One sad reason why kids quit soccer: boorish adults

The annual Project Play report on youth sports participation has been released in advance of a summit at which Crystal Dunn, Alex Morgan and Jess Fishlock  were featured speakers, and the numbers are so-so.

Pre-pandemic, the decline in soccer participation in the crucial 6-12 age bracket had finally stopped, with the rate nudging upward from 7.4% to 7.7%. That’s still a lot lower than 10.4% in 2008.

Over the weekend, I saw part of the reason why.

I also saw why retaining referees isn’t easy -- which, as Soccer America contributor Ian Plenderleith notes in his blog on refereeing in Germany, isn’t a problem limited to the United States -- but we’ll get to that in a minute.

I was assigned to be the ref for a tournament final. Don’t get too excited. This wasn’t the World Cup. This wasn’t even the A bracket final. And it was U-10 girls.

But it felt really important. To the parents and coaches, anyway. The kids didn’t seem to be having a blast.

Team A played a “physical” game. I had to blow my handy electronic whistle, which I might keep using even after the pandemic, quite a few times -- blatant shoves from behind, a hockey-style hip check, etc. Team B’s coach had to come onto the field several times to check on injured players.

The worst incident was when a Team B attacker had the ball in the box, and a Team A defender simply slid through her legs. Nowhere near the ball. That was the second PK I awarded to that point. Team B missed that one, which made Team A’s parents very happy.

Team A was leading 2-1 in the closing minutes, and the action was once again in their own box. Then the ball struck the arm of a Team A defender.

I ran through the rules in my head in a split-second. Her arm “made her body unnaturally bigger.” It had not come “directly from the head or body (including the foot) of another player who is close.”

Whistle. PK.

Amid the general outcry from Team A’s parents, I heard one of George Carlin’s words you can’t say on television.

I’d never been in this situation before, and I didn’t handle it correctly. I should’ve gone to the coach and asked her to control her parents. I confronted the parents directly, and they each said, “Not me!” One of them was lying, but I couldn’t tell which one.

But no, I couldn’t get back to the game right away, because one of Team A’s parents’ complaints finally drew a response from a Team B parent standing nearby. And things escalated from there. I tried to make them stop, and when they wouldn’t, I didn’t think I had a choice. Get out. Both of you.

Oh yeah, we still had a game. Team B converted the PK. 2-2. Game goes to PKs. Team B wins.

It’s safe to say there were some postgame conversations, and I could’ve done a better job disengaging. But in a way, I’m glad I kept talking with the coach because I wound up eliciting a confession. Well, several. She admitted someone yelled a magic word because she told me I threw out the wrong parent, not realizing I’d thrown out her parent (and one from Team B) because they were about to re-create a scene from the classic Little League episode of South Park. She initially said all three PKs I awarded weren’t legit, but she eventually conceded that sliding through a player’s leg is indeed a violation of the rules of the game.

The biggest confession, though, was chilling. The conversation went roughly like this:

“I had to call all those fouls. Your team was fouling, and the other team was getting hurt.”

“Look, we play a tough game. If the other team can’t handle it, that’s on them.”

Did I mention these girls were U-10s? All the coaching licensing courses I’ve taken have told me to focus on skill development, even at the expense of winning. I guessed I missed the part about teaching kids to knock down their opponents until they can’t get up any more.

I had a long drive home, giving me all too much time to reflect on what had happened. It was tempting to add my name to the large number of referees who quit. The next day, I was able to take stock. I was still confident in all the crucial calls I made. (Aside to parents -- a throw-in at midfield isn’t “crucial.” If it was, we’d have assistant refs in these games.) You can read about "Laws of the Game" interpretations all you want, but we refs aren’t adequately prepared for an experience like this. Fortunately, other refs are happy to serve as mentors, and I’m learning a lot from talking with them. I’ll get back to nagging U.S. Soccer about the glitches in the online referee courses this week so I can keep going out on the field with my notebook and my whistle.

When I got home, I checked the tournament site to see who else that team had played, and I was able to get a report from an earlier game. It was no better -- worse, in some ways.

But I wasn’t alone in having a long drive home. Both teams had traveled several hours to get there.

So somewhere on a long interstate drive, a little girl was headed home with a father who had just been tossed out of a game for nearly getting in a fight with an opponent’s father.

Another little girl was riding with a mother who had yelled a dirty word at a referee. (Over a correct call, though the girl might not realize it.)

And they were all riding home thinking about their next practice with a coach who’s modeling a U-10 soccer team after the Al Davis-era Oakland Raiders.

