In the latest episode of the Soccer Life Balance podcast, Pete gives his thoughts on the “epidemic” that is killing youth soccer.
I remember playing soccer as a kid pretty vividly. There’s a smattering of games, practices, camps, travel and associated activities swimming around inside my head. Perhaps I’ve forgotten but there was only one time that I ever considered “quitting” soccer and that was near my transition to high school. However that was because I was considering going out for football. So other than that, I truly don’t have a recollection of not wanting to play anymore. Perhaps I’m wired differently because I also ran track through high school and into college. Basketball got left behind as a sophomore in high school. That was more of a “talent” and interest thing than burnout. When you’re getting the token minutes as a freshman, the writing is on the wall. I needed to get a lot better in order to be successful at the sport that was not my priority.
Define Burnout – With the quick anecdotes above, it’s obvious that I am defining burnout differently than just discontinuing participation. There are seasons for everything in our lives and sports are no different. Allowing one season to end in order for others to begin or become more prominent is not something to bemoan. It is the natural order of life.
So what we are specifically talking about is the idea of saturation to the point of generalized overwhelm, exhaustion with and possible contempt for the activity. Notice the underlined word, generalized. Everyone has moments where the things that they pursue can become difficult in the moment. Burnout is much more than that, it is a constant rather than a one off.
The following suggestions are not the only possibilities nor a silver bullet but rather the beginning of a conversation. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is a relevant metaphor here.
Give them an “out” – Even though they may never take it, giving kids a visible way out of something can be an antidote to burnout. This can come with some stipulations such as finishing out the season/year but the message should be clear “if you don’t want this anymore, that’s ok.”
Renew the contract – This may seem like the same thing as giving them an escape route but it’s not. Kids do not process things in the same way as adults. Even though they may know that they can get out if they want to, they may not evaluate that “want” regularly. At the end of the season AND before the next, check in to make sure that they want to continue.
Align the goals – “I love soccer/football/hockey/badminton/etc.” may mean something completely different to your child than it does to you. Make sure that the goals that you and your child have for the sport are aligned. If you’re thinking, “college scholarship” and they are thinking, “I love hanging out with my friends and the games” that disconnect is going to cause friction at some point. There’s always room for changing course but if parents and kids are pointed in different directions, problems may arise.
Find the model – If your youth athlete has expressed an interest in play at some higher level whether it is high school, club, academy, college or professional. Find someone who is at that next step and talk to them about what it takes to get there. Do not try to jump steps. Your 8 year old does not need to understand the training regimen of a professional athlete. Most young players would say that they want to go pro. That’s not the question in the beginning. The relevant question in the beginning is do they want to practice when no one tells them to?
LOVE THEM, no matter what – This should be obvious and it probably is to you, as the parent. Often messages get convoluted in the day to day grind of all of the responsibilities that we have. Regardless of the outcome of games, tryouts, tournaments or anything else; your child should have an overwhelming sense that their performance and your love are completely separate items.
I hope that after reading this that you’re saying to yourself “I didn’t need this article!” Nothing would make me happier! The unfortunate thing is that many people do. So if you could spread it, that would be great! I’m extremely passionate about my sport of choice, soccer, and also helping young people. Almost nothing is more disappointing to me than to see a child who had a love for a sport driven out of them.
Sports are a great opportunity to bring the best out of our children. Let’s take that opportunity to raise our children up and not wear them down.
Make today a great day!
Every weekend the players line up on the field, the referee blows the whistle and the microscopes come out. I’m speaking figuratively of course. Although a fusion between youth sports and science would be great, I’m talking about the tunnel vision of the fans on the sidelines. It’s actually not their fault. It is in our nature to pay attention to the things that we care most about. So a parent’s focus on their child at a time of high emotion is both normal and expected. Our youth sports culture has definitely swung toward the extreme with cost, intensity and behavior. The thing that we often lack as we go through life is perspective. We tend to think that the way we perceive the world is the way that the world is. It is only our version. There are billions of others and none of them is completely correct either. So it may be valuable to gain a different perspective.
Go to a youth sporting event of someone else’s kid, not a niece or a close friend’s son but two levels of separation. It may just be a different age group at the club that your child plays for. Choose a child that you’re going to “support” for the game. If you’re a cheerer, then cheer. If you’re the quiet pensive fan, then be quiet and pensive. Whatever you would normally do at your own child’s game, do you best to recreate it (bring your spouse to bicker about the coach if need be). I understand this will be uncomfortable and feel odd for most people but here are some things that will probably happen.
