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Jeff Ward: Club Sports Prey on Parents' Fantasies

The hard truth is that your kid is probably average, will never be a soccer star—and two grand and a "premier" program won't turn him into Pele.

Massachusetts English teacher David McCullough stole a bit of my thunder when he told the Wellesley High School class of 2012 they weren’t special—nine times—during his commencement speech.

As you might imagine, the mere thought of their progeny being blisteringly average sent a boatload of over-indulgent parents into an immediate and uncontrollable tizzy. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last seven years, it’s that calling out self-absorbed people is always a fascinating proposition.

Not that that’ll ever stop me.

So even though our sage speaker hit the nail squarely on the head, the tack we’ll be taking is more along the lines of Barnum’s “sucker” or, to paraphrase Mencken, no one ever went broke underestimating the narcissism of the American parent.

Because while McCullough challenged his charges to become extraordinary, much like Mr. McGuire’s two-syllable counsel to graduate Ben Braddock, what I’m saying is, if you can tap into this particular vein of American self-obsession, then the keys to Fort Knox will be yours.

As I finish my fourth and final year of youth soccer coaching, I can think of no better example of this delusory phenomenon than the scourge of club sports. You see, the cunning folks who run those concerns are masters of tapping into the notion that your child is “special.”

The truth is, every last one of these clubs is virtually interchangeable, but given my experience, we’ll use the Tri-Cities Soccer Association as our prime example.

To their credit, they’re one of the few clubs that maintains a healthy and reasonably priced rec program, but that’s just the gateway. In order for them to survive, they have to get parents hooked on the notion that their trainers and coaches can turn your utterly untalented child into a star soccer player.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily blaming these clubs. Considering the vast number of gullible parents willing to (literally) buy into this fantasy, we probably shouldn’t call it a case of lying, but "gilding the lily" ain’t exactly telling the whole truth, either.

Ah! But doesn’t reality always have a funny way of rearing its ugly head? It’s when little Johnny can’t pass the ball even after his doting parents drop two grand on a club trainer who’s supposed to turn him into Pele, that the problems start.

These incapable-of-introspection and incensed parents immediately start going after the hapless coach and trainer because they believe they’ve failed their infallible child. And let me tell you, soccer moms can get even nastier than a Republican debating the merits of same-sex marriage.

Then the clubs refuse to back the coaches/trainers, because that would mean having to offer an honest assessment of a player’s ability, which would mean shattering these parents’ illusions, which would mean a bitter bank account balance.

To wit, one of my players' mothers actually hit a TCSA employee, and they did absolutely nothing about it—other than thrust her back upon me.

Then there was the time a young woman approached a trainer and asked if she was an A- or B-level player. When the trainer honestly replied she was at the C level, the girl ran to her parents, who ran to the club, who swiftly demoted the trainer to a lower-level team.

Honest assessment has no place when you’re profiting on peoples’ pipe dreams.

Since this dysfunctional dynamic does nothing to improve their son’s limited soccer ability, rather than realize they’ve been had, these parents simply move on to another club that’s equally willing to take their money. And they’re all complicit. These clubs are careful not to dis each other, because they rely on this constant turnover to survive.

A long-time soccer parent and friend told me that TCSA used to be the place you could go to play a little bit above the rec level for a reasonable amount of money. But now they’re pushing everyone to their “premier” program because it makes the cash register sing.

Go to their website, and you’ll see a prominent notice advertising that premier players can sign up without as much as a tryout. As long as you can cough up the cash, then you’re a premier player!

The problem is, as even a TCSA insider noted, if everyone is playing "premier," then it really isn’t premier, is it? Every kid can’t be a soccer star, because then no one would be.

And this goes beyond club sports. I spoke with a number of Patchland principals who told me anguished tales of a plurality of parents who believe their academically middle-of-the-road children should be placed in the gifted program.

The difference between schools and club sports is, schools won’t take advantage of you. That said, perhaps allowing parents to pay extra for that gifted privilege could solve our schools’ budget problems.