The girls themselves weren’t monsters. I talked with a couple of them during the game, getting down on a knee so I’m not a scary tall guy with a black mask lecturing down to them. (Thank you, F-license coaching course, for teaching me to do that.) They all seemed like sweet kids.

And they all looked scared. And sad.

That brings us back to Project Play, and the alarm bells that have been ringing for a long time.

The concern over kids quitting sports is sometimes overstated. It’s perfectly natural to do several activities at age 7, narrow it down to a smaller list at age 10 and then focus on some particular passion at age 13. That passion might not be a sport. That’s OK.

But the thought of a 10-year-old girl sitting in the backseat of a car staring out at the autumn leaves and wondering if this is all worth it should haunt us all.

24 comments about "One sad reason why kids quit soccer: boorish adults".
  1. Bob Ashpole, October 18, 2020 at 5:05 a.m.

    Great essay, Beau. Thank you for being there for the kids.

  2. Bill Dooley, October 18, 2020 at 8:35 a.m.

    If Team A is from your state, a game report to the state YSA administrator is in order.

    If not (or in addition) copy the president of Coach A's club, perhaps with this artiucle.  If it were a club I was running, I'd want to know.

  3. Mike Jones replied, October 18, 2020 at 7:27 p.m.

    Being a club president, a referee, referee mentor & also a father who has 2 daughers that play at U11 & U13 on "travel" teams, this is unreal.  With being a club president and if a coach in my club did this, they would either be fired on the spot (if they were paid) or asked never to coach again (if they were a volunteer). 

    Great article Beau and thank you for sharing. 

  4. Seth Vieux replied, October 19, 2020 at 3:23 p.m.

    Beau please consider doing this, clubs NEED this feedback on their coaches.

  5. Beau Dure replied, October 19, 2020 at 4:02 p.m.

    I thought about it, and I informed the club president this morning. I have not yet heard back.

  6. frank schoon, October 18, 2020 at 10:03 a.m.

    Beau, your article with all due respect has nothing new to offer. Your article could have been written in the 1970's,1980's,1990's, 2000 and 2000+ etc... NOTHING HAS CHANGED, I heard the same complaints then and now.  Apparently, it looks like we are dealing with people (parents) who lack a certain inner strength, perhaps a level of soul growth if you want to get metaphysical about it, or lack a certain self-controlling ethics whereby the emotions rule as we see occurring every night in the streets the past few months.

    This problem will not be solved through having to take more coaching and reffing courses which today are in abundance and it seems like everyone has a licence of some sort that deals with soccer.  And what I find interesting since I've been involved in coaching and training in youth soccer since early 70's, the problems you state ,Beau, were around in the 70's when noone even had a coaching license or even had any programs tackling this problem. 

    I'm asking why do we continue hearing about the same old problems over and over again even when we have doled out more money for these problems, improved the level of sophistication in all facets in the past 50years ,let us say, in running , controlling, organizing, teaching coaching, reffing, youth soccer. AND STILL NOTHING HAS CHANGED BASICLY.  We still hear the same complaints.....Go Figure!!!

    As a coach, I told my kids ,don't yell at the ref when you think he made a mistake for you make 10x the amount of mistakes during the game that he makes... I would assume a coach should tell the parents the same thing,  not to criticize the referee, for your kids make 10times the errors and mistakes during the game....We're all human and mistakes are made.

    And as far as Coaches allowing their players to play physical, especially with these 10 year olds. These coaches were not good players, if they played at all and don't love the game but love the 'win' aspect. And I would recommend to 'can' these types even if they have a super win record...

  7. Victor Mathseon replied, October 19, 2020 at 1:01 p.m.

    I wrote an article that appeared in Soccer America 25 years ago that covered almost exactly the same topic. So yeah, not a new thing. 

  8. Kent James replied, October 19, 2020 at 1:06 p.m.

    While some of the problems you mention (coaches & parents yelling at refs) have been with us for a long time, I think the thing that I've noticed that's made things worse in the last 20 yrs or so is the professionalization of the game at younger and younger ages.  When parents pay big money and the kids are playing in competitive games, that ramps up the pressure on everyone, and, as Beau points out, that's not healthy for 10 year olds.

    That's not to say professionalization is all bad; the problem is many of these coaches see young kids as little adults, and treat them that way, instead of putting their soccer in the context of child development.  I took the USSF's Youth National License course many years ago, and it did an excellent job of making people understand that.  Young kids need to play in an environment that is supportive and challenging, not ruthlessly competitive, and if a 10 yr old is not having fun when they play soccer, something is wrong. 

