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?


The definitive word on participation trophies …

From a Cracked piece responding to a rant about Millennials:

Simon, let me tell you about my participation trophies. I got them for playing soccer, and they were handed out from a bag at the end of the year with all the ceremony of communist factory workers getting their lunch rations. My response was not “Well, clearly I’m going to be handed a six-figure job as an adult.” It was “Neat, a trophy! Now I’m going to go back to thinking about Pokemon or farts, because I am a child.” Later it was a nice reminder of time spent playing with my friends, and as I got older, eventually only the teams that won were rewarded. This did not shock and sadden us — it was what we expected, and wanted, because we were actually capable of observing adult society, and we noticed that pro sports teams weren’t handed many trophies for constantly losing.

Source: This Millennial Rant Deserves A Trophy For Being Most Wrong

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.

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: 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: Book available for pre-order

Single-Digit SoccerIf you can’t wait to read Single-Digit Soccer, here’s good news: You … only have to wait a couple more weeks. But you can be ready to read it the second it’s available if you pre-order now.

The electronic version will be available August 27. I’m hoping to have the print version ready the same day, but I can’t promise that just yet.

If you check today, you may find the book is listed at 27 or 32 pages. It’ll be longer than that — somewhere in the high 100s. That page measurement was taken from a place-holding sample.

I’ll link to each outlet as the pre-ordering availability comes online. Here goes:

1. Amazon (the print edition will also be here at some point)

2. Barnes and Noble (new, August 7)

3. Apple/iTunes

4. Kobo (they’ve actually pulled a small sample from the rough draft)

5. Scribd (not yet as of August 7)

6. PageFoundry (not yet as of August 7)

7. Oyster (not yet as of August 7)

I’ll update this list as I see new links.

This book, like coaching youth soccer, has been difficult but rewarding. I’m so grateful to everyone who has helped out. Here’s a partial list:

People I interviewed (the last four indirectly): Sam Snow (U.S. Youth Soccer), Christian Lavers (U.S. Club Soccer), Rick Wolff, Robin Fraser, Julie Foudy, Tiffany Weimer, Garth Lagerwey, Alexi Lalas, Kofi Sarkodie, Andrew Driver, Mike Chabala and Bobby Boswell.

People who helped me gather interviews: Monique Bowman (NSCAA), Lester Gretsch (Houston Dynamo).

People who’ve kicked around ideas with me: Kate Markgraf, Brandi Chastain, Joanna Lohman, Charles Boehm, Jon Townsend, and tons of anonymous people at BigSoccer.

Editors who’ve put up with my self-indulgent soccer writing: Boehm, Chris Hummer, Deb Barrington, Steve Berkowitz and Gary Kicinski.

Editor who is making this book much cleaner and coherent: Laurel Robinson.

People at my club: Mike Allen, Pete Wacht, Jane Dawber, Eddie Lima, Mike Gurdak, Ryan Phair, Andrew Ritter, Lee Chichester, Jason Steiner, Damon Lee, Michele Sullivan, Chris Hegedus, Rob Lancaster and Mike Lyons.

My workplace: Mary and the crew at Starbucks at Vienna Marketplace.

Every player and parent on my teams, especially my two sons and my remarkably patient wife.

European academies and stunted growth

Is this the model we want?

Chelsea’s had 68 players play in an FA Youth Cup final in the last 10 years. They’ve played in a total of 84 senior team matches, an average of 1.2 matches per player. Nobody’s played more in that group than Josh McEachran, who’s featured 22 times on the senior level. … Chelsea will continue putting off their first team minutes until, by the time they’re 23, they’ve been shipped off on a bevy of different loan spells in myriad different systems. Lacking a consistent, solid ground on which to plant themselves, they’ll then be sold off to a middle-tier club in Europe with a fraction of the nourishing first team experience they could’ve had.

via Chelsea won the UEFA Youth League title, flaunting talent it’ll never use | The 91st Minute | Soccer Blog | Videos | Pop-Culture.

Related: German clubs don’t like UEFA competition because it takes kids away from school.

