First, Do No Harm
Today is a tough day.
My daughter, at just 12 years old, a young and promising goalkeeper, has ended her participation in soccer. She had grown weary, and frankly, after seeing both her and her older sister’s experiences in the game in this country, so had I.
So what happened? Let’s go back to the beginning.
When she began playing at age 7, following in her sister’s footsteps, she began as nearly everyone in the “system” does: at the rec level. Because in this country, even amusingly unorganized soccer must be organized.
Hoping to provide her team with a richer experience, I began helping to coach her team, in a method informed by my 40-year love for, and perceptions of, the global game, the real game. With no real credentials, I taught the girls to think, play with and for each other, and enjoy a deeper process of learning to master the ball and the game. Simple but important concepts, learned deeply, that empowered the girls to enjoy themselves. And it was wonderful.
We didn’t just talk about mastering the ball individually and possessing it collectively, we actually did it. We learned how to play out from the back. I didn’t just throw the girls out there and expect them to figure out how to build out simply from the basic rondos and possession games we did in other contexts. I trained it, as is necessary. We played well, and so differently from everyone else. And we won too. A lot. Even though it had never been a focus. And so we had to move up to keep the girls challenged, not because we were suddenly chasing glory, but because things had become too easy and we needed and wanted the growth that would come at the next level. Our competency and play dictated our level, as it should be.
We had our issues in the beginning at that next level, but soon new and more sophisticated concepts clicked again and we began to take another leap forward. Our girls were becoming soccer thinkers, and had the skills to execute what they saw in their mind’s eye. And they noticed the difference in how we played. And they enjoyed it. And we won again. A lot. And so we moved up to the club level as a team, coming in under the umbrella of a loosely constructed local club that allowed me to continue our work.
The dream was taking shape.
In our first season at the club level, our strong foundation surprisingly allowed us to slide right into that environment and continue our growth without faltering. And we won again. Immediately. A lot. But mostly the girls enjoyed playing and continuing to learn, and I enjoyed teaching them and watching them continue to take ownership of the game. By the end of that first club season, we still had never punted in a game. Ever. Everything started from the back. They never knew anything else. They were surely intimidated at times, but they pushed through and never wavered. It was a constant process, but by U10 it was in our DNA. We possessed the ball as a team, allowed for individual creativity, and stitched it all together. Confidence, competence, enthusiasm. The girls had it all. We weren’t “great” but relative to how our competition played and what they were learning we kinda were. We were completely unique. It’s like we had fallen from the sky.
And then, probably predictably, we came to a point where the demands of continuing on that path started to cause friction among our parents, some of whom understandably found it harder to divide their attention between their children’s various activities. And so I made the decision to step away, and shortly thereafter took my daughter and placed her on a traditional club team.
And now, nearly 3 years after entering the “system”, we have decided we have had enough of it.
“Dad, I haven’t really enjoyed playing since you coached me and our team.”
Chew on that for a bit.
A guy with no credentials, and zero standing in the “system”, produced a team of players that, relative to their surroundings, was an enigma. I was a nobody. I still am. And they were a bunch of neighborhood girls who had simply opened the park district catalog one Fall and signed up for rec soccer.
And yet, two-and-a-half years later, everything I had hoped to help these girls and my daughter experience had basically happened. But they were, like me, a one-off. I gave them a different perspective, one they enjoyed, one they excelled at. And one that STILL won.
What we did shouldn’t have been possible if you consider the barriers and the egos inside organized youth soccer in this country, but we did it. It shouldn’t have been NEEDED, but I needed to do it, for me and the girls.
So our family decision to leave the game isn’t about my daughter thinking soccer needed to be all about mindless, no-consequence “fun”. That experience was certainly available to her, but that wasn’t what we were doing. No, this was about the realization that the game became “serious” in all the wrong ways when my daughter entered the system. We would have been happy to compete at whatever level her “true” soccer ability and commitment dictated at a particular point in time, but instead we got some overblown, self-deluded and self-important youth system forced upon us, which without a single hint of self-awareness decided the level based not necessarily on who was good or potentially good but who simply was the most exploitable. “Talent Selection” trumped talent creation.
