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Commentary Oct 29, 2013

What do rankings tell us?

Editor’s note: This is the latest blog post from Dr. Wendy Lebolt, a longtime coach and physiologist who is the founder of Fit2Finish, a Northern Virginia-based training, fitness and rehabilitation company which works with teams and individual players to maximize health and performance. The Soccer Wire is excited to present Wendy’s learned perspectives on the mental, physical and psychological aspects of the beautiful game. Learn more about her background here.

Many are taking aim at the recent decision by to rank U10 and U11 teams. Why not? We’re a country that ranks and compares. We boast and brag. We compete. I’ll be happy to tell you that…

I graduated  ____ in my high school class, or with _____ honors from college.

I have a ____ handicap, and played for _________ championship team.

I have _____ facebook friends, and got ____ likes on the status, photo or comment I posted.

I got _____ visitors to my new website, or _____ click-throughs on my blog post.

I make $ _____, drive _____ car, live in _____ neighborhood.

Down we spiral into the land of comparison, status and self-celebration, but this defines us. It helps us know where we stand. We can be pretty narcissistic, but it comes to an end, right? Right when we have children.

Then, my Christmas letter is not long enough to sing all the praises of my little cherubs.  Their recitals, special selections, tournaments, awards, achievements and accomplishments. They are my world; why shouldn’t they be yours?

Because, their world belongs to them. When did I take it from them and make it mine?

Much is made of the mass exodus from sports – estimated at 70 percent – that happens with our middle-school-aged children (ages 11-13). Where are they going? Gary Allen (a former Virginia Youth Soccer Association education director) sees an answer in the rise in participation in “extreme sports.”

Why? Because their parents don’t know those sports and can’t tell them what to do.

I don’t think he’s far wrong. Anyone who has stood on the sidelines of a few competitive youth matches will know what I’m talking about. We are VERY invested in our kids’ success. Even if it’s just a weekend game.

It is no wonder, then, that GotSoccer reports that the younger age groups are clamoring for rankings.

Or as Diane Scavuzzo at SoccerNation News writes, “while not all coaches are enamored with the concept of ranking teams, players and parents eagerly turn to the pages and search for their team.”

I believe this. Don’t you?

So they are just giving us more of what we’re asking for. Which is harmless fun until it counts for something. And this is the reality in the high-school ranks. Kids play on teams where they hope to be seen by college coaches. We are currently living in that system.

It serves a purpose, providing a way to decide which teams are accepted into tournaments and which flights they will play in to have competitive games. Blowouts don’t serve any purpose. Healthy competition does.

But what is our fixation with ranking the youngest? And again, I am not blaming GotSoccer here, but we who have “asked for it.”

Let’s look at the characteristics of U-10 children, 3rd and 4th graders. They’re growing, at quite divergent rates, physically, mentally and emotionally.

According to VYSA (PDF), “these kids are becoming more serious about their soccer. Peer group belonging and pressure generated by peers becomes more significant. The need to belong becomes important.”

The U-11s (4th and 5th graders) are getting stronger, more physically coordinated and capable. They are beginning to identify who the “good kids” are.

The VYSA handbook says, “From a social perspective whether a child enters puberty early or late is significant. Girls tend to form cliques while boys take a more broad approach to team relationships. How they feel about themselves can determine how they relate to their teammates. Sometimes popularity influences self-esteem.”

These are some formational years. It’s a time of growing and changing, and not just physically. Kids are trying to decide how to feel about themselves and they’re looking around for clues. They are right in the middle of swapping Mom and Dad’s approval for peer approval.

It’s like they have one arm and one foot strapped on either side of the rack; rankings will just help turn that crank. Not directly, mind you, but through our parental example and reactions, whether we notice them or not. And trust me, we are not very objective about ourselves. (See above)

Go out and play a parent vs kids pick-up game and it’s awesome. Battle it out on the rec field and it’s fine, as long as there’s a snack and especially if there’s a pizza party. Add in a dose of league play and rivalry and the losers may hang their heads all the way to the car, but they re-group on the ride home if you let them.

But, ramp it up to a competitive event that determines whether the team goes through to the finals and you may start to hear discouraging or even four-letter words being launched from the bench. Yes, even at U-9 and U-10 players. I don’t know everything about developing youth soccer players, but I know that doesn’t get you there.

The saddest child of all: the kid on this team whose parent is doing the yelling, likely the coach.

Something about putting it on the line (even for bragging rights) brings out an adult version of competitiveness that’s especially ugly. I think because we are made to stand on the sidelines and let them battle it out on the field, all by their little selves.

We can’t do it for them. That’s the way it should be. It’s their world and it should belong to them. If we clamor for rankings, why? If rankings alter our behavior, why?

We need to take a good hard look at ourselves and wonder if we have met the enemy, and it is us.

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