Guest Column

The case for recreational soccer

Photo: Jennifer Leszczynski

PSP reader Steve Hann has contributed the following guest column about the conflict he sees between the need for recreational soccer programs that can serve many youth players and the increasing focus on travel programs aimed at developing elite players, often at great financial cost to parents. Steve was a player for 13 years, including being named to the Delco Select team in 1990. He has coached intramural soccer and worked as a referee for ten years and holds a USSF Grade E coaching certificate and Grade 8 FIFA Referee certificate. Since 2013, he has volunteered two days a week with the Chester-Upland Soccer for Success after school program.

I am upset about something that my generation of soccer players, and the group of soccer players that came after me, has done to the game, something that is creating a black hole in soccer.

Today, one year on an elite travel soccer team will cost parents more than my entire soccer career cost my parents, and even stranger, more than my father’s entire undergraduate college degree. My contention is that the recreational game (Intramural level) has been co-opted in favor of the adult game. Parents are pouring money into programs to make careers for those previously mentioned generations of coaches, and trainers. I have both enjoyed, and cringed, at the growth of American soccer in the past 25 years, simultaneously enjoying the level of teaching to our best prospects, and scratching my head at trying to use the same methods with kids who can’t sit still for five minutes without touching someone else, or hopping around, or looking up at a cloud, or a bug, or the big truck that happens to drive by while making some awful noise with its gears. The system simply does not work for those kids.

Mind you, I do realize that it does work for many kids, But, make no mistake, many kids are leaving the game. I do not have exact figures but the rate of kids dropping out of the game of soccer at age 12-13 is very high — too high. There are many reasons for this. Burnout is one major part of the problem. Bad coaching, time requirements, or even coaches playing favorites can also be problems. Pressure to perform at a sport when their bodies are still developing, both mentally, and physically, is another. The simplest, and perhaps, most important, reason might be that the game stops being fun.

At present, the system works for the benefit of the groups of people who are making money off training the kids who fit the system but will statistically never be professional athletes. The percentage of soccer players making a living playing the sport is tiny, so what about all those kids who get shoved out of the game at age 12 or 13 because there is no more Rec soccer, and the only choice is travel soccer at a ridiculous cost to the family? As well, what kind of pressure do the parents then put on the kid once the family is spending $1500 to $2000 (or more) to participate for a year of elite level travel soccer? I blame my generation for trying to monetize the sport in the name of training professional players.

Recreational (intramural) soccer should be about community, fun, sportsmanship, friendship building, and learning the game of soccer. I do not want kids falling out of the game because they hit 13 years old and the game stops being fun for the kids, or it takes up too much of their time, or because parents don’t want to spend a small fortune on a travel program. The loser is the sport of soccer. Adults have taken the game away from the kids and made it about them — the people paying the money, or making the money — instead of making it about keeping the game fun for kids.

A story

I just finished running a spring session for Nether Providence (NPAA) soccer club in their ‘Majors’ division, which is for kids 10 to 12 years old. We mixed the girls in with the boys and had 20+ kids playing that had not gone onto travel ball. There were no set teams, and I used pinnies to split the kids up for each session, allowing all the kids to get a chance to play with, and against, each other. We practiced an hour a week, and had games on the weekend, just like every other level of play, except, we had no trainers, or standings, or parent-coaches pushing kids to win a Rec game of soccer. Most of the kids will probably never go into travel ball at U-13 or U-14 when they’re too old to play Rec soccer.

I would often just coach all the kids from the referee position, helping them to learn the game while playing. Laughter and goofing off frequently occurred on the field. Kids would spend time not playing the game and talking on the field, but the game would go on anyway, and they would jump in when the ball came near them. This was Rec soccer, and the goal was to make it fun enough that the kids wanted to come to every session.

I’ve tried to use traditional methods with the kids who are not in travel programs and the results are always different from what I had originally planned. While some kids are attentive and interested in the drills, others want the drills explained four or five times (which I think they do just to try to annoy me because they think it is funny); other kids simply don’t want to participate in the drills at all. Such a mixture of interest requires a different approach to the game, a Rec approach, instead of the traditional travel team approach, or even the recommended US Soccer Federation drills for youth soccer. My experience shows that these groups of kids want something different out of soccer than from learning the system set up in order to create an elite level soccer player.

