Single-Digit Soccer: The bond of a rec team

My U12 House league team finished its season on a chilly, windy Saturday morning, completing a four-team mini-tournament with a win on penalty kicks.

After the game, the parents gave me a photo book. The joy of the season was on every page. Each player had a couple of pictures and a comment or two about the season and the team. One player even had a message for the people who hand out coaching licenses, telling them they should just hand me whatever license I was seeking. (I’m halfway to the D.)

Some teams in our league have been together, more or less, for a few years. Our team isn’t like that, but I did coach a lot of these players back when they were U8s. A couple of them played travel soccer for a few years and returned to House league this year so they could play multiple sports without overloading their schedules. Some play soccer every other season. Some moved to our town more recently.

But we have a wonderful bond. A couple of the families live in my neighborhood. I see others at school when I pick up my kids.

After our game and the postgame festivities, I drove one of our players home. Then I swung by another player’s home to drop off the photo he wasn’t able to pick up because he was sick. His little sister heard me in the hallway and called out, “Hi, Coach Beau!”

I know travel teams can build up this sort of bond over time. But there’s something unique about a team built around a school and a neighborhood.

These kids did learn a few things about soccer over the course of the season. A couple of players did things in the last game that they couldn’t have done in the first. We had some productive practices, and something sunk in.

But we also made and strengthened friendships. And I got a book I’ll treasure.

Have you read Single-Digit Soccer yet? Read more about it here.

Single-Digit Soccer: The challenge of finding a properly challenging level

The book Coaching Outside the Box: Changing the Mindset in Youth Soccer has a chapter with best-case and worst-case scenarios for moving up and facing a tougher level of competition.

The best case is a nice tale of a U11 boy named Liam, technically proficient but small in stature, who is invited to play up one age group for one or two games by a caring coach who lays out the pros and cons, then makes it his decision.

The worst case is a depressing story of a U9 girl named Sally, who is on a low-level travel team but interested in doing more. So she tries out for a local “premier” team that accepts her but shoves her on defense so she can run down opposing forwards despite lacking the technique to play at that level. The coach “reassures” the parents by telling them the team needs her speed. But the coach yells at her for making mistakes, and she’s miserable, realizing (even if her parents don’t) that she’s just not ready to play here.

Finding the right level is one of the biggest challenges in youth soccer, and it’s worst in the prime development years between U8 and U12. By U13 or so, most players have settled into a team that plays a particular level — an actual elite league, a pseudo-elite league, or the local multidivision travel league that sorts out the competition. Even rec leagues have ways of sorting things out.

It’s rather strange that we as a soccer community don’t make more of an effort to make games more even at this age. Granted, the vagaries of U9 soccer make matchmaking difficult — a single player with a big shot or a precocious goalkeeper can make a big difference in the score, which may or may not reflect the balance of play. But too many leagues spend an entire season letting one team dominate or one team get crushed, then schedule things exactly the same way the next season.

A lot of these leagues view promotion and relegation as an evil concept. If teams are worried about being relegated, the consensus says, they’ll play for the result rather than development. Fair enough. Some “club-centric” “elite” leagues don’t have promotion/relegation at any age group.

So what do you do when you get a lot of 9-0 games? You may not care about the result. But is anyone developing? Is the team with 0 learning anything or simply too overwhelmed to use whatever skills they’ve been picking up in practice? Is the team with 9 getting anything other than a mild sweat?

A couple of things that can help:

  1. Clubs should be on the same page, more or less, when it comes to how they’re approaching the competition. That wasn’t the case in a U8 competition I saw in which some teams were tossed together out of an open-enrollment training program while others were selected by tryout from a large talent pool.
  2. Without having formal promotion/relegation, leagues should take note of how teams are playing and adjust from the fall season to the spring season. If a couple of teams are losing badly or winning a series of blowout, schedule those teams against each other the next season.
  3. If some clubs in your league are tiering their teams (A, B, C, etc.) and others aren’t, don’t just hand the non-tiered teams a schedule full of other clubs’ A teams. Mix it up.

