AYSO dives deep into its history, rooted in inclusiveness and positivity, and explains how it has something to offer all soccer players, no matter their age, skill level, income or experience.
Mike Hoyer, National Executive Director
What is the American Youth Soccer Organization?
Hoyer: AYSO is an inclusive, youth soccer provider based in over 800 communities across the US. AYSO offers numerous play options for the full player development pathway. We welcome those new to the sport, those seeking a high level of play and adults. In every program the foundation of play is our Six Philosophies: Everyone Plays, Balanced Teams, Open Registration, Positive Coaching, Good Sportsmanship and Player Development.
AYSO is volunteer operated 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
When was AYSO founded and how has AYSO grown since it was founded?
Hoyer: AYSO was founded in 1964 with four teams in Torrance, California. The first program outside of California was launched by a family that moved from the mainland to Hawaii. Today, we have more than 800 programs across country and in a few Caribbean locations.
We pioneered a national program for girls soccer in 1971 that included women who went on to the first Women’s National Team including Lesle Galimore, head coach at the University of Washington.
To further deliver on our philosophy of Everyone Plays, we launched the Very Important Player program in 1974 for players with developmental disabilities. The program flexibility creates opportunities for kids and adults of all abilities and capabilities an opportunity to enjoy the power of team sports participation.
What were AYSO’s Six Philosophies based off of?
Hoyer: Our philosophies define the AYSO child and player focused culture. The first three were created by our founders, Everyone Plays, Balanced Teams and Open Registration helped advertise the difference between AYSO and other youth sports programs in the 1960’s. No tryouts. No exclusion by lines on a map. The customer is able to choose where to participate and know their child will play at least half of every game.
As the program grew, it was evident that Good Sportsmanship and Positive Coaching needed to be ingrained in every aspect of our program to ensure the focus remained on our vision to “provide world class youth soccer programs that enrich children’s lives.” We exist to serve the child, the youth player.
Finally, Player Development was added to acknowledge our National Coaching program and curriculum focused on age appropriate environments that address the social, psychological, and physical developmental cycle.
How do you ensure that there is a competitive balance in AYSO leagues?
Hoyer: Each year we form new teams as evenly balanced as possible. The only player designated to a team is the child of a coach. Our local program leaders utilize a variety of methods to balance teams to align with this philosophy.
We also have a variety of player programs for the full player development pathway. Our Core Program is non-tryout based and open to all who seek to play.
We have two other levels of play that are tryout based. EXTRA is our in-house travel program for players seeking a higher level of play and team commitment. We have approximately 1500 teams in this category.
AYSO’s National Club/Travel program is AYSO United. This is also tryout based and provides players another level of play within gaming circuits outside of AYSO.
At each level, the commitment is for each player to get at least half a game. The game itself is its best teacher.
How do you ensure coaches are properly educated about safety and player development?
Hoyer: AYSO provides a complete education platform for the whole family: volunteers, parents and guardians, and players. Each community-based program (Regions in our terminology) can offer in-person training if they have the volunteers trained as AYSO Instructors.
AYSO mandated coach training in 2011 utilizing our age appropriate curriculum. The curriculum has three times been validated by the National Commission for the Accreditation of Coaching Education (NCACE). We go beyond the X’s and O’s or the technical components of coaching. Guidance is provided in the coaching curriculum for the proper learning environment at each age division within our programs.
Our coaching curriculum is written to speak to the parent, guardian or adult that may be new to soccer and provides these valuable volunteers the resources and references to deliver soccer training and the AYSO Experience with training plans, video demonstrations and animated graphics.
Our Safe Haven Training is required for all volunteers for the protection of our players and volunteers. Topics include player safety, weather safety, anti-bullying and prevention of abuse (physical and verbal).
We provide continued education for coaches, referees and our program managers online and in person. We have several thousand trained instructors. We also provide annual updates to each of the disciplines to keep our programs current.
What makes AYSO different from other youth soccer leagues?
