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Commentary May 06, 2014

Playing up: Is developing their skills worth giving up our win?

WendyLeBolt-HeaderCat was her name; she was the ringer on my daughter’s U9 travel team. It was the spring season and they had been a miserable failure (in soccer terms) in the fall. When Cat joined the team mid-year, things had started looking up. This girl was small but fast. And was she ever good. She ran circles around all those 9 years olds (except mine, of course) when it came to skill and quickness and finishing. All of a sudden, our team started winning.

But when spring season came to an end, Cat announced she was leaving the team to ‘play up’ with the team her sister was on. Cue the scuttlebutt: “Can you believe that? One season and she’s switching.” “Is that safe, playing with older kids? She’ll probably get hurt; she shouldn’t do that.”

True confession: I was one of the underground naysayers. On the surface, I wished her well on her new team, but I joined with the parent-rabble, my grunting disapproval masquerading as concern for Cat’s welfare. Those older kids were stronger, faster, more coordinated and bigger, after all. Playing up was probably dangerous, I reasoned, so playing with her age mates was surely safer and better for her soccer.

But if I’m completely honest, the real reason I grumbled when Cat left the team had nothing to do with safety. I wasn’t concerned for her welfare; I hardly knew her. I was concerned for mine. I wanted my kid on the winning team and if Cat left, she took the team’s scoring threat with her.

Cat, if you’re reading this out there…I was wrong. It just took me a while to come around.

These days kids have a lot more opportunities to play at all levels and across age groups. From pick up soccer, to school soccer, to the academy systems that have developed around the country, many options are available. I hear your question: Is it safe?

Well, there is always some risk when our kids hit the fields, but soccer, maybe more than any other team sport out there, refuses physical selection of its competitors. It’s a very democratic game. Tall players have an advantage for balls in the air, but small, agile players likely have an advantage on the ground. Fast players have an advantage in the breakaway. Coordinated kids dribble through defenses. Exacting kids distribute perfectly. Clever kids see opportunities. Hey, even kids who aren’t so good with their feet can use their hands. There’s pretty much something for everyone. I mean, what other sport has stars as diverse as Lionel Messi and Carles Puyol? Tiffeny Milbrett and Abby Wambach? Would we separate them by size or by age group?

We don’t. They’ve worked their way up through the ranks by taking advantage of the gifts theyD.C. United Academy standout and U.S. youth international Jorge Calix have put into play. Got size? Use it. Got speed? Use it. Got moves? Use ‘em. The things players don’t have, they need either to work on or work around in favor of their strengths. This is particularly true of physical differences, and it can happen as easily within an age group as between age groups. We’ve all seen the disparities in size among 12 and 13 year olds. Does the pint-sized one cry foul? No. He sprints past the twin towers and scores on the header. As Coach John Daly assures me, “No one defends the little guy on headers.” Surprise can be in your tool kit, too.

But situations where a kid is physically dominant or a very special talent are good reason for them to try on the challenge of playing up. Staying to play among kids they dominate or run circles around will likely land them a hand full of metals and several shelves full of trophies, but it won’t make them better soccer players. Only challenge will do that. We’ve got to challenge all our players, even the “best” ones, to be better. Because at some point, maybe on the ODP squad, maybe as the starting freshman on the varsity team, maybe on a national team call-up, they’re going to run into someone stronger, faster or a bit more skilled. We want them to be prepared.

Or do we?

That’s the kicker. I didn’t figure this out until a few seasons after Cat left when my daughter discovered she also was fast, skilled, pretty coordinated and not bad from the penalty spot. Now, a goal scorer in her own right, we started looking at new teams. This did not sit well with the coach of her old team, of course, because who likes to lose a goal scorer?

But she really wanted increasing challenge so we made the move. And then we moved again. Climbing up through the ranks, she had to adjust how she played against the stronger talent. She learned to play to her strengths, and size was not one of them. When she started as a freshman on the varsity squad, I was glad she had taken the tough route to get there. It actually made her safer to play among high school girls who definitely spanned the range of sizes and abilities.

What about injuries? Well, size mismatches are always going to be in play. Small kids get elbowed in the ear on a regular basis. Will that be magnified when kids play up? Perhaps. But, as Messi and Puyol, Milbrett and Wambach, show so clearly, size is not the game. Skill is. As long as we coach the kids to play the game with skill, the game will teach the kids how to play it. If they listen, they’ll learn.

We all lose when we coach kids to play bumper bodies, rather than soccer. When physical play becomes the norm and it looks more like a street fight than a futbol game. Then, winning at all costs becomes just that – costly. That game, the to-win game, leads to all sorts of disreputable behaviors because winning at all costs means that losing is to be avoided at all costs. When kids do lose they feel like they have to save face; we would have won but the other team cheated, the ref didn’t call anything, the coaches …. the field… the fans, the whatever. What are we really developing here?

Youth players take part in a FASA-National Guard clinic in Fredericksburg, Va. on Aug. 11, 2013.So, if we are keeping our kid back or strong-arming a ringer to join our team, we might do well to assess our motives. Sure, everyone likes to win. But there’s a difference between playing to win and wanting to be sure we are on the winning team. There is nothing wrong with playing to win. Every game we play to win, of course. That’s why there’s another team. That’s why we play. That’s why there’s a score. In fact, playing to lose or tossing the game actually cheats our opponent out of their win, so let’s have at it.

But shouldn’t our objective as coaches and parents and club administrators be that every game is closely contested? That’s what happens when kids find their right fit on the right level team with the right level challenge in a game that welcomes everyone and rewards effort and industry. They discover what they can do and are pushed by others who can do it just a bit better. Supposedly, America thrives on that very principle. Funny that in soccer we have had to import it from overseas.