The Soccer Parents Syndrome

by Caitlin Servilio

No longer content to wait until their children are five or, heaven forbid, eight (the age most kids start in organized sports leagues), moms and dads are enrolling their offspring in structured programs at the age of three and four. The Lil Kickers soccer program at the Upland Indoor Sports Arena in California, where the extremely young soccer players were roaming, even has a class for 18-month olds.

– Jeannine Stein, The Los Angeles Times
I worry as much as anyone about the childhood obesity epidemic and poor little kids plugged into electronic babysitters by their absentee parents, growing pale and doughy in front of the TV rather than scampering outside in the sunshine. However, am I the only one who thinks that putting 18-month-olds, or even three-year-olds, into organized sports with coaches and drills is going a bit too far in the other direction?

When I was that age, I played a lot of games with my sisters and friends. However, most of them involved running around aimlessly and shrieking, or playing with or eating bugs I found on the ground. They didn’t involve having to line up with a bunch of other squirmy little kids and kick balls in a straight line down the field, or keep shooting balls at a goal until I scored three. I didn’t have to play on a team (I doubt I understood the concept of a team) in any competitive way.

This seems like just another aspect of the trend of parenting that believes parents have to somehow mold their baby into Superchild: a multilingual musical-instrument-playing athletic rocket scientist. In defense of their actions, the parents just say that they want their kid to have advantages in life, to be able to get into college, and to get jobs in increasingly competitive workforces. “They’ll thank us for this someday,” these parents think to themselves as they pick up their five-year-olds from karate and drop them off at violin lessons. I kind of doubt it, though. It’s also kind of lazy — instead of having to go in the backyard and play catch with your kid after work, why not just stick him in a baseball league for four-year-olds where he can be coached?

If these baby soccer leagues were just an excuse for little kids to play with each other and get some exercise, that would be one thing. But they’re not. For one thing, there’s always going to be that handful of parents who believe that their kid’s game is the World Cup Championships and their little girl is Mia Hamm. There’s always going to be the handful of kids who develop faster than the others and show natural talent for the sport. And those kids are always going to be given more attention and praised more highly than the ones who can’t kick a ball without tripping over it. Basically, the concept of organized sports and leagues adds an element of pressure on little kids, and maybe feelings of embarrassment that they wouldn’t be feeling if they were just, say, playing hopscotch somewhere. (Do kids still do that?)

I predict that this whole putting-baby-in-a-league thing is going to backfire in a big way, because what it’s essentially doing, like all the other Baby Einstein activities around today, is taking away the option of being a late bloomer. Every kid develops at a different rate. A little boy who can’t hit a ball on a tee when he’s four isn’t necessarily a kid who’s never going to be able to play baseball. In fifth grade, when he gains 30 pounds and three inches and a bit of hand-eye coordination, he might be great at it. But is he still going to be playing by then? Probably not. He’ll probably have quit, rather than face the prospect of his teammates making fun of him or his parents lecturing him about practicing. He might never play baseball again.

Way to go, parents.

In closing, here’s a quotation from the blog of one soccer parent, often considered one of the scariest breeds of sports parents:
So Nico started playing in a soccer league for toddlers two weeks ago. So far, he likes the practices, but just stands still on the field during the game. He gets upset that everybody is running after the ball and not just giving it to him! I'm not sure how to teach a four-year-old how to play and enjoy competitive sports. Was it a mistake to get him into soccer this young? Advice?

– Lisa Chiu, Lisa Chiu's Blog
I have some advice for you, Lisa. If Nico’s too young to even understand the concept of a competitive game, he’s probably too young to be competing. In general, that’s a good rule of thumb.

(Photo by redvisualg of Iran via stock.xchng.)

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Anonymous said...

First of all.... do you even know what Lil' Kickers is about? Do you have any idea that for the 18 month- 9 years old that are in Lil' Kickers is meant for Child Development? They use soccer as the tool, but it's not about learning a competitive sport. They will learn skills of the game all while in a developmentally appropriate class, but first they will learn their gross motor skills, listening to directions and team work first. It is not a LEAGUE that they are put in. Later on when they
develop better listening and direction following, then they can start to practice fun games in the Micro classes...but it is not meant to be competitive at all.

Next time do a little research before just assuming you know what it's all about.

Benjamin Tatham said...

Caitlin, I agree that competitive sports are words that should have no place in the vocabulary of a child who is three years old, and contrary to the impression that your blog gives, so does Lil Kickers. I worked for Lil Kickers for a little over 5 years and helped them open franchises in Seattle and Chicago. The foundational ideas behind Lil Kickers programs, in particular, are that the classes are totally non-competitive, and that this atmosphere is precisely what fosters a child's development and healthy exploration of the world of sports from the ages of 18 months until 6 years old. In other words, all of the activities are designed to be appropriate for children of that age group, scores are not kept, praise is shared equally amongst all the children regardless of ability, size, athleticism, etc, and structure is balanced with the freedom for kids to be kids. Moreover, the activities in class remove the emphasis from technique and strategy needed to play a competitive sport and place it on the child's interaction with parents (18 months-3 years), coaches, and their peers. This type of early socialization proves a safe and healthy way to acclimate children toward some of the cornerstone events of their childhood like going to school on their own, and being away from parents, following instuctions, andd recognizing patterns in speech and behavior that help them to learn to speak and read.
I also agree that many parents misplace their own desires to see their children advance in sports and try to encourage them to participate in ways that are not appropriate for that child's age or development. However, your article here makes broad strokes across the world of children's sports when the difference between programs can be night and day. Unlike many programs without curriculum or the foundational child development aspects I have described, all of the Lil Kickers classes are designed to be developmentally appropriate. The curriculum followed by the program's coaches was written and conceptualized by individuals with extensive background in coaching, education, and, specifically, early childhood development. While you reserve the right to your opinion, and some of your observations about children's sports are valid, they appear glib because most people with experience in child care, education, child psychology, and child development would agree with the Lil Kickers philosophy that age-appropriate, mildly structured activity designed to help kids learn how to socialize and interact with others, even at the age of 18 months, is a desirable thing that can have positive outcomes throughout a child's life. In short, please don't generalize about programs you are only somewhat familiar with. Take another look at the Lil Kickers website at Arenasports.net or better yet, write a follow up blog after seeing some of the classes in person. There are locations all over the US mostly concentrated in large urban areas- Seattle, Chicago, Denver, Houston.

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