Single-Digit Soccer: The elite-industrial complex crushes all

Why do we play youth sports?

We’re here because you’re looking for the BEST of the BEST of the BEST, SIR!

“Your boy Captain America here … to find the BEST of the BEST of the BEST, SIR! … with honors.”

But a funny thing is happening with the race to the top. A lot of people are dropping out.

ESPN’s Tim Keown has a good spleen-venting piece about this phenomenon:

This is the age of the youth-sports industrial complex, where men make a living putting on tournaments for 7-year-olds, and parents subject their children to tryouts and pay good money for the right to enter into it.

And if they don’t hit the “next level,” they drop out. Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal came up with numbers that bear this out. Baseball is in particularly bad shape, with towns having to pool together for Little League while numbers decline (or players just opt for “travel” baseball instead). But soccer wasn’t doing well in their figuring, either.

Other popular sports, including soccer and basketball, have suffered as youth sports participation in general has declined and become more specialized. A pervasive emphasis on performance over mere fun and exercise has driven many children to focus exclusively on one sport from an early age, making it harder for all sports to attract casual participants.

You can tell me this is OK, that we needed to make our youth sports more “serious” and specialized so we’ll have better athletes. Be prepared to keep arguing against a lot of us parents and writers who want our neighborhood kids to have sports options and haven’t seen elitism in youth soccer produce any players better than the scraggly-haired high school and college kids the USA used to send to World Cups.

Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game addresses a lot of these issues. Read more about it, then read it.

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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.

 

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!

 

Single-Digit Soccer: Dave Barry on the role of the parent

Dave Barry, who married a soccer writer, offers up some classic “it’s funny because it’s true” answers on soccer parenting:

Q. What is my job, as a parent, during a soccer game?

A. Your job is to yell instructions to your child and the other children on your child’s team.

Q. Should I make an effort to educate myself about the rules and tactics of soccer before I start yelling instructions?

A. There is no need for that. As a parent, you have a natural intuitive understanding of the game, which you should share with the entire world by constant yelling.

Too true, too true.

 

Single-Digit Soccer: What we don’t talk about

You have a great practice plan. You’ve read three different coaches’ takes on the exercises you’re doing, so you know all the points you’re trying to get across.

Then you spend half of practice trying to get kids to pay even the least bit of attention.

We usually don’t talk about this sort of thing in any coaching clinics or licensing classes. We get the occasional good tip — all I remember of my original F license class a few years ago is that the coach should face the sun so the players aren’t squinting at him.

That’s why I’m happy to report that the new F license class, the one offered online through U.S. Soccer, gives a few ideas on how to keep kids’ attention through keeping them busy and positive reinforcement.

And Soccer America just ran a good piece that draws from people who have to do this sort of thing every day for several hours — teachers.

If kids are still not getting it, redirect them with a non-verbal reminder while you’re still teaching. That is, use a gesture to tell them they need to put their ball down; their eyes need to be on you, etc. Check out how this amazing teacher makes a 10 or more non-verbal interventions in her classroom while she’s still teaching. This keeps the corrections from breaking and slowing down her teaching, which would only result in more off-task kids.

It’s a good conversation for coaches to have. Especially after my practice Monday.

Single-Digit Soccer is now available in paperback as well as in every electronic format I know. Get more info or go straight to Amazon.

Single-Digit Soccer: These issues matter

sds book coverOn 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.

Single-Digit Soccer is now available in paperback as well as in every electronic format I know. Get more info or go straight to Amazon.

Single-Digit Soccer: Is softball different?

It’s official — U10 sports are front-page news.

IMG_1370Granted, the Vienna Connection isn’t The Washington Post. It’s a weekly community paper.

And there they are — the Vienna Stars, national U10 softball champions! They won the Virginia title and moved on to beat teams from Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Illinois.

The team has two players from Great Falls, one from Lansdowne, one from South Riding, one from Leesburg, one from McLean, one from Warrenton, one from Bristow, and one from across the river in Potomac. Oh yes … and one from Vienna.

(For those who don’t know NoVa geography — these towns really aren’t that close to each other.)

Here’s how they did it:

The girls practiced twice a week as soon as Levin selected his team during a tryout period in August of 2014.

During the winter, the 10-year-old girls practiced in a warehouse.

Some players drove more than an hour to get to practices in Vienna.

So if you’ve read Single-Digit Soccer or Tom Farrey’s Game On or John O’Sullivan’s Changing the Game (and you should), you’ve probably spit out your Gatorade by now. This is exactly what we are not supposed to be doing, isn’t it?

Here’s the legendary quote, as reported by Soccer America‘s Mike Woitalla in 2007:

”National youth championships in the USA are the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” says Horst Bertl, the Dallas Comets longtime director of coaching. ”Whoever thinks these up should be stoned.”

And the turf war Woitalla describes, with multiple national championships, is true in softball as well. The Stars won the U.S. Specialty Sports Association Fast-Pitch National Championship. You can also play in another organization’s fast-pitch “nationals” in four convenient locations! The ASA / USA Softball also has championships down to U10.

In Single-Digit Soccer, U.S. Club Soccer’s Christian Lavers defends the concept of national championship — but not at this age:

At US Club Soccer, we believe that regional competition at U-13 is a good thing, and playing teams from different areas of the country in meaningful games at U-14 is a good thing.

So here’s the question: Are national championships at U10 a bad thing in soccer because of something unique to soccer? Or are they a bad idea, period, even if we don’t want to spoil the fun of the Vienna/South Riding/Leesburg/Potomac Stars?

Part of the answer is easy — “winning” in U10 soccer is a lot easier if you sacrifice development. Put players in set positions, where they’ll learn fewer of the skills down the road. Have the big player blast the ball downfield to the fast player. Find players with the aptitude and love of the game to learn, I mean, find the biggest and fastest players.

