A piece by Michael Sokolove called "How a Soccer Star is Made" in the New York Times Magazine is a must-read article for sports parents, not just for the fascinating glimpse it provides into the way a famous Dutch soccer club grooms athletes for pro careers but because it exposes serious flaws in the way the American youth sports system develops talent.
Sokolove, the author of Warrior Girls (a terrific book from a few years back about the injury epidemic among young female athletes), writes about the youth academy of the famed Dutch soccer club, Ajax, where players as young as seven (and scouted as young as five!) are groomed in what is literally a "talent factory" for future stardom in the world's most popular sport, soccer (or, as everyone but Americans call it, football).
Memories of Scotland
Reading the article brought back memories of the summer when I took a U-14 boys' soccer team to a tournament in St. Andrews, Scotland. Ajax sent a team. Because it was a U-16 team, my memory about them is a bit fuzzy; all I remember was how their players didn't talk to any of the players on other teams, and how, when they went into the town, they marched as if they were in a military parade!
What I remember more clearly is that one of the teams that our boys had to face was from San Paolo, Brazil and was affiliated with the world-renowned Italian powerhouse, Juventus. Even at age 13 and 14, the Juventus players, just as the Ajax players Sokolove writes about, were already essentially professionals, even to the point of knowing how to "sell" a foul to the referee (and perhaps win a yellow card against the fouling player) by writhing on the ground in feigned agony. Not only did the football-knowledgeable Scots find the antics of the Juventus star forward very amusing, but they had the last laugh when a team from a nearby Scottish town ended up beating the heavily-favored Brazilians in a penalty-kick shootout in the U-14 finals.
The Juventus players, many of whom undoubtedly came from the notorious slums of San Paulo and viewed soccer as the way out of poverty, weren't being paid to play, of course, but they might as well been: the training, the coaching, the travel was, I am sure, all free. (Needless to say, our team and the parents had to pay their way to Scotland). As was to be expected, Juventus knocked the stuffing out of our team in the first game of the tournament (I don't think we were able to get the ball past midfield), but it was fascinating to watch how deadly serious the Juventus players went about their "business": how carefully they chose their food at the cafeteria, avoiding anything their nutritionist might view as junk food, the way they left their soccer boots outside their rooms at night to be cleaned for the next day's games or practices.
Some key differences
But while Sokolove opens a window into a sports culture and a way of developing athletic talent that most in America would find very foreign, he also points out some fundamental problems in the way America grooms athletic talent in its youth sports system. No doubt because they are arguments I have been making for years, several of the key differences he highlights between European and American youth sports really resonated with me:
-- Games-based practices and fewer of them: In all age groups, training at Ajax largely consisted of small-sided (four-on-four) games and drills on small fields in which players move quickly and kick the ball very hard at each other at close range. While such drills are more typically part of a pre-practice warm-up in the U.S, the exercises at Ajax, which are designed to maximize "touches" (e.g. contact with the ball), are "the main event." A games-based approach to practices is something I used when I was a soccer coach and been advocating for years.
-- Better balance between sports and family. Up to age 12, Ajax players only train three times a week and play only one game on the weekend; only by age 15 are they practicing five times a week. "For the young ones, we think that is enough," the director of the Ajax academy, Jan Olde Reikerink, told Sokolove. "They have a private life, a family life. We don't want to take that from that from them. When they are not with us, they play on the streets. They play with their friends. Sometimes that's more important. They have the ball at their feet without anyone telling them what to do."
I couldn't have said it better myself: as I have been saying for years, youth sports in America has become so all-consuming that there is no time for kids, or their parents, to have a life outside of sports, and that is definitely not a good thing. We need to restore some balance for families so that, occasionally, they can take a family vacation somewhere that doesn't end up being five soccer games in three days. As Reikerink says, sometimes it is more important for kids to have time for free, unstructured play.
-- Fewer overuse injuries. While Sokolove expressed surprise that the Ajax players did not practice more hours or play more games, I wasn't the least surprised by the reason given by a father of one 15-year-old player: "[B]ecause they do not want to do anything to injure them or wear them out." In other words, Ajax wanted to guard against exactly the kind of overuse injuries that all too many of America's kids are suffering these days from playing on too many teams, in too many games, and from playing a single sport season after season without a break to rest their growing bodies. Practices and games at Ajax are limited because the academy, as a business, views the players as "capital" that it needs to protect, so later they can reap a huge return on that investment by selling the players to other football clubs for millions of euros in transfer fees. Our kids deserve no less protection against overuse injuries. After all, they our country's capital for its future - if only in the metaphorical sense.
