Youth sports in the USA (Part 2): A parents guide to steering past the pitfalls 08/30/2022 – Soccer America

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In Part 1, Youth sports in the USA: It’s time to fix what’s broken, we detailed the areas of our youth sports systems that, at worst, can create anxiety, depression, burnout, fragility, and contribute to kids quitting sports altogether.
Here is what we should do:
1. Sport sampling — Encourage your child to play multiple sports. This is healthy for many reasons:

It allows your child to try multiple sports to experience which sport really suits them from a physical, emotional, and social aspect. This is called “match fit.”

Your kid experiences more challenges and stimuli when multiple sports are played. This allows kids to develop into all-around high-quality athletes that can transfer skills from one sport to another. For example, playing basketball can help an athlete read bounces, balls in the air, and understand their ability to jump. With those skills, a soccer player can read the flight of a punted ball and know when to jump to time a header. There are countless examples of successful athletes who played a multitude of sports growing up and credit that sport sampling for their success: Roger Federer, Russell Wilson and Megan Rapinoe to name just a few. It turns out, they are not the exception, they are the rule. There are many resources that back this theory with science, David Epstein’s book: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.

It provides balance and learning opportunities from serving multiple roles. Maybe your kid is the point guard on a basketball team of four other players. Maybe your kid is a tennis player out on the court alone. Maybe your kid is a running back on a football team of 30. Maybe your kid is the backup pitcher struggling to get time in the game. In each of these sports and scenarios your child serves a different role and has to learn how to fill that role effectively.

It lowers risk of injury because the body develops a wide range of movements that are necessary for the different sports played.
2. Sport sampling and offseason — This is healthy for many reasons:
When your child plays the same sport 365 days a year they are consistently using, exerting and straining the same muscle groups. Those muscles never really get a break and so they are more susceptible to injury including long-term injuries that we are seeing earlier and earlier in most sports these days (due to early specialization) such as ACL tears in women’s soccer players. Similar to a pitch count in baseball, we should have a sport-specific “pitch count” that, when hit, signals time to take a mental and physical break.

An offseason allows your kid to be a kid — not everything they do has to revolve around some sports league. Let your child play in the woods, dig holes, go to the beach, take singing lessons, explore an artistic craft. This will allow them to build their identity outside of sport which is so important for …

Balance. An offseason provides balance for a child so they don’t wrap their value, worth, and identity around a single sport. Allow your child to see themself as a whole human being with a variety of interests.

Longevity. An alarming number of kids are quitting sports altogether by the age of 13 and much of this has to do with the intensity with which the American model approaches a game. With the opportunity to sample sports and have an offseason, we enable and encourage our children to play longer.

3. Play fewer games and keep them local — Sports science and periodization have shown us that games push our children to their capacity when it comes to physical exertion. For example, full recovery time after a 90-minute soccer game is 72 hours. When we have our kids playing back-to-back games, this increases to 96 hours. I am not saying we can’t have the occasional two-game weekend or tournament, but it is important that we allow our kids the recovery time or else injury and burnout are a real possibility. Also, reducing the number of games reduces the travel time for families. Too often, entire weekends are dedicated to getting to, playing, and getting home from a game that can be several hours away.
Also, the more we build in national championships, national rankings, and tournament champions from such a young age – the business side of youth sports – we are teaching our kids to treat it like a business. What more is there to play for once you won the national championship? Talk about a come down (a very real mental health issue for Olympians and any athlete who wins a big championship – just ask Michael Phelps).
But wait, you won a national championship! So what? There are eight more next month and tomorrow you have two league games four hours away. Our children lose the most important reason of why we play … to play. The sport becomes purely about the result, not the process. This is a sad reality we are living in now. The family spends all hours planning and attending these overwhelming number of events which leaves no time for all the other healthy, balancing, and free form activities. The sport is the family business, and your child is the employee.

