“Single-Digit Soccer” – Conflicts start where the fun should happen
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Beau Dure‘s new book, Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game. The electronic edition is available for pre-order at several online outlets; the print edition will be available at Amazon shortly.
The game wasn’t going so badly. Petey had regained his confidence. Speedy was a handful, as always. We were playing well on both fields, on which we played small-sided games of 5v5. The only issue: My guys again thought they were being fouled a lot, and that topic dominated the halftime talk.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
“But they keep fouling!”
“Just don’t foul them back. OK? Don’t even think about it. We’re going to be cool, right? Like Fonzie. What’s Fonzie like?”
Even as I finished the sentence, before the blank stares, I knew I was in trouble. No, these players didn’t know the scene from Pulp Fiction with Samuel L. Jackson telling Amanda Plummer to be cool and point the gun at him while he tells Ringo about his epiphany and lets him keep a lot of money. They didn’t even know Happy Days, the show that made Henry Winkler’s Fonzie character an essential part of 1970s pop culture.
“You all don’t know Fonzie, do you?”
Adrian, the well-disciplined, buzz-cut-wearing son of a marine, piped up. “Is he a Muppet?”
“No . . . Look, Fonzie’s really cool.”
“He’s a cool Muppet?” Now others were wondering: “Which Muppet is he?”
I tried to dig my way out. “No, he’s not a Muppet.”
It didn’t register. “Are you sure?” “Is he the chicken Muppet?”
“No, that’s Gonzo. Fonzie was on Happy Days.”
That didn’t help. “What’s Happy Days?” “A Muppet was on Happy Days?”
“No, no — look, FOZZIE is the Muppet.”
That helped. “Oh.” “Is he supposed to be funny?” “Is he the chicken?”
“Yes, he’s funny. And he’s the bear, not the chicken.”
Back to the point? “I thought he was supposed to be cool.” “Wait, you want us to be like the bear?”
“OK, let’s start over.”
Lesson learned: Use pop-culture references with care.
The next season, the team changed. Some players made travel teams. My House team included a few good players, a few attitude cases, and a few people still experimenting with the whole “team sport” concept. We kept scores and standings for the first time.
We had some ill-timed errors, and we played all the toughest teams in the league. After going through eight games with one win and one tie, we limped into the postseason tournament.
Expectations were a little low. But on a bumpy, chilly field, strange things were about to happen. We won two penalty-kick shootouts and reached the final.
The final was a full 50-minute game. And the ref — older and clearly no stranger to his job — cheerfully asked us to walk out in a big line across the field to add a ceremonial flourish before the game. When I saw the photos later, I saw Terry saluting. The kids and parents loved it. Then I went back to figuring out how to keep the game close.
I wanted to be sure Richie, my star goalkeeper, was in goal at the end of the game, just in case we went to PKs again. So he played the first half in the field. He decided to remind everyone he was pretty good in the field as well, swiping an errant pass, taking a couple of touches and blasting the ball into the net.
At halftime, the team was starting to feel it. They could do this. And they wanted to know what I was going to do if they won.
Earlier in the day, I told them I’d have a heart attack if we took it all. They had other ideas. One was to beat my chest like King Kong. Another was to shave my head. The other was to do the Chicken Dance. We voted. Chicken Dance won. My wife, whose patience is already tested a hundred times over as a youth soccer coach’s spouse, would’ve exercised veto power over head-shaving, anyway.
We didn’t play dazzling soccer over the last 25 minutes. A team can improve only so much in one day. But we did enough to keep the ball out of danger most of the time, and Richie made a couple of good saves.
When the final whistle blew, I fell theatrically on my back. No, I hadn’t had a heart attack. Yes, I had promised to do the Chicken Dance. And when I made my way over to the team afterward, they were already singing the song.
The day couldn’t have been any better. The photos are full of joy and celebration.
Lesson learned: Unexpected wins can be wonderful.
But, of course, we’re not supposed to care about winning at U9. Right?
That’s what they say. And “they” say a lot. “They” are the various people who try to get us to follow various prescriptions for two ailments:
1. Parents and coaches are taking the fun out of youth sports by putting too much pressure on our kids.
2. The United States’ men’s soccer team hasn’t advanced to the World Cup semifinals since 1930, and if we’d just follow the model of Barcelona or Ajax or French street soccer or West Cheddarshire Wanderers FC, we’d be a lot better. Barcelona envy is rampant — the slick-passing style of the great Spanish club has spawned unsubtle seminar titles like “10 Ways to Play Like Barcelona.”
So we shouldn’t emphasize winning because (A) we don’t want our third-graders to think about the prospect of losing and (B) we should be developing our players for the next level of soccer rather than teaching them to win now.
