Kids’ Sports Are Serious Business, And Maybe They Shouldn’t Be


My son is, quite possibly, the best goalkeeper under the age of ten in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. This is causing me all sorts of problems. But first, a story.

When I was a kid growing up in central Ohio, back in the early Eighties, we didn’t know much about soccer. However, an influx of Japanese nationals, thanks to the Honda plant in Marysville, as well as the lily white makeup of the remainder of my sleepy suburb meant that Dublin, Ohio was ideally constructed to be one of the first places in midwestern America to latch onto soccer as a serious youth sport. In fact, my friend’s big brother was the first American to be signed to a European club development team. Everybody in my school played in the local rec league, and we had a very serious traveling soccer team that competed at the national level.

Of course, the rec league teams had to be coached by the dads of the kids, who knew next to nothing about the sport. We treated kickoffs like football kickoffs—we booted the ball as far down the field as we could and chased after it. We played 11-on-11 with goalkeepers from the age of 6, on huge fields. I used to go entire halves of the game without touching the ball. If you know anything about how youth soccer is played and taught today, you know just how backwards that is.

Despite there being somewhat of a soccer gene in my family (one of my cousins is the all-time goal scoring leader at the University of Texas and a former USWNT member), I was never much better than average as a field player. I had virtually no ball skills—I only scored three goals in six years of soccer—and the only contribution I made (which was, admittedly, considerable) was as a sweeper with the fearless ability to slide tackle any opposing attacker onto a stretcher. I set league records for yellow and red cards, and was often called a “thug” by parents of the injured. My team was ridiculously good, too—we won every championship and tournament we entered, both indoor and outdoor, for four years. In fact, I don’t remember losing a game from the time I was eight until I stopped playing at the age of twelve.

One day, when I was nine, it was my turn to play goalkeeper—every kid, at some point during the season, got a turn to see if they were any good at hurling themselves in front of the ball. Nobody else ever got a turn after that. It turned out to be my calling. From that moment forward, over the next three years, I never left the goal. But when it came time to pick between soccer and football—between Friday night lights, cheerleaders, and glory and, well, soccer—I picked football and never looked back.

But I never had any illusion that my son would play football. He’s never exceeded the tenth percentile in height or weight on any growth chart, and even if he had, I’m not convinced that football is a healthy or safe game for children to play. I definitely wouldn’t recommend that any child under the age of twelve play football—they’re not learning anything about the game at that age, and they’re only increasing the risk for knee injuries and concussions.

I do, however, want him to be physically active, so I signed him up for soccer just short of his fourth birthday. This means, for those doing the math at home, that he’s eight years old, and he’s now been playing soccer for five years. It sounds crazy to say it, but any kid who hasn’t been playing for several years already at this age is woefully behind. Not only that, but any opportunity to play even more soccer has to be taken, lest you fall behind (and again, I know how crazy this sounds).

Therefore, when Kevin’s club team opted not to field an indoor team this year, it fell upon me to find a league that took individual entries (most leagues only accept full teams), and I found one approximately 45 minutes away. Of course, when I mentioned his name to the league director, he became very excited and asked if I would coach one of the teams (again, it’s ridiculous, but club soccer people in this area know the names of the top eight-year-olds). I’ve coached both of my kids at the U6 level, and I was an assistant on my son’s U10 rec league team this year (yes, he plays on more than one team), but I’ve been hesitant to be a head coach at this level because I travel for work and I can’t conduct semi-weekly practices as needed.

However, due to the lack of field availability, there are no practices for indoor soccer—just 15 minutes of warm-up before the game. Okay, yes, fine, I’ll coach.