  9. Peter Kurilecz, October 18, 2020 at 11:10 a.m.

    I would be curious to know if the coach you talked to had ever played the game before going into coaching? at that level U-10 I seriously doubt if she ever had

  10. Beau Dure replied, October 18, 2020 at 11:30 a.m.

    I think nearly all travel coaches played at some half-decent level. In a lot of cases, they get their jobs on their playing experience rather than their coaching experience or their coaching licenses. I'm often surprised to run into travel coaches who have no more coaching experience or education than I do. (And it shows.) 

    In this case, the coach also has a higher staff position within the club.

  11. frank schoon replied, October 18, 2020 at 12:01 p.m.

    Beau, as I've stated ,the problem has nothing to do with education for the same problems were there going as far back to the 70's when there was no education and 50's years later with all the education and social awareness we still continue having the same problems. Bingo!

    There is an element missing in what we call learning about the game and it is one of the reasons why some kids drop out. Coaches, our not taught to love the game via the teaching the history of the game as far as the stars go. Every kid that I ever coached, or trained got a dose of what Garrincha coud do with a ball and I would even demonstrate, or move from fancy wingers like Dzajic, Keizer, Pele, Pepe,Rivelino, Cruyff, Matthews, Jimmy Johnston, Puskas and the influence it had on todays stars like Zlatan.....etc,etc, Stories of what some famous players did in games along with the technical qualifications. These kids need to be able to visualize how good these players were and fortunate today you have Youtube to learn. But you to have someone with knowledge and love for the game to point out those things and getting them on the road of loving and appreciating the game. 

    Sorry to say, most coaches don't have that for they ,themselves, were never taught  while growing up hearing stories about great stars and what they are known for in games. These kids today don't have a connection to the beauty of the game for noone teaches it to them, all they ever hear about is Ronaldo or Messi...Talk about Sekularic who invented rainbow move.

    Placing a good technical soccer players who is very tricky with the ball with young kids during practice will do more for them than all these  licenses and education a coach acquires to teach this kids. To few coaches have the 'heart' to express and show the beauty of the game. l

    In sum these kids don't leave soccer because of stupid parents, they because they never been taught  the love of the game....

  12. Ben Myers replied, October 18, 2020 at 7 p.m.

    Yes, I wonder, too.  Maybe she was an ex-hockey player recruited to coach.  Seemingly not much knowledge of the game.

  13. R2 Dad, October 18, 2020 at 3:59 p.m.

    We've all seen these matches, and coaches, for years. The US way is to create more laws to constrain behavior within the existing organizational structure, but this is pushing a string. Youth soccer leagues everywhere know the bad actors, but clubs can just threaten to drop one league for another and problem solved! USSoccer doesn't want to take ownership of the minutiae because they don't understand they represent the entire sport for the entire country not just professional squads.  The first step is for US Soccer to create a Naughty List of blackballed coaches. The mere existence of such a list and the threat of 1 year suspension would get the attention of every club in the country. Repeat offenders get a 5 year suspension. Look at the brief history of coach behavior from the DA. The behavioral record for each match was posted online after every match so US Soccer could track them. There must be one coach that misbehaved but all the coaches I saw acted like nuns in the technical area. Since US Soccer doesn't care, leagues don't care, clubs don't care, parents don't care. This isn't difficult, US Soccer just doesn't care.
    Now, what are the odds Congress pulls authority of youth soccer from US Soccer and gives it to another organization that does? I would vote for that.
    Notice that I have not listed the criteria upon which coaches would get suspended--that is for reasonable people to determine. But once those criteria are established and violated, there should be no concessions, no weighted consideration. Rules being rules, I would favor a referee organization to implement and maintain the list, to offer a separation of powers, as it were.
    This is literally a case of "think of the children".

  14. Paul Cox, October 18, 2020 at 5:15 p.m.

    I've been away from the US for a few years and reffed a bit over here in Europe, and for the most part it's night and day difference. People watching youth games here in Spain sometimes disagree with a ref's decisions, but they mostly behave themselves.

    We need to put teeth into things. A banned coaches list, like R2 suggests, is great. Banning all parents from a team if a few bad apples can't shut their mouths would also go a long way. Charging clubs more if they have too many disciplinary issues, too.

    We referees also need to improve. We should be uniformly taking a harder line with parents and coaches. We should be working to recruit, improve, and reinforce our younger, good referees...but it's mostly the coaches.

