Monday, May 09, 2011
Last month, Dutch soccer club V.V.V. Venlo signed a new player to their roster for a 10-year contract. Such signings in the Netherlands usually go unnoticed in the United States, but this one was different. The new player was Baerke van der Meij an up and comer who dazzled with a hat trick in less than 20 seconds and thereby gained the notice and ultimately the roster slot on the team. Baerke has an impressive resume including learning to speak Dutch and how to use a spoon. Once he is toilet trained, he should fit right into the locker room. Baerke is 18 months old.
I don't know about the rest of you, but when my kids were 18 months old, they had not yet committed to soccer as their primary sport. In fact, one or two hadn't fully committed to walking. Yet in this age of "get 'em while they're hot," Baerke has become the only soccer player who has to have games scheduled around his naptime. He was "discovered" because he hammered three balls into his toy chest while his parents digitally captured the moment and posted it on the internet.
Had YouTube existed when my kids were in their single digits, and had I owned a video camera, I might have coached them do something spectacular to gain the notice of a major sports organization. I'm sure I could have drilled them enough to sink three putts from different spots on the green or make 10 free throws in a row into their Fisher Price hoop. Given that this story gained the attention of magazines as prestigious as Time, I assume that there will be a slew of videos hitting YouTube in the coming weeks in an attempt to cash in on the media attention.
As Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VVV-Venlo
) admitted in their blurb on this event, this was a symbolic contract signing. But it still bothers me. First of all, news outlets didn't report that this was a publicity stunt, preferring instead to give the story more wow factor by omitting that tidbit. Second, it speaks once again to the emphasis on identifying "stars" before they ever have a chance to develop any of their adult characteristics. This only heightens that parental panic that somehow our children will miss the boat when it comes to being tapped for a professional contract. While our kids still need help tying their cleats, we are busy fretting about their athletic choices. If Aesop had written his fables today, it wouldn't have been a dog looking in the river to see another dog with a bigger bone clamped in his jaws. It would have been a soccer parent with a club registration form in his/her hands.
One comment on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYG-E4kbfqk
) stated that it would really be awful for this kid if he grew up to be a fan of Barcelona or Man U and was stuck wearing the Venlo jersey. Likewise, how terrible would it be if he had no interest in soccer and instead wanted to speed skate, another national sport of the Netherlands? Or perhaps he won't be sports minded at all, preferring art, music or reading. I doubt the club would hold him to the contract, after all he merely scribbled his signature. As my heroine, Judge Judy, continually points out, minors can't enter into contracts. But he will always be known as the kid in jersey number 1.5 playing forward. That's a legacy difficult to shake off.
When the boys were just starting to play there was a club in town who won every U-8 to U-12 game. They formed teams primarily by having each age group stand in a row and picking the biggest players for the first team, then the next biggest kids for the next team, and so on. Their size stood them in good stead until puberty hit and then all of that strength got equalized and even surpassed. Parents who had pushed their kids on this club because it had a winning record became disillusioned when the winning record dissolved. What happened was the kids on other clubs, whose coaching staffs couldn't rely on size, learned skills and tactics which eventually led to some wins, but more importantly gave them a good base from which to develop further. I still watch this pattern of engineering domination with clubs and parents who equate winning with success.
What kids need is development based on learning the most primary of skills early on. Every significant soccer player possesses a great first touch, solid passing and the ability to play off the ball. I watch college level players lose the ball time and again because their first touch sends the ball 20 feet in front of them for an opponent to pick up. Players may be praised for understanding what to do when they have the ball, but those same players often kick the ball and then stand to see what develops before making their next move, rather than knowing right where to be when they don't have the ball. Eventually players who want to play at the top level have to fit into a team where all the players get it. Being the top scorer won't be enough to succeed because the entire team has to be able to function as a unit where every player knows what to do every second of the game. No one can accurately predict at age 10, and definitely not at age 1.5, who will be able to develop those team tactics that create the power and success for a club. But every player has a chance to develop even if they don't have a viral video juggling with their ears.
I'm happy that soccer gets any mention in the American press and even happier when it relates to youth soccer. But I also don't want to feed the youth frenzy that comes with any sport – the idea that kids have to be noticed before they can ride a tricycle. I remember watching Tiger Woods on the Tonight Show when he was just four. He would do all the tricks including putting, driving, and escaping sand traps with cute abbreviated clubs and his ever-present father overseeing the exhibition. I felt for the kid because it seemed unnatural. I'm sure, based on many comments he's made about his father, that Tiger doesn't regret beginning his life that way. But I wonder if he could have become as good a golfer as he has without the strict early training and the circus life that came from that training. We can't know because there's no way to do a control study and find out. Still, I'd rather err on the side of giving my kids a childhood with soccer memories that include free time and other sports. Given the tiny percentage of the nearly 14 million youth players in America who will go on to professional careers, parents would do well to let their kids, as a referee would say, play on without the penalty of added pressure and expectation.