I’m just going to go ahead and start with this disclaimer:
I’ve been around the game of soccer for a long time – playing, coaching, watching, reading, and consistently learning new things about it. It’s taught me so many things about life, given me opportunities I never thought I’d have, and has allowed me to forge some amazing relationships. But by no means do I consider myself the “expert” nor do I have a ton of fancy coaching certificates or accolades. I just have my experience; what I’ve seen, heard and been through.
And through those experiences I’ve developed just a few thoughts about youth sports these days. Yea, yea, here we go…another one of those “youth sports talks.” But hang with me here.
I was trying to think of the best way to communicate my thoughts and realized that sooner or later I would be the one who would need to be reminded of these things just as much as the next guy.
So I did the cheesy thing and wrote a letter to my future parent self.
I hope that I remember these words the exact moment my kid steps onto the field or court for the first time. Assuming, of course, that they play sports. 😉
Dear crazy competitive soccer mom (aka Amber Ginop/me),
From the moment your kid slips that first little jersey over their head and ties up their cute mini-sized cleats, remember why they’re playing. They’re playing because it’s fun. Because it brings them joy. Because of the life lessons they’ll learn. Because they get to be with their friends. And because they love competition and the feeling of practice paying off as they improve.
Remember, you’ve coached at several levels, from beginner recreational type kids to college kids. And no matter the level, do you remember what made kids stand out as the most successful? The ones that played with joy, that exuded life and personality when they stepped on the field. The ones that wanted to be there because they loved the game and being a part of a team.
Let’s define success really quickly. Success, to you, as a coach and player, was when players would show up to a practice or a game with smiles on their faces…and not always just the happy go lucky smile, but maybe a smile that meant business, as in a, “can’t wait to get out there and dominate my opponent” competitive type smile. They didn’t have to be the best player skill wise. Success was in their attitude. Success was doing what it took for the team to win. They understood the dynamics and felt worthy in their role, no matter what it was on the team.
It’s crazy though, over the past decade with the serious development of club sports, I’ve started to see less joy, more demands, more money paid out, and more frustration and unhappiness from kids and parents alike. Not all, but many.
A lot of kids are playing because they feel they have to, because their parents feel like they have to – to keep up – to keep appearances – to try and make sure their kid is the “best.” This isn’t really a new concept in the world of youth sports, but it’s seemed to magnify over the past few years.
Look – kids develop at ALL different ages and stages. If your child is 10 years old and isn’t where little Susie superstar is at 10 – it doesn’t mean they are doomed to horribleness forever or that they need to train four more days per week. It could probably just mean a few different things:
#1. They’re 10. They have so much to learn and develop yet. Give it time. Nurture their love for the game, for being a part of a team, for learning. Don’t push them over the edge because you think they should be the next Alex Morgan by now. I hate to say this, but the odds that your daughter will be the next Alex are pretty slim. And that’s ok. Really, it is, no one’s going to look down on you as a parent because of that.
#2. Maybe they aren’t going to be a high school superstar or college player or the professional player you wanted them to be. I know this may hurt to hear, but again, it’s ok. This seems so cliche to have to put out there, but sports aren’t about simply trying to produce the next superstar or winning all the trophies and awards. Yes, I know you want your kids to be the best. But let’s focus on them being the best versions of themselves. If wins and trophies and scholarships are a result of that, then that’s amazing! But realize that experience and memories and friendships are all fantastic results as well.
Stop trying to compare your kid to Susie superstar on their team and being disappointed or frustrated when they aren’t there yet. Because when they aren’t, they’ll feel like they’ve let you down and let themselves down. They’ll feel like a failure and won’t want to keep playing. Their joy is lost.
Because as the saying goes: “comparison is the thief of joy.” And it’s happening in real time, right now in 2016, and it’s hurting our kids and the purpose of the game.
Parents are shelling out thousands of dollars to play on the best teams with the best coaches and the best facilities. And look, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that if your intentions are in the right place. Your kid loves to play and gets great joy from stepping on the field with his or her teammates. They want to continue to get better and put more resources into it because they love it. But it’s their joy of playing and getting better that’s pushing them there, right? Not you pushing them to be this certain thing. Let’s just make sure that continues to be the case.
Amber, please, don’t be that parent.
Don’t you remember about 20 years ago when club soccer was really starting up in Grand Rapids? When you learned that you could play at a little higher level with tougher competition, and how nervous and excited you were when your parents presented the opportunity to you? It wasn’t the expectation that you needed to do it, it was your choice. You decided to give it a try. You fell in love with soccer even more – even though you literally lost every single game that first year. But you loved it, you couldn’t get enough of the game and the rush of joy it brought you to kick around a ball.
Now, in some cases, the expectation in some parent’s minds has turned to…”Oh, you want to play soccer? You need to pay $5,000-$10,000 a year and travel every other weekend,” because if you don’t, you’re doing your kid a disservice and are considered behind. Select soccer and some levels of club have now become the new “AYSO.” Every team is a “premier” team. I get it that the pressure is high to put your kid in a club sport, whether it be volleyball, basketball, etc. I get it that you feel like you have to do it so your kid can “keep up.” Right now, I’m not sure what the solution is to that “keeping up with the Joneses” theory, I’m just reminding you to be aware of it.
And one of the worst parts of this current situation? Some kids from lower-income families are starting to get shut out of organized sports because of this. (These two articles shed more light on the situation, and it’s not pretty: Article #1, Article #2 ) There’s so much we could talk about here, but that’s a whole other conversation for another day.
Think of the teams you’ve played on or coached for where a player’s body language just screams “I don’t want to be here, this isn’t fun for me.” I’m not talking about the off days where kids just aren’t into it, I’m talking about the kids who you know are only there because their parents want them there, and push for them to be the star, even when it’s not realistic at all. How do you encourage and coach a kid like that? How do you bring joy back into the game for them? How do you inspire them to be THEIR best, even if it’s not the best on the team, when you know they go home and their parents barrage them with questions about scoring goals, starting positions and college scouting tournaments? Or when they’re yelling craziness from the sidelines during games? Isn’t it enough that they just go and play, do their best, have fun, compete hard and make memories while doing it?
It’s hard because it seems like there are inevitable tradeoffs happening in youth sports now:
>Playing time equals worthiness
>The club you play for means you’re either serious about your sport, or your not.
>You want to be the best? You need to specialize in one sport by the time you’re 8, otherwise you’ll fall behind.
>You play club and want to play other sports too at the same time? Don’t even think about it.
Ugh. These perceptions are the worst.
Amber, if you’re upset that you’ve “paid all this money” over the years for your child to play on a premier team (assuming you can afford it), but they don’t seem to be developing like the other kids, aren’t getting recruited by any colleges and aren’t playing much… you need to take a step back. Where were your intentions and priorities in the first place?
I’m not telling you to not give your kids a little nudge in the right direction or give them guidance when you know they are capable of great things, but I’m reminding you to be careful of when it gets to be too much and the joy begins to disappear for them.
Much like in life and in work, those who are joyful and happy in what they are doing are typically also the most successful. And that’s no coincidence.
Look Amber, I know you’re competitive. I know you like to win. I know how much this sport means to you….but just let your kid play, and play for the joy of it. I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the results.
Pre-parent 2016 Amber.
Also, PS: under no circumstances are you allowed to start driving a soccer mom minivan.