Monday, February 25, 2008
Youth soccer can be a difficult maze to negotiate. Right now under the United States Soccer Federation there are five youth programs: American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) founded in 1964 which has volunteer coaches and leagues all over the U.S. with a core predominately in Southern California, United States Youth Soccer Association (US Youth Soccer) founded in 1974 which is a mix of volunteer and paid coaches with both recreational and select programs, Soccer Association for Youth which is strictly recreational soccer and whose motto is "kid's having fun," US Club Soccer founded in 2000 which provides another venue for registration and for development, and finally the USSF Development Academy founded in 2007 which seeks to create competition among the top clubs in America at the U16 and U18 level which would serve as development for those players and opportunities for National Team coaches to scout for talent. Outside of the USSF umbrella are three other organizations: Soccer in the Streets (SITS) whose goal is to provide soccer and life training for kids at risk, YMCA, and Super Y League, a branch of United Soccer Leagues, which is a league of elite clubs whose purpose is to provide strong competition. And of course there are programs at schools, churches, and other youth venues which aren't under any national oversight.
This maze of youth soccer options often leaves parents bewildered and pressured. I don't think any other sport besides soccer has such an organized emphasis on development of players beginning at age five with an eye towards national team and professional team play at the end of the road. It's tough to just play soccer for the fun of it when much of the play emerges from programs that encourage commitment to constantly increasing levels of play. Yet recreational soccer remains one of the best programs for players to stretch their soccer muscles and exercise their interest in the game without the pressure of immediate or future success.
When my oldest grandson was four, I enrolled him in our local Micro Soccer program. Both his parents worked, so it was an opportunity for him to get away from after-school care and play with a new set of friends. The largely teenage staff made the experience so much fun. Still kids themselves they romped with these three, four, and five year olds and even wrestled with them which I don't think is a soccer skill set. Keaton had a blast and although a bit intimidated at first, he jumped in and fully participated. He loved the opportunity to compete when there were races and to giggle and cavort when there was just play. Nevertheless some parents took exception to the program as not being structured enough – i.e. not really teaching them soccer. These parents already had their sights set on a select club and wanted their children to have a leg up on the competition. Since most select clubs use their youth recreational program as a feeder pool for the select teams at U11, parents were savvy enough to understand that they had to get their kids on the "right" recreational team. Since several select clubs have their U10 and even U9 teams play up at U11, select soccer can begin technically at age 8!
While my own sons eventually ended up on the select route of youth soccer, I don't regret keeping them out of a select club until they were U10. Those neighborhood teams they played on created so many fantastic memories without the pressure of succeeding. Robbie in fact didn't take to soccer until he was seven. His early years on his recreational teams were spent in the back field checking out the grass and wandering over to the sidelines to talk to his teammates who were on the bench. When the ball deflected to him from an opponent, Robbie would politely return it. Bryce on the other hand had a killer instinct and had to be restrained from using American football moves on the soccer field. He got plenty of invitations to join a select club, but he benefited by sticking with his recreational team for the first four years of soccer because he could be with his neighborhood buddies, ride to practice together, and enjoy the play. In fact the only reason he finally moved to a select club was because two of his best friends did. Once there, he got on a train that had only one route. It's important for parents to understand that commitment level and how ruthlessly players are booted off the train along the route. Players need to be ready for the kind of cold-bloodedness that select programs can operate under.
Don't get seduced by the lure of early training. If your son or daughter expresses a real interest in continuing with soccer when he or she is 10 or 11 there's plenty of time to find a competitive recreational or select team. If they express an interest in a multitude of sports, they probably shouldn't do select sports until, as the name implies, they select that sport nearly exclusively, usually some time in middle school years. Soccer dovetails nicely at the youth ages with basketball and baseball with soccer games in the fall and in the early spring. But if players elect to be on a select team then they end up having the winter given over to indoor soccer and the summer over to tournaments. The scheduling crush ends up shortchanging teams.
Find a recreational youth program that is fun, affordable, accessible, and outside the select soccer borders. It's so great to see these little tykes in their size 2 soccer cleats and printed jerseys running likes ants across the fields, pig piling in front of the goal, keeping their balance and losing their balance, discussing big plays with their friends, being outdoors, and having something to look forward to each week that doesn't require discipline or pressure. Whether kids do soccer with their church, with YMCA, with an organized club or with a community team, kids should play youth soccer for the fun of it. A child should be laughing 80% of the time and so should you.
While riding the select train all the way to the final station can have its own rewards, remember the realities of the ride: few will make it to the end, the cost to get there is tremendous monetarily, physically, and mentally, and the prize needs to be worth the journey. No one suffered from running around outdoors laughing – and that's where most soccer players will find their haven. Presently there are over 3 million players registered with US Youth Soccer, another 200,000 in AYSO, and probably another 100,000 or more in the other various youth soccer programs. There are around 50 men and women who are in serious contention for the 36 spots on the Men's and Women's Nationalb Teams. That's .0016% or 16/1,000,000.
I like the odds for fun in youth soccer much better!