And that fits with the German emphasis on education:

“When I went to Aston Villa eight years ago I told them our players, under-17, 18 and 19, go to school for 34 hours a week,” he says. “They said: ‘No, you’re a liar, it’s not possible, our players go for nine hours.’ I said: ‘No, I’m not lying.’ They said: ‘It’s not possible, you can’t train and do 34 hours of education.’ I said: ‘Sure. And what do you do with the players who have for three years, from the age of 16 to 19, only had nine hours a week of school?

“They said: ‘They have to try to be a professional or not. They have to decide.’ I said: ‘No, we can’t do that in Freiburg. It’s wrong. Most players in our academy can’t be professionals, they will have to look for a job. The school is the most important thing, then comes football.’ We give players the best chance to be a footballer but we give them two educations here. If 80% can’t go on to play in the professional team, we have to look out for them. The players that play here, the majority of them go on to higher education. And we need intelligent players on the pitch anyway.”

(From the classic Guardian piece on German development)

Single-Digit Soccer: Do players specialize in high school?

At national champion Ohio State, the answer is apparently not.

And this is in high school. In soccer, we’re asking whether our players should be specializing at age 8. From my research so far, the answer is surely not.

A high school sports blog has a good list of benefits from playing multiple sports and quotes on playing several sports from luminaries like Wayne Gretzky, Larry Fitzgerald and the ubiquitous Alex Morgan.

I’m not sure how to verify the “42 out of 47” stat. Is it Meyer’s first two years at Ohio State? The two most recent years? Ohio State did have 47 recruits in 2013 and 2014. Ohio State’s site doesn’t always list every player’s extracurriculars, so I was only able to verify these:

RB Curtis Samuel: Track.
WR Parris Campbell: Track, in a big way.
S Malik Hooker:  College basketball prospect.
OT Kyle Trout: Basketball and track.
LB Sam Hubbard: Considered college lacrosse.
WR Jalin Marshall: State champion long jumper.
CB Cam Burrows: Track.
RB Ezekiel Elliott: Four state championships in track in 2 1/2 hours.
QB J.T. Barrett: Basketball and track.
DT Billy Price: Field events.
WR James Clark: Track.

Other players:

2014 recruiting class

LB Raekwon Macmillan
WR Johnnie Dixon
ATH Marshon Lattimore
CB Damon Webb
OT Jamarco Jones
LB Dante Booker Jr.
DE Jalyn Holmes
OG Demetrius Knox
S Erick Smith
LB Kyle Berger
ATH Noah Brown
WR Terry McLaurin
DT Dylan Thompson
OT Marcelys Jones
K Sean Nuernberger
OT Brady Taylor
QB Stephen Collier
DE Darius Slade

2013 recruiting class

CB Eli Apple
CB Gareon Conley
LB Trey Johnson
S Vonn Bell
ATH Dontre Wilson
DT Joey Bosa
TE Marcus Baugh
OT Evan Lisle
LB Mike Mitchell
DT Michael Hill
S Jayme Thompson
DT Donovan Munger
WR Corey Smith
LB Christopher Worley
DT Tracy Sprinkle
S Darron Lee
DE Tyquan Lewis
OT Tim Gardner

That’s 47 recruits. Somehow, that doesn’t include punter Cameron Johnston, who played Australian rules football.

Also, “invited walk-on” Khaleed Franklin was all-city (Columbus) in basketball. Another invited walk-on, Logan Gaskey, played basketball and has a black belt in taekwondo. (At 295 pounds, that’s not easy.) Joe Ramstetter considered college baseball.

And from the year before, Pat Elflein was a distinguished wrestler and participated in track and field. Cardale Jones, another recruit from the year before, played basketball.

For comparison’s sake, I decided to look at a good women’s soccer program with a good website. Hello, Virginia:

  • GK Morgan Stearns: HS basketball
  • GK Kelsey Kilgore: HS and AAU basketball
  • D Megan Reid: All-conference basketball, track and water polo
  • D/M Meghan Cox: Starting kicker on football team; also played basketball, field hockey and softball
  • M Tori Hanway: HS lacrosse, basketball and track
  • M Morgan Brian: All-state basketball
  • F Kaili Torres: HS track
  • M Campbell Millar: HS track
  • F Mary Morgan: HS basketball
  • D Julia Sroba: HS cross-country and track

So that’s at least 10 out of 24, including a couple of the better-known players and one U.S. national team player.