What she moved into wasn’t what she expected, or enjoyed. She and I had no particular goals in the game except to take the right things seriously, develop competencies, play it to a different and deeper standard, and to enjoy doing so. The “results” of that experience could wait until the foundation was laid. But that is quite literally impossible in this country, mostly because the system is controlled by people who only care about those results and who don’t measure them properly anyway. Won a game? Awesome! Moved up a level? Wait til the guys at work hear about this!! No awareness, game understanding and a poor first touch after 5 years of elite soccer? What’s that and who cares.
Where is the pathway for someone who wants to play well, and play hard, but thinks the system is insane? Where is the opportunity for someone who is willing to wait and let their level of true competency decide how serious one is about the game, rather than being forced into early judgement on the wrong things, put into high-level (lol) competition and then judged even harder? Why are we in such a hurry to decide which of our ill-prepared young players is ready for “elite” play? It’s because of the almost complete ignorance of the American soccer parent. They are only capable of judging value based on what level their child plays at, and whether they win there. And they have gotten everything they asked for.
Some argue that the system should be opened up to the less fortunate, those who have been excluded for financial (and often bias) reasons. I don’t disagree. But the system itself, as it exists, is a sham even for the people inside it. And as one who has experienced it from the inside, with children that I wanted to see living and loving the game in a different way and to a different standard, I find it to be deficient in almost every way.
The general path in this country is precisely what we as a family experienced. Players start in the rec system, and are immediately behind the game from a global standpoint in terms of enjoyment AND competency (hint: there’s a connection). They don’t experience the years of formative self-play that kids from other nations do, and their early instruction is largely from both uninformed volunteer coaches and their own equally unaware parents. Then those stunted rec players enter the meat grinder of the club system and the real problems begin. (Note: I would call these parents “harmlessly unaware”, except that their lack of knowledge and eventual behavior within the sport ends up being quite sinister.)
Once in the system, the players retain their stunted understanding of the game, because the “licensed professional” coaches–even the ones that are competent and decent and have some global perspective– almost always have only one task: placate the parents’ ridiculous demands and expectations, and do it well enough to keep the checks rolling in. Parents are surprisingly happy to pay extortionate amounts of money for the buzzword-laden “Elite Premier FC” experience and its attendant status, in particular the bragging rights to things other ignorant parents misguidedly value as well. But make no mistake: that is what they believe they are paying for, and if they don’t get it they will leave. Good training will not keep them around, as they don’t watch training and wouldn’t know the difference anyway. They have no concern about the inherent quality of the experience as a whole. So the cycle continues, all without the players or the coaches ever consistently getting, or even needing to get, better at what they do. The seriousness of results and status ratchets up far beyond the quality of play or instruction. The “level” of competition you can claim your child plays at (often ridiculously self-defined: see ECNL) supersedes the learning it should rightfully take to get there. Trophies “any which way” beats competency and richness and winning in a deeper way. And the longer you’re in the system, the farther down the rabbit hole you go.
In the particular case of ECNL, the eventual clubs and coaches quite literally came together, decided for themselves what “Elite” meant (note: not necessarily any more accurately than the prior ridiculous definition of Elite), and lopped off the clubs who met their definition, creating a Super-league that ramped up the absurdity and expenditure to obscene levels. Did the level of training go up to match? Of course not. Did it go up at all? Who’s to know, as it’s the same bunch of coaches as before. In short: the parents got up-sold. And they loved it!
Imagine a typical U12 girl, who often hasn’t even been taught a majority of the basics of the game, scrutinized to see if they were “ECNL material.” What does that even mean? What if you aren’t deemed to be good enough, not because of your own inadequacies, but precisely because you have gotten bad training since you started in the sport? Now what? Presumably it would mean that you are resigned to a lower level in your club, with a level of coaching to match (which might reasonably be true if higher-level coaching actually existed in more than a few places). So the very system that doesn’t provide the basics in the first place then proceeds to step back at some point in the process and pretend to fairly evaluate and judge the “quality” of a group of players they inadequately prepared, all while not acknowledging or even realizing how they are complicit. Utter madness. Players are judged on an artificial, insular, sliding scale of relativities. The “best” are simply better than the rest, but they often aren’t actually very good, as their base level can be preposterously low relative to where they could be. And yet, self-improvement issues aside, it’s not their fault.
And what if you ARE determined to have “ECNL quality”? What does THAT mean? Here’s what it means: you’re really screwed. You’re suddenly dragged around the country and sucked dry, often spending potentially $6k-8k for a 10 month program of hit-or-miss quality (no matter what the term “elite” implies), because it’s still populated with the same kind of coaching from the same pool of coaches from the same system. And it’s all tolerated–no, demanded or even created– because you blindly believe you will one day recoup your money in the form of a scholarship, while your child plays college soccer that is itself subpar because it’s the endpoint of the very same system.
