Soccer Camps: Are They Worth the Time and Money?

Soccer camps sure sound like a lot of fun.  Everybody loves a “camp”, and these promise soccer development and identification under the watchful eyes of some apparently preeminent and well-qualified coaches — for a price.  But are soccer camps worth the time and money?  Unfortunately, usually the answer is no.

Two Types of Soccer Camps

To start, there are two general types of soccer camps:  1) youth soccer camps designed for development, and 2) ID soccer camps intended to identify players for high level teams.  While the goals of these types of camps are vastly different, the conclusion is ultimately the same.  They are simply not worth the time and effort involved.

Youth Soccer Camps for Development

Throughout the year, there are often times that youth soccer teams will not be training formally.  Soccer is usually thought of as a fall and spring sport, so many teams will take the winter and summer seasons off.  Youth soccer camps try to fill those gaps by promising continued development in the offseasons.  And it doesn’t matter how small the gap is!  There are, of course, Summer camps, but there are also Christmas break camps, Spring Break camps, and even Thanksgiving weekend camps.  If there’s any chance teams are not formally practicing, a camp will spring up.

These camps will pull you in with wonderful taglines like “train the Brazilian way” or “practice like the British”.  They may even have coaches with foreign accents to play on the insecurities of American soccer players.  Or, they may be associated with professional teams — Sporting Kansas City hosts several camps and you can even find English Premier League teams with camps in the US.  The companies behind these camps are wonderful marketers! But, make no mistake about it, these camps are cash grabs.

Soccer players preparing for soccer camp.

Problems With Youth Soccer Camps

  • Poor player to coach ratio
  • Drills are useless for high level players
  • Very little adaptability for attendees
  • Not long enough to accomplish anything

There are several problems with these youth soccer camps.  The first problem is the player to coach ratio.  There are often way too many players at these camps for the number of coaches.  My kids attended one of the famed “English” soccer camps and the ratio was literally 50 to 1.  It’s very difficult for younger kids to maintain focus in such a large group; and it’s impossible to get any individual attention.

Second, the drills are relatively useless for high level players.  The coaches are forced to set the training level at the lowest level of the attending players, so more skilled players will find themselves bored with the simple, rote exercises.  Also, the variety of drills is fairly limited.  When a coach has a group that large, there are just some drills that can’t be done effectively.  

In some instances, the coaches have clearly been trained to run specific sessions at a particular camp.  While the sessions may be good in theory, there is little, if any adaptability to the players that are attending.  No matter how poorly a session may be going, these coaches will push through with no deviation to account for player experience level.

Another issue with these youth soccer camps is the duration.  A typical youth soccer camp lasts about a week (usually every day) and the session duration can run anywhere from one hour to all day.  Even if the training system is revolutionary (it’s not), that’s not long enough to accomplish much of anything other than maintaining touch. (Related issue: How Often Should Kids Practice Soccer?)  

Benefits of Youth Soccer Camps

  • Good start for beginning soccer players
  • Help maintain touch
  • Exposure to different coaches
  • Interesting childcare alternative

Despite all of these issues, youth soccer camps can be beneficial in a few situations.  Youth soccer camps can be a good way to introduce beginner soccer players to the game.  While the drills will not be complex or advanced enough for more highly skilled players, they will typically be good, basic soccer skill exercises — and probably more beneficial than what an inexperienced parent coach might be able to come up with.  (To see the dangers of inexperienced parent coaches, check out When to Start Formal Soccer Training).

If a player is worried about losing his/her touch over an extended break from formal training, a youth soccer camp can help with that.  The player might not learn anything new or advance his/her skills, but he/she will probably at least be able to maintain the current level. That said, I would suggest searching out a more affordable camp as opposed to the higher priced “international” camps.  Paying for expensive coaching just doesn’t make sense if you’re just trying to maintain touch.

Youth soccer camps can be a good way to vary your player’s coaching voice.  At younger ages, coaches often remain with their teams season after season.  A soccer camp with a different coach can be a welcome change of pace for a player.  Different coaches focus on different aspects of the game, so varying coaches can help develop a more complete player.

When I was coaching, I was often asked about various youth soccer camps.  I found the camps I was asked about hard to recommend, but I thought experience with different coaches would be beneficial.  So, I organized my own “camps” for my teams. 

I scheduled my camps during normal offseason times and brought in a guest coach (and several assistants).  With my own camps, I was able to control several of the factors that I mentioned above — the player to coach ratio was good because it was only my teams, the level was appropriate because it was geared toward my players and the training was excellent because I was very familiar with the coach I brought in, and he was a great teacher.  The price was extremely reasonable as well.  I did pay the guest coach a good amount (enough that he was anxious to do it the next year!), but even with that payment, the cost per player was a fraction of what my players would have paid at one of the more commercial youth soccer camps.   

Finally, some youth soccer camps can serve as a more interesting child care alternative.  Some camps are set up specifically with this in mind and run during workday hours.  If you’re using a soccer camp for child care, however, make sure you do the same due diligence as you would for a child care facility.  Soccer camps may be able to skirt some of the rules and licenses required by true child care facilities, so you may want to do even more background checking.