4. Pickup style games — The more we can get out of the way of our child’s sports experience, the better. That means we should still support our children, but we need to allow them to lead the way. This includes pickup games with neighborhood kids or even pickup games at practice. When we constantly and consistently organize practice, the sport turns into a science rather than what it should be, an art form. We risk creating robots who play to please the coach/parent rather than for the love of the game. Also, when kids call their own fouls, create their own rules, mitigate competition and conflict, the valuable lessons that sport teaches are fully on display. The kids learn how to be autonomous, independent and self-regulating. They also learn what it means to cultivate an intrinsic desire to win (see No. 6).
5. The right ride home — There is a good reason that surveys show kids prefer the ride home with their grandparents over their parents. Grandparents don’t critique the coaches’ substitution in the 58th minute or chastise the referee for a missed call. My advice is to act like a grandparent and stick to these two comments:
1. “I loved watching you play.”
2. “That play (add details) was awesome!” Bring up one key play that stands out to you that acknowledges effort and/or character. For example, “I loved that you were the first person to high-five your teammate when they scored that goal.” Or “It was awesome to see you get back up when that player knocked you out of bounds.” Then shut up and let them lead the conversation.
6. Long-term development — Coaches and parents should have a long-term view of their child’s development. Like, long term. What is best for them now so that they are healthy and thriving at age 25. See 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5 on how to have a long-term development outlook. I can already hear a lot of parents say to me, “Winning matters!’ I had this exact conversation recently with a parent of a kid I train. I agree, winning does matter. Why?

Winning should be a byproduct of an effective developmental process. If you are building a successful team with successful habits, you will win. Not all the time, but more of the time. Another great lesson for kids to learn — you can do all the right things and still not win.
Winning should and can be an intrinsic motivation to athletes. One of the many benefits of playing pickup street hockey with all my friends against our rival neighborhood was cultivating the deep desire to win. Not for our record in the league, not for my parents, coaches, or club, not for the trophy or medal at the end (there was none) but for me — my own standards, my pride, my neighborhood reputation. This intrinsic desire carried over to playing tennis with my brother, soccer at recess, cards on vacation. You name it. I wanted to win for me and live up to my own standards.
Another big piece of the “Win NOW” puzzle is the fact that kids mature at different rates. Here is where we need to introduce the Relative Age Effect — a term used to describe how those born early in the academic year tend to perform to a higher level than those born later.
This disadvantage may occur because those who are older are typically more physically, emotionally, or cognitively developed than those who are younger. So, if we emphasize winning now, we are selecting players who are not necessarily better, they are just born in the early part of the year. We run the risk of discouraging those born later and watching them quit the sport altogether.
Also, we run the risk of emphasizing size over skill and so the players born earlier do not develop the same technical skills and rely mainly on their physical dominance. Those physical aspects will level off over time; the late bloomers who hang in there eventually catch up and are often more advanced and well-rounded when this happens.
Another option is bio-banding — This was a concept introduced to us in the B Course. You lump players together by maturation, not age. So, if you have a player born in the early part of the year that is more physically, cognitively, and emotionally developed, you may push them to the higher level, so they are challenged on a consistent basis. The same goes for the late developer. You may push them to a lower level, so they are properly challenged and not consistently discouraged by being the smallest player on the field.