Does softball face the same issues? Or is there no harm in having U10s playing a bunch of different tournaments and calling a couple of them national championships?

Single-Digit Soccer is available electronically now and soon in print. Learn more and order here.

Single-Digit Soccer: Requiem for the Ajax academy?

Perhaps this is a leap of logic — a thin correlation between two items that aren’t quite related. Maybe so. But when you look at Dutch soccer today, it’s easy to spot two things that, related or not, have gone wrong.

First: The Netherlands national team is an utter mess, now looking less likely to make a Euro field that seems to be welcoming everyone else on the continent.

Second: How is the vaunted Ajax academy doing today?

On a message board I frequent (for local parents), someone recently dug up a 5-year-old NYT profile of Ajax as a frightening example of what happens when professional goals go overboard. The whole experience seemed devoid of joy, compassion and all the things you would hope every teenager has a chance to experience — particularly when they’re playing a game that is supposed to be full of joy, not a rote exercise in doing the same bloody thing over and over like you’re in a 1980s Eastern European rhythmic gymnastics barracks.

One comment from the board: “Yeah, my reaction to that article was that I’m fine not having a champion MNT if that’s the way you have to go to get it.”

My memory might be hazy, but was Ajax always that way? I thought it used to be considered intense but also a place of wonder, where creative geniuses met like some sort of Algonquin Roundtable of Total Football.

Maybe Total Football has given way to rigid tactics and player roles? Or have we stopped viewing our kids as kids and started seeing them as people to cast off or sell to keep a corporate operation moving?

Even when kids emerge as the rare few to succeed at a high level from such places, they have regrets. See Steven Gerrard’s poignant comments about wishing he had devoted more effort to his education.  (And bravo, Mr. Gerrard, for speaking up so honestly.)

Then let’s look at the USA for a minute. We’ve gotten more serious over the years, haven’t we? We have Development Academies. We’re telling kids not to play college soccer or even high school soccer. And we’re getting skunked.

In the New Era, we herd our kids into camps and soccer-specific residencies so they can develop away from the public eye. Meanwhile, college soccer continues to offer experiences like this:

Those kids will never forget that moment. And it’ll help some of them develop a sense of joy (or, on the flip side, a sense of mental toughness) you’re not going to develop playing for a bunch of dudes with clipboards.

Surely it’s time to strike a balance, yes? Maybe we’ll figure it out before the Netherlands do and pass them in the FIFA rankings!

Single-Digit Soccer: The definitive word on Germany

How do they do things in Europe? As we saw with birth-year age groups, perhaps not what we think.

Single-Digit Soccer makes multiple references to a terrific piece from The Guardian (disclaimer: I’m now writing a bit for the excellent UK newspaper) on the way Germany revamped its youth system after falling short at Euro 2000.  Today, The Guardian has an excerpt from a forthcoming book on German soccer called Das Reboot.

The only information I saw in this excerpt that contradicts the previous Guardian piece — the reboot actually started before 2000. Everything else hits and expands upon familiar themes, though the excerpt takes a while to get to the youth programs of interest to Single-Digit Soccer fans.

A few highlights:

– In 1996, the German DFB only worked with the national teams, while regional federations did the bulk of the education. Berti Vogts sought to put a DFB coach “inside each regional federation to conduct additional sessions for gifted kids who weren’t part of the club system.” At the time, it was turned down.

– After World Cup 1998, a modified plan went into effect: 121 regional centers to do weekly two-hour sessions for 4,000 kids in the 13-17 age bracket. Another program would reach 10,000 boys (and yes, we should specify *boys*, though I’ll be curious to see what the book says about the impact on women’s soccer) under 12.

– The goal: Everyone should live within 25 kilometers of a regional center.

Think about that for a second. Twenty-five kilometers. A little more than 15 miles.

Imagine that on the East Coast. You’d have multiple centers in Fairfax County, Va. The Triad area in North Carolina would have at least three — Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point. The Triangle would probably have a couple in between the Durham/Chapel Hill and Raleigh metros.

– There was some push and pull between elite and what I guess you’d call recreational.

The DFB made it compulsory for the 18 top teams to build performance centres by 2001–02. Money was the main obstacle: “How much will it cost? Is that really necessary?, were the reactions,” says Schott. But there was also some resistance at the ideological level against fostering the elite. “Werder Bremen doesn’t want to follow the principle of selection,” the former Werder general manager Willi Lemke, a Social Democrat politician, said in 1998. “We have a social responsibility. We are obliged to provide leisure activities for children, promote the motivation to perform, teach them solidarity and team spirit.”

At the same time, the federation was making sure to reach beyond the chosen few in pro academies. Go back to the previous Guardian piece and its comments on a program for ages 8-14 in 366 areas with 1,000 B-licensed part-time coaches:

Some youngsters attending the development programme are already affiliated with professional clubs but others may be only turning out for their local junior side, which means the weekly DFB sessions are also a chance for Bundesliga teams to spot players.

The clubs also have some flexibility to reach out across a wider expanse without herding the “best” youngsters into their academies at an early age:

Across a sizeable area where they face little competition from other Bundesliga clubs, Freiburg work closely with five amateur feeder teams who receive a part-time coach to train children aged 8 to 11 twice a week. The most promising players are invited to attend the academy during school holidays and for occasional tournaments at weekends. “We believe it is not good for a nine-year-old to play [regularly] for a professional football club because it changes the reasons why he plays football,” says Sebastian Neuf, a member of the football school’s management.

National competition starts at U17. It’s regional at U15. That’s typical — check the European Club Academies report.

(Edited to add: What about young women? Through U15, a lot of them are playing on the boys teams!)