The Purgatory of Youth Soccer Tournaments

Yesterday, I was driving my 12-year-old daughter home from her second soccer game in roughly 24 hours so she could take a quick rest before heading back for game #3 later that day.

She sighed. “Soccer tournaments are taking over my weekends!”

“Not just your weekends,” I said. My husband and I had been tag teaming all weekend: chauffeuring, spectating, fulfilling the required parent volunteer hours, and of course, taking care of our youngest child at home (albeit a relatively easy task since she’s 10).

“Sorry, Mom,” she said sheepishly.

It was her second soccer tournament in two weeks, and I had mixed feelings. On the plus side, I love watching my daughter play. I love seeing the friendships she’s built with teammates. And I appreciate how her coach focuses just as much on life skills — like being prepared with the right gear and communicating effectively — as he does on how to juggle and trap a ball.

But my daughter’s downcast comment reminded me how much the frenetic, high-stakes nature of youth sports is clouding children’s enjoyment of these activities. Recently, Anne Helen Petersen wrote an excellent article about the professionalization of kids’ sports. This process creates a “deeply exclusionary idea that to participate in an activity, you need coaching, and competition, and leagues and expensive uniforms, and that the ultimate goal of any of that activity is not fun or bonding or even the play itself, but a foothold, any foothold, in the scramble towards career and financial stability,” she writes. This system is fundamentally unfair and leaves behind many families who cannot afford the “pay-to-play” model.

And that same professionalization has also sucked away the joy of playing, Petersen argues. Playing a sport can be magical, a way to find fulfillment in moving your body and challenging yourself mentally and physically. In the high-decibel environment of tournaments, where the focus is often getting the “W” at all costs, this magic is too often drowned out.

During my daughter’s first game yesterday, both teams were playing hard. I watched these kids pass, sprint, and battle energetically for possession in 80+ degree heat that wilted even the spectators (including me) who were sitting still. All of the players deserved praise for their efforts — along with a crate full of whatever frozen treats their hearts desired. Yet that didn’t stop the opposing team’s coach from screeching at his team so loudly that he surely woke up with laryngitis today.

At the same tournament, I heard a different coach similarly lambasting his players — only they were even younger than my daughter, perhaps 8 or 9 years old. “BOYS!” he bellowed. “Who’s got #24? Who’s on #24?!?” He alternated with yelling at the referee. “REF! Did you see that? What, nothing?!?”

Some of the parents on the sidelines were no better. It’s like we’re pinning all of our unmet hopes and intrinsic worth on our children’s success on the field — if your kid scores a goal or becomes the game’s MVP then you, by extension, must be an awesome person and a successful parent.

I’m guilty of this mindset. I feel much better when my daughter’s team wins — it’s just a lot more fun. And it always feels crummy to watch your kids lose. But I’m trying to remember this is my daughter’s extracurricular activity. It’s supposed to be fun — and more importantly, it’s not about me.

These are kids, not professional athletes who are paid inordinate sums to entertain us. They’re adolescents who still have homework and awkward social relationships to navigate. They’re trying to reckon with their changing bodies and the unending weirdness of going to school during a pandemic. At the end of the day they just want to chill and make funny TikTok videos with their friends.

We should care about our kids’ experiences in sports, of course. We should cheer them on, listen when they need to vent, and above all be ready with post-game snacks (by the way, whatever happened to soccer oranges? Are they still a thing?). But there’s a difference between wanting our kids to have a positive experience and expecting them to become elite competitors, laser-focused on advancing to the next level, whatever that means (getting picked for the higher-ranked team? Playing in college? Earning scholarships?).

After the game, which my daughter’s team kept close but ultimately lost, we wove our way back to the car, through parking lots crammed with SUVs and throngs of parents carrying coolers, past vendors hawking customized medal cases and commemorative frames. Something about the whole scene made me feel melancholy. I couldn’t help but wonder how many kids, if given a choice, would have ditched the tournament right then and there to play a casual game with friends. How many would trade the pristine, manicured fields for a scrubby meadow full of dandelions, hang up the fancy cleats and shiny uniform for some old sneakers and whatever ball they could dig up?

And moreover, how many parents would be okay with this choice? Petersen acknowledges that it can be tough for us to even think about making changes when we’re so invested in the system. (And not just invested financially and time-wise — quite frankly, attending soccer games has often been the highlight of my social life during the pandemic.) If we choose to keep going, Petersen argues, we need to have a clear-eyed understanding of what we gain (and lose) by staying.

Soccer is fun. But youth soccer tournaments? They are something else entirely.

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