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 17, 2012 at 09:12 PM
AnnMarie, You are exactly why I write columns. No one can save the world by themselves. if I've managed to encourage one reader to fight the good fight, then it's a really good day. Blog away! Jeff
Paul Frantzis January 17, 2012 at 09:35 PM
Another straw man? Color me not surprised. The fervor for hoops in many countries is hot or white hot. The fervor for soccer in the US is tepid, at best. Your logic is faulty. Applying your faulty logic to indict youth club soccer is really more a reflection on you. Clearly, you have a major axe to grind with youth club soccer. Are there bad actors and behaviors in club soccer? Sure. Just not nearly to the degree that you maintain. Ellabulldog's posts nail it.
Jeff Ward January 17, 2012 at 09:45 PM
Paul, I admit I do have an axe to grind with club sports in general, but only because they so richly deserve it. And you're wrong! From the general tone of the majority of the responses here I obviously touched on something that's far more pervasive than you're willing to admit. Let's take sumo wrestling. The drive to sumo wrestle isn't even tepid in this country, much less white hot. That didn't stop Akebono, a U.S. citizen from becoming a champion. Sumo wrestling! We should've developed one Maradona simply by dumb luck, but we haven't because our youth development system doesn't work. It's the only explanation for a big goose egg. Think of all the Hispanic players that come into the club system because of their parents. Not one world class soccer player. NOT ONE! That says much more than we don't live soccer. Jeff
Paul Frantzis January 17, 2012 at 09:54 PM
Like Walker in Wisconsin, this is an overreach. Generally speaking, the emphasis on winning in club sports, particularly soccer, has gone overboard and is detrimental to development. Don't think this is anything new. The vast majority of these games don't mean squat 6 months later. It's all about development. If it isn't, change clubs posthaste. The problem I have with your article is that you're painting with a very broad brush, stereotyping and overreaching. Maybe you're just trying to stir up the pot.
Jeff Ward January 17, 2012 at 09:59 PM
Paul, I am definitely trying to stir up the pot! We need to see some change and maybe this will be the catalyst. But it isn't just me. Again, look at the responses and this column is the result of talking to all sorts of people for more than 3 months. I talked to trainers, coaches and parents. I even talked to a person that's known Pete and David Richardson for 30 years. Not one of them disagreed with my premise. And that scared the hell out of me more than the things I've seen on the soccer field. Jeff
Paul Frantzis January 17, 2012 at 11:18 PM
OK. Here's where I'm at: if your premise is that there are problems with youth soccer clubs, fine. There are plenty. How 'bout: Is soccer a rich kids sport in the US? The high cost of youth soccer is a major (as in MAJOR) barrier to US advancement on the world stage. I have 5 kids, one of whom is a soccer player (a U14 now). When he moved from AYSO to club (at U11), I was stunned by the cost. I cannot fathom how families with moderate incomes and/or multiple players can afford it. WRT the hoi polloi, let's face it, some of these folks have little to no experience w/club soccer (bash away). No disrespect, but I'm not going to pay much attention to those that know little about the subject at hand. That said, there have been many insightful comments on the thread. Again, there's plenty awry w/club soccer. I'll address my views on the problems you brought up, as well as my issues in subsequent posts. What I'm interested in, is what are your solutions to fix the problems.
Paul Frantzis January 17, 2012 at 11:20 PM
Paul Frantzis January 17, 2012 at 11:50 PM
Problems with youth club soccer, part 1: ringers & guest players I don't see guest players as a big problem: in our league games guest players have been very rare. The use of guest player(s) is much more common in tournaments (which is the intent, as there are a bunch of games in a short period). Roster limit rules are still in effect, which constrains the opportunity for abuse. IMO, the guest player rule is pretty innocuous. For the uninitiated, a ringer is when a more advanced level kid (same age) plays down on a lower level team. I know the rule and my kid's team has been burned by it more than once. The problem is that the rule is effectively a guideline. The league is depending on coaches/clubs to use good judgement. If there were "hard" rules on this, they'd be virtually unenforceable (jerk coaches would find ways around it). The "ringer" deal is only applicable to big clubs (those that have more than 1 team in a given age) and happens far more often than guest player abuse. Most clubs aren't in this category. When big clubs have better players playing on lower teams simply to rack up Ws, that's BS. It definitely happens, but I don't think it happens nearly as much as you think. The vast majority of clubs aren't running multiple teams at each age group. As to those that are, there are legitimate reasons to play kids down and those need to be differentiated from a win at all costs mentality.
Paul Frantzis January 17, 2012 at 11:58 PM
FWIW, I agree, rec leagues should have rules limiting or prohibiting travel/club players. Not going to be easy to enforce though, kinda like birth certificates in crayon.
