Sunday, December 11, 2011
When our family first got involved in youth soccer we were definitely unaware of what lay ahead. We weren't even aware that youth soccer existed in our town or that there were actually two options for youth soccer. Sitting around our community pool that first summer I got a quick education. I learned that one club was run by the city recreation department and the other club was private. I learned the rec club cost one fifth what the private club cost. I learned that kids in the rec club had more fun. But I also learned that the high school coaches only took kids who played in the private club so that if I ever wanted my children to get a soccer scholarship, I had to put my kids in the private club. I learned that the subdivision was forming its own team so they could practice at the subdivision's soccer fields. I learned that the private club had four youth teams at Bryce's age and the rec club had twenty. The discussion between the recreational parents and the private club parents got pretty intense as each side vied for my participation. I felt like the swing vote at the Iowa Republican caucus.
Looking back I realize how wrong everyone was. But it all sounded so convincing and life-affecting. How could I know what was was true when I had just learned that youth soccer existed? These myths get perpetuated year after year, and it isn't until after we've experienced youth soccer for ourselves that we can wean the truth from the stories. Unfortunately by the time we figure out what is best for our family and for our children, we may be a long ways down a path that doesn't work. The good news is that nothing is set in stone–despite the myth that whatever you pick, you're stuck with. While friends, relatives and neighbors are well-meaning with all their advice, each one is coming from their own bias. Bad experiences they had with particular clubs or coaches may just be a reflection of disappointment in their own child's lack of success. Likewise, glowing reports of a team's value may not translate to your own player's abilities or interests. When it comes to evaluating the youth soccer route you should be taking, only your own family and your own child can direct that journey.
The biggest myth out there is the recreation vs. travel club controversy. You will hear that if you really want your child to succeed in soccer you need to get them into a private club with professional coaching as soon as possible. This presupposes a lot of factors including your child will want to play soccer ten years in the future, your child will have the athletic abilities to play soccer ten years in the future and that all soccer clubs will remain exactly the same with staff and player abilities ten year in the future. I won't disagree with the fact that the more professional coaching a player can have the stronger he or she will grow. But spending the kind of money you need to spend to get that experience may not be appropriate until your child expresses a serious interest in the sport. This might not be until age 12 or 13 or it may be sooner. Only your family can determine when the best time would be to make that kind of financial and time commitment to soccer.
The next myth is that you have to play in a travel club to make the high school soccer team. Like any school team, soccer will have tryouts where the top players get selected. If a high school coach has a bias against players coming from a recreational background, then he or she could be overlooking some strong talent. I suspect more coaches want to put together a winning team than want to toe some hard line against recreational players. Gifted players are gifted players no matter where they train. Some high schools end up very short of players for their team, so they are grateful for any and all participants. The likelihood of a team made up primarily of select club players is high just because those are the players who wanted more intensive training and could afford it, but your son or daughter won't be precluded solely on a club pedigree if they have talent.
Parents will tell you that if you choose the recreational route, you won't be able to switch later on. This is the worst myth out there. It puts pressure on parents to choose select clubs earlier in their children's training than might be wise for the family. The financial and time commitment of moving to a select club becomes tremendous and only increases as the children get older. If your child is still trying out a number of youth sports, then sticking to recreational teams and leagues makes perfect sense. Making the commitment to a select team means that playing other sports in the same season will be difficult, so you need to be sure your child is ready to forgo other sports. Once a player is ready to move up to a select team, then attending tryouts at several clubs will give him or her plenty of options. In truth, select teams shouldn't be forming until older ages, but lots of clubs will create hand-picked teams as young as Under-8. That's an unfortunate trend, since players are still developing size, muscle and brain, making any prediction of future prowess unreliable. You don't want to get sucked in by a club's promises when your child is 8 and big, only to be rejected by that club when your child is 12 and normal size. So it's prudent to do what's best for your family and your child rather than be swayed by a sales pitch, which is usually self-serving for the club.
In soccer much of the scouting for colleges is done on the club level. This makes perfect sense since clubs will participate in big tournaments making it easier for college coaches to see large numbers of players in a weekend. Therefore if your child begins to show some promise as a player around ages 12 or 13 and expresses an interest in playing soccer in high school and college, then it's reasonable to look for a good select club with professional coaches. The player will benefit from the intensified training and from some exposure to scouts. There are lots of additional options for being scouted including the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program (US Youth Soccer ODP). People will promote the myth that to make it to college you have to be on one of the Developmental Academy teams sponsored by U.S. Soccer Federation, but those teams cover a limited geographical area of the United States. Colleges recognize that good soccer talent exists all over. Therefore, find a strong select club in your area and augment that training with programs like US Youth Soccer ODP. This will actually double the opportunity to be seen and increase a player's training regimen.
When I think about how much bad information I was bombarded with that summer, it's a wonder my sons ever got to play high school, not to mention college, soccer. Parents are well meaning, but they see the world through the narrow focus of their own children's experiences. What works best for one child may not be the best route for another. Basing your youth sports decisions on something which may or may not come true in a decade could create real problems in the present. Great players have come out of the recreational sports experiences. While playing in those early years they had the opportunity to share the experience with friends who later wouldn't be able to keep up athletically, but with whom deep and lasting friendships were formed. Limiting your child to just a pool of like-skilled participants takes away lots of options. Playing with a group of neighborhood or schoolyard buddies doesn't mean you've closed the door on playing in college or even playing pro. But for the 99 percent of players who will never move to that level, it seems silly to insist on a track that moves them in that direction. And for the 1 percent who will get there, it will be talent which determines that success, and talent will be recognized at the right time and place to be developed. No matter what our children succeed at, we all want to be sure they enjoyed the journey there.