By Mike Woitalla (from PLAYSOCCER Magazine)
I thought it must have been some kind of mistake. E-mails were being sent out to the wrong address list or something. There's just no way that 7-year-olds were being invited to soccer tryouts, I figured.
But it was true.
A local soccer club that announced it aimed to be the most competitive in the area was–via e-mail, postcards and ads in the local newspapers–soliciting children who had just played their first season of soccer to attend tryouts. There was even a banner courting players hanging from a fence near a freeway. So children for whom soccer was supposed to be about fun play and learning would arrive at a field to perform for adults walking around with clipboards. Then they would be told whether they made it–or if they were rejects. Those children chosen would be rewarded by paying hundreds–even thousands–of dollars more to play soccer and start traveling to games, spending more time in the car than on the field. And the “rejects” receive a clear message about what was thought of them even though they are far too young to reveal their true potential. What in the world was going on here? And why has this been happening all across the USA? There was a time, not that long ago, when children were given athletic opportunities by community-based leagues and their schools. Then, at around the puberty age, those particularly talented and ambitious children might join more competitive programs, known as select, elite or travel teams while others got to enjoy continuing at the community level.
Why So Young?
Why have some soccer organizations cast their net over children so young? Simply put, too much of youth soccer in America went pro. Many club coaches get paid. The players’ parents provide the income. The more players, the more money the club collects to pay its coaches and directors.
There may be nothing inherently wrong with coaches getting paid for their services. Parents shell out money for all sorts of instructors for their children. But the profit-driven nature of some youth soccer organizations requires you to raise the question every step of the way: Is this being done because it’s best for the child, or because it’s revenue-producing?
Is It For The Money?
When a soccer organization is courting 7-year-olds to leave their AYSO team, is it because that child really needs a change in his or her soccer environment, or is it because the organization needs your money?
When a soccer organization demands that players play year-round soccer, is it really because a youngster needs to play the same sport all the time, or because the coaches need a year-round income?
When a soccer club requires its families to travel to many tournaments a year, is it because tournament play is so much more beneficial than community league action, or because the youth tournament industry has often become a lucrative source of income for clubs, hotels, sports facilities and the host communities?
Checks & Balances
“It’s epidemic. This is out of control,” says Rick Davis, AYSO’s National Executive Director, of the professionalization of youth soccer. “Unfortunately, it’s evolved in a vacuum, because I don’t think there’s been a check and balance.”
Davis got his start in soccer thanks to AYSO when he was a 6-year-old and went on to play for the New York Cosmos and captain the U.S. Men’s National team.
After his playing career, Davis served briefly as the director of a Southern California youth club and became disillusioned with the course the youth game had taken. He was reprimanded by the club president when he advised a mother that her 10-year-old boy shouldn’t join his club because it would require a two-hour drive, each way, for practices and games. The boy was better off playing close to home, he explained.
The High Pressure Environment
And Davis saw that competition between clubs spurred them to add younger age groups, bringing youngsters into the high-pressure environment of over-competitive youth ball long before they were prepared for it. In fact, the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF), whose interest lies in the youth game producing players for its national teams, frowns on the club system’s trend to put under-12 players into competitive travel ball. “It is always nice to win, however, that should not be your focus at the younger age groups (through 14 years),” reads the USSF’s “Player Development Guidelines.”
The club system often ignores that the history of the world’s great players demonstrates that their early years were spent in an environment that hardly resembles the highly competitive nature that American youth soccer has too often embraced at the club level.
“Just look at U.S. Women’s National team player Amy Rodriguez,” points out Jim Liston, founder and president of CATZ Sports Performance Center. “She played AYSO until she was 13 years old. She’s won a national championship with the University of Southern California and has an Olympic gold medal.”
That young child, Davis says, needs to develop a passion for the game that inspires him to goof around with the ball in his backyard more than he needs a highly structured soccer environment.
Don’t Play Year Round
“When you are playing 11 months of the year, that doesn’t necessarily foster a love for the game. For 9 and 10 year-olds, it can just be too time consuming,” echoes Liston. The club coaches who recruit players will make numerous arguments for why a young child should enter the world of expensive club soccer. They will say that your 8-year-old is so good, she should be playing with players at her own level, and flee the balanced team that includes less talented players. But is that really so? In fact, it benefits the young “star” to carry a bigger burden with a team and provides an opportunity to acquire leadership skills.
