It's the time of year when parents spend many weekend mornings searching the house for that missing shin guard, scouring local sports stores for another pair of soccer socks and loading up lawn chairs for a season on the sidelines watching our young ones chase soccer balls around.
Let's admit it: Soccer can be time-consuming, anxiety-inducing and even costly -- for kids, parents and coaches alike. With the right attitude, it can also be lots of fun. As a father of four, a long-time soccer fan and a youth soccer coach, here are a few tips that can improve your enjoyment of the so-called beautiful game.
1. This Isn't the Soccer of Our Youth
When I played youth soccer decades ago, our practices went something like this: The coach would tell us how to kick the ball, then we'd line up and one by one, with all the other kids watching, run up to a stationary ball and try to kick it. No matter how we fared, we'd then go to the end of the line and anxiously await another chance at glory. We'd be lucky to touch the ball three times during one of those "skill drills."
For games, the coaches would put 11 of us on the field per side -- even in second grade -- and then holler from the sidelines as a 20-child mass of flailing legs would bunch around the ball, moving slowly across the field, occasionally crossing a goal line to "score." It looked more like a rugby scrum than soccer.
Nowadays, most youth coaches are encouraged to avoid the line-them-up-and-take-turns type of drills in favor of what's called small-sided games. They'll give each kid a ball and make them run around a square; or break the team up into smaller groups to focus on a given skill or two; or have them play three-on-three games. This allows each player to make more soccer moves and decisions during practice, giving them more "touches" and actually practicing the skills needed to improve.
For any bystander who remembers the orderly practices of their youth, it can look like a total mess. But it works.
When it comes to games, soccer leagues that follow the age-appropriate curriculum suggested by U.S. Youth Soccer will put smaller teams on the field, again to maximize touches and to keep the pile of kids around the ball at a manageable level. For instance, those aged 6 and under should only have three or four players per team on the field for games. Teams shouldn't get to 11 per side until age thirteen.
2. Recreational Soccer has Recreation in the Name for a Reason.
Up until about third grade, almost all kids play in recreational leagues, where teams are made up of members of the same community or youth soccer organization and play each other. After that age, most clubs are divided into recreational and so-called "travel" teams.
If you and your child like the competitive side of the sport and entertain visions of soccer stardom, travel may be for you. If they make the team and play, they'll get all the competition they need to improve their skills. And you'll get to spend lots of time and money traveling around to games.
But if what they really need is playing time, a recreational league may be a better choice.
Rec soccer leagues and intramural leagues focus on individual skill development, no matter the skill level of the player. Most of these leagues encourage coaches to give kids equal playing time and the opportunity to play different positions, which is critically important, because we don't know at that age who's going to blossom into the perfect striker.
If your kid plays recreational soccer, parents and coaches should treat it as such. Understand going in that your little superstars will be sitting the bench just as often as the kid who has never played the game before. In rec leagues, that's how it should be. Remember, it's supposed to be fun. Thus, the name.
3. Yelling is Futile and Even Embarrassing
I know how frustrating it can be to have some 16-year-old referee blow an offside call, costing your team the coveted victory. I've dealt with the crying kid who happened to be in goal when that fateful shot slipped into the net, in a clear violation of all soccer goodness. It should have been disallowed. But please remember that most referees, coaches and assistant coaches are just volunteers. And they are volunteering so that your kid can play this game.
It's rarely a good idea to yell at a referee. And, it's certainly never a good idea to yell at one of the kids on the other team -- even if they pushed down little Johnnie, without any regard for the rules. Let the coaches and refs handle it.
I remember one overzealous mom who thought it would be funny to yell the wrong instructions to a 9-year-old on the other team -- this, after the kid's coach had tried to give her the right instructions.
"Clear the ball, Suzie, like we practiced," the coach encouraged. The mom from the opposing team retorted, "Kick it toward the goal, Suzie." She thought it was a hoot. We were all embarrassed for her.
If parents must yell things, keep it positive and simple. "Go, INSERT NAME!" will cover most situations.
Coaches, too, should think about what they yell or even say really loudly, as we often must to be heard half-a-field away. Try following the simple rule of bookending. When you want to give an instructional critique that can't wait till halftime or the next practice, surround it with encouragement. "Good effort, Johnnie. Next time, try to get it closer to the sideline. But great hustle."
4. They'll Never Pass Like Barcelona
Nothing is better in soccer than watching a good pass -- that perfect ball from Xavi to Lionel Messi that lands on his foot and ends in a goal. I know we all want our kindergartener's team to spread out and pass the ball, like Barcelona does. Or, even like we did back in high school -- if memory serves us correctly.
The reality is that kindergarteners simply are not going to do that. There's a reason. Younger kids lack the developmental tools needed to "spread out" and see the field. Heck, some adults lack these skills. Kids this age are focused on their own feet -- or on the dandelions growing in the next field. They are playing to learn how to kick the ball, to follow rules and to have fun. Passing comes later.
I always cringe when some well-meaning grandparent yells at a 6-year-old who's streaking down the field with the ball for the first time in his life, "Pass It!"
Again, "Go" will likely suffice.
Think about it. If we all yell "Pass" every time the ball gets near any kid's foot, as many parents are apt to do, we create a bunch of soccer players who treat the soccer ball like a hot potato -- getting rid of it the second it comes their way. That won't serve them well if they decide to stick with the game.
5. Winning at this Level Shouldn't Matter, Because It Really Doesn't
When a team loses, the parents are often heartbroken. The kids? Not so much. Sure, they want to win. But most bounce back pretty quickly from even a lopsided loss.
I was an assistant coach with a team a few years back that went undefeated. It was a rec-level league for third grade girls -- U8, as U.S. Soccer calls it. Our wins were the result of luck of the draw as much as anything, though the head coach was a great teacher, too.
We knew the first day of practice our team was stacked with good players. Winning all those games, the coaches and parents loved it. The kids enjoyed it, too. But, how many of the kids truly improved their skills that year? Some did. But no more than on the team I coached the next year, when we lost most of our games. In fact, I saw more personal skill improvement on the losing team than on the winning team. Losing can do that to you.
And of all the victories over those two seasons, the most memorable win wasn't the final one clinching the undefeated season, but that first win in the losing season after we'd opened with an 0-4 record. It was special, not because we ended up with more goals than the other team (technically, this league didn't keep score), but because we overcame adversity, worked hard, pulled together and improved.
The focus of youth soccer should be on teaching them about fair play and sportsmanship; about hard work and teamwork; and about being healthy and active. Along the way, they may learn how to deal with adversity. If they lose, hopefully the learn how to lose with dignity; if they win, how to do so with humility.
With proper coaching and practice, they will each improve their own soccer skills, becoming better players and more confident kids. That can happen on a team that wins, as much as a team that loses -- as tough as it is for many parents to take.
6. Let Them Play
Finally, all of us involved in soccer -- as parents, grandparents and coaches -- should remember this simple youth soccer saying: "Let Them Play."
There will be time for instruction, for skill development and for learning the finer points of the game that all us adults can more clearly understand (from the sidelines). The best way for kids to learn is to play: to kick the ball, to trap it, to pass and to shoot, to score goals, to make mistakes, to win and to lose.
The reality is that most children who play youth soccer are never going to turn pro. I'm not trying to burst bubbles, but according to U.S. Youth Soccer, some three million children will register to play the sport this year. There are only 11 starting spots on each of the U.S. national teams.
Being great at soccer is a laudable goal, and we shouldn't take that dream away from any kid. But, there are many more lessons to be learned. As adults, we just have to get out of the way and let them play.