A soccer parent for 20 years: What I'll miss most

In the pre-dawn damp and cold of a Saturday morning in the fall of 2016, as I drove on a county road south of Atlanta, with my 17-year-old son half asleep in the passenger seat, I understood how much I would miss it.

Twenty years as a soccer parent would end with his last club and school games in the spring of 2017.

Ronen, Maayan and Eyal after a 2012 pickup game.

I would miss the drives to and from their club games, and those precious opportunities for conversation with my daughter and her two younger brothers.

I would miss watching them play, watching their skills improve, watching them succeed and fail, watching them as teammates and leaders.

I would miss shivering in the cold, getting soaked by the rain, being frozen and wet at the same time, broiling in the Southern heat, even the onslaught at a gnat-infested field.

I would miss the post-game meals -- fast food if we were in a hurry, or maybe a diner or barbecue.

I would miss the wet, malodorous uniform pieces in the trunk, along with soaked cleats stuffed with newspaper to absorb the moisture.

I would miss Saturday morning's search for uniform parts (the suggestion that this be done Friday night having been ignored) and Saturday night's laundry to wash uniforms for Sunday's games.

I would miss cringing as my goalkeeper daughter slid feet first and gathered up a ball, apparently impervious to the possibility of collision with the onrushing attacker.

I would miss my oldest son's highlight reel of goals, especially the direct kicks, and the field vision that allowed him to direct his teammates play.

I would miss my youngest son's perseverance, never losing his love of the game, as his body finally grew into his abilities.

I would even miss my wife's dismay about the time soccer took from our family engaging in other activities -- though I sometimes wonder whether Audrey wasn't right.

(Note: The same woman who read the newspaper at her children's games now wears an Atlanta United FC jersey and stands cheering throughout their games.)

As a boy, I read the agate type in the Sunday sports pages of The New York Times and found such exotic names as Manchester United, Borussia Monchengladbach, Real Madrid and Juventus.

Growing up near Chicago, the first person I knew who played soccer was an 8th grade classmate.

I wrote my first article about soccer at age 14, about the star forward on my high school's team. My senior year, I called a few games on the high school radio station, including a 3-2 state championship loss. Soccer on radio, circa 1972.

I wrote about the soccer team for my college paper and occasionally turned out for practice, wearing borrowed cleats, doing a passable imitation of an orange cone.

I had little contact with soccer as I started my journalism career and then married life.

That changed the day my wife registered our 7-year-old daughter to play at the club nearest home. She saw boys chasing a ball and thought that soccer also would be ideal for our 5-year-old son, a child of above average size and energy.

Several years later, when our youngest began playing at age 5, he wore hand-me-down shin guards that flopped from his legs.

For 20 years we wrote checks (the "pay" in "pay-to-play") to clubs and camps; bought countless uniforms, cleats, shin guards and goalkeeper gloves; penciled in weekday practices and weekend games; did our snack duty when the kids were young and occasionally fed their teammates when they were older.

I have not -- and frankly am afraid to -- estimated how much money we spent on soccer those 20 years.

Hundreds of mini-dvd tapes of the kids' games are boxed in the basement, waiting to be edited and transferred to a more durable format and given to the them.

When he was 7, I asked my oldest son if he could hear the parents hollering from the sidelines. He said that he didn't want to hear me during his games.

So I sat in my folding chair, restraining (most of the time) any inclination to vocalize.

Eventually, I brought ear buds with me and listened to music. When I tired of parents screaming -- at their children, at other children (sometimes on the other team) and at referees -- I turned up the volume.

I witnessed parents, in club and high school, pick verbal battles with players on the opposing team, in one case even throwing a water bottle at a U-14 boy after he suggested that the woman in question pipe down.

I have heard boys and girls tell parents on their own team to be quiet.

Maybe there should be a 1,000 game rule: Unless you have watched (in person or on television), played, coached or officiated a total of 1,000 games, hush up and let the referees (men and women, boys and girls, usually being paid $15 to $25 a game) call the game and accept that they will make mistakes.

I never complained to a coach about my child's position or playing time, not at youth clubs, high school or college.

I watched parents move their children from club to club, seeking supposedly greener pastures, and develop reputations that did their offspring no good.

When the professional coaches at our first club, a father and his twin sons (whose 'development first' approach we liked), left in a dispute with the board (there are no politics like soccer club politics), we eventually moved to the club they founded.

