It’s not hard to find stories of toxic, unhealthy or downright abusive environments in youth soccer in the United States. It is, sadly, something that happens at youth clubs all over the country, in multiple age groups and competition levels.
The elite youth club environment has its own particular attributes that can create conditions ripe for abuse, from under-trained or under-vetted coaches to overly competitive parents. These are issues that trickle upward to the college and the professional level, where players have spoken about how the abuse they experienced at the youth level primed them to be more vulnerable to abuse as adults — whether it was accepting that it was simply the price of being an athlete, or being acclimated to a culture of silence or being unable to recognize the behavior as abuse.
That’s why it was interesting to talk to people involved with the Girls Academy, a national girls’ youth league that plays from U-13 to U-19, where former University of Washington head coach Lesle Gallimore serves as league commissioner and OL Reign Academy executive director Amy Griffin served as president of the board until June 2022. Like some leagues or clubs, the GA is a nonprofit; unlike most other leagues, it has a player advisory panel so that participants can discuss the issues that affect them, then report them to the league.
The panel is composed of team representatives in each age group; these representatives report up the chain to two primary club player reps, who report up to one of 16 total elected conference player reps, and one player ambassador who reports directly to the league commissioner. Conference representatives do not have voting power when it comes to GA governance, although Griffin said that would be something the league is willing to explore.
OL Reign academy player Ella Johnson is a former advisory panel member; she told The Athletic that the players’ panel stuck out to her in differentiating the GA from previous youth club experiences.
“I would say when I was very young, I kind of had a toxic relationship with soccer in a sense, or with my coaches,” she said. “Looking back on my coaches, the very first club I was at, they were really hard and hardcore for no reason at all. Looking back, we were 10 years old, and I just had no confidence because of it and it was just really cut-throat.”
At the GA, Johnson said, she felt more focus on her as a player, and also saw the structure of the club modeling communication from the bottom up and coach involvement in running a club.
“Being able to see how much of a voice (my coach) was able to have and other coaches from other clubs, I had never really seen that before,” she said. “It’s usually someone who’s not a coach (involved in administration), someone who doesn’t actually understand a club environment and what they need when they’re traveling or tournament accommodations and things like that, because they’re not always with a team and seeing what’s going on.”
Johnson said that it also helped to have a coach from a local club overseeing in each region, so that person would usually be someone most players knew, or knew of, which made it more comfortable for players to communicate.
“The traction that (the player panel) has started to gain is probably one of the most unique things about our league, and one of the most powerful,” said Griffin. She added that advisory panel members have been organizing on Zoom and asking for meeting space at tournaments now that COVID restrictions have eased. Where once she used to hear players complaining that they hated their teams, now she hears more conversations around collaboration and cooperation, on and off the field.
“When you get the adults out of the room and you truly believe, and trust and help facilitate the ideas that these young women have, is when all the good things happen,” said Griffin.
The advisory panel is an outgrowth of the philosophy of the GA, which calls itself a “youth development platform.”
“Girls Academy doesn’t have the word ‘elite’ in it,” Gallimore pointed out. They do not use the language of “elite performance,” nor is it club practice to make any promises about players making it to national teams or obtaining college scholarships (according to the NCAA, 9.7 percent of women’s high school players play at the college level, with only 2.3 percent will make it to DI and, of course, not all of that 2.3 percent will get a scholarship, either full or partial). Gallimore and Griffin said that they want the GA to be a place where players feel ownership over their own pathways in soccer — even if that means not choosing soccer all the time.
“Our club really encourages us to do other things,” said Johnson. “A girl who I go to school with, who’s a year younger than me, she plays tennis on our school team, and our coaches came and supported her at one of her tennis matches and encouraged her to do that because they don’t want her to just be a soccer player.”
Gallimore said that communication also doesn’t have to strictly follow the pyramid of player representatives from the bottom up.
“They can go to any adult leader on the advisory panel. They can come straight to me. They can go to their coach, who would come to me. They can go to anyone that they’re comfortable with. As long as it filters up to me,” she said, naming issues from improved standard of refereeing to funding scholarships or offsetting playing costs to partnering with charities. Gallimore’s commissioner role is offset by the board of directors; issues filter up to her, but things like disciplinary issues require the input of the board.
The GA has partnered with Stopit Solutions to provide players with an anonymous reporting system, which includes an app for players’ phones and some training for players on recognizing things like bullying and how to report inappropriate behavior. The league is also planning additional education for parents, players and coaches to make sure they understand how to use the reporting system.
Gallimore self-rated the communication in the league at a C+ at the moment, given the GA’s relative youth — it formed in 2020, in the wake of USSF’s Development Academy shutting down — and the logistical problems posed by COVID.
Griffin laughed at the grade, saying, “I’m laughing because players and Lesle are on the phone all the time.”
Humor aside, Gallimore’s “the more communication, the better” ethos is an important one when evaluating a youth league. It’s often a warning sign if leagues are uncommunicative with players or parents — things like coaches directly texting or emailing players instead of parents, coaches unable to find a healthy balance of giving critical feedback, and parents not being allowed to travel with their children to away tournaments can all be warning signs of an unhealthy environment where coaches want to maintain control more than they want to be teachers.
“Amy and I are for sure not going to sit here in this ivory tower and tell you that we have everything perfect and that our league is free of any bad things,” said Gallimore.
