Monday, February 29, 2016
This weekend the movie Eddie the Eagle opened. It tells the story of the first British ski jumper to enter the Olympics. You may ask, what does ski jumping have to do with youth soccer? After all, it’s an individual sport with limited spectator interest requiring far different equipment conducted in the winter and primarily centered in Scandinavia. I’d agree in general, but the story of this particular ski jumper speaks directly to our young players. Michael “Eddie” Edwards was a skier who dreamed of entering the Olympics. Unfortunately, even growing up in a country where competitive skiing isn’t widely practiced or promoted, he still wasn’t proficient enough to qualify for the Olympic team in 1984 despite being ranked. Rather than accept his fate he began to consider an alternative. Britain had never entered a ski jumper in the Olympics, so Eddie saw an opportunity to transfer his winter sport of choice to a winter sport of possibility.
He wasn’t actually suited to be a ski jumper as he weighed more than the heaviest jumper currently competing. He was so far sighted that he had to wear glasses at all times which, at the extremes of winter outdoor competition, often fogged over and broke with every fall. There were no funds allocated for British ski jumping through their Olympic committee, so Eddie not only had to be self-funded, but he also had to find a coach who wouldn’t laugh off the then 22 year old just beginning to learn the sport yet expecting to make the Olympic team a mere two years later. What he had cleverly discovered was that he had little or no competition for a slot no matter how good or bad he was. However, he still attempted to become a world-class jumper despite his late start. He trained in Lake Placid and then moved to Finland where he could practice and work in the same location. He jumped in the 1987 World Championship and was ranked 55th in the world (there were 66 competitors at the Olympics). In 1988, he made the trip to Calgary as the only competitor for Great Britain. He finished last in the 70 m and 90 m jumps, but he also became something of a folk hero for his determination and his positive attitude. He was never able to qualify again as the International Olympic Committee changed the rules to require all athletes to be in the top 30% or the top 55 in the world in their sport whichever number was fewer. Nevertheless he had soldiered through to achieve his dream, just not quite the way he expected when he first began athletic competition.
Millions of kids play youth soccer in the United States. Most of them develop dreams of playing like their professional idols. That’s the nature of youth sports. Once kids become deeply involved they latch on to role models who inspire them both to improve and to aim for higher achievement. Even we parents become seduced by possibilities, but in time reality settles in. For the majority of kids, soccer provides a way to stay active, to develop friendships, to learn cooperation, and most importantly to have fun. However, over time, other interests take soccer’s place at least in terms of lifelong goals. By age 14 the number of soccer players has winnowed down to just under 800,000 and the odds of playing college soccer at any level then becomes 11:1 (73:1 to play Division I) and going pro 835:1. That kind of reality means that kids with big dreams may not be able to achieve them. Few of us accept disappointment well, but eventually we do and move on. What makes Eddie’s story so compelling is that he didn’t bow to the set-back. He kept his dream of competing in the Olympics by adjusting his pathway there.
The take away for youth players is that they should keep their passions for as long as they want. The pathway to achieving them might not be the direct route they anticipate. Robbie’s club team goal keeper had a dream of going pro and he got his chance before graduating from high school being picked up by Dallas FC in 2008. He played on the Reserve team and never played in an MLS game. Eventually he was loaned out and finally released from Dallas in 2011. He quit professional soccer all together in 2012 and enrolled at Texas A&M. He was no longer eligible to play college soccer due to having played professionally but he still had eligibility to play any other college sport. He walked on to the football team despite never having played football and began as their place kicker, quickly advancing to their field goal kicker. In his senior year he made all 59 attempts. Despite that sterling performance he wasn’t drafted by the NFL, so he went in as a free agent signed by the San Diego Chargers in 2015 where he earned the starting kicker spot. He had readjusted his pathway to a full professional career.
Here in Wisconsin we tell the story of Jay DeMerit, who began as a forward but in college moved to defender. After his college career where his team played in the 2000 NCAA playoffs, he thought he would be drafted by the MLS, but no offers came in. He then moved to England (he had a Danish grandfather which allowed him to get a European Union work permit) and joined a seventh-tier English team. In a preseason game his team played Watford of the second tier Football Championship League where he got noticed and received an offer to sign with Watford. Two years later, Watford won promotion to the EPL. DeMerit eventually moved to the MLS and finished his career with the Vancouver Whitecaps. His dream had been to play in a World Cup and in 2010 he made the US Men’s National Team roster. This was not the path most players made to that honor, but he never wavered from his goal, achieving it by taking risks and seizing every opportunity no matter how insignificant each seemed at the time.
If a player has the passion and the willingness to sacrifice, he or she should tap into their creativity. Some kids have parents and grandparents who had citizenship outside the US. Bryce and Robbie’s birth mother is El Salvadoran, and they are both eligible to play for El Salvador if they wanted. Believe me, the idea was bantered around for several years in our household. Many teams, especially in smaller European soccer markets, do recruit American players, although they don’t necessarily pay very well. Nevertheless, it’s an opportunity to be seen in the European arena. Lower tier teams, like Jay DeMerit’s seventh tier club, play higher clubs in the preseason. This gives them a chance to get noticed by some significant coaches. Soccer has so many leagues beyond the MLS that kids can join well into adulthood. Presently, there is the National American Soccer League (NASL), United Soccer Leagues (USL), Premier Development League (PDL), National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), and Pacific Coast Soccer League (PCSL) for men along with the National Women’s Soccer League and the Women’s Premier Soccer League for women. There are indoor leagues and futsal leagues. In fact one of the fastest growing soccer sports is now futsal which has international tournaments. It’s possible for kids to find ways to achieve their long-term soccer dreams but not necessarily in the way they planned. Most players in the US move onto professional careers through college, but players can apply to attend combines for the MSL or other leagues. There are even businesses such as IASA-EuroPro Combine and AX Soccer Tours that hold combines for a price throughout the United States where professional coaches from Asia, Europe, and the US come to scout players. Although it’s small chance, players can be selected from these combines to sign contracts with teams throughout the world. Parents and players need to reasonably assess the possibility of being selected against the cost of participating. They should also look for reputable companies who have been in business for several years. Look carefully at the teams with which they are affiliated. Given all the hurdles, there are still viable ways for players to achieve their dreams.
In the final analysis, people like Eddie the Eagle, Josh Lambo, and Jay DeMerit are rare, but all players can take a lesson in perseverance from each of them and others like them. Parents should help their children assess their skills rationally and without the natural desire to see only the best. Good research, the willingness to be flexible, and the spirit to keep going no matter what the obstacles can go a long ways to realizing any player’s ultimate dream. On the other hand, there is no shame in readjusting the dream. So few can be on a World Cup team or even make the squad of any level of professional teams, but the world has a huge capacity for scientists, plumbers, entrepreneurs, teachers, artists, farmers, truckers, and any number of professions that benefit from people who have passion and energy. Some sports allow for easy transference to another similar sport, giving kids lots of options if they want to pursue that aspect of their lives. No matter what happens, it all comes from the heart. Everyone should be joyfully giving their all to whatever they eventually do. The fun our kids had when playing soccer at age 10 should never dissipate. We need to relish what we do without regret.