Youth soccer in America seems to be at an all-time low. Much is being said about the causes of the stagnation, with attention rising significantly thanks to the failure of the US Men’s National Team to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
From the highs of soccer’s soaring popularity in the US over three decades, young players are now said to be “abandoning the game in alarming numbers”. According to Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), the percentage of 6-12 year olds playing soccer regularly has dropped nearly 14 percent to 2.3 million players between 2015 and 2018. The declining rate of participation in soccer comes even as basketball and baseball saw improved enrollments. Any good analysis of the big problems with US youth soccer has to be honest and ask foundational questions. What then is wrong with US youth soccer?
US Still Doesn’t Understand Soccer
Despite being an active participant in soccer for the last three decades, and specifically, dominating the women’s game, US Soccer is awash with people who don’t really understand soccer. Firstly, you have parents, as the most involved set of people in the sport, providing the initial tactical directions for most youth venturing into soccer. Parents rely on their scant experience of either playing briefly in high school or watching USA ’94 to assume coaching roles. Many times, it is parents who create the initial interest in their children to play, but by commanding and controlling, and by seeking to adapt playing methods used in football into soccer, the motivation and enthusiasm is readily weathered.
This is what former pro soccer player and World Cup winner Paul Breitner means when he describes America’s soccer problem as thinking that soccer is similar to football. “Americans think soccer players are athletes”, he says. By projecting the demands of other sports on soccer children, a huge disservice is done to the players with regard to the actual abilities that can be developed – and need to be carefully developed – for playing soccer. Without solving this anomaly at the early stages of soccer careers, development will be stunted and participation decline could soar.
But how can we not understand the game when there are coaches everywhere? Someone may ask this question, seeing that every recreational or travel team probably has a trainer associated with them. Indeed the trainer may have obtained a license from the USSF, from a state youth soccer body or from the internet. But is a training license enough to produce the right type of coaches for youth soccer? If there seems to be many certified trainers with the inability to transmit knowledge and develop capacity in young players, we should definitely be looking at re-evaluating the process by which people become coaches.
For instance, if someone utilized YouTube tutorials as the means of obtaining coaching training, there will be limits to how much he can impact soccer players. Lack of intensive, physical training will produce trainers who are ill equipped to train high performing soccer players. There is a difference between gaining expertise by hands-on exercises and watching probably edited video clips from the comfort of your home. This pertains mostly to parents who are very likely to proclaim themselves certified trainers only after having viewed a number of online soccer practice and highlights videos.
In the SFIA report mentioned above, an important issue comes to mind: is it becoming too expensive to be a soccer player in the US? Probably, judging by the fact that 35% of those who play soccer in the country are from households that make $100,000 and above. Former US Women’s World Cup winning goalie Hope Solo does not think she would play the sport to the professional level if the current costs applied in her day. Parents who want their children to play soccer have the hard task of weighing the costs of upkeep and education against the high possibility that their children may never go pro. Loss aversion kicks in and the sport becomes too much of a luxury to gamble on. Unlike Breitner who began playing soccer to pay his fees, it is not realistic to start playing soccer in the US as a ticket for getting out of poverty because you have to be rich to play. Families who attempt to brave the odds and shell out the cash may find themselves in financial trouble.
Reaching For Perfect Play
This may be the biggest problem in US Soccer. We want the perfect conditions before children play. It may or may not be the reason driving costs up, but the desire for perfect fields and perfect competitions could be a drawback to allowing children to play as often as possible. Too much of the thinking in US Soccer is currently done with the handbrakes on, to channel a former Arsenal Soccer Club coach. People become good soccer players simply by regularly playing, not by often traveling long distances to competitions.
Parents can be faulted on their insistence on perfect playing weather conditions. A parent may decide their child should not go for practice on a given day because there has been some light rain, or that it is fairly hot outside. They may worry more about what snack is best for the child, rather than being interested in the child’s improving abilities. While these are legitimate things to worry about, parents should be focused instead on ensuring their children are playing in the right group: the right groups are not formed according to friendship or age, but by skill level. This way, the major aim of playing – to get better and develop as a player and human – will be progressively achieved.
Late Entry to Competitive Soccer
For US soccer to move forward, not only should young players play more, they need to start competing early. Between ages 3 and 6, children should play recreationally most of the time, learning to kick and run. As their use of reasoning becomes sharper, and they become better able to make decisions, coaching should begin to focus on preparing them to be competitive. Early tactical instructions on positional play, targeted shooting and sharing responsibility with teammates begin to be applied until age 10 when it is expected that they will play competitive games. When youth players begin competing early however, they develop the mentality to play to win.
In answering this question, we see that a multi-faceted diagnostic approach is necessary in order to determine the possible contributing factors. One thing remains certain however, and that is, everything being done to change the current course of youth soccer in the US must involve increasing opportunities to play. This must be at the top of the priority list, if we wish to attain the desired outcome.
Youth Soccer Participation Has Fallen Significantly in America
The Problem with American Youth Soccer
Paul Breitner: What Needs to Change in American Youth Soccer
Hope Solo Is Right
Using Sports to Get Out of Poverty Doesn’t Work When You Have To Be Rich To Play
How Soccer Bills Devoured This Family’s Budget
Here’s the real reason why the US men’s soccer team didn’t qualify for the 2018 World Cup
No Tactics Until 13? Nonsense