I’m watching leaves scatter by the thousands and birds crowding my feeder as they stock up for either migration or a long winter’s nap. So I know fall is here even if I didn’t hear every weather prognosticator saying so. Fall soccer is my favorite time of the year, despite having to bundle up to enjoy the experience in Wisconsin. I love the crisp air, the bright colors and the sunlight with a glistening glow that seems to reflect off the leaves, grass and clouds to give an ambient soft light to everything. The kids are energized by the cool temperatures and brilliant beauty of the season. So they play with a stronger spirit and a bit more joy.
When I watch those 8, 9 and 10-year-olds cavorting on the field, it’s hard to believe that soccer would ever become a "business" for these kids. Often times that inclination comes from the parents. It’s natural to feel both pride in and hope for our children. We have watched professional sports long enough to believe that making it as an athlete is the answer to a lot of prayers. Multimillion dollar contracts, endorsement deals and fame look like a pretty enticing package for our kids to achieve. When a child makes three goals in one game or gets a particularly supportive report from the coach, it can set off the ambition to push for higher and higher achievement. The risks of pressuring our children are plenty.
First, there are the statistics that work against your child going on to college and professional soccer. There are currently 18 million soccer players in the U.S., of which 3.8 million are kids 6 to 18 years old. High school students represent 302,000 players. The United States Soccer Federation has 2,600 professional players listed. It takes only a calculator to figure out that of all the soccer players in the U.S., only .014 percent are professionals. Additionally, out of all the youth players, only .07 percent make it to the pro ranks. For boys, just 5.7 percent of high school seniors will end up playing for an NCAA team at any division level, and many will be gone after the first year (site1063.tmpdomain.com/tunnel/proplayer.htm
If I told you those were the odds of your child becoming a doctor or a civil engineer, I suspect you would suggest they try for another career. Yet we continue to expect our child to beat the odds and move into those rarified ranks, based solely on a good showing in a tournament or being the best player on his or her team. Even players who do get the accolades during their youth career falter when they get to college. It’s a different level of competition, filled with players who have had success at the same or a higher level. Many players can’t keep up athletically or quit because they were used to being No. 1 and aren’t any longer. Add on the academic demands and players can find themselves ineligible due to grades or stressed out by juggling both soccer and studies.
Second, kids just want to have fun. Pressuring them to have goals that are either unrealistic or too far in the future to require immediate attention can completely suck the fun out of the experience. Once the fun leaves, the kids will often follow. Who wants a job at age 9 or even age 12? I have seen far too many youngsters slogging away on the pitch who would rather be playing piano or attending space camp, but because they showed an affinity for soccer, their parents insist on them striving for the top. Their athleticism might take them higher, but their spirit will be squelched. On the other hand, there are players who love the game but feel too much stress because of parental pressure. We parents need to remember our children’s achievements have to be based on their own passions. Both my sons play soccer with passion for the game. Bryce strives to be a professional player while Robbie is content to play college soccer and then hopefully go on to medical school. Robbie’s deeper passion is his interest in science and medicine; Bryce’s deeper passion is for soccer. Hopefully both boys will achieve their dreams. But it is important to recognize these are their dreams, not mine.
Finally, kids pushed to do anything can ultimately suffer psychological harm. There is a difference between pressing and encouraging. If players are the stars of their team, we must be careful of how we express our pride. When the player experiences triumph after triumph, an arrogance fed by the parent’s vanity ends up negatively affecting the player. When disappointment occurs, which it surely will, the player doesn’t have the tools to handle it. If we make our pride too overwhelming, those players can end up feeling like huge failures for what should be small dips in the road. Additionally, even the best player has to move up to compete against other strong players, and he or she may not be up to the competition. If parents push and show frustration with less stellar achievements, then kids can feel like disappointments. Instead, those players should recognize that, whatever the level, they have achieved significantly. How we handle the possible diminishing of our child’s abilities in the face of other accomplished players can make the difference between a child feeling confident and happy or insecure and miserable. We have to figure out what type of success we want our children to have. If success is to be measured in getting to the top of the soccer ladder, then most of our children will fail. But if success is to be measured by enjoying the sport — going as far as the kids’ passion takes them and creating great memories — that can truly be called the ultimate hat-trick.
So take in the beauty of a crisp autumn afternoon along with the beauty of your child romping with friends and call it a perfect day. These are the moments that will define a childhood. If pressure and high expectations intrude, their soccer life could be a series of moments they will resent. Let our players guide us rather than we managing them. If they really enjoy soccer and feel they can succeed, then they will choose to push themselves. We can let them take the lead and in the meantime just savor the experience.