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Soccer in America: Are We Losing the Joy of Playing the Game? By: Christine Mosher, LICSW

Soccer in America today is so different than when I was a kid. I started playing soccer when I was in seventh grade. It was the first girls team in my small town of Foxboro, Massachusetts. My first coach was a mother of one of the girls on the team, and she knew nothing about soccer, or much about any sport, for that matter. But she wanted to help her daughter learn to play, so she got a book out of the library and taught herself about the game of soccer.

The only thing I can remember that she taught us, which was drilled into our heads was, “Point your toe where you want the ball to go!” Later, when I actually learned the correct way to kick a soccer ball, I realized that this isn’t necessarily true! But it didn’t matter then. What mattered was that we had fun playing soccer. We may not have had the most technical or accurate instruction way back then, but we had a coach and a group of girls who were willing to learn and had a great time doing so.

Today, kids start playing soccer as young as 4-years-old. They are given uniforms and equipment, are put on teams and have practices during the week, have games on the weekends and trophies at the end of their season. They are told that it’s not important what the score is at the end of the game, but they are cheered on (or yelled at) by their parents on the sidelines, and goals, even on empty nets, are celebrated like one has just won the World Cup! I asked one of my current clients, a 9-year-old boy, what he likes about playing soccer. He said he likes scoring goals, because his parents pay him a dollar for every goal he gets. Really?

As they get older, kids playing soccer get ranked and put on to A-teams or B-teams based on their abilities. I was asked to help a town club team during their tryouts one year. I had a clipboard with the list of 8 and 9 year old players who were trying out. I had to follow the kids around as they dribbled through cones, sprinted up and down the field, making passes, taking shots…and rank them on their skills. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like that kids so young had this pressure on them to perform, and I didn’t like the fact that some kids were going to feel like crap when they found out that they weren’t good enough to make the A-team.

The pressure keeps mounting for kids who continue to play youth soccer, on club teams, and eventually in high school and college. There are summer camps, private coaching, club teams, weekend tournaments, hotel rooms to book, uniforms to pay for, equipment to buy each year as the player grows…It becomes so expensive and stressful to play soccer! The expectations on kids are so high. It just takes the fun out of the game.

By the time kids graduate high school, many soccer players are burnt out and just want to be done. Some have used their soccer successes as a way of getting into a good college. The pressure for kids to keep playing a sport throughout their youth is on, whether the kid wants to keep playing or not. Some are fortunate enough to play at the college level. When I found out I was chosen to play at Boston College, I was beyond thrilled! I was going to be able to play the sport I loved at a prestigious school, and close enough to home so that my parents could come watch me play. I had a great experience playing college soccer, and made some lifelong friends with my soccer teammates. I didn’t feel pressured to play, it was something I wanted and loved to do.

Today, college soccer players are expected to make a year-round commitment to their sport. They have summer training schedules, show up a few weeks before school starts to start their fall season with double or even triple sessions, play 2-3 games a week for 4 months, then when the season’s over, they are expected to keep up their training, doing weights and cardio and nutrition education. In the winter, they have to be available for indoor training and tournaments. In the spring, competition starts up again and the stress level rises again. And oh, yeah, go to class! It’s way too much. By the time soccer players graduate from college, they are burnt out. There is so much pressure from coaches, parents, and even themselves to succeed and achieve, it can cause anxiety and depression in many athletes. And for most, the love of the game is gone. It is no longer something to do for fun, it becomes a chore. Many players walk away from the game.

In my research for this presentation, I read many articles and interviewed several of my former teammates, coaches, and some current players. What I learned was that soccer today has become too parent driven. My friend Cathy Murphy, age 55, who I played soccer with at both Foxboro High School and Boston College, says, “parents are trying to live vicariously through their kids.” She stated, “When I wanted to start playing soccer, it was something I had to ask my parents to sign me up for because I wanted to play. Now, parents just sign up their kids, whether they want to play or not.”

