First off, my child is a boy, but my article applies equally to girls, and perhaps, even more. Our current sports policy ensures that most girls will give up on sport by the age of thirteen, though lately, I see this tide turn as we convince more girls to follow the current societal model to win at all costs.
My son loves soccer. Or at least I thought so. He started playing when he was five on a U6 team (that’s Under Six years of age for those not in the know of soccer lingo).
And I loved watching him play soccer as it made him so happy. And yes, my ego liked it too. Other parents and coaches were impressed with him – he listened and responded to instructions well. As someone who had always felt she had never found her passion and flitted from one interest to the next, I was delighted my kid had stick-to-it-ness. How lucky he is, I thought to myself, finding something that makes him happy. To support him in his love of soccer, I became a team manager and then an age group coordinator (AGC) for his soccer age group. For those of you who are wondering what an AGC is, it’s someone who acts as the communication hub for a specific age group of soccer. I also put the teams together: over 100 kids into nine teams with nothing to go on, other than “make the teams balanced, Renée.”
Ok, I thought to myself, I can do that as I like puzzles and balance is my tag-line (it turns out, I do have a passion, which I started to think was puzzling things together to make them better, it’s not, but I’ll get to that later).
So in the first year of my AGC tenure (U9 teams for those of you who are curious), I put nine teams together. I was told to start with finding out who wanted to continue to coach the teams. I needed nine coaching pairs: a coach and assistant coach, and a manager for each team, aka, the team officials. I started contacting the prior year officials to find out who wanted to come back. Most officials wanted to coach and manage again, and many told me that they wished to keep their teams together.
The soccer club also told me that I had to break some teams apart, specifically, a team that had been playing together for a few years and was decimating the other teams. So I did, and one player on that team left for a “better club with better policies,” but the rest seemed happy enough to be re-distributed to a team where they had a friend playing.
Next, I created the teams. I mainly went off “friend requests” and tried to make sure that all the kids got to be on a team with at least one friend. I also relied on player evaluations that the coaches had provided to make sure the teams were balanced. I also listened to parents who asked me to keep them together with other parents so they could continue carpooling. My team-building worked as I didn’t hear any complaints (and being the communication hub, I was usually the first stop if there were any complaints). Some teams won more than others, and one team lost consistently, but according to their coach, they still had a good time.
I repeated my team-building process for the U10 year, and then at the end of the year, everything changed. The kids (at nine and ten-years-old) were making the big leap from “House League” to “Divisional” in their U11 year.
The difference, you ask?
House league: kids play other teams within the same soccer club and occasionally play other teams from other clubs. The club oversees all the schedules and arranges the games.
Divisional league: kids play teams at other soccer clubs and occasionally teams from their club. The Provincial Soccer League oversees the games and scheduling. As the kids enter U11, they get assessed and placed into Division 1, Division 2 or Division 3 (formerly known as and still mainly referred to as Gold, Silver, and Bronze).
The assessment process: nine and ten-year-olds running around for an hour doing drills. After that, they get placed on teams by the assessors (most of whom, the kids have never seen before in their lives).
Can you imagine?
My kid found himself placed in Division 2. I (my ego) was a tad surprised, but he was happy. His coach had previously told him “Silver” was the best (likely, as he knew that my kid would likely be placed in Silver). My kid also had his best friend coming with him. He firmly told me that he had fun playing and what made it fun was playing with his friends. One kid on his team was placed in Division 3 (Bronze), a travesty, the kid was a fantastic soccer player, but he wasn’t the fastest runner. He stopped playing soccer. Other players went to Division 1.
At our year-end dinner, I was despondent. Our kids had played together for five years. They were a mix of soccer talent, but the team won more than it lost, which was a big part of coaching, managing, and because the kids had learned to play as a team. They learned how to support each other, and they also learned from the kids with more skills. And they were friends who encouraged each other. I was willing to suck it up, though, as I had been repeatedly told that it was necessary the kids get tiered so that they were playing at the appropriate level.
The club’s head coach made a last-ditch effort to see if my kid could play at the Gold level in the spring following the regular season. Soccer typically runs from September to the end of February in Vancouver, but a few years back, a spring league was created so kids could play between April and the end of the school year. My son was placed on a team made up of other Gold kids, none of whom he knew. They played other clubs, and most of those other clubs had chosen to follow a different model and motto: keep the teams together and win first, have fun second. These teams were also from other municipalities and were at least an hour’s ride away. Our team usually got decimated, an average score was fifteen to one. Not only that, but the referees overseeing the game were also all young and inexperienced, and my son got hurt at a game and was dismayed that no one called a penalty on the culprit. He got fouled more than one time. I noticed that our kids did not try to encourage their fellow teammates, they were usually simply silent as they shuffled off the field at the end of the game. They didn’t know each other: what do you say to someone you barely know when your only shared experience is one of a dismal game where you all seem like you’re soccer failures? After a few games like this, my son stopped going to the games, and I followed up with the club’s head coach: “Why are the kids playing teams that are not the same level? You have always told me that the most important thing is that the kids have fun.” I didn’t get an answer. That season almost killed soccer for my son, but his love is strong, and after talking to his prior soccer coach, he decided to go back in the fall. The irony is that his previous soccer coach had quit soccer, as he was frustrated with the lack of organization and consistency at the club level.
