Monday, August 16, 2010
This past weekend I ran into the president of my boys' first soccer club whom I hadn't seen for about four years. He was with his granddaughter and her friend both dressed in a variant of the same red and white stripped club uniform the boys had worn years before. I had always considered this club the bread and butter training for the boys. The coaches were knowledgeable and dedicated and they had high expectations for their players and their teams. But the club suffered from the same problem many good clubs do – not being able to attract enough strong players to be competitive across the board. As a result, once players grew old enough to know that they wanted to make soccer their sport, they left for clubs they perceived as stronger and more able to provide them with a pathway to college.
Bryce's team completely dissolved at tryouts for U-15. The first night five players showed up and the second night only Bryce showed up. These are the hard knocks of the business of youth soccer. Parents want to engineer the best path for their kids to that holy grail of a college scholarship and panic easily if they suspect players are jumping ship. This musical chair mentality means some very good players are left out in the cold without a team to play on. It happened to Bryce and it took us from July to November to find a team for him – although I admit that it's tougher when you're a keeper.
I liked this club. First of all it was convenient to our home, which any parent who drives kids to practices will tell you is a major factor in selecting a team. Second, as I said, the coaches were good. One coach in particular had a huge influence on Robbie's development. And so long as we played in the premier level of state league, we were assured of strong competition. Most tournaments were within a five hour radius – another plus because it cut down on travel expenses. And the fees were reasonable. An ancillary plus was that many of the boys' friends played on their teams facilitating car pooling.
Although some kids have the wonderful experience of staying with the same club for their entire youth soccer experience, most kids either switch clubs or have so many of their teammates switch to other clubs that their team doesn't even vaguely resemble the team they had just a year earlier. Most of us parents don't have much to go on in deciding where our kids will play. We really can only look at superficial factors such as wins or how many kids went on to play college soccer. But those factors can be deceiving. If a club cherry-picks the best players from other clubs, the wins come from having a stronger team and not necessarily from good development. And it stands to reason that if you loot the best players in the area, you'll be able to boast of the most college scholarship winners. On the other hand, if you want your child to continue to have strong competition between teams and among the players on his or her own team, then going with a club's reputation for having the best players isn't necessarily a bad decision.
Ideally a team can develop as a unit and stick together as a unit, but that rarely happens. Kids at age 6 will have different limits to their development. Some kids won't have speed, others will lose interest, others yet will excel in coordination. There's very little chance of predicting where a kid will be in ten years time. So gathering a group of kids together doesn't mean they will be together for any length of time. As parents we have to be prepared for change because it will inevitably come. That preparation should include watching some practices of other clubs to see how the coaches work with the kids and whether or not you feel comfortable with them coaching your kids. Talk to parents whose kids are in the club and talk to parents whose kids have left the club. It's important to hear what the strengths and weaknesses are, but equally important to read between the lines of sour grape testimonials.
There's no perfect formula for the path your son or daughter should take in youth soccer. Each family needs to decide what factors are most important to them. Clubs are social centers, training grounds, conduits to college scout exposure, exercise centers, places to relax, and sources of pride. Families need to rank the aspects of a club along with things such as expense, travel commitment, ease of getting to and from practices, competition, and coaching staff. Parents and their kids need to continually examine how important going to the next level in soccer is. They need to figure out if they want to press forward because of a passion for the sport or the need to succeed or both. And all families need to be prepared for disappointment. Not getting into the club of your dreams can be devastating emotionally, but doesn't need to be devastating athletically. Lots of good options exist beyond the "top" club in your area.
When I saw those girls in their uniforms, it created a bit of a lump in my throat. I remembered the good friends we made at the club, the great coaches, and the confidence of belonging. It was a painful separation, first when Bryce's team dissolved and then when Robbie switched clubs. But new talent moves in, teams rise and succeed, and the club continues with the same mission and energy. It's all part of the youth soccer cycle.