Single-Digit Soccer: Learning from Little League baseball

I fell out of love with baseball in young adulthood. MLB commissioner Bud Selig radiated arrogance. I’d read enough about soccer and American exceptionalism to view the game as cultural imperialism, complete with its mythical origins that hid the game’s roots in foreign sports. My experience with high school baseball coaches and parents from my local newspaper days skewed negative.

Then there’s the D.C. situation, where Selig and company extorted more than $600 million off the Washington government to build Nationals Park. The city will be paying for that one for years to come, while D.C. United is left begging for a land swap just so they can build their own field before RFK Stadium finally turns to dust. (To this day, I refuse to set foot in Nationals Park. I might change my mind when D.C. United finally completes its own place.)

But one of my kids wanted to play Little League with a few of his friends this spring, and I went along with it. I even wound up helping out a bit, coaching at first base and keeping the lineup card on occasion.

And it was fun.

Little League and youth baseball as a whole do a lot of things right — some little, some big.

1. Kids progress at their own pace. New to the game at age 7 or 8? You might be in “Rookie ball” or “Single-A,” mirroring pro baseball’s minor-league system. More advanced? Try out for “Double-A,” where kids take over pitching duties from the coaches and score is kept for the first time. Then “Triple-A” and eventually the “Majors,” where everyone winds up by age 12. (Local leagues have the authority to set the specifics.)

Compare this to soccer, where players are rigidly herded into teams by their birthdates. Advanced players can “play up” on occasion, but it’s rare that a newcomer is allowed to “play down.”

2. Cool uniforms. When the Little League Athletes play the Cardinals, the players all look like miniaturized major leaguers. We don’t seem to do this in soccer. I’ve seen a few organizations that have “Fire” and “Rapids” T-shirts, but they look nothing like the MLS team apparel.

(I think Eric Wynalda, a baseball fan as well as a soccer Hall of Famer, once made a similar point.)

3. Rec trumps travel. The Little League World Series isn’t a competition of travel teams. It’s a collection of All-Star teams from local Little Leagues. And no matter what you think of the wisdom of shining such a bright spotlight on 12-year-old kids, it’s clearly the biggest event in youth sports.

Our town has several scattered baseball fields, but there’s a “home park” with a couple of fields and some walls with plaques bearing the names not of travel teams that won State Cups, but of teams that won the local leagues.

Travel baseball exists. But you don’t hear much about it. I never heard a parent talking about it at our Little League games. It’s not a big topic in our elementary school. Our local message boards aren’t full of anonymous parents trashing each other’s baseball clubs like they do with the soccer clubs.

And the mindset of the baseball parent was set down in this landmark Washington Post opinion piece this year, fighting back on Little League’s behalf against the growth of travel baseball.

But soccer is different, you might argue. Well, yes, it is. For one thing, a “good” soccer player can be dragged down by teammates. Baseball players can come from tiny high schools — a good bat and a 95-mph fastball stand out no matter what kind of competition a player is facing. A good soccer player can only do so much if his or her team never gets the ball. So soccer players have more incentive to play with similarly skilled teammates and face solid competition to prove that their goals aren’t just flukes of playing against bad teams.

This is the age to teach soccer. A gifted soccer player needs to hone skills and test them against good defenders at ages 8-12. Most doctors and baseball experts agree a gifted baseball pitcher shouldn’t even learn how to throw a curveball until his teens.

Yet many aspects of youth baseball can translate. Soccer players can get additional training, as many baseball players do, without segregating themselves from their classmates and friends. MLS would surely benefit from having some brand identity in the youth ranks.

Specifics aside, the big lesson to take from Little League baseball is that it’s fun. It’s creating good associations with the sport.

Travel soccer, on the other hand, simply demands too much and gives too little. I talked recently with one parent of a talented athlete who lamented an upcoming two-hour drive to West Virginia for a one-hour game. In baseball, she never traveled more than 15 minutes for her son to play for two hours. They’re ditching travel soccer in the fall.

Here’s what Steve Rushin recently wrote for Sports Illustrated (I didn’t find it online: it’s p. 96 of the June 9 issue) about seeing his kids in Little League:

Little League is celebrating its 75th anniversary this month and is a powerful gateway drug to Major League Baseball fandom. And so my children, three of whom started playing Little League this spring, have become suddenly hooked on the big league game as well.

Rushin wasn’t excited because his kids might become travel baseball stars, college scholarship material or pro draft picks. He was excited because his kids had learned to love the game.

Is youth soccer “a powerful gateway drug” to soccer? Or is it creating negative associations of overbearing parents, flunked tryouts, and long, lonely car rides?

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.

3 thoughts on “Single-Digit Soccer: Learning from Little League baseball”

  1. Hmmmm…. I feel like the families I know who do travel soccer feel like its worth it. But then again I know many who stay as far away as possible from it. Hockey, on the other hand, people seem to get really fried on.

  2. Data from SFIA (formerly SGMA), the sporting goods industry lobby confirms soccer is both the fastest growing sport in America (raw numbers of first time enrollment) and the fastest declining (players who drop out before their teen years). Travel, cost and lack of fun are the primary reasons. Too much emphasis is placed on skill development and advancement and not enough emphasis is placed on enjoyment. Don’t look for it to change soon. Coaches and administrators are loath to give up their income.

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