Over the last few months, I have watched more youth soccer games than at any other time in my life. I have seen thousands of players, of varying abilities, following their passion and pursuing their dream of mastering the beautiful game.
It has been nothing short of inspiring.
Yet, over the same period of time, I have heard stories of, and witnessed, a dark side to the game. It is driven by ignorance, by a misplaced belief that the only measure of success in youth soccer is the outcome of the game.
I'm not talking about what I'm seeing on the field of play, in the performances of the players. That has actually been quite encouraging. I have witnessed plenty of talented youngsters who, if put in the correct development environment, could go on to be very successful in the game.
I'm talking about what I'm seeing on the sidelines, in the behaviour of some of the parents.
I say some, because the vast majority of parents are exceptionally well-behaved supporters. They are chauffeurs, cheerleaders and managers all at the same time - and they are tremendous role models for their children. They give up their free time - all of it, in most cases - so that their kids can play the game they love.
The parents whose behaviour I am referring to are the very small minority who are living vicariously through their kids. They are trying to recreate their own - failed, in many cases - soccer careers by pushing their kids to the breaking point. Living the dream
They believe that the trajectory of their son's or daughter's soccer career is directly linked to the outcome of every game they play from the age of eight onwards. Failure to win is viewed as catastrophic, and generally results in those parents exhibiting behaviour that would embarrass most sensible adults.
Verbal abuse directed towards officials, coaches and even players is becoming more and more common on the sidelines of youth soccer games.
And it has to stop.
Referees make mistakes; they are human beings, and are prone to the same errors as each and every one of us. But I have yet to meet a referee who wilfully makes a mistake. They do not go on to the pitch so that they can determine the outcome of the game. They go on to the pitch to apply the rules of the game so that the outcome can be determined by the players.
On the occasion that referees do get it wrong and make a mistake, they do not deserve to be on the end of the bile and vitriol that is spewed at them by some misguided parents.
Parents who behave this way believe that winning is all that matters. When a referee makes a mistake that might affect the outcome of a game, these parents unleash a torrent of abuse towards the referee. What's even more shameful is that often times the abused referee is just a young teenager themselves.
These parents do this because they believe that their son or daughter won't "make it" unless they win.
They are wrong.
Their kids won't "make it" because they will never be given an opportunity to learn from their mistakes.
I have seen games played by players in their formative years - 10-12 years old - that don't even resemble soccer. The ball is launched down the field at every opportunity, in the hopes that the other team will make a mistake, resulting in a goal, leading to victory. Focus should be on skill development
This is not only viewed as success, it is actively promoted as a strategy.
Kids are not encouraged to apply the things they should be learning in training, because doing so might result in a mistake that leads to a loss. As a result, players play the game scared, knowing that such a mistake could lead to a tirade from the sidelines.
"We have to win, we need these points to get promoted!"
Actually, you don't.
Getting promoted won't make your child a better player. Learning to control the ball, to dribble, to pass and receive the ball, to shoot the ball, to attack and defend as part of a team unit - those are the things that will make your child a better player.
His or her ability to do those things well will determine whether or not he or she will "make it" - not whether they get promoted and win a $5 trophy.
Critics will argue that this mentality is soft, and won't produce champions. "We have to teach kids to compete, and the earlier we start, the better", they will argue.
I would counter that argument by saying that yes, there is a time to teach players to compete. But it isn't when they are still in their formative years, still trying to learn the core fundamentals of the game.
Linking the development of young players to winning actually undermines that development. Doing so encourages coaches to select players based on who can win, rather than creating optimal environments for those players in which they can learn.
And when a win-at-all-costs mentality exists within the competitive structure, parents can lose sight of what is important. They can forget that their children look up to them.
By verbally abusing referees, coaches or players, because of the perception that "winning" is important, parents teach their children that this sort of behaviour is acceptable. It is a terrible life lesson, and will have a much bigger negative impact on those players than anything positive they learn through the game.
And that has to change. Not just for the future of the game in our country, but for the futures of the young children who play the game from coast to coast.
Follow Jason de Vos on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/#!/jasondevos
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