The father of one of the girls in my ‘Majors’ group, who was playing organized soccer for the first time ever, opined that what I was doing was not ‘real soccer.’ He fashioned himself as a ‘former soccer player’ who felt that the game should be taught in the same way at the Rec level as it is at the travel level. But, when multiple people are writing articles in ‘Goal line’ magazine about losing kids from the game, and study after study shows that kids are leaving organized sports, there is obviously a problem. Ironically, the solution to improving the level of play in America has been to make it so structured, and costly, that the game is actually losing Rec players.

I have been toiling around in intramural, Rec soccer for the last 10 years and the one constant that I have come across is that parents wish for kids to train to become superstars, and will often do anything to try to ‘allow’ them to succeed. In response, coaches, clubs, and trainers have come up with tournaments and clinics, things that cost tons of money to participate in. While these ‘solutions’ have served to create careers in soccer for my generation, in the process, they have also pushed recreational players out of the game. That is the black hole in soccer and it lies in the area of recreational play.

I submit that there is a group of kids aged eight through 13 that will never learn to love the game if the game is set up to try to make all kids professionals. The kids who have trouble maintaining attention, have impulse control issues, or are socially awkward, are left out of the game in favor of the most developed, and focused, kids at all ages. There will be plenty of time for higher levels of training if they stay in the game and do eventually move on to travel soccer. The system is already set up to funnel the most advanced kids into the best programs anyway. The kids who do not fit into that system are the kids who drop out of the sport. We are stealing the game from them by making it no fun.

Reevaluate

I want to be clear here concerning the different levels of soccer instruction. I have no problem with the way that the system is improving at the travel level. I am not calling for an end of the current system. What I am calling for is a reevaluation of how children are taught Rec soccer. When a parent says that what I am doing is ‘not real soccer,’ I take offense to that opinion. What exactly is ‘real soccer’? If there are two teams on a field, two goals, a referee, a competitive game, and a final score, that is soccer. As a point, the daughter of that parent did not want to leave the field after our sessions — because she was having fun. The father thinks it is ‘not soccer,’ and the kid thinks it is great (the mother told me this, and the girl hanging around playing with the boys showed it to be true). That’s the disconnect that I’m trying to address.

There is room for everything in the world of soccer. The next generation of fans will be kids who grew up in the game, just as my generation is today, but if we keep losing groups of them because of the mindset that everything has to be the same way for all children, the game itself suffers. There should be a place in the game for an inexpensive, fun, community-based brand of soccer that lets kids enjoy the game, and keeps them in the game, so that someday they will become the next generation of soccer enthusiasts.

Almost every ‘high level soccer player’ I have spoken with about my ideas and approach to these Rec kids scoffs at my notion of how to run ‘Recreational Soccer,’ and has done so by saying that is not how we trained (the best players), or something of the sort. But such thinking forgets that even slower developing kids, or kids with other distractions happening in their lives (divorces, etc.) that keep them from the focus it takes to play at the high levels, or kids who do not fit in anywhere else, need a place to feel accepted. This is true even if they cannot kick a ball straight all the time.

The sport of soccer is failing millions of kids every year because of the short sightedness of a group of people who seem to view the sole purpose of youth soccer to be to produce the next US National Team player through elite travel soccer programs. The sport needs to stop making careers off the backs of middle class families because the statistics show that the children will be lucky to go pro in the first place. Even though the level of soccer has improved over the years, it has been done at a cost, and that cost is all the kids who leave the game because it is not fun. Winning and losing — and standings and statistics — should be for travel and elite soccer. Rec soccer is where the game should belong to the kids.

Think about the place of kids who do not fit into the mold of elite travel soccer from a young age, or all those kids over age 13 who do not want to play travel, in the culture of soccer. What happens to them? There ought to be a place for all levels in the game of soccer. Many programs are already funneling the most athletic kids into travel ball at age eight, so why not make Intramural (Rec) soccer about all the other kids? Why not extend recreational soccer to the older age groups, and stop pushing kids into travel soccer programs that cost more than my father’s entire college degree from West Chester University for a few years of playing.

