Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine cover story by Michael Sokolove looks at De Toekomst-“the Future”-a Dutch soccer academy that trains about 200 players, ranging in age from 7 to 19. You’d think a place that’s called a “cutting-edge European talent factory” and that produces some of today’s elite soccer players would be a real soccer sweatshop-but you’d be wrong. At 12, Ajax kids train only three times a week and play only once on the weekend. My 8-year-old, a B-level hockey player, played hockey more than that nearly every week last season. His soccer-playing friends (none of whom appear likely to be the next Beckham) train twice a week and play two or more games weekly as well. The Dutch want to protect their young players; we Americans want to play ours. If they’re having fun, if they’re winning, if they’re improving, we say, why not let them play more? Especially if they’re winning. We like to watch kids win.
But increasingly, the leagues that control the kinds of sports that are competitive at an international level, like hockey and soccer, are realizing that what’s fun for the watching parent is not what creates top-level players, and that’s creating a schism between the top and bottom levels of sport. Those young Dutch players spend practice time drilling, not competing. Because they’re learning as individuals, not as a team, they don’t even necessarily win games. Any reward the kids feel from play comes from their own, and their coaches’, sense of their improvement-not from the scoreboard. It’s a different way of considering sport. “As soon as a kid [in the U.S.] starts playing, he’s got referrees on the field and parents watching in lawn chairs,” says John Hackworth, a youth-development coordinator for Major League Soccer. “As he gets older, the game count just keeps increasing. It’s counterproductive to learning and the No. 1 worst thing we do.” But community-based youth soccer leagues, as Sokolove noted, are slow to change. The whole point of practicing, to the American mind, is to get out there and play the game.
Last winter, I sat and listened to Roger Grillo, former Brown University hockey coach and now a promoter for USA Hockey’s youth development, tell a group of hockey parents and coaches the exact same thing that Hackworth told Sokolove (minus the lawn chairs). His message-that 6-, 7-, and 8-year-old kids should have more time to learn the game before we demand that they play in front of their cheering fans (that would be us)-fell on nearly deaf ears; even before a battery of statistics showing that a few years of more drills, more scrimmaging, and more learning resulted in improved play, fewer injuries and less burnout, few of the parents or coaches wanted to change the way things are done. Grillo, Hackworth, and De Toekomst say that kids find drilling and learning fun, but adults see games as fun, and it’s tough to get volunteer coaches to do things differently than what they experienced as kids. But when a soccer academy that scouts kids as young as 5 can someday expect to make hundreds of thousands of dollars licensing those athletes to other teams is offering a saner approach to sport than a run-of-the-mill New England hockey club, you have to wonder if it’s not way past time for a change.