Today is the first day in more than two decades that I am not an AYSO volunteer.
I started as a volunteer back in 1995, when I became the assistant coach for my son’s first team. I don’t come from a family tradition of volunteering, but my dad had coached me in baseball and basketball, so I expected to do the same for my kids. Shortly after that, though, I was asked to be assistant regional commissioner, and luckily, my wife encouraged me to accept. That led to my becoming regional commissioner and area director, as well as an instructor for coaches (which was not really my strength) and for managers (which I really enjoyed). I served on, and chaired, a national task force which created a successful new program for the organization and on a national commission which created and improved training workshops.
AYSO was a great experience for me and my family. We went to meetings all over the country. I made good friends, locally and throughout AYSO from Hawaii to California, to Utah, to Arizona to Tennessee to Chicago to New Hampshire to the Virgin Islands, and lots of places in between. My family hosted coaches from England who worked at our summer soccer camps. I had the opportunity to help run two caucuses at National Meetings and present the findings to the membership. I was privileged to help train two classes of amazing regional commissioners at the AYSO offices in California. I met so many great kids, and their parents, as a coach and administrator. I got to coach a team of amazing young women at our National Games in Hawaii. My AYSO experience really was a great confluence of being able to make a positive contribution to the community, while also getting personal growth and satisfaction from the relationship. That’s why I continued volunteering for AYSO even though both of my kids have long aged out of the program.
But, like many decades-long relationships, even happy ones, my relationship with AYSO began to fray over the last few years. The reasons why would mostly be boring to readers, and filled with the sort of “inside baseball” (to mix sports metaphors) that would take too long to explain, so I won’t go into detail. At the end of the day, I felt that AYSO treated me, and many volunteers like me, with disdain bordering on contempt (or, at best, with negligence). I had gotten to the point where I believed that my contributions were not valued, so I decided that the negatives outweighed the positives. (Let me be clear that my disillusionment is primarily with the national organization, both staff and volunteers, and not as much with my local program, although I have some concerns there, too.) A couple of months ago, I sent a long email to a number of people in the organization, many of whom I have known for years and considered friends, including the National President and Executive Director, detailing what AYSO had done to cause an involved 20+ year volunteer to walk away from an organization that I loved. Fittingly, it was ignored, and I received no response from any of the addressees.
AYSO is an odd organization, because it is primarily run by a large volunteer body with a small paid staff. Therefore, in many ways, it has traditionally been disorganized, with volunteer managers, from the National Board to the local boards and volunteers having different levels of knowledge of, and commitment to, the rules, policies and practices, and different views on its operation. On some level, that can be good, because the local regions are able to shape their program to meet local needs. On the other hand, it often leads to chaos, confusion and infighting. Over the past few years, AYSO has had trouble retaining a National Executive Director for more than a couple of years, leading to unsettling and destabilizing turnover. Although I haven’t been at the National Meetings for a few years, where board members are elected and corporate business is decided, the word I have heard most often from people who have attended is “shitshow.”
Part of the problem is that the youth soccer marketplace has changed, and, in my opinion, AYSO has been too cautious to change to meet these challenges, resulting in continually decreasing player numbers, and thus decreasing revenue and increasing difficulties in operating. This causes stress on the local organizations, who often feel like they are working at cross-purposes with what is usually referred to with disdain as “National.” There is no way that any rational person would create a youth soccer system like the one we have now, with competing organizations fighting for players, and for-profit organizations convincing parents that they need to pay thousands of dollars a year to play in “elite” competitions, based on win/loss records, something that many, including U.S. Soccer has criticized as hurting player development.
AYSO has long had a good reputation as a “warm and fuzzy” place for kids to learn soccer and have fun, but the more competitive clubs and organizations have, for the most part, been able to pigeon-hole it as a mere “rec” soccer program. There seems to be a belief that if you have to try out for a team, it is somehow going to be a better experience than if there are no tryouts. At the same time, these organizations have increased their rec offerings to bring in more players (and thus more money), and often have the attractive option that allows players to move up or down, based on their talent and interest level. On the other hand, many of these club programs don’t, as AYSO does, guarantee playing time, which is bad for player development and just wrong for most levels of youth soccer. For years, misguided and misinformed “purists” in AYSO delayed its formal creation of even a modest tiered program consistent with its “Everybody Plays” philosophy, and only this year it created a program to compete against club soccer, which I think is poorly conceived and executed. I suspect, although I hope I’m wrong, that within a few years, AYSO will cease to have a significant number of players older than 8 years old in much of the country. As one AYSO friend of mine put it recently, when your kids are young, they love Barney, and when they get older they hate Barney. AYSO is Barney.
So, I’m a bit saddened by the end of my run with AYSO. But as you can tell from the tone of this piece, it is clearly time for me to move on to other things–volunteering, travel, family obligations, blog writing and even my work. I’ll miss the fun I had and I’ll miss my AYSO “family,” though.
The video above is pretty obscure, by a band called #Poundsign (you can tell it is old because they aren’t called “Hashtag.”). It is called “AYSO,” and it is about the joy of being a kid and playing AYSO soccer, which, when you boil it all down, is the most important thing about AYSO.