Single-Digit Soccer: What hath we wrought?

One common theme in the NSCAA Convention sessions I attended today:


Regret over yelling at kids.

Regret over being too cautious and nervous to fully appreciate the opportunities of youth soccer.

Regret over creating a monstrous machine that pushes kids to grow up too soon.

I had thought that my session on the Single-Digit Soccer project (if you have an NSCAA pass, come to room 106A at 12:45 Saturday) would be too radical for some people. As it turns out, I may be the good cop when it comes to questioning the U.S. youth soccer establishment. (Lowercase letters — not talking about the U.S. Youth Soccer organization, which has graciously given me a platform to speak and solicit input Saturday).

The bad cop might be Mike Barr, a hard-driving coach and regional technical director who is being inducted into the Pennsylvania Coaches Association Hall of Fame this month. He’s already on record as a critic of the U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy and its singular focus on ignoring high school experiences for the sake of soccer. In an animated lecture and discussion today, he questioned the Academy’s push toward the U12 ranks. And he hit hard elsewhere, pointing out the USA’s decreasing returns in international youth tournaments as we get more “serious” and taking on the GotSoccer rankings that reward teams for attending as many tournaments as possible. (I stopped by the GotSoccer booth to chat about general criticisms of the rankings — the short, unofficial answer is that they’re constantly tweaking the rankings and receptive to concerns. I’ll delve more into GotSoccer at some point, though it’s technically not a “Single-Digit” issue.)

And Barr didn’t spare himself. He says he has worked to quit using profanity while coaching. He regrets some of the things he has told his kids over the years. And he admits he got caught up in the machine, pushing kids through a system he now questions.

He also had a few suggestions:

– Consider “Long-Term Athletic Development” plans that take late bloomers into account. Don’t make decisions on kids at age 7 or age 10.

– A great one for parents: “Watch a game as you would watch a play.” No one yells during a play, “Come on! Enunciate!”

– Re-examine sport-specific clubs. What if you could have kids playing two sports under the same umbrella so you’re coordinating rather than competing?

– Rather than trying to cram PE into a school day, have extended-day programs with coaches coming in to teach. (This is literally one of the ideas I’m presenting on Saturday.)

– No travel soccer until at least U10.

Before Barr, I saw Tom Farrey, an ESPN journalist who is working with the Aspen Institute on Project Play, a re-examination of youth sports that will release a major report Jan. 26. Farrey lamented our tendency to “separate the weak from the strong” before kids have even grown into their bodies. And he sees players dropping out of soccer when they don’t make the “travel” cut because they “get the message that they’re second class.”

Other Project Play concerns were the barriers that make us a curious nation that cranks out elite athletes but is also riddled with obesity. The resources are all going to the elites. We’re losing casual play, intramurals and PE. Lower-income families have fewer options: Not much viable park space, fewer opportunities to play because club sports are expensive and scholastic sports so exclusive.

Farrey would like to see the USA revitalize recreational play — both “free” play and in-town leagues. He would like to see parent coaches get more training (again, a point I’m presenting Saturday — I hope my presentation isn’t anti-climatic). And here’s a novel concept: Ask the kids what they want, not just the parents.

The other youth-oriented session I attended today was essentially a summary of research by Ceri Bowley, who is finishing up a Ph.D. in Cardiff and has some numbers that might surprise you. Would you have guessed that 62% of kids in his survey were mostly interested in soccer for social skills, with only 23% responding “football skills”? Probably not.

The focus of Bowley’s session was life skills. They must be taught in soccer, and they must be transferable to other aspects of life. That’s because only 0.0017% of players in his geographical area will make the Premier League.

I need to get a copy of one of Bowley’s slides listing six life skills and the soccer activities that feed into them. It was terrific. Take my word for it for now.

Elsewhere at NSCAA today:

– Jim Gabarra, Aaran Lines, Mark Parsons, Rory Dames and Laura Harvey conducted a lively, though ill-attended, session on the NWSL. The coaches teased each other about trades and current rosters — Parsons said Lines had eight players on his roster, Lines responded that he had 13. They talked about the challenges of signing foreign players when the calendar will make it more difficult to loan those players back to Euro clubs. And if you want to go hang out for a few months training with a pro team in the hopes of getting an amateur callup when the national teamers are gone for the World Cup, this is your year.

– I finally met longtime Soccer America CEO and current AYSO executive Lynn Berling-Manuel and had a good talk about coaching education, specifically the need to put it online. Which is ANOTHER point in my presentation. Please come see it anyway — I have other things to mention, really.

– I saw Pele. From a distance, between the cellphones of scores of other people. But I know it was him.

– Reading Terminal Market. Best food selection under one roof.

Such a fantastic event. Thanks to everyone who’s making it happen. And thank you, Amtrak — I got here with no problem at all, and I was able to chat on Twitter through the magic of wifi. (Maybe that’s a bad thing? Nah.)

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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.

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