7. Your child is NOT the exception – science applies to everyone. And the chances of your child getting a college scholarship are miniscule. The chances of them going pro? Next to nothing. So, as you stress to keep your child as the top player at age 11 and inundate them with sport specialized activities, you are risking building a human that gets burnt out, hates the sport, resents their parents, and gets seriously injured. Plus, there is a huge cost to the family as a whole – gone are the breaks, vacations, and balance that allows all members to understand there is more to life than just the game. The risk is not worth whatever reward you see way down the line.
8. Parents back the F*** up – This is not your journey. I repeat. This is not your journey. The more times your child looks over at you for whatever reason, they less they are present in the moment. Should you attend games and be engaged in your child’s sporting life? Of course, and the sole reason for this is you love to watch them play. If and when they need you, you are there. Otherwise, stay the F out of it. Let your child absorb and learn all the invaluable lessons that sport teaches without you attached at their hip. Your child, at some point, will get cut from a team, injured, hurt, frustrated but that is the whole point. Sport has a unique and incomparable way of presenting us with adversity and the safe environment where one can overcome it. The ultimate goal, remember, is to build a self-actualized human who can resiliently, independently and confidently walk through this world knowing they can handle whatever life throws their way.
Honestly, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to be said but I will leave you with this:
Three pieces of advice to parents
1. Fight the pressure — A lot of the decisions we make are out of comparison to others. There is a reason Theodore Roosevelt said, “comparison is the thief of joy.” The “keeping up with the Jones’” model is suffocating and unhealthy. Sure, the player who gets more minutes than your child does personal training three days a week, 52 weeks a year at the age of 11. So what? We have learned above that this is not what is healthy for long-term development or an indication of long-term success. Fight the pressure, follow the science, and do what is right for your child now so they are healthy and happy at 25.
2. Listen to your kid — The parents’ job is to support the needs of their child, not mold their child into the athlete you wanted to be. So you played high-level basketball? So what? That does not equate to your child following the same path. Listen to what they want and provide them the opportunity to try it.
3. Make value-based choices — If you follow the science and live in these sports values, it will mean you have to make hard choices. You might need to force your child to take time off, say “no” to the 15th tournament that year that is played on Christmas Day, leave a team where the coach emphasizes winning over developing athletes of high character, not hiring that personal trainer for your 10-year-old, but enrolling them in the neighborhood swim team instead. These are just a few examples of the hundreds that will arise. If you have strong values, then the choice is clear.
Part 1 Youth sports in the USA: It’s time to fix what’s broken 
(Joanna Lohman is a USSF B license coach who specializes in the mental, physical and emotional development of youth athletes. Upon retiring from a 16-year pro career, she became the first player in Washington Spirit history to have her jersey retired. Lohman, who appeared for the U.S. national team in 2001, 2006-07, while playing built a platform for social impact as a sport diplomat. She continues her influence as a mindset coach, professional speaker, human rights activist, and author of “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions.” She resides in Silver Spring, Maryland with her wife, Melodie, and her dog, Dewey. Her website is: joannalohman.com

Lots of good thoughts and advice in these two articles.  I’ll build on two. First, pickup is a great boon to development because it is fun, as any game should be, and it reminds you why you play.   It can be as competitive as you want to make it; most games have a standard of accepted behavior.  Generally, when there is a mix of skill levels, you go a little easier against the weaker players (especially if they’re kids), but you raise your game against the skillful players.  Pick-up allows you to try new things in a game like situation, and play positions you might normally not get an opportunity to play.  These things allow players to get better.  For talented youth players, good pick-up games let them play against older players who will challenge them differently than kids in their own age cohort.
Another aspect of training that we do way too early is serious physical training (endurance runs, sprints, etc.), that are not fun, but are “good for you” (eating your spinach before you get the dessert of playing…).  Under 12 kids should be able to most of the fitness training and speedwork from playing. You can do footraces and other activities that work on some aspects of physical development, but the grit your teeth and push through the pain should be saved for later.  There’s plenty of time for that when the kids are older.  
Back in the ’90s when I was president of my town soccer club, both my predecessors and I picked days and times, usually summer evenings, when anyone, everyone could come and play pickup soccer. Everybody had a lot of fun, the younger kids learned from the older ones and the adults, not by pedantic teaching, but by watching others as examples.

Today, youth sports are all wrapped around the avoidance of legal issues, so a kid has to be registered with the league to be insured while playing soccer. Adults have to undego a background check to make sure they are neither felons nort pedophiles, and then register with the state soccer orgnaizaiton for the insurance coverage.  

The demise of pickup soccer saddens me.  A lot of those kids who played pickup continued on to love and play the game of soccer in high school and some in college.  Of course, this was before the sports-industrial complex shifted into its top gears. 
Ben, I like that, “sports industrial complex.” Seems to be a runaway train. When sports became more important to the parents than the kids, that helped usher the decline of pickup. 
Ben, some of my greatest memories of soccer are playing pickup on summer nights. When we were younger, we got knocked around by older kids. When we were older, we did the knocking. And then the younger kids got to be our age, and all of us were still playing, knocking the new younger ones around. 

