Why Coaches Are Quitting Youth Sports
(By guest contributor Sheri McLaughlin)
My coach’s heart finally broke last week. I say “finally” because it has been a long time coming.
I first started coaching the beautiful game of soccer when I was 16 years old at the local rec center. I was asked to work with the little ones on the basics – dribbling, trapping, passing, and shooting. These skills, what they’re called and how they’re taught have changed a lot over the years, but my love for the game and the kids eager to learn had not, until last week.
I started playing soccer when I was 5 years old. At that time there were no clubs, exorbitant registration fees or traveling to out-of-state tournaments. There were also NO GIRLS. I wanted to play soccer, so for two years I played with the boys on our local AYSO team. Practices were no more than twice a week and took place at whatever local park was close to your home. Games were only on Saturdays and we were given one jersey with a number between 1 and 14. You got whatever number matched up with your last name in alphabetical order and no matter what it was, you displayed it with pride, because it was yours. We were 5 years old, played 11 vs. 11 for a full 90 minutes, sucked on orange slices at half time and could not get enough!
Soon more girls drank the Gatorade (ha!) and before long we had enough teams to play in our own league. Well-intentioned, kind-hearted moms and dads took on the role of coach and each season (which only lasted 3 months out of the year), you had a whole new team. This system allowed time for participating in other sports. If you love a sport so much you are allowed to miss it, there is a lot less burn out. These coaches, who made a long and lasting impression on us were volunteers and never got paid one cent to give of their valuable time and energy. I’ve always believed the one true constant in life is change. Each new season meant meeting and making new friends and coaches working to mesh different personalities and skill levels into a team. It was an exciting venture.
Fast forward many thrilling soccer seasons and we were now in high school where the boys had a soccer team and the girls did not. This was 1991, people – not the dark ages as you would presume!!! We fought the school board for our right to play the game we were so passionate about and an entire year passed. Our cleats collected dust in the corner. Our scabbed knees healed. We joined clubs or played other sports, but our hearts ached for our game. My sophomore year it was decided the school board was in violation of Title IX and we were given the right to form girls’ soccer teams in our high schools. VICTORY.
High school soccer was literally a dream come true, but the same old problem reared its ugly head when college rolled around. My local college had no women’s team. I was forced to move out of state. I reminded myself the only true constant is change.
If I had to choose one thing in my life that defines who I am to my core, it would be my college soccer experience. I sat the bench my entire freshman year except maybe 10 minutes, all while putting in 6-hour days of weight lifting, speed training, nutrition talks, grade checks, random drug tests, practice, travel and putting up with difficult personalities. Oh, I had to attend classes too! My college soccer career also included lifelong friendships, conference championships, begging for stretch breaks in double overtimes, playing against some of my national team idols and immeasurable respect for my coaches. There are certain moments in certain games where time slowed and the beauty of executing a perfectly set play with my teammates is ingrained in my mind forever. There is nothing more glorious than those moments and nothing more heart-wrenching than when you gave it everything you had and came up short. I am nothing after those five years in college if not a survivor.
Fast forward a few more years and I find myself the mother of two kids who want to try my beloved sport. Little did I know their experience in the soccer world would be vastly different than mine. Let’s just say, I stopped coaching my son when he turned nine because he told me it was weird having his mom for a coach no matter how much experience I had. Fair enough! After about three years of strange looks, I was tired of people questioning why I was coaching boys anyway. Like it should even matter, right? So … I started coaching my girl. At this time, I also started coaching a girls’ JV high school soccer team.
So now I am coaching two teams: one in a club that goes year-round with two sessions of indoor, and one at the high school level that goes 4 months out of the year 6 days a week. I now balance my big girl job, a traveling husband, two children and two teams. I would love to tell you that my family gets the most of my time and energy, but that is a lie. I would love to tell you that we don’t eat out 4-5 times a week, but that is a lie. I would love to tell you that I have gone on a real vacation in the last 3 years, but that is a lie. I would love to tell you that I get compensation for my time, but I don’t. I would love to tell you that parents are appreciative of my time, but most could care less. The saddest part of all? I would love to tell you that kids love playing soccer as much as I did as a kid, but they don’t, and THEY NEVER WILL. Why? Why is our youth sports culture so messed up? Why is the joy missing from the game?
The answer is multi-faceted and complicated but boils down to one factor – money. Clubs formed and some slick salesman started talking in parents’ ears about what a little bit of money could get their child. They might promise better coaches, tournament exposure leading to college scholarships, top-of-the-line gear proved to enhance performance, etc. They put the fear in parents about little Johny being left behind if he doesn’t specialize early, go to practice 5 times a week and travel out of state to be seen by scouts. Youth sports aren’t about the kids anymore and good coaches and sane parents know it. So, who is left? Who is running the show? I’m sorry to say, but it’s the slick salesmen and their empty promises. It’s the club-hopping parents ruled by fear willing to yank their kids from every team they encounter until the wins start rolling in. It’s the club presidents that say it’s about providing a “more quality experience” while they rake in the profits. Soon even good coaches feel so much pressure to get those wins that they start losing sleep, yelling at the kids in frustration and even they start being ruled by fear. Fear of losing their players to more successful teams. Fear of not keeping up with a sports culture that has lost sight of friendship, learning through making mistakes, and fun. Yes, sports should be FUN!
I have seen it all. I have heard it all. I have seen U-8 teams win games 18-0. Any decent coach knows that is absurd. I have seen parents yank their child off the bench and scream expletives in coaches’ faces over playing time. I have seen parents on the sideline chest bump other spectators, threatening violence and having the police called in. I’ve been yelled at, talked down to, told I’m a crusher of children’s souls. I’ve begged for guidance from my club president only to have my emails ignored. I’ve had my players poached by other clubs clearly in violation of the rules and told there is nothing that can be done. I’ve heard coaches tell their players not to shake hands with my team members after they beat us. Did you catch that? AFTER THEY BEAT US! I’ve seen a steady rise in overuse injuries in kids who shouldn’t be thinking about surgery recovery and physical therapy. All of these things bring huge amounts of stress and through it all I’ve closed my eyes and repeated my mantra to myself three times: “I coach for the kids. I coach for the kids. I coach for the kids.” That was always enough … until last week.
I was eating lunch with a trusted friend and confidant, whose child I have coached for the last 4 years. It was suggested to me that the only reason I coach is to selfishly secure a spot for my own children on their teams. That was all it took. The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, and the statement that broke my coach’s heart into a million little pieces. Of course I coach my own children, because I love them and coaching was a way to spend time with them and share their lives and the game that helped form who I am. But what about the hundreds of other children I have coached since that first day at the rec center 26 years ago? Coaches don’t coach for selfish reasons, at least good coaches don’t. Good coaches coach because they themselves had great coaches who never asked for anything in return. Coaches coach because they want to give back. Coaches coach because they want to play a small part in a child’s life and leave a lasting positive impression.
My advice to parents? Read. Watch. Give thanks.
Read every article you can get your hands on regarding early specialization, overuse injuries, burn out and the actual percentages of scholarships given in your child’s chosen sport. Watch every video online from credited sources and college/professional coaches outlining your role in your child’s sports life. And for Pete’s sake – don’t talk playing time, pick fights or question the motives of your child’s coach. If they are a good person trying their best to do right by your child, just give thanks and call it a day.