Take away soccer and there's not a team sport that really does for the very young player what organized athletics claim to do to benefit children.
Organized athletics benefit parents in the way parents want to think they benefit kids. As a father of four, I assure you that a 6-year-old doesn't want to learn baseball, basketball or tennis in front of a cheering crowd in competition with his peers.
It takes hours and hours and hours of practice for a 6-year-old even to learn to hit a baseball off a tee. Basketball is a pointless exercise until a kid can dribble the ball on the move and has the strength to shoot the ball anywhere near the rim. Pick a sport and it'll be a sport that takes tons of practice, then puts lots of pressure on children to achieve any level of success.
That's without the kid even beginning to learn the rules.
My oldest son was a really good little ballplayer when he made his tee ball debut at age 5 1/2. He smashed a line drive to right-center field in his first at bat … took two tentative steps toward first base … then bolted directly to second base. Adults running things rewarded him, actually, for realizing that the grass was so high that it covered first base. (I was Joe Young Baseball Dad and nearly fainted when he ran to second base. I'd already pitched hours of batting practice to him. Hit him hundreds of ground balls and played catch for hours. I'd taught him, I assumed, intricacies of the game no tee ball player needs to know. The result: a liner to right-center and an immediate sprint directly to second base. So much for the nuances I thought I'd shared with him.)
Soccer is different. Soccer allows even beginners to play by standard rules and still get the benefits of exercise and teamwork while learning whether or not they even enjoy competition at all. Sure, they get uniforms. A little kids' soccer match amounts to a bunch of kids chasing the ball. Parents don't know what to shout except, "Way to go!" or "Good hustle!" That improves the kids' experience right there. (Poor goalkeepers always have a parent shouting, "Pay attention! Pay attention!" I know that my daughter always did when she played from age 5 to about 9.) I once saw one of my sons' teammate join him on a breakaway and steal the ball from him. Honest! The other kid score the goal. My son looked as his brother and me like he'd been violated. All the parents cheered the steal and the score.
There's too much room for failure in activities like tee ball, mini-hoops basketball and other similar miniaturized team sports that come well before Little League baseball or youth football.
Having coached both sports for kids, I promise you're seeing kids in uniform who often hadn't even played the game in their own yards. You want angst and embarrassment? Watch a poor kid swing a bat at a stationary ball, three times, and missing it each time. Still, parents cheer them on and remind them to "have fun." Take the whiff when the ball's setting on tee? And, have fun doing it? How?
My 16-year-old son coached a tournament team for baseball players 9 years of age and under this summer. His players were most completely inexperienced 7-year-olds, with some 8-year-olds mixed in. Their parents had each paid $700 for their boys to get uniforms, practice a couple hours a week and then go play in weekend tournaments.
My son's team's second tournament resulted in three losses by a cumulative total of 60 runs. That ended, for now, his coaching career. When he tried to convince umpires and opposing coaches that a third 20-0 beating might sour his tiny players on baseball forever - the head coach of the team said, "Aw! Nah! Let them play! It's all good!" Most parents agreed. The team lost 23-0 and the poor kids were near tears. It wasn't all good, but adults sure wanted for it to be so.
Kids who are willing to run can't really fail on a soccer field. How hard is it for a pint-sized player to understand that they just need to keep the soccer ball from getting near their team's goal? My daughter and her teammates ran themselves ragged when she was really little and had a blast on some soccer teams that rarely even scored a goal.
The other day, conversely, I watched home video of my youngest son as a then 5-year-old playing quarterback on touch football team for boys so tiny that they really didn't know the point of the game. I coached the tiny team because, for whatever reason, I want kids to have help trying to enjoy this stuff.
The idea was that my son would throw short passes to distribute the ball to make sure every player got a chance to touch and run with the ball. He'd been playing football at home for awhile. Sadly, the other little fellows had almost no success trying to catch the passes. The league didn't set aside practice time, not that practice would've helped a great deal. So, the video I watched primarily featured my son throwing passes to our incredibly shifty running back who dashed for a touchdown … then celebrated wildly with my son and the other boys.
The video also shows my son throwing a pass to a little teammate that hit the kid right in the hands. The boy dropped the ball. The video shows my son drop his head into his hands, just devastated that another pass had fallen incomplete. It showed the little would-be receiver watch the ball bounce away. He was crestfallen. It shows me trying to explain to both that it was OK, despite parents in the bleachers sighing in disgust over the incomplete pass. I didn't bother telling the boys it wasn't at all important because the scoreboard showed our team leading 4 touchdowns to none.
Kids know the scoreboard means that it matters.
There isn't a second of home video that shows anything but my daughter having a blast chasing the ball around the too-big soccer field, laughing with her teammates and loving the orange slices as a halftime snack. There's video of my son running over to hand the ball to a teammate who hadn't had a chance to carry it, only to have the boy drop a hand-off. (Parents were upset that my son played QB. I tried explaining that he was just the only boy I could spend enough time with to explain that the goal was to share the ball via pass or hand off. He once followed directions and ran way out to the left to hand the ball off to a little chubby kid … who ran away, clearly with no interest in touching the ball and attracting attention.)
Oh, the scoreboard thing? My son understood that the scoreboard meant there would be a winner and loser. The shifty little running back and his pal, equally speedy and coordinated, understood that winning mattered because the scoreboard was on. Those three kept the other teams from ever advancing the ball. And, the only thing that kept those three from scoring touchdowns was a head coach who kept trying to make kids who didn't want the football get it and run.
Kid sports have to be fun and be fun all the time when kids are only out there because we send them out there. That makes youth soccer the only sport on a short list of team sports that really little kids should be playing until they're old to tell us they really want to play the game. Just wanting to be on the team doesn't mean playing the game will be any fun.
Ted Sillanpaa is a copy editor, page designer and sports writer for the Press Democrat. Reach him via e-mail at email@example.com. Follow Ted on Twitter @TedSillanpa.