You wanna know the truth? Your child is average, because that’s what most children are. That’s why they call it average. Forget about little Johnny becoming a soccer star, because 99 percent of kids I’ve seen play at the “premier” level won’t even start on their high school soccer team.

There simply aren’t enough spots!

The reason the U.S. club soccer system hasn’t produced a single men's world-class player is because its organizers can’t afford to tell American parents—or their spoiled progeny—the truth. So we end up with pseudo “stars” like Landon Donovan who, accustomed only to accolades, has to run to a therapist when he can’t score a goal in World Cup competition.

TCSA and all these other clubs (they’re interchangeable) love to say it’s all about the kids, but it’s not. It’s all about the money.

So don’t be so quick to squander it! That two to three grand you pay per year—per child—for the privilege of participating in club sports is a complete waste of their time and your money. You’d be far better off investing it in their college education, because that actually gives them a shot at earning the right to be called something above average.

Jeff Ward June 15, 2012 at 06:22 PM
John, Yours in the typical response I get when someone simply disagrees with me, but wants to make it sound more official. First, I clearly stated this directed at TCSA, but every club. Campton United is even worse. Strikers are a bit better. The Sockers are worse. The Geneva Baseball Association is worse. The local travel basketball clubs are much better. Second, you have to consider the whole body of my work. I've complimented TCSA for the rec program, the lower fees compared to other clubs and the fact their referees aren't blatantly biased and I stand by those assertions. Third, I got confirmation for everything I said from people at the highest levels of these clubs. There are a lot of people who want to the right thing, but can't. Trainers, board members, involved parents - you name it. And I would encourage and be thrilled if the TCSA or any other club responded. I'd love to hear what they have to say. Lastly, watch a Barclay's Premier League soccer match and then watch a MSL game. There is absolutely not comparison. The European clubs don't play into this you always have to compliment the kids BS. Sorry, it's responses like yours that lack credibility. I'm supposed to believe you just because you think you're right? Jeff
Bill Sovik June 15, 2012 at 06:32 PM
I think Jeff is way off base here. I have two daughters that have played Rec (one also did Academy and will be Premier in the fall). My girls play FOR FUN. Not every parent (at least the ones I know and talk to) think that their child with be the next Pele, Jeter, Sharapova, Mickelson etc. These children are playing for fun, exercise, to develop an understanding of teamwork, develop friendships etc. I personally think the coaches at TCSA are phenomenal. They really work with the kids and are willing to spend one-on-one time with them. I find it truly amazing that they will know the names of 20-30 kids within two practices and can speak to you with knowledge about your child. The only point he is correct on is that TCSA (and other organizations) are in business to make money. Same as the NCAA Athletic Programs, MLB, NFL and NHL organizations that we all "support" by attending their games and buying their Sprirtwear...... In the meantime, my girls will continue playing (whatever amount that is) while they have FUN!!!!!!
Jeff Ward June 15, 2012 at 06:32 PM
Bill, You're right. One of the soccer parents I asked to preview the column made exactly your point. But where we disagree is you and he are the exception that proves the rule. Yes! I loved the parents who had their boys play just for the fun of it, but even in rec, they were always in the minority. You choose to make the best of your children's experience by having reasonable expectations for the, but that doesn't mitigate my point, it proves it. These clubs can't prey on your dreams because you're being realistic. But if all parents were like you there would be no club sports. Just take a look at how TCSA is trying to flood the premier program with players. Again, I will continue to say their rec program is utterly worthwhile. And I agree about the coaches and trainers, but they're the ones who I've been talking to over the years, and they're the ones who helped me to see the light. Jeff
Billy Gallagher June 15, 2012 at 06:40 PM
Jeff, it hurts your cause as you continually attack Republicans as unreasonable, even inserting attacks on them in an article about youth sports. You are a clown. Probably a sad one, too. How about next time write somthing like, "soccer moms can get even nastier than a Democrat debating the merits of ensuring that all immigation is done in a legal manner."
