In the latest episode of the Soccer Life Balance podcast, Pete gives his thoughts on the “epidemic” that is killing youth soccer.
Today my son’s game had an extremely good referee group. The center referee and his two linesmen called the game very well. Despite the fact that they did a great job and got the majority of the calls right (even the ones that went against my son’s team), there were still complaints from parents. Which made me wonder if people really have any idea what makes for a good referee or if they just want calls to go in their team’s favor? Here are some thoughts to consider.
The level matters – Recognize that the job of a referee changes as the age and the level of play changes. At the lowest levels, the referee is part of a learning process. Their job is more about managing the understanding of the game rather than calling “fouls”. Often the sidelines are complaining about things that are poor body control and not actually a foul. The higher levels require much more reading of the flow of the game. A good referee will identify possible problems developing in the play. Their use of cards, advantage, player discussions and fouls called/not called will depend largely upon their reading of the game and individual’s roles within in it. So as you are watching a game, give some thought as to the level of soccer being played and what the referee’s role truly is at that level.
Perspective matters – By design, referees are intended to be a neutral third party at the game. So they are not carrying the bias that most of us bring to the game. Their decisions are based upon what they see and not what they feel. This creates another issue for most fans because their vantage point is completely different from that of the referee’s. So it is not only possible but actually completely accurate to say that fans and referees have seen a different game. Most of the time this is done with no instant replay, no VAR with different camera angles. This is done live with twenty two players running in all directions and possibly screening the view. Despite these major obstacles, perfection is the standard that many expect.
The Laws are the Laws – A good referee will call the game based on the laws of the game, not public perception of what the laws are. There are many things that are commonly shouted from fans or even coaches about things that do not apply to the Laws of the game. “Winning the ball” for example does not make a player immune from having a foul called against them. If the play is deemed to be reckless, then a foul is appropriate regardless of who won the ball. A large number of players, fans and coaches have only a cursory knowledge of the Laws that are based more on hearsay rather than actual study.
Obviously this is just a small sample but each is worth considering. The game requires referees and the good ones need to be identified, praised and promoted. I fear that many people involved in the soccer world would not be able to identify a good referee if they saw one. That is unfortunate because that means that people are unable to see past their own desires. Most of the soccer played in this country is youth soccer. Therefore the majority of children are getting a skewed view of right and wrong. Right means in my favor and wrong means anything else. The ability to be objective could be lost.
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!
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”
In this brief solo talk, I discuss some of the things that I believe are being missed in our current soccer culture. Even they may be the most pressing and most apparent, they seem to be the most overlooked. Send in your thoughts and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org today.
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!
Most of the time soccer is a noun but today I’m going to use it as a verb. Of course when you are creating a new word, it’s important to define it. Here is my explanation of the term.
The action of “soccering” is not the act of playing soccer. We already know how to say and do that. And NO! It doesn’t mean acting like you’re injured when no one did anything to you. The action of soccering is the real life application of the virtues that are possessed within the game. In soccer, players must make real time decisions about what to do, based on the stimuli that they take in from both teammates and opponents in order to achieve the outcomes of simultaneously reaching a goal while defending their own. The soccer paradigm puts the impetus of decision onto eleven individuals acting as a collective rather than following the pre-scripted orders of an overseer. Although positioning and style of play may be directed, principles and judgment are the main directors of decisions.
America needs to soccer! It needs to take back the very impetus that this country was founded upon. Regular people doing things as a collective that move us all forward and protect us against failing. We need regular citizens who want to be self-determining within the existing system and help to influence that system. At the moment we seem to be overwhelmingly passive and extremely willing to look for someone else to be accountable rather than looking to be responsible ourselves.
We can soccer by trying to improve our lives and the lives of those around us. We can soccer by changing our perspective from a “they” to “we” mentality. We can soccer by doing the right thing even if we know that no one else will notice but us. We can soccer by deciding to take a chance on something that might not work, rather than doing it “the way we’ve always done it.” There are so many ways to soccer but the thing about soccering is that it has to start with you. You can’t tell someone else to soccer. You can only show them how by doing it first and being an example.
Below is a long description of the historical paradigms where this thought came from. If you are inspired to do something right now, then don’t read the bottom, act now, read later.
Why do I believe that America needs to soccer? The historical successes of the United States have in large part been attributed to a football paradigm. Land acquisition and forward progress are the hallmarks of the All-American sport. In the past, both politically and economically, we have pushed forward in the name of progress and it has served us well. Manifest Destiny is the perfect example. Presidents and other decision-makers laid out a playbook for the American people to score a touchdown on the Pacific coast. Americans led the charge across the continent through wars and promised economic success, the way football players might listen to a play called from the sidelines. The Space Race, the Arms Race, the Cold War and Industrial Revolution were all perfectly suited to the football paradigm. So why change?
The reason for change is that the football paradigm is fundamentally flawed in a few different areas. The idea of neverending progress is unrealistic. At some point stock prices level off, profits decline and progress slows and stops. In a paradigm that preaches forward motion as the truest indicator of success, it is not surprising that we have: insider trading, big CEO bonuses for bailed out companies and strategic layoffs to protect profits. Individuals, companies and the government have all pushed toward their given marker of success whether it be money, land, power or prestige. These success markers are not inherently evil or negative but their acquisition without thought to the human equation has created an imbalance in our perspective on success.
There are also the separations in the football paradigm. The coach is the one who calls the plays. The offense scores the points and the defense stops the other team. Although all are members of the same team, it is easy to point the finger at another individual or group when things go wrong. In the Industrial Revolution this system was completely acceptable. Henry Ford brought forth the assembly line. He took men who were making fifty cents per day and paid them five dollars per day because of his efficiency. People were more than willing to be a cog in that machine because it was a better life than what they expected. They were linemen but were happy to be that. Now with modern technology and globalization that deal doesn’t work anymore. That deal is being shipped overseas and no one wants to be a lineman anymore. Everyone thinks they’re a quarterback and expects to be paid like one.
