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Commentary Nov 18, 2014

LeBolt: The high cost of loyalty in today’s youth soccer culture

WendyLeBolt-HeaderSo are you in for another season? That was the end of season question that would always snag me a few sheepish looks from the “good” players on my “not quite as good” team. I knew what this meant: they were trying out for other travel teams, and they felt guilty. So I called out the elephant in the huddle.

“It’s okay if you’re trying out for other teams,” I told them. “In fact, I encourage it. You need to know whether the decision to stay on this team is the right one or whether there is something better for you out there. But remember, if it doesn’t work out there, we’ll be here.”

Is anybody still doing this out there? Do we dare?

So many of the end-of-the-season conversations I hear are angry and include words like poaching, aggressive recruiting, cheating and unfair, spoken with a lot of intensity and not a few tears, usually by responsible parents sticking up for their kids, but sometimes they come from players who trust me enough to be honest. “We were going to go to Disney, but now I’m not sure.”

There is a ripping and rending going on in our ranks. Whatever happened to loyalty and community? What is a team anymore, but a cell phone waiting zone where you can idle in your vehicle until your next opportunity calls?

In the old days travel teams were made up of capable kids from the community. House teams represented neighborhoods, and travel teams drew from a several school radius. There was an occasional outlier from a more rural area where soccer opportunities were slim, but generally the kids from adjacent communities came together as a “club” and then all played against each other during the high school season because they attended rival high schools.

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The ones who really excelled tried out for ODP and, those who made it, carpooled to the distant practices where they could get a bit more professional and/or experienced coaching. But their soccer identity resided with their team. It had a name, a coach, two jerseys, and a team cheer. There were captains, there were positions, and there were squabbles to be sure, but by game day, those were set aside to focus on the main thing: winning. They were committed to that team; even when the going got tough, the “good kids” stayed.

Loyalty isn’t what it used to be, or at least it doesn’t mean what it used to. My father-in-law was with the same company for 50+ years. Today, people have seven jobs before they are 35. So, perhaps it is not surprising that youth sports follows suit. Maybe it is naïve to think it would be otherwise.

Call me naïve. I encouraged my team members to consider other teams and presumed that their diligent and critical consideration was my friend. If they found something better – for their skills, their personality,  their development – I was all for that. We want our kids to find their right place. Because when it feels right, they can settle in with confidence and dedicate themselves to being their best.

Healthy competition can do this, but they shouldn’t get too comfortable because rosters are a-changing. Players come and go, so that opportunity that beckons may land them in a real fight for meaningful playing time. This is what club play at the highest and most competitive levels looks like these days. Academy programs with multi-tiered systems and elite leagues with vast reaches are supplying top notch competition, offering professional coaching and more flexible opportunities, but at a much greater expense to families.

Change is here, but opportunity doesn’t come free. The question is, is it worth it?

Youth soccer, in order to produce topnotch talent in this country, is using what works in business. Recruit the best students from the best universities for your sales force. And if that doesn’t work out, send out some headhunters to make some calls to the high performers out there. They have a proven track record and are a much safer investment. After all, there’s only so much time to develop those newcomers.  Hey, it’s business. Who can blame them?

So now it’s business, and our youth players are the currency. We just know the payoff is coming. Somehow the size of the prize makes us a little loony. Our ears perk up and our radar goes down. Parents have always been on the lookout for the right fit for their kids, but in the old days there were only a few options within a reasonable driving distance. If tryouts didn’t pan out, you figured the team you were with was probably where you were meant to stay. You would have been a laughing stock for even suggesting that players travel to Ohio from Virginia for a “league” game.

Now that’s what families do, and players actually vie for the opportunity. That’s part of the package to get the best competition and the best possible training. We can’t fault players who want all that, can we?

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It may be business, but who approved the business plan? It used to be the team record and reputation that initiated things. People came inquiring about our team because they had heard we were  fun, had good coaching, won a few games, traveled to fun tournaments, and had a good time together. We attracted players by our reputation and our culture. They knew what they were getting and they were buying in.

Now that the soccer opportunities come in such large packages and are distributed around the state or even across state lines, it’s nearly impossible to know where our kid will find their perfect fit. We’re at the mercy of the marketplace, where young, athletic talent is the commodity high-rollers are bidding on. Naturally, everyone tries make themselves attractive and desirable so someone will make them an offer.

What could possibly be wrong with that? Here are a few of my concerns:

  1. It’s heading us in the wrong direction. Teams should make themselves desirable, not kids.
  2. Recruiters can be very persuasive because they are under no compulsion to share the whole truth and are happy to tell us what we want to hear. Should teens really be subjected to this?
  3. It brings out the worst in the parents of kids who are not chosen and often even the ones who are. Competitive parenting blinds us to fair evaluation of skill and honest assessment of ability.
  4. The cost in time, travel, and training is enormous! (And as I’ve written before) That may de facto commit our kids to a soccer treadmill they feel powerless to step off.

So, in this youth soccer centrifuge we call player identification and development, we would do well to remember the difference between incubators and cauldrons. One is meant to grow, the other you’re lucky to survive. Growing and developing as a team sounds nice, but at some point it becomes every man for himself.

The evolution of team names really tells the story. The Peewee Kiwis, Spirit, Xplosion, Bobcats, Swifts, and Tigers, are giving way to U16 Red, U18 Green, U12 Blue, Black or White. The names are not teams, they’re designations, for A, B and C, loosely couched in color so the random observer won’t know it, but the players certainly do. At its most healthy, this system motivates kids to move up within their club. But when clubs start hunting for talent raised in other communities, it depletes the local resources without thanks for the work they did developing these kids in the first place.

Is this right? Is it best? Is it inevitable? That may be our dog eat dog life, but is that really what we want our kids to learn through youth sports?

This seems to be the take home lesson: Be on the lookout for something better because teams and rosters, coaches and clubs are always changing. You don’t want to miss your chance. When the going gets tough, get out.

That mindset may be wise but it makes it impossible for kids to concentrate on what they are doing right now without fear that it may not be enough. If the message we’re sending is “commitment and loyalty and years of service don’t count for anything,” then we’re worse off than I thought.

However, we do have some really dominant youth squads and some awesome players in the National Team pool. Is this a fair trade?

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