I implore soccer clubs to open up the game again to everyone because it is fans who have kids who stay in the game that are the ones who will make up the next group of adult fans. Excluding an entire group of kids because they do not fit into the tightly wound world of trying to create elite soccer players is flat out wrong.

20 Comments

  1. Brilliant article. I’m a new parent, so it won’t come into play for at least another 10 years, but the increasing cost and commitment of all youth sports is just insane!! Aside from that, you perfectly described my own youth soccer experience. I played intramural soccer every year from Kindergarten through 9th grade, and I loved it. I wasn’t great, but my dad was the coach and I loved booting the ball upfield from the backline.

    Eventually, I stopped playing because I hit the ceiling where I was not good enough to join a travel or school team, and there were no longer any rec leagues for kids my age. I had plenty of other interests by the time I got to high school, but soccer was no longer an option, whether I wanted to keep playing or not. It’s a shame, and I still wish I would have been able to keep playing.

  2. I am a coach of an Intramural team, I played soccer for a large portion of my life, and I come from a die-hard soccer family.
    I couldn’t agree more with your premise. There is a certain demographic that just needs to go out and have fun for the sake of fun. They won’t earn college scholarships for soccer, let alone a playing contract. These kids should be able to play as long as they want, also. It is the responsibility of the coaches and the organizers of the leagues to keep the best interests of the kids in mind, and in these cases, their best interest is to have fun and to want to play. We are being neglectful if we chase these kids away with intensity.
    A few years back, the last game of the season (8-9 year-old girls Intramural league) ended with the refs calling all the parents on to the field, and it turned into chaos. It was 20-on-20, with kids and parents mixed all over the place. And it was the greatest memory of that season.
    If you need intense competition, there are plenty of travel teams and school teams that can offer that. But for the rest of the kids, get them some exercise and try to teach them a love of the game. If that happens, then we’ve done our job.

  3. Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

    It’s funny that you point out the structure involved in youth soccer now. The best players i’ve seen (coaching for 10 years) are the ones who go outside by themselves everyday or find pickup games everyday. It is “unstructured” play that seperates the best and improves players the most.

    I often tell parents in my club that if they want to get their kid a college scholarship, they should dump all of their money into a math tutor. They always think i’m joking, but I’m not…..

  4. John Ling says:

    My kids play rec soccer, and both love it. Interestingly, my daughter is turning into a “soccer head” – she’ll watch any soccer match that comes across our cable package. My son can’t stand to watch a game – it’s “too boring.” But grab a ball and tell him we’re going to the park, he’s right there.
    .
    As a rec league coach, I always tried to make it as fun as possible. I don’t do “drills.” I play games. I’ve encountered that parent. “Coach, maybe you should play Little Susie at forward instead of defense; she’s killing us back there.” Really? That’s what you, as a parent, have to suggest to me? That a child should be moved somewhere else – or not played at all, I’ve heard that too – because she isn’t as good as you’d like her to be? Do you have any idea what Little Susie overcame just to get on the field and play? Do you have any idea how afraid she is of failing, of making a mistake that lets her teammates down? Do you have any idea at all why I’m so positive with her and the other kids, cheering for them for the smallest of little victories? Also, do you have any idea how loudly you’re talking, Dad, and that Little Susie’s parents are right there and can hear every word you’re saying?
    .
    I learned long ago – relatively speaking – that my job as a rec league coach isn’t to get kids ready for making the World Cup roster. My job is to teach them about life. About the value of hard work, teamwork. About learning from mistakes, rather than being afraid of them, because we all make them so there’s no use hiding from them. No, I learned long ago that you don’t have to score a goal or make the big save to be a winner. Sometimes, just having the guts to go out on the field in front of everybody is enough to be a winner.