America needs to soccer because you’re part of the problem and part of the solution. You’re on the field. The decisions that you make on a daily basis matter. The President, the senator, the governor, your boss, your wife, your children, your friends, your teachers are part of it all but so are you. So before you point the finger, point the thumb. What can you do today to SOCCER?
It was a big deal! I remember it very plainly. My parents, brothers and I would all sit down with popcorn and watch “The Wizard of Oz”. It was an annual occasion. The movie is definitely a classic but I think that the ritual and nostalgia factor make it a little more important for me. Despite being released in 1939, the story stands the test of time. A young girl has a magical adventure that ends up being a dream but she learns that her search to distant lands led her back to the home and people that really mattered in the first place. Most of the things that she desired or feared ended up being fake or easily defeated.
As the spring soccer season continues, I am inundated with emails about tryouts, camps and recruiting services. It is not a new thing that is unexpected. However following many discussions that I’ve had with members of my own club, I’m left wondering if the modern American soccer culture isn’t a lot like Dorothy. Are we searching for something that is hollow and the truest prize is in our own backyard?
It is tryout season and clubs throughout my area will be selecting the best talent they can find. Then they will pair that talent up with a paid trainer in order to improve upon that talent. (Full disclosure I am a paid trainer) Games will be won and lost over the course of the year. Then the cycle will repeat. The teams and players will progress down the yellow brick road toward what exactly? The best of the best will be professionals. The second tier will play in college. The rest will either fizzle out along the way or play in a recreational type setting for as long as they enjoy it (love men’s and women’s leagues!). So is it really that a majority of us are hoping that our kids get to that promised land of professional or college that we’ve created this monster system? Or is it that we’ve forgotten where we are and where we’re going? My fear is that in a few more years many people are going to find the little man behind the curtain and be shocked.
Soccer is an inherently simple game that has so much to offer to the people who play and watch it. The positives that it offers to young players are generally intrinsic rather than extrinsic. Physical fitness, self-confidence and camaraderie just to name a few. None of these positives require talent, tryouts or trainers, OH MY! In fact all three may inhibit the expansion of these intrinsic positives because they are all short term. Talent is relative and momentary. Tryouts make players commodities first and people second. Trainers are generally interested in the short-term improvement of skills in a very selective area. It is not that these things are without their place. However they should not be the silver bullets that are used to propel our young players forward. If the vast majority of youth soccer players are not going to end up in the top two tiers of involvement, then should we (the adults) be building the yellow brick road? Or finding our way back to Kansas?
My beliefs is that the solution is on the horizon if enough people are willing to look for it. It all comes down to focus. If the focus is put and maintained on the idea of making our kids great people first, then we all win regardless of the outcomes on Saturdays/Sundays. Do we have to pay for that service? Most likely not. It takes involvement and time from the adults who truly care about the kids. My father coached my teams for year and his soccer knowledge, at the time, came from books. The game has progressed since then but so has the knowledge of the parents and accessibility to information. Since the focus is not on game results, tryouts might go away or be held every two or three years. That way the team gets to be “a team”. Finally what will happen to the talent of our players? Won’t their soccer skills drop if we no longer employ these improvement strategies. For the long term, does it matter? Off the field, my soccer skills have saved a few glass bottles from breaking. Other than that, the non-soccer skills have been far more important. Learning how to lead, fitness, problem solving and self-improvement are all practical skills that were honed on the field. In the short term, there are other ways to improve one’s soccer skills without expensive trainers. It’s called practice! Kids are extremely adept at using YouTube to figure out many things. Perhaps watch that video with the child and go into the backyard to practice.
In ten years will we not know our extremely talented former soccer players? Or will we have a self-reliant young person that we can relate to who was OK at the kicking game? There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.
See you on the field!
As the spring season grows closer, fields are being lined, nets are being hung and young players are practicing their skills. These are all normal steps in the preparation for a season of practices, games and championships. Each of us has our own role to play in this system: player, spectator, coach or referee. That role heavily influences our perspective on the process and the game itself. The game of soccer is always the same, two teams, two goals, a specific number of players and specific period of time. It is a finite game with a result that is measurable.
The sporting culture is based principally on the finite game. We are enamored with the result and the perceived spoils that come with it. Players, coaches and spectators focus on the result of the finite game, often as if that was the only thing that mattered. The unfortunate thing in youth sports is that the hyper-focus on the finite game has made us forget about the ultimately more important infinite game.
Infinite games are not played to win or lose. They are played in order to keep playing. “Playing catch” is not a competitive endeavor. You don’t throw the ball to make the other person miss. The enjoyment comes from process and the intrinsic benefits that come with it: progress, togetherness, etc. Life is another infinite game that we play. The goal of life is not to get to death. The experience of living is the benefit that playing the game provides.
The value of the finite game is in its contribution to the infinite game of life. The players, coaches and spectators who only see the finite game will eventually find the game to be empty. It is only when those infinite game benefits come out of the finite game that it is truly valuable. Trophies, ribbons and plaques are worth only as much as the memories of those who were touched by the process.
If the goal is only to win on that day, then the victory is a loss. It is only when the component pieces of the win are ingrained into a person’s soul that victory is truly accomplished. Teamwork, focus, progress, sacrifice and a slew of other infinite game lessons are the reason that we play. Trophies are hollow wood, metal and plastic if the spirit that earned them does not live on in the hearts and minds of those who earned them.
The true value of today’s game shows up in the coming years.