Two Saturdays ago, we had our first game. All of the other teams in the league are club teams who signed as full teams with seven or eight kids on their rosters. As the only “pickup” team in the league, I have thirteen kids on my roster. In indoor, only five can play at one time—four field players and one goalkeeper. This is a problem for a few reasons:

  1. This is a “competitive” league, not a “recreational” league. Like I said, the other teams are traveling club teams like the one my son plays on in the Fall and Spring. Therefore, kids aren’t guaranteed any playing time at all, much less the half of the game that they’d be guaranteed to play in rec league. But even so, mathematically, if I give all kids equal time, they only get 1/3 of a game.
  2. The whole reason that I signed my son up was to get more playing time—I’m somewhat annoyed by the fact that I paid for a season of indoor soccer and my kid’s only getting 1/3 of the time he should be.
  3. For a few of the kids, this is their first time ever playing soccer. Why they signed up for the competitive league and not the recreational league, I’m not entirely sure. But they don’t really know what they’re doing out there—they clump together like four-year-olds do when they play.
  4. Finally, the whole concept of a “competitive” league for eight-year-olds should, again, be ridiculous—but it’s not. The kids really genuinely want to win—we came back from a 3-1 deficit to win 6-4 last Saturday, and you would have thought that we’d won the World Series based on how they reacted.

So, the net result of all of this is that I ended up playing my son in the goal for half of the first game—despite the fact that he had a nasty stomach virus, and only removing him once we had a 3-0 lead—and about seventy percent of the second game this past Saturday. In the second game, I pulled him after the first half with a 1-1 tie score (the other team had about fifteen shots on goal to our two), but when I put another kid in, he immediately let three goals in. So I put my son back in the goal for the remainder of the game, and he shut the other team out and allowed us to come back and win.

Because we won, everybody seemed okay with this. Everybody except my son’s best friend’s father.

Kevin’s best friend from school had never played soccer before, either, but he’s heard Kevin talk about how much he loves it, so he decided to give it a try and sign up for indoor.Of course he’s not skilled with the ball yet, but he’s a good athlete—he’s played baseball and basketball for the last few years. So I thought I’d try him in goal the first game after I pulled Kevin, since his athletic ability might help him there. He did very well, too—he stopped several shots and shut the opposing team out for the second half. He was out of position most of the time, but the opposing team wasn’t that strong so it was fine.

But in the second game, I didn’t want to risk getting any further behind, so instead of putting this kid in, I put Kevin back in the goal. This caused his father to cancel the kids’ lunch date after the game and leave without saying a word to me. My son was heartbroken the rest of the day, and winning all of a sudden seemed a lot less important than having his friend be happy.

If you’ve made it this far through this post, you’re probably wondering, “Holy shit, why am I reading this much about kids’ soccer?” Well, I’m not sure why. But here are my questions for you:

  • When did we get to the point where a grown man like me is genuinely concerned about the result of a children’s soccer game?
  • How many times am I going to type I know this sounds ridiculous but… in this post before I realize that it actually is ridiculous?
  • When am I going to admit that my son is not going to be a USMNT goalkeeper and just let him have fun with this?

The last one is the one that I struggle with the most. You see, he really doesn’t have fun unless he’s winning. And I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad thing. I look around at the world today and see what I think is the result of a “participation trophy” society, where people are rioting in the streets over the results over a (mostly) fairly conducted election, where young people think that how they feel matters more than reality. I watched as his rec league team lost in the tournament this year and noticed how mad my son was that his teammates still wanted to go out for pizza and ice cream after the game—he cared that they lost, and the other kids didn’t. He had a competitive mindset, and was furious that the other kids lacked it. I was proud of him at that moment, but I’m not sure if I should have been.

Like most of us, I played on any number of teams growing up, and some were good and some weren’t. I played on a football team with seven future D-I players that somehow managed to go 3-7—and then won a state title two years later. I’m trying to remember if I had any more fun when we won than I did when we lost. I’m sure that I did…but did I really? I don’t know.

I don’t want to live vicariously through my son. I don’t want to see him win at the expense of his friend’s feelings. After all, he’s only eight years old. Does it really matter that he’s the best goalkeeper his age in the state? Or does it just matter that he’s the happiest kid his age in the state?

Because right now, the two are linked, and maybe they shouldn’t be. Or maybe they should be. I don’t know.

Parenting, eh?

30 Replies to “Kids’ Sports Are Serious Business, And Maybe They Shouldn’t Be”

  1. Ryan

    Your post is giving me flashbacks to the two decades I spent playing hockey.

    As I’m sure you’re well aware, the few years proceeding High School are perhaps the most crucial. This is the time where the wheat gets separated from the chaff. Not every player can be a “star” or “franchise” player, and both parents and kids alike need to accept that.

