Some of my recent interactions with kids and sports have caused me to question why our children play sports, and why the sports they do play are selected. With sports like Football (the gridiron version), Baseball, and Basketball, there’s a clear link to popular culture influences. Their families usually have playing experience, and are often spectators and fans of the local professional team or (especially in the South) a fan of their College team. (For overseas readers, loyalty to College Football teams reach levels seen among fans of Football clubs.)
So why choose a sport like soccer, that has no mass market following in the US, doesn’t have regular network television exposure, and whose stars don’t play on American soil often?
And can an American child ultimately be successful in a sport that they don’t watch a higher level play, and don’t have a grounding in how the game is supposed to look?
Why do Families Choose Soccer?
- Low Barriers to Entry to the sport. Equipment wise, it’s probably the least expensive team sport for a child to start in, requiring no more than a ball, cleats and shin guards to start play in a league. Most leagues at the U5-U8 league are between $80 and $120 per season (fall or spring) to play. Among parents, it has a perceived low required skill/understanding level for a kid to play – just point them in the right direction with the ball and go.
- Parents who Played at the High School, Club or Collegiate level. There is now a substantial population of parents, many born in the 1970’s and now with children themselves, who played the sport as a child and teenager. Their own positive experience with the sport has brought their children into the sport.
- A High Level of Physical Exertion required. Compared to Baseball, there’s a higher level of physical exertion required on the soccer field with repeated sprinting up and down the field.
Can American Kids Be Successful without watching the sport?
If a kid never watches the game at a higher level than what he plays – will he ultimately be able to be successful?
A lot can be learned from watching, even with only an average level of focus, higher level soccer matches. The viewer can observe how the members of the team disperse on the field and move with the ball and position themselves to receive the ball from teammates. The viewer can see how a player with the ball will try to fool a defender to get around him en route to the goal.
But more than anything – they start to understand the flow of the game. When a team scores, the opposing team has a kick-off at midfield. When the ball is kicked out of bounds, the opposing team receives possession as a goal kick, corner kick, or throw-in. When a team loses the ball, they retreat and take up defensive positions.
All of these could be learned on the field through play – but American kids are also sorely lacking in time on the field. A recreation player in U8 soccer probably plays 20 matches per year and is only on the field for half of the minutes each match. It would take years to build even a basic knowledge base.
Observation is also a better learning style for some children.
So What’s Needed?
Parents and coaches need to take an active role in watching the sport and bringing kids in, even if for a few minutes per match or for highlights from several matches. There’s a wealth of websites publishing video highlights of the best moves, goals, and saves from the top leagues in the world every week.
It also moves to feed a passion for the sport in the player to embrace a team in the top level.
It’s a long path for the future success of soccer in the United States, and making kids fans of the game is just one step of that path.