You’re probably going to lose focus on “your player” from time to time and watch the overall game. All of the reactions that you would normally have will be slightly muted. You may be able to look at the player and pick up on subtle cues about them. Do they like the sport? Do they play with joy and look like they are having fun? Are they afraid to mess up/of contact/of trying too hard? Are they embarrassed by the stranger cheering for them (keep it under control)? At the end of the game, was success or failure based solely on the score/outcome?
The payoff in this experiment will be different for everyone. If the difference between the fan that you are in the two situations is small, that’s probably a good sign. If the difference between the fan that you are is vast, it might be helpful to consider why. In the grand scheme of the world, both games probably meant about the same amount. Sports bring out some of our best and worst characteristics as humans. The kids are practicing regularly in order to be their best, let’s be at our best as well!
I’ve not watch a NFL game for about four years. I used to love it but now I can’t stomach to sit through a play or two. The exorbitant contracts don’t bother me. Although the blind eye to domestic (or just regular) violence off the field do bother me, that’s not it either. It’s the fact that the people inside the sport no longer want to play the game. They want to play the system. Rather than going for the ball, they go for the call. Games are more about referees than players. The game has become a sad shell of what it was. I’ve got the same complaint about my preferred sport of soccer but it has not reach the point of boycott YET! There are millions of dollars (or whatever currency) on the line, I get it. The problem is that the we’re all being robbed, not just the fans.
The reason why sports are such an ingrained part of our world is that they are a metaphor for what it is like to be alive. Whether it’s football, soccer, badminton or any other athletic endeavor; it is a meeting of body, mind and spirit that is a test on what we are capable of. When you look at sport in this light, it is easy to see that every time that someone tries to dupe the referee and succeeds, we lose. The fans, the players, the coaches and sport itself loses because we are no longer testing what we are capable of, we are finding out what we can get away with. I’m not picking on professional athletes because unfortunately it has become a cultural norm. The reason why I point them out specifically is that they are in the spotlight and have the ability to move the culture. They train for most of their lives to become the best of the best on their field but then become snake oil salesmen when it truly counts. And none of us will ever know!
We’ll never know what they could have done. Had they just played through the foul, the contact or the almost contact of their opponent. It puts the result of the day on the line for sure and I know that everyone loves a winner but at what cost? If gaming the system is the most common way to win, then we need to consider very heavily what it is that we’ve lost. More than likely it is the willingness to put it all on our own shoulders. Until we do that, we’ll never know what we were capable of and that is the point.
So I beg of you, as you go out into your own life today, don’t take the dive. Don’t look for the loophole or the shortcut. Even though you’re not a professional athlete, we all have the opportunity to find the greatness within ourselves. The key to that is that you must demand a higher standard of conduct. Because if you don’t give it your all, you’re just never going to know!
Don’t give up!
In “The Junk Mail” episode of Seinfeld, we are introduced to Frankie Merman. He is Jerry’s childhood friend who has many quirks including digging holes to sit in when he is upset. Despite his eccentricities, George is slightly jealous of Frankie because Frankie and Jerry attended camp together. George ruefully refers to Frankie as the “Summer Me”. He even goes so far as to lie to Jerry about an imaginary summer friend of his own. All of this ridiculousness is par for the course in the world of Seinfeld. As far fetched as it all may be, it got me thinking about the soccer world in which American fans live.
Next weekend marks the end of the Premier League. For those who religiously follow teams from England on Saturday and Sunday mornings, there is hole to be filled. Recognizing this fact, it might just be time to embrace Major League Soccer as your “Summer League”. I can hear the protests now, “MLS sucks!” “There’s no promotion or relegation!” “It’s a retirement league!” I’m well aware of this and all of the other vitriol that comes out whenever someone suggests that our domestic league should be watched by our domestic fans. I understand the thought process. My son and I just took a trip to England to see two matches. The allure of European soccer is not lost on me. The only question is do we want it to be this way? Do we truly want to be thousands of miles away from the best soccer in the world? Americans account for the largest number of ticket buyers at the World Cup, other than the host nation. Which means that we travel to far off lands at great expense to see the best in the world compete. In 2026 when the World Cup is here, will Americans not attend the games because they are here? That would be a ludicrous thought! We want the best games with the best players to be in our backyards. BUT we’re impatient, entitled and shortsighted. Let’s take a look at each.