  5. Agree with most of your article except for the notion that kids only play travel soccer to become pro. Most don’t but most get into better Colleges (and occasionally with partial or full scholarships) than had they not played, or only recreational. I also know many who got scholarships to private High Schools due to travel soccer!

    • Steve H. says:

      I never mentioned the kids play travel to go pro, I intone that the programs themselves are set up to try to create professional players out of kids.
      .

      It is a mild difference, but the emphasis is on the parents and not the children.
      .

      Thank you for the comment.

  6. Bravo, coach. More than anything I want my 10-year-old to grow up and continue to champion the beautiful game the way she does now. And as long as she loves the game, I want to give her a venue to play, whether that’s travel, rec, or just setting up goals and getting touches in the yard.

    I also encourage her to watch us “old guys” play on weekends. It’s important for her to know that soccer is a lifelong passion for some of us, and not just a means to an end.

  7. Stephen great article and as the head of intramurals at Nether, where we are lucky enough to have you as a coach and leader of the Majors Division these past couple years, I just want to make sure everyone knows how much success the kids in the program have had because of you & your common sense methods & approach.

    Your article perfectly reflects how you have approached the game and help kids in the Wallingford / Delaware County area grow their love for the game, have fun, and learn a couple things while they’re here – some of them are soccer skills, and some of them are the life skills that are much more important. Your goals are outstanding and I wish more people would continue to support recreational soccer as you & the other Majors’ coaches, with your help, do a great service and keep these kids in the game. Keep at it and great work!

  8. I do not at all disagree with the premise of this article. The game has become pay to play my point of contention lies with: If the quality of coaching was commensurate with the rising costs of the game– to me the money would be well spent. The trouble is it isn’t. Too many coaches taking money without the necessary understanding of how to truly coach and then calling it Travel A or elite or select….
    .
    We are a nation of 350,000,000 people yet routinely get beaten by countries exponentially smaller. The reason. The quality of coaching and the deep sophistication with how to play the game and move properly and have excellent technique. We are light years behind the world powers in understanding and technique- and some how have tricked the average joe and jane soccer parent into thinking ‘elite and select and travel really matter at U9. Parents think their kid is going to improve touching the ball 2x a week at practice. This is ludicrous-so lets throw more money at it shall we and be thrilled that Johnny is winning tournaments hoofing the ball up the field because the coach thinks this is the right thing.
    .
    You know what matters at U9 U10 U11? Touches. Touches. Touches. The beginning stages of 10,000 hours and deep love. Free play- and yes futbol development and this is where the skill and art of coaching comes in to play. The academy models in the rest of the world all begin tactical teaching at the youth level but we do not have the quality of coaching to properly do this yet- but don’t tell the coaches that. Too many of them are making their career out of joe and jane average soccer parent.
    .
    If parents invested the money they spend on US Soccer in their own understanding of how to help facilitate the improvement of their own children’s game, maybe the costs would be driven down, true development of the individual would take place which would then have coaches at the U12 and U13 level with kids that have the technique necessary to be the best they can be.
    .
    As it stands now we live in the select elite paradigm at U9 and U10 which really means nothing.

    • What I have found to be exceptionally helpful is that during the ‘games’, if there is a set play, or a foul, I could set up the kids and explain the spacing, and plays to use out of the stoppage. If they messed up, it was no big deal, they would try it again the next time.
      .
      The emotional growth of some of the kids over the year I have worked with them has made me very happy. When the environment allows for kids to be comfortable enough to be silly, try anything, and have fun; it is a successful environment. Sometimes there are kids who do not take to my methods, and I understand, most of those kids end up in the travel program.
      .
      Understanding that the kids who have a level of focus that demands a higher level of play is when kids should move to travel soccer. If they do not have the desire, or level of focus needed to achieve in our more advanced programs, then they will not make it and should stay in Rec soccer.
      .
      The problem is that too many parents are pushing athletic kids into travel ball before they are emotionally ready to take the leap up in the demands on instruction, and competition. Some athletic kids just need time to grow up having fun before making the jump.
      .
      If they have inventiveness, and fearlessness, and confidence in their positioning, and decision-making on the field, those other little things, like tricks, and the finer parts of the game can be taught during the teen years. With a properly presented environment for Rec soccer, kids who spend extra years in Rec will still have time to make it into the higher skill leagues when their focus allows for it.
      .
      Thank you for your comments.

