A recent article by Rick Meana, Director of Coaching for New Jersey Youth Soccer, summarized the responses of many State DOCs to a position paper from US Soccer that calls for, among other things, non-result based competition for U12 and below. That’s not a typo. Even though Rick’s article talks about U10, I was able to find the position paper after much searching and it clearly says ‘younger than twelve’. When did everyone suddenly decide that keeping score in a competitive sport was a bad thing? When did we decide that kids younger than twelve couldn’t handle knowing the score of a competition they are in? What isn’t said, but becomes very clear, is that perhaps it is the parents and coaches that can’t handle it.
The undated position paper was authored by Bruce Arena (Men’s National Team Coach), April Heinrichs (Women’s National Team Coach), and John Ellinger (U17 National Team Coach). So where do I get the cojones to argue with their conclusions? Oh yeah, here.
Here is what the position paper lays out for both tournaments and regular season play:
AGE OF COMPETITIVE PLAY
- To promote a playing environment for preteen players that allows them to pursue playing opportunities that meet both their interest and ability level.
- To strongly discourage playing environments for where players under the age of twelve are forced to meet the same "competitive" demands as their older counterparts.
- Players under the age of twelve should remain in developmental soccer programs where no league or match results are maintained.
FESTIVALS vs. TOURNAMENTS
High level of participation in tournaments effects the development of the player in the following way:
- time is reduced for development, i.e. practice
- excessive play at competitive tournaments can be detrimental to individual growth and development
- winning becomes the main issue for the coach rather than the long term development of the player
- For players below the age of ten a festival format should replace a tournament structure. Festivals feature a set number of games with no elimination or ultimate winner.
That’s a pretty significant proposal. They’re basically saying kids younger than 12 shouldn’t be exposed to results based competition. Kids only 1-2 years out of middle school should not have to deal with the pressures of league standings or competition results. That’s scary stuff for a country that treats competition as a quasi constitutional right.
Regarding the tournaments, there’s nothing wrong with festivals and many high level teams can spend a LOT of time on the road. I agree that they need to spend more time on development and practice. But when did we discover that kids younger than ten shouldn’t be exposed to pressure or losing? Why is it such a bad thing for a child to know that their team lost or that their team isn’t #1? As a parent and coach I see this as a teaching opportunity. My kids had an average season this year, but learned a lot and showed vast improvement. However, one of the reasons they got so fired up for a recent match against the #2 team was because it was a single elimination tournament. They knew they had to play their best if they wanted to move on. And they did. It was an amazing match and a huge confidence boost for them, one I’m not sure would have happened in a festival or regular season match.
When we lost in the semi-finals because we fell back into our passive ‘wait and see what they do’ play, it hurt. But it also was a key teaching moment. On the bench, after the match, I asked them what went wrong. It made them think about what they had done and what they could have done better. But in the end, it also taught them how to deal with disappointment. It was my job as a coach to help them through it, just like any teacher. But in the end I think it helps them down the road as the disappointments get bigger. We even have tournaments for our U8 teams at the end of the season and I’ll be the first to say I think they handle the loses better than the older kids because the coaches do make an effort to keep the pressure low. Are some tears shed? Sure. Is that the end of the world for these kids. No. Do they learn something? Yes.
There has been much debate over the recent tendency of American’s wanting to coddle our children. Over and over again we are told that kids shouldn’t do this or shouldn’t do that. Is it any wonder why they often get fat playing video games inside all the time? We’re afraid to let them out of the house out of our sight. How many times have you seen parents make excuses for their kids instead of having them take responsibility for their actions? While part of that may be this crazy new world we live in, there seems to be something more to it. A recent Wall Street Journal article summed it up nicely:
Students from high-pressured, upscale households are more sheltered today than even five years ago, says Lisa Jacobson, founder of Inspirica, a New York-based tutoring and test-preparation firm. Parents have been micromanaging these kids’ lives for so long that the kids often are unable to cope with disappointments and rejections. Parents have to let children develop life skills.
Look, I agree that not keeping score for U6 teams is a good thing. It gets them started with the game of soccer and they don’t worry about scores, just ‘getting The BALL!’ But once the kids hit U8, they can start to handle some of life’s lessons and SOME competitive pressure. They’re in school working hard and playing harder on the playground. All the U8 teams I’ve been involved with have handled losses well, even in tournament matches. At U10, I absolutely think they need to start understanding about the competitive spirit, good sportsmanship, driving towards a goal, and dealing with pressure. At U12, they’re almost in middle school! Our kids are growing up faster and like it or not we need to prepare them, not shelter them.
