Originally published in Bloomberg View.
A 17-year-old soccer player in Utah was recently charged with homicide for fatally punching a referee who had just given him a yellow card. Maybe you remember the story. Or maybe you’ve already conflated it with the countless others like it—tales of kids, coaches and especially parents acting like utter idiots at youth sporting events, occasionally with tragic consequences.
It has gotten to the point where 21 states have laws addressing assaults on officials. America’s youth sports culture is sick. But the conventional diagnosis of the illness has it backward: The problem isn’t that we take youth sports too seriously. It’s that we don’t take them seriously enough. As a result, we’re producing bad citizens and bad athletes.
The U.S. is obsessed with youth sports, but Americans don’t quite know what to do with that obsession. It’s the trickle-down effect of the myth of amateurism. If collegiate sport is supposed to embody some Platonic ideal of competition for its own sake, youth sports are supposed to represent something more innocent still: a world where nobody’s keeping score.
There’s virtue in this. At the same time, it’s only natural for kids—and yes, their parents—to want to get something else out of sports (and for the country to get some world-class professional athletes in the bargain). The refusal to acknowledge this has produced a haphazard approach to competitive youth athletics and its out-of-control culture. Kids haven’t been taught to respect the games they’re playing. Parents haven’t been told to shut up and let the coaches do their job.
It doesn’t have to be this way. My 8-year-old son spends nine hours a week at soccer practice. That doesn’t mean I’m using him to act out my own unfulfilled dreams of athletic success. I am not a Tiger Dad, pushing my son toward a college scholarship, never mind a multimillion-dollar professional contract. Nor do I worry that he’s somehow missing out on his childhood because he’s learning to use his weak foot instead of hanging out with friends after school.
As I see it, he’s getting a second education on the soccer field—one that emphasizes discipline, perseverance, conditioning (not just fitness, but also balance and flexibility), technical mastery and the ability to cope with disappointment. I’m sure he could be learning equally valuable lessons playing chess or the violin. He just happens to love soccer.
And he happens to have professional coaches who know what they’re doing, having fashioned their program after Europe’s soccer academies. They are serious and demanding, but the kids are still having fun. There is pleasure in playing the game right, in learning to look for a pass or move into open space. There are good arguments against specialization in youth sports—especially if cultivating talent is a secondary concern—yet there is also something to be said for doing “one thing supremely well,” as Roger Bannister put it.
The growing international diversity of professional basketball and baseball is worthy of celebration. But it also speaks to the U.S. failure to better train its young athletes. There is no culture of serious teaching in youth basketball. In fact, there is the opposite in the Amateur Athletic Union, which is all about making reputations rather than players.
America’s inability to get any traction in the world of international soccer is instructive, too. It’s shocking that a country with the population and resources of the U.S. has produced just a handful of players capable of competing at the highest level of the game.
Like basketball, soccer requires both sound fundamental skills and creativity. For all of the millions of American kids playing organized soccer every year, the U.S. is still failing on both fronts. There’s no schoolyard soccer culture to speak of, and too few soccer clubs that teach the game the right way. (The U.S. men’s national team is trying to expand its own academy program, though progress has been slow.)
Organized youth sports don’t have to mean crazy kids, coaches and parents, any more than the phrase “youth sports academy” has to conjure images of Nick Bollettieri-style sweatshops (“‘Lord of the Flies’ with forehands,” as Andre Agassi, who was sent there against his will, memorably described Bollettieri’s tennis academy).
John McEnroe, of all people, has built a kinder, gentler alternative to Bollettieri’s academy on Randall’s Island in New York City. It’s too early to judge its success. If nothing else, McEnroe has created some competition to produce the next generation of U.S. tennis stars.
Other countries successfully train serious youth soccer players without having the whole enterprise degenerate into bullying, assault or homicide. Just look at the youth academies run by FC Barcelona or AC Milan. These programs are not designed for everyone; only the top players are invited. The clubs don’t have to compete with other sports for the attention of their country’s most promising athletes.
Yet there’s a lot Americans can learn from this pre-professional approach to kids and sports. Among other things, it recognizes that fostering emotional maturity is a critical part of the development of young athletes. Kids in Ajax’s youth academy in the Netherlands, for example,don’t even start playing other clubs until they’ve spent years at the academy. By then they are ready to win and also to lose. Which is a lot more than we can say about many of the athletes in America’s youth leagues.
Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. A long-time contributor to The New York Times Magazine, he is the author of the best-selling Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning, The Challenge, and Death Comes to Happy Valley. He's @jonathanmahleron Twitter.