The joy of the game for me is that, 50 years later, some of those alums still get together on Thanksgiving morning. We have pickup games with 60 or 70 players, ages 14 to 60+ — and now the younger ones are doing the knocking. Its all good.
Brilliant! I hope this gets read widely.
Lots of good stuff here, by the author and commentators.
I have often thought about the comparison of soccer with softball. There are, broadly speaking, two levels by both–of course, you can subdivide further, but let’s stick with the big picture. There are those who see the sports as a social event, where “everyone gets to play some” ,and there is general fun to be had. Nobody takes it too seriously,e.g. scholarship, making the varsity, having a college or professional career. This aspect is often mentioned when our national teams seem to underperform in our region(CONCACAF).
The second level is for the youngster who is anxious to make team sports a gateway to an eventual career playing at a high level. They do need the specialization, but not the popular American kind. What is good for suburban children in the social realm will almost never lead to a career, which is likely requiring serious pickup(see basketball), then coaching by ex-players,not Dads. To take an extreme example, just to make a point: Do you think that L.Messi’s parents or C.Ronaldo’s or Neymar’s or Mbabbe’s EVER came to a practice? or a youth match ? No, and,No.
There are some suggestions made by this column which I agree with but I don’t agree that having played basketball will help you judge the bouncing of the soccer ball better, that’s a total joke, sorry to say. I played basketball, I even made the college squad as a walk on at Tampa Univ., never having played high school ball but talented enough through playing lots of pickup, but bouncing of the basketball and relating it to soccer is a little too much..

In Holland during my street soccer days, baseball was perhaps the only sport kids played as a “temporary” break from soccer, but soccer playing never stopped. Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens, had a choice of either staying with baseball or continue with soccer.  They were selected for the all-city wide baseball team. What I’m saying here is that kids,in those days, chose to do something else if they wanted to have a break. In other words, they continued to play pickup sosccer, perhaps a little less, and went over to playing some baseball, but never totally stopped playing soccer, just less.

Kids need to experience some different sport(s) to allow their body to learn other dynamic, or kinetic movements, WITHOUT HAVING THE INTENTION FOR THAT NEED, but just for the exercise….But as usual we tend to over do it because will have a new ‘policing’ policy to make sure kids play other sports. Just like the licensing of coaches to coach young kids when in fact that is not what you want for coaching kids for it becomes too structured for kids…..I think Peter Bechtold gave a good example at the end of his comment….

This past fall I was biking along the ocean path in Santa Monica, and a local soccer group had a small hardcourt soccer field with 3v3 games going. They played “king of the court”, and if your team got scored on, you went off and another 3 person team went on. It was great. It looked like anyone could play. No uniforms, no rosters, no fees. Lots of people watching, music, males and females, ages between 12-35, and good quality, enjoyable soccer.
Damn, Philip, you lucky dog….there is also another way is if you nutmeg, one of the players ,that team has to leave the court.. Don’t let the kids wear the same color jerseys, employ a light plastic ball, or a bouncy rubber ball a tennis ball…You name it , let them play… You can play 4v4 or 3v4 or whatever, just play….this is what a kid should do the whole in the evening for a couple of hours..that will do so much for your development….
Taking time off is important for kids just to give them a break with their bodies and even just to avoid burn out.  My son loves soccer but sometimes he doe snot need to do everything.  What is nice though is he has started to come to that conclusion on his own by deciding himself to not do everything all the time.  He was playing two sports for a while but now its just soccer and golf with me and my wife as a fun family event.
Two excellent columns – thank you, Joanna. SA should re-run them every month. 
Good columns–great reminder. And in case parents don’t fully believe this about the liability that is the car ride home, I was advised by my kid that because of the tone of my voice (not the actual words coming out of my mouth–I think I was commenting on the refereeing), I was not coming across as the supportive parent I wanted to be. And that’s all it took, in the mind of my child. Car rides after that weren’t fun any longer. It can happen to you, too, despite your best efforts.
I admire you all so much for the supportive comments. I simply can’t make the emotional commitment to pretend that what we all understood over 30 years ago as old news is now new again. 

Two things have changed over the last 30 years. The relatively retarded development of children today compared to 40 years ago, and the emergence of “pay to play” youth sports as a multi-billion dollar industry to fleece gullible parents. There are exceptions to every generalization, I am happy to admit. The good stories should be the norm, not the exceptions.

Ironically, the retarded development of children today actually increases the advantage of those kids playing street soccer.

I’ll certainly be in the minority…but this author needs to be adult and use adult means to express herself. Bullshit and F…k insult my intelligence. Unfortunately this is modern speak…a reflection of a crass society. Does this make her sound cool or hip? Other than that I agree wholeheartedly with what she’s preaching! And she did give me some things to positively consider that I hadn’t thought of…

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