Jeff Ward January 18, 2012 at 12:16 AM
Paul, I'm glad you asked! Solution 1: The league that creates the rules and manages the competition should be completely independent. None of this Pete and David Richardson BS like we have with the Sockers and NISL. That alone would be huge. This one is a complete no brainer. Solution 2: If you don't need a trainer, i.e. the coach played college soccer, with uniform, TCSA only charges $650 (or less) per player for an entire year of travel soccer. That low fee tends to help keep parents from getting too crazy. On the other hand, when the Strykers and Campton United charge around $2,500, their parents expect so much the bad behavior of Campton parents has become legendary. Paul you are absolutely correct - what some clubs charge is nuts. Solution 3: No rotating player pools, guest players must come from an age level down and teams can only use two guest players per game. Solution 4: Clubs do not hire the referees. I'm sure there are some enterprising entrepreneurs out there who would love to fill that gap. This would make an incredible difference. I've heard stories about the refs coming off the field at away games and hugging parents on the home team. They're not even smart enough to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Solution 5: If a team blatantly seeds themselves too low, i.e. they're winning games 10 to 1, they get suspended for a year. The first time a team got that kind of penalty it would never happen again. Jeff
Paul Frantzis January 18, 2012 at 12:21 AM
High school vs. club The vast majority of HS age players play for their schools. Many elite players forego HS soccer and train w/their clubs. Why? Because, from a development perspective, it's better for them (in most cases a lot, lot better). Don't see a basis for begrudging them that. This is an individual decision. I fail to see any evil from club soccer here.
Paul Frantzis January 18, 2012 at 12:39 AM
Way to meet the challenge, Jeff. A significant improvement over bashing away. I wish I could address your solutions inline, but Patch's comments software is lame. Generally, I agree with most of your suggestions. I'll add my 2 cents in subsequent posts.
Jeff Ward January 18, 2012 at 12:47 AM
Paul, Though I appreciate the compliment, what too many readers tend to forget is no one wants to hear you ramble on forever. I would've loved to offer those solutions, but it was already 1,100 words long. Typically, if a reader challenges me to come up with solutions, I will do so in a follow up piece, but I don't think my readers are that interested in the specifics of soccer clubs. Jeff
Paul Frantzis January 18, 2012 at 12:51 AM
Solution 4: independent referee assignment Don't forget line judges. This is a good idea. The competence of refs/judges is all over the map, but usually it's the same for both teams. However, when it's not, it's almost always tilted towards the home team (the appointee) and sometimes that tilt is beyond ridiculous (Schwaben Nationals, I'm calling you out). One time is too many. I'm 100% behind having a 3rd party handle ref/judges assignments, provided the cost is in the same ballpark.
Paul Frantzis January 18, 2012 at 01:42 PM
Actually, the league (NISL) could (& probably should) handle this. Unless they receive a lot of pressure, it'll never happen though (because administering this will be a PITA and there's no moola in it). Easier for them to let the clubs handle it.
Kara Knutte January 19, 2012 at 03:27 PM
Jeff, I have two daughters that play soccer on travel teams that compete in the IWSL (Illinois Women's Soccer League). The IWSL does not allow travel players to guest play on teams that are bracketed in lower divisions (ie. my U11 daughter that plays on a U11A team is not allowed to guest play on any U11 AB, B, etc. team, but she can play up on U12 teams). If the NISL adopted this policy, this may eliminate travel teams from bringing in ringers. Concerning your frustration about organized soccer creating world class players, please do not 'short change' the U.S. Women's Soccer Team (which is ranked highly, if not first, in the world). In my opinion, men's organized soccer often looses some of the best athletes to other sports-especially American football. The majority of young men and boys often choose to participate in American football instead of soccer. If you took all American football players (high school and college atheletes), and those same individuals pursued soccer instead, I believe the U.S. men's soccer program would have many world class players.
Jim Hankes January 20, 2012 at 02:42 AM
Jeff is right, enough soccer talk. Let's discuss sports, hockey.
Jose January 22, 2012 at 01:56 PM
I can tell by your responses that you like to argue. Rather than defend your point you also like to go on the offensive. Shame on you for not giving the US credit where due. The success of the women is huge on the global stage. I can tell by your responses that you are all focused on soccer as a boys sport run by crazy men coaches. This is one big peeing match for you. Based on reading your comments it is pretty clear that you're just another parent with little knowledge of the game. That is a big problem with development in soccer. As a parent though you do know what is best for your kid and genuinely would like youth soccer to be a good memorable experience for the children. You want that more than an ego boost for wins. I think youth sport needs more of that. Continue to combat the issue as you have. Foster a good environment for the kids you are responsible for. I have a few similar views that you have. I will conduct myself the same for my kids; respect for the game, respect for others. Find comfort in knowing our kids will grow up with a good balance of learning the game and good life lessons to becoming an adult. They may not play in the pros, college or even high school but they will become adults. Don't teach them to be bitter adults that are being suppressed by "the man." OK, your turn. Let's see if you can pee farther than me Jeff.
