How well I remember how happy I was that spring of 1997 when my son began his first
season playing soccer- He was five-years-old. Having had four daughters before my son
came along, I'd had years of ballet lessons and gymnastics, Barbies, bows, and everything
pink... Unfortunately, girls soccer wasn't up and going strong in Georgia then. I wish my
girls could have had the experience of this great sport when they were growing up.
In 1998, my husband took the required training course and was certified to coach youth
soccer. My husband had played football when he growing up, but he immediately fell in
love with soccer. My son was so happy and proud to have his Dad coach.
The real training for coaches doesn't happen in a clinic - it only comes through experience. During his first season, my husband had to deal with a situation where two of the Dad's hated each other and almost got into a fist fight. Coach had to figure out pretty quickly how to be a mediator and a coach at the same time. Some how he finessed the situation, the kids had fun, and no one had to call the police.
The league where my husband coaches allows teams to stay together from season to
season at the parents request. My husband's team decided to stay together.
Each season, there were a couple boys who moved away or went to play another sport,
but basically, the team stayed together and several of the boys have been on the team going into their sixth season now. They've have so much fun! Some of the boys are more skilled than the others, two just started playing soccer for the first time last year - the team is eclectic in terms of the experience and skills of the players- but it works.
In the beginning, they didn't win much, but the team parents were on same wave length. We weren't unhappy when the team they lost. We cheered them on, told them, "Good job - well played" and the kids and the parents had a great time. The soccer team has been a place where my son and the other boys could improve their skills, have fun games, and enjoy the ongoing camaraderie of their buddies, year after year. In a transient world, where families are spread out all over the country, and kids are under high pressure to perform, this has been a place where my child could go and feel secure in the consistent, non-judgmental support of the team and its parents.
But, then things started to change. Last season, as our team has began to win, and win, the "select" coaches (not half so happy in the heaven of all stars they coached) began envying the team. They wanted the most skilled players from the team to leave our "recreational division" and play on the select team. The league wants to compete and win against other leagues. But the boys are happy where they are, and the parents are happy where they are.
So, the league has decided to force the intact teams to break up.
How can I tell my child that, after I committed to him that his team could stay together as long as they wanted to - how can I tell him that I can't keep my commitment, that the league isn't going to keep their commitment - that culling children out and drilling them to perfection, grooming for high school glory - to get college scholarships- is more important to the Board of Directors of the League than letting me keep my commitment to my son, and letting the coach keep the commitment he made to his team to be together next season. The team was supposed to move up to an older division, where there would be new challenges, new players added to the team - and probably losses.
Why can't some adults leave things alone when children are happy? Children will take whatever we hand them and try to make the best of it; they often don't even complain until they reach adolescence. Some children do OK under pressure - other children shut down under pressure. My son's team is a place where the pressure is off. They all know each other, they've worked out their differences over time, and they are free to do their best.
Recently, at spring break soccer camp which my son and one of his team mates attended,
my son's team mate's mother walked up behind her son and one of the league's select coaches having a conversation. She approached unnoticed and overheard what the coach was saying to her son. He was telling her son that he could never fulfill his potential - never become the player he's capable of becoming, if he stays in the recreation division now. This mother had received calls at night for months from the league urging her to put her son on a select team. She had told the league "No" many times. She'd explained that the family had discussed the question and decided against it. First and foremost, her son is very happy with his team and playing rec. ball.
Secondly, the mother and dad don't want to do the traveling and extra practices associated with select play. There are two other children in the family playing soccer. This mother was very upset that an official of the league would go behind her back and try to undermine she and her husband's decisions about their child.
I'm not making comparisons, but I'm reminded of the situation that occurred in pre-World War II Germany. The political group which came to power went to the young boys of Germany and told them that their parents didn't know what was best for them - that the boys should listen to and follow this political group, and if the boys did, they could become supermen and become the most superior athletes in the world. Well, of course, Jesse Owens proved those fascists wrong at the 1936 Olympics, and Jesse hadn't even had the benefit growing up being treated with equality in America.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias, one of the first great woman athletes to be recognized and rewarded, lived in a time when it was the architectural style to plant a row of shrubs next to the driveway of each house in the neighborhood as a division between the houses' front yards. Babe taught herself to run hurdles by running the length of her street, over and over, hurdling the shrubs.
Great athletes find a way to be great. You can teach the steps of a dance to a thousand people, but only a Fred Astaire can bring magic to the steps. That magic comes from the heart. We can all enjoy dancing, though.
The purpose of youth recreational soccer is for kids to learn the game, have fun, make friends, and hopefully have a coach they can look up to and look back on, twenty or thirty years later, with love. The purpose of youth rec. soccer is not to groom players for high school glory or groom them to obtain college scholarships, as some of the members of the Board of Directors of my son's league have put forth. They've accused rec. coaches of "holding boys back" by not pushing the more skilled players to joint select teams. My husband has told Board Members that it's not his job to sell kids and parents on moving to select. He's there to coach recreational ball. It's up to parents
to decide what's best for their kids.
Why do even the best youth sports leagues, after the money is collected, so often degenerate to serving the ambitions of some of the members of the "Board of Directors" to become renowned among the other leagues?
Because we, the parents allow it to happen.
Should my son's team be allowed to stay together? Let the children decide.