October 1, 2012
We found that the two top factors that motivated young athletes to particpate in soccer was 1) Being part of a team (60.7%) and 2) Having Fun! (57.3%). We also asked the parents what they hoped their children would learn from this sport and the two top responses were 1) Teamwork – learning to work with others (58.3%) and 2) Character Development - becoming a leader and problem solver (45.5%).
Soccer is for everyone from youth to seniors, recreational to premier: Wherever you play, whatever you pay, it’s the same take-away.
For me, soccer is a sport that can be played by everyone: by people of all ages, genders, abilities and socio-economic levels. That’s the beauty of the game: you don’t have to be a certain height or size. And in the U.S., so many leagues exist to get everyone on the field: from the Over 60-year-olds to the 3-year-olds chasing the ball in a pack at their first games.
Unlike some other sports, you don’t need much for soccer: just a ball and a little space. I’ll never forget seeing city kids kicking the ball in roundabouts when I traveled with the Seattle Sounders to Argentina. It was fun to witness soccer sprouting in the most unexpected urban places.
In America, there is an intense focus on creating premier youth athletes – with many products aimed at evaluating their performance. To play organized soccer here, you can spend $50 per year or probably $5,000. But I believe all players under 18 should come away from youth soccer with a common experience based in fun and learning. Whether playing premier in an expensive competitive soccer club or recreational youth soccer in a neighborhood league, the take-away should be the same.
Soccer is ultimately about being part of a team – learning how to work together and how to navigate your teammates’ personalities as you pull together towards a common goal. That should be the focus. And America is the ideal place to implement soccer’s life and team-building lessons; it has long been a leader in offering soccer for everyone and it has a uniquely strong youth sports infrastructure. It’s something this country should be proud of.
More soccer for more people
The U.S. had well-established girls’ and women’s leagues long before the Women’s World Cup popularized women’s soccer worldwide. When I was growing up in England, there was no youth soccer for girls. Imagine my surprise when I showed up for college at the University of North Carolina and saw Mia Hamm, Cindy Parlow and Lorrie Fair on the field. I was amazed by their level of play, and their ability to strike the soccer ball. Since then, I’ve remained impressed with the number of American girls who play, and I’ve actually coached more girls’ teams than boys.
Luckily, for those of us who love the game, youth soccer is also becoming increasingly widespread in this country, as it moves from its traditional suburban stronghold to more urban and diverse communities. Clubs are welcoming players of both genders and all socio-economic backgrounds, with some offering need-based scholarships. Immigrants are strengthening urban programs, bringing their passion for soccer from their home countries to new neighborhoods. Talented multi-sport athletes are increasingly focusing on soccer. And coaches are using the game as a vehicle for teaching and mentoring. More people are also watching soccer on TV and local rivalries are developing – like the spirited competition between Seattle, Vancouver and Portland – and these factors are drawing more fans into MLS stands.
Today’s parents are also spreading soccer. Now, a whole generation of 30- and 40-somethings, who enjoyed soccer as kids, are passing the game on to their own children. In addition, many people who’ve played their whole adult lives are continuing to play in senior leagues. These players put their cleats on every week because they’re competitive, because they value their relationships with their teammates and because they’re still having fun. It’s inspiring.
The U.S. is the standard-bearer for offering all levels of play in soccer and it has an amazing infrastructure for youth soccer, which grows every year. This is especially impressive for players like me, who come from elsewhere. There are so many opportunities to play soccer in America. And those opportunities are rich, whether you’re playing at a premier club or in your own neighborhood with friends.
All soccer’s good soccer, from recreational to premier
When comparing premier and recreational youth play, it’s important to note both levels are valuable and share certain characteristics. (The same is true of play for all ages.) There are also differences in how these soccer experiences play out, based on the philosophical approaches of coaches, parents and teammates.
At the recreational level, coaches are motivated volunteers, driven by their love for the game, their kids and their community. They are definitely there for the right reasons and they often serve as both coaches and managers, putting in as many hours as paid professionals. They emphasize hard work, effort and commitment to the team.
As for rec players, they often play more than one sport; they give their all at practice, but they also have other commitments. When they excel, it is due to internal motivation. They succeed because they push themselves and work hard.
At the premier level, the entire environment is designed to push players; they are motivated both internally and externally by coaches, parents and teammates. Winning is emphasized. There’s a bigger time commitment and more travel, and more pressure from try-outs and intense performance expectations. Coaches are often paid and can be motivated by a number of factors – they most likely enjoy their work and excel at it, but it’s more of a job.
Life-altering lessons can be learned through premier soccer: intense competition teaches you how to deal with failure and shows you that sometimes other players are simply better than you. You learn some players have natural physical advantages, but time and development can even the field. You learn how to improve, what it takes to compete when everyone is talented and how not to quit when you’re tired or discouraged. It’s an accelerated learning environment that can be very positive for people who perform well under pressure and embrace challenges.
These are valuable teachings. But the core lessons of youth soccer are even more fundamental. And they can be delivered at any level. Belonging to a team is the same at all levels and for all ages. It’s about making friends, having fun, learning to get along and striving together towards a common goal. You should be evaluated on whether you do your best, and you should discover that success is always a simple by-product of giving your all.
As a coach, this is what you ultimately want for your players – that they go out into the world and become good citizens, good parents, good husbands and wives. That they prosper in their family and professional lives and that some part of their success is rooted in lessons they learned on the soccer field.