All You Need Is Love.
"I love soccer. I want to be on the field." - Brandi Chastain
Why does your kid play soccer? To be perfectly honest, I ask myself this question a lot and its extremely relevant to me on so many levels. You see, not only am I a soccer coach and director of a youth soccer club, I also have two boys who play a lot of soccer. As a coach, I care deeply about the passions and motivations of all players at Eagleclaw Football Club, mainly because I think passion and motivation are the key to real player development and keeping kids in involved with the sport. But I am also a soccer-dad, so the question is vastly more personal to me. Why do my kids play?
Whose Passion Is It, Anyway?
I accept full responsibility for instilling in my boys an understanding of and love for the game. I love the game and that's why I introduced my boys to it. Anytime I see my boys playing, It makes me feel good. Whether its in the yard at home, at Eagleclaw's Academy training sessions or in a game, I admit I feel proud that my boys are playing and playing well. I'm thrilled Eagleclaw is teaching them a Spanish style of play that emphasizes technique and intelligence. I'm also happy that my boys follow my favorite professional club, sometimes with more passion than even I do! Soccer is a huge part of our lives. I take pride in that, but I also have to take responsibility for it - the good as well as the bad.
The hardest thing for me is remembering that my boys should be playing this game for themselves, not for me. I remind myself of this constantly. We parents must ask ourselves this question often if we are trying to be honest about whether our kids want anything to do with soccer. If a kid does not want to play, I think we'd all agree they should never be forced to play. After all, its a game.
However, there are moments when we as parents are tested. We've all been there. We want our kids to play, but also to play well and stand out. We drive them to every training session and game, assuming, often without even thinking about it, that our kid is fully on board and excited. Then, sometimes, the kid we think is crazy about the game suddenly says they don't want to go to training, they don't want to play or that they need a break. Now what? We are also trying to teach our kids other values that can be taught through sport, such as honoring commitments, the value of hard work and showing up. Are we damaging the development of our kids' character and work ethic by allowing them to take a break or quit, even if its only temporary? Can we push them? Should we push them?
Add to this the reality of "the golden time", the idea that crucial skill development for youth players occurs between the age of 5 and 12, particularly with respect to technical skills (e.g. ball mastery). At the younger ages, a great amount of positive development can be achieved with less effort. The later a player begins, the more effort from player and coach is required. If a kid no longer wants to play, we worry that if they later change their mind, they will have lost valuable training time at a crucial stage of their development. Isn't it a parent's responsibility to keep their kids from making bad choices? Should we push them so they keep developing as soccer players?
These are hard questions and there is no "one size fits all" answer. I struggle with it daily, trying to find the right balance between encouraging my boys' soccer training and development and giving them time and space to express their passion for their game at whatever level of passion suits them. Complicating everything is the fact that there are so many different opinions about what is really needed for "talent development."
Time On Task?
In his 2008 best-seller called Outliers - The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell introduced the 10,000 Hour Rule. According to Gladwell, high achievement in any area is the result of practicing the correct way for at least 10,000 hours. Put in the time and high achievement follows, or so the theory goes. In Gladwell's view, natural talent or innate abilities are never solely responsible for high levels of achievement, nor are they the most important things. The most important factor is putting in the time and effort. In fact, according to Gladwell, "ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness." And because this magic number works for any endeavor, if it really is a valid rule then it should also apply to soccer.
A couple of years ago, an article appeared in the Guardian arguing that 10,000 touches a day is what a soccer player needs in order to be a world-class player. I certainly believe that time-on-task is important for high achievement. I'd go so far as to say its essential, regardless of whether an individual has innate talent or not. One of my favorite sayings is "hard work beats talent when talent is hardly working." So yes, putting in the hours and the work is important. But a kid will never do that unless they want to do it. And if they don't want to do it, they'll never really be giving 100%.
"Children and teenagers who are allowed to be autonomous are more likely to actively engage in their activity over time. Being passionate should not be viewed as a personality trait -- it is a special relationship one develops with an activity."
