Monday, August 29, 2011
Debt ceiling debates, taxes, entitlement programs, and campaign promises can't hold a candle to the politics parents experience in youth sports. From tryouts to playing time, to position on the team, parents witness the power of politics. We all have our war stories – the time our son didn't make the all-star team, the year our daughter sat on the bench, the season our son's team got demoted a level. We know how painful it is to experience the sting of a political action against our child or our child's team. I hear it on the sidelines all the time, "I'm okay with Ben not making the 'A' team because his skills aren't good enough, but I'm not okay with him not making the team because of politics."
Where does this insidious cloud arise? How do we get from having fun learning a new sport, to cut-throat decisions that impact our families with frustration and sadness? More importantly, how do we eliminate as much of the politics as possible? We need to look at three factors: coaches, club policies, and league decisions. There are solutions out there to improve the situation, but we first have to understand what creates them.
Youth sports could not exist without volunteer coaches. They provide the opportunity for thousands of youngsters to participate in and learn about a wide variety of sports with minimal initial expense. Most youth players can be part of a team for an entire season for $100 to $200 and sometimes even less. Many of these volunteer coaches are former players, but just as many can be helpful parents with little experience in the sport but lots of enthusiasm. Both types bring much needed support, management, and dedication to the players. Volunteer coaches are the bedrock upon which youth sports are built. In the early years of most youth sports, and in particular in youth soccer, coaches don't make decisions about who makes a team, playing time, and assigned position. Teams are usually randomly formed or built from a group of friends who register together. Playing time is mandated to be equal for all players, and in most leagues coaches are directed to rotate players through all of the possible positions. So the elements that breed politics aren't there. But trouble brews once some of these restrictions are either lifted or loosened for coaches. Now, volunteer coaches have power to make decisions that will affect kids' futures. That power translates to families as political.
Volunteer coaches often coach their own children, so conflicts of interest crop up continually further aggravating the impression of political bias. Even more frustrating can be that these same coaches hold positions of power in the clubs or league organizations that govern their behavior. Therefore these coaches can wield a great deal of power when it comes to our children. No matter how much expertise a coach may have, it's hard to overcome an impression of bias in parents' eyes when they feel it's directed towards their children. Just as each of us wants the best for our children and their future, coaches have the same desires. But they have more latitude to make things happen. So, no matter what their motivation, parents will read political intentions in their decisions.
Once kids make the move from playing recreational sports to playing select sports, issues of politics will arise. Now decisions that outsiders make affect our children directly. Parents who enjoyed a friendly and significant relationship with their club may find themselves and their kids pushed out. They feel betrayed by a club that they supported through many volunteer efforts, and sometimes, ironically, as volunteer coaches. But clubs feel the need to nurture winning teams rather than relationships because clubs need money to survive. Players won't flock to losing clubs, especially high paying players, so clubs need a winning reputation to draw members in. Their decisions can seem ruthless for a family that has been with a club for years, part of that club family, and comfortable in their routine. There is definitely a loss of innocence, and parents see politics behind their pain.
Even leagues can make political decisions that negatively impact our children. Some leagues will firmly limit the number of teams that can play in each division so that teams that have the same records end up in different levels. Since the factors to separate those teams go beyond win-loss records and competitors, they may seem fickle and therefore politically motivated. When leagues have board members whose children play on teams that appear to receive favored treatment, accusations of politics are sure to follow. When all-star leagues have coaches from teams that field more than the average number of players, then parents will cry foul, and whispers of politics will flood the sidelines.
As youth players grow and improve, the distance between strong players and capable players will widen. As the rules and regulations on playing time and playing position relax, some players will benefit and some will suffer. Therefore, it's not always politics, but certain behaviors by authorities that can lend a political air to even the most innocent decision. One way to avoid personal involvement in important team decisions would be to hire professional coaches after a certain age level. But this diminishes the powerful and significant role volunteer coaches can play in a sport. Even volunteer coaches can be "professional" in terms of teaching the sport, behaving with integrity, and promoting good sportsmanship. Coaches should be licensed which will assure a minimum level of knowledge and skill. U.S. Youth Soccer Association offers a National Youth License
and most state associations require that coaches be licensed through U.S. Youth Soccer, U.S. Soccer Federation, and the National Soccer Coaches Association. Additionally clubs may limit volunteer coaches from coaching their own children especially once rules that demand equality in play and position are relaxed.
Parents need to be aware that despite lectures about loyalty and willing acceptance of hours of volunteer work, clubs will drop a player if another one they perceive as a better player comes along. Clubs have restrictions on them for recruiting. So, you can watch and be diligent that your club is not violating those restrictions since that can negatively impact your child. Sometimes a player is recruited whose family has the means to pay the club dues and fees, but they get those waived by club in return for agreeing to play. That can really sting, especially if your family is struggling to pay the dues and if the "scholarship" player hops out of a late-model Cadillac when he comes to practice. There is little you can do to protect yourself from these situations except to understand that they happen and you have little recourse when they do. Additionally, when playing against clubs that play fast and loose with the rules, your team may be the victim. For example most youth teams up to age 12 are not to be "select" teams with handpicked players. But clubs looking to develop stronger teams at the older ages will begin that development early with younger players. Parents can quickly see the handwriting on the wall and gravitate towards those clubs with the hopes of giving their kids a jump-start on the process. It's a situation brewing with political overtones. Loopholes in the rules and passive enforcement allow these situations to continue, not to mention that many soccer authorities will argue; creating ""super"" teams allows the best development of top players.
The best solution to keep politics at a minimum is to insure that those who have the power to make decisions don't have any conflicts of interest. Parents should not be deciding if their child, a relative's child, a child's friend, or a neighbor's child are worthy of being on a team. Parents and clubs should insist upon a clean process. So, even if a parent is coaching his or her child, another coach should be brought in to help with the try out process. If a parent serves on a board for a club or a league, that parent has to stay out of any decision that directly impacts his or her child, club, relative, neighbor or friend. As a parent you need to insist on this type of integrity in the try out process and in the coaching process. If you are sure that playing time issues and positions are decided in a political way, then you should probably look for another team for your child for the next season.
We will never wipe out the cloud of politics in youth sports. We get to enjoy a few years free of that stain and then we have to face the reality of how sports get promoted in America. But we can try to keep the innocence and joy of the sport alive for as long as possible. Don't make your opinions about political behavior known to your children. Talk to them about what they could improve upon to get on that all-important team, increase their playing time, or win the coveted position. After all, politics or not, each child must learn not to rely on sour grapes and the scapegoat of politics if they want to improve and get ahead in youth sports, school, jobs, or life. Use the opportunity to teach those life lessons and leave the politics to the politicians.