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Jeff Ward: What Happened to Sportsmanship in Youth Soccer?

Or, "If Coaching Doesn't Make Me Stronger, It Just Might Kill Me!"

Of all the experiences I thought would put me in an early grave, I never considered it would be this one.

Column writing? Nope! It certainly has it’s challenges, but even the thought of a rogue reader couldn’t keep me from doing it. Running a small business? It’s not easy these days, but it’s still better than having a boss.

Give up? It’s coaching youth soccer. I’m convinced that endeavor will be the death of me yet. And that early expiration almost came last weekend.

You see, in addition to coaching travel soccer, every winter I put together a indoor recreational team. Since some of my travel players do participate, I also bring in former rec players and play up a level. Though a U14 team should consists of eighth-graders and high school freshman, our team is made up of seventh- and sixth-graders.

I’m no saint, but I believe that teaching my young charges the concepts of sportsmanship and fair play is even more important than turning them into high school soccer players. The problem is, I’m beginning to believe I’m the last coach that feels that way.

As we’re lining up to play our first indoor game, I noticed the opposing team’s smallest player was taller than our biggest player.

Even worse, five minutes into the first half I realized we were facing off against a high-level travel team. By the end of the half, we were down 5-0. Though I’ll give that coach credit for calling off the dogs in the second half, even that kind of reasonability is becoming rare.

After the game, I discovered that, to avoid the fate they were all too happy to mete out to us, four travel teams with poor outdoor records had signed up for the indoor rec league. It’s not illegal, but those coaches won’t be winning any good sportsmanship awards, either.

So once again, I had to give the boys the “life isn’t fair” lecture.

I say “once again” because when it comes to club travel soccer, despite my expectations for my fellow man sitting at an all-time low, I am consistently disappointed by the choices of adult males. And this stark realization comes after just one travel season.

For example, any travel team that falls under the auspices of the Northern Illinois Soccer League (NISL) can bring in guest players from their club for any game. The intent was so that teams left shorthanded by injuries and absences wouldn’t have to forfeit a game.

But instead, shoving the spirit of the rule right out the window, many coaches bring in higher-level club players to boost their winning percentage. My travel team routinely went down by double digits at the hands of teams that were supposed to be in our lower bracket. They simply brought in ringers to win.

The tournaments are hosted by these same soccer clubs. Parents cough up a sizeable chunk of change and look forward to what should be a fun weekend only to discover that the organizers, short of participants, have moved your team several levels up in the competition. So you get destroyed in three games and go home.

Rather than be forthright and give the lower level team the opportunity to withdraw, they only look after their bottom line.

And the referees are hired by the clubs. Far more often than not, at away games, it’s like competing against a 12th player. Before you accuse me of knocking the men and women in the stripes, I’ve refereed every sport known to humankind, and I know exactly what good refereeing looks like. These clubs will use any angle to win games.

Let’s not forget the paid club travel coaches who make Bobby Knight look like a Quaker because their livelihood depends on winning. I’ve seen paid coaches throw clipboards around, act like spoiled brats and bark at 13-year-old girls for 45-straight minutes because they only beat us 2-0.

The kicker is, you can’t take these inequities up with NISL, because the folks who run the league also run the Sockers—the largest soccer club in Illinois, covering all of Patchland. Because the Sockers know they can get away with it, they embody the worst of the behavior I’ve described here.

For example, every time we played a Sockers' team twice, with their rotating guest players, it was like playing two different teams.

An insider told me it’s like dealing with the Mafia. NISL makes the rules that benefit the Sockers and then they enforce them. The other clubs have two choices. They can either "take it like a man," and then the parents grumble about all the losses or, if they want to compete, bring in their own higher level players, and then the parents complain about lack of playing time.

And just like it is with all dysfunctional families, if a coach dares to speak out, you immediately get branded as a troublemaker, which means more guest players, higher tournament seeding, and referees that really have it in for you. I’m going to be real popular after this column!

