experience for their children in local teams: –
‘Open registration’ was the way to encourage as many children as possible to join the first AYSO league.
The imbalance between the experienced players and the new influx led to the development of the ‘balanced teams’ concept.
Then, when ‘balanced teams’ resulted in the experienced players being played while inexperienced players sat on the bench, ‘everyone plays’ was created to ensure every child who turned out got to play at least half a game.
Today, there are over 50,000 teams in AYSO, with over 650,000 players and AYSO is in all 50 states and some US territories. The organization’s passion for inclusive soccer is demonstrated by two of their early landmarks:
The first AYSO girls program was developed in 1971 as a local initiative. Today, it’s nationwide, with girls making up 40% or more of AYSO’s playing membership.
The AYSO coach who signed up the first player with Down Syndrome in the mid 70s probably didn’t realise they were starting a chain of events that would lead to soccer being introduced into the Special Olympics. Today, the AYSO Very Important Player (VIP) program is in 75 locations with 1,500 players.
The AYSO philosophy is summarised under six headings:
- Everyone Plays. Every kid who joins an AYSO team is guaranteed to play half of every game.
- Balanced Teams. AYSO teams are formed to be as evenly balanced as possible to ensure teams play teams of equal ability. It’s more challenging and it’s more fun!
- Open Registration. There are no barriers to joining AYSO. Every child of the relevant age who wants to play soccer can join.
- Positive Coaching. AYSO coaches encourage and reward positive behaviors such as enthusiasm and effort rather than focusing on natural ability or skill.
- Good Sportsmanship. AYSO plays soccer in a context of mutual respect and sportsmanship and works to eliminate over-competitiveness and gamesmanship.
- Player Development. In order for players to get the most out of soccer, each player is encouraged to develop their soccer skills and knowledge to the best of their abilities, both individually and as members of a team.
AYSO is now one of the largest single-sport youth organizations in the USA, with the work being shared by a small full-time staff at its National Support and Training Center in Hawthorne, California … and 250,000 volunteers. The volunteer force is mainly parents who give up their time to be coaches, referees, administrators and fund-raisers.
With so many playing members and their families to coordinate, great administration is required at the AYSO. A multi-tiered structure has evolved over the years:
The basic building block of the AYSO is a ‘Region’ – a community-based league that can be anything from a few hundred to several thousand players. Regions are supervised by local boards of directors and each has a Regional Commissioner.
An ‘Area’ is a group of regions close to each other. AYSO Area Directors oversee the Regions within their Area and organize Area-wide activities.
‘Sections’ are organizational units that divide the country into 14 geographic administrations. The number of players in that part of the country dictates the size and shape of ‘Sections’.
The two core programs AYSO runs for its members are the Coaching Program and the Officiating Program.
Coach training is key to the AYSO – they say ‘training’ is their middle name – and ‘Positive Coaching’ is one of the five core philosophies that govern the organization. AYSO coaches are volunteers, and many will never have coached before, so training is available that starts with the real basics, or at a more advanced level depending on the coach’s experience level. Training is available for coaches specific to the different age groups they will be working with, recognizing that the needs of an under-10 team are very different from those of an under-19 team.
All coach training is certified, and is to professional standards with manuals and coaching aids all under constant review.
AYSO referee training is not just designed to teach the rules of the game, but to ensure that games are played in a safe and enjoyable environment. Emphasis is placed on developing the ‘Spirit of the Game’ in line with AYSO philosophies.
Referee training is taken very seriously at AYSO, with a structure comprising not only six levels of training for volunteer referees, but training for referee instructors, referee-specific administrators and referee assessors.
A range of excellent books and videos that are designed for coaches, referees and parents supports all training programs.
Other Special Programs
In addition to the core training programs for coaches, referees and administrators, AYSO runs a number of special programs:
- Very Important Player. The VIP program is designed to help young players with special needs play soccer on their own terms. Soccer games are created and modified with appropriate rules to let everyone enjoy a positive soccer experience.
- College Athlete Program. The (CAP) program prepares student-athletes for college by developing competencies in soccer skills, academic achievement, sporting behavior, community service, and school involvement.
- Team-Up. AYSO helps areas with financial challenges by providing special funds, assistance in securing additional funding, and equipment such as donated or sponsored soccer apparel, soccer shoes and soccer balls. The related Suit-Up program encourages more affluent Regions to help fellow Regions in financial need by donating new and slightly used uniforms.
- Kids Zone. The Kids Zone program is AYSO’s response to the negative behavior of some parents involved in youth sports. The program aims to promote standards of positive sideline behavior at all AYSO games and to produce an environment of zero-tolerance towards negative, threatening or violent behavior on the sideline.
AYSO encourages the ‘spirit of the game’ over the pursuit of trophies, but recognizes that soccer is a competitive sport. Open and invitational tournaments are regularly held at all levels – Region, Area, Section and nationally, but the emphasis is always on participation rather than win-at-all-costs. Attempts to classify national tournaments as ‘championships’ have been strongly defeated.
AYSO also makes a number of annual awards to players and to local organizers who have demonstrated the philosophies of the organization in some outstanding way.
The AYSO Hall of Fame lists those people who have made an exceptional contribution to the objectives of the organization, and the AYSO Hall of Fame members are displayed at the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, NY.
The future of soccer in the USA lies in the hands – and feet – of the next generation, and we are fortunate indeed that our young players have a chance to develop their love of the game and their soccer skills in the nurturing environment created by the AYSO.