Less Pressure = Better Development
“For 8-year-olds, they’re not going to get anything more at the club level than they would get at AYSO. And they could get a lot less,” says Hugh McLeish, AYSO’s Coaching Commission Chair. “When our national program is adopted across the board and is delivered at the local level the way it should be, it’s a building process from ages 6 to 8 to 10, etc., and they’re going to be under less pressure. It’s a simple process, allowing them to learn the game in an age-appropriate manner.”
McLeish played professionally for 11 years. “When I was a 10-year-old, I never had any pressure on me. We played, but it wasn’t like the pressure the kids are put under today by clubs.”
Playing With Kids With Different Abilities
“Playing on a team with players of mixed ability is important for the stronger kids,” says AYSO alum Julie Foudy, former U.S. Women’s National Team captain and world champion. “You’re always going to have players of different strengths and weaknesses. If you’re one of the better players you need to learn how to make a positive impact.”
Landon Donovan, currently one of the nation’s top male players, played AYSO from age 5 to 14.
“The beauty of AYSO was that you had kids from all walks of life who just wanted to be active and run around and play soccer,” says the 27-year-old Donovan. “I started playing club soccer at the age of 10 but I wanted to continue playing AYSO because I enjoyed the camaraderie and the ability to just play for the love of playing.”
Overcoaching Hurts Development
The clubs, while often exaggerating the likelihood of college scholarships on the horizon, resort to the argument that your children need professional coaches at the very young ages. Yet it’s universally agreed upon that over-coaching at the young ages is detrimental to a player’s development. Nor does “professional” coaching necessarily mean better. Volunteer coaches, for example, don’t have the pressure that paid coaches have to deliver short-term results at the expense of long-term player development.
“I think parents are intimidated by the travel teams and pro coaches and think that if I don’t do this, somehow my child is not going to achieve or not be as good as somebody else,” says Davis. “Clearly, the club system feeds on that.”
Yet AYSO coaches who follow its philosophy of sticking to an age-appropriate approach may very well create a healthier environment for young players than the paid club coaches, who are more apt to put the children into a regiment that takes the enjoyment out of the game and leads to burnout.
Focus On Enjoying The Game
“Some of our best athletes stop playing before their teen years because they’re being driven out by too much competition and the business of youth sports,” says AYSO vice president Paula Berriz. “Parents need to focus on their children’s enjoyment, their children’s personal self-esteem, where they are cognitively and developmentally. They need to look at their family structure and how much time is spent in youth sports for not one but all their children. Does it meet the needs of the family or does it tear the family in several different directions?”
“We see high school and college kids who don’t want to play anymore even if they’ve been able to survive the overuse-injury bug or the catastrophic injury bug. There’s nothing wrong with taking the summer off and spending some time with your family and not concentrating on soccer all the time,” says Liston.
Indeed, the detrimental impact that competitive sports can have on family life prompted journalist and soccer mom Regan McMahon to pen her insightful and well-researched book, Revolution in the Bleachers: How Parents Can Take Back Family Life in a World Gone Crazy over Youth Sports.
Make Decisions Right For The Whole Family
When deciding whether your child should join an “elite travel team,” McMahon recommends investigating whether it will mean no more weekends the whole family can spend together and whether it will limit or eliminate your ability to take a family summer vacation. “How much will you and your child have to give up?” she asks.
Writes McMahon, “Consider not joining an elite travel team until your child is an adolescent. Children are better prepared for intense play, practice and competition after they’ve gone through puberty. Travel soccer teams, for example, generally start at Under-10, which means 8 and 9 year-olds are spending weekends in motels, away from their friends and siblings, in intensely competitive play.
“The status awarded the elite teams may be overrated in terms of the athlete’s actual experience.”
AYSO is Where Kids Fall In Love With Soccer
Brian Ching is a 31-year-old U.S. National team forward who has won three Major League Soccer titles and represented the USA at the 2006 World Cup. He started his soccer career at age 7 in AYSO with his mother as coach.
“I played AYSO until I was 11,” says Ching. “Then I went club. That’s later than a lot of people play club now. The amount the kids practice and play now, compared with when I was growing up is a hundred times different. I didn’t play year-round soccer until high school. For me personally, if I jumped into club too soon, I would have gotten turned off to soccer.”