Monday, August 08, 2016
The primaries are over, the nominating conventions held their balloon drops, and we have now entered the final 100 days of our national election process. Without condoning any particular platform or agenda and without offense to the two major parties, I couldn’t help but notice that their individual slogans could apply to youth soccer. The Republicans declare that it’s time to “Make America Great Again” and the Democrats proclaim “Stronger Together.” I think parents should take some significant stock of our involvement and support of youth soccer with those slogans in mind.
Do we need to make youth soccer great again? Internationally, adult/professional soccer continues to grow stronger through increasing broadcast rights, league expansions, new stadium construction, and swelling viewership especially in North America. There have been some blips, not the least of which is the still simmering FIFA kickback scandal which has several cases pending and charges yet to be made. However, FIFA is starting to clean house, and their problems haven’t really made a dent in the popularity of soccer world-wide. Youth soccer on the other hand needs more attention. There’s no concern about popularity as soccer continues to be one of the top youth growth sports in the United States. The problem is that youth soccer’s membership is constantly changing just by definition. It only lasts a few years for participants either because they lose interest or they simply grow out of the category. Every year there is a large influx of new participants who aren’t schooled yet in the sport, and I’m talking about the parents as much as the kids. Those first years of soccer occur during a child’s significant period of not only physical, but mental, emotional, educational, and moral development as well. Unfortunately this all happens in the fish bowl of expectations, both those of a child’s parents and those of his or her teammates’ parents. These expectations can lead to some uncomfortable and unrealistic pressures during a delicate time in their maturation asking kids to perform to standards imposed on them rather than self-generated.
So I suggest we make youth soccer great again by remembering why kids play and honoring those reasons. Because youth soccer remains by definition constantly in flux, experienced parents are only separated from novice parents by a year or two. Those of us with a few years under our belt need to remember we set the example for those who follow. As we get more comfortable with the rules and sideline etiquette we may become more vocal and critical. Therefore, we need to constantly reassess how we are behaving around and towards our players. The very youngest athletes are usually wholeheartedly supported without expectation or censure. Watching five, six, and seven-year olds cavorting on the soccer pitch is pure delight because they are so joyful and free-spirited. We aren’t disturbed by “own” goals or kids running the wrong direction or the bees all swarming to the ball every chance they get. We think it’s great fun to watch these jubilant contests on a warm spring or fall afternoon. Then the kids grow up, and parents start to see potential. It might be a comment by someone on the sidelines who says, “Your daughter is really fast” or a coach who says, “He already knows how to do a slide tackle,” but it doesn’t take much for us to begin to foresee a tremendous future for our children in the sport. Add in the heightened emotional context of a World Cup or Olympics, and we begin to imagine our child’s face plastered on a Wheatie’s box and endorsing their own underwear brand. These dreams are wonderful, and if the child shares that dream then we should be supportive, but it’s a wide chasm between support and pressure that we often quickly dismiss. We lose sight of why our kids play which means we shift from cheerleader to coach far too early in their journey.
It’s important that we hold on to the reasons our kids started a sport in the first place – to have fun, to share a pastime with friends, and to get some physical activity. For the large majority of youth players that will be their entire sports experience. They aren’t going to be the big stars, but they are going to be the big winners. They will remember their play with fondness and delight. It should be important that all kids are able to hold on to that glee as long as possible. As parents, we need to be the leaders in assuring that possibility by maintaining the role of advocate versus lecturer for as long as possible. Determined kids will pursue their passion so long as time, money, and talent hold out. However, kids could be easily discouraged from that pursuit by their parents’ attitude if it rolls over to criticism, pressure, and high expectations because they feel they can’t live up to that standard. Therefore, we can help insure that the sport always holds some measure of fun by not moving too swiftly away from glee into analysis. It’s okay just to enjoy the game without dissecting it.