Jose January 22, 2012 at 02:04 PM
Berbatov, world class? You probably started watching soccer when you started coaching competitive soccer a year ago. Berbatov is good but not world class by your inferred definition that Americans are not world class. You rushed to be a Man U fan like every international kid might be quick to put on a Yankees hat. I still have to say, shame on you for discounting individual and team success the US has had. Turn in your stars and stripes and move to Cuba. You discount Donovan, Dempcey, McBride, and Spector? Donovan, Dempcey, and other fellow Americans are major contributors to some English clubs like Everton and Fulham. Fulham was nicknamed Fulhamerican's at one point. Shame on you for not considering McBride world class. He's world class on and off the field. Proud to call him an American world class person. Soccer clubs internationally are named after him. And Spector, not a household name but better known locally along with fellow home grown talent McBride. This guy was good enough to leave the US and start in the back for Man U. Wonder how those kids in the Man U system that were plucked from their homes at an early age felt for that to happen. Maybe their starting to realize what their chances of being "world class" is. Wonder if their definition of world class is the same as yours. Your various arguments of development in the US and fair play contradict. Your discount critique of US soccer has an undertone smell of a touch of MUST WIN and a dash of BE THE BEST.
Jose January 22, 2012 at 02:08 PM
Sumo? Akebono? Akebono doesn't sound American. Proud to have him as an American but sounds like were the fortunate recipient of a cultural transplant. If anything, he probably did not learn the sport in an American Sumo system. Good for him. Good for the US. Bring another sport to the US. We've got a good contingent of diabetic induced dieter's that will give the Japanese a run, or gut for their money. I'm just worried to see what a child sumo "ringer" will look like. I wouldn't want to get in the middle of a side-circle Sumo Mom argument. Sumo? Really? Great assimilation to youth soccer. In a country where we have every sport known to man we can't expect to have the same development criteria of a country that can't afford so many sports.
Jeff Ward January 22, 2012 at 02:24 PM
Jose, Of course, I was referring to the men's side of soccer, because I don't coach girls and thus, can't speak to it. Mia Hamm is a great player, but her existence is an even bigger indictment of the boys soccer club system. If we have her then why not at least one male superstar? And Jose! I expect a little more sensitivity from a gentleman with a minority first name. "Akebono" was his sumo wrestling nickname. His given name is Chad Rowan! Is that "American" enough for you. And he trained in Hawaii which, despite many Americans' poor geography, is actually a U.S. state. Who's lacking evidence now? In fact, I spoke with our team soccer trainer last night. He's a former Serbian soccer star who, at the time, was the youngest player (16) drafted on to a top European club. And he utterly agrees with my theory. He tries to create world class soccer players, but one trainer isn't enough. By sheer dumb luck, in the millions of soccer players that have gone through the club system since 1975, there should have been one kid that managed to rise to the top. But no! Because these soccer clubs are more concerned about winning than developing players. It's the only explanation for NOT A SINGLE ONE! Not pointing a finger at anyone in particular, but anyone who says that Dimitar Berbatov isn't a world class striker, doesn't know soccer. Jeff
Jose January 22, 2012 at 02:48 PM
There was no intent for off color comments towards Chad. I also made general comments about him...how about that. I claim complete ignorance when it comes to sumo. Hawaii, huh? That makes more sense. Didn't think he was from NY. I agree Berbatov is good. But you call out Maradona and Berbatov in the same sentence? Come on. In any case, thanks for the great topic for discussion. I sincerely hope that coaching makes you stronger and does not kill you. Best of luck Jeff!
Jeff Ward January 22, 2012 at 03:51 PM
Jose, No harm no foul. Though, i haven't kept up like I used to, I love sumo wrestling. Let's hope some reasonable change comes to club soccer and good luck to you too! Jeff
Sanchez, M January 24, 2012 at 10:05 PM
I do not know why I am going to waste my time to respond to this JEFF WARD, but i guess will be for the good of Soccer. Mr. Ward if you can't handle the fact that you are a lousy coach and other organizations are better than yours, you should quit coaching. Take your son to run, you claim that he is good at it, maybe you can be his coach there. Maybe that is why he does not want to run.... because he will be the only runner and will have to listen to your absurd and ignorant comments. I hate the NISL but not because they are good in their business SOCCER, my hate to them is because they do not ask more out of the clubs when it comes to coaches. If we have more coaches certify with Higher Certifications we won't have to read all this none sense. mmmmm Thinking about it, Mr. Jeff if you hate so much the NISL why don't you quit, I guess is because you have no other place to be coach, and Tri Cities Soccer Club and Lindsay wont listen to your complains witch are they well know around. Going Back, YES NISL IS YOUR FAULT if you ask for higher licenses to coach we wont have to deal with idiots as Jeff Ward. Out of characters soon. check post 2.
Sanchez, M January 24, 2012 at 10:05 PM
Ups I should not insult him, he knows soccer, Mr. Jeff claims that not professional Soccer Player has come out of the United States, please get your info from better sources, think and research about this players. Jonathan Spector Manchester United, West Ham United England Will Johnson Heerenveen Holland Jay De Merit Wathford England Michael Bradley Heerenveen Holland Edward Santeliz Suchitepequez Guatemala Guess what all of this player play for Sockers. Do you really need a list of all American soccer players playing around the world..... I hope your not. I am running out of characters so I will leave it there.
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
ken loebel 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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