    Detroit is (was?) a hotbed of youth hockey and even the house leagues are highly competitive. Nevertheless, I witnessed politics bar not only myself, but more skilled players from our city’s High School team due to a coach that didn’t agree with a split within our league some 10 years prior.

    I ended up being scouted by the High School at my Church who also fielded a pretty competitive team. My father and I had a meeting with the coaching staff, and he said something that has carried me since that day. I had basically asked why they wanted me. I wasn’t the fastest, nor was I particularly adept at putting the puck in the net. He responded, “I can’t teach you speed, but I also can’t teach the other guys 6’4″ and 225. As long as you fill your role, we’ll always have a spot for you.”

    On-ice sadism not withstanding, I went on to have a pretty successful “career.” While I ended up passing on a few offers to play Juniors and college (which I occasionally regret), the lessons I learned on the ice played a large part in who I am today.

    I would say that from a coaching perspective, getting players and parents alike to realize that each player has their own specific role is a very important aspect. You’re now at the point where the core tenants of the game should be instilled in most players, and ahead is the arduous process of refinement.

    As a player, the only thing I can say that you have to justify your play time with both on and off-field performance. Obviously your son can back up his play time with measurable results. If a few parents pull their children from the league over such petty issues, chances are they weren’t truly committed to it in the first place.

    tl;dr – Work hard. Have fun. Be a leader. The rest will sort itself out.

    • Jorge Monteiro

      Should the kids pratice Sports with victory mindset?
      I see that often in BMX Racing, where the rebel souls always wins.

      In my point of view they need to love that sport.

  2. kvndoom

    Everyone I know personally who is involved with children’s sports (best friend, best friend’s brother, current supervisor, etc) all say the same thing… the worst thing about kids’ sports is the parents.

  3. jz78817

    “When did we get to the point where a grown man like me is genuinely concerned about the result of a children’s soccer game?”

    Because of the emotional investment. if he does well, that means you’ve done well. Fortunately, you’re self-aware enough not to let it turn you into a jerk like the other kid’s dad. Taking it out on the kids makes it doubly bad.

  4. Don Curton

    I don’t know about my kids – but for me the most fun I had was never on an organized team. It was playing in an empty field with the kids from the neighborhood. We’d make up our own rules to account for the fact we had players from 5 years old to 15 years old. No parents, no coaches, no marked playing field. If one side started winning too much, we’d split up the team again and start over. Sometimes we’d even allow girls to play, but we’d have to make it touch football only.

    We did the YMCA leagues with our own kids and I have to admit I don’t think either one cared too much for it. I got stuck coaching soccer for the really young ones. The only thing I tried was to make sure everyone got to play. Other than that, I know less about soccer than Hank Hill. Every now and then we’d run up against a super competitive team and get smeared. No fun for anyone.

    If you want your kids to have fun, tell them to go out and play somewhere with no adults.

    Because it IS RIDICULOUS for adults to know the top eight year old players in the league.

  5. Tmkreutzer

    Nice write-up, Bark. You’re a smart guy and a concerned parent and I think you are asking the right questions. I think you’re right to feel a little bad about what happened because, competitive league or not, it’s still supposed to be about the kids.

    I wonder why it is that so many of the people who decry the culture of “participation trophies” are the exact same people who will do everything possible stack the deck to ensure that their kids are the winners. If you think about it, they are teaching that doing your best isn’t worth anything and that only people with talent and ability, or those who are willing to lie, cheat and otherwise work the system so that they can ride on the backs of their betters, are worthy of a reward. It’s an interesting dichotomy, I think.

    I guess, as a coach, it’s your job to do the things it that it takes to allow your team to win. At the same time, you can imagine the disappointment that kid’s dad felt, too and I think that’s what’s bothering you. I suggest you talk with the dad, tell him that his kid is a great athlete and a lot of potential and then, since the boy is your son’s buddy, have that kid over and work with him in your yard to bring those talents to the fore.

  6. everybodyhatesscott

    I think it’s a bit funny all these people get worked up about how good or bad their child is at sports before puberty.