Hoyer: Our Six Philosophies make us unique as we start with a youth player and commit to creating a safe, fun, fair environment to include children no matter their social, economic or personal physical skill level.
AYSO is unique among youth sports organizations by putting program operations in the hands of the local volunteers. We are the only soccer program provider that offers training for coaches, referees and league administrators.
Can you tell me a little more about AYSO’s Safe Haven?
Hoyer: AYSO’s Safe Haven® program is designed to address the growing need for Child and Volunteer Protection in youth sports. The components of the program help create a safe, fun, fair and positive environment – “safe haven” – for all our participants.
AYSO requires all volunteers to complete a volunteer application every year and agree to background investigations. References are checked for brand new volunteers and every volunteer is subject to screening for sex offender registration and criminal convictions according to AYSO’s National Criminal Background Check Policy.
Adult participation in youth activities has requirements that vary from state to state. More than half the states have mandated concussion awareness training offered by the Centers for Disease Control. There are some states that now also require sudden cardiac awareness training that includes fines and penalties for noncompliance.
Do you have any partnerships?
Hoyer: AYSO has a variety partners that serve as sponsors, licensees and program partners to support our Organization. We have strategic partnerships to promote program offerings. The latter operates via local community organizations, usually nonprofits, that have core values similar to AYSO and align with our vision to enrich the lives of children through the power of play and team sports.
What overall trends are you seeing in youth soccer?
Hoyer: There has never been more focus on youth soccer as there is now. Since the US Men’s National Team failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup after participating in each one since 1990 has raised the water cooler conversations and exploded on social media. Much of the discussion supposes that this level of play and the leadership of US Soccer is the whole iceberg of the issue.
We see various organizations and associations seeking to engage parents in the value of physical activity through sports. The SFIA with its programs is one example.
The Aspen Institute, Changing the Game Project, the Positive Coaching Alliance, SoccerParenting.com, AYSO and other US Soccer youth soccer member associations all seek to raise awareness of youth sport and soccer development arcs. Competition is a valuable teacher after the lessons of training, teamwork, respect for officials, and a love of the game are developed and instilled in the participants. We all seek to have messaging and engagement with parents to set expectations for children.
One of the catch phrases that has risen to prominence in youth soccer is the “pay to play model.” Many try to compare the US with other countries for our game. The US is different in that a club can’t put a youth player under contract at the young ages as occurs in many other countries. There are plenty of costs of facilities and direct costs for a player, (e.g. insurance and general liability) that are different than other countries. Perhaps the phrase should be focused on the value of what to pay for a program. There are soccer clubs where nine year olds’ parents will spend $5,000 to $8,000 per year.
There is also more focus on under-served communities. The US Soccer Foundation has pivoted to creating soccer play facilities of all types, including partnerships with major corporate donors. The key challenge is providing sustainable programming that also addresses the access for these kids.
How can people get more involved in AYSO? Are there volunteer opportunities?
Hoyer: AYSO has opportunities to volunteer in dozens of different positions at different levels within the Organization within basic categories of coach, referee or management. We also have working groups, task forces and committees that are specific to a volunteer’s experience or professional expertise. For example, we have groups built on those with career experience in marketing, public relations, finance, auditing, mediation and other to lend their time on a case-by-case or task basis.
Volunteers may contact their local Region (league) or contact AYSO at 800-USA-AYSO.
Has AYSO produced any famous Soccer players?
Hoyer: Five of the women that started the World Cup final in 2015 played in AYSO, including Alex Morgan and Julie Ertz. Carlos Bocanegra, Landon Donovan and Eric Wynalda played AYSO and represented the United States and played in World Cups. We certainly enjoy celebrating their successes and appreciate the support that they and others that have reached the professional and national team level have provided.
Where do you see your company in 5 years?
Hoyer: AYSO will be a leader in providing youth soccer programs for all families built on community engagement and industry leading training for coaches, referees, and league administrators built on our Six Philosophies and delivers on being child-centric.