Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 10/02/2006

At What Age Do You Start Telling Your Kids that Life Is Unfa

This weekend, my older daughter’s soccer team was scheduled for the first game of the day on their field. Game time was 9:30 a.m., and the coach asked that players arrive 15 minutes early to warm up. My daughter and I were there at 9:07, arriving at the same time as the coach and his daughter. The other team already had a half-dozen girls on the field, running what looked to my untrained eye like some fairly sophisticated drills.

When did they arrive? I’d guess a half-hour before game time.

There was another problem with this team: They had some big girls. One, the coach’s daughter (according to one of the parents on our team), was a head taller than any player on my daughter’s squad. Parents who’d run up against them in past seasons described them as “the Soviet national team.”

Our community has a travel soccer team for girls my daughter’s age. So all the girls on her team either have no interest in travel soccer, or tried out and were cut. (I’ve been told that more than 50 girls tried out last spring.) The community fielding the other team doesn’t have travel soccer, so this was, in effect, their travel team. These girls play together under the same coach every season, fall and spring, and have done so for several years. One of the parents told me they practice twice a week, in addition to their extensive pre-game routine, while girls in our community program practice once a week.

But, more to the point, our community makes a distinction between travel soccer and intramural soccer. If you don’t want to play travel soccer, or try out and get cut, you play the game under conditions that don’t encourage serious competition. Players are randomly assigned to teams, so they never play with the same girls under the same coach in consecutive seasons. Everyone plays the exact same amount of time, to the best of the coaches’ ability to manage such a thing. Players change positions every quarter. Coaches are discouraged from stacking their best players on the front line to run up the score — in fact, there is no official score.

And that’s fine with me. The girls have fun, get exercise, and develop skills, and that’s all I care about.

But the problem on Saturday was that the other team was playing by different rules. They stacked their best players on their forward line, and kept the Jolly Green Giantess on the field the entire game. I don’t know how many goals she scored, but the game was a blowout, and she was the biggest reason. They also kept the same girl in goal, and although she didn’t seem nearly as talented as the team’s forwards, she was obviously their full-time keeper. Conversely, my daughter’s team uses whoever wants to play the position that day. In practice scrimmages, they don’t even use goalies.

I found myself getting angrier as the game went on. I didn’t resent the fact the other team was so much better — like I said, this is the way that community chooses to run its soccer program. Yes, it’s like a high school basketball team going up against a bunch of guys playing HORSE on a playground, but it’s been going on for years, and everyone seems okay with it.

What bothered me is that the other coach made no adjustments once the game was out of reach. It was 5-0 in the first quarter, and he kept that gigantic forward out there the entire game, letting her score at will. (He did put in subs for the other two forwards later in the game, which at least slowed down the scoring.)

Now, I tell you all this because of an incident in the third quarter. My daughter is probably the youngest player in the league (her birthday was just on the wrong side of the cutoff), which means the median player is a year older and some are nearly two years older. She’s also short for her age, which is exacerbated by the age gap. But she doesn’t care. She plays hard, particularly on defense.

So, in the third quarter, she was playing defense on the same side of the field as the Yeti. And, as is her custom, she was going right after the big girl, stopping her cold every time she put a foot on the ball. The other team ran the offense through their giant, so when Meredith tied her up, she in effect stopped their entire team.

After a few minutes of this, Meredith fell to the ground, holding her face. Play stopped, and I sprinted out onto the field. Meredith was sobbing, holding her nose. It wasn’t bleeding, but I’m sure everyone reading this knows what it feels like to get whacked right on the bridge, which is apparently what happened.

My daughter doesn’t normally take things that happen on the field personally. But in this case she was livid. Madame Maxime, she said, had elbowed her, and she’d done it on purpose. I’ll concede it may have happened in a scrum — Meredith’s aggressive defense really had tangled things up — but I was looking right at the play, and never saw what looked like an intentional shot.

Still:

Inside my head, I was screaming at the other coach. It didn’t matter if the elbow was deliberate. And it didn’t really matter that it was his kid who’d flattened my kid. I tell my kids every week that bumps and bruises are part of the game, and that they should never play with fear of getting hurt. I wanted to know why that coach still had that enormous child playing forward when his team had already scored in double digits.

But I didn’t say anything, then or later. I think that was the right choice. Even if I’d confronted the other coach after the game, I would’ve been too angry to state my case with any sophistication.

And let’s face it: A guy who runs up the score in an intramural soccer game played by eight- and nine-year-olds doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks.

No amateurs allowed

The L.A. Times has a story this morning on a related problem in youth sports — there are fewer varsity teams in high schools, and those teams are dominated by kids who’re already training like professional athletes:

Adults may remember the days when high schools provided freshman-sophomore teams, “B” teams and intramural sports programs in addition to the varsity and junior varsity squads. The array of teams provided opportunities for kids of various levels of skill and dedication.

Schools today, however, have too few financial resources to support a broad menu of sports opportunities. Moreover, many community-run recreational leagues, which take all comers regardless of ability, do not offer programs for kids older than 14, expecting that students will advance to their high school teams. One 1997 report published in the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports Research Digest, however, estimated that restrictions on team membership in high school reduced the total number of participants by 50 percent from the pre-high school level.

“Typically, most schools have a varsity and JV team,” West says. “In certain sports, there will be a third level. But you used to see three to five levels of teams in many sports. We would love to provide that. What restricts us the most are facilities. We don’t have the number of fields necessary to have four soccer teams for boys and four for girls.”

The disappearance of freshman-sophomore teams in many schools has contributed to fervent competition for the few open slots on JV or varsity teams, Svare says.

Here’s something even scarier than that: Another parent at the game told me that the JV girls’ soccer team at our local high school consists almost entirely of girls he coached on a travel soccer team throughout their pre-high school years. Travel soccer, he added, tends to have self-perpetuating rosters. Coaches picks their players when they’re eight or nine, and they stick with mostly the same roster until the girls get to high school. Then those girls form the high school’s JV, and later graduate to varsity.

In other words, if a girl doesn’t make the travel team when she’s eight or nine, she can forget about playing in high school.

I’m sure there are exceptions. I assume the coach was exaggerating a bit. And I’ll guess it doesn’t work that way in every community and every high school. But I also suspect he was telling me something that could be backed up by statistics — that, in many sports, the best athletes get separated from the rest years before they hit puberty.