We’re impatient. Major League Soccer is barely 20 years old. Even the re-branded version of the English first division is older by around 4 years. Comparing MLS to any of the historic first divisions from Europe is at best an apples to oranges comparison. At worst, it ignores all common sense. Teams and leagues are made up by players and their endeavors are supported by fans. European fans have supported their clubs for generations. MLS clubs have not existed for a generation yet. Love for a team or club is not built overnight. It is a slow process and we’re in the thick of both the development of love for clubs and a talent pool. If the desire is that MLS should just buy the best talent in the world, do some research on the Cosmos.
We’re entitled. Other than MLS, the other major sports leagues based in the US are arguably the best in the world. NFL, no competition. MLB, takes whatever talent is produced in other leagues. NBA, second tier talent from the US go to play in the other leagues. NHL, brings in talent from all over the world. Is it really that disheartening to have one league of the top five major sport that is not YET the best? Especially when you consider that with the exception of hockey, the others are “American” sports.
We’re shortsighted. In the 1990’s my knowledge of English soccer was actually pretty limited. At the time, the Italian Serie A was arguably the best league in the world. The ingredients that contribute to the rise or fall of the fortunes of a particular league are multiple. One of the most important parts to a successful league is fan interest. If there are not enough fans, there is not enough money to buy enough talent and the product on the field suffers. The shortsighted thought that, “MLS sucks now. I’ll pay attention when it’s better.” is a recipe for disaster. The league cannot reach a status of world renown without the backing of American soccer fans. If you want the best players in the world, playing in your backyard for your local team, then you need to pay for it now, not then. We never get there if we don’t put down the deposits (both financial and emotional) right now.
So yes! Major League Soccer might be Fragile Frankie Merman. It may have all kinds of eccentricities that may not fit your model of a perfect replacement. BUT if you spend your summer pining for the return of George and don’t pay attention. Frankie will continue to disappoint and your summers will always be George-less.
It will never be “The Summer of George”
It was many years ago but I’ve still not encountered a better example. I was the field marshal at a youth tournament in Pennsylvania. The players were under twelve years old and engaged in a very back and forth game. One team was extremely adept at the offside trap. Late in the game, there was a corner kick. The cross was cleared out of the penalty box and the defense pushed up. The ball fell to the foot of a offensive player about 30 yards from goal. He shot. The ball rocketed toward the goal and hit the post. The rebound fell to a forward who was slow getting back onside and he scored. The referee instantly called offside and awarded a free kick to the defense. The coach of the team that had the goal disallowed went ballistic. He screamed about how “ridiculous” the call was and asked about the referees sight, etc. As the field marshal I felt that it was my job to diffuse the situation in order to avoid it interfering with the game. I said, “Coach, if you’d like, I can explain to you why that was the right call.” He responded, “I know it was the right call! I’m just blowing off some steam.”
In most cases, soccer is not a life or death situation. It’s a passion, diversion, recreation, fun or even a teacher. The game has the possibility to do so many things because it garners the emotions of the people around it. There is nothing inherently wrong with emotion. We need them to live and color our lives. However emotion without any sense of reason is problematic. The word was chosen very deliberately. REASON! The reason why we’re there in the first place gets lost when we cannot control our emotions. Referees become demons. Opponents become enemies and sense of our self-interest overrides the judgment that we use elsewhere. This is not so much of a problem when it is a single person. However it seems to have become a societal norm.
The steam that so many people are letting off is clouding our vision. The ability to see what is right in front of our faces. Children. Children who are looking at us for how to act. Not just on a soccer field on Saturdays or Sundays but in their daily lives. When something doesn’t go their way, they’re supposed to have an emotion freak out session because that’s what you do. You don’t take a breath and refocus on the task at hand. You don’t see the bigger picture. You don’t recognize that human error is part of life and needs to be coped with. Those things aren’t done because they’re hard. They require effort, judgement and self-control. These skills are difficult to develop, especially when you’re a child, watching the adults act like children.
