Tuesday, June 17, 2008

After 15 years of supporting 4 children who play soccer, I have a few observations about transitions and the game's overall impact

This is a blog post that can come only after more than 15 years of soccer coaching, parenting, and supporting four children in the sport at recreational, club travel, high school and college levels.

CHANGE IS THE CONSTANT. This fall, Molly will play her senior Ben Davis High School soccer season with 8 girls who've been playing together on the same team (though under different club names) for 12 years. On the other hand, Sam will play his sophomore season with only one player on his Pike High School team with whom he's shared a club team and coach in all previous years.

A BIT OF CONTEXT: [You must understand that Jr. High School and Sr. High School varsity soccer teams are generally less competitive than club teams. Though students play hard and well for their school teams, the higher level of soccer competition usually takes place in club league play that occurs on an area, state, regional and national level. During high school years, because the high school season is in the fall, most club teams for high school ages play only a spring/summer schedule.]

DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BOYS AND GIRLS TEAMS. It seems that girls club teams are significantly more stable than the boys. Abby and Molly both played with relatively the same corps of teammates throughout their youth soccer days. Keeping a club team together during high school years is hard, because Indiana High School Athletic Association requires that no more than 5 players from the same high school team can play for the same club team. So, it is remarkable that Molly's group has stayed relatively close even though they've had to break up for club play to some extent. Abby and four other girls who played club together started varsity as freshmen at Ben Davis and played all four years. Abby played another four years on scholarship at Olivet Nazarene University and was a captain her junior and senior years.

JARED'S EXPERIENCE. On the other hand, transition and change is really the norm for boys' teams. The club teams Jared (who is now 20) played for after recreational-level soccer transitioned almost yearly, as have Sam's. Jared first played two years of travel-level soccer with Ben Davis Soccer Club before the team imploded and its young players looked for another program. Jared landed at Avon Soccer for one season then played a season with Inferno Soccer Club. He then had three years with Arsenal Soccer Club and Coach Jim Copsey (who became his Ben Davis High School soccer coach and coaching mentor). Finally, Jared played his senior year with Westside United. He then played on scholarship at Olivet Nazarene University. Now he's a high school soccer coach.

ONE YOUTH ATHLETE, MANY TEAMS. At age 15, Sam has worn jerseys for Ben Davis, Arsenal, Indy Burn (Pike Soccer Club), Carmel United Soccer Club, Westside United, and now Dynamo. Almost every year, there has been a change in club priorities, change of coaches, a morphing of teams together, some kind of blow up, etc. Having been burned a few times, our boys have learned to try out for several different club teams each June in order to try to get good coaching (i.e., rational, emotionally-balanced, reasonable, expert, experienced) and be a part of competitive teams. It's usually not easy, pretty, fair or economical. But it is the way it is, at least for now, at least in our experience.

PLAYING FOR "THE ENEMY." I think of this as I watch Sam work out with his new team -- Dynamo '93, a team of 15-year-old sophomores from various parts of Central Indiana. Dynamo is primarily the feeder club for North Central High School, a perennial state soccer powerhouse. A few years ago, when Jared and Sam played for Arsenal, Dynamo was considered the arch-enemy. Hostile feelings between the two clubs ran so high that, after a few ugly incidents, parents and players had to read and sign vows of non-aggression when the clubs played each other. Now, Sam's one of them!

SOMETIMES BRUTAL TRANSITIONS. All this may sound rather jaded or cynical to folks who haven't had the experience (yet). When our kids started out playing, it seemed like being together as a group of eager, fun-loving kids was more important than jockeying for competitive edges. I envisioned them playing for the same team and same club all the way through. Why not? In our girls' cases, that sense of camaraderie held their teams relatively together as they grew older. In our boys' cases, I guess I was just naive. Some of the transitions have been rather brutal. I think something has been lost through these upheavals and transitions; there is an innocence and purity of sport that gets sullied. But I'm impressed that our kids have managed to stay in love (or at least "in like") with the game and grow and excel through all the changes over the years.

WHEN A GROUP CAN STAY TOGETHER. I was describing all this to a father who has an outstanding first-grade player and winning team. It seemed rather unimaginable to him, so I downplayed the drama a bit. I pray that they will be able to play as the same robust corps and mature with a group of like-minded, equally-skilled players. But that is the exception. Molly's team is a wonderful exception, and because of it, the Ben Davis girls team may be able to advance well into the state high school soccer tourney in October. Last year, they won the Marion County high school tournament for the first time (BD didn't do that even with Lauren Cheney and Annie Yi, both outstanding D-1 players).

CAMARADERIE VS COMPETITION. I would say to every parent, when it comes to soccer, follow your child's instincts and desires for camaraderie and/or competition. Make sure the decisions for staying on the same team or club, or transitioning to another, are coming from them. Keep them informed of the dynamics of what's happening, and of options. Anticipate that at some point desire for competition may/will out-rank desire for camaraderie. When they decide to move up or make a change, then be their best advocate. Help them through the minefield of options and do your best to help them access the best opportunities...within reason. Also know that the higher the level of competition, the more will be required of you in terms of time, financial support, and moral/emotional support.

IS IT WORTH IT? So, after 15 years of soccer parenting, is it all worth it? I have watched each of our children enjoy soccer and grow with it. They've learned dynamics of team play and built personal confidence. They've experienced the feelings of accomplishment, victory, and jubilation. They've learned through losing as well as winning. They've learned the value of hard practice. They've become leaders. They've learned to take the bad with the good. They've learned to discern good leadership from poor leadership. They've pushed themselves to higher levels of physical and personal ability. They've worked through disappointments. They haven't given up. They've gained lasting friendships. And they've taught me and Becky quite a bit about them and ourselves. I've grown. We've grown. So, yes, it's worth it. Would I change some of it? Yes. Would I avoid soccer or another sport if I were doing all over again? No. Does it still wring me out? Yes. Am I tired of it? No.

YOU'VE GOT OUR SUPPORT. So, kids, you make me proud! Becky, too! Best wishes as you continue to play and coach soccer. Becky and I will always be on the sidelines or in stands whenever we can. On or off the field, know that we are pulling for you with all that is within us.

Photo: the photo of Jared and Elhaji Dieng of Pike High School appeared in the Indianapolis Star after Pike edged Ben Davis 2-1 in the semi-finals of 2005 Marion County Tourney. The caption mislabeled what occurred, however. Jared actually headed the ball away from Dieng. The next meeting between Ben Davis and Pike was for the Sectional Championship. Pike came into the game undefeated and ranked #1 in the state. Jared keyed on Dieng and held him scoreless. Ben Davis won the game, 2-1, and began a string of three consecutive sectional championships.

I welcome your comments and/or questions in the spirit of dialog. To share yours, click on "comments" just below. They're moderated only to reduce incivility. Shalom!

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