Both she and Griffin acknowledged they needed to add more BIPOC people to the GA at every level. But, Gallimore continued, “In more than two years, what we’ve tried to do is create a standards-based environment where people understand what the expectations are, kids understand what’s okay and what’s not okay, and everyone feels safe calling it out and rectifying it, one way or another.”
“The goal is to get it to the point where everyone understands that that’s the way it needs to be,” said Gallimore. “That’s a big undertaking, because I would say that overall, (youth soccer has) gone sideways in this country…. We’ve definitely done something in this country where we’ve tolerated for too long things in a sporting environment that wouldn’t be acceptable in daily behavior.”
As league commissioner, Gallimore said she tries to go to lots of games and just watches the players and the coaches, particularly listening to how coaches instruct and give feedback before, during and after games. Then, if she sees something that needs correction, she will get on the phone with the club’s director and discuss what went wrong and what needs to be better.
That top-down communication approach is just as important as the bottom-up feedback. A good director at the top of the league structure helps ensure a consistent curriculum for all the clubs and coaches, and has all the coaches using the same terminology and principles so that, as players progress through age groups, they can build on what they’ve learned. The curriculum should also be available to parents, with regular communication — “office hours,” as Griffin put it — for parents to ask questions and for the club to check in about their goals.
“I think that presents a really great foundation for parents to feel like there is a process,” said Griffin.
That kind of oversight also helps with training and education, making it crucial for the person at the top to have their own training in coach education, teaching others how to teach.
“I know a lot of people want to poo-poo coaching licenses,” said Gallimore. “I don’t care if it’s a U.S. Soccer license, but you have to be qualified to be a coach. There needs to be some kind of training around dealing with children in any sport, and being a teacher, being an educator, being a leader of youth. It requires that you have competencies in these areas and that you understand, in general, what type of environment you should be creating that’s a healthy learning environment for them, much like a classroom. Exactly like a classroom, in my opinion.”
“I think being a coach is all the things,” said Griffin. “You’re not a teacher, you’re not a parent, you’re not a counselor, you’re not a mentor, you’re all of it at once.”
Good coach education matters in administration just as much as tactics. Johnson said it was apparent when someone who didn’t understand player needs was in charge.
“They’re just so out of touch with what’s actually needed and what accommodations are needed,” she said. “At tournaments in general, whether that’s just a snack, free snacks, or hydration drinks, or things like that. I think so many other leagues are so money-driven that they just do whatever they can to get the most teams, merchandise everything, selling, and they kind of lose sight of the player.”
Gallimore said that clubs should also be educating parents on what to look for in the club’s training, that parents should see that clubs have a plan for the 12-year-old player coming in versus the 17-year-old player preparing to leave for college, and that they understand the developmental phases of puberty, both physically and mentally.
“Between 14, 15, and 16, how are you treating them differently?” Gallimore said. “How are you reacting to their emotions? Do you know how to handle a prepubescent (child) versus in-the-throes-of-puberty girl when their body’s changing and their mind is all over the place and they’re starting in a new school?”
And parents should look at their club’s organizational chart, if it has one, and make sure there are enough personnel to manage the number of players. Small or large, a club should have enough coaches so that players can get individualized feedback, and coaches aren’t running from team to team, field to field, trying to coach as many teams as possible because that’s the only way they can get paid more.
Johnson said that when she was younger, even as a child, she could tell when coaches didn’t care about her development. She wouldn’t play as much, and in training there wasn’t a focus on helping her develop; she was just there, another body on the roster. When the DA shut down, she said, she felt it again, at least in the Seattle area, as other youth coaches tried to snap up as many players as possible who were suddenly without a club.
“That kind of seemed like they were just trying to get as many good players as possible so that they could be the best in this state,” she said. “That’s definitely a time when it just seemed like we didn’t have any value other than our skill set.”
When she joined her GA club, things shifted.
“I remember our coaches, even if we lost they’d be like, ‘You guys still played really well’,” she said. “It wasn’t always about the result, but just how we’re developing and then, as we’ve gotten older, the results have meant more, and we still want to care about the results, but we’re also not getting punished because we lost a game.”
Without the constant pressure, Johnson still cared about winning and losing, she said, but now the motivations for those things were internally generated, as opposed to externally pushed on her by adults.
While there’s no one perfect answer to such a broad issue, Gallimore believes oversight and early intervention can help. Oversight can come in the form of a good academy director, someone who’s had training in educating other coaches, and is empowered to observe as many coaches as possible as much as possible, instead of acting at a remove.
Parents should form an intersecting layer of oversight with coaches and directors — as Gallimore pointed out, relying on a club director for oversight doesn’t work if the director has an egocentric mindset, instead of a player focus.
“I think parents should always be involved,” said Griffin. “I don’t like the fact that the word ‘parent’ has a negative connotation (in youth soccer). Parents are there to support their kids, and they need to be included in what the process is.”
And, ultimately, it should be fun.
“(The kids) should be sprinting out of their car going to practice most days, if not every day,” said Griffin. “These parents should also be enjoying their kids’ soccer experience, and I don’t think many of them are. They’re so stressed out about all these false promises of what we’re going to promise your kid if you come to our club.”
(Photo: The Girls Academy League / Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing)