Friday, January 15, 2016

Beyond The Vault: Growing Soccer Trees? Don't Choke The Seeds

Due to the demise of the website The Soccer Desk, I managed to scoop up all but one of the articles I published there. Since one of the three salvaged isn't a 2014 World Cup Preview, I want to place it here for good. For having been written two years ago, this held up pretty well. Good work, Me.

Note: This is one of the longer articles I have ever written (it's over 2,000 words)! I've learned to condense and shrink since then. Enjoy.

Me circa 1998.
I moved a girl off the ball and into lawn chairs placed near the sidelines that night. I was a "straight-up killa' G" back in those days. (Her momentum took her that way. I wasn't that cold.)

(Originally written on January 10, 2014)

In order to get a specific feel for the kind of piece I’m writing, I need you to partake in a little mental scenario with me. Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to be Daniel Day-Lewis here. Just take a deep breath and roll with me.

You’re a parent. You have a young child that you practically raised on Cheerios, apple juice, and soccer on Saturday mornings. When he/she reaches a certain age, you decide that it is best that they try the sport that they was immersed in and fell in love with. You sign your child up, and you start playing in the yard with them, preparing them for the exciting months ahead. When you get there, however, you see parents with children coming out of vans and preparing, and it resembles sending your child away to boot camp while the parents are completely oblivious to the impending torture that their children will be subjected to.

This isn’t any old practice; this is a tryout, you think to yourself.

Your child is running in and out of cones, dribbling a ball, and passing it to other children. Balls are shot into a small net, and then other drills are done at stations. You notice that your child isn’t the fastest runner of the bunch; however, the child doesn’t seem to care. Plus, his/her foot isn’t as strong as the others, either. You become worried. What if he/she doesn’t make the team? The heart is there, but is that enough for the coach? A few days pass, and you get a phone call. “Hello n, this is the head coach from the neighborhood soccer team. I regret to inform you that your child has not been chosen to play on the squad this year. We, however, encourage you and your child to support our teams in the games we play in the fall.” You’re heartbroken. What on earth are you going to tell your child? They’re going to ask if they’ll ever be going back to practice soon enough. This is something that makes them happy. You don’t want them to think that they aren’t good enough for a team–he/she is only a child, for goodness’ sake! What do you do?

This, my friends, is the culture that is slowly creeping into American society. We’re experiencing a “survival of the fittest” culture, and to the children who love a sport but may not be as gifted as the next child, they’re getting the short end of the stick. While not every hobby is for everybody, it is always a nice bit of therapy to unwind and do something you love, regardless of how good you are at it compared to others.

In the case of American soccer, the ante has been upped over the past 15 years. In the wake of the successes of the US Women’s National Squad, and the growing popularity of Major League Soccer and US Men’s National Team, there is a drive to get the children started earlier and get them to the top of the game faster than ever before. Compared to the programs held overseas in nations like Spain and Italy, we haven’t held any kind of candle to that in a very long time. While soccer programs in many Universities around the country are keeping the faith, there is a need for more. This is the United States of America, for Pete’s sake. We need to be the best…right?

Many of us in our youth have taken part in recreational sports, whether it was for a neighborhood club or for school. In other regions, you’ll notice that some sports programs are a little rougher around the edges, and they like to “separate the men from the boys,” so to speak. Talent is measured more than drive, and if you can’t ride with ‘em, you might as well ride on home. Where I was born and raised, that wasn’t the case until around the time I was on my way out of high school. Things were pretty smooth until the standards of the recreational leagues were pushed to the limits. Age groups as low as 7-8 were holding tryouts. To me, as a 17-year-old who went through ten years of not experiencing that treatment, it was enough to baffle the most intelligent person. I had played with many people who knew they weren’t the best, but they played because they loved the sport. I’ll even admit that I slowly fell into that category toward the end because I wasn’t the fastest runner—heck, running is my least favorite thing in the whole world. If we had tryouts, what would have become of us? Even though we had loved soccer, would the newfound experience have deterred us from the sport completely?

Sure, we’re human, we’re supposed to experience failure, but when it comes to psychological reinforcing and the idea of “punishment,” where if you can’t do something right, the privilege is taken away completely, what does that do to the child’s mind? It won’t give them much drive to do anything.

You see the best of the best, and you see the ones who love but aren’t the most gifted of the bunch. Could there be a middle ground to this conundrum? We’re the land of opportunity, aren’t we? We need to act like one now. This is where a modest proposal comes into play. If we’re going to instill more love into a sport like soccer, it’s time to spread the wealth around a little more and build a revolution from the ground-up.