So don’t breathe in the steam, just breathe! Recognize that the children on the field have spent hours this week trying to improve their skills in order to perform for you. Put your focus on that. Double, triple or quadruple your focus on the fact that these are kids, trying to do something that is difficult. AND DIFFICULT THINGS ARE THE ONLY ONES WORTH PURSUING! So don’t produce steam, produce esteem for what everyone on that field is trying to do.
See you on the field!
I’ve been extremely fortunate through the years to have won some medals and trophies, either individually or as part of a collective. Most of them are in a box in my basement or in a display case that I don’t have direct access to. Medals and trophies are all pretty similar. They usually have a name of an individual or group, a year and the indication of some accomplishment. As I was thinking about the trophies that teams and individuals are going to reach for this season, I realized that trophies are the tombstones of our past accomplishments.
They do not actually say anything about who we are in this very moment. Instead they are a reminder of our former self. Usually that persona is embellished by a form of nostalgia or selective memory. This is actually not the worst thing in the world if it is employed correctly. The idea is not to intoxicate ourselves with the image of our past self. Deluding ourselves into believing that we are better than the flesh and blood that presently exists. It needs to be used as a stepping stone toward something else. If we worship our past achievements, they become ghosts. If we use them as an indicator of our capabilities, then they become fuel for a fire within and path to possibility.
So don’t let your past self die without leaving an inheritance. Make sure that your trophies are not tombstones but rather mile markers on a path that takes you to higher and higher heights. You are always the product! And there is no quicker way to the grave than to believe that all of your best days are behind you.
George Costanza would not accept it! Upon being dumped by a significant other, she tried to employ the most common of breakup cushioning. “It’s not you! It’s me!” This is an age old ploy to deflect a super direct hit to the ego of the person being dumped. Rather than telling the person the real reasons that they no longer want to be with you, the softener is used. While it may cushion the short term blow, it does nothing for the long term development of the person as a viable mate. Costanza, as usual, is an outlier in his stance on “It’s not you! It’s me!” He doesn’t want to hear it. He wants to know that it is his fault that the relationship is falling apart. While a little aggressive in his approach, maybe it’s time to learn from George.
The finger of blame is wielded around like an oscillating sprinkler head. It blankets the surrounding area effectively enough but the source never becomes a target. It creates a two-fold problem that compounds over time. People, who are unable to hear the truth of their shortcomings, never get beyond them. Despite being adept at avoiding the mirror’s reflection, they usually become better at noticing the faults of others. From a perch of perfection, the mere mortals that surround you seem almost foolish in their daily mistakes. So the cycle of delusion and dispersion continues. Until there is that extremely uncomfortable face to face meeting with the reality of imperfection.
The way to combat this is to cut it off at the beginning. Assume that it’s you! At least partially, if not wholly. You’re to blame. You didn’t do enough or did too much. Put it onto yourself first because at least then you’re in control of it. You can change something: an action, a habit, a relationship or even just your outlook. When you take total responsibility for yourself and the things you can control, you’ll find yourself on much more stable ground to influence the people around you to do the same. You’re not a victim! You’re a contributor! If all you have to contribute is blame and excuses, then you’re going to end up alone on your perch of perfection. Waiting for it to fall!
During my sophomore year of college, my two younger brothers were in high school together. One was a senior and the other was a freshman. At one point during the school year, there were “Drug sniffing” dogs brought in to do a search of the school. Students stayed in their classes while the school was swept. If your locker was tagged, you were supposed to report to the office in order to have your locker searched. My freshman brother’s locker had a tag on it. Completely panicked, he went and found his senior brother. One question from the senior brother, “Do you have any drugs in your locker?” The response was “no”. The senior brother went straight to the office and reported that his locker had been tagged. He brought the officials to the locker for it to be searched. The school officials questioned whether this was really his locker or not because it was in a freshman hallway. My brother was adamant! This is my locker! Upon being opened and searched, the locker did not contain any drugs. There was however a half eaten box of crackers at the bottom which the dog must have smelled. I wasn’t there and no one has discussed that incident for years but I still get choked up when thinking about it.
As I am going through preseason as a coach, I am always trying to instill in my players through my words and my actions, the exact sentiment that my younger brother displayed that day. I’LL GO FOR YOU! The idea that I’ll put myself in harm’s way for the good of others. It’s one of the main reasons why I’m still involved in sports after all of these years. It’s not the championships, trophies or victories. It’s those moments when you can truly see that people throughout the team have that simple idea tattooed on their brains “I’ll go for you!” I’ll give you everything that I’ve got and then some because I know that you’d do the same for me.