    In Puget Sound last summer when I was home for a few months, we were so short on refs in Tacoma that the same coach whose parents were berating me and accusing me of taking bribes from the other team, and the coach himself who had screamed a lot during the game, then turned around after the game and asked if I could do the following game since they had no ref.

    Sorry, man, I've got better stuff to do than be yelled at by a bunch of clowns.

  15. frank schoon replied, October 19, 2020 at 1:01 p.m.

    Paul , are serious? LOLOL. This scumbag after berating you asked you to do some more games....

    No amount of education is going to improve characters like that....

  16. James Madison, October 18, 2020 at 5:25 p.m.

    1. The point, Frank Schoon, is it is still going on.

    2.  I wonder where.  In my world, it is rare to experience 1 DFK foul per team per half in a U-10 or even U12-girls game, and not that many more in a U-10 or U-12 boys game. Parents, on the other hand, can be a different story.  But then again, I live in mellow Northern California

  17. R2 Dad replied, October 19, 2020 at 12:44 p.m.

    JM, not sure where you are finding reprieve in NorCal but even at U10 there are parents and players squealing for Hand Balls, especially with immigrant teams. Ball to hand, hand to ball, 2 feet away, makes no matter. I normally ignore the ranting, but occasionally I'll take a look over at the sidelines and I've seen grandparents absolutely losing their minds! It's hard not to laugh at the absurdity of it all.

  18. Ben Myers, October 18, 2020 at 6:59 p.m.

    A long time ago, a club official who was also a seasoned referee said, "The best thing for youth soccer would be to ban all parents and fans from the sideline up through high school, and then allow them to see what sort of soccer players their children had developed into."  Thes continue to be words of wisdom for me after 25+ years coaching and 15 years officiating until knees no longer worked.  I have shaken my head time after time as coaches and parents alike bellow at their little children.  It also explains why some youth soccer leagues have parents-free weekends.  If we kept parents away from soccer fields when players were young, we would only have coach training to deal with, much smaller numbers.

    When, when, when will parents and coaches alike realize that their kids are doing an activity for the fun of it?   When will coaches realize that they have to make training sessions and matches engaging and fun, to retain players?  Were these to happen, the pyramids of sports activitiy from young to older would be much less pointed and steep.

  19. Ginger Peeler, October 18, 2020 at 9:09 p.m.

    Both my kids were weekend refs. My daughter was on a traveling team in San Diego and then in Northwest Arkansas after we left California.  She was reffing games before we left San Diego. My son got his reffs' license after moving to Arkansas.

    I have mentioned before that the local high school sports editor for the local paper refused to cover the local high schools' games because soccer was "a communist sport". That was in the 1990s.  My daughter was verbally attacked by a male adult (I'm supposing he was the father of one of the under 8 players of the losing team of the game she reffed.). Apparently, he was shouting at her and threatening to harm her. That was the last game she ever reffed, although she had always received high marks from those watching her games; she had no desire to be yelled at by an adult who didn't even understand the game. The officials apologized profusely to me for the threats to my daughter, but she never reffed again. 
    My son, on the other hand, was a great utility player. He was not fast, but he dribbled accurately and rarely lost control of the ball. He was on the highschool JV Boys soccer team. He was a great referee. The high school hired him to center the JV Girls' games, even when he was only 15 or 16!

    And the local weekend Spanish league requested that he act as one of the linesmen for their games because the players assessed him as being very fair! Then, one Saturday, he called me and asked me to come pick him up early; he was done. Arkansas was an "open carry" state and someone on the sidelines, during or right after a game, started waving a gun around. One of the adults advised my son to "take cover"!  He chose never to ref again. 

    These are behaviors of people with little regard for rules. But, they too are examples of why people drop out of reffing. Neither of the actions involving my daughter or son likely would have happened if we had remained in California. Arkansas, and most of the colleges members of the SEC do not have a men's soccer team. It's not a "manly" sport. But it's okay for women.  I've given you examples of another reason soccer isn't given the respect it deserves. 

    PS: My daughter was the first female in Arkansas to ever win a partial scholarship for soccer outside of the state. But it wasn't covered by the local news because "communist, etc"...

