The Case For Soccer

May 7, 2010 7:12:44 AM PDT
When my kids were entering elementary school, we were a little leery about sports. The grade school we chose was very into their teams, especially football. As a kid, I was a casual athlete, the kind who didn't really fully develop my coordination until approximately age THIRTY, when I promptly dislocated my shoulder and stopped playing sports. My wife was in pretty much the same boat; neither of us was particularly athletic. This got us thinking that our kids were probably not going to be great athletes, either. And in a school with an aggressive sports tradition, this was a little off-putting. Our theory was this: the more sports they were given options to play, the more sports our kids might actually try, thus increasing the ways in which they might break their necks!

It turned out to be one of those early-parenting fears that were common when we were new at the job, and which didn't mesh with reality. In the end, the kids all played various sports, walked away without any serious injuries, and gained confidence and social skills in the process. Contrary to our initial suspicions, they were not automatically drawn to everything (in fact, none of them showed any interest in football, the sport we dreaded the most in terms of potential injury), and they basically went for whatever they thought looked fun. As a dad, I had a great time attending Intramural basketball games, track meets, field hockey matches, and little league.

But the sport that was most popular in our family was soccer. This was sort of surprising, since neither my wife nor I had much experience with the sport. Yet, collectively, the three kids were involved in it for more years than anything else.

I'm going to suggest that, unless your kid looks like a lock for becoming the next Chase Utley or Donovan McNabb, if there's one sport to gently nudge in your child's direction, it's this one. The reasons are wide ranging. First of all, in soccer, everybody plays. I mean, think about it. Any kid can run. And even those that don't have that much stamina can still actually accomplish something on a soccer field. Even standing still, sooner or later, the ball will bounce in a player's direction and instinct will generally cause their toe to jerk forward and touch the ball. Eventually, the running part becomes easier, too. Even in the games where my kids had few "touches", they were doing plenty of running and getting plenty of exercise.

Also, in the early years, leagues usually only put a few kids on the field at a time, increasing the chances that every child gets their foot on the ball. This approach also gives the others, perhaps unused to running around non-stop, some good breathers. The game is also easy for beginners. A good program won't worry about passing or strategy at first. Initially, they didn't even use goalies in the league our kids were involved with. The focus is on basic skills, like footwork, which are taught gradually. Then, as the years go by, rules and strategy are introduced. But here's the real "kicker". The kids, despite what you might assume, really start to develop skills quickly. By about 4th or 5th grade, all players---the well-skilled on down---improve to the point where they can pass, be involved in defensive and offensive plays, and are having a pretty fun time.

There are injuries. The most common is getting kicked in the shin, which is why having the proper shin guards is required. As the players get older and their kicks get stronger, it's also possible to get clocked with hard-hit balls in the stomach or head. In a couple hundred games I've either watched or helped coach, I've never seen a broken bone, or serious injury, though. Once, a sixth grade girl was taken to a hospital for precautionary reasons after hurting her leg, but the x-rays were negative, and she was happily playing again the next day. Still, I'm certain serious injuries do occur, and more research into the frequency and types of injuries would probably be advisable for any parent with concerns along these lines.

Harvard Medical School Study on Soccer Inuries

Another selling point of soccer is that, at the early stages anyway, you can actually coach it, even if you don't understand that much about the game. I was fortunate, in that the league I was involved with provided easy-to-follow manuals that mapped out each week's skill lesson for each age group. There were specific, simple drills for the first half-hour of every meeting, followed by a half-hour game. There were also tons of tips on which skills to encourage and which to ignore, depending on the age. I started coaching with a neighbor of mine when the kids were in about first grade and dropped out several years later, when the skill level was getting close to exceeding my abilities to teach. But in those early years, it was easy to see the improvement those simple lessons produced, which was a pretty good feeling, especially for a "coach" who was not naturally athletic.

But even if you don't coach, here's another thing almost any parent will appreciate about soccer, especially after sampling some other sports: soccer is relatively quick. Even the older age-group games only last an hour (with a half-hour warm-up), and are mostly played in moderate weather, with the exception of a few games where you bring along a parka and a grin, and you bear it.

I'm not knocking other sports, by the way. I did track when I was a kid, and played a lot of sandlot baseball and softball. I loved every minute of it. Your situation, personal interests, and that of your child will determine what wins out. But for sheer exercise and enjoyment for the widest range of skill levels, we found that soccer, pound for pound, scored higher than anything else.