The Secret to Sports-based Youth Development: Kids Working as Hard in the Game as they do On Their Game

What does the phrase, sports-based youth development, mean to you?

We talk a lot about developmental soccer. We have developmental programs and developmental leagues designed to help kids make progress on their skills, fitness, mental toughness, and game play. We develop the sport, but what about developing the youth?

Symposium-logoIt was something I had to take a second look at this weekend as I participated in the US Soccer Foundation’s 10th annual Urban Soccer Symposium in Washington, DC. The theme: “A Decade of Change.” Boy has a lot changed in ten years, right? Kids used to play sports for fun, fitness and friends. Now they play for status, scholarships and $$$.

Wait. Not so fast. That’s suburban soccer you’re talking about — the game with panicked kids, screaming parents and a revolving door of paid coaches. That game is about making the select team, identifying talent and “developing” it for the next level, so our kids can have a chance to play in college or even go pro.

The urban game is completely different and, in fact, the organized version is mostly missing from the cities in the US. This sets us apart from the rest of the world, where soccer has developed as a city game and kids come and play, not to be seen by coaches or recruited for programs, but to have fun and get better. The best players dream of bigger things, if not stardom, at least a better life and a brighter future.

While US Soccer is making headlines with its age-group adjustments, new developmental academies, and national team promotions, the US Soccer Foundation is working quietly in communities across the country to bring the game to kids who wouldn’t otherwise have it. Their Soccer for Success programs are operating in more than 400 sites across the country as free after school programs that teach kids about eating right and staying healthy while a coach-mentor helps them learn critical life skills and connects with their family.

***The 3 Soccer for Success partners in the DC/MD/VA area are: DC SCORES, Family League of Baltimore, and the Prince William Courage. Here’s a map with the complete listing across the country.

Talk to any Soccer for Success representative and they glow. They don’t complain about fields, referees, angry parents or too much travel; they talk about the great kids and the difference they are making. In spite of limited funding, they supply much-needed education and quality coaching that is making a difference for these kids and is having a lasting impact in their communities.

These urban programs are sports-based youth development. Soccer is the hook, but youth development is the objective.

I couldn’t help wondering when I talked to symposium participants who are scraping by with meager budgets, desperately hoping to get their summer camps funded for another year or a few more dollars to reach a few more kids in need, if we haven’t turned things on their head in the US. The kids whose families can best afford college educations are spending that college money to get their kids into college. The kids who could use that money to get an education don’t get a look.

But hey, you say, we’ve worked hard to earn our money. We can do what we want with it. I get that. I’ve lived that.

That’s when I went to a joint session with the “founders” of the soccer symposium. While they discussed their program successes, struggles and shining moments, an attendee from The Grassroot Project posed this problem: “We have invited the local college players to come work with our under-served, inner-city kids, but the college athletes can’t relate to the kids. Is there a “leadership training program” to help?”

A leadership training program for college kids so they can relate to other kids? If I’m reading this right, our current youth soccer culture is expanding the gap between kids playing the same game. By the time they get to college they can’t even talk to each other. There is something very wrong here, and it isn’t the kids – impoverished or privileged. Neither chose their circumstances. But from where I’m looking, it looks like the privileged kids who have sailed through the system without being asked to do much but don the shiny uniform and slap on the shinguards, could benefit from a bit of humility and a good dose of not-everybody-has-what-you-have so get busy helping out-ness. And we need to start this young – before the culture chasm grows so wide they can’t talk to each other.

We need to require our youth players — recreational, travel, elite and nationally ranked — to:

  • Put in the time to raise funds for team fees
  • Participate in field maintenance
  • Volunteer at club tournaments
  • Become certified referees
  • Perform service in their communities
  • Work in the game and not just on their game

Yes, sports are a great way to build character, but it doesn’t happen accidentally. If elite youth soccer is so time-, energy- and resource-demanding that kids are excused from doing what will shape their character, we’re widening that gap – between the haves and have nots. And I’m not referring to dollars here… The price of privilege for our kids may be costing them more than we realize.

As Symposium keynote speaker Marcella Wilson reminded us, “Give a kid a soccer ball and they can play the game. Teach a child to play soccer and they learn lessons for life.”

We’ve given our kids lots of soccer balls and paid for lots of lessons. It may be that what’s missing is the opportunity for them to teach a child to play the game they love. In the exchange, they may teach each other the lessons needed for life.IMG_0616


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