But few things in the reality of youth soccer match what we’re supposed to be doing. All the well-intentioned advice in the world can’t keep your kids from keeping score in their heads and getting down on themselves when things are going poorly. Coaching manuals typically don’t tell us how to get all four players in a 4v4 game to pay at least a little bit of attention to the game.
And nothing in the youth soccer curricula can prepare you for kids who respond to “OK, now pass the ball” by picking up the ball and cocking an arm back like Peyton Manning. (“No, no . . . with your feet!” was the only response I could muster.) Or what to do with a kid who misses the first practice and has never seen a soccer game, then shows up to play and has literally no idea what to do on the field. Or how to do everything by the book and find you’re losing 10-2 because no one on your team has the speed or defensive acumen to keep up with the other team’s star player, and your overwhelmed kids can’t quite wrap their heads around the idea of continuing to try the skills they’re learning.
Besides, the messages we get from all the youth soccer guidelines are contradictory. One day, we’ll see the following two headlines back-to-back on a website:
“USYSUSLCSA reminds coaches to let kids play unstructured games without keeping score.”
“Congratulations to the Suburban FC U5 Academy team on its national championship!”
We do tryouts at U8 or U9, even though the U.S. Youth Soccer Player Development Model says U10 players shouldn’t have tryouts and U.S. Soccer’s “Best Practices” guide discourages travel for players under U10 and discourages tournaments for players under U12. The U.S. Soccer curriculum says we’re not supposed to teach them any tactics, but they’re supposed to be “taking up good positions” and returning to them “once an action is finished,” a little like telling a kid to stare at a chessboard with no instruction for a few weeks and then expect him to figure out how the knight moves.
So what’s going on here? A few things:
1. Parents crave structure and accomplishment. It’s a lot easier to say Johnny’s travel team won a tournament than it is to say he played well and had a good time in a fun kickaround.
2. Soccer knowledge is still a way to stand out among the thirtysomethings and fortysomethings coaching our kids. So we’re inclined to show off a bit and try to make our U7s look like Manchester United. Especially if that’s the only team we can name.
3. Everyone in this country thinks he or she can run a soccer league better than the next person. Youth soccer has become an alphabet soup for U12s and up, with several organizations providing what they think is the best path to pro or college success. And it’s trickling down to the lowest level because . . .
4. Youth soccer is an exploding market, and everyone wants in. And tons of parents are willing to hand over money so their kids can get ahead.
5. The USA is desperately trying to get better in international soccer.
And we’re trying to give our best players a good environment at home. We’re seeing players going overseas at younger and younger ages: 11-year-old Ben Lederman to Barcelona, 8-year-old Mani Eftekhari to Dinamo Zagreb.
“If I left him here in the States, it would be a disservice,” Eftekhari’s father told Top Drawer Soccer. Ouch.
And as we ramp up youth soccer for the elite players, some kids are being left out. That’s the concern of advocates like ESPN reporter Tom Farrey, in his landmark book Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children:
“It’s less and less accessible to the late bloomer, the genetically ordinary, the economically disadvantaged, the child of a one-parent household, the physically or mentally disabled, and the kid who needs exercise more than any other—the clinically obese.”
Here’s the good news: Your kids can play soccer while being unaware of any of the politics. Soccer is by far the best youth sport to play. It’s active, with all players running and moving. It doesn’t require a lot of equipment. It doesn’t require an esoteric skill like skating backward or using a lacrosse stick or even dribbling a basketball. It’s a friendly sport for beginners and a challenging sport for advanced players. They can take what they learn as kids and play recreationally as long as they’re able to run.
And we need to remember that it’s all about the kids, and every kid is different. Some kids may want to devote themselves to serious soccer at age 8. Some will never kick the ball with any serious intent.
Through it all, I’ve come to believe that the overarching goal of youth soccer should be this: Give every player the opportunity to play at a level that best suits his or her interests and aptitude.
Put even more concisely: BE INCLUSIVE!
Sounds like a simple goal, but the real world has a habit of throwing some conflicts in our way. And the simplest solution—sticking our most advanced and least advanced 8-year-olds in silos—is not the best.
Part of being inclusive is making sure the game is fun. For everyone. That’s not just some touchy-feely sentiment urging people to quit competing and give everyone a trophy every time he kicks a ball. On the contrary, you need to make it fun for the elite players as well.
“Children need three things for long term achievement: autonomy, enjoyment and intrinsic motivation,” said sports scientist Joe Baker. “If you take any of these away, you set your athlete up for failure.”
“Our national team was successful, in my opinion, because we enjoyed it,” said Julie Foudy. She won quite a bit in her career.
Fun for national team players. Fun for future pros. Fun for those who won’t make the high school team. Fun for those who won’t make the travel team.
That’s a lofty goal. But striving for a goal is what the game is all about, isn’t it?