  20. Philip Carragher, October 18, 2020 at 10:19 p.m.

    Years ago in my local community I instigated and helped sponsor (along with youth athletic leagues and town recreation departments) Sportparent Trainings (and separate Coach Trainings) by the Positive Coaching Alliance. Our local football league, baseball league, and soccer league offered these "seminars" free to parents; the trainings lasted about 2-3 hours, had a trainer from the PCA, visuals, and a workbook for all attendees. I don't think we required attendance, the turnout was pretty good, and the end result seemed to be a reasonable improvement in parent behavior. Unfortunately I couldn't convince the travel team organizations to participate (and they needed it the most), but generally parent behavior in our local sports community improved. I firmly believe that requiring sportparent and coach PCA pre-season trainings would significantly improve the bad behaviors mentioned in this excellent piece.
         Further, there is no place for a youth coach that wants her players to purposely foul players in a manner that can cause injury. I was coaching a girls varsity high school team a few years back and a fellow coach warned me about a team I was about to play. He said they were a dirty team and that their coach pushed them to play that way, so prior to the start of the game, I mentioned this to the referree who scoffed at this concern of mine, saying he had reffed games of the team I was worried about. The game began and they were dirty, and despite my protests, it continued until one of my players had her leg badly broken. I ran onto the pitch and cradled her head while the girl who injured her cried to me, in tears, "I'm so sorry. Our coach makes us do this." Following this game, I found out that we were to play this team again in the playoffs so I asked my Athletic Director to call the state governing body and their excellent advise was to tell the opposing team's AD that the state would have an observer at the game so they better behave. They did behave and they lost 3-0. I believe the U10 girls coach mentioned in this piece, the one whose sideline yelled the obscenity, should have been yellow carded since coaches should have responsibility for their sideline's behavior. I never allow my parents to say anything negative to refs. Stopping the game and having this warning issued with the next one possibly causing the team to forfeit may have helped.
         I detail all this because I believe a missing aspect in Coach and Parent training is what to do in these extreme circumstances. They happen and as caretakers we need to be better prepared. The fact that these have gone on for decades is tragic and is a huge disservice to our kids.

  21. Grant Goodwin, October 19, 2020 at 12:41 p.m.

    From coaching over the years...i think one solution may be to address the parents at the start of each season and let them know that they cannont yell at the referees.  In fact the only thing that should come from the parents during the game is cheering their team on.  Refereeing is not something that a lot of people tend to want to do as they have to hear it from the coaches as well as the parents.  

  22. Thomas Connors, October 19, 2020 at 3:36 p.m.

    I've run, I've coached. As a parent I wanted my kids to have fun while learning and playing. Competition is a part of life. It's a development part of growing up. However,  competition in my thinking, the way I was raised was "fair" play. No cheating.  No hurting others intentionally. No matter the age bracket. As a coach, I told my players to give it their all. But, I also stated to play clean... but, to defend themselves when necessary. Running a club or program,  I told my coaches to teach the players,  I would control the parents! Notice I said control the parents. I would speak directly individually to parents as necessary. They were not allowed to criticize the other team. I also told them not to shout criticism at their kids or anyone else on their team. Listen,  kids know when they make mistakes or don't play their best. They don't need to hear it over and over again from mom and dad, especially in harsh tones. Kids do good plays even when not "in the game" so to speak. Relish and promote those time(s). Kids don't leave just leave sports.  Their driven to it. They'd rather have parents love and support!
    Oh, and referees,  don't you dare choose a favorite team! Don't you dare decide who's winning and losing! You're there to keep play in line with fair play. You'll make mistakes. Don't compound them. It's the players who should determine the outcome,  not you!

  23. humble 1, October 20, 2020 at 11:04 a.m.

    I've been participating in soccer only since 2010.  I've seen coaches strangle one-another, parents fighting on the side lines, my son has been berated by parents and scoffed at and talked down to by referees and other coaches and this pales compared to what other players have said and done to him.  This is not a USA only issue.  I've seen the same stuff abroad.  My son plays a physical south american style game and a lot of parents, refs and coaches don't like it.  He does not take it from anyone and he stands up for his teammates, even to the point to take a card and get an invitation to leave.  His legs are walking bruises, from other plays doing the same to him.  It's rough out there, but that's soccer.  It's not proper like Rugby, there are no pads like in football, and  you can't take a timeout like in basketball.  Even at the top level there are attrocities that go unpunished, look no further than the recent Pickford foul on Van Dyke.  Red card every day, video as clear as day showing dangerous play - and in the end - nothing.  If that's how it is at the highest level - how can you expect anything better at the grass roots? 

  24. Paul Stewart, October 21, 2020 at 6:04 p.m.

    This is exactly why the Positive Coaching Alliance was created.  Despite the name, it also helps parents, administrators, referees create a positive experience for the kids, teaches life lessons, and helps players and teams perform better.  Everyone please take advantage!

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications