Youth soccer and credible voices (or, should parents shut up?)

I’m generally no fan of postmodernism. On matters like climate change, vaccines and economics, I think we should listen to experts, not just whoever’s shouting the loudest or is deemed to be the most disenfranchised.

But it’s always good to get a variety of perspectives, as long as we take them for what they are.

In youth soccer, we have a variety of credible voices. The trick is getting them to listen to each other.

The most obvious credible voices are coaches with a track record of helping players get better. They’re the experts on practice plans and training tips. And we should certainly listen to them when they point to systemic problems that keep them from doing what they do.

Then we have the groups studying the big picture, expressing different but overlapping concerns. These include Project Play, which is mostly concerned with keeping sports accessible for all so kids get exercise and positive experiences. Then we have the Changing the Game Project, started by a soccer coach who has done some deep-diving on psychology to challenge the old-school ways on sports from rec level to elite level. Then there’s the U.S. Olympic Committee, which is certainly interested in the elite level but whose American Development Model has some conclusions that coincide with Project Play’s concerns.

An example of the overlap: Project Play’s home page currently highlights an American Academy of Pediatrics study warning against early specialization in sports. That study points to the trend toward “long-term athlete development,” which is an underpinning of … the American Development Model.

single-digit-soccer1My book, Single-Digit Soccer, is a synthesis of these trends in youth soccer discourse as they apply to the youngest players. Hopefully, it’s not quite that dry. It’s leavened with plenty of anecdotes to illustrate the situations and keep the reader awake.

And there are some things for which I only have anecdotal evidence. Not perfect, but in some cases, studies either don’t exist or would be impossible to conduct.

One of those anecdotal items: I’m finding that many parents are catching on to the modern ways while many coaches are not.

That’s surprising. If you’ve ever reffed a youth game, you’ve probably come away rolling your eyes at the nonsense you hear from parents, often contradicting what the coach is trying to get them to do. It takes some restraint not to turn around and yell, “The next parent who yells BOOT IT will be watching from the parking lot!”

But consider this situation: A U9 game in which one team was having a lot of trouble with goal kicks. That’s common — it’s why U.S. Soccer has mandated a new “buildout” line to let teams work it out of the back. The other team eagerly swarmed around hapless defenders waiting for slow-rolling goal kicks to get there, and they scored goal after goal.

The coach was perfectly happy with the proceedings. The parents were yelling at their kids to play actual soccer. So which group was properly emphasizing “development” over “winning”? Maybe the parents aren’t always wrong.

On a larger scale, I find a lot of resistance from soccer coaches to Single-Digit Soccer ideas. They’d like to dismiss them as the foolish rantings of a journalist-turned-parent coach who is never going to develop a player for anything beyond second-tier travel soccer.

So it gets back to credible voices and assessing their expertise and experience. When it comes to drawing up a practice plan for a U16 elite team, go with the experienced coach.

When it comes to the bigger picture, we have a lot of credible voices. They might be Project Play researchers finding pediatricians and sport scientists whose work challenges the old ways of doing things. They might be parents who aren’t soccer experts but are unwilling to have their kids sacrifice a normal childhood so their chances of being professional soccer players rise from 0.01% to 0.1%. And yes, they might be coaches who see obstacles toward proper development.

We need all these voices. My work has sought to amplify them.

But we also need to listen to them. Don’t just shoot the messenger and walk away.

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