The ironic thing is that this has become so very rare in our society but the teams that I’ve seen do the best had this. People are usually worried about what’s in it for them and when will they get their due. In my experience, it seems to be that when you are willing to give everything and expect nothing, is exactly the time when you get more than your due. This can be a difficult concept for a large group of people to buy into but when they do, it can be magical.
The best example of this idea that I’ve ever heard of was when Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers had his father pass away. There was some doubt whether or not he’d play the next game. It’s not his decision to play that I find extraordinary but rather his teammates commitment to him. In this video clip about the game at 2:19 Donald Driver (Wide Receiver) describes exactly what I’ve been talking about. “Whatever he throws, we catch.” In a time of pain for their teammate, they were not going to let him fail. That’s what being a teammate and a family member is about.
Now don’t misread my words! Not everyone deserves everything you’ve got but if no one is willing to go first then we all lose. So be the one who is willing to give into the unknown. Tell the people who truly matter with both your words and your actions; “I’LL GO FOR YOU!” Most of the time you’ll find, they’ll go for you too!
The 90s had many memorable events and people. Kurt Cobain, the OJ Simpson trial, Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton were all extremely noteworthy. Both for their own unique reasons and the media circus that followed them. It was not just that something happened but that it was perpetuated daily for probably longer than needed. One of the most ridiculous stories of the decade was the ice skating scandal involving rivals Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. For those too young to remember, the major event was an attack on Kerrigan’s knee orchestrated at least partially by Harding’s ex-husband. There was a movie released last year called “I, Tonya” that chronicles the entire episode.
Reality had to happen first in this case because even Hollywood could not have come up with a story as far fetched as this. It’s easy to look back at a time that was truly “last century” and chuckle. It’s no surprise that from such a chaotic decade sprang reality television. A weekly public reminder that even though your life might have problems, you can feel good about yourself in comparison to “those people”.
Seeing the problem is always so much easier when it belongs to someone else. Each of us has within ourselves the solutions to the problems of our friends and family members. However we all struggle with our own issues that seem so difficult. Time and distance both seem to have a clarifying effect on the problems of the world.
I’m sure that if the issue of youth soccer politics were someone else’s, each of us would have a plausible solution. Since it’s now and it’s close to us, the issues of last decade persist with even higher price tags. Children are pawns and commodities in a game that has nothing to do with soccer but rather egos and territoriality. This coming fall, an unknown number of player who want to play soccer will not have a team. Not due to a lack of resources. Not due an insurmountable distance to travel. The deciding factor will be a focus on “our club” rather than the kids. These players end up being acceptable casualties to a soccer culture that is focused on prizes that are apparent and available now.
In so many ways we are now reaping the rewards of our fast food culture. Rampant obesity, depression, anxiety and others are all symptoms of the NOW culture that we’ve begun to accept as normal. Even though many people recognize that the ultimate prizes come from long term commitment to small improvements made over years or decades, it is so much easier to sell the cash grab of today. Risking that small and almost insignificant prize of the short term seems to be almost unbearable.
So I implore you. Yep! I’m talking directly to you because as I said last week, if the USMNT doesn’t win a World Cup by/in 2026, It’s my fault! So I need some help. If you have anything to do with youth soccer in this country. Take the long term view. See how more kids playing is better for them and better for “US”. Understand that letting your best player move on to a more appropriate team may hurt your record slightly but it could also be the opportunity that makes that player’s life better, both on and off the field. Realize that your small pond is not actually a pond. It’s part of a more expansive body. Trying to keep it separate is an exercise in futility and may cause its destruction when the wrong current comes along. BE the first person to do the right thing. It’s often difficult because there is a culture of short sightedness. People are so used to being hurt that they are either on attack or defense, rarely in a mode to assess. And more than ever that’s what needs to happen.
I’m sure if this was someone else’s problem, we’d have it all figured out but it’s not. It’s ours and it’s close to our hearts. So we get blinded by the shiny thing that’s right in front of us but I swear the bigger jewels are down the road. The hardest part is foregoing the prize of now because it feels like everything.