This is the first of a two-part column about youth soccer
I found myself reading a local soccer blog recently, which I rarely do to catch up on some information relevant to the actual league we find our teams competing in. However, after reading yet more negativity in the local soccer community, it gave me an idea. It is time to shift away from all the opinions, negativity and misconduct when it comes to youth soccer. In this day and age, it seems that no program is good enough, no coach is ever given enough credit, nor the volunteers, and the hardest part is that there is a tremendous amount of expertise coming from the sidelines which generally does not involve the highly educated soccer folks who are working hard to make the game a safe, enjoyable and rewarding experience for youth.
Pressure comes in all shapes and forms. There is internal pressure from the individual. There is peer pressure and of course pressure from parents. The most difficult part as a soccer educator is to see conflict in youth who carry a tremendous amount of pressure from home. In fact, the simple beauty and enjoyment in the game, any game and/or sport for that matter, is watching youth excel, compete, cooperate, develop lifelong friendships and mature through sport. Call me naive, but the journey for all participants in youth soccer is not solely about making the provincial team, playing for your country and/or making the professional level. For most, the game provides an experience, and experience shared growing up with other youth who have similar goals and ambition.
Respect comes in many shapes and forms. For the game. For the team. For the coach, team manager and volunteers. For the community. The game has taken a beating in youth soccer, especially in what is considered competitive youth soccer, which can start for kids 11 and older in our region. Suddenly the game becomes serious for the coaches and parents. Some, not all. It is the portion of the population who fail to see the negative influence they are starting to make on the development of youth, the game and community that this article is being written. It is a sad and common reality to learn of the number of occasions when youth soccer officials are constantly criticized and abused from the sidelines because of their ability to influence a game, manage a game, or heaven forbid make a mistake. There is a severe absence of younger soccer referees coming forward, and in speaking with youth who have tried, they share a common concern. Many have chosen not to officiate for fear of a coach running up the score in a competitive youth soccer game. Many have walked away for being criticized from the sidelines while trying their best. Far too much emphasis is being placed on the idea that the game of soccer does not involve unpredictable movements, moments in the child’s life which we do not control, which often tend not to line up with the hopes, goals and/or aspirations of an over-concentrated coach and/or parent. The beauty of watching youth officiate lies in the mentorship that may be provided on the field with the players they may be officiating, as well as the mentoring between officials. In all my years of enjoying the game, the process in which experienced officials nurture, educate, train and help younger/less experienced officials is charming.
How do we choose to measure success? There is the potential for many ways to measure success. But let’s think back to the first time our son or daughter stepped onto the soccer field. I can only assume we shared thoughts like, I hope they do not run the wrong way. I hope they do not trip over an untied shoelace. I wonder if they will fit in? I wonder how they will react to being in a new group? What am I going to do if they start crying and want to go home? I can also imagine there would be a tremendous amount of laughter and good times. Let’s fast forward to the age of 14, 15 or 16. Regardless of level and/or calibre of play, how much has changed? I can safely assume there is more pressure on the individual, team, parent and coach as the player’s get older and play in a more competitive environment. With this in mind, can we stop for a moment and determine how much of the experience is pleasure and how much is pain? There is a severe absence of humour in parents watching their children play as they get older and enter a more competitive training and/or playing environment. Sadly, this pressure comes in many forms. One of my least favourite is the parent who storms up and down the sidelines telling players what to do whether they have the ball or not. Even better, spectators, who show up and start communicating their wisdom to the player’s/team involved in a game that a coach may have implemented a game plan/strategy to which the comments from the parent/spectator may have absolutely no relevance.
How can we give the game back to the kids?
In my experience working with youth soccer players in North America, it is common for parents to drop their child at the game or practice and make their way to the fence surrounding the field. From this vantage point, there are few, not all that take the liberty to holler at their kids, perhaps other players while observing from the outside. One of my distant but favourite memories involves a training session at a venue where there was a large open space of grass, possibly the size of three to four soccer fields with no specific dimensions. Amidst the training session being run in a 30x40 metre area within this vast space, the lone parent who was watching came up and eventually onto the field to yell at a player. As the sessions wore on and the parent continued to interfere with the training session, I noticed the parent was now yelling at more than one player. So, I quickly collected the players and gave them a water break. Immediately walked over to the parent and asked them how they were doing. I then proceeded to advise the parent that if they wanted to communicate more clearly with one of the players they were yelling at, that perhaps the parent should speak Spanish as the player in question was an international exchange student and was not fluent in English. Interestingly, in Europe, when players are dropped off at a soccer training session by the parent, they enter an environment which is controlled and absent of parental influence.
Shel Brodsgaard is the soccer development co-ordinator for the the VIPL Riptide program