On the same day that The Huffington Post ran my piece on Myths Every Soccer Parent Should Know, I saw a cover story in a local magazine (Arlington Magazine, to be specific) in which author Jenny Sokol casts a skeptical eye on the whole business of “elite” or “travel” youth sport.
Problems can arise when youth teams are run with the competitive mentality of a professional sports franchise, says Bowes, who lives in Arlington. That’s when teachable moments tend to get lost. “I always laugh when a coach pulls a player out of a game [as punishment],” he says. “If you’re making a mistake, the only way you can correct it is by getting a chance to correct it. How else do you get better?”
Such scenarios are more common in select leagues, which, unlike rec leagues, are not required to grant players equal playing time. Not only do elite players face stiffer competition on the field; they are also jockeying against their teammates to get off the bench. That dynamic can sour some players’ enthusiasm for the game.
“A lot of times kids will start out loving a sport and enjoying playing it, but if it’s too competitive too soon and the pressure starts to mount, they struggle with anxiety,” cautions Tedesco, the McLean psychologist. “What used to be very enjoyable for them becomes stressful, less fun and more of a job.”
The article goes into note the status element of travel sports. One kid is told by his friends to quit wearing the shirt he wore with his previous team. That’s news to me — I thought kids could wear these things until they outgrew them.
What we really end up doing here is de-valuing rec league. The rec leaguers don’t get the cool shirts. And with so many kids doing travel and not rec (a handful of clubs let you do both at early ages), the rec league competition becomes frustrating for athletes who take soccer semi-seriously but don’t want to commit to (or fall just short of making) the local travel team.
That’s especially frustrating for those who want to follow in the footsteps of most soccer players — and indeed, most big-time athletes — and play multiple sports growing up. Juggling travel soccer and another sport is difficult, as the Arlington story points out. I know a veteran youth soccer coach who longs for multisport clubs that would help kids coordinate schedules, but the political issues there would be monumental. (In fairness, our local Little League also has schedules bordering on the sadistic, asking kids to commit to 4-5 days a week for practices of games once they turn 8 or 9, but most coaches understand if players miss a few of those practices.)
I do see momentum growing against U.S. Soccer’s mandates on grouping kids by birth year, a mandate that terrifies parents of young kids in particular. I’m seeing opportunity in the crisis and may soon unveil a plan that’s more inclusive for everyone while accommodating the truly elite players’ needs. Stay tuned.