Editor’s note: This story is Part 1 of a two-part series.
KAYSVILLE — On a Tuesday evening in August, a pair of speakers arrived at the Davis High School auditorium. They’d been invited by Wasatch Soccer Club and MetaSport FC, two local soccer clubs, to prep parents for the upcoming season.
Mark O’Sullivan, a researcher, soccer coach and youth development expert, took the dais first. O’Sullivan came from Sweden, where he works with one of the country’s top-ranked professional teams, AIK. O’Sullivan started with a few facts that would surprise many parents in Utah club soccer. For starters, AIK is moving away from talent selection before age 12. It’s also withdrawing from inter-organization competition for younger age groups with the goal of enhanced development and more fun. The local club directors wanted the audience to ingest as much information as possible about making their child’s soccer experience beneficial.
Hundreds of parents packed the meeting. They came straight from work, many still wearing scrubs or ties. These parents pay hundreds of dollars for registration, plus uniform fees, referee fees, state league fees and more, all in the hope that their kids are getting the best development possible. Some parents spend thousands each year on club soccer. Kids begin as early as kindergarten, practicing multiple times a week through the summer and then traveling all over the state for games and tournaments. Which led O’Sullivan to a show-stopper of a question early on.
“If we restart youth sports from zero and rebuild it based on children’s physical and emotional needs,” he asked, “would it look like it does today?”
The auditorium filled with mutters of “No.” O’Sullivan decided to conduct an impromptu survey. “Hands up for no?” he asked.
Almost everyone raised a hand.
“I think,” he said, “we have a consensus.”
Pay to play
American youth sports are in decline — some say in crisis. The number of kids age 6-12 who play team sports regularly dropped from 41.5% in 2011 to 37% in 2017, per the Aspen Institute. The percentage of kids who participate in high-calorie-burning sports has declined from 28.7% to 23.9% over the same period. And the 2018-19 school year marked the first drop in high school athletics participation since 1988-89.
This trend has coincided with a rising phenomenon. While American childhood was once dotted with pickup basketball and recreational baseball, today’s youth sports opportunities are increasingly exclusive, specialized and professionalized. American youth sports have become a $17 billion industry. That’s bigger than Major League Baseball and the $15 billion NFL.
What this means is that for kids in America, sports have become pay to play, where wealthy families shell out hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars a year for one-on-one training from pro athletes, weeklong camps and leagues made up of super teams. In the meantime, low-income families are finding it harder to afford sports, even in local recreation leagues. Just 34% of kids from families earning less than $25,000 a year played a team sport at least one day in 2017, compared to 41.9% in 2011. But among families that earn over $100,000 a year, participation has risen from 66.4% to 69%, per The Aspen Institute’s Project Play.
That’s not to say youth sports can’t be positive. Take, for example, Utah Celtic FC’s 19U team that won this year’s U.S. Youth Soccer National Championship Series final. Celtic didn’t just win — it dominated, besting Missouri’s Lou Fusz Elam 9-1. It took 10 years of playing together at the same club to build up to that moment. Coach Steve Magleby noted how fitting it was that, “Our last game together is a national championship.” But forget competitive success for a moment; there was more going on.
Tracie Peterson’s daughter Chelsea started playing recreational soccer in Orem at 4. At 9, she tried out for Celtic and stayed there. She also played basketball, among other sports. Chelsea Peterson said soccer wasn’t her favorite. But it grew on her, and in ninth grade, she really started taking it seriously. She started training with a private goalie coach. She made it a priority. Why?
“The reason she loved soccer more than anything else,” Tracie Peterson said, “was the relationships.”
She played with largely the same group of girls for 10 years. They practiced together. They played in far-away tournaments — from Hawaii to North Carolina — together. They competed together. They hung out together. They grew up together.
“They’d say that they’re best friends off the field,” said Magleby, now a BYU assistant.
The sport also helped Chelsea Peterson develop a healthy competitive drive and a hefty work ethic, Tracie Peterson said. But the soccer parent also didn’t ignore some of the complications — especially regarding cost. Chelsea Peterson now plays at the University of Utah. She’s on a partial scholarship, and Tracie Peterson said with all the money spent on club soccer, “We’ve probably paid enough to cover her college experience.” But the club was like a family; their literal family got to take several vacations around it; and her daughter loved it. Her philosophy is as long as the kid loves it and you can afford it, it’s worth it.
