By Paul Gardner
Youth soccer is a manifestly imperfect sport. What else would one expect from kids, anyway? It is, we are told -- this is an ongoing criticism -- full of bad habits that have to be corrected. But from the youth-development point of view -- in other words, from the way adults see things -- the biggest negative of youth soccer is simply that of being youth soccer. Or of not being a young mirror of the adult game.
The problems begin with that word “play.” Boys play soccer. Adults play soccer, too. We do not describe the adult game as work. We acknowledge, without giving things too much thought, that soccer (like most sports) is a slice of adolescent life carried over into adult life. It turns out to be a decidedly awkward transition for soccer. Especially when we consider the position of the professionals.
As the sport’s pinnacle, the pro game inevitably sets the standards. What the pros do, how they play the game is what matters. At that point, it can be truthfully said that play becomes work. From the heights of the pro game, youth soccer ceases to be seen as a version of the sport with its own personality, its own idiosyncrasies. It becomes merely a resource off which the pro game can -- must -- feed. A satellite of the pro game.
Which may or may not be a good thing. We’ll look at that in a moment. It will be argued, correctly, that not all boys wish to become pros, and that there are plenty of youth programs that serve such players. I would argue, not entirely mischievously, that college soccer is one such program.
But even non-pro-oriented youth programs are, in effect, substantially influenced by the pro game. It can hardly be otherwise. In this country, the United States Soccer Federation, with a membership that is overwhelmingly youth and amateur, is deeply involved in youth development. That sounds appropriate. But this slogan -- “Together We Can Develop World-Class Players” -- is a stated aim of the U.S. Soccer academy system. And what can “world-class players” mean, if not pro players? And if that is the aim, then one can be sure that a pro slant on player development will be dominant.
Add together the USSF academy clubs and the academy teams run by pro and semi-pro clubs and you have a formidable network of resources and personnel devoted full-time to youth-development in this country. All of it determined to breed world-class players.
The same emphasis is to be found outside the burgeoning academy system. Next Gen USA is a player-development program -- though it calls itself a Player Progression System -- “dedicated to accelerating the development of promising young players who aspire to play college, professional or international soccer.”
On the face of it, this is all unexceptional. There is nothing sinister or devious here. The adults want to help. And the boys want to become top players. No doubt the boys’ parents are all in favor, too.
Central to all the development schemes is the acknowledgement that there are some important differences between youth and adult (i.e. pro) soccer. Youth soccer will naturally be seen as a product of adolescence, an immature activity to be replaced by the real thing. The development schemes have the surely admirable aim of helping that progression along, of accelerating it, as Next Gen puts it.
Except that admirable aims do not guarantee admirable results.
There are several aspects of all these contemporary youth-development schemes that, either by design or as an “unintended consequence,” work to undermine the best laid plans.
In particular, adult involvement. Any meaningful definition of youth soccer must surely begin with the perception that it has little time or need for direct adult input. The adult influence will be there, of course, indirectly -- from the fathers and uncles and older friends, and from television watching. But when it comes to playing the game, it should be of the boys, by the boys, for the boys. Above all the game is played in the spirit of what Mark Twain called “boy-life.”
Twain left no doubt that he saw such a life as one full of “natural and healthy instincts,” which were suppressed once adult society -- what Huck Finn called ‘sivilization’ -- took over. Huck wanted no part of it -- “I can’t stand it. I been there before.”
Huck couldn’t stand the adult intrusion into his boy-life. But he knew instinctively that the adults were going to win. The wonderful sadness of Twain’s novel is that we all know that Huck’s life outside ‘sivilization’ is doomed as soon as it begins.
Just a few years will see it gone, but those years are the sweetest of all. Should it not be that way with youth soccer? A few years to play the sport as part of boy-life, to infuse it with something of the carefree adventurousness of youth, away from the rigidities of the classroom, the strictures of the teacher.
“I don’t want to go to school and learn solemn things. I don’t want ever to be a man . . . I want always to be a little boy and to have fun.” No, not Huck Finn. That was Peter Pan, another boy in flight from adults, lured away by the sad, beautiful freedom of youth.
Look for Part 3 of "In search of youth soccer ... Street soccer -- to be crushed or cherished?" on Monday, Feb. 23.