Monday, November 10, 2008
If I didn't know it already, I know it now. Coaches notice kids early. Recently I was talking to two college coaches about the state of soccer and one of the coaches started to talk about the youth teams of a club just over the Illinois border. He thought their Under-10 team was phenomenal and had his eye on a few kids. Here's a guy who doesn't even know if he'll have his job next year or in ten years, but he's already getting his 9 year old recruits lined up.
Once a coach approached me after a tournament when Robbie was Under-11 and inquired if Robbie would come play for his club. This was all very flattering except that the tournament was in SW Chicago, we lived north of Milwaukee, and the coach's team was from St. Louis. Geography didn't faze him in the least. He thought I should hand over my 10 year old son to some family in St. Louis to raise so that Robbie could improve this coach's team. Because there were about 8 million things wrong with this plan, I just gave my best Scarlett O'Hara laugh with a toss of my head, said thank you very much, and moved quickly away.
When we read about the trades and cuts of professional sports players we understand they're commodities. We also realize that college players are to some extent commodities, but at least have the protection of the NCAA to insure that they don't have to risk their education by being pawns in trades. But increasingly, players in high school and on youth teams find themselves the targets of coaches and scouts for one purpose only – to improve the fortunes of a team and increase the reputation of a club. Under the guise of providing a better playing and training environment they encourage parents to make what could be serious life-altering decisions. Without a touch of cynicism, parents can make very poor choices.
It's important to remember that most offers are never altruistic. Any coach who sees something wonderful in your child is thinking (with apologies to JFK), "Ask not what you can do for this player; ask what this player can do for you." This goes for coaches recruiting for their club team, their school, or for their pro team. They will regale you first with flattery and then all that they can do for your child. But all too often they will use your child until he or she doesn't provide any benefit for the organization and the team. I once heard a coach say, "It's club first, then team, then the player." He also touted the need for players to remain loyal to the club while in the next breath cutting six players who had been with the club for five or more years.
Players are approached often. Recruiting can begin when they are eight years old. Figuring out how to navigate this brambled path is difficult. Having a coach tell you that your son or daughter could be one of the best players in the country is a mind-blower. The trouble is that if your child's promise doesn't pan out the way the coach expects or if another child comes along with more talent or more promise, your child will be sacrificed. No matter what wonderful pastoral tale the coach weaves, the underlying fact is that winning trumps everything.
It's not that coaches are inherently evil. In fact most coaches do care about their players. But every club depends on revenue to keep the staff of coaches paid, and losing clubs don't attract enough players to offer coaches better pay. So the vicious cycle drives the process. Coaches often don't have the luxury to foster players who can't contribute to a winning team. I have personally been on the receiving end of both the benefits and the drawbacks of such a system. It's difficult to set aside the flattery and make choices based on what is really best for your own child. It's even more difficult to suddenly find your child left on the sidelines without a team.
The dream of national team membership, championships, and college play makes all parents vulnerable to the sales pitch. But players do succeed even if they don't succumb to the come-ons. It's up to parents to weigh more than the flash when considering whether or not to go with a particular coach. What will the choice mean to other members of the family? What are the financial obligations? How will the team's schedule affect school? How committed is the player to the sport and to the upward demands of the new team? (Here's where parents have to take themselves out of the equation – their dreams for their kids can't factor in.) How realistic is the coach's assessment of the player? (Here's where honestly watching other players in the same position from other teams helps keep things in perspective.)
Since my own son made the decision to play for a team hours from our home, I understand the lure of strong coaching, strong competition, and strong opportunities. For him it has proven to be the best choice. Even this year when he could have played locally, he decided he wanted to remain with his teammates in Chicago. Have there been regrets? Definitely! He does his homework in the car, his weekends are eaten up by travel to practices or games hundreds of miles from home, and he has given up the normal after school life of a high school student. But he has made the choice, which is the most important factor in taking the risk. Robbie understood the possibility of being cut and spent his fair share of time riding the bench. But he was committed to the team and the opportunity it offered.
The primary driving force in moving up to more competitive teams should be the player's own hunger for the experience. Ambition can't come from the parents, otherwise the player won't have the mental, physical, and emotional stamina to deal with the ups and downs of taking those risks, no matter how flattering the invitation may be. If a player has no aspirations beyond high school, then he or she doesn't need to be on an expensive and demanding traveling team. Strong skills and joy can be acquired from most soccer teams. While flattery doesn't grow old, it has to be tempered with realistic ideas about what a player wants out of his or her soccer experience. Flattery can be treasured even if it is never acted upon. After all every player has something to be proud of, so we should flatter them all.