Steps to Ensure You Pick the Right Youth Soccer Camp

If you decide you want your player to attend a youth soccer camp, here are some steps you can take to ensure that you pick the right camp:

  1. Do not be drawn in by glitzy marketing that promises “international” coaches or “European” training methods.  These camps are almost assuredly about the money.  A foreign accent does not make a great soccer coach!
  2. Make sure the camp is the appropriate level.  Beginning soccer players don’t need to worry about this as much as higher level players.  For higher level players, you should be able to find more targeted camps.  Look at the description of the camp.  If it’s limited to players from certain higher level leagues, it might be worth exploring a little more.
  3. Check out the coaches.  Many local coaches will often host camps.  Talk with players that have worked with those coaches in the past.  Ask about their experience levels and how they relate to kids. Also, see How to Pick the Right Club and Coach for some ideas on what to look for in a coach.
  4. Find out if there is a limitation on the number of participants.  Player to coach ratio is a big issue — especially for younger players.  
  5. Take a look at the cancellation policy.  Weather doesn’t always cooperate.  Make sure you can get your money back if the camp is cancelled for any reason.
  6. If you’re using the camp as child care, make sure you do your due diligence just like you would for a typical child care facility.  Many youth soccer camp coaches aren’t equipped to deal with everyday child care issues.  Check credentials!

Soccer ID Camps

The second type of soccer camp is the soccer ID camp.  The stated intention of these soccer camps is to identify higher level talent.  Typically, you will see these soccer ID camps in two contexts:  first, a pre-tryout camp and second, a college ID camp.

Soccer players participating in soccer camp.

Pre-Tryout Soccer Camps

For the younger ages (pre-college), many competitive clubs will host a pre-tryout “camp” just before the start of the tryout process.  To give a little background, most state soccer governing organizations will mandate certain dates for tryouts.  No tryout activities or tampering with other clubs’ players is supposed to occur prior to the start of the tryout season.  However, many clubs exploit a loophole in those rules and host a pre-tryout camp in order to get a jump on their competition (other clubs) for players.

Not for Developing but rather for Identifying Players

Contrary to what the club might state or you might think when you hear the word “camp”, these camps are not for developing players.  They are specifically for identifying players that might be interested in a club and exposing those players to coaches from that club.  If the club hosting the camp follows the technical rules regarding the tryout window, no specific formal recruiting will take place.  However, usually clubs are allowed to distribute general information about the club to all of the participants. 

May be a Little Bait and Switch

Also, clubs will generally pick the most charismatic and accomplished coaches to conduct the camp.  Those coaches may ultimately have nothing to do with the coaching of the players that choose that club, which is a bit of a bait and switch, but each club wants to put its best foot forward. 

Pre-tryout Camps May Actually be a Good Thing

If you know what you’re getting into, these pre-tryout ID camps are actually a good way to get to know a club and be seen by the club prior to formal tryouts.  Usually pre-tryout camps are free or cost very little.  The goal of these camps is to get players to commit for an entire season — when much more money can be made.  If the cost of the pre-tryout camp you’re looking at seems high, it’s probably a red flag.  If a club is using a pre-tryout camp for a money-making opportunity the club is either struggling financially or simply inexperienced.

Treat a Pre-Tryout Camp Like a Tryout

Players should treat pre-tryout camps just like a tryout.  While the club will not be able to specifically recruit individual players or offer spots on teams, they will most assuredly be evaluating players.  Many clubs will give players offers immediately once the tryout window opens based on these pre-tryout ID camps. To learn more about the tryout process, see What to Expect at Soccer Tryouts.

Pre-tryout ID camps actually go against the general rule that soccer camps are not worth the time and money.  If you’re interested in a club and the cost of the camp is minimal (or free), then these camps can serve a valuable purpose.  Keep these tips in mind when deciding whether to attend a pre-tryout ID camp:

  1. Only attend the camp if you’re interested in the club;
  2. Do not expect much player development — that’s not the goal;
  3. The cost of the pre-tryout camp should be free or minimal; 
  4. You will need to treat the camp as a tryout; and
  5. Keep your eyes and ears open — pre-tryout camps can be a great way to learn about a club.    

College ID Camp

The second type of soccer ID camp is the college ID camp.  These can be organized by a third party organization or by the college itself.  Either way, you have to be selective in order to be effective.

High School Soccer and Showcase Tournaments are Better

If a player is interested in playing soccer at the college level, there are a couple of primary ways for the player to get noticed.  The first is high school soccer.  As much as high school soccer was de-emphasized during the ill-fated reign of the Development Academy, it is still heavily scouted by colleges and remains a fertile recruiting ground.  

The second is showcase tournaments.  Several of the higher level youth soccer leagues (for more information on high level youth soccer leagues, see ECNL vs. GA and MLS Next) as well as a few third party organizations host several showcase tournaments every year.  These showcase tournaments are designed to attract both high level players and college coaches.  Many showcase tournaments will even list the colleges that will be in attendance.  I have attended a few of these in person and witnessed the college coaches walking up and down the sidelines in their college themed apparel.  It’s pretty exciting!

Expensive and Sparsely Attended

On the other hand, college ID camps may not be the most effective way to get in front of coaches.  With respect to third party camps, they tend to be fairly expensive and sparsely attended by college coaches.  The truth is a college coach would much rather see a player in a real game situation than running through drills and scrimmages in a cattle call camp setting.

Individual College Camps

College camps hosted by individual colleges tend to be better than third party camps. As mentioned, most recruiting and communication takes place outside of the camp setting.  But, individual college camps can be helpful in the recruiting process. While many scholarships will be allocated to players recruited in other settings, it is possible that a college ID camp hosted by an individual institution will unearth a hidden gem.

When my nephew was going through the college recruiting process, he was invited to several college ID camps put on by the respective colleges.  They were, by and large, very expensive camps with no promises.  Be wary and selective! There were a couple of institutions that offered to let him attend for free or at a very reduced rate.  Those coaches were obviously more interested in him, so in those specific situations, there’s a good chance it would be worth it to attend.

Most Soccer Camps Are Not Worth the Time and Money

Soccer camps always sound like a good idea — especially those run by slick marketing organizations.  You may even feel like you are missing out if you don’t sign up your player for these wonderful sounding events.  But, look at every camp with a very critical eye.  While you may be able to find a few that would be beneficial, the vast majority of soccer camps are not worth the time and money.

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