It’s time to expand on the sport in the most efficient of ways. Not enough youth may play the sport because of instances such as it being too much money, the necessity of “camps” for whoever wants to be on an elite squad, and the already-filled plates of families in today’s society. If there is a way to get a group of people to unwind for a few nights a week, an organized league could really work out. Bars and taverns do it with softball, and there are groups of guys that have organized basketball leagues—what makes this any different? The personal enrichment is there, and as always, it is a good way to keep sharp on a sport and meet people with your general interests. Let’s admit another point here, too: It’s better than drowning in your sorrows in a bar and finding people that way. Good brain, good liver, good health. I digress. In the case of children, soccer (indoors, at that) could be implemented in after-school programming. Not only would children have a chance to do other activities such as reading and painting and doing homework, they could also find a subliminal way to beat out the daily stressors and build self-esteem. They’ll never know they like and appreciate something until they begin to try it out for themselves.

If the ball is there, they’re going to see what they can do with it, right? This isn’t rocket science; exposure can only lead to curiosity, and that curiosity could lead to hard work and determination, and later appreciation. Plus, even if the parents cannot afford a team or the child “doesn’t play up to expectations,” there is a way for them to express their love of the sport. I’d love to kick around a soccer ball on my break at work. Could you imagine how therapeutic that would be? Plus, it would keep me sharp on a sport I haven’t played with an organized group of people in over six years. Win win, ladies and gentlemen.

There is also the option of beginning a “B-League” for an age group, but not necessarily referring to it as one or as a “reserve team.” If you were politically correct, those references would suffice. It would be something along the lines of a Junior Varsity squad. This practice would still teach the athletes the values and mechanics that they might not be able to pick up on their own if they aren’t on a team or striving to be the best at something they enjoy. The kids will learn from each other and help each other grow and be at their best. No man is an island, and there was never an “I” in team, regardless of what your boneheaded superiors ever said to you. While there may be the athletes that are better at visual learning instead of being more hands-on, every experience is beneficial to keeping the love of the sport from within. We all start from different lands with a universal drive. Keeping that momentum brings out greater appreciation for teammates and other fans that come from all walks of life. Sports bring us closer together, right? Don’t take away that right and tell a child (or even an adult) that he/she isn’t good enough because they don’t do A, B, and C. Winning isn’t everything. That’s rule #1 in the world of sports…well, to me, at least.

Naysayers will throw the rebuttal of: “This whole proposal would lead to us ‘shielding’ our children. They need to ‘man-up’ and learn how to take disappointment because not everyone can do everything.”

First off, those people are the reason why we don’t offer chances to people because they can be cranky people that suck the fun out of something we all enjoy. Lighten up, cranks. Anyway, this wouldn’t be shielding the children at all from trying soccer. If anything, the only way you can “shield” a child is by not giving them the chance to try and play soccer for fear of them not being the absolute best or seeing them possibly get hurt. That, my friends, is what shielding is. You protect something, just like a soccer ball against a striker twice your size throwing their hip into you. The ball has to take a beating sooner or later. Yeah, relevance! Plus, when that shielding occurs, you’re placing a stigma on somebody, giving them the impression (especially at an adult age) that they wasted their time and they should never have bothered taking part in soccer in the first place.

“Why bother? I wasn’t good enough for this. This isn’t for me.” Don’t lie, we’ve all been in that place at some point in our lives, and it hurts like none other. When it comes from a love of sports, it’s the sourest feeling in the world. You can’t ruin the innocence of a child by doing this. They need to explore, regardless of how good they are at something. Take chances, make mistakes, and get a little messy, right?

Finally, on this note, whether one is a child or an adult, everyone deserves a chance to know what works for them or not—no outsider should ever have to make that final decision for them. Nobody likes to be cut off; one would rather go out on one’s own terms. The same philosophy could apply to any sports-related injury as well. If one likes soccer and wants to play, one should have every right to have the resources to hone that love and skill. Just because they “suck at it,” for the lack of a better term, don’t give them the right to not find that out for themselves. If anything, negative comments could either drive or deter a person. Constant negativity could deter that person (and their futures) from ever appreciating or experiencing the world of soccer. Again, we’re talking about a middle ground. Sandwiches are a nice alternative. People want to get better, not get turned away from something because someone says they can’t. Life lessons—we can’t forget them.

With all of this said, the more participation we get from all sides of the country, the wider fan base we get in the long run. The merrier, the more, as it were. When a child plays soccer, the family will often find an outlet to expand on that hobby, and will turn to games on television or YouTube videos to see who they can look up to and model themselves after. I did it, and you probably did it too. Once the fire is fed, there is no stopping the appreciation for soccer in the United States. It all starts with us. While the “elite camps” and higher-level clubs provide the talent, the “Junior Varsity” squads will deepen the fan-scape. It will also make us feel empowered, like we can do anything we put our minds to. That is how we build relationships. That is how we build a unit or fans and appreciation for a sport that is supported and praised all over the world.

Don’t deny our right to try the game; let us love it in our own way.

-- Stephanie