Single-Digit Soccer: Give U10 travel the boot

Tomorrow, I’ll coach my U8s for the last time. They’re a wonderful team, most of whom I’ve coached off and on for the past two years (four seasons).

Next year, we move up from concurrent small-sided games of 4-on-4 to the bigger fields with 7-on-7. We’ll have goalkeepers and refs.

What we won’t have will be a couple of our best players. They’re going to travel soccer. A few others have considered it or tried out, and the experience has been simply horrible. I feel like I’ve spent the last two weeks talking parents off ledges. Two years ago, when I saw a ridiculous political situation working against a couple of players I knew well, I spent this time rebuilding confidence so these kids wouldn’t miss out.

I’ve seen plenty of gossip. “Oh, this club isn’t any good because it doesn’t have any teams in the Premier Champions Club League. I’ve heard that’s better than the Champions Elite Premier League or the Academy Premier Champions Academy. Someone on a message board told me Club X only practices twice a week, while Club Y practices eight times.”

You know what? The whole thing is crap.

A lot of parents don’t need me to tell them that. A lot of coaches will disagree. “Oh no,” they’ll say, “these are the peak development years, and we need to get the best players in quality teams with quality coaches.”

Maybe so. And you can still do that without all this mess.

If you still don’t believe me, Mr. Tryout Coach, let me sum it up with words I’ve heard often from parents that should frighten you to your very core:

Baseball is so much easier to deal with.

That’s right, Mr. Elite Coach. I’m a baseball parent, too, and they’re right. Our kids aren’t going to Little League practices and dealing with this crap. They just play and learn. Some areas are trying to ramp up with “travel” baseball, and they’re meeting resistance, captured in this wonderful Washington Post piece that has made the rounds among youth sports parents.

Does this sound familiar?

Travel ball, by contrast, is not cheap — participation fees average about $2,000 per player per year. And teams may invite players from anywhere in the region. Since tournaments and games are usually in other towns, players and their parents must spend many hours commuting.

Some travel ballplayers resemble professional athletes: Year by year, they go from one travel team to another, switching teammates and uniforms, with the name splashed across the front of the jersey usually signifying something other than their home town.

For the most part, Little Leaguers play in what we soccer people would call “House” league, maybe making All-Stars at the end, through age 12. Then it’s Babe Ruth or other organizations until high school. And many baseball folks want to keep it that way.

We keep hearing that the mark of a good coach is how many of his or her players return to keep playing. (That’s not true, but we’ll save that for another rant.) So we parent coaches try to do that. And then you undermine us with a system that angers 70% of your parents and kids.

I deal with parents who want to be assigned to whichever team practices at the closest field to their house. You want to take all these kids, pool them together and assign them based on your club’s supposed needs. And if there’s no room in the program with the professional coaches, that’s OK — they can drive over to the next town. You don’t mind driving through the inner suburbs at rush hour, do you?

And I deal with parents who are terrified of their kids facing some kind of stigma from playing “House” or “recreational” soccer. And I deal with kids who walk around their third-grade classes like they’re the bomb because they’re on “travel.” Congratulations, kid — you had an October birthday (or August, but your parents held you back in school), you’re faster and more aggressive than most kids, and so you got a big rep dominating the 3v3 and 4v4 magnetball games in the younger age groups. Truly, you are superior to the kid who just missed the cut.

You’re driving away future players, particularly the late bloomers who don’t shine at the all-important U9 tryout. And you’re driving away future fans, giving people a negative impression of soccer as some cutthroat status-oriented enterprise.

And the funny is this — you all know you shouldn’t be doing this.

Here’s the quote you’ll see in a million PowerPoint presentations from Alfonso Mondelo, MLS director of player development:

The problem in the U.S.A. is they start travel soccer at too early an age. That’s totally detrimental. It becomes more like winning and collecting hardware than about having kids play and learning from playing.