Our older son, who "played up," changed clubs when there was no team in his age group and again as he reached higher levels.

Besides club and high school, our children represented Atlanta in the JCC (Jewish Community Center) Maccabi Games, a national sports festival.

Soccer took the older boy on a club trip to England, to a soccer and language camp in Spain, to 3 v 3 pick-up games in a city plaza before a World Cup game in Germany (beware the Bar Mitzvah present you promise years in advance), and to the NCAA Division II nationals. He visited Argentina and Brazil with Maccabi USA youth teams at the Pan Am Maccabi Games and played in the quadrennial Maccabiah Games in Israel.

You have to catch yourself when your 7-year-old son does a step-over and dribbles past an opponent -- and suddenly you're daydreaming.

I can count on two hands, with a few fingers left over, the number of players my children played with or against who went on to play professionally.

In the "pay to play" world, the grail is a college scholarship. The recruiting process can be exhilarating, until you discover what an unseemly business it can be, when assurances of scholarship money and starting positions fade, leaving you angry and your child confused.

When they began playing, the kids' coaches were well-meaning parents whose own children were on the team. Their coaching abilities ranged from the clueless to the reasonably capable.

In hindsight, at the youngest ages there was too much emphasis on organized drills and not enough time spent letting the kids get comfortable with the ball at their feet. The latter may look less organized to unknowing parents, but in the end, has greater value.

Many of our older son's skills were developed banging balls off the garage walls.

His more professional coaching began about U-8, oddly enough by Scots who had played professionally in England (the aforementioned father having had a distinguished career).

Only a few of the coaches, at the club or high school level, including for our daughter, were women.

I have seen too many boys and girls coached by men who berated players during games or whose egos seemingly prevented them from remembering that these were children and this was a game to be enjoyed.

We suffered relatively few of that variety.

Along the way, soccer provided life lessons.

Our older son had a club teammate, with whom he had a wonderful compatibility on the field, who came from Mexico at a young age, with his parents ... illegally.

Another teammate's family shepherded him to practice and games and made sure he had uniform parts. His own parents worked seven days a week and never saw him play.

I sometimes found the three boys at our house, kicking a ball, ransacking the refrigerator or crashed out in the living room, playing FIFA, or watching a game or a movie.

When his legal status prevented the immigrant teammate from going on the team trip to England, our son understood that he was fortunate to be living in other circumstances.

With our youngest now a college freshman (still refereeing and playing pickup soccer), this past autumn was the first in 20 years free of soccer -- aside from those Atlanta United games (and all the soccer available on television).

Years ago, on a website frequented by soccer parents (some clearly over-invested emotionally), I read the thoughts of a mother who was hanging up her cleats, so to speak.

Beyond anything else, what she said she would miss most was the drives to and from the games, those chances for one-on-one time with her children.

I didn't realize it then, but she was right.

That's what I would miss most.

(Dave Schechter is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. His journalism career began on a junior high school newspaper and included more than 28 years with CNN. He was correct the third time he predicted that soccer would take hold in the United States. At present, his Premier League fantasy team is having a disappointing season.)

11 comments about "A soccer parent for 20 years: What I'll miss most".
  1. frank schoon, January 26, 2018 at 11:11 a.m.

    It looks like Dave experienced the full gamut of soccer in all of its facets. I have to admit there are parents ,especially those with more than one kid, who have donated their everyday lives for 20 years to youth soccer and no doubt deserve a UN recognition day. All kidding aside, that's quite an ordeal. But here is what saddens me about this article. After all the money spend especially on "pay to play", camps and other incidentals, in order to keep up future hopes and possibilities for his kids, it ends with a picture of his "youngest son now a college freshman(still refereeing NO LONGER PLAYING"). After so many years, and no longer playing but picking up some ref. money. Apparently the love of the game didn't hit him. What a sad ending for actually now is the greatest time to enjoy playing soccer, freely playing pick up games in the evening on campus or join an amateur club in the area, meet new people. The most fun part of soccer comes after having played youth soccer with all its demands.
    I don't know about the other two siblings, maybe they've continued playing or remain involved in coaching or whatever.
    <"In the "pay to play" world, the grail is a college scholarship. The recruiting process can be exhilarating, until you discover what an unseemly business it can be, when assurances of scholarship money and starting positions fade, leaving you angry and your child confused."> These poor parents are being"HUSTLED" by the "pay to play" for I think it is joke. Player development has not gotten better after 50 years and we have 10's of thousands of people with coaching license. Yeah, you can see our player development is just fantastic! "Pay to play" is a welfare system for coaches who need to earn some money after getting the higher level licenses. Don't think for a moment that once you achieve a higher level coaching license your skill teaching potential improves as well. NEXT POST.

