The sport of soccer is a wonderful game, loved around the world. For me, a love of the game was fostered by playing under caring, enthusiastic coaches. Their passion for the game was contagious. While it was rare – growing up in the 1970s – to have opportunities to watch professional teams play, I did whenever possible. I was mesmerized and fell in love with the sport, as did many of my generation. The growth of the game in the U.S. is nothing short of amazing.
Over the past few decades, youth soccer exploded, in some cases generating a cottage industry that has made the sport a for-profit proposition. Parents can spend thousands of dollars every year (!) for their kids to play the sport.
This is an unfortunate byproduct of the game’s growth in this country. As the game grew, the primary focus in most youth clubs has turned more and more towards training elite players, with scant attention given to the vast majority of soccer-playing kids, effectively killing any of their passion for the game before it even has time to take root.
Make no mistake – the U.S. system is, in fact, developing better players (yes – it’s clear that there are significant structural issues related to elite player development; this is not the focus of this post). Players demonstrating size, athleticism, and some instinct for the game are culled from the rest and placed into teams and are given the benefit of professional training. Other players – be they late bloomers, less athletic, or simply multi-sport athletes – are left with coaches who (though they may mean well) don’t have training related to either the sport itself or how to coach.
It’s easy to think, well, this is natural. Better players get better training. Why bring it up? Well, sports specialization is becoming more and more endemic, and its long term implications are worth noting. At best, emphasizing performance over effort at an early age misunderstands the long term development process and at worst, stifles a child’s love of the game.
“The biggest predictor of fan avidity as an adult is whether you played the game.”
- Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred
According to this article, Major League Baseball has noted the drop in youth participation numbers and recognize the implications for its fan base. It is no secret that the average age of baseball fans is steadily increasing. Is there a correlation to soccer?
While training opportunities for elite soccer players continue to grow, the playing opportunities and cultivation for casual, part-time players – historically a key part of a future fan base – seem to be decreasing. A question is worth asking – are we killing off legions of future fans because we are narrowly focusing on specialization?
Soccer is the world’s game; a sport that should be enjoyed by all. By forcing kids to specialize too early while marginalizing the rest, what are we really creating? How are we growing the game?