I had just earned my first coaching certification in the grassroots game and was still proud and amazed by how much I had learned. Standing in the foyer of one of my player's homes, the mother of this player took in my happy chatter about what I had done and the plans I was making for her son and the other players in the upcoming season. Her head tilted a little to one side and her face struck a pose that looked like she had just sucked a lemon.
"Why would you DO that for rec?" she asked. I will never forget that sour face. Or my disappointment and surpsise.
I was looking right back at her with what was probably a similar face... Well, mine was a face that probably went through a metamorphosis through surprise and puzzlement before it achieved a similar sour pose.
"Why would you NOT do that for rec?" I asked. "The age band and range of motivations in the grassroots game is broader than we find on select teams. I never know who is going to show up and it's hard enough to make the most of our time when I know who's coming in advance. The more we know about reaching kids where they are, the more fun they're likely to have. There is so much we can do..."
I could see that my logic and excitement was well buried under the grassroots game label. This mom had a daughter who played select travel soccer and was surrounded regularly by others that bought into labels and marketing hype. The fundamentals of youth development, the statistics of how many kids actually play soccer in college or at a professional level, and the challenges facing a coach supporting the grassroots game were not going to get me anywhere that evening. What I discovered in my training to be interesting and even profound was considered pedestrian in that foyer that evening. It was time for me to take my lumps, shut my mouth, and move on.
What is the Grassroots Game?
The grassroots game is often referred to as recreational soccer or "rec" for short. Distinguishing characteristics of this form of the game include, but are not limited to:
The grassroots game sounds pretty horrible, right? Sarcasm intended. If you're a parent or a coach and you're scratching your head about how the grassroots game can get a bad name, stick around. I'll give you some reasons, but if you are scratching your head, then excellent! You know how I felt that night in the foyer. That mom made me think. Is there something I missed about the way I was thinking about this game or was she missing something? You decide.
Why the Sour Face for the Grassroots Game?
In three words, marketing, ego, and investment.
Here's the deal: Grassroots or Recreational soccer is no where near as profitable as select or travel soccer. Follow the money and you will find prettier everything - fields, uniforms, training equipment, backpack bling - even labels.
There are some behind the $17 Billion youth sports industry who know your weaknesses. They know you want your kid to be associated with words like Elite - possibly the most over used word in the expensive brands of soccer. They know you're going to feel pressure from fellow parents.
"Where does your kid play?"
"My kid plays for XY Elite!"
"Oh wow... that's so cool!"
It's a rush for many - parents, coaches, and administrators alike - to get to the top of a hill. Don't ask me to show you the hill because most of it is imaginary. But make no mistake: Competition is equally as real for adults in this game as it is for the kids - sometimes competition among adults is even more intense.
My son qualified to play on select travel teams. He did and he enjoyed his experience, but when asked if he wanted to "move up" and play for "White" or for "Blue" teams - the next rung in a hierarchical ladder of good, better, best - he said no. When I asked him why, he said the parents were too intense. He didn't say the kids were a problem or the kids were too intense. He said the parents were too intense. Probing further, he said "they yell too much."
Is "Elite" Select Travel Premiere... Bad?
There is a solid and very good reason for Elite pathways to exist for young athletes. If i were to offer personal opinion, they wouldn't be available until kids started specializing in positions around 13 years or older, but taking elite pathways away would be a huge mistake for kids and for the nation - no matter what nation you're from. The college game and the professional game are both value added and we would miss them if they didn't exist.
There are coaches in the Elite pathway who are dedicated professionals and spend their every waking moments thinking about how to get the best performance out of their players and teams. Kids will get better at soccer under their care.
The travel experience is awesome! Both my son and daughter qualified at the state level, then at a national camp to go on to experience soccer in the UK. We flew as a family over to England to play on Stoke City fields, on Wolverhampton Wolverine Fields, on Arsenal and Manchester United fields. They trained under world class coaches, got to see English Premier League games in person, slept in hotels and made some awesome friends. As a development and life experience, not one member of my family would trade any of that and we'd do it all again in a minute.
It was good. Actually, it was great! But it wasn't where either of my kids ended up or wanted to end up at the end of their youth soccer careers. We maximized the time we had in the youth development window, but despite my hosting a podcast on the subject, coaching and becoming president of a soccer club, we were not obsessed by it.
I think a great many kids can and do benefit from the Elite travel experience, but that does not diminish in any way the value that the grassroots game / recreational soccer brings to the world. I mean to say that they have different value propositions.
A Tale of Two Value Propositions
It comes down to value propositions. There are more than one. Getting clear about the value you want to extract from your youth development window is essential to understanding which one of these value propositions - and pathways - are best for you and your family.
What I'm proposing here is hard work. You must simultaneously support your kid's physical, mental and emotional health while resisting herd mentality, getting smart about your options, keeping your own ego in check, and making a decision. These are a lot of balls in the air, but that's why you get paid the big bucks!
The good news is - no decision is final and everything can be changed. Don't be fooled into thinking that early specialization is the only way to go. It just isn't. In fact, there is ample evidence available that seems to point to the idea that early specialization can be harmful. Based on what I've read, studied, and experienced so far, I am in the don't specialize early camp for most kids myself. Check out the book Range by David Epstein for a good discussion about the rights and /or wrongs of early specialization.
In my own case, I grew up as a multiple sport kid. Swimming, track, wrestling, gymnastics, soccer, lacrosse, martial arts, street hockey, kill-the-guy-with-the-ball, climbing trees, and even tag with friends - all part of my regular youth diet. I'm an experienced fan of the multi-sport approach.
My son played soccer as his primary sport, and while he also was on the varsity dive team, ran track, and played made-up games like "Basker," a combination of basketball and soccer, rode skateboards, and enjoyed biking and hiking, he also chose to play on more than one soccer team. He used his travel team primarily to get crispy through passes to someone who was usually in good position to receive it. He loved making those passes as a mid-fielder, but he didn't always have someone to pass to when he played on his grassroots team. He used varsity soccer and dive teams as a school social experience. He used grassroots to relax and have fun with friends, be goofy, and practice his leadership skills.
My daughter was a swimmer first and played on soccer team after soccer team. She would also play on more than one team at a time and in different genre's of play - from grassroots to classic to varsity on her high school team. Her focus was always on fun first, then running, more fun, socializing, expanding her network of friends, and being impossible to label. Grassroots gave her many awesome memories that she still talks about from her now college aged perspective.
Kids Effect on Decisions
No matter which value proposition you pursue (or both) in your family, the most important feature in this decision should be the kids themselves. Kids won't have the vocabulary or awareness in most cases to know which pathway is the best for them. Heck... most adults don't know! But they communicate with their actions and attention. Here are some examples:
A Word About "Community Soccer"
Grassroots has a very long history. Playing grassroots soccer is where many of the world's greatest soccer players came from and still retreat to as a place of comfort, fun and community. There is always competition in every game, but rivalries are not bloody.
The concept of Community features prominently in the grassroots game. Not only is volunteerism a must to keep the grassroots business model viable, but moms and dads actually want to and enjoy getting on the field with their kids.
It might be time for a name change or rebranding of the grassroots game. Recreational soccer might be more positively described as Community Soccer. In this way, we emphasize what's great about the grassroots game.
"Recreational soccer" seems to connote a lesser experience from "Elite soccer." The reality is that lesser or more is simply a function of where we hold the measuring tool. On Community, accessibility, volunteerism, parent involvement, cost, and play time, Community Soccer gets really high marks.
Respect for this remarkable game!
- Epstein, David. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Penguin USA, 2020.
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