  2. Bill Dooley replied, January 26, 2018 at 11:22 a.m.

    Jim Thompson, founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance, described this moment as well: "Here’s the bottom line for parents. Your child’s experience with youth sports will come to an end, and it may happen suddenly. If you are like me, you will look back and think, 'I wish I had enjoyed it more. I wish I hadn’t obsessed so much about how well my child was performing, or the team’s record, or whether he or she was playing as much as I wanted, or why the coach didn’t play him or her in the right position. I wish I had just enjoyed the experience more.'
    Because the youth sports experience is so intense, we tend to forget how short it is and what a small amount of time parents and children get to spend together over the course of life. These are the good old days. Enjoy them."

  3. Coach Referee, January 26, 2018 at 11:25 a.m.

    I coached both of my children in the travel soccer world. And yes, it's that time with them in the car to-and-from practice that I miss the most. When my youngest finished her career as an under 19 player and I continued to coach the team that she departed, the drives to and from practice were lonely. It was just me up front. No one in the passenger seat next to me. No one changing the radio station. No one telling me about the woes of being in high school. It's lonely driving to practice now as a coach.

  4. frank schoon, January 26, 2018 at 11:30 a.m.

    Without "pay to play" it would have been same players that would have gone on to play professionally..It is that simple. Those players that did go on were the more talented ones, anyway. Pay for play has to do with numbers and money that is how the money is made. You think these coaches at DA don't know who is not going to make it and honestly tell those players ,they're not good enough, just go play ODSL. No of course not,they are looking at numbers and more money..
    Dave figured this out on his own, after a while. Maybe he should inform and give that tip to those "pay to play' licensed coaches who taught those drills.

  5. frank schoon replied, January 26, 2018 at 11:54 a.m.

    This is what I meant to say.....
    <"I can count on two hands, with a few fingers left over, the number of players my children played with or against who went on to play professionally.">Without "pay to play" it would have been same players that would have gone on to play professionally..It is that simple.
    <"In hindsight, at the youngest ages there was too much emphasis on organized drills and not enough time spent letting the kids get comfortable with the ball at their feet. The latter may look less organized to unknowing parents, but in the end, has greater value">Dave figured this out on his own, after a while. Maybe he should inform and give that tip to those "pay to play' licensed coaches who taught those drills.

  6. John Soares, January 26, 2018 at 3:32 p.m.

    Great article! I too miss "those cold, and in my area very wet days on the sideline". Coaching was great fun, always emphasizing FUN. Often criticized for being so "casual" except we usually won anyway. I do agree that, unfortunately, too many of the pay to play kids are getting a bad deal (DON'T HOW TO FIX IT) coaches that emphasize drills. Win at all cost. Yell at or criticise kids, sometimes even after a win, because HE expected more. As a ref I often witness coaches calling their team on the field at half time or end of the game to simply point out and criticize any mistakes or expectations (his) not met....regardless of the score.
    These people above all do not have a clue how to deal with kids. Parents need to wake up.

  7. Ben Myers, January 26, 2018 at 8:27 p.m.

    To quote: 'In the "pay to play" world, the grail is a college scholarship.'

    The dangling of the possibility of college scholarships in front of parents is absolutely the worst scam of the "pay to play" soccer clubs. If I had my druthers I would have any and all parents signing up their kids for soccer for the first time read and sign a statement acknowledging the following AND require them to tape a copy of the statement to the refrigerator door.

    "For women's programs there are a maximum of 14 scholarships for a DI team, 9.9 for DII, 12 for NAIA programs and a fully funded NJCAA program has up to 18 scholarships per team. Men's soccer can offer 9.9 scholarships per team DI, 9 per team DII, 12 at the NAIA level and 18 scholarships per team for NJCAAA programs."

    The odds of anyone getting a full college soccer scholarship are about as high as hitting on a BIG lottery. Can "pay to play" get real?!!! Then maybe we all can return to playing soccer to have fun, to learn the game, to get better at the game and put winning and that college scholarship back in a proper perspective.

  8. frank schoon, January 27, 2018 at 10:23 a.m.

    Ben, that is an excellent point or fact ,rather. My criticism was directly pointed at those who masquerade as so called licensed developmental coaches, or rather class programmed idiots, who were taught at the USSF Coaching know, the Mecca of American training development were so fortunate to have experienced in the past 50 years.
    I've been around long enough and I know the game well enough, to be able to judge a youth coach on his developmental capabilities, who is able to teach and demonstrate the various skills, the application of these skills, specifically to game situation, who himself is a bundle of creativity as skills go and most importantly to be able to outwardly project a love for the game that effect positively upon the kids( an aspect Dave's youngest kid never experienced). That in itself , showing no love for the game after being in "pay to play" for, let us say 8 years, is enough grounds to take the local DA program to court and sue to get your money back. Talk about wasting time and money for all these years.

  9. frank schoon, January 27, 2018 at 11:49 a.m.

    Here are a few tips for parents who are looking for good coaches( I don't like use the term coaching, for coaching has nothing to do with development).
    1. Get a coach, who as a player is /was a"ball wizard", NOT A DEFENDER TYPE, who was a defender. Nothing personal, but defender types are more suitable 5years further down the line a youth's development. You want him to dazzle your kids with the ball moves, able to teach them. Would be nice for him to know the history of the greats and talk them.He'll automatically will instill a love and appreciation for the game without even trying.
    I would prefer the coach the come from a third world country, where skills and technical display are worshipped, so to speak, like from Africa, Jamaica, Argentina, Brazil,etc. Capable of playing with the kids doing his stuff. Realize this the best for the youth's INDIVIDUALITY with the ball. These types of coaches are more individually oriented, not team oriented, and see the team as a tool to develop the individual not the team itself.
    It is so important at this stage for the kid to feel and gain confidence with a ball in one on one situations and you need someone to teach and demonstrate the INDIVIDUALITY. Gee, I wonder when the USSF will issue a license in teaching INDIVIDUALITY with the ball. Without achieving individuality in the early stage(which I think Dave's youngest son never learned)you'll never become a good player on the ball or under pressure.
    Two, if you're son serious about the game, then don't send him to camp(unless he wants just a week of fun, fine. Instead of paying about $500(whatever the cost). Tell him, you'll pay him $200 but he practices 3hours a day, one hour shooting, one hour dribbling , one hour passing the ball with his weak foot. And if he has a friend than that's even better, for they can play one on one employing their weak foot. In that one week he'll develop better, more efficient and focused than any of the kids that came back from camp. Tell me, you need someone with a license for this.LOL NEXT POST.

  10. frank schoon, January 27, 2018 at 12:22 p.m.

    Three, I would take my kid on saturdays, sundays, to adult pick up games. I always liked seeing a young kid come play, even if he was 10 or 11 or older, with the old guys and give tips regardless if he was on the opposing team.Sooner or later the kid will get use to playing older ,quicker and larger players thus making even easier playing with kids his own age for his timing will become so much faster.
    I would assume you'll find more pickup in the hispanic community...Try calling Ric Fonseca, for info ,he'll knows everybody,LOL. Or you find an adult team practicing week night and as if you're son can come and play and explain to the coach what you're trying to do. Who know some of the players might bring their own kid as well.
    HERE IS SOMETHING TO SEE IF YOU'RE GETTING YOUR MONEY'S WORTH FROM THE LOCAL DA PROGRAM.I would recommend to parents who have a youth age 11 in the DA program to bring him out to the tennis court and him pass the ball with his weak foot over the net, or take 5 steps from the net and let him/her pass the over the net with his best foot. If they have difficult(THEY WILL for I employ it even with 13yr. olds at girls camp. There are so many technical aspects these kids are missing but this is just an example...This is one way to catch things early

  11. James Madison, February 7, 2018 at 9:43 p.m.

    Will the reason for the parent missing the son playing is that the son will stop playing?  If so, why will the son stop playing?  If the son is not to be a professional, there is still amateur, i.e., adult club soccer.  If ths son is not to play intercollegiate soccer, there are still the alterntives of intermural and amateur soccer.  If the son prefers not to continue playing competitively, there are still the alterntives of college intermural and adjult recreatonal leagues.  Point being, for those who love it, soccer can be a lifetime activity.  Parents can continue sharing soccer with adult children.  There were even a few years in which my older son and I played in the same rec league. 

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