Monday, May 11, 2015
When kids first start playing soccer it’s all about friends and fun. Six-year-olds aren’t thinking about World Cups and professional teams. They may not even be able to name a single soccer player of note. But they love getting out on the field, screeching and running with their buddies. Eventually, they also enjoy the thrill of scoring a goal, high-fiving everyone, and then rushing to the sidelines for a treat after the game. There’s something pure and special about those early years in soccer when the only stress might be getting to the fields on time. Unfortunately, as kids grow so do their differences to the point that eventually friends have to make difficult choices between staying together or leaving. In some cases they have to say goodbye because friends have developed faster in skill or passion and move on to more intense teams, or our kids may be the ones moving on. In other cases, the decision to change teams is driven by finances. When it comes time to separate, no matter the reason, it can be traumatic. How do we decide as a family whether or not to make that break? And should we do it, how do we help our children cope with losing their friends?
The most common reasons for kids to leave a sport are boredom and developing a stronger interest in another activity. It should be an easy choice to quit under these circumstances both for kids and parents, but friendships complicate the break. There’s a strong tug to stay in a safe circle of peers where kids feel accepted. Although we might think this is primarily a female situation, the reality is that boys can feel just as insecure about leaving a circle of friends. Often, boys’ status is established in athletic terms, so even if they hate playing a sport they may be reluctant to give it up. We parents worry about peer pressure, but peer status can be just as powerful and therefore just as detrimental to a child’s development. Kids can make fun of kids who quit teams. This behavior can stem from their own feelings of abandonment from someone they thought was a loyal friend. As parents we need to let our children know that they can’t take a friend’s departure personally. It’s not meant to slight them or diminish the quality of their friendship. It can be difficult to accept that assessment, especially if they have played together for several years. And friendships do end when such a large chunk of children’s free time is spent away from each other.
Parents may also discourage their children from quitting a team due to the same powerful peer influences. They want their kids to be part of the “in-crowd.” I always urge parents to require that kids finish their commitments. Some wise coaches have stated that if you quit now you’ll quit things all your life. So parents should insist their kids finish a season. But if a child shifts focus and wants to try something different, then we shouldn’t stand in their way. Not all kids are meant to be athletes. Certainly kids should continue to participate in physical conditioning, but that may not be on an organized soccer team. Studies indicate that kids who feel comfortable pursuing their favorite interests ultimately have more confidence and self-esteem. While being part of the popular group can be satisfying, it’s less so when kids are ingratiating themselves into the mix. They can feel more like outsiders that way than when not in the troop. However, we also have to be sensitive to friendships.
The nature of growing up means that kids grow apart in interests and skills. But other factors intervene in disrupting friendships. Kids move often these days. My grandsons have lived in four different communities in two different states for the course of their sports life. They’ve had to reestablish themselves each time on teams and in situations where coaches already know and trust certain players. They gave up good friendships in those moves and lost some time when developing as players. However, they also learned patience and humility in those situations. Kids are resilient, so they do make new friends, but there can be pain as friendship dissolve. That can also happen when parents don’t have the means to keep their kids in expensive programs. Those are tough decisions for everyone involved. But ultimately the solvency of the family is worth more than the ego boost of being in a top program. I can name dozens of Robbie’s friends who went on to play college soccer without the benefit of being in expensive clubs. Bryce played in a Serbian club where the cost was only $150 a year plus whatever costs were associated with tournament travel. The club tried to go to tournaments within driving distance, but also that were college scouting tournaments. Writing letters to coaches and providing game film beforehand did entice a number of coaches to come check out games at these tournaments and five players on the team got offers. So parents shouldn’t feel that if their child has talent they are thwarting that talent by not putting their child on a top level club team. However, these decisions can mean that friendships get strained and even broken. Parents need to be ready to help facilitate the continuation of friendships if possible or sooth the loss of a friend.
The most painful way that friends can be separated is when one excels more than another. It’s difficult to be on either side of the equation. We expect that once kids get closer to high school age that they will face the dilemma of either being selected or not for their friends’ team. We hope they are better equipped to handle not only the possible disappointment of being rejected but the ensuing disconnect from long-term friends. However, more and more clubs decide to create powerhouse teams as early as age 10. If our children are among those being “recruited” there can be a great deal of resentment from other teammates and parents. And if our kids aren’t selected there’s disappointment intermingled with leaving friends. It’s a difficult quandary. While we want our kids to have the best opportunities if they are skilled enough to take them, we also recognize the inherent unfairness of the practice and the detriment to friendships. This is happening at an age when teams are supposed to be talent neutral until they could be selected at U-11. Robbie’s club decided to create a U-11 team from two U-9 teams that had a number of strong players. We parents were skeptical until we were assured that with the larger roster at U-11 no kid would be left behind. However, it didn’t happen that way. One boy and one boy only was left off the roster. We protested, but his parents were so hurt they decided to leave the club. These were supposed to be his friends, and now they had betrayed him. The episode casts an ugly light on a fact of youth sports – friendships can shift abruptly and unpleasantly. The longer kids stay in the sport the more this scenario will play out. Giving up the comfort of a community even if being promoted can be difficult.
The good news is that with social media it’s easier for kids to stay in touch and maintain friendships. Robbie regularly texts with his friends from various clubs. He only played a year at UC-Santa Barbara but he has strong friendships with teammates from there, returning periodically to California to visit with them. On Bryce’s recreation team, the players were classmates and neighbors, bonding strongly. However, one boy was not athletic at all and quickly fell behind. His mother was distraught because she saw the handwriting on the wall. She didn’t want him to be, as she considered it, ostracized by his lack of athleticism. But he was extremely artistic and she herself was an artist. Eventually she realized that he was happier in creative pursuits, and he even expressed to his mom that he didn’t like soccer. Leaving the team meant he did leave the group of players, but several of them continued their friendships with him because they shared other interests, attended school together, and met at the community pool in the summer. In fact, in middle school Bryce reconnected with him because they both loved making videos and spent one summer creating a film using several of the former teammates as actors.
Friendship can be fluid, but can also be an influencing condition for many kids and their parents. Sports teams are meant to create strong bonds among players, and those bonds may signify a social status as well. Therefore leaving a team for any reason becomes problematic when it comes to psychological impacts. If someone is cut from a team, there’s not only the loss of the companionship of teammates but the sense of failure and inadequacy. If kids move on to a higher level, they may feel the loss of the support system they had, guilt over leaving, and harbor a lack of confidence going into the new arena. As parents we need to be sensitive to how losing a team can affect our kids and be willing to listen to their concerns. We can also help them continue to foster those relationships by having kids over to share popcorn and a movie or just hang out. The parent network can be invaluable at times like this. Keeping in touch with the parents of old teammates allows us to facilitate the kids maintaining the friendship. Don’t forget old teammates when making the invitation list for a birthday or summer pool party. Letting kids express frustration without interjecting our opinion can be invaluable in diffusing bad feelings. Likewise we need to be open to them making other choices and not making popularity a deciding factor in how our kids move forward. Putting pressure on them to stay on a team for social reasons can thwart passions they should be expressing and they will undoubtedly eventually find their friends abandoning them anyway. They are young for such a short time, they should enjoy it with friends as long as possible.