Read that quote again. Its one of the conclusions from a 2010 research study led by Geneviève Mageau, a psychology professor at the Université de Montréal and published in the Journal of Personality. Researchers differentiated between obsessive passion (the bad kind) and harmonious passion (the healthy kind) and discovered several factors leading to passion for an activity. These factors include identifying with the activity, activity specialization, how parents value the activity, and autonomy. Autonomy is another way of saying the kid has the freedom to make the choice. Professor Mageau's team studied almost 600 musicians and athletes between the age of 6 and 38. In the end, the conclusion was simple and, if you really think about it, quite intuitive. Children of parents who promote autonomy are more likely to develop a harmonious passion with an activity. And what about the other kids? Well, according to Profession Mageau:
"We found that controlling adults can foster obsessive passion in their children by teaching them that social approval can only be obtained through excellence. An activity then becomes highly important for self-protective reasons that don't necessarily correspond with a child's true desires."
This is true and difficult wisdom, especially for me. We should definitely introduce our kids to soccer, find ideal environments for them to train and play, encourage them to play in the back yard or park, show them the pageantry of the game (i.e. following favorite clubs, going to matches, watching games on tv). We need to do the things that help our child develop their relationship to soccer, but we cannot and should not force it. We must give them room - autonomy - to develop their own personal relationship with soccer. A child's relationship with soccer will ultimately be the source of their passion, and that passion will determine, to a great extent, whether they get excited for training sessions, games and the work required to really develop as a player. As parents, it is important to support our children's interest in and passion for soccer, but we can't let that support morph into unhealthy pressure. In short, we parents need to back off a bit and give our kids room to fall in love with soccer. Its all about love!
I love soccer. I love the that the game is simple and complex at the same time. I love that all you need is a ball and a game can happen anywhere. I love that its a global game. I love that I can sit down to watch a match with someone who speaks a language I don't know, but we can both speak the language of football. But most importantly, I love how I felt when I played soccer as a kid and a young adult. I miss the feeling I had as a kid on the soccer field. And, more than anything, I want my boys to have that feeling, to keep that feeling and pass it on to their own kids someday.
Falling Out Of Love
Earlier this summer, the Washington Post published a story confirming what soccer coaches have known for a long time: 70% of kids drop out of sports by age 13. Why? Well, for most kids who drop out, the reason is simple - it's just not fun anymore. But there are other reasons as well. For one thing, youth soccer at the youngest ages has become a pressure cooker. Tryouts and cuts at ridiculously young ages, a focus on developing winning teams and the absence of a true learning environment all conspire to make soccer difficult to fall in love with or to stay in love with. Whether they admit it or not, too many parents are feeding their own egos by pushing their kids to make the "A" team at the local "premier" club or win a 60 minute game at some 3-day out of state tournament that required a 3 hour flight and a hotel stay. It's absurd.
If we want to keep our kids playing and loving soccer, we need to demand a learning culture. A learning culture not only teaches, but allows kids to try things, make mistakes and then learn from those mistakes. It's not a dishonest culture that tells all kids that they are equally amazing players. Instead, its an honest culture where coaches tell players the truth about their current level of ability, and in a positive and uplifting way tell them and teach them what they can do next to become better players. In a learning culture, coaches have an obligation not only to teach, but to find ways to help players to learn. And of course, the goal of a true learning culture that is focused on player development should be "As many as possible, for as long as possible and in the best environment possible."
If you want to see a learning environment in action, study Eagleclaw Football Club. From age 5-13, the focus is on learning and playing, not building winning teams. Individual player development is central. All players train at the same time and place. Coaches are focused on teaching each player the skills and techniques that build confidence. And confidence feeds on itself, increasing a player's enjoyment of the game. Its simple - the better you become at the game, the more you enjoy it. The more you enjoy the game, the more you'll want to play it. Then, you might just fall in love with it. And if you fall in love with soccer, you'll stick with it and perhaps go further and higher in the game.
At Eagleclaw, competitive tryouts don't begin until players are 14. That makes sense! The goal of early stage youth player development (5-13) should be not only to foster development of crucial technical and tactical skills, but also to create and maintain an environment that keeps soccer fun and exciting. The urgent responsibility of youth soccer coaches is to do make it easy for kids to fall in love with soccer, all the while preparing them for the tryouts and challenges to come at age 14 and beyond.
My oldest son just turned 12. I don't want him to be a statistic. So, I'm checking in with myself. Am I providing encouragement and support? Am I pressuring my kids? Am I giving them room to be autonomous - to choose and find their love for the game? Are they training and playing in an education-first environment? I think we all have work to do when it comes to giving our kids autonomy to decide whether and how much they love soccer. I think my boys love the game. I'm pretty sure they do. Anyway, I hope that when my boys are 14 they are still in love with soccer and want to keep playing, learning and developing. But I'm committed to making sure its their choice, not mine.