Here’s the U.S. Youth Soccer Player Development Model, February 2012, p. 66-67:

The U-10 age group is when children are often asked to compete before they have learned how to play. This too much too soon syndrome is another symptom of the flux phase. Therefore, US Youth Soccer recommends U-10 players should not:

• Be involved in results oriented tournaments, only play days, jamborees or festivals with a participation award.

• Be exposed to tryouts.

• Be labeled recreational or competitive.

“But soccer isn’t like baseball,” Mr. Elite Coach is blubbering by this point. “We need to make sure good players are challenged and getting good instruction!”

Yes, that’s fine. And here’s how:

A lot of clubs are coming up with transitional “pre-travel” programs at U8. They may play with their regular House/rec teams (some don’t, which is yet another rant), but they also get one session a week with the club’s Serious Professional Technical Staff — which, in all seriousness, is better about teaching skills than most of us parent coaches could be. At the very least, they can demonstrate them a lot better. Then they assemble teams for “crossover” games with other clubs.

This system works pretty well at U8.

And it would work at U9. And U10.

It’s the best of both worlds. The kids get to keep playing with their buddies and with parent coaches who care about them. Those who seek it also get professional training and a chance to represent their clubs.

By U11 or U12, fine — split the travel kids away. Middle school kids are more mature (well, in some ways). You’re almost old enough to specialize in one sport, though it wouldn’t hurt to spend the winter or summer doing something else.

And if you wait until then, that’s another two years for kids to have a positive experience that they’ll remember fondly. They’ll turn into soccer fans — or players. Or both. Their parents won’t scream in horror at the mention of the word “soccer.”

And the sport will be better off.

The bad news: You can’t expect clubs to police themselves. This has to come from on high.

So, U.S. Soccer — it’s up to you.

(If you’ve read this far — first of all, thanks. Secondly, you may have noticed that I’m working on a book called Single-Digit Soccer, and I’d appreciate feedback on this and any other topics. There are some voices of reason emerging from the wilderness — see the Changing the Game project — and I hope my work will encourage others to emerge.)


Published by

Beau Dure

The guy who wrote a bunch of soccer books and now runs a Gen X-themed podcast while substitute teaching and continuing to write freelance stuff.

11 thoughts on “Single-Digit Soccer: Give U10 travel the boot”

  1. One clarification: My complaints here aren’t about any particular club. I think my club does a far better job than most is avoiding the politics and letting kids enjoy themselves. It’s the system.

  2. With an 8 year old currently playing intramural, I heard many of the same debates when I queried his fellow players parents about whether or not they were going to do travel try outs… I heard things like ‘ if they don’t do travel now, they’ll never be able to move up onto a better team when they’re older.’ Maybe this is true but my 8 year old is sticking with intramural. and yes, there is kind of a stigma. With my older two boys, the remaining intramural teams by 4th grade ( U10?) we’re kind of deflated

  3. I applaud your work. The politics cause frustration, and suck the joy out of the whole experience for both the kids and the parents.

  4. Beau, I posted on Facebook last year about one of my most enjoyable experiences as a referee. I had the pleasure of refereeing U-10s at the Virginian when the bracket was loaded with great teams. All the players had great skill, comfort on the ball, and a sense of the game that amazed me. Keeping them safe and fair while letting them play was a challenge with a great payoff. I had the best seat in the house. That said, this was an exception. I have interviewed a fair number of top level players and all agree that the best training is, as Megan McCarthy told me, “at the level”. In 1996 I wrote a successful grant request for the USASA Select Teams program emphasizing that such a program benefited players, coaches, and referees by the very high level each would be at. It’s synergistic. I agree with your point about the potential for abuse and unnecessary damage to young psyches. Developmentally, players don’t understand movement off the ball until at least 8 years of age. Since all soccer springs from comfort on the ball, AYSO and USYSA emphasis on skill development until at least 9 is the right approach. The transition to higher competition is the crux of the problem. I suppose you are already deep into research and would commend to your attention Sue Saunders and Jimmy Givargis.