  9. Something else that comes to mind. In other parts of the world, the finest coaches reside in the youth development stages. This is tantamount to why kids have such high futbol IQs and excellent technique and deep understanding of how to play. In america the ‘best’ coaches, if we can even say that are at the highest levels where frankly its too late to make significant dents into player IQ.
    .
    What does this mean? If the best coaches were littered throughout youth soccer at the REC level until U10 or so, the quality and skills would be taught in to the children at which point if you have a kid with a natural inclination to the game they would be driven to improve on their own. Then by the time they are 11 or so, you can start throwing money and more money at your kids ‘travel and elite and select teams’ . And then who knows an ancillary benefit is that the kid isn’t completely burned out by the time the are 15 because they’ve played in senseless tournament and senseless ‘festival’ after tournament and festival.
    .
    Our local club has a try out system at U9 with dad coaches. Well, who is dad coaching? His son naturally. So what then is the value of a try out the next season? Is there really promotion for the best players? Doubtful. This is your local clubs A travel team. Meanwhile they should be playing REC games with as many free play pickups organized by the club that separates kids out 5-8 and 8-11 as possible with supplemental developmental clinics a few times a year with truly top quality coaches who do not teach dribbling skills at said clinic but defensive spacing skills and how to move off the ball an how to read the game. Its all a big mess. Bass Ackwards.

  10. I played recreational soccer from 2nd grade all the way to 8th. The best thing about it was that it had no skill level barrier. I was never the fastest, the skiller, or the perfect passer, but that didn’t matter. I learned about soccer as a game and had fun. That’s what recreation is. Fun. There were some good kids and some novices with no experience. But everyone played and had a good time. I doubt anybody I played with would go professional, but who cared? Parents were happy to see their child play Saturday morning, and the kids loved the beautiful game.

  11. I think it is great that you volunteered your time to coach the recreation team. It appears, by a basic Google search, that you turned it into your profession.
    I believe that any soccer club that can find enough kids to form a recreation league would do just that. If for no other reason than to generate more money into the club. I believe the problem is the level of interest by those players given all of the other activities that compete with soccer.
    I have been a volunteer coach for ten years now. Everything from intramural through U18. I have watched many players drop off just to lack of interest to the point where most smaller clubs barely have enough for one team given a certain age. Players are busy with other sports or activities.
    The paid training aspect is good and we as parents can choose how much to spend, where to spend it and the commitment that we want to make. There are plenty of clubs out there with varying degrees of costs and commitments.
    At a young age, everyone starting to play soccer should be trained in a good atmosphere with good training. Because as you say, we don’t know what their potential will be. That training needs to come from a good coach which most times happens to be a paid coach/trainer.

    • Steve H. says:

      I do not make money off of soccer. I have never been paid to coach anything. I refereed low level travel games as a fill in official, it wasn’t a job, I never did more than 3 games in a weekend, sometimes only 1 or 2.
      .
      I have never made money off teaching the game of soccer.
      .
      I started a company to make a toy, that toy is related to soccer, but more for offering rec kids a different option on how to play the game, but it is not on the market yet, and no units have been sold to anyone. It is still in development. Even still, that toy will be priced moderately, if it ever makes it to market. Statistics say it will take years to catch on anyway, if I am lucky.

  12. Bravo! I am lucky to be part of a club that does have rec through U19 and continues with an adult league for the rest of us. I often wonder the cost (both financial, emotional and physical) of this emphasis on travel soccer (and all travel sports) for our kids.

  13. One of the single best investments a person can make these days is an indoor playing facility — so seasonal sports, which are no longer seasonal but year round– have a place to practice. Cash Cow.

  14. King OfSwords says:

    Also the community clubs build the community. Elite and the for profit travel clubs often do the opposite (travel distances get crazy at the high levels pulling families away). My kids play soccer because it helps me parent them. I see more interactions in one game then a month at school.

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