Monday, March 02, 2009
My wise grandmother used to say, "Be careful what you wish for." I had plenty of examples where the adage proved appropriate throughout my life. When I grew to 5' 8" in the third grade, my wish to be tall seemed ill-considered. My desire to have long hair had a tragic outcome when I fell asleep chewing a wad of bubble gum. Begging my dad to bring home the cat who had wandered into our campsite on Vashon Island looked like a major victory until she insisted on giving birth to a litter of kittens twice a year in my bed. So when our soccer club had a meeting about traveling tournaments, I thought it would be a fun family activity and enthusiastically voted to let the Under-10 teams be part of the planning without considering the consequences.
I still say that my initial support of the plan had a reasoned argument and plenty of support from other parents. But few of us had the benefit of hindsight and those who did were considered wet blankets for dissenting. Ah, what a difference five years makes. If I had it all to do over again, I would have socked away the cost of those traveling events until Bryce and Robbie reached Under-15. I would have had a great start on a college fund or the opportunity to pay for a flight on Richard Branson's out of the atmosphere rocket ship in 2011. In their place I do have some great memories, lots of miles on the van, and a detailed personal knowledge of most Midwest cities over 50,000 in population.
The temptation to rush into traveling for soccer locks on to our sensibilities early. We watch the older teams planning so eagerly for those traveling tournaments and we want our kids to have the same opportunity. The argument could be made that tournaments provide increased competition. But there are tournaments close enough to home that will fit the bill and don't require hotel rooms and plane tickets. That exotic allure of spending a three day weekend in Evansville or Dayton quickly fizzles under the logistics of making those trips. Family togetherness flies out the window when the daughter is playing in Collinsville and the son has a band concert at home. While most families are willing to take on a foster kid or two on these trips, it still means a weekend without sharing the experience.
Sometimes the strain of missing local activities can make a child decide to quit soccer. Kids might miss the 7th grade dance or Easter with the cousins in order to attend tournaments. Not many 12 year olds enjoy making tough life decisions before they reach full puberty. While all commitments do require some sacrifice, there really isn't a reason for kids to sacrifice their social life and parents to sacrifice their money before the player reaches age 15.
For the sake of sanity, I encourage most soccer teams to forego the long-distance tournaments for local events (less than a three hour drive). That allows families to drive back and forth and save the cost of hotels. Kids can still enjoy their social life, families can still spend time together even with multiple commitments, and everyone can ease into the constraints of travel. Slowing down allows players to find out if they want to give up entire weekends just for soccer. Once a team reaches Under-15, then players have usually decided to take the challenge of select soccer seriously. Therefore players need to start being noticed by college coaches. The time has then come to take off the floaters, abandon the shallow end, and immerse fully. Now the travel makes full sense.
I have seen tournaments with divisions down to Under-8. While I applaud the diversity, I also encourage moderation. If the Under-8 tournament is close enough to home, why not give it a try. Players can embrace the one shining positive we have taken from all our tournaments and that is enlarging our circle of soccer friends. Over the years we've had the chance to watch players grow alongside our sons and enjoyed catching up on the sidelines with the parents. But traveling for traveling sake doesn't up the ante for skill development, player growth, or competition. Teams training daily for two to three hours would have more impact on player development than attending three or four traveling tournaments in a year.
One of the arguments about soccer has been that it has become too expensive. Yet the real expense of soccer ends up being the long trips teams make. No one needs classy expensive uniforms, they can train on community fields, and league fees are usually insignificant when split among all members. Coaching makes up the remaining and biggest expense, but players do get the biggest bang for their buck. For whatever it costs to attend a distant tournament players could get ten or fifteen hours of private coaching. Split that among a team and it translates to fifteen to eighteen times as much coaching. So the true advantage of a tournament is the opportunity to be exposed to college coaches and to the highest levels of competition. Those two goals are both admirable and necessary, but not until a player is older.
Although my grandmother never saw a soccer game in her life, her sage advice rings true for any soccer family. Measure your wishes by the true benefit. Don't be afraid to proceed slowly when it comes to upping the ante for your child's participation. You can't go wrong wishing the best for your child, just be sure that what you wish for is the best for them.