Most training sessions for youth soccer feature a dozen or more players engaged in rigorous group exercises and fitness tests, mirroring the sport’s homonymous counterpart, football. Practice at Footy Factory, based in Addison, more closely resembles a martial arts or improv session.
Players ranging from kindergartners to high school seniors scrimmage in groups of three or four per session and occasionally one is pulled aside to polish a flaw in technique. During these drills, little to no reference is made to games or competition. This is by design, says founder and CEO Sean Afkhaminia. The goal of Footy Factory is to revolutionize American youth soccer with training that is individualized and focused on developing specific skills by taking the focus and pressure off winning.
“We’re trying to develop players, and no else is doing that [in Texas],” Afkhaminia said. “What’s going on in Dallas is that a lot of the big clubs will take parents’ money and put them on a team, they’ll practice twice a week for an hour, and then play a game on the weekend. It’s not enough. There’s no player development going on here.”
Footy Factory is trying to work against the prevailing mindset that the purpose of playing team sports is to pad a resume for college. The attitude of Footy Factory's coaches recalls soccer clubs in Europe that incubate students for years without interruption.
In conversation, Afkhaminia refers to his philosophy of passion trumping hard work. He insists that no person is born with natural talent, citing Daniel Coyle’s 2009 book The Talent Code.
Afkhaminia specifically disagrees with the bias favoring athleticism and winning records over skill, and he wants Footy Factory to help eager, young players who lack the access or funds to continue developing their craft. Players train three times a week, while members of the club’s various teams practice twice a week and play a game on the weekend. As students grow older, the number of games played per week increases, but training is the highest priority.
“Right now, individual training is always last,” Afkhaminia said. “It’s something that happens after their team practices and games, but that should be their main work so they can take what they know and apply it outside.”
Jude Anuwe, who became a Footy Factory coach in early 2015, majored in biology and physiology at the University of Texas at Dallas. He's helped create a scientific foundation for the company's ethics and regimen. It's all rooted in proprioception, or the science of body awareness in space. The plan is to mold players who are able to move more efficiently and better prevent injury.
“Nowadays, you see a particular type of soccer player,” Anuwe said. “Guys pirouetting on the spot, overhead kicks — all of these skills are only mastered if you have a strong core, know where your body is in space, and master your balance. Can we move in a functional way?”
Afkhaminia founded Footy Factory in late 2014 after graduating with a degree in business from West Texas A&M University. Feeling dissatisfied with the school’s soccer program, Afkhaminia briefly managed a soccer club before assuming coaching duties at Shelton High School, there realizing an idea that would evolve into Footy Factory.
The program offers three products sequenced in order. First, children are inducted through an analytics camp to assess their level of skill. If the children take on membership, training continues on the individual level, where their strengths and weaknesses are already recorded and addressed in one hour sessions. Every three months, the coaches review the players’ development and update their analytics score.
The club’s approach was initially met with some resistance from parents dissatisfied that their children were spending too little time competing in games. Plans for an all-female club team were abandoned after players left to join more established teams.
“We’ve met a lot of resistance with that,” Afkhaminia said. “We understand that we’re not going to please everybody, but it’s just about continuing to preach our philosophies and converting as many people as we can.”
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But the club is highly regarded by most members and their parents. Christian Orton brought his son Hudson, age 9, to Footy Factory as a means of encouraging his interest in their favorite sport. Orton praises the coaches for fostering close relationships with the students’ parents, recalling several phone calls and home visits from Afkhaminia or another coach asking how the children were performing at school. Several of the children and parents who met during practice have formed strong friendships.
“It does feel like a family,” Orton said. “One of the things I like about them is that they know the right level to push and get results out of them, and the way they do it brings a lot of self-pride and self-confidence in the kids.”
Afkhaminia aims to make soccer affordable for underprivileged children, who he argues are among the most devoted, but most discouraged. The overall goal is for Footy Factory to offer students scholarships. Club fees are heavily discounted, while businesses are encouraged to sponsor players via the club’s website in return for benefits such as logo displays on social media and free promotion at group events.
Footy Factory recently signed a partnership with the City Futsal Club Association as FF Futsal Club, along with six other futsal-specific clubs. Opportunities associated with joining the CFCA include student eligibility to compete on national futsal teams, and overseas trips to train with soccer clubs in Brazil and Spain. The latter privilege foreshadows Afkhaminia's intent to remodel American soccer clubs after their European counterparts, who offer membership for free.