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.)