Silly me! I thought youth soccer was supposed to be about the kids! This whole thing would almost funny if this stacking-the-deck-to-win-at-all-costs attitude didn’t rub right off on the young players.

Ironically, though we’ve had our moments and they’re far from perfect, the club I coach for, the Tri-Cities Soccer Association, is head and shoulders above the Sockers and most others. They’re the only travel club within 60 miles that also maintains a rec program, which means any kid who wants to can play soccer! To my frequent dismay, our referees are blisteringly honest, and the TCSA is one of the few clubs that enlists unpaid parent travel coaches, which greatly mitigates the psychotic-paid-coach factor.

But rather than resort to more rambling, it’s time to move on to my favorite thing about Patch—enlisting your opinion. Since I can be cantankerous, impatient and a wee bit critical (don’t laugh), sometimes I wonder if it’s just me. Maybe this kind of thing only happens in travel soccer. Maybe baseball is better. Maybe it’s just one bad club. Maybe one season isn’t enough to make this kind of judgment.

So instead of wrapping things up with one of my typically pithy conclusions, I’m throwing this out to you Patch parents. Tell me about your experience with club sports. Am I nuts, or as you’ve read this column have you been thinking, “Jeff, you ain’t seen nothing yet!”

The floor is yours!

Jeff Ward January 24, 2012 at 10:11 PM
And Mr. Sanchez (not his real name I'm sure) once again proves my point. This is what reasonable coaches have to deal with in club soccer. Sir, I said world class players, which none of American soccer players on your list will ever be. Other people may quit, but some people like to effect change. And this column is only the beginning! Jeff
Sanchez, M January 24, 2012 at 11:05 PM
Sanchez is my name.... would you like my address? So you can Confirm. I guess you wrote the column to prove a point that does not exist and to excuse your lousy ways.. Please do not quit, get educated in Soccer. And if you need to change something change your Attitude and stop hiding behind a column, I will see you in the next meeting for the NISL. ( That if they allowed you to go, you should ask Lindsay) I will personally will like to say hello to you. USA will produce well know Soccer players sooner that you think, better that in many countries like mine, oh boy and we have play soccer for a while. not just a few years ago.
Jeff Ward January 24, 2012 at 11:37 PM
Dear M, If that is your real name I do apologize. And I wrote the column make youth soccer for all the boys that participate. Though I will not be at the ranking meeting (we're where we should be) I will be at the scheduling meeting. If you can be polite, I will me more than happy to speak with you or anyone else that wants to challenge or agree with my viewpoint. Jeff
Jeff Ward January 26, 2012 at 02:55 AM
Dear M, I ran your list of "world class" former Sockers players by one of my assistant coaches and he told me Spector never got into a game for Man U and then was dropped. The rest of the list played for mid level teams as backups at best. Though they're certainly reasonable athletes, they are not world class. Even after Lance Armstrong's successes, bicycling is nothing in this country, but we've still managed to produce two Tour de France winners. LeMond and Armstrong. We should've come up with one world class soccer player by now. Jeff
Political PR Machine April 07, 2012 at 06:56 PM
We have had two daughtyers play with Tri Cities Soccer and with Strikers Fox Valley Soccer - both have stressed the importance of sportsmanship and would make any parent proud. They are professional in development and they help foster great sportsmanship values. I have been totally impressed and would also add that the friends that I have who referee, do so with a neutral perspective, and do so with total class. There are plenty of examples of clubs that go around the system - and ones that are cut throat. I would give high recommendations to Strikers Fox Valley if you have kids thinking about playing club soccer - they have been extremely professional and have classy people coaching and managing the organizations. And it is all the more refreshing to beat another club like Eclipse (for example), when the same values do not always appear to be shared - there is nothing more satisfying than knowing their parents drove all this way, came with an arrogant attitude, and screamed obnoxiously, only to lose and then have an hour long drive home. It leaves a terrific sense of satisfaction - good guys/gals can finish first!

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