Even US Soccer agrees with this. In another paper dealing with parental behavior (which makes some excellent recommendations BTW), they talk about how children need to learn to deal with adversity and loss:
young players need to be able to embrace adversity whether this is a difficult loss, being cut from a team, accepting a referee’s decision or even working out difficulties among themselves. At the very least they need to be able to handle it in a positive, independent way.
Parents must help guide their children through adverse times being careful not to stifle their ability to turn a negative situation in to a positive one. The individuals who have learned this are much more likely to reach farther then anyone thought possible. Every player that has made a career of professional sport or who has made a national team has suffered through their own share of adversity. Parents must think of adversity as an opportunity for their children to grow.
The trick is what they mean by young. As a parent I think my kids are ready to handle the pressures of results oriented competition when they turn 7 or 8. Maybe that’s just me.
I can’t help but think that there is something else at work here. Note this passage from Rick Meana’s article:
we do not want our U10 coaches choosing to leave a strong player at center back or goalkeeper for the entire game just to give their team the best chance to win nor do we want them to hesitate in putting in a less skilled player in a close game because it may mean they must take a more developed player off. Unfortunately coaches will not take this chance. They would rather sacrifice player development in the name of winning. On the one hand they would be sacrificing the development of the advanced player and on the other hand they would be sacrificing the development of a child who may end up being a late bloomer. We do not want our U10 coaches coaching to win. Even if a player has played at least half a game all season if a coach chooses to deny the player that same time on the field in a tournament final then we have sent that player a clear message and the message is your not good enough to play. If we truly believe that the U10 coaches’ job not to win games then why do we put them into a position where they need to choose between winning and player development? When we hold out the carrot of winning a championship trophy at the end of the season there are unspoken expectations that we may be testing the resolve of even the best youth coaches.
I touched on this earlier talking about offsides. It seems that we are taking the competition out of youth soccer because the coaches and parents can’t do the right thing. Over and over we can’t do this or that because coaches might be tempted to coach to win or parents are misbehaving due to the pressure. Do you notice a theme here? We’re altering the experiences of the kids because of the behavior of the adults.
As league administrators and coaches – we are educators. We do this to teach the beautiful game to our children. But we also have a responsibility to educate our parents and our newer coaches on the right way to do it. If we’d take that responsibility seriously – maybe we wouldn’t need to neuter youth soccer in the process. As league administrators, we need to work hard to educate our coaches but also to follow up on it. Many leagues have 50% play rules for a reason. But the key is enforcement. Most coaches WILL coach to develop and get their players to learn. But a few will not. You have to make sure they start to or maybe they need to find a new role. The same goes for parents. If you see a parent who can’t handle the pressure – it needs to be handled. Tactfully discuss your concerns with them that you feel they are placing undue pressure on a kid too young to handle it. You won’t convince everyone and some parents will simply NEVER do right, even if there are no results. They will know the standings in their head. DOCs can do more than hold clinics and classes. Have them and your senior coaches stroll around on game days to see how things are going and how the coaches are handling the competitive spirit of the game.
I would venture to say that having result oriented tournaments at the end of a season can actually HELP foster development during the regular season. Case in point. Our seasons consist of 8 matches usually over two months. We make clear to our coaches that all players get 50% playing time for all regular season matches. We stress that they too are learning experiences and that they need to not ‘coach to win’. Officers that notice this going on deal with it with the coach. In the end, most of the coaches go along. Why? Partly because we have an end of season tournament where they are expected to take things up a notch and TRY to win. We make sure all the kids play, but know that 50% is probably not realistic. Believe it or not, our U10 and U12 championships went to shootouts thanks to a very fast and high intensity game, and all the kids got significant playing time on both sides. Was it 50%? No. Did the stars stay in longer? Yes. But the kids know the difference between the regular season and the tournament and the ones I’ve spoken with are cool with that for a week.
If we spend MOST of our season working on core skills, fair play, position rotation, trying new things, etc. it should be OK for one week to actually compete seriously. All the regular season standings mean is bragging rights and your tournament seed. That’s just not much incentive to coach to win. Everyone makes the tournament.