-- Fewer games. Sokolove also states the obvious when he observes that "Americans place a higher value on competition than on practice, so the balance between games and practices in the U.S. is skewed when compared to the rest of the world." As he writes, "It's not unusual for a teenager in the U.S. to play 100 more games in a season, for two or three different teams, leaving little time for training and little energy for it in the infrequent moments it occurs. A result is that the development of our best players is stunted."
Nothing new here either, of course, but a point well worth repeating. I have been saying for years that the ridiculous number of games our kids play - along with the out-of-control emphasis on winning - ends up hurting, not helping player development. Nice to know that I am not the only voice crying in the wilderness: as John Hackworth, former coach of the U.S. under-17 national team and current youth-development coordinator for the Philadelphia franchise in Major League Soccer told Sokolove, "As [a player] gets older, the game count just keeps increasing. It's counterproductive to learning and the No. 1 worst thing we do."
Why so many games? Sokolov doesn't exactly pinpoint the reason, but hints at the answer in Hackworth's observation that "[a]s soon as a kid here starts playing, he's got referees on the field and parents watching in lawn chairs." In other words, the older kids get, the more they play games and the less they practice, not because it is good for their development - because it isn't - but because it provides free or low-cost entertainment (and, let's face it, ego gratification) for all those parents watching from the stands or camped out in lawn chairs - parents who wouldn't think about sitting through a boring two-hour practice where there are no winners or losers, but who are more than happy to watch their son or daughter score goals, baskets, or hit home runs in games that matter in the win-loss column and on the stat sheet.
A flawed system
Soccer isn't by any means alone in utilizing this flawed system. As Sokolove also correctly points out, the "way we approach youth soccer in the U.S. is no more thoughtless than how we groom talent in baseball or basketball. All the same syndromes apply. Overplay. Too little practice. The courting of injuries - for example, the spate of elbow operations for pitchers in their midteens brought on by coaches who leave them on the mound for too many innings."
The challenge is to move towards a youth sports system in this country capable of simultaneously producing athletic talent without increasingly exposing our kids to overuse injuries and burnout, and without abandoning America's fundamentally democratic view of sports, one in which we, as Sokolove says, "celebrate the ‘self-made athlete,' honor effort and luck and let children seek their own course for as long as they can - even when it means living with dreams that are unattainable and always were."
I agree with Sokolove that to adopt the European-based model of club-financed training, where no one pretends that its business is other than what it is, clashes with American sensibilities and "can look uncomfortably like the trafficking of child athletes," if not the economic exploitation of children banned under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (which, ironically, has been ratified by every country in the world except the United States and Somalia). But at the same time, the excessive training and number of games that is often required of elite youth athletes in this country might well be considered child abuse under four articles of that same convention.
Less is more
So what's our alternative? It's not like youth sports in this country isn't already big business. It's not like youth sports in this country is any more child-friendly than Ajax in promoting through the ranks those athletes considered, rightly and in some cases wrongly, to be the talented ones deserving of more playing time, while cutting the rest. We just aren't nearly as up front about it as the Dutch, clinging to the notion that youth sports in this country is something other than the cut-throat, merciless, results-oriented, dare I say, business that Sokolove says prevails in Europe and the rest of the world.
Which is a better system: one in which a club makes a business decision not to "throw money after pure fantasy, encouraging visions of pro careers that never have a chance of materializing for children who do not have the foundational talent to reach such goals," or one in which individual parents are encouraged by those with a vested interest in nurturing those visions (e.g. coaches, sports camps, private instructors, and strength and conditioning trainers) to do precisely that: invest enormous sums of their own money in their child's athletic career, risking burnout, permanent disability from a torn ACL, or lifelong cognitive impairment from too many concussions, in the hopes that their child will be the one in a million holding a pot of gold at the end of the youth sports rainbow?
This doesn't mean that there aren't elements of the European model of youth sports that would make a difference: a games-based approach to practices, fewer practices, fewer games, a better balance between practices and games, and more emphasis on preventing overuse injuries (a problem that might very well take care of itself if there were fewer practices and games).
Whether it will ever happen in an America that has become a society of excess, in which everything is super-sized (now, sadly, including our oil spills), in a youth sports culture in which there is more of everything: practices, games, tournaments, competition, select teams, travel, media coverage, money, burnout, and injuries, and which the only thing there is less of is kids having fun and just being allowed to be kids - in other words, where the youth sports model is less, not more, and where even elite youth athletes have a life outside of sports - is impossible to predict.
But it won't stop me and many other reform advocates from working every day to do what we can to help see it happen.
Brooke de Lench is the author of HOME TEAM ADAVANTAGE: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (Harper Collins) and the publisher of MomsTeam.com