Three of my grandchildren came last week to stay for a month with us. The day before they arrived I bought $350 worth of groceries. Four days after they arrived, I bought another $190 worth of groceries. Today, I have to go to the store yet again, and they will not have been with us for a full week yet. There are swimming lessons, pottery classes, dance classes, a Brewers’ game, a Lakeshore Chinooks’ game, movies, camp, mall shopping…oh you get the picture. I honestly forgot how expensive young kids can be. Certainly, I don’t need to provide tons of extra activities, but I still need to feed them and do a bit of clothing them (Megan forgot her tennis shoes for example). Suddenly when I look at my bank statement it appears that my debit card has been the victim of identity theft I have so many charges. But it would have to be a very young and not very nefarious thief since the charges seem to be for gelato, Monsters University and video games.
This entire experience reminds me how much money we parents shell out for our kids to participate in activities, particularly youth sports. My grandson has recently begun playing lacrosse and the equipment alone could feed a family of four for a month. Then you add on club fees, travel to games and tournaments, ancillary equipment, such as a team bag and warm-ups, and you end up creating a gross national product for your home. We do it gladly because participating in youth sports gives our kids so many pluses in their development. Staying fit and active is just one important aspect — they have to be able to burn off the $500 in groceries I bought. But sports also gives them a direction to travel through life, a new set of friendships, lessons of humility and dignity, instruction in good sportsmanship, the tools to be a team member, and the joy of succeeding even if the team isn’t great. Running an extra half-mile or scoring a goal or stealing a ball all contribute to a child’s sense of pride and accomplishment. So we gladly haul out the checkbook and pay whatever is asked. The problem is that we can’t really comparison shop. If you want a luxury car, you have to pay the luxury price. That’s how it works in youth sports too. We seek out the best teams, the best coaches, the best clubs because we believe anything less will jeopardize our kids’ future in sports. We treat the exploration for a soccer team like pursuing an Ivy League education. We lose sight of what the real goal should be. We can get from point A to point B comfortably and safely in a 2003 Corolla, and we can find a worthy soccer experience for our kids without the status symbols of an elite travel club.
What should a club offer your child? Good coaching that focuses on fundamentals, such as first touch, passing, throw-ins and general ball handling, not to mention a good grasp on the rules and tactics of the sport. Does the club teach the kids about the different tactical formations? Does the club let the kids play in all positions? Is the focus on winning over teaching and development? How many practice sessions do you get for your fees? Are all the coaches licensed — this includes parent coaches? Are there various team levels in the club so your child can move as needed? How long has the club been in existence? Until our kids reach the ages of 12 or 13, the emphasis should be on development of skills and knowledge of the game. Often, you will hear the phrase, "a soccer brain." That refers to a child’s ability to really see the field and know where to place him or herself or where to pass the ball. Some of soccer brain is innate, but much of it is a trained discipline. Clubs should be helping our children grow into their soccer brains with good education. All too often teams regard coaches as the means to get to wins looking at how the coach selects players to field the team and how the coach pushes them to produce a win often at the expense of the kids sitting on the bench who get forgotten. Even when playing time rules are followed, a "winning" coach will find a way to limit the benchwarmers’ participation by subbing them often and never having two on the field at the same time. That’s great for winning, but not for developing team unity and trust. How do kids develop their soccer brains when they are isolated on the field and not considered an important part of the tactical process?
So before you write a check at any cost, look around. Resist the urge to join the "cool" club because of peer pressure. I can assure you from experience that clubs and their reputations evolve fairly quickly. When Robbie played for his U-14 team, it was the best in the country. By the time he moved at U-17 to a local team, it had dropped significantly not only nationally, but in the state as well. That was in a three-year period. The same held true for the club Bryce played for. They were nationally ranked for girls and the best team in the state for boys, neither of which was true after two years. Unless you are prepared to "team hop" every couple of years, you do well to find a club that will serve the purposes you need for the long term, such as strong development and player exposure to college coaches if your child decides to follow that path. Otherwise, stick with the premise that soccer should focus on the four categories of US Youth Soccer’s Youth Soccer Month: fun, fitness, family and friends. These build memories and don’t necessarily have to drain the bank account. Bryce played for a club where the fees were around $1,500, plus the costs of uniforms, additional equipment like cleats, warm ups and bags, travel to tournaments and spirit gear. Then his team dissolved, so he had to find a new club. He ended up going to one of the ethnic clubs in Milwaukee where the adult club members supported soccer through their dues. It cost us $150 for the season. We went to local tournaments, and Bryce got seen by local college coaches. So there really was no need for him to wear the jersey of some fancy club with snobbish tendencies. I wished we had discovered this secret years earlier!
The other important consideration would be how much of an investment should we be making. Kids can be fickle, so front-loading expensive training may end up vaporizing as quickly as dot com tech stocks. We need to find out how passionately our kids regard their sport. If they just want to run and play with their friends, then there’s no need for all of you to pay an expensive fee for that opportunity. Community recreation teams provide good training, opportunities for friends to be on the same team and plenty of exercise. After a couple seasons, you should be able to gauge how much investment your child wants to make in soccer and then you can decide on your investment. At young ages, kids should be trying out several different sports. While I naturally feel that soccer is the best, I also recognize that not all kids fit into the soccer mold. So exposing our children to baseball, softball, basketball, tennis, golf, swimming — you name it, depending on availability and interest — gives our kids a chance to find their own passion. Two of my grandsons gave soccer a valiant effort but ended up opting for baseball and football (yes, the American variety). They knew how keenly involved their uncles were in soccer, but it wasn’t for them. For the first two years of playing soccer, they stuck with recreation programs that cost less than $150 for the year. Even now, they play on local recreation baseball teams, as well as Little League both for smaller fees, but then train indoors during winter for much higher fees. They love it, so their parents don’t begrudge them the expense. My advice is to start slowly with short seasons and a variety of sports. Eventually the kids will whittle them down to just a few. In our family, we went through gymnastics, tennis, baseball and basketball, in addition to soccer. Occasionally, the boys will wistfully mention that they wish they had kept up with another sport, but that quickly dissipates with the next soccer game.
Finally, keep your expenses down by not buying into all the additional gear. Clubs usually change their uniforms every two or three years because the big manufacturers make styles obsolete that often. That means a different style of not only uniforms, but warm-ups, bags and sweats. Save those items for either a special occasion such as a birthday gift, or forgo them altogether until it’s obvious a child is planning to stick with the sport. Otherwise, you can end up writing a check for $1,500 for club fees and $500 for uniforms and gear. Fancy cleats look cool and for the best players can make a difference in how well they play, but a 6-year-old just needs the black cleats for $25 that they will grow out of before the season ends. Save the fancy gear for later. Be cautious about going wild with spirit wear too. You want to show team support, but a hat or a scarf can say as much as a warm-up jacket, stadium chair or thermal blanket. My closet of obsolete fan gear bursts at the seams in colors I can’t even pretend belong to a present team. And I even took my own advice for the most part, so I’m not as bad off as some of the other parents.
We have to feed and clothe and house our kids to the best of our ability, but we don’t need to get extreme about their extracurriculars. There are viable options to the "best" (read "most expensive") club in town, which may actually do a better job of preparing our children to be great soccer players. Look for great development and ignore the bragging about wins. All too often those two factors end up being mutually exclusive as teams look to discover ready-made players that they’ll discard when better ready-made players come along. With the proper development, your child could be the one at the top of the pyramid as these winning clubs look for better players, but you didn’t need to spend their high fees to get Billy or Sally to the level that makes them "marketable." Expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better. And you can take that to the bank.