Bottom line: Be aware. If you have an opportunity to avoid a whole season of blowouts, do it.

The game needs to be fun. Blowouts aren’t fun.


Questions to ask after E:60 turf story

Let me toss in some disclaimers at the beginning:

  1. I worry about everything.
  2. I’m a big fan of Julie Foudy, and I’m glad ESPN has put her to work in ways that take advantage of her soccer expertise, her advocacy, and her inquisitive nature.
  3. I’m not a big fan of the E:60 production style. The fake newsroom meeting to introduce each segment. The ominous music.

TV is a difficult medium for investigative journalism. You can’t broadcast a spreadsheet. Compare the E:60 piece on artificial turf with Bloody Elbow’s investigation of UFC finances. Which one is more in depth?

So my biggest disappointments with the E:60 story are these:

  1. Where’s the accompanying web piece? ESPN’s E:60 page is woefully out of date. The only thing I found on the ESPN home page was “E:60 excerpt.”
  2. The piece devoted 44 seconds to someone who has actually studied the issue, Gary Ginsberg. One man’s tragic illness and death got much more than that.

And yet, there’s something here worth pursuing. The E:60 piece may keep the ball rolling, as prior reports by NBC and others have done.

The truth about turf is likely somewhere in the large space between “absolutely harmless – let your kids eat the pellets by the handful” and “do not ever, ever play on it.” It was interesting to see Amy Griffin, who has been compiling a long list of soccer players with cancer, still leading her team in practice on a turf field on a sunny day in which you’d think a nearby grass field would be OK.

Griffin’s no hypocrite, and she doesn’t deserve the backlash she’s been getting. I get the sense that she actually sees this as something other than a binary issue. And no one can blame her for raising the concerns that she has.

And even the Ginsberg study suggested that we may need some safe-handling measures when it comes to playing on turf — just as we would for kids playing on grass that’s been recently fertilized. (Or, in the case of Northern Virginia fields in November, recently covered in goose poop.)

Check the Ginsberg abstract:

Based upon these findings, outdoor and indoor synthetic turf fields are not associated with elevated adverse health risks. However, it would be prudent for building operators to provide adequate ventilation to prevent a buildup of rubber-related volatile organic chemicals (VOC) and SVOC at indoor fields.

“Wait, wait,” you may be saying. “If it’s harmless, why ventilate?”

Because the study doesn’t show that crumb rubber pellets are harmless in large quantities. Yes, there are materials in those pellets that could be harmful if you had enough exposure to them. (Hate to tell you this — but that’s also true of stuff in your food. Look up how much nasty stuff is allowed to be in your food as long as the quantities are small enough. We’re talking maggots in your mushrooms.)

These are old tires. You put tires on your car. You may even change your own tires, and you probably don’t think you’re going to get cancer from it. You should probably wash your hands, though, after you change them.

So future study, in academia and the media, should be geared toward ensuring we keep a safe level of exposure.

Which leads to some questions worth pursuing:

  1. Should we set a temperature limit on turf fields, both for possible airborne exposure to chemicals and so players don’t collapse from the heat?
  2. Should goalkeeper training, where goalkeepers spend much more time with their faces on the field than they do in games, be held on grass as much as possible?
  3. Can we educate parents and kids so kids aren’t building little mounds of pellets and then eating a snack without washing their hands? (That should apply to grass, too. Again — fertilizer and poop. We forget basic hygiene too often.)
  4. Why goalkeepers and not football players who spend even more time rolling around on this stuff? Is it just because they’re wearing mouthpieces? Do running backs and linemen never get this stuff on their faces?
  5. How does the rate of illness among young soccer players compare with the rate of the general population?
  6. And finally — how many of Amy Griffin’s names are in Washington state? Is there something in particular about some turf installations in that area?

So I’m not pulling my kids off their turf fields. I’m also not totally banning hot dogs in our household — just limiting them. But I will have them wash up, and I’m curious to see what future studies say.