Bill Sovik June 15, 2012 at 06:41 PM
Not sure why part of my last post was edited out....... I personally don't think they are "preying on our dreams". I never heard a TCSA coach say they would take my child (I left out your "utterly untalented" part) and turn them into a talent. What they DID say was that the children would be provided top level coaching that would give them the opportunity to develop their skills. Some kids will, some kids won't......
Jeff Ward June 15, 2012 at 06:45 PM
Bill, And your post is up twice - you may want to delete one. Have you heard of a lie of omission? When a coach or trainer cannot offer an accurate assessment of a player for fear of retribution, not only does it hurt the players development, but it's still a lie. That's why they ask you to tell the "whole truth" when you take the witness stand. Jeff
Kenneth June 15, 2012 at 06:50 PM
Jeff, thank you for your opinion. This is the opinion section, isn't it? It has obviously sparked a great deal of conversation, causing many of us to examine our own lives, our own parenting, and how we fit into the equation. I admire the passion with which you and your readers approach this topic and the greater implications. Your opinion has really caused us to think.
Jeff Ward June 15, 2012 at 06:59 PM
Kenneth, You've made my decade. I would take a post like yours over my columnist salary any day (don't get any ideas Rick!). My only goal in this endeavor is to get people to think and, every now and then, reassess what they believe to be the truth. And I'm never attached to the outcome. Thanks for one of the best assessment of a column I've ever seen. Jeff
Laurie June 15, 2012 at 07:00 PM
Agreed Billy. And while I do appreciate some of the things Jeff says on this topic, I gotta say that the political slams are ridiculious.
Mickey June 15, 2012 at 07:41 PM
There's always park district ball. I've been volunteering with the Wheaton PD for 4 years and have only met one frustrating parent in that time. It is a low pressure league and everyone tries to assure the kids have fun. The coaches are more friendly than cut-throat competitive, inviting each other to join in practices and pickup games.
Kent Frederick June 15, 2012 at 08:21 PM
Agreed. I like to think my son has enough talent to play on a soccer club team, but he isn't driven to excel in sports the way some kids are. So, we stick with the park district.
Julie Farrell June 15, 2012 at 08:54 PM
My daughters have been involved in park district sports for years and also skate at a local ice rink. I have actually seen many girls QUIT a team, though more often than not at this age it's at the behest of the parents, because each child was given the same opportunities for play or competition. Many times I've seen kids pushed by parents to do a sport they don't really want to do. Many times I've seen kids who aren't good stuck on the sidelines because of it. Many times I've seen these same kids not know how to turn potential failure into a learning experience as adults. It's absolutely nuts. I would never force my kids to do something they don't want to do. That being said, I've always implemented a rule where if you start something you finish it. You're not required to join again in the future, but you're required to finish out a season. I will go head to head with a coach, only if I think said coach is being unfair and not treating the entire team equally across the board. I've been a coach (two teams at once, I might add), I know how hard it is and I know you want the team to do its best....but I refuse to accept that it may be at the cost of one of the kids' experiences. /Tangent....sorry, this one caused a lot to say, lol.
Darren McRoy June 15, 2012 at 09:04 PM
Is this Ridgewood Park, Mouse? Where you're seeing this?
Patch61 June 15, 2012 at 10:02 PM
The problem is that there is no "happy medium" between recreational Park District sports and higher-performing club-level sports. Where does a kid play, with lots of interest and talent, when they do not want to practice 6 - 10 hours a week? Park District is simply dull for such a child and the club sports can be overkill. Regarding Euro soccer, (since I go to western europe every summer to visit the inlaws) they have the same arrangements: recreational and competitive. The difference is that soccer is still the primary sport and a child's time is not split among other sports (e.g., baseball, basketball, hockey) though basketball is making significant progress. If you only play soccer, and all your relatives play soccer, you will progress better than an American kid whose dad cannot teach him anything about soccer and your are also playing other sports.
