What if … colleges de-emphasized sports?

At the Project Play summit yesterday, we all fretted the state of sports in the USA, as Project Play folks are inclined to do.

The basic problem: “Youth sports” in the USA is less and less about getting out and playing — with all the benefits of being active, being part of a team, etc. — and more and more a means to an end.

Sometimes, the “end” is a pro career or something “shiny,” as Olympic hockey gold medalist Angela Ruggiero put it. She was part of a lively panel that also included NFL punter-turned-entrepreneur Chris Kluwe, who framed the discussion in progressive politics: Maybe if parents felt economically secure and didn’t feel the need to chase scholarships and athletic riches, they’d just let their kids … play.

They’re right, and yet there’s something else at play here. See the picture here?

Whose kids are getting out and playing sports? Right. The rich folks.

“Wait a minute,” you might think. “These are the people who can afford college for their kids, and their kids will generally have a sound financial and educational foundation from which they can pursue a multitude of careers. Why would they be caught up in a chase for scholarships?”

Here’s a twist that has stuck into my head since joining the parenting community (otherwise known as “having kids,” which makes you pay more attention to such things): It’s not necessarily about the scholarship. It’s about getting into one’s chosen college in the first place.

That’s not new. I have a story about puzzling college admissions from my high school, and I’m sure everyone else does, too. But in this technological age, we now get semi-private websites with scattergrams that show us the GPAs and SATs of people who get into School X or School Y. It’s not difficult to spot the athletes.

Division 3 school (no athletic scholarships). Maybe it was a really good essay?

I’ll have to toss in the disclaimer here: I seriously doubt any of my kids will be recruited college athletes. I blame their U-8 soccer coach. Which would be me.

But the point here is this: Sports are seen, with considerable justification, as a way of getting into a good school. Little wonder the Ivy League schools, which don’t offer athletic scholarships, more than hold their own in terms of overall sports performance.

We can argue about whether this emphasis on sports is a good thing for U.S. academic life. The question here: Is it good for sports?

The positives: American colleges promote healthy lifestyles. They build nice facilities for the general student body as well as the student-athletes. It’s the old Greek ideal — classroom in the morning, gymnasium in the afternoon.

The negatives: Youth sports are no longer about the love of the game. They’re about getting ahead and making sure you’re part of the elite. If you’re not, there’s no place for you.

And when you squeeze a sport at the grass roots, it can hurt the elite levels — especially in soccer, where the big problem we all see is a lack of access for lower-income families. No one becomes an elite player if they never have the opportunity to play.

So would we be better off — at the recreational level and the elite level — if youth players could just play without worrying about how their game will affect their chances of getting into Duke, Virginia, Princeton or a good D3 school?

Podcast, Ep. 7 — Smarter soccer parents with Skye Eddy Bruce

With all due respect to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince (now known as Will Smith), sometimes parents DO understand.

Skye Eddy Bruce, an experienced player and coach, is now working to help parents understand youth soccer and then advocate for their kids. Throughout this interview, she and I talk about empowering parents. (And educating them — the idea isn’t to have ignorant parents berating coaches all over the country.) We don’t need to let coaches push winning over development, and we don’t need to sign up for the league that travels all over creation.

A few highlights:

2:15 About the Soccer Parenting Association — seeking to elevate the game with a focus on educating, engaging, supporting and advocating for youth soccer parents. And Bruce’s bio — including playing in Italy!

5:15 The stereotype of ignorant parents and how it’s changing. Includes a reference to this video:

12:55 Bringing up Bobby Warshaw’s concern about balancing “being a good person” with “being a good player.”

15:55 Putting too much of an emphasis on winning can drive kids away.

19:45 The true purpose of youth soccer

20:35 The proliferation of “elite leagues.”

28:20 The need to standardize our language — what does “elite” mean? Or “classic” or anything else?

33:35 Down with specialization! (At least, parents should be able to say that.)


Podcast: Ep. 6 — The Big Questions with Bobby Warshaw

“If you let your kid play sports, she’ll grow up to be a productive member of society! If you don’t, what’s wrong with you?”

That’s the subtext of a lot of sports marketing ads for everything from the NCAA to shoe companies. And we sports journalists buy in whole hog.

