Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Too Much Soccer

Yes, there can be too much of a good thing.

Soccer is a terrific sport, especially for kids, and it plays a big role in our family, especially for our youngest child, who loves the game and is a terrific competitor.

A piece in today's Washington Post, however, reminded us that there can be too much soccer. What it didn't say is that too much soccer can be a bad thing.

This particular article was on the KidsPost page, on the back page of the Style section. In keeping with the Olympic theme of the moment, it was profiling kids who hope to be future Olympic competitors. Under soccer, there was is a family from Bethesda with three kids, ages 12-15, who collectively are playing on 12(!) soccer teams.

Sure, it's insane for the parents to get those kids to all those practices and games, but if you pay any attention at all to the Olympics, you realize that parental insanity is standard fare for the young Olympians. Unfortunately, it's also insane--and dangerous--for the kids. A lot of research has shown that too much soccer, especially for adolescent girls, puts their ACL's (the anterior cruciate ligament that holds your knee together) at especially high risk of injury.

In the KidsPost, the oldest of these three children, a 15-year-old girl, is playing on FIVE teams, including her varsity high school team (presumably she is a freshman, or at most a sophomore) and the U.S. women's national team in her age group. She's presumably also playing on a top travel team that competes in the State Cup and a number of other tournaments, and is part of the Maryland state Olympic Development team. (We're not sure where a fifth team comes in.) Certainly, to be involved with all those teams at her age means she's a terrific player.

But what use will she be to the Olympic squad, or the U.S. national team, if she blows out both ACL's--believe us, this happens with sickening regularity in soccer--by the time she's 18?

The problem is entirely with the adults involved here: The parents, of course, who are flattered as she gets invited to play at ever higher levels, and who have trouble seeing past those big Division I college scholarships they foresee down the road; the coaches, all of whom, of course, want her to help their teams to various championships and glory; and the U.S. soccer establishment, which keeps setting up new levels of "elite" soccer without putting any rational limits on kids' play.

The U.S. soccer establishment is especially blameworthy. It's not enough that children start trying out for hyper-competitive travel soccer in the second grade (with many desperate parents throwing their first graders into the try-out mill). Kids are soon playing in multiple tournaments (which are huge money $$ makers), then trying out for more competitive Division 1 teams that compete in State Cup tournaments (more $$), then going out for state Olympic Development Program teams (subsidized by all those $$$). Meanwhile, schools have their own soccer teams, and their rules don't always mesh with those governing club teams.

And as if that weren't all enough, the soccer powers that be recently created yet another elite program, the Academy, where super competitive teams get even more play. The men's and women's national teams also have various age levels. Why anyone would think it wise to have a 15-year-old girl playing on any kind of "national" soccer team is beyond us, but at the rate things are going they'll soon have a national Pre-K team.

All of which adds up to WAY TOO MUCH soccer for the most competitive kids.

The soccer establishment has so many rules it will make your head spin. "Sign player cards in black ink only." "Freeze state cup rosters on such and such date." Yet they have no rules limiting the number of teams, games, and tournaments in which a child can play, all while serious injuries pile up.

It's time for the soccer adults to begin acting like adults. [But don't hold your breath.]

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