But of course you still won’t know it’s shit. You won’t suddenly have an epiphany about what good soccer coaching and playing looks like, especially as YOU (not your kid) have secured your Holy Grail, which precludes you ever looking inward to do the math, or to be truthful with yourself about how and why you did any of it in the first place.
And so, it wasn’t until I started paying $1800 a year at her first “real” club, and then $2500 at the next, for this “licensed professional” coaching, that my own child decided she didn’t like the sport any more.
But of course, it wasn’t the sport that she no longer enjoyed. It was how the sport is presented and conducted in this country. We’re an aberration in the world.
So in the end, this self-important system provided nowhere near the richness of experience nor general competency, relative to what I, some local nobody, had endeavored to bring my child, and she doesn’t want to participate any more.
And it’s fucking ridiculous.
The conceit is that very often, the truly excellent (different?) players (in a global context) that you occasionally find at this level got there in spite of the system, not because of it. They were the players that had a passion that made them work on their game outside of team practices. Maybe they had a parent who “got” the game on that global level and showed them everything the system didn’t. They were the outliers that developed an ability and a confidence to not sweat how bad the system was around them. This is what I have tried to provide to both of my daughters. I have succeeded to some degree with my older one, but that seems more and more by the grace of God than me. The second I couldn’t save.
Because so many horrifically incomplete players reach the highest levels in this country, there is almost no motivation to go beyond what the system provides, and even though anyone here can see true high level sophisticated soccer on their TV every weekend coming from overseas, they’d be forgiven for questioning why they would work hard enough to play that way, when it’s not required to reach OUR highest levels, and may actually put you at a disadvantage. They would also, however, be forgiven for NOT even knowing that there is a question to be asked, because the US system is so far removed from what they watch that it seems like a different sport and the question never even occurs to them. Both thoughts literally point to exactly the same conclusion: players not experiencing the game the way it could and, I argue, should be, and certainly not to the level of their financial investment in it.
I tried to be the buffer for my dear sweet younger daughter, to give her insights and skills I knew she would never get from the system. I tried to “system-proof” her, especially as a goalkeeper who would surely succumb to mistakes made by players in front of her through no fault of their own. I wanted to create within her the ability and confidence to push on through it and not be fazed by it, but I still couldn’t get her to overcome it to the degree she could enjoy playing in it. I own my part of whatever stress I surely contributed to her experience in an attempt to push her to rise above. But regardless, we were both fighting the system.
And now she doesn’t want to be part of it any longer. She has the ability to play at an increasingly higher level, but to what end? To participate in a massively deficient system even if her team was “successful” by that system’s horribly self-defined standards? And all while we blindly hand our money over, with nothing but the slim hopes of partial recovery years from now? Sorry, no.
And when asked if she wanted to continue at a lower level, and just play for enjoyment and growth, she said “I don’t think so, anymore.” The spirit is gone, and because the coaching at the less intensive and demanding levels still isn’t focused on the right things, there is truly no place for her, or us. There is no FCB Escola near us. There are no truly progressive clubs near us who have carved out their own existence that delivers on what we are looking for. There is no great soccer education for its own sake, to be parlayed into whatever level you might want to play at.
Whether pay-to-play ever goes away, one fact remains: most parents believe they are paying for performance (as they and the system define it), not preparation. They believe they are paying for high level competition and wins and trophies and bragging rights and fuck all. They are paying for results, not process.
Where do people like my daughter and I fit in? The ones who would gladly pay for quality instruction, for a full and holistic approach to the game that if done the right way will keep kids loving the game, and will still win, and still allow for the most serious of them to reach the highest level of competition and performance when it’s time to make that a focus? Why can’t they just teach soccer well, and properly??!
Add in to all of this a striking amount of utterly abominable behavior on the part of coaches, both on the sideline during games and interpersonally, including sexual and psychological abuse, and you wonder how you could have been convinced to place your child into this environment.
And so I’m done hoping and looking for better. My daughter may decide after a period of time that she misses the game, would be ok simply playing it again, somewhere, anywhere. And I would support her, and hopefully do a better job of not trying to fix the game’s problems in this country through her.
Because I owe her that much.
And because I love her.