Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Crazy World of Travel Soccer

When the Curmudgeon was a kid, we spent Memorial Day weekend in lazy pursuits. Back then, school was over, or just about over, youth baseball season had wound down and we were most likely eating hot dogs and drinking iced tea at some neighbor's house each day between barefooted trips to the local creek.

This weekend, we spent most of our time with the youngest Curmudgeon child (a 9-year-old third grader) at a travel soccer tournament.

We don't know who invented travel soccer, but they should be tried for crimes against humanity.

Our youngest loves soccer. He'll play as much as he can. Since travel soccer exists, and offers the greatest opportunity for more playing, that's what he wants to do.

And so, we found ourselves getting up early Saturday morning for the hour-long drive to western Manassas, where some genius of park planning has placed an enormous soccer and baseball complex in the middle of nowhere, with no trees and no shade, with no shops nearby and nothing to do in that interminable three to four hour period between games.

The sun was blistering, the humidity out in full force. The third grade boys stormed the field, losing a squeaker. The loss seemed to matter more to the parents than to the boys. Then it was off to find some way to kill four hours before the second game of the day, which would REALLY be hot and humid. As we found, it's not easy to kill time in Manassas. The smartest parents--not us--took a group of kids to see Shrek at an early matinee in the darkened, air-conditioned comfort of a movie theater.

The unluckiest parents--those with MULTIPLE children in travel soccer--shuttled back and forth between different venues, trading their kids like baseball cards to various other parents so they could all make their various overlapping games.

We're actually quite fortunate. Our little one trains with his travel team, but is not officially on the squad, so we don't spend our regular, non-holiday weekends--yet--bounding around Northern Virginia in search of a game. But, he does play as a guest player in tournaments, which is certainly exciting for him. Of course, he aspires to be a full-fledged participant and that may be in our future. Thank goodness our older son has taken up an interest in tennis.

We're not against travel soccer, but really, does it have to be this way? We're talking about third graders, here, after all. Sure, it makes sense for older boys to seek out more competitive games. In high school, the Curmudgeon rode a bus around town as we played other high schools, and we even took some out of town trips.

But there ought to be a better way for elementary school kids. Indeed, the whole process is probably harmful to soccer in America. Here's how it works: at the end of second grade--SECOND GRADE!--they have "travel try-outs." In Arlington, about 80-100 enthusiastic boys (and about half that many girls) show up. Then about 25-35 are selected (depending on how many teams are formed). The rest--the rejects--rarely try out again. The lucky ones selected then go into intensive training with paid coaches. It costs over $1000 for the parents and it pretty much excludes participation in any other sport. And it goes on all year--a fall season and a Spring season, with soccer camp in the summer and indoor soccer training in the winter.

The reason it's bad for soccer in general is that those little travel players really form the pool from which American soccer will henceforth draw its talent. Yet, that pool was established in the SECOND GRADE. Many of those rejected kids will turn out to be more athletic by high school, or more focused, or more whatever. Meanwhile, some of those second grade stars will fade. No other sport does this, and it's really insane.

A better way would be to allow for greater competition within local recreational youth soccer programs, with broader training, by paid coaches who know what they're doing, for the more talented kids (the 100 who show up for tryouts, not the 30 who get selected). Let the kids who are most enthusiastic have opportunities to play in tournaments (smaller tournaments close by) and let them have a high level of competition within the recreational league (form a division with teams made up of the motivated players).

Then, when the kids reach middle school--preferably seventh grade or older, when they really start to develop physically--select out the very best for a higher level of play, something like the travel soccer that exists now, while continuing to keep those other players engaged.

The Curmudgeon is now on the Board of Directors of the Arlington Soccer Assn, so he'll have an opportunity to push for some changes. But change comes slowly, and travel soccer has become a behemoth, a monster of its own. Huge money is behind it, and many people now make a living off it. Who knows--maybe they'll push tryouts to kindergarten. Meanwhile, we're swept up in the insanity, much to the delight of our third grader.

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