How to keep kids playing? Offer something different

We’re losing players!

It’s a common refrain, everywhere from the Aspen Institute’s Project Play to U.S. Soccer itself. Players disappear from organized soccer, and we should blame overbearing parents, insensitive coaches and excessive costs.

All valid concerns. But if you reel in the parents, reel in the costs, and get coaches to quit coaching Division 5 U-14 games as if it’s Barcelona-Real Madrid, you will still have players leaving organized soccer when they hit middle school.

One factor is something else we’re all preaching. We want kids to play multiple sports and avoid specializing too early. But by age 14, if not age 12, most kids who are serious about one sport will be playing that sport. As it stands now, we would record that as a “loss” even though the player and parents are doing what we suggest. If a player chooses soccer over baseball, it’s a “loss” for baseball. If she chooses lacrosse over soccer, it’s a “loss” for soccer. That’s zero-sum thinking.

We may not even be losing players to other sports but to other activities. Kids who were playing travel soccer and taking dance classes at age 11 may focus on the latter at age 13. In my home of Northern Virginia, joining a marching band is every bit as all-consuming as playing a varsity sport -- intense camp through August, practices most days during the week, games on Fridays and then competitions on Saturdays. (We’re state champions, and don’t you forget it! Also, quit all your other activities, and you can’t be in any of our concert bands if you’re not also marching.)

We also have this time-consuming activity called “school.” Even if a kid isn’t taking four AP courses, the workload for a high school junior is exponentially bigger than that of a third-grader.

So it’s unrealistic to think we’re going to retain 100 percent or even 75 percent from age 12 to age 18 in organized soccer.

Where we can keep players interested is in disorganized soccer. Or lightly organized soccer.

A lot of “recreational” programs aren’t really recreational. They’re practicing twice a week. The parent coaches are every bit as intense as the “professional” 25-year-olds coaching the travel teams. They have small rosters because they don’t want players sitting on the bench, only to find that they’re scrounging for a full 11 on gameday because players have band. Dance. Cross-country meets. STEM workshops.

We’re “losing” players because they can’t commit to two practices and a game every week. And there’s absolutely nothing we can do to change that.

So why not offer something different?

We can lament the fact that we don’t have a “pickup” soccer culture, at least not everywhere and certainly not one that compares with basketball. I didn’t play organized basketball after third grade, but I spent plenty of time getting shots swatted in my face by my friends (for some reason, they were all taller) in driveways and on courts at schools and in parks. That was enough for me to attempt intramural basketball and continue playing pickup in college. (My highlight was stealing the ball from a Duke football player and racing the other way for a layup.)

Ideally, with the help of the U.S. Soccer Foundation and other organizations, the soccer community will have enough fields and enough interest to have regular pickup games.

Until that happens, youth clubs need to make it happen.

Allow players to register as pickup players, paying a small fee to cover basic insurance and administrative costs. Open the doors for those players one night a week, maybe with a signup in advance so you know you won’t have 200 players or just two.

You could even allow players to sign up as “spares” -- players who can fill in if a recreational team is short-handed one week. Our adult indoor soccer team couldn’t have functioned without a handful of alternates. Conflicts happen.

Less time commitment. Less stress for someone who’s already sweating the SAT and a part-time job. More fun.

Yes, fun.

A Washington Post piece on kids quitting sports put it best: “Our culture no longer supports older kids playing for the fun of it.”

We need to find a way to change that. By age 14, players usually know whether they have the aptitude or the interest to play for a high school team or beyond. The rest are playing for fun, and those experiences will instill a life-long love of the game.

Offering more recreational options won’t give us more elite players. But it won’t hurt. (If you’re concerned about field space, consider the prospect of having more players taking up space once a week for free play rather than three times a week for practice and games.) And offering good experiences in the game will keep people interested long enough to be the next generation of fans and parent coaches.

We may “lose” players to basketball and band. It’s going to happen. The question is whether we’re leaving the door open or slamming it behind them.

17 comments about "How to keep kids playing? Offer something different".
  1. Paul Berry, February 13, 2019 at 9:34 a.m.

    3 and in. 2 or more players. One goal, hoodies or bags for goalposts, every man for himself, first to score three plays goalie.

    Attack and defence. Minimum 4 players, one in goal, at least one in defence, at least 2 in attack. After set number of goals players switch.

    Dodgeball soccer. Make youngest or weakest stand in front of a wall and try and kick or head the ball at his body. When he bursts into tears, take him out and put the next youngest/weakest against wall. Only kidding, bullying is bad. Personally I spent forever at that wall because I refused to cry.

  2. Bob Ashpole, February 13, 2019 at 10:06 a.m.

    You do a good job laying out the context for us, but I think your next step ought to be defining the problem. You have hinted that the loss of players during the teen years is not a problem, but you haven't gone beyond that. 

  3. Richard Crow, February 13, 2019 at 1:01 p.m.

    Love this idea. If clubs can offer a pickup night once a week, it actually helps players stay in touch with soccer and play multiple sports. These pickup games could be held year-round so that players know that soccer is always available. And you never know, it might keep a few elite players involved in the game. The movements and tactics of some sports transfer very positively to soccer. 

  4. Ben Myers, February 13, 2019 at 2:24 p.m.

    For a few years when I was head of a more or less recreational soccer club, I organized pickup soccer in the summer several nights a week.  Sundays, adults, college players, high school players and rank beginners came out and played 11v11.  On a couple of summer evenings there was evening pickup where the younger kids came out and were joined by interested parents and coaches to play small-sided.  Very relaxed and a lot of fun. 

