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Jeff Ward: Club Sports Prey on Parents' Fantasies

The hard truth is that your kid is probably average, will never be a soccer star—and two grand and a "premier" program won't turn him into Pele.

Massachusetts English teacher David McCullough stole a bit of my thunder when he told the Wellesley High School class of 2012 they weren’t special—nine times—during his commencement speech.

As you might imagine, the mere thought of their progeny being blisteringly average sent a boatload of over-indulgent parents into an immediate and uncontrollable tizzy. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last seven years, it’s that calling out self-absorbed people is always a fascinating proposition.

Not that that’ll ever stop me.

So even though our sage speaker hit the nail squarely on the head, the tack we’ll be taking is more along the lines of Barnum’s “sucker” or, to paraphrase Mencken, no one ever went broke underestimating the narcissism of the American parent.

Because while McCullough challenged his charges to become extraordinary, much like Mr. McGuire’s two-syllable counsel to graduate Ben Braddock, what I’m saying is, if you can tap into this particular vein of American self-obsession, then the keys to Fort Knox will be yours.

As I finish my fourth and final year of youth soccer coaching, I can think of no better example of this delusory phenomenon than the scourge of club sports. You see, the cunning folks who run those concerns are masters of tapping into the notion that your child is “special.”

The truth is, every last one of these clubs is virtually interchangeable, but given my experience, we’ll use the Tri-Cities Soccer Association as our prime example.

To their credit, they’re one of the few clubs that maintains a healthy and reasonably priced rec program, but that’s just the gateway. In order for them to survive, they have to get parents hooked on the notion that their trainers and coaches can turn your utterly untalented child into a star soccer player.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily blaming these clubs. Considering the vast number of gullible parents willing to (literally) buy into this fantasy, we probably shouldn’t call it a case of lying, but "gilding the lily" ain’t exactly telling the whole truth, either.

Ah! But doesn’t reality always have a funny way of rearing its ugly head? It’s when little Johnny can’t pass the ball even after his doting parents drop two grand on a club trainer who’s supposed to turn him into Pele, that the problems start.

These incapable-of-introspection and incensed parents immediately start going after the hapless coach and trainer because they believe they’ve failed their infallible child. And let me tell you, soccer moms can get even nastier than a Republican debating the merits of same-sex marriage.

Then the clubs refuse to back the coaches/trainers, because that would mean having to offer an honest assessment of a player’s ability, which would mean shattering these parents’ illusions, which would mean a bitter bank account balance.

To wit, one of my players' mothers actually hit a TCSA employee, and they did absolutely nothing about it—other than thrust her back upon me.

Then there was the time a young woman approached a trainer and asked if she was an A- or B-level player. When the trainer honestly replied she was at the C level, the girl ran to her parents, who ran to the club, who swiftly demoted the trainer to a lower-level team.

Honest assessment has no place when you’re profiting on peoples’ pipe dreams.

Since this dysfunctional dynamic does nothing to improve their son’s limited soccer ability, rather than realize they’ve been had, these parents simply move on to another club that’s equally willing to take their money. And they’re all complicit. These clubs are careful not to dis each other, because they rely on this constant turnover to survive.

A long-time soccer parent and friend told me that TCSA used to be the place you could go to play a little bit above the rec level for a reasonable amount of money. But now they’re pushing everyone to their “premier” program because it makes the cash register sing.

Go to their website, and you’ll see a prominent notice advertising that premier players can sign up without as much as a tryout. As long as you can cough up the cash, then you’re a premier player!

The problem is, as even a TCSA insider noted, if everyone is playing "premier," then it really isn’t premier, is it? Every kid can’t be a soccer star, because then no one would be.

And this goes beyond club sports. I spoke with a number of Patchland principals who told me anguished tales of a plurality of parents who believe their academically middle-of-the-road children should be placed in the gifted program.

The difference between schools and club sports is, schools won’t take advantage of you. That said, perhaps allowing parents to pay extra for that gifted privilege could solve our schools’ budget problems.

You wanna know the truth? Your child is average, because that’s what most children are. That’s why they call it average. Forget about little Johnny becoming a soccer star, because 99 percent of kids I’ve seen play at the “premier” level won’t even start on their high school soccer team.

There simply aren’t enough spots!

The reason the U.S. club soccer system hasn’t produced a single men's world-class player is because its organizers can’t afford to tell American parents—or their spoiled progeny—the truth. So we end up with pseudo “stars” like Landon Donovan who, accustomed only to accolades, has to run to a therapist when he can’t score a goal in World Cup competition.

TCSA and all these other clubs (they’re interchangeable) love to say it’s all about the kids, but it’s not. It’s all about the money.

So don’t be so quick to squander it! That two to three grand you pay per year—per child—for the privilege of participating in club sports is a complete waste of their time and your money. You’d be far better off investing it in their college education, because that actually gives them a shot at earning the right to be called something above average.

Jeff Ward June 16, 2012 at 02:48 PM
Brad, Thanks! And I really hope they do! Jeff
Patch61 June 16, 2012 at 05:49 PM
Jeff - Your remarks read more like a grudge you may have against Tri Cities based on Jennifer Reilly's remarks above. Traveling sports meet many different needs which is why there is a large market for them (duh.). The general need is for kids to play at a higher level of competition. Whether it's the parent or the child who wants it, is the crux of all this. For parents who think their kids may enjoy a higher level of play, I would encourage them to try it for a season. Also, many clubs have refunds or will respond to parent feedback based on varying circumstances (e.g., if the coach is screaming profanities, like Jeff appears to, the club wouldl address the issue.)
Jeff Ward June 16, 2012 at 05:58 PM
Dear Patch61, You can read into it whatever you want, but I've clearly stated all these clubs are the same. Again, I think the TCSA rec program is worthwhile and that's where 90 percent of parents should put their efforts. As for the other comment, it's simply not true. My best evidence is I never asked to coach. TCSA came to me both times and if I'd done anything even approaching what I've been accused of here, that never would have happened. I never would have lasted four years. Not only that, but every winter I coach an indoor team and this year I had to cut back on the roster because so many of my ex rec players wanted to play. Jeff
Thomas June 16, 2012 at 08:59 PM
Amen, Colin!
Greg H July 06, 2012 at 06:06 AM
Club soccer is expensive, absolutely. However my kids love playing the game as witnessed by the number of soccer balls scattered around the house. In addition, I love coaching my kids and I hope one day they can get the same enjoyment with their kids. As for the parents of other kids, there certainly are the overbearing parents but of all the games & tournaments I have been to I have yet to see what you describe. With $300 red card fines assessed by the leagues on the coaches, verbally abusive parents are NOT tolerated. My advice to parents, make sure the program you are joining is geared toward developing players skills and not concentrated on winning as the primary goal. The US Soccer youth development curriculum speaks extensively to this focus. Stay focused on fun and learning and achieving the highest level of competition your child is capable of achieving with parental support to help them try to achieve their goal.

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