  7. Orenwolf

    Jack, regarding the whole “Having fun, only if he’s winning thing”:

    I played a LOT of football (American football) in school. We didn’t even have a league, so we just sorta made our own. I signed up for every league or team I could, for years.

    Now? I remember the fun I had. I couldn’t tell you if I won or lost.

    It’s one thing if you’re in trophy contention or whatever, but even when I was younger, what was fun was playing the game, not winning or losing. Scoring points were awesome, but the rest of the time, I was focused on whether I had completed my next pass, or dodged the tackle, or whatever it was I was doing at the time. THAT was the fun of it. Winning or losing just didn’t matter to me, or my parents.

    I didn’t get participation trophies. I didn’t *expect* participation trophies. I just knew we couldn’t win all the time and so I learned to focus on the fun parts of the game – why I was *there* in the first place, rather than whether or not I was going to win a given game.

    I completely, totally agree that *diminishing* the importance of a win, through participation trophies and the like, is asinine. There *is* something to celebrate in a win, and the winners deserve it. But there’s also something to be said for focusing on that win as the endgame of a sport. Only one team wins. That doesn’t diminish the efforts of the other league players, most of which, I’m sure, were trying their best. And there’s nothing wrong with focusing on the fun of the game, instead of the win, as a result. It isn’t kowtowing to the participation trophy crowd. It’s realising that in life, the journey is just as important as the destination.

  8. Ronnie Schreiber

    I’ve never seen any American kids under high school age play a pickup game of soccer.

    I think that some communities have soccer league for the same reason they put in traffic roundabouts. They think that’s what the better people, like folks in Europe and Massachussets, do.

    • rwb

      “I think that some communities have soccer league for the same reason they put in traffic roundabouts. They think that’s what the better people, like folks in Europe and Massachussets, do.”

      I’m not gonna lie, I’m only responding because you’ve pointlessly knee-jerked against me, personally, even if indirectly and indeliberately, and I’ve now had enough to drink that I’m willing to make comments on the internet, but this persecution complex, and railing against one’s perceivedly assumed social “betters,” is decidedly unbecoming of anyone with an earnest sense of self-worth.

      Broad strokes serve no argument. Elitists exist; decry them specifically. I’m getting sick of being told I’m an asshole for living somewhere when the insecurities that drive such generalized histrionics are not the fault of myself or anyone I’ve ever known.

      I’m sorry that this isn’t really relevant to the original article, which makes some good points with which I agree. I’m just pretty chafed at this point by this “coastal elitist” majority archetype that’s bull-horned by people who ought to know better.

      • Ronnie Schreiber

        My comment was directed at folks in West Bloomfield and Ann Arbor, Michigan who seem to believe that advanced civilizations require driving in circles, not the people living on the coasts and Europe whom those Michiganders wish to emulate.

        As for roundabouts, it depends whether I’m driving a car or riding my bicycle. For cyclists and pedestrians roundabouts are, as the kids say, problematic. They’re fun to drive other than dealing with dolts who don’t know how to drive them (Rule #1: Car in the roundabout has right of way. Rule #2: When it opens up, go!).

        I do think, to at least a small extent, the recent election was about the heartland vs the hipsters (Hillary’s campaign HQ was in Brooklyn).

    • jz78817

      You’re wrong about roundabouts (they’re awesome, at leas for cars except for that abomination at 14 mile & Orchard Lake) and right about soccer. The only people I encounter who truly care about it are wannabes who latch onto anything European because they desperately want to appear “cultured.”

      • Ronnie Schreiber

        I live in Oak Park and my mom lives in an assisted living facility at Maple & Drake. I try to avoid Orchard Lake Rd. anywhere north of 11 Mile. As long as traffic on 696 isn’t bad, I’ve found that the long way, take 696 all the way to the M5 and that to Maple and come in from the west is much faster. It’s almost all freeway speeds and far fewer traffic lights. Also, the private ring road leading into the JCC complex where my mom lives is a nice little road course.

        However, when I have a high performance press car, I’ll go via Farmington Rd north to Maple. That way I hit three roundabouts. Got a Jaguar to drift once.

