Kids have a ball

One soccer field, roughly 30 7- and 8-year-old girls, dozens of balls and an ever-moving maze of simultaneous dribbling and passing drills.

It sounds like a recipe for mass chaos, but the coaches at the Lexington Futbol Club's new academy make it work—and make it fun.

"Stay with the ball," yells Jim Tussey, the academy's director, in the middle of the field as the girls circle their drills around him. "Watch your passing."

In its first year, the LFC Academy program — classified for players "U9," or under age 9 — focuses on fundamentals of the sport, not on winning or losing.

That may seem like a contradiction in terms for a competitive, or select, league like the LFC. But the thinking is that focusing on fundamentals first will lead to stronger players in the long run, organizers say.

"At ages 8 or 9, players are too young to be labeled as "A," "B," or "C," players," said LFC coaching director Parviz Zartoshty, referring to the tiering that traditional competitive leagues have used in the past to group players based on skill levels. "They're not finished maturing yet. So the whole idea for this is to let them train together, to let them play and not to label them."

LFC Academy players, broken up into boys' and girls' teams, play "friendlies" — a soccer term for scrimmages — rather than regular games, against themselves and with other programs across the state. Scores aren't kept, and the coaches keep their directives from the sidelines to a minimum.

"We're trying to create an environment where players can learn the fundamentals of the game and take away that win-at-all-costs mentality," said Tussey, who is also the head boys soccer coach at Lexington Christian Academy.

Idea taking hold

Currently, LFC Academy has 62 players: 34 boys and 28 girls. They practice for 90 minutes twice a week and play a 12-week season that runs from late August to mid-October and from late March to mid-May.

The academy is considering expanding next year to include a "U10" team for 9-year-olds so that eventually players won't be assigned to traditional, elite-style competitive teams within the LFC league until they are 10 or 11 years old, said Debbie Vogel, LFC administrator.

It's a shift that has taken some getting used to for both players and parents.

Carl Wheeler's daughter, DeeDee, 8, competitive by nature, was "a little disappointed" when she learned her first year with the LFC and its new academy meant no "real" games.

"She wanted to be rated," he said.

Not shouting as many directions from the sidelines has been an adjustment for parents, too, many of whom have older children playing in LFC who went through the traditional competitive-style training.

"I was biting my tongue the whole time in Bowling Green last weekend during the scrimmages," said Dave Turcotte, girls coordinator for the academy and father of Morgan, 7, who plays on the academy team. "The goal is to get the players to learn to think in the game and learn to make their own decisions," he said.

Academies encouraged

While the academy concept is new to Lexington, several select teams across the state and many across the country have adopted it.

The Bluegrass Soccer Club in Versailles launched academy-style training for its youngest players this year. Other area soccer clubs also have begun implementing variations of academy-style training within their programs, including Lexington's Commonwealth Soccer Club and the Winchester Youth Soccer Association. Academies are also in use in Bowling Green, Louisville and Owensboro, said Dave McIver, program manager and assistant director of coaching for the Kentucky Youth Soccer Association.

While KYSA has not required Kentucky elite leagues to adopt the academy format with its younger players, it is encouraging clubs to do so, McIver said.

With several weeks of practice under their children's belts, LFC parents are beginning to see the advantages of the shift.

Erin McNees, mother of Madeline DeJesus, 7, was "100 percent for the concept" of the academy from the start, she said. "They're too young to be able to pigeonhole them. None of them have the skill set yet to compete on a competitive level."

Parents especially like the academy's shift away from games to 6-on-6 "friendlies" and the fact that it mixes players up across scrimmage teams to allow their children more playing time and more contact with the ball.

In a traditional competitive soccer league, a family might drive four hours to Bowling Green and back to watch a one-hour game, 30 minutes of which their child might get in to play. But with the academy system, all of the players play four friendlies in a day — with no down time, said Brooks Downing, father of twin daughters Carmen and Camille, 8, one of five sets of twins in the inaugural academy class.

"The bottom line is, kids have multiple touches" with the ball, Downing said. "They have the opportunity to play a lot. And they have expert coaches."

And allowing all competitive players of a certain age to train together under the same set of coaches with the same coaching guidelines "optimizes the chance for development across the board," Turcotte said. "It is really an equitable training system."

Downing agreed. "In the past, 14 or 15 players in a given age group got to be cultivated by the best coaches, but with this system, now they are in a position to develop 30 girls and boys in each age group," he said.