Monday, July 27, 2009
As belts tightened across the nation, soccer clubs are no more immune to budget concerns than any family or organization. Most clubs operated on a thin margin of financial viability even in boom times, so they acutely feel the pinch now. You'll hear the mantra of "loyalty" more incessantly than ever as clubs try to maintain membership and to attract more members. Unfortunately loyalty from the club's perspective is a one-way obligation and families who have given years of service to a club can find their sons and daughters cut from their teams when select tryouts are complete. Ironically loyalty is a fickle concept.
Coaching directors brush off any criticism with "that's the way it is in the world of soccer." They are correct as far as professional clubs go. But this is youth soccer without paid contracts, sports agents, and back room negotiations. Soccer teams provide more than just a place to train and hopefully win. They provide a social center where parents feel strongly connected. Being cut from a team can be like being ostracized from a community. Youth clubs need to both expect and honor loyalty by being loyal themselves or they need to accept they can't offer loyalty in return so stop demanding it from their players and families. All too often youth clubs only want the pendulum to swing one direction. Loyal, but unskilled players rarely get consideration for their loyalty. On the swing side we all know the "star" player who misses practices, whose family rarely volunteers, and who bad-mouths the players and the coach, yet starts every game. Under the umbrella of loyalty, families expect fairness, they expect that the rules will apply to every player, and they expect some consideration for their loyalty. But youth clubs continue to apply the professional standard to their choices exposing loyal members to dismissal, while expecting members to accept the risk they may be cut, blindly stay true in the name of loyalty until then and not pursue better opportunities when they come up.
If clubs want to operate like professional teams bumping off players without consideration to their loyalty, then they have to accept the converse: that every day professional players defect from the club that nurtured them, gave them the biggest salary, and put up with their shenanigans. When another club dangles a more lucrative contract, loyalty flies out the window. Kids read and hear about this all the time, so they know how the real world works. It should be no surprise to youth clubs when a player leaves for his or her own reasons since these same clubs are willing to cut a kid when it serves their purposes.
US Youth Soccer and local State Associations have attempted to put in rules that will temper this cut-throat atmosphere. But every rule has a thousand loopholes that clubs have expertly learned to maneuver. For example there's the rule that coaches can't recruit players in the weeks preceding tryouts. The reality is that recruiting happens all the time, just not directly by the coaches. Robbie got hand-written personal invitations from parents of players in other clubs asking him to consider trying out and touting the club's accomplishments. While the notes were clearly following a template created by someone in the club no one could fault the club for a recruiting violation. After all this was just a proud parent exercising his or her right to free speech! Even players will approach other players after a game in an attempt to get them to consider joining their team, a tactic that works much better if the recruiting team beats the player's team. And players on their own decide to make a switch without any recruiting happening at all. One family on Robbie's first select team was subjected to threats of a lawsuit because they "defected" and were made to endure dozens of phone calls asking them to admit that the player was recruited illegally when the kid actually left because he couldn't get along with one player. All this anger and politics seem unfitting for youth soccer.
In Wisconsin players have three days to consider an offer from a team, but most coaches will demand an answer the minute they call the player. Coaches will play the loyalty card stating that if the player "really wanted to play for this club" there would be no hesitation. Anxious players, faced with the possibility of not having a team, usually succumb to the pressure and agree immediately even if they are waiting on another team's offer. Coaches will attempt to limit where a player tries out by threatening that if a player doesn't show up for all days of try outs she forfeits the opportunity to play for the club. Players are supposed to be free to try out for any and all teams they want, but the reality is that they put their eggs in one basket because of intimidation. Naturally, most top players don't face intimidation because clubs recognize those players have the power to pick and choose. So the equity that the rules attempt to create doesn't exist.
Loyalty to a club can be a noble concept, but turns out to be impractical as players make different decisions about their soccer future. Robbie's first club team still contains a few players from the original group, while Bryce's first club team completely dissolved at Under-15. Anything can happen with a team, so ultimately families need to decide what's best for them and for their children. There should be no rancor over making a change because change happens naturally in the course of life. In the case of soccer, players seek different opportunities such as less travel or tougher competition. Players may move because of the "grass is greener" belief or they may move because they want to be with friends. Clubs have no compunction about cutting a player, so families should have no guilt about leaving. Be true to your own ideals and family. Life is too short to sacrifice your own future to the questionable promises and demands of loyalty.