Early Specialization in Youth Soccer – A “Catch 22”

As a fitness professional, youth club staff member, and soccer dad, I hear ALL sides of the discussions about “early specialization in youth sports across the U.S.” While this trend affects many youth sports, this dilemma as it pertains to the American soccer landscape is the most interesting in my opinion. FACT– The U.S. is behind the rest of the world in technical ability, tactical competency, and situational soccer awareness compared to our competition across the world. FACT – The ONLY way to narrow this gap is for our youth..our children… the future of U.S. Men’s & Women’s Soccer is to play…and play more. FACT – The U.S has highest rate of youth obesity in the world…by far!!! FACT– There are 7 days in a week, and 24 hours in a day. In order to gain clarity about our position on youth soccer specialization, we’ll examine these facts mixed with a few opinions and hopefully arrive at sensible conclusions.

The facts mentioned above are dilemmas that are constantly discussed and appraised by US youth club directors, soccer coaches, and youth sports’ specialists across the country (other than the chronological explanation of the 24/7 limitation on time available for playing, training, etc). Noted experts cite that our system is “upside down…in that families must pay to play youth soccer…and the ultimate goal is to get a college scholarship.” Upon being named USMNT Coach, Jurgen Klinsmann asked parents, coaches, and players to identify “where do we want to go?” This is the ultimate question in terms of a child’s youth sports experience. The answer to THIS question ultimately determines the path which leads our youth to their appropriate goal. As the youth embarks on this journey of being a footballer, one assumption must be guaranteed – the child is a WILLING participant who LOVES the game! Anything short of these two conditions is a recipe for youth sports disaster, burnout, “I QUIT”, etc. We must remember that soccer isnt a SPORT…but a GAME…. which our kids are playing. Do you think the player in the video below (walking around the exhibit hall at the NSCAA convention) is overworked, overtrained or being pushed to play?

Now that we’ve identified some conditions and gotten a lay of the US youth soccer landscape, let’s follow this path:

  • Soccer is a game that places emphasis on a player’s physical conditioning as well as a player’s soccer skills. None of the major sports demand such a balance
    between aerobic, anaerobic fitness, and sport-specific skills.
  • A skill is something that can only be improved by practicing & refining THAT skill in a deliberate fashion (i.e. you get better at dribbling by dribbling…not by heading the ball) (PS – See The Talent Code)
  • Soccer is not only the World’s Game but also the sport of choice for kids throughout the world.
  • Youth sports related injuries in the United States are at an ALL-TIME high
  • Youth obesity in the United States is at an ALL-TIME high
  • The cause for this rapid increase in youth sports related injuries is the rigorous training schedule and consistent practices that they’re obviously not participating in because the vast majority of US youth are unfit & unskilled in comparison to their Brazilian, German, and Spanish counterparts???? If our kids are not as skilled or fit as those in other countries that are playing the exact same sport – SOCCER; then I don’t see how EARLY SPORT SPECIALIZATION is the problem!
  • The problem is laying sport-specificity on top of a doughy foundation of fitness, strength, and overall athleticism. This combination equals burnout & injury.

In general, the above points show that our youth soccer culture is OVERpopulated with UNDERmoved and UNDERplayed children who are consequently UNDERskilled and therefore become OVERpracticed to “develop” in a sport that is generally UNDERappreciated across the country (doesnt sound like much fun to me???). Ultimately, this slippery slope of underexposed youth with overbearing coach/parent is the problem!

Whether we serve as youth sports, fitness professionals, or parents, we must put the long-term physical & mental health of our little athletes above all else. It’s our job to set them up to be successful.

At SoccerFIT, we try to show them that F.I.T. is FUN!

Comments

3 Comments
  1. Tristan’s post brings up some very good points on the state of the game in the US…

    1) Are kids getting OVERuse injuries because they are UNDERprepared?
    2) Do we push kids into early technical specialization without the physical specialization to have success?
    3) Should we let them play more and work less?

  2. The question is is this kid going to play with the same passion 10 to 12 Years later. Soccer and basketball are sports that if you are good you played as a kid for fun for hours. In that process for hours you were with friends , no parents , no over bearing coaches, and no unrealistic pressure to win but only to perform.

    You can’t pay to play and wonder why the US doesn’t perform well….you have to grow up with it, it’s like baseball just go out and play it.

  3. In a perfect world we would have neighborhoods of kids that play for fun and make up small, creative games based on the number of players, space and level of aptitude. That’s what we did on driveway basketball courts growing up. But pay to play has set things in motion that cannot be stopped. All we can hope to do now is adapt and integrate play into our existing programs. Our program, although primarily “training” driven, strives to also provide an environment of free play that allows players to learn in a semi structured format. Not perfect, but doing the best we can.

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