What Kind of Kid is Soccer Making Them?

“What is best for youth soccer development?”

I keep reading this question. It’s all over the news, the wires, the blogs? I get it. We’re trying to figure out what will build our soccer programs in this country. What will put winning teams on the field? What environment will foster new talent and allow the talent we have identified to thrive?

To field stronger Under 17, 19, 21 teams. A better National Team. Because this game is played on an international stage and aren’t we tempted to ask… “What will show our supremacy world-wide.” Because we Americans always have been competitive. What does it say about us if aren’t competing with the world’s best, performing on the largest stages? If the world isn’t pointing to us as leaders in the field, innovative, winning, successful?

To this end we have created leagues and clubs, divisions and rankings,  “Olympic” identification programs, residency programs, and new elite leagues, all with their own regional and national championships. In the name of “what’s best for US soccer.”  And this has built big business.  Paid positions. Paid coaches. Technical directors. League officials. And even people like me, who specialize in fitness and sport and stand to gain from running kids through these programs.  We are here to help and happy to do it professionally. All-American, business-style.

This, of course, is not limited to soccer or even sport, but let’s just play the ‘what if’ game in this one venue. What if we re-framed this question? Instead of what’s best for youth soccer, what if we asked “what is best for our soccer youth?”

A simple change, really. To focus on the youth who just happen to enjoy playing soccer, rather than the game itself. What if, instead of soccer policy, we all took a look at each of the young people we parent, coach and/or train and asked, “What kind of child is this soccer experience making?”

I know it’s a huge question. A case by case question. A face to face question. But I think it’s worth asking because, fellow parents and coaches, if we are not doing this for the children, who are we doing it for?

I’ve been around the coaching ranks for a while now. Kids would come and go from my teams, some moving up, some stepping back. At the end of each year I always encouraged them to look at their other options, to be sure my team was still the best choice for them. Sometimes parents would come asking my advice about a team they were considering. “How should we choose?” they would ask.

Usually it was a more competitive team. A team that would travel more, give their child more exposure, better (ahem) coaching, perhaps not quite as much playing time but the opportunity to earn playing time and to learn from more experienced teammates as they competed for a starting spot. It all sounded so good. Parents, I have found, in the name of doing the best they can for their kids, can talk themselves into options that are very attractive, even if the shimmer is just a veneer.

“So, what do you think,” they’d ask. ” Do you think this is a good team for them? Is it a good move?”

I always recommended the encourage their child to practice with the team, perhaps try on the uniform and guest play, and see how the players, the coaches, the playing time felt. Because what I know is this: when a child feels out a team he will usually be very honest with his reactions, provided you let him be.

Then I would ask the parents, point blank: “What kind of child is this team making of your child?” Their answer perfectly guided their decision.

I think that is the essential question for all decisions about children and youth before they are able to make them completely on their own. And the answer may not be imminently clear until a few seasons down the road. But still, it’s the question we need to keep applying. Parents for their kids. Coaches for their players. And ultimately, young people for themselves.

I think this process holds as well for rec league as it does for high school, college and beyond. When our kids give sports a try they open a door to see themselves. To see how they respond to challenge, conflict, physical, social and emotional demands. If they wear this well, if they can add layers and continue to thrive, then the sports program is doing exactly what it should;  shaping our children and youth into the best version of themselves.

They’ll know it. Their parents will know it. Their coaches will know it, too. And let’s be honest, “No is a perfectly acceptable answer.” If this team, this sport, the sports venue itself is not building the child, then there is another passion awaiting them.

I know, letting our greatest youth athletes be free to choose to take or leave soccer when “they have such a promising career ahead of them” is a tough pill for America to swallow. But I think it’s worth it to keep the passion and excitement flowing. It may not be how they do it in other countries where they pluck out the promising practically from their cribs, but our youth may be waiting for America to invent a new approach or just to embrace this one…child-focused, child-driven, child-led.

One that involves lots of options and a great deal of freedom. Sounds very American…and very healthy.
Make this a happy and healthy new year out there, friends!

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