Now if only we could find enough programs for the kids who can’t make multiple varsities.

(HT: John O’Sullivan)

Single-Digit Soccer: Your kid will never be a pro

ER doctor Louis Profeta of Indianapolis — ironically, the home of several elite sports organizations — takes revenge on all the parents with whacked-out priorities with a fun, occasionally profane column spelling things out in simplest terms: Your kid and my kid are not playing in the pros.

I’ll lay you two to one odds right now and I don’t even know your kid, I have never even see them play, but I’ll put up my pension that your kid is not playing in the pros. It is simply an odds thing. There are far too many variables working against your child. Injury, burnout, others who are better, – these things are are just a fraction of the barriers preventing your child from becoming “the one.”

The stories of misplaced priorities from his ER are frightening. Parents who are fretting about their starting linebacker being out of the game when their kid was knocked unconscious. Parents asking if a kid with a swollen spleen can just get some extra padding and play. Most disturbing of all — a kid who was roaring drunk, smashed a car and “needs” to get out of the ER before the cops come and fill out a report that will get her kicked off the swim team.

The column raises a couple of questions, and I’m not sure they’re related:

1. Are we supposed to aspire to pro sports careers?

That’s what we hear from women’s soccer players from time to time — we need a pro league so players will have something to which they can aspire.

And in soccer, we’re setting up a massive youth soccer machine to produce pro prospects and national team players. We’re supposed to funnel our best talent to better clubs in better leagues. They all need pro coaches from age 9 upward.

So in soccer, should we expect any backlash when someone pours cold water on the notion of making sacrifices with the goal of a pro career? Or a college scholarship?

2. Are that many parents and players really motivated by the prospect of going pro?

Profeta takes his argument well beyond deflating delusions of professional riches.

It’s because, just like everyone else, we are afraid. We are afraid that Emma will make the cheerleading squad instead of Suzy and that Mitch will start at first base instead of my Dillon. But it doesn’t stop here. You see, if Mitch starts instead of Dillon then Dillon will feel like a failure, and if Dillon feels like a failure then he will sulk and cower in his room, and he will lose his friends because all his friends are on the baseball team too, and if he loses his friends then he will start dressing in Goth duds and pierce his testicle and start using drugs, and listening to head banging music with his door locked. Then, of course, it’s just a matter of time until he’s surfing the net for neo-Nazi memorabilia, visiting gun shows and then opening fire in the school cafeteria. That is why so many fathers who bring their injured sons to the ER are so afraid that they won’t be able to practice this week, or that he may miss the game this weekend. Miss a game, you become a mass murderer – it’s that simple.

Suzy surely isn’t a cheerleader because she wants to go “pro.” In these cases, the kids and (maybe especially) their parents are worried about losing their sense of self if they’re not on the team.

The brilliance of the TV version of Friday Night Lights is that it wasn’t about football. It was about identity. “So what’s it like being the guy who used to be Tim Riggins?” one girl asks of the fullback who returns to town after deciding a week or two of college football (specifically the “college” part) was enough. The star quarterback adapts to life in a wheelchair. A sensitive artist is thrust into the spotlight as the new quarterback. The cheerleader becomes an outcast after sleeping with Riggins. (As if she’s the only one.)

And I see this sense of belonging at early ages. Spend some time on the parents’ sideline at a travel soccer game, and you’re in a nice little club. The players often (but not always) feel the same way.

Remember this ad?

Let me play, they all say. Let me be part of a team so I’ll feel like a part of something greater than myself. Now here’s the reality: For all our focus on sports in this country, it’s not easy to make these teams.

My local soccer club has a couple hundred boys in each of the single-digit years — U6, U7, etc. Maybe 30-40 percent of them will go to my local high school. That’s maybe 60-90 kids per year. How many of them will play in high school?

Well before that, we will have cut players by the score. They won’t make travel teams. At age 8, we’re telling them this sport won’t be a major part of their identities. They’ll either need to make a remarkable leap, find another club or find something else.

So when a child finds something in which he fits, it’s a good thing. And frankly, it’s nice for parents. They have a shared experience. They know their kids are doing something constructive together.

But at what point are we forcing the issue? Probably when we want to get them out of the ER to get back on the swim team.