  9. -Nate

    Mark ;
    First and foremost you’re an involved Father who actually _cares_ so that’s the main thing .
    Sports -can- be life lesson giving fun but all too often the Parents (almost always loser Fathers) screw it up beyond all reason .
    Keep at it, the best friend’s Father ought to be ashamed of him self, teaching his own Son that sort of attitude .

  10. hank chinaski

    Because it’s not just soccer, it’s a mindset. If he’s talented, focused, and driven, and strives for victory, that makes him one of the wolves among the sheep. Don’t apologize for that, you red card earning, autocross champ, NSX thrashing, R&T writing, thug.

    It will be the difference between his being one of those men, or working for them. On Saturday.


  11. James

    Youth soccer is popular in America because soccer, unlike football or basketball, can be played by young children. No one cares if a child is good at sports — the point is to get him to develop into an athlete. Soccer works for this.

    Winning is a skill. I read that European soccer players believe that American youth soccer emphasizes this skill to the exclusion of all others. My thought is: If your child is winning because he’s gotten his growth spurt early, then that doesn’t help him–because it won’t last. But, if he’s winning because he’s skilled (as seems to be the case, from what you’ve written), then that’s the whole point of youth soccer.

    • Ronnie Schreiber

      Competition is foundational to sport. A couple of weeks ago near my home a young mother was walking with her three kids, a toddler girl and two boys about 7 and 5. The boys started running towards the corner and the older one let his brother take the lead for a bit, then powered right past him.

      In kids leagues that don’t keep score, the kids keep score in their heads.

      While learning and having fun are a critical part of anything you do with children, I’d say that the most important thing even a small child learns from sport is that you can win and you can lose, a lesson that they young people out protesting the recent election apparently never learned. Accepting the reality of failure is the only way you get better at anything.

      In real life you don’t get trophies for just showing up. One of the best things to ever happen to me was getting a 17% on a physics test in college.

  12. Orenwolf

    Ronnie, there’s a difference between “don’t keep score” and “only worry about keeping score”, and a huge valley of priorities in-between.

  13. CJinSD

    You might want to research the frequency and severity of concussions in soccer. While concussions happen a little more frequently in football, soccer concussions are common and generally more severe.

    I’m sorry about the world that you have to participate in chlidren’s sports in. There’s no winning for a parent. You’re going to get people with lots of different expectations about what these activities are supposed to provide and how they’re to be conducted. What each of these people is likely to have in common with one another is zero tolerance for other people’s expectations and ideas about children’s sports. Good luck.

  14. Kevin Jaeger

    Confirmed regarding the concussions. My son’s competitive career in soccer essentially came to and end with a severe concussion in a provincial final when he was 16. It took months to fully recover and he was never quite as motivated again.

    But at eight years old the risk is much lower and really, the focus at that age should be on player skills development rather than winning – even for a competitive team.

    And totally unrelated – here’s a picture of a Mustang at the Bark Lake Leadership Center:

    I thought of you when I saw it and had to stop for a pic.

    • Bark M Post author

      Great pics!

      Headers aren’t allowed in U12 anymore for that exact reason. Any headers, even accidental, are whistled dead.

  15. Aoletsgo

    Mark, a few thoughts about your topic. First I have some experience in this matter having had a son who played varsity football, basketball and baseball at a large and affulent HS and a daughter who played soccer and volleyball and went on to play volleyball in college. Overall, I think I was a fair, civil parent and as “father” of the player. My only small regret is that I might have pushed my son too hard, but he was one those kids with huge talent and little motivation. But he surived just fine and is doing great out in the real world and having some fun in beer leagues.
    What I would say about all your ridiculous statements is that if this is the new normal and has been for at least 15-20 years is it still ridiculous or just the way it is for competitive youth sports. What I think is ridiculous is that it is getting to the point that if they are going to play at the highest levels in HS or college you have examine your kid at a very young age and try and figure out what body type they might be in HS or college. For example a D1 University will overlook a soccer goalie or volleyball hitter who are not at least six feet tall. Even baseball and hockey which have had many great smaller players are going this way. I don’t like the trend and it seems like it is going towards the Chinese way of training olympians.


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