    Unfortunately, the current leaders of the club are too preoccupied with their own busy lives and they can't seem to do more than the bare minimum to keep the club afloat.  So no more summer pickup.

  5. frank schoon replied, February 13, 2019 at 4:09 p.m.

    Ben, That was a good initiative on your part. Back in the early 70's we had pickup soccer during the summer nights around 6 everynight on a field behind an ellementary school. High School and college kids came out and played a couple hours. I remember one kid who came out every night, became a freshman in HS that fall and made Varsity because he developed himself so well. different guys from the area showed to join in. It sort of became a social event as well...
    You don't need an organiziation but only a ball a few guys to show that's all that's necesarry....

  6. barry politi, February 13, 2019 at 2:28 p.m.

    Less kids are playing soccer because our leadership at USSF/US Soccer sucks.  They make poor decisons and they dont care about the kids and their families.  When you dismantle the entire nations youth teams to simply change the date of birth cutoff to make admin easier for adults, you are bound to loose a lot of players.  Many kids just walked away from soccer when that happened and they will not go back.  Also, all the research shows that children do better playing mutliple sports becasue of their neurological development and neuroplasicity untill after puberty, therefore; it makes no sense for kids to play soccer year round untill later on, yet many clubs advocate for exactly that.  Lastly, USSF and US Soccer have a lof of money, and they should be trying to help kids that cant afford the "play to play" model of soccer in America instead of denegrating high school and grass roots soccer.  Youth Soccer/ US Soccer remains the most chaotic and unappealing of all the youth organizations and untill the leadership changes nothing will improve.  

  7. Danny Marquez, February 13, 2019 at 6:09 p.m.

    Why not, if they LOVE the sport they will be back.

  8. beautiful game, February 13, 2019 at 6:37 p.m.

    IMHO, there are far too many coaches in the youth level (travel and high school teams) that have no agenda to develop talent and place the "W" as their only goal. These type of coaches are the problem because they want to be winners and retained in a salaried position. It's similar to politics...those that want to serve and those that want to benefit. Except in soccer, many players suffer and eventually quit.

  9. Ben Myers replied, February 14, 2019 at 9:39 a.m.

    Frankly, the overwhelming predominance of soccer coaches who simply want to win-win-win is downright maddening.  At the youth level and on up to the pros, the primary role of the coach and the coaching staff is to teach players how best to play soccer.  And make it fun.  The better the players get, the more fun they have and the more confidence, too.

    This mindset that teams MUST win is perhaps the largest cultural obstacle to improving the overall quality of soccer played in this country.

  10. frank schoon replied, February 14, 2019 at 12:51 p.m.

    One of the problems ,guys, is that those coaches who are into win,win ,win, were never really technical type of players. They are usually by nature former defenders,if they played, or organizer types. If you took all the coaches then I'm willing to bet the majority are former defenders...This is why I prefer coaches who were attackers or great technicians. Like myself, there is nothing satisfying to see a kid beat an opponent with a move that you taught him...

  11. Ben Myers, February 14, 2019 at 9:33 a.m.

    In this age of ubiquitous social media, iIt can be so easy to set up a time and place for pickup soccer.  In addition to a field, a ball, and practice jersies of all sizes, someone simply needs to broadcast on NextDoor, or Facebook, or Twitter, y'all come.  The only impediments in our society are legal liability, insurnace, keeping criminals away.

  12. Mario Cesarone replied, February 14, 2019 at 10:41 a.m.

    Great point Ben.  Its a sad state of affairs that we have to deal with those impediments.

  13. Mario Cesarone replied, February 14, 2019 at 10:41 a.m.

    Great point Ben.  Its a sad state of affairs that we have to deal with those impediments.

  14. frank schoon replied, February 14, 2019 at 12:58 p.m.

    Ben , you don't even need practice jerseys. During my street soccer days ,you think kids actually brought an extra shirt...of course... The important thing was the 'ball' and let them figure it out. You think these in 3rd world bring with them an extra shirt...they're lucky to have the shirt on their back

  15. Bob Ashpole replied, February 15, 2019 at 12:11 p.m.

    Light and dark. Or skins and shirts. That must be universal. 

  16. frank schoon replied, February 15, 2019 at 1:03 p.m.

    BOB ,Although we didn't take a extra shirt to seperate teams, and I don't ever recall hearing complains about separating teams by colors. ..No kid is going to walk around the city with a extra shirt in his hand just in case there is a pickup game.We just showed up and played and remember who's was on your team.. Indirectly it forces the player to be more aware of his surroundings and it makes him think more....Just like playing on concrete indirectly teaches you to think about body balance through the actions you take.. This all has been lost in the develop of the youth today, who learn to play on grass therefore not having to worry about  body balance and he has a coach there telling him what to do or not to other words, his thinking skills are not being developed....

  17. Paul Stewart, February 26, 2019 at 1:39 p.m.

    Research has shown that one of the most common reasons for kids to quit sports is a negative experience with a coach or parent.  That was the reason the Positive Coaching Alliance was formed.  It provides great tools for coaches, parents, players and administrators to make sure that kids have a positive experience, and not only play better individually and as a team, but learn life lessons through sports.
    Paul Stewart, President, Dallas Texans Soccer Club

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