  5. Honestly the level of play means nothing at that young of an age, you can coach club, travel, youth teams and develop great talent and how you do that is by keeping everything fun and positive with short practices that make kids hungry to come back for more. I’m a 23 year old coach whose been coaching for 4 years from the U5 level, U12 travel, U14 travel, U10, U11, U12 club for two different club programs along with freshmen and JV experience. If you keep things fun you will keep the kids engaged and then you can start to teach things slowly and you’ll see the develop sky rocket. A lot of the time coaches will say we had a good season based on wins and losses rather than player development and the experience. Ages 7-12 are the golden age for development, we all know this but at that age it’s critical to not only develop skill but confidence and become role
    Model for these kids so someday they’ll be like I want to coach give back like my coach did for me. That’s how soccer should be at all levels and that would create a great foundation for a successful youth, travel, club program

  6. WOW, this is SO true. A coach dealing with parents and kids. Love the sport, but be true to the kids.
    I coached youth soccer for 16 years.
    Let the players that show promise shine, but let ALL of the players have fun.
    It won’t be until U-19 that you see a truely good player.
    Your child MAY make a college team and have fun. My son won a National Championship at a Division 2 college…………..I saw better players give up the sport to persue life.
    My son is now a Doctor.
    When told me that he was giving up soccer to finish his college classes I was the MOST proud Dad/coach.

    Enjoy the moment, but BE REAL!!!!!!

  7. This sounds more like a bitter rant then a serious objection to travel soccer. In our area there is no such thing as travel soccer, but some clubs do have what they call U-9 and U-10 Youth Development Program. Whats wrong with kids that are more advanced playing with others that are playing at the same level instead of kids whose moms and dads drag them out to the field because they think its good for little Billy needs the exercise and will drop out before they play competitive soccer anyways because he really didn’t want to play anyways.
    The biggest problem with US soccer has been this notion that we should train all kids the same and we should not put kids in competitive situations to early. Do you think this is what they do in other countries that excel in soccer?

  8. Mike, thanks for the feedback, and thanks for the reminder to do more research about other countries. We tend to think mostly of Ajax, Barcelona and English kids marching off to apprenticeships.

    The FA’s brochures sound quite similar to what we’re talking about (but not really doing) in U.S. youth soccer, ratcheting down the competitive environment in the single-digit years. They don’t keep league tables, though they do have little mini-tournaments. Finding a team seems to be a question of just going around to see which clubs need players.

    Pro academies, of course, are a different story. And that’s fine. And rare. I picked a somewhat random area — Swindon Town (I happened to see a game there in 1997, and I remembered youth kids in the game program). They have a total of 140 players from age 6 to 16 out of a population of about 200,000. I have no idea how many U7s are still with the club at U15. But the point there is that the very, very best are a different story.

    For everyone else — it’s not so much the *travel* that’s the issue as much as it’s the tryouts and the ensuing segregation. I fully understand the frustration of having serious players co-existing with people pushed out on the fields by their parents — I’ve certainly coached a few of the latter. But I think what happens now is this:

    – Maybe 20-25% of players make travel teams.

    – Maybe 10-20% of players don’t want to be there.

    That leaves 55-70% of all players being told they don’t deserve the same opportunities as the 20-25%, many of whom are simply older within their age group (August birthdays for an August 1 cutoff date) or physically growing faster.

    And there are ways to get those 20-25% of players — or maybe 20-50% of players — opportunities for professional coaching and higher-level competition. Run sessions on top of your rec leagues so interested players can get skill development from someone other than us parents. Pick representative teams from the rec leagues — maybe a few games per season, and maybe not the same few people for each game — to play other clubs.

    We’re already doing this to some extent at U8. And then, before we’ve even had a chance to see these players in 7v7 games, we segregate the player pool. Why?

  9. I note the same USSF that wrote about toning things down on the one hand added U14 to the national academy program on the other. When you wrote about a top down approach I wondered which side of USSF would respond.

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