One of my former soccer coaches from B.C., Peter Counsell, age 66, agrees. “When I was growing up there was little parental involvement in soccer. Today, parents are over-involved. We didn’t really have much instruction back then, but we had a lot of fun.”

Another former high school teammate and Harvard soccer player, Debbie Field, also understood the joy of the game. Debbie stated she originally wanted to play football as a little girl, but her mother steered her toward soccer. She grew to love it, and played as much as she could, even kicking stones on the ground as if they were soccer balls on her way home from school.

Besides having too much parental involvement now, another theme that emerged from my research was that playing soccer in has become very expensive. Former US goalkeeper Hope Solo said that soccer in America has become a “rich, white kid sport” and that the sport’s high cost at the youth level is detrimental to the game. US soccer legend Landon Donovan has also commented on the high cost of playing soccer in America. He said, “soccer has become a sport that only wealthy people can play. If you’re a parent who makes $30,000, $40,000 a year, how can you possibly afford to pay $3,000-$4,000 for your kid to play soccer?” (USA Today, Scott Gleeson, 6/28/18).

The problem with this is that the high cost of soccer may be excluding many kids who are talented and interested in playing the game, but can’t afford to do so. Rick Eckstein, Professor of Sociology at Villanova University, has been writing about “the commercialization of youth soccer and a system that excludes low-income and non suburban families from participating at the same rate as higher income families. (Until Youth Soccer is Fixed, US Men’s National Team is Destined to Fail, Rick Eckstein, 10/13/17). He states that the current system breeds the best payers, not necessarily the best players. According to his research, “family income is highly correlated with youth soccer participation. About 25% of American families have incomes over $100,000 annually, yet they produce 35% of youth soccer players. Conversely, the 25% of families who have incomes below $25,000 account for only 13% of youth soccer players.”

Why is this happening? Well, apparently the club system is taking over soccer in America. It used to be that college coaches would actually attend kids’ high school games to do their recruiting. Now, college coaches go to organized club tournament events to find their select players. Kids as young as 9 or 10 are now pressured to play on club teams, which cost money, if they really want to compete at a higher level. My question is, why? Why do we need kids that young to compete at a higher level? Why can’t they just play for fun? Professor Eckstein agrees. “Youth sports should be fun in and of itself, not an expensive pathway to some next level.”

Megan McGoldrick, a former Boston University soccer player, now age 27, started playing soccer at age 4 in Reading, MA. She started club in 5th grade so she could play at a higher level. In middle school, she played soccer 3 out of 4 seasons, but she also played other sports, like basketball and lacrosse. Megan said that sometimes trying to fit all that in was difficult, but it was still fun. “Playing soccer on the club level was a road to being able to play in college.” In high school, her club team practiced 4 times a week, plus tournaments on the weekends. “It was stressful, but I wanted it.” By the time she got to college the stress level began to rise as play became more competitive and a high level of performance was expected.

Megan started to get burnt out from soccer during her freshman year of college. She felt the stress of trying to keep up her high level of soccer while also trying to keep up with her school work. She felt pressure to make sure she was playing well enough to keep contributing to the team, she felt anxious about losing her starting position, and she felt worried about losing her scholarship…and then she tore her ACL. Ugh! It was during her year off of having surgery and recover that she was actually able to slow down and regain her appreciation for the game. Two years after graduating college, Megan has not returned to playing soccer. Due to her work schedule and ongoing knee pain, she has hung up her cleats for now. Age 27, and done.

And this is the next problem of soccer in America. Kids are getting burnt out. And injured. And losing their passion for the game. According to Timothy Neal, Assistant Professor/Clinical Education Coordinator at Concordia University Ann Arbor, too much sport “can create for the athlete, a condition of chronic stress physically and mentally.”

He writes, “The attitude of more is better in terms of constant activity in a quest for individual or team success is prevalent in today’s sports world, starting at the youth level and continuing through the secondary school and collegiate levels. Interestingly, professional sports have in place…mandated time off for the athletes to recover from the rigors of their season.” Professor Neal suggests that “rest, including 7-8 hours sleep per night, and time away from sport, are the two best methods to prevent and treat athlete burnout.” (Burnout in Athletes, NATA Now, 4/19/16, Beth Sitzler blog).