But wait a minute. Aren’t some of the traits that make someone a good athlete — aggression, attitude, a winner-takes-all mentality — actually bad traits to have in life?

Bobby Warshaw played at Stanford and went on to the pros in MLS and Scandinavia. His book, When the Dream Became Reality: The journey of a professional soccer player, and the push for meaning, purpose, and contentment, wrestles with the duality of being a good athlete and a good person.

Along the way, we talk about the now-dissolved Bradenton academy (“There’s no human being that came out of that Bradenton academy that was a regular person after that”), promotion/relegation, parenting, character-building and whether the Scandinavians know something we don’t about how to live.


Single-Digit Soccer: Time for parents to raise their voices

No, no — not talking about parents raising voices during games. We need to be restrained and supportive. If someone shoots video of you at a game and posts it on YouTube, it needs to be one of those videos that gets about 10 views, not something picked up on Tosh.0 or headlined “CRAZEE SOCKER MOM LOLOL!”

We need to raise our voices on the issues of youth soccer. We need to let coaches and clubs know what we need if we’re going to keep entrusting them with our kids.

Coaches are probably still thinking this idea sounds like an utter disaster. That’s because they already hear from some parents. They hear from the parents who are upset that their kids aren’t playing and winning for the Super Elite Red 04s or whatever. Not coincidentally, these are often the most ignorant parents.

We’ve all seen this, right?

(I still have no idea why Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, which is artistically displayed in the SportsMyriad banner, is the backdrop.)

No, we need to hear from the other parents. The ones who just want their kids to learn and have fun. Not coincidentally, those are the kids who are going to live up to their potential in this sport, whether it’s a World Cup appearance or good time in the local rec league.

Because one thing we’ve learned from the Great Age Group Kerfuffle of 2015 is that we parents aren’t getting much respect. Your experience may vary, but in talking about the switch to birth-year age groups with various coaches and administrators at many levels, I’ve found a lot of them don’t really care to hear what parents have to say about it.

And parents have legitimate concerns (some expressed in detail at SoccerParenting.com):

  1. They’re worried that their kindergartners will be in the minority in their age group alongside first-graders who are far more accustomed to a structured environment. (As it turns out, clubs have flexibility at this level, but that’s just being whispered rather than trumpeted.)
  2. They’re worried that their teams in the teen years may have half their kids in high school and the other half not, leaving clubs in the lurch when high school soccer is in season. (I haven’t heard a solution to this.)
  3. In general, they don’t understand why their teams of friends have to be busted up just so they can supposedly become better soccer players. How does that really help? And to what end?
  4. How is it any simpler for coaches, clubs and administrators to have birth-year age groups when the “season” is still a school-year season? (More on this tomorrow!)

The typical response: “Oh, don’t worry, it’ll all work out.” (How?)

And parents have other legitimate issues to raise and questions we should all be asking:

  1. Why do we have to drive all over creation to play games instead of playing the neighboring club?
  2. Why did you force my 8-year-old to play goalkeeper without even teaching her how?
  3. Why are you holding tryouts for 8-year-olds that put them on a “travel” track or a “rec” track, then offering very little for those on the “rec” track to catch up as they grow into their bodies?
  4. Why do you think U9s and U10s can’t pass the ball when we’ve been seeing kids from U7 on up spreading out and calling for the ball? Should they be playing U11 even though they’re about a foot shorter than anyone else in the age group?
  5. Why don’t we have better training for parents who want to be good coaches?
  6. Why don’t we have time to play multiple sports, when every reputable study on the subject and tons of world-class athletes say we should?

And maybe the biggest: Why does this cost so danged much?

These are just some of the issues Single-Digit Soccer addresses. And my hope is that the book starts (or at least contributes to) a movement in which parents become better-educated consumers.

So please check out the revised page for the book, which you can now access directly from singledigitsoccer.com. You can “like” the Facebook page and share the new flyer.

And check out some of the sites doing similar work — the Changing the Game project, the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, SoccerParenting.com, and surely a few sites I don’t yet know about yet. (Please tell me about them.)

We can take ownership of our kids’ soccer futures. We don’t have to go along with everything coaches and clubs tell us. Read up and speak out!