Here’s a riddle:
What do you call something you do almost every day, all week, year round? … work, right?
What do we call it when our kids do it? … sports. Is anyone laughing?
Neither are our kids. They’re paying the price in exhaustion, stress, injury, and burnout. The scenario sounds very much like the popular documentary “Race to Nowhere.”
Recently Suzy Germain and I talked about this phenomenon. Suzy played for the 1981-1984 National Championship UNC Tarheels Women’s Soccer teams. She is also a successful youth soccer coach and parent to three kids who have navigated the area youth sports environment.
Our time was short because Suzy had to dash off to her son’s soccer game, on a schoolday Friday at 1:15. “Guess they don’t care about school when they make the schedule” she told me. It’s a tournament weekend and kids have to get their games in. “Hey, Billy doesn’t mind missing school,” Suzy says with a forced laugh.
Billy, who is a high school senior, plays high school and club soccer but also played high school football. He’s a kicker. (of course) Suzy says Billy seems to still love soccer. He wants to play in college if a team will have him. But he really loved football because it’s season. From late August to November, it’s intense. But the kids say, “6am practice – YES!” because it’s football season.
This launched our conversation about the work that youth soccer (and many youth sports) has become. Year round means no breaks. Fall and Spring seasons have added winter indoor and summer Y-league. There are no breaks for the holidays. In fact, tournaments are on holiday weekends so people can more easily travel. We can be all soccer, all the time.
Suzy says this burns the kids out. “Have you ever seen a kid burned out of football?” Suzy asks me. Can’t say that I have. They get a long break after the season and they are anxious to play come August. That’s what she says is missing with the youth soccer players she sees. They play so many games and so many tournaments that it all runs together. She says her son’s soccer team played 36 pre-season games. Thirty six games before the season even began! By the first regular season match, “They looked terrible.”
How does this happen? Some of it is driven by the parents, she says. There are multiple tournaments where college coaches will be. Parents want their kids to get exposure so they insist on playing all the tournaments rather than choosing. Of course, it’s the kids who are doing the work; the parents are traveling, eating out and paying. And worrying whether the college coaches got a good look at their kid.
So how do we change this? Keep in mind that Suzy wants her kid to have his shot and wants him to keep the love of the game she has even 25 years after her college competitive playing days. She has two great suggestions:
- US Soccer should legislate that no sanctioned tournaments are played for December and January. This would require tournament directors to schedule on “competing” weekends and force teams to choose between tournaments rather than playing in all of them.
- Kids should be allowed to take a season off from their competitive teams with the promise that the coach will give them a fair chance to earn their spot back the next season. Suzy says a boy on her son’s team did this and he came back stronger and more hungry to play the game. He’s never played better.
So what makes Suzy think this will work? Well, she coached the Division I WAGS CYA Blast for 7 years. She gave them weeks off, didn’t play December, January, or July, met with parents to plan tournament scheduling that wasn’t overkill, and made winter indoor un-coached and optional. The result: 8 of her athletes played soccer at the college level.
For more from Suzy, follow this blog for parts 2 and 3 of the interview:
3. Are we being unrealistic about our kids’ chance to make the college team?