President’s Day weekend offers dozens of soccer tournaments around the country, even in Wisconsin — albeit indoors here. Returning from Las Vegas on President’s Day, I flew with members of two clubs out of Wisconsin who had attended a tournament there. It brought back memories of holidays spent on planes, trains and automobiles traveling to tournaments, league games and friendlies. As winter gives way to spring, clubs begin their annual push to retain their best players and find new players to try out for their teams. Every club knows it can’t actively recruit, but the ways around this rule are numerous and well-known: parents contacting parents directly, advertising on public bulletin boards and websites, high school coaches with connections to certain clubs, and blast emails advertising tryouts hoping to snare just a few select players out of the mass of players they contact. Selecting a club to try out for means considering lots of factors, such as playing time, competition, league rankings, national rankings, coaching and costs. It is the latter that I think most families ignore too often in the decision-making process. In the rush to get their child on the best team in the hopes of getting scouted by colleges, they sacrifice family vacations, extras, time with other kids and money.
I know what my ticket to Las Vegas cost, and I got the cheap web fare. Round trip was more than $400 and add to that three nights’ hotel, a rental car to get to and from the fields, food and incidentals. Even if you share those last costs with two or three other players, you still need an adult to drive the rental car, so at least one additional airfare. Conservatively, you might spend $650. Multiply that by four to six such tournaments a year, and you can see how rapidly the costs add up. If you have more than one player in a select youth sport, costs go through the roof.
Top clubs can begin at $1,500 a year for fees that don’t include the cost of travel, tournaments, uniforms or coaching expenses for tournaments. Those fees can be worth it if a family can afford them without a big sacrifice and their child shows promise. However, remember young players develop at different tempos, some achieving height and speed sooner or later than their peers, therefore judgments as to ability and future passion for the sport shouldn’t be made prematurely. Families might consider starting off slowly and not let ambition, vicarious dreams and unrealistic financial investments influence them until they know if their children truly want to take the next step in their soccer lives. It’s tempting to believe that the cost and prestige of a club should be the sole measure of its talent in producing top players. But if your child sits on the bench at a top club, what difference does it make? And assuming that a club has the power to make great things happen for your child can be a costly error. Strong players can be developed by less expensive and esteemed clubs. Families should not be asked to go above their financial limits or to go into debt for what can end up being a joyful hobby.
It’s also important that parents keep their child’s talents in perspective. All too often we end up with blinders on because we only watch youth soccer and often only in our home areas. The United States covers a lot of territory and talent. If we don’t get out there and see what talent exists outside of our immediate realm, we may have the false image of our child as a star. College games now appear regularly on the TV, or you can actually go to some local college games. When at tournaments, go watch other teams, especially those teams that have a high national ranking. Watch the players at your child’s position and be brutally honest in your assessment of how their talents compare. More importantly, watch as much soccer as you can. Remember what coaches will look for. Your child may score 56 goals in a season against weak competition. Coaches will want to see how your children play off the ball, if they’re ball hogs, if they understand how to develop plays, if they can play other positions if called upon to do so, if they have speed and technique, and if they are leaders or thugs on the field. We parents have to be cautious as to how highly we consider our children’s abilities. We can heap praise on them, but doesn’t attribute amazing talent if it isn’t completely there.
As your child gets older and better that may be the time to consider a more intensive club. If your player shows talent for college soccer and wants to be scouted, be sure that your club attends one or two college scouting tournaments a year. Some tournaments require a pedigree of the club, so it may also be the time to switch clubs. But in my experience even the tournaments with the toughest entry requirements end up a team or three short to make up the brackets, so clubs that want to enter can if they have an aggressive coach and/or manager who calls the tournament coordinator weekly to see if spots have opened up. Players can increase their personal odds by emailing the coaches of colleges in which they have an interest. They should be sure not to discount Division II, Division III, NAIA, and junior colleges. Building up a name for themselves in smaller markets with less competition can lead to the ability to transfer to the college of their choice in their sophomore or junior year. The pathway to success doesn’t always need to be paved in money.
The non-monetary costs settle out with less family time, neglected siblings, missed school, and sacrificing other activities and lessons. These factors make sense if your child is in the top 5 percent of players in the country since they most likely will be the ones who move on up the food chain. But most players do their sports because they love them and these sports offer an opportunity for friendship, collaboration, exercise and pride. Sports should be a family activity that adds to the entire family’s enjoyment and togetherness. But that’s hard to accomplish if the attention becomes overly focused on one child. Therefore, we parents have to carefully weigh the pros and cons of investing heavily in our children’s youth sports "career" against any and all sacrifices the entire family must make to facilitate their advancement. Everyone should share equally in attention, money and time. So you may want to find a way to throttle down on the intensity. Invite other family members to weigh in on how they feel about travel to tournaments to watch Lisa or Richard play without any other benefit to them. Consider finding events where the entire family can share in the fun such as Disney, Las Vegas, water locations, and resorts with tons of amenities. That also begs the question of expense, but perhaps families can combine a planned and budgeted vacation with a soccer event.
If your family has limited resources, don’t feel pressure to provide top-of-the-line soccer experiences. You might be better off, even if you can afford a more expensive club and club demands, to invest money in a college fund rather than in costly soccer expenses. Don’t be swayed by the pressure clubs will try to exert in these months leading up to try-outs. First, nothing is sure, even if they seem to be courting your child. The clubs will take the best players available, which they may not see as your offspring, or next year they could cut their relationship with your player. You need to do what is best for your family, both financially and emotionally. And you don’t need to feel guilty if you select the Chevrolet club that is more in keeping with your monetary and family goals rather than the Rolls-Royce club. After all, both cars get you from point A to point B.