Whose Sport Is It?

When my daughter said she wanted to give up soccer and instead run cross country in high school, I admit I was a little disappointed. She’d been playing since she was 8 or 9, and it seemed a shame that after all those years and all that training she wouldn’t play at the high school level.

Or maybe a bit more accurately: it was a shame that I wouldn’t get to enjoy sitting in the stands for 4 years watching high school soccer games.

One of the problems with youth soccer in the U.S. is that players who want to be really good end up playing virtually all year. Outdoors in fall and spring. Indoors over the winter. Camp in the summer. Footskills sessions. It requires a lot of time, and a lot of miles logged on parents’ cars. After a while, instead of being fun it becomes a grind.

I realized this, having coached some of her teams and seeing players become burned out. So despite my own selfish desire to see her play on the high school pitch, no way was I going to question or discourage her choice.

The dirty secret of youth soccer (and other youth sports) is this: in many ways it’s more about the parents and coaches than it is about the kids.

To see this firsthand just drive down to Lodi (Ohio) on a Saturday, which is where all the “premier” teams play. You’ll see an army of kids dressed up to look like little professionals, with matching warm-ups and equipment bags. You’ll see parents wearing their own team gear, as if they were there to see Manchester United play Chelsea. The worst part is what you’ll hear: parents and coaches yelling — at the kids on the field, at the referees, sometimes at other parents. Parents and coaches talk about “our” team as if they were out there playing.

When I went to coaching school, right about the time my daughter started to play, one of the teachers (who was from Scotland as I recall) said something I never forgot: when you are standing on the sidelines yelling instructions to your team, who are you doing it for? You or them?

In that instant I had one of those “aha” moments of understanding. All that stuff that parents and coaches do is for their own egos, and not for the kids.

So when my daughter decided she wanted to give up the sport she’d played for so long, I was immediately brought back to that moment, and my answer was clear.

Next: Why I Ended Up Loving Cross Country

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Whose Sport Is It?

  1. Everyone can want their kid to be great. But no one can make them be great.

    Really rather begs the question though: When “yelling instructions” from the sidelines, at what point to cross over from coaching & guidance to fulfilling your own ego?

    You can’t just say, “Do whatever you want.” to your children and then walk away. Do you not have to guide them to some extent? Once they choose something, you need to be involved and help them excel.

    Well done to allow her the freedom to switch from soccer to XC running. To me, the key at such a young age is to have fun and learn from the experiences. It’s never fun to be forced (or coerced) to do something you don’t want to do.

    I probably drove my parents crazy, even though they never showed it. I did just about every sport during my jr. and high school years. Good at all of them, excelling at none. 😉 But I always had fun.

    – Tris

    • Brian

      One of the big things I learned from those guys in coaching school is: let the game be the primary teacher. The coach’s job then is to set up the environment to make that happen.

      If you are on the sidelines always telling them what to do, then they don’t learn to recognize it for themselves. During the game you can call certain things to their attention (like “what is your shape?” when on defense), or use half-time or substitutions for teachable moments.

      And in any case, the players will mostly tell you that they tune out what the coach says during the game. 🙂

  2. Marshall

    Brian –
    My daughter has decided to leave soccer, her passion for 14 years, to study in Europe. It’s been a great road to travel with her, seeing her pick dandelions in the back field at 5 to playing NCAA on artificial turf.
    The challenge over the years has been to make sure the passion is hers, even while coaching for a couple of those years. Even with the other parents yelling at the kids, and me. I think you and Tris have hit the nail squarely. Who is the athlete here? We’ve created such a virtual world I wonder if some parents can tell the difference between a video game and their kid’s life. As a coach, high school women’s track and kid’s soccer, I tried as often as possible to keep the parents at a safe distance and encourage the kids to do their best and follow their passion.
    I think if I had the matching warm ups I’d have a different attitude. I am immensely proud to see her grow and make adult decisions on her own. She has no less passion for soccer, but perhaps a greater passion for life with the tenacity and dedication she learned in sport. On her own.
    Best of luck to your daughter in her future endeavors. She has a great “coach”.

    • Brian

      Thanks, Marshall. Having spent some extended time in Europe, I would say your daughter won’t go wrong having made that decision. Like you I’ve recognized that at some point you have to accept that such decisions are theirs alone to make.

      On a somewhat ironic side-note: a bunch of my daughters ex-teammates at her old school (West G) today are playing (v. Walsh) to advance to the final 4 in the state soccer playoffs. So her best chance at “making it to states” might have been with soccer.

  3. Jim

    As an official in high school sports for 29 years, I have seen all kinds of parents and coaches. Some good, some great, and some poor. At a youth level, IMO, it is vital to make the sport “fun”. The pressure will come later. Some folks just don’t get it. I have been told that I cost little Johnny a college scholarship, because of a match. Never mind that Johnny was 9 years old. I suspect he never got to the point of wrestling in HS because Dad took all the fun out.

    I always took pride in the fact that when my son was on the mat, I kept my mouth shut. After all, he had to deal with his opponent, not me. He knew what he could do better than I did. Last, as I always tried to show, I loved him win or lose (and he won a lot).

    Like you with soccer, I was always disappointed that he didn’t run during track season. I was a pretty good runner and understood that sport. He did run cross country but it was conditioning for what he did really well. Oh, he was successful as a runner but he didn’t have the same desire for it that I did. You know what? I lived through it!

    Today, all that is just memories but I truly am happy for the time we spent together.

  4. JimH

    Brian,
    Thanks for the excellent post. It serves to remind me of what is more important that the almighty “W”, fun! I have been coaching soccer for 7 years now and must say that I wish I had started coaching with the philosophy that I now use. I try and coach on the sidelines and let the game flow to the kids on the field. It is the whole teach the man to fish idea, let the kids play on the field and teach/coach on the sidelines. I feel that this philosophy helps develop players that have a feel for the game and lets the kids have fun. I have seen the ugly side of soccer, from parents, coaches and players and Lodi is a great place to witness both ends of the spectrum. The reality is that you and your kids probably won’t remember winning the U10 indoor league championship, but they will remember whether or not enjoyed the experience.

    Like my brother, Tris, I played just about every sport growing up and enjoyed trying new/different sports. I know my dad was disappointed that I didn’t stick with baseball (he coached), but he never pressured me to do any one sport. I try my best to encourage my kids and players to become better people and find that area that they want to excel, in or out of sports. They have to want it and as the parent you have to accept and support the decision. It sounds like you were able to do both for your daughter.

    By the way, how did the “last” race go?

    -JimH

    • Brian

      I don’t have illusions that the “W” isn’t important. You might say to the kids, “well the important thing is that you had fun!”. Then hear them tell you that winning is more fun than losing. I remember one year when her team moved up to the top division, but unfortunately lost a few (very good) players. They often had to play down a player or 2 and had no subs. They lost most every game. There was little fun that season. But they got very fit.

      If I ask my daughter about what are her best memories from playing, she’ll actually mention winning one of the big indoor tournaments (I think it was U12). That, and going to out of town tournaments where they got to stay in a hotel and probably stayed up half the night.

      When you get down to it, I’d guess that the most important thing to her was being on a team with friends (or that developed into being friends).

      As for the last meet … you can scroll down and read about it. We didn’t get to drive to Columbus and escape yesterday’s snow.

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