A huge problem of youth soccer in North America today is that it has become a business and for the most part, the focus is on producing dollars ahead of producing good people. In initiating this conversation, I also want to make the point that when I speak about the “problems”, of this money-centric environment, that I am not talking about the caliber of technical and tactical players that we are producing. We’ll save that for another day. I’m talking about the fact that this money-centric system in youth soccer is producing some unbelievably narcissistic kids.
Along these lines, I had a conversation with a college coach the other day that also happens to run a youth club. He was lamenting the attitudes of the kids on his college team, when I asked him the role he felt clubs like his played in producing those players.
“You don’t understand what it’s like Ciara” he said, “you stand up to the star kid and parents and then they go to another club that wins and then you lose business, because the other club does better.”
“So you are making the decision to cash checks more important than standing up for the right values? I cheekily asked.
“When you have a family to feed Ciara you’ll understand”, he responded.
Fair enough. I don’t have a family to feed, so maybe I don’t understand.
But it’s not rocket science why all of a sudden we have a lot of kids lacking some very basic values in the soccer environment. Youth soccer has turned into a business, and unfortunately, with a short term paycheck on the line most people let this thinking lead their actions, not thinking long term consequences.
At this point it is probably appropriate to warn my future children that they will starve before I give into this thinking.
The following story is my limited experience with the topic.
In recent years, I was the assistant coach of a high school team. I was lucky to be working under a head coach that although hadn’t played at a high level, completely got it in terms of the expectations of how the players should conduct themselves. As she explained her philosophy to me when we were having our first meeting, I was stoked to be working with someone who I was totally on the same page with of the kind of values that needed to be reinforced and an environment that the team was ahead of any individual player.
The season started smoothly, we won games, and everything looked promising. We had some great players, including a forward, who was incredibly talented. A few games into the season, we had a game, where it was 1-1, we were heading into the last 15 minutes and our star forward, looked like she couldn’t be bothered to be on the field. This player was by far our best chance to score, and was usually good for a goal a game, so we kept her in the game.
After the game, I asked her why she looked to be putting in minimal effort, and she said it was because the other team’s defenders were knocking her around. I looked at her incredulously, and said “Sarah, you are so good that you can just get the ball, turn, blow past them and score. That’s the reaction you need to have, and the way to get revenge, instead of pouting on the field, and not helping your teammates out by making runs or playing defense.” She agreed half-heartedly and that was the end of it.
The next game, we played the team’s biggest rivals. We were down 2-1 with 10 minutes to go, and sure enough, our star player again looked to not be trying. The head coach and I looked at each other at the same time, and although this player was a 90-minute player, our look said the same thing to each other, “she’s coming out.”
So we took our most talented player out of the game, the one that with the odds gave us the best chance to score, down 2-1 in our biggest game of the season at that point. Coming out she questioned why she was getting taken out in a very disrespectful manner, and we told her to sit down, as we could see the players’ surprised faces and the parents murmuring.
And at that moment, right after the sub, we scored to make it 2-2. We had made our point, no player and their ability was bigger than the team, and we were fortunate enough for one of the kids on the field, to prove the point. That being said, the other team scored again with 2 minutes remaining and we lost 3-2.
When we were putting together the starting lineup for the next game, another important one, the coaching staff decided that this player wouldn’t start, probably the first time in her high school career. We were hoping that this would be a spark, that she would step on the field and want to prove us wrong, and we’d get the effort out of her that we knew she had in her to consistently give. But that went the opposite of plan, and instead she sulked, walked and made a point of not trying, and we lost 4-1 on a cold rainy night, and our ability to make our conference and the state tournament seemed to be slipping away. We could hear murmuring from the parents questioning our coaching decisions.
The next day, we called a team meeting instead of practice and asked the players if they could tell us what they thought we needed to do as a team to be successful. Once the players finished writing down a series of questions that we asked them, we started talking. Our star player “Sarah” made a point of texting in the meeting, rolling her eyes and I could feel my blood start to boil. At one point she stuck up her hand and said, “well since we are talking about what we could do better, I think that the coaches could do a better job of communicating with us.”
The head coach said to Sarah, “thank you Sarah we’ll take that into consideration, but you also have to understand with 20 girls on the team that we aren’t going to have the chance sometimes to pull aside everyone, and there are some times when we are going to take people out of games, just to change something up, and we need you guys to keep a positive attitude.”
Sarah rolled her eyes, and I almost impulsively kicked her out of the meeting for being so disrespectful. I told myself to give her another chance, but I found the words flying out of my mouth a minute later when someone on the team made a genuine comment and she rolled her eyes again and started blatantly texting.
“You heard me, get out of this meeting right now, you are done here.”
“What, I didn’t do anything wrong?”
“Sarah, this isn’t a conversation, get out of here”
I was shaking in anger, and disbelief that a sixteen year old could not only be so disrespectful towards her teammates over the course of the week, but that she would act in that way towards two adults in positions of authority. I tried to imagine myself at 16 acting that way, and I just couldn’t fathom it.
But I also realized immediately, that it wasn’t Sarah that I held any ill will towards. She was a product of her culture, and obviously no adult or coach had bothered to take a stand with her before, which was my only answer to how she could be 16 years old and act in such a defiant way.
After the meeting was done, the coaching staff decided we were suspending her for a week, and then we were going to make a decision after a week if we were going to keep her on the team for the rest of the season. We ended up in the athletic director’s office with Sarah the next day as she sobbed and gave us an apology, one that seemed a little too convenient with another huge game to play that afternoon.
After the meeting, us coaches decided that she wouldn’t play in the game that afternoon, although it was a huge one for us, and delivered the news to her before the game. We explained to her that there had to be consequences for making such bad choices over the course of the week, and that she was going to miss the game. As coaches we knew that making the state tournament and conference tournament were in jeopardy, but we felt there was no other choice than to teach this player a lesson about how teammates need to act. I was so fed up with her behavior at this point, that I had resigned myself to a crying fit, or her storming off or some other kind of selfish behavior that mirrored how she had conducted herself to that point.
And then she surprised all of us.
Instead of pouting, we looked over and she was warming the keeper up and helping get the cones and pinnies to the stations. Then the game started and we could hear her cheering on the bench. I was speechless. After about 20 minutes, I walked over to the head coach and she too was shocked at how Sarah had chosen to react. We decided that in giving her consequences to having poor actions, it was a chance to give positive consequences for good choices, and so we called her over and explained that to her and told her to warm up, that she was going to go in, in the second half. She looked shocked.
And she went in and played her best game of the season, and we tied one of the best teams in the state, and secured a spot in the state tournament, with a record over .500, although we missed out on the conference tournament.
And our team proceeded to come out of nowhere in the state tournament, going on an unforgettable run, doing the best that the school had done in 20 years. After upsetting a couple of highly ranked teams, we ended up losing in PK’s in the semi-finals to the team that ended up winning the whole thing. I am positive that the culture that we fought for on the team and the adversity that we got through together played a role in that incredible accomplishment.
We had to take the risk and lose, in order to win.
And by winning, our team had become a product of the individuals that were cultivated.
I walked away with such satisfaction, knowing that not only had we had an unforgettable season on the field, but that Sarah and the rest of the team would be better off as people, for the values that we had taken a stand for, off the field.
And in that season I learned that no amount of money is able to top the feeling of using a game that you love, to teach lessons that allow you to walk away, knowing that you’ve left better people behind.