Jeff Ward June 15, 2012 at 10:19 PM
Mouse, What I clearly meant was, you don't get into an academic gifted program unless you have the test scores. That said, you're absolutely dead on about all the berating on the way back to the car. A mother went off on her daughter with the F-bomb and everything else in front of 2 major TCSA officials and myself. They did nothing about it. To this day I fear for that child. Jeff
Jeff Ward June 15, 2012 at 10:22 PM
Darren, I've seen stuff that would curl your toenails across all suburbs. I had to have the McHenry County Sheriff's police come and monitor a game between 13 year-olds. Mouse is dead on. I could write two 1,000 word columns just on how I've seen coaches and parents berate the kids. Jeff
Jo Ann McGarry June 15, 2012 at 11:27 PM
This is a topic that clearly has struck a cord with a lot of parents, including myself. You can examine it from the outside, but when you're kids are young and want to play sports, there really aren't a lot of options. I played a sport on my high school team and it was such a great experience that I'd love for my kids to be able to have it. But given how much more competitive it is today, with so many kids starting so young and playing year-round, unless your child is naturally gifted in a sport, they do need the training and play time just to keep up. I graduated HS in 1984 and I'm sure if it were today, I would not make the team. With so many kids participating in club sports, the "premier" players in those clubs are the ones who make the varsity team. So club sports do give kids an opportunity to pursue and develop their skills in a particular sport. And unfortunately, the costs are crazy. The sad part is that the price that is paid for this is not only monetary, but there are opportunity costs for the kids playing club sports. They can miss out on hanging with their friends on the weekends, spending time with family, going to church, working a part time job, volunteering, pursuing other interests and just plain hanging out and being bored. No wonder these kids are devastated when they get cut from the Sophomore or Varsity sports team. Their entire identity is based on "their sport".
Jeff Ward June 15, 2012 at 11:31 PM
Jo Ann, The funny thing is the pendulum tends to swing. Currently club sports are dissuading their charges from playing on their high school teams. The claim is it isn't competitive enough, but we know that money is the real issue there. So ironically, there may be a place for a kid that just wants to give it a shot in high school. And your last paragraph is dead on. Either they completely burn out or they have to completely reassess their lives when they finally realize they'll never even get a scholarship. Jeff
Lois Lane June 16, 2012 at 12:52 AM
I have always been SOOOOO glad my daughters never decided to get involved in any organized sports. I can't imagine the headaches and expenses that come with that! Good article Jeff, you're a brave guy!
Jeff Ward June 16, 2012 at 01:10 AM
Lois, Thanks for noticing. I've even managed to get friends aggravated at me with this one, but it will by no means be my last word on the subject. Someone has got to start telling these people the truth. Jeff
Jeff Ward June 16, 2012 at 01:37 AM
Dear Readers, Again, I want to be clear this column applies to all club sports and all clubs because they all do the same things. But since this column went up, the TCSA changed the alert on their home page to read that you can join travel soccer without a tryout. There's nothing quite like an obvious consciousness of guilt. Jeff
Oscar Madison June 16, 2012 at 02:08 AM
The truth as you see it, Jeff. My boys have been in club soccer since U10. Are the clubs in it for profit? Yep. Are "tryouts" a joke? Of course--most clubs will take anyone with a checkbook. But my older boy will start his second year of NCAA D-1 soccer in the fall on a scholarship that would've never been possible without the instruction he received by professional coaches in club soccer. He won't be the next Pele (or even your hated Donovan), but he's playing soccer at a top collegiate level and getting a great education. On the other side is my younger son, now on a high school team. He doesn't play much and will not follow his brother into D-1, but he has stayed in good physical shape and made friends from other schools and other communities that he has met via club soccer. Two sides to every story, Jeff, and while you make valid points, for my family, at least, club soccer has been great. And while I don't understand your dislike of Donovan, your criticizing him for running to a therapist because he can't score a goal is just mean spirited and flat out wrong. Funny that you don't mention Americans Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Brad Friedel...all world class players, and go ahead and tell me otherwise.
