I work for a youth soccer association and I am convinced that the majority of our youth players have a very good experience in the sport. Beyond that I believe many come to develop a passion for the sport that extends beyond college and into full adulthood and this will create the next generation of soccer parents, referees, coaches and administrators. Much of that positive experience is the due to the dedication of both paid and volunteer adults.
At the same time, our association is constantly dealing with hearings and appeals, requests for priority placement and seeding in league and tournament play, gerrymandering, occasionally legal disputes, and a wide variety of adult complaints. Favoritism, litigation, political machination and personal conflict could describe the day-to-day operations of Washington, D.C. and Capitol Hill, but this is too often the reality of youth soccer in America today.
The money in youth soccer, the associated egos of all involved and the challenges of parenthood present to adults and children alike a very charged competitive environment. Are the diverse motivations of highly paid coaches and administrators, volunteers at all levels of the game and parents irreconcilable?
While it could be argued convincingly that they are it could be equally seen that some of that diversity, if appreciated with a sense of "getting on the same page," could actually serve us well. At the core of all we do is the fact that this is "youth sport" and this can be too often overlooked.
The role of parents in youth soccer today is one that receives mixed reviews as it does with other youth activity, including school. The parent is most likely to be the person who brings the child to the game and sponsors that involvement. Without parental support many children would not have access to the game and those of us who make a living at it would not have jobs.
Consistent and ongoing efforts to bring coaches and parents together in better understanding of their roles and responsibilities would benefit the youth and the sport overall. Coaches must appreciate that parents have "rights" and investment in the game and parents must respect the coach's and team's "space" before, during and after the game.
It should be hoped that parents are encouraged and follow through on reviewing the programs they put their children into. Identifying the best for a child's sport experience merits a higher level of attention than say buying a car or dishwasher.
Clubs, states and national bodies can all help parents understand the programs they are considering for their child. National, state and club associations in conjunction with commercial camp and clinic businesses have a moral responsibility to serve the best interest of the youth player and occasionally defend that position to the paying customer, the parent.
For those coaches trying to put food on the table such a lofty ideal may be difficult to follow, but in the long term trying to do the right thing has numerous rewards.
The challenge then for youth soccer in the America is to ask a single question and to ask it as frequently as possible. The answer will not be the same for everyone, nor should it be, indeed it will be a number of answers. We have too many different motivations and situations to find a one-size-fits-all answer.
The question, however, should always be "what is in the best interest of the youth players?"
If we can all ask this more and encourage others to do so then we can increasingly make youth soccer in America a better experience for all.
Ian Barker has been the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association's State Director of Coaching for the last decade and has been a Region II ODP coach for 15 years. He also coaches at Macalester College in St Paul.