One of the best things about a tournament is it allows me to tell my kids that from that point our record is 0-0. No matter what happened during the season, we’re starting from scratch and to get out there and do their best. We’ve spent all season practicing and refining our skills and no matter what our record is, we get to start over playing much better than when we started. Even the U8 kids get excited as the tournament approaches. We’ve seen 5 U8 tournament matches go to a shoot-out and the kids have handled it VERY well. That’s a high pressure situation, but we work with our coaches to work with the kids on handling the pressure and understanding that even if they lose – its only a game. You don’t need to eliminate results to do that.
In a lot of the things I’ve read about this, a common theme seems to crop up but is never addressed directly. You get the feeling that the powers that be feel that hordes of kids are dropping out of soccer because they’re being pushed to win too early. What I don’t understand is if this is the case, why haven’t sports like baseball, basketball, and football seen precipitous drops in participation? All are very competitive, maintain standings, and hold tournaments. What makes soccer so different that moderate results oriented competition is driving kids away? Consider this passage:
In April of 1989 at the Annual Conference of the United States Soccer Federation, which was held in Colorado Springs, Seefeldt, Ewing, Walk, Hylka, and Trevor presented a study titled "Reason for Participating in and Dropping Out of American Youth Soccer. From this we soccer educators learned that winning was not amongst top ten reasons why girls played the game, and it was only 9th on the list for boys. Instead, boys and girls both reported that having fun, the excitement of competing and improving their skills were ranked higher than winning!
OK then. If winning isn’t anywhere near the top of the list of reasons for playing, why would the possibility of losing a match, knowing the score, and knowing where it placed your team make you bolt? The fact that they all reported that ‘having fun, the excitement of competing and improving their skills were ranked higher than winning’ tells me the kids who bolt are doing it for other reasons.
Do bad parents drive kids out of soccer? Sure – just like in any sport. Can bad coaches sour kids on a sport? Yes. Will eliminating results change that? No. Only constant education of parents and coaches can and even then it might not make a difference. All we can do is attempt to build programs up with quality volunteers who KNOW how to handle pressure and use it as a teaching tool while having lots of fun too.
As a league administrator, guess which division I have the most trouble with related to coach and parent behavior? U6. That’s right. The division where we don’t keep score or standings or have a tournament is the division we have to deal with the most. This is because the coaches and parents tend to be new to the sport (or any sport for that matter) and this is where we concentrate our efforts at teaching. So far it is working. Our older divisions are better behavior wise because of our efforts in U6. I won’t lie. We’ve had parents you just KNEW would not change, despite repeated attempts to get them to see the light. More often than not those parents choose to leave the league because they know their behavior is drawing attention to themselves.
Taking the competition out of youth soccer is not going to suddenly keep coaches from coaching to win or parents from acting inappropriately. Score or no score, certain coaches want to win. Period. Our job as soccer administrators is to educate them about player development while giving the player and coaches a moderate amount of pressured competition. But there comes a time when it’s clear a coach absolutely will not change their ways. Instead of coming up with a new way of running soccer, maybe its time to find a new coach. Most leagues have codes of conduct for their parents and coach laying out the behavior that is expected of them. But if it is never enforced, some will never take it seriously. Instead of removing the temptation, maybe we need to make clear that refusal to meet the expectations of proper behavior can result in consequences.
There is no denying the fact that coach and parental behavior can have a VERY corrosive effect on kids. It can definitely lead them to quit the sport prematurely. But it seems naive to think that by removing results based competition from youth soccer we will suddenly get parents and coaches behaving. As coaches and league officials we can never forget that we are educators of not just children but parents and younger coaches too. If we take that responsibility seriously, we can do MUCH more about player retention than by neutering the sport. That’s just my opinion as a league administrator. Peole with decades more experieince than me seem to think otherwise and I obviously respect that. But that doesn’t meant we shouldn’t have a spirited debate about it if we disagree. I definitely want to read your thoughts on this in the comments.
Let me end with an anecdote. U8 tournament match last Fall. #1 and #2 teams are playing and it is a VERY intense match. Suddenly a questionable call and a large group of parents seemed to cross the line from cheering to malice. Even a couple police officers standing nearby started drifting towards the sidelines. The coaches recognized this and walked out onto the field stopping the match. They both went to the sidelines and said ‘Hey, this is a game and we need to remember that. Our kids see and hear how you are behaving and there is no excuse for it. We’re here to encourage our kids and be happy for them win or lose. Your behavior is crossing the line and even the police officers know it’ That was all it took. They turned around to see the two officers standing 10 feet away and were floored. It really woke them up to see that and to have the coaches come over from across the field in the middle of the match and say that. Sometimes that is all it takes. The parents calmed down WAY down, the match continued, and something was learned.