Jeff Ward June 16, 2012 at 02:24 AM
Oscar, I'm glad club sports has worked out for you, but the reason it did is, as I told another reader, your in that minority that has a clear concept of your sons' ability. You went into it with open eyes. This means the column really doesn't apply to you. But let's also be honest. All things considered equal, a high school athlete has somewhere between a 1 and 2 percent change of getting a full college athletic ride. Your older son is one of a vast minority. And none of those player - not even Clint Dempsey - is world class. They're decent players that don't even begin to compare to Lionel Messi, Christiano Ronaldo, Andres Iniesta, Wayne Rooney, David Villa, etc... There's just no comparison. And my assessment of Mr. Donovan may have been oversimplified, but it's dead on. He's a head case that needs to either decide he wants to play soccer or quit. Jeff
Oscar Madison June 16, 2012 at 02:56 AM
Full disclosure, Jeff, he did not get a full ride, but a partial scholarship. Sorry if I implied otherwise. And I agree, most HS or club players will not play in college, but many will--D-3 or college club soccer, thanks in no small part to youth club soccer. It starts a true love of the game, an appreciation that is just beginning to catch hold here in the US. And while I don't want to get into an argument with you about soccer here (see you on ESPN Soccernet?) to compare the players I mentioned to Ronaldo or Messi is just silly. Who else can compare to them? George Best? Cantona? Few players in history are on their level, but I stand by my comment. Friedel alone is a legend in the PL. And you want to talk about head cases? Look no further than Tevez or Balotelli. Anyway, I enjoyed your article. Keep 'em coming. Anytime you hit a nerve like this, you've done something right.
Brad Rosley, CFP® June 16, 2012 at 02:40 PM
What great article! Every parent with kids playing sports should read this.
Jeff Ward June 16, 2012 at 02:48 PM
Brad, Thanks! And I really hope they do! Jeff
Patch61 June 16, 2012 at 05:49 PM
Jeff - Your remarks read more like a grudge you may have against Tri Cities based on Jennifer Reilly's remarks above. Traveling sports meet many different needs which is why there is a large market for them (duh.). The general need is for kids to play at a higher level of competition. Whether it's the parent or the child who wants it, is the crux of all this. For parents who think their kids may enjoy a higher level of play, I would encourage them to try it for a season. Also, many clubs have refunds or will respond to parent feedback based on varying circumstances (e.g., if the coach is screaming profanities, like Jeff appears to, the club wouldl address the issue.)
Jeff Ward June 16, 2012 at 05:58 PM
Dear Patch61, You can read into it whatever you want, but I've clearly stated all these clubs are the same. Again, I think the TCSA rec program is worthwhile and that's where 90 percent of parents should put their efforts. As for the other comment, it's simply not true. My best evidence is I never asked to coach. TCSA came to me both times and if I'd done anything even approaching what I've been accused of here, that never would have happened. I never would have lasted four years. Not only that, but every winter I coach an indoor team and this year I had to cut back on the roster because so many of my ex rec players wanted to play. Jeff
Thomas June 16, 2012 at 08:59 PM
Amen, Colin!
Greg H July 06, 2012 at 06:06 AM
Club soccer is expensive, absolutely. However my kids love playing the game as witnessed by the number of soccer balls scattered around the house. In addition, I love coaching my kids and I hope one day they can get the same enjoyment with their kids. As for the parents of other kids, there certainly are the overbearing parents but of all the games & tournaments I have been to I have yet to see what you describe. With $300 red card fines assessed by the leagues on the coaches, verbally abusive parents are NOT tolerated. My advice to parents, make sure the program you are joining is geared toward developing players skills and not concentrated on winning as the primary goal. The US Soccer youth development curriculum speaks extensively to this focus. Stay focused on fun and learning and achieving the highest level of competition your child is capable of achieving with parental support to help them try to achieve their goal.

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