I have a passion for soccer. After college, I continued playing in women’s leagues in the Boston area. When I moved to the Cape and there was no women’s soccer, I started an indoor league to teach “soccer moms” how to play. Later, I created the Cape Cod Women’s Soccer League, the area’s first recreational league for women’s soccer. It was open to women of all levels of ability. And it was fun. We had a great time, even though some of the players were beginners. It didn’t matter, we were playing for the love of the game.

My concern for soccer in America is that there are many kids who are coming up through the youth programs that are pushed to play by their parents, because everyone else in town is signing their kids up to play, and it becomes more of a way for parents to socialize than it does for creating a positive learning environment for children learning a new sport. Kids are feeling pressured to compete, perform and achieve at such a young age. It’s not healthy. It’s not fair to the kids. And it needs to change. But how? How can we put a stop to the soccer culture that exists today in America? How can we stop creating mini-soccer robots and instead create a better learning experience for kids who just want to play soccer for the fun of it?

There’s a new book out called Shoeless Soccer written by Carlo Celli and Nathan Richardson. They talk about “Free-Range” soccer, advocating for teaching the basics and then just letting kids play, keeping the parents’ influence out of the game. Kids were given freedom to try their own moves, and were allowed to be creative in their play. And guess what? They played great, and they had fun! And the parents were actually more relaxed, as well. (Something is Drastically Wrong with Youth Soccer, Say Two Dedicated Coaches, 5/11/18).

As social workers, there are some things we can do to help…

Treat - Provide psychotherapy for athletes suffering from injury, stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harming behaviors…common problems for many athletes.

Educate - Educate parents, soccer league coordinators, high schools and colleges, coaches, athletic directors, trainers…about the downside of too much soccer, too much training, too much competition, too much pressure and the impact it has on kids.

Create - Opportunities for young soccer players to learn the game, learn skills, and just have fun without the pressure of competition and year-round training.

Promote - The idea that soccer is supposed to be fun, in and of itself, and not a means to an end of achieving some preconceived notion of success or a path for one’s future.

Advocate - For athletes to be able to play other sports and participate in other non-sport activities that contribute to their overall physical and mental health.

Support - Programs and organizations that recognize these concepts and utilize them in positive ways that help support the healthy development and overall well-being of soccer players, such as Soccer Without Borders, The U.S. Soccer Foundation, Fugees Family, and the YMCA.

Soccer Without Borders: Provides opportunities for children of different cultures healthy ways to integrate into America using soccer as a way of creating friendships and building confidence. “We aim to build a more inclusive world through soccer; using soccer as a vehicle for positive change, providing under-served youth a toolkit to overcome obstacles to growth, inclusion and personal success.”

The US Soccer Foundation: Creates “Safe Places to Play” and builds mini-pitches in neighborhoods around the country to promote youth soccer. “Committed to helping young people embrace an active and healthy lifestyle, using soccer to cultivate critical life skills that pave the path to a better future.”

Fugees Family: Creates educational and soccer playing opportunities for refugees at Fugees Academy. “Leveling the Playing Field for young refugees. Through a commitment to education and high expectations, both in the classroom and on the pitch, we’ve impacted the lives of hundreds of refugee families.”

YMCA: “Y Sports programs focus on fun, teaching kids sport-specific skills while helping them grow personally by clarifying values such as sportsmanship and fair play.”

In conclusion, the ideas I’ve shared with you have been based on soccer, because this is the game that I love; it is my passion. But I think these insights can transfer to most youth sports in America today, and we need to be mindful of how soccer and other sports, which are supposed to be a positive thing, can actually have a negative impact on young athletes and their futures. So, as fellow social workers, let’s see what we can do to try and help change the system, and let’s keep the joy in the game.

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