Likewise we need to always be supportive and positive with our player’s teammates. All too often I hear some really ugly comments directed towards kids, and I know I have uttered them myself in times of frustration. I remember distinctly voicing “not again” when a kid performed his patented back heel pass that went errant 99% of the time. He heard me, and I saw his crestfallen face as it snapped to look at me. I was completely embarrassed that I could cause so much pain in that young man by two small words. It kept me quiet for a long time but the damage was done. I knew he would hear those words every time he attempted the move making him hesitant to even try. How would he get better if now he was so afraid of engaging any parent’s displeasure? My frustration didn’t justify stifling this kid’s efforts to develop a skill given the time to fail and learn. We forget how much power our language actually has despite the “sticks and stones” argument. Words do hurt. Words can also provoke, which is another ugliness that comes up during youth games. Something a parent says about an opposing player gets picked up by a parent from the opposing team who feels the need to defend the honor of his/her team or his/her team’s player or even his child. This can lead to a shouting match at best and at worst to a physical battle, neither of which makes youth soccer great.
We can make youth soccer great again by also supporting the concept of development over the policy of winning. It’s true that college scouts are more likely to come to the games of the top teams in the country because they argue that they get to see more talent in one visit. Therefore, a kid playing on a weaker team may be at a disadvantage, but there are other pathways to being identified for college and pro play. One of my son Robbie’s friends is Ethan Finlay who he met through US Youth Soccer’s Olympic Development Program. Ethan lived in a small central Wisconsin community without showcase soccer teams. He got exposure through ODP and in his later high school years did travel to Milwaukee to play with the top club there. Primarily though he was identified through his ODP play. He presently plays for the Columbus Crew and is on the US Men’s National Team full roster, earning his first two caps in 2016 in Iceland and Guatemala. Ethan’s story arises when a player gets strong development as a youth player and exposure through programs like ODP, Super-Y League, and guest playing in college showcase tournaments. I shared many bus trips with Ethan’s father whose support was driving him places, cheerleading at every game, and staying incredibly positive and criticism-free. He reminded me of why youth soccer is so wonderful.
We also need to remember we are “Stronger Together.” Tearing down teammates in front of our children gives them license to disrespect them as well. Kids should be learning how to appreciate the power of a united team which is achieved through respect, compromise, trust, and friendship. Putting a wedge into that framework by us belittling or questioning a teammate can have long-term ramifications for a team and our own child’s place on that team. A group of positive parents on the sidelines will be far more motivational than a scattered group of naysayers constantly questioning plays and players out loud. We take our cue for our sideline behavior first from our own living room interaction with professional teams on the TV and from the other parents around us. For youth soccer, new parents don’t want to make any waves, so they will follow the lead of the other parents with whom they interact. We need to be good role models and abandon our anonymous criticism of players, coaches, and officials that we feel free to express in the seclusion of our homes or the open range of a professional sports contest. Kids are not professionals. They don’t have the self-confidence to withstand criticism yelled at them or the concentration to listen only to their coach. Kids want to please us, and if they perceive we aren’t happy with them, they will do whatever they can to reverse that opinion. They are with their coach a few hours a week; they have to live with their parents 24/7. We need to work in partnership with the other parents and the coach to be supportive and positive of what is happening on the field. We should be willing to rein in parents who slide into criticism, and we should be leaders when it comes to setting rules of sideline decorum.
At my grandsons’ baseball practice diamonds there are signs on every backstop reminding parents “Our kids are not professionals. They just want to have fun. Winning is great. Playing well and joyfully is better.” I’m sure most people ultimately forget the sentiments are there, but I’ve seen parents point out the signs to other parents who are growing hyper-critical during a game. We need to be a combined force of support that relishes every game no matter the outcome and shows our appreciation for the players’ efforts. Kids need to take risks if they are ever going to improve which means they’ll make mistakes, sometimes fatal to achieving a win, but it’s all part of development. Kids will take their cues from us. We can unite to give our youth a strong supportive foundation from which to build their passion and skills.