California Youth Soccer is for the wealthy. This was my first thought when I found out that a year’s membership at the cheapest club we played was $2000 a year and the most expensive $3500. This compared to the fees of £80 to £120 our pupils pay for membership of their local football clubs back in the UK, which also included playing kit. Which ever club we attended parents were there, supportive and vocal. Constantly talking to their son on the pitch. It made for a great atmosphere when we played. I know If it was me out there, the steady stream of instructions from the sideline would either put me off my game, confuse me or upset me. The costs required for these children to play football upset me. It meant that the chance to train and play competitive football outside of school was beyond the means of a lot of youngsters. In Santa Barbara hospital I met a web designer named Michael. He has dislocated his right shoulder, coming off his mountain biking during a ride in the Los Padres Forest. We got talking in the patient waiting room and he shared with me a different view point, having been involved himself with youth soccer through his son. Soccer in the U.S. is becoming well established, especially at College or University level. It is becoming another way for children to get into higher education on a scholarship, reducing the costs of tuition and possibly accommodation, and making it more accessible. Especially for children from disadvantage backgrounds in California. Some clubs might reduce or waive fees for very talented players from poor families. This was though an unusual practice as most clubs were run as businesses, not for the benefit of the children.
Michael’s story was given credence when I met Javier. Javier was the father of two boys at a club we played in Pomona in Los Angeles. He initially started by handing over his card and asking if I was interested in buying a second hand classic american muscle car. During the day Javier was a used car sales man and by night he worked on the door at a night club. Once I explained, very carefully, that I wasn’t interested in buying anything we talked about football. He and his partner both worked two jobs so the extra money they made paid for the fees for the coaching at the club. They hoped this would give their two sons the chance to get to a good University on a scholarship as they wouldn’t be able to afford the fees. His son, a left footed attacking midfield player, was easily the best player on the pitch. He was a proud father when his son was awarded man of the match and I hope that his and his son’s efforts are successful for the future. However I worry about playing youth sport as an means to an ends, prevents children from fully experiencing the inherent joy of playing that sport can bring and ultimately having a detrimental impact on them staying involved in purposeful physical activity throughout their lives.
California Youth Soccer lacks a social side. We would get to our venues in advance to ensure we had a good warm-up, ensured the teams knew their instructions for the game and give them the best possible chance at competing. Usually there would be no one present. Then suddenly out of nowhere hordes of players, coaches, officials and parents would descend to the pitch. The hustle and bustle of setting up the pitches would start in earnest with all taking a responsibility. The coin would be tossed. The matches would begin. At most there would be a curt handshake and a nod, sometimes there wouldn’t even be an introduction. These teams meant business. Most opposition coaches, dressed in obligatory polos, khaki shorts, baseball caps and shades, would stride the touchline shouting instructions and animatedly gesticulating. Especially at our brand of physical football. I’m not sure they have come across an old fashioned English centre half before. At the end of the game it feel to us to organise speeches, handshakes, pictures and give out awards for their best player. Sometimes these didn’t even happen with the opposition disappearing at the final whistle as quickly and and as silently as they had arrived.
My own experience as a player and as a coach, in different sports and in different parts of the world, this was the first time on tour where we did not socialise with the opposition. Refreshments and of opposition players and coaches taking time time to talk to each other has been the minimum expectation on my travels. However I have usually been overwhelmed with the spirit of generosity. The sharing of culture through dances, songs and food has been part of that experience. I feel it is an important part of a child’s development, not just in sport, but in life in general. To leave any unresolved issues on the pitch, to be able to socialise with your opponent and share in the passion that you both have through playing your sport. It is something we encourage for our school teams and from speaking to our pupils the same at many of their football clubs. It was a surprise to me considering how open, positive, polite and helpful I found Americans to be in California. It is an area of development in youth soccer that they haven’t got right.
The overall impression of youth soccer in California is very good. It is principled and the technical and physical development of players is very high. The brand of football they play for a purest is very enjoyable to watch and I would imagine also enjoyable to be part of with everyone wanting and getting on the ball. The system they have in place is, with time, knowledge and investment, going to continue to produce some good players in the future. However as with all things I would advise them, especially in youth sport, that it is the journey not the arrival that matters.