Fall season started, and thankfully, five kids from our team ended up on my son’s new team. I was no longer the AGC, but it wouldn’t have mattered as they don’t let non-soccer playing moms organize teams at the divisional level. What do we know? I did volunteer to manage my son’s team as it allows me to get to know the other parents and what’s going on.
So, our kids started again and got to know each other. The kids all seemed to gel and get along. It was the parents that needed a bit of extra help. I did my best! I tried to re-establish carpooling, social time, playdates, etc. Most parents are busy these days – juggling parenting and work. It takes time to build a community. It takes one hour of assessments to tear it apart.
The team started well, but then hit a wall, and began to fall in the standings. The kids began to splinter into their original friend groups. They had a hard time supporting each other because they didn’t know each other. I bought a team ball, and each week, the coach awarded it to the player that showed the best team spirit, the coach talked to the kids and the team slowly rebuilt.
In the middle of soccer winter, as I turned into a solid block of ice while watching my son’s team get trounced, I had the dawning of realization. I finally realized what my kid loves. He loves playing soccer with his friends. I realized it as he left the game completely beaming. “Why are you so happy? Your team lost.” I asked him. “Yeh,” he said to me, with his face covered in dirt and his hair plastered to his head. That was all he had to say, as his smile said it all.
I wish I could show you the picture the parents took of the team after their last game. The team had finally bonded and had won their final two games at the tournament. They had learned to support each other.
Enter the U12 assessments.
As I wandered the soccer field at the assessments, I ran into the father of the kid who’d been placed in Division 3 the previous year. His kid was back at it and trying again. We struck up a conversation, and we both agreed that the assessment process for ten-year-old, eleven-year-old, and up to whatever year old is doing the opposite of what it intends to do. The assessment process discourages children from playing soccer and does a terrible job of predicting which children will excel at soccer later in life. The assessment process pits children, parents, and coaches against each other and hurts the support structures that our society desperately needs.
The next week, the results of the assessment came out. Good friends of mine, whose kids have played together their entire lives, were placed into different Division 1 teams. There is now a Division 1 A and Division 1 B team for kids at the ripe old age of eleven.
The parents of both kids are friends; they help each other out and get their kids to the games when the other parents cannot. The kids are lifelong friends, and they are eleven-year-old boys. What else happens when boys turn eleven, twelve, thirteen…? Evidence has it that eleven and twelve-year-old boys start to lose their friends and also start to lose interest in sports. I wonder. Could it be that tiering eleven-year-old boys is contributing to the fact that boys do not know how to build emotional support for themselves and also stop playing sports? What’s the point of building friendship if your friend disappears the next year when he gets pulled up to Division 1 or pulled down to Division 2. And what’s the point of staying in the sport if you’re any less than Division 1? It’s not for fun if you can’t even play with your friends.
Could it also be that tiering children destroys the community that had been built slowly over the previous five years? Yes. It does. I got to know the other parents over the five years our kids all played on the same team. Like most of us these days, I have just enough time to work, parent, and go to my kids’ activities. I used those five years of standing in the rain/wind/snow to get to know the other parents, and slowly we figured out where we all lived, and we also figured out our various schedules. We built support structures into our lives. We all only have so much energy to do this, and in fact, we lose these opportunities when our kids quit their sports.
At about this point, all the “sport” people start telling me I’m wrong. We need to tier the kids to build better athletes. And, kids need to get used to making new friends and playing with new people. And this is when I say – yeah, no. That’s not true either. But don’t ask me – just watch this or read this. And, just anecdotally, if you are always losing the friendships you’ve spent time and energy building, is that going to encourage you to build deep and lasting friendships or is it going to do the opposite?
The fallout from the assessments continued into the first week of March 2020, when the club sent out team lists, and the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
And then, suddenly, it no longer mattered if your child was Division 1, 2, or 3. Your kid was no longer playing soccer at all. Or baseball, hockey, or any team sport. What was your child doing? My son was trying to learn how to live in a new normal, and he relied heavily on Zoom chats with his friends.
Did he miss baseball? I asked him this one day as the pandemic ended little league this year. “Nope,” he said. This time, I wasn’t surprised. Despite his love of pitching, he hasn’t been playing baseball as long, and baseball doesn’t accommodate friend requests when forming teams.
I used to be happy (and slightly envious) that my children could find activities, sports, and skills that captured their interest. But as I have watched them navigate life, I have realized that it’s not the various activities they do that make them happy, it’s the friends that they do those activities with. As I observed them, I reflected on my own life. I have always felt that I didn’t have a passion. I am good at most things; I don’t excel at any one thing. Yet, even though I’m not an expert, my life is what I consider successful, and I realize my life is not successful because of what I do, it’s successful because of systems that support me. And those systems have been built with the relationships I have in my community.
What kind of adults do we want in our society? Do we want a few elite athletes, or do we want a community of adults who understand that by working together and supporting fellow community members, our society and world win?