“If you’re going to play at this high a level, you have to go into it knowing it’s expensive,” she said, “which is unfortunate.”
She also said it’s a “shame” that kids are specializing earlier. Kids should be allowed to try different things, she said, and choose what they like best.
That’s increasingly rare.
Some believe the current youth sports system is essential. If parents want their kids to excel at basketball, it starts with training like an NBA player as early as possible, the thinking goes. While some parents hope their kids get athletic scholarships or even make the pros, others opt into the system because they believe if they don’t, their kids have no chance of making high school teams. A recent study noted only 2% of parents expect their kids to play in college or go pro. As University of Utah sports psychologist Nick Galli put it, the “crazy sports parent” is less common than people think. But they’re still capable of applying plenty of pressure.
“Parents who have proper perspective have generally ruined their first kid,” said Britain Thomas, founder of MetaSport FC.
The 10,000 hours rule
In 2008, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: The Story of Success” debuted atop the New York Times best-seller list. It tried to answer a question pondered across generations: Why are certain people successful? Talent wasn’t as important as people assumed, Gladwell found. Luck played a factor, as did sufficient support, privilege and development opportunities. But what got the most attention was Gladwell’s “10,000 hours rule,” which posited that successful people hone their abilities through years of practice.
He offered two prime examples: The Beatles, Gladwell found, performed 1,200 times in what he called “the Hamburg crucible” between 1960 and 1962. John Lennon remarked on how frequently and lengthily they had to play, saying they couldn’t help but get better and more confident “with all the experience playing all night long.” Bill Gates’ prestigious middle/high school, meanwhile, purchased a time sharing computer terminal in 1968 — a highly unusual purchase for the time, but one that allowed Gates to season his programming starting in eighth grade. And season he did, foregoing athletics and other studies in favor of coding.
The 10,000 hours rule has since exploded into the American collective consciousness. More than a decade after its publication, it remains listed in Amazon’s top 10 best-sellers among books about statistics, social psychology and interactions, and cultural anthropology.
The 10,000 hours rule, according to the Changing the Game Project — an advocacy group aiming to “return youth sports to our children” — has also “become the bedrock philosophy of many coaches and programs developing young athletes. They use the popularity of the rule to claim that kids need to train for 10,000 hours if they are going to become top players. They demand more commitment at younger ages.”
But what if Gladwell’s understanding of the 10,000 hours rule was flawed?
In a rebuttal published in Salon in 2016, Anders Ericsson — whose 1993 study of elite violin players Gladwell largely based his 10,000 hours rule around, and who developed the concept of “deliberate practice” — noted that the idea of putting in 10,000 hours to become a master of anything is “irresistibly appealing.” It “satisfies the human desire to discover a simple cause-effect relationship.” But in case the title — “Malcolm Gladwell got us wrong” — wasn’t clear enough, Ericsson took issue with the way Gladwell “oversimplified” his work.
First, he said, 10,000 hours is arbitrary. Elite violin players had accumulated 10,000 hours of practice by age 20, but Gladwell could have used their number of accumulated hours at 18 just as easily; plus the number varies by field. Second, 10,000 hours among the elite violinists was an average; half of them fell below it. Third, Gladwell didn’t distinguish deliberate practice — which involves expert instruction, mistake correction, maximum effort and being motivated by improvement — from any other kind of practice. His examples of the Beatles and Gates seem to fall closer to what one researcher calls “deliberate play” — informal activities organized without rules or guidance and motivated by having fun.
Lastly, Ericsson wrote that although Gladwell didn’t say this himself, his book has widely been understood as implying that anyone can become an expert in any field with enough deliberate practice. “But nothing in the study of the Berlin violinists implied this,” Ericsson wrote.
Gladwell was right, Ericsson said, that excelling in any field with a history of excellence requires immense amounts of effort over many years. But when applying this system to children’s sports, one question is whether the desired result is excellence — or something else.
Playing to win, early and often
Competitive sports’ takeover of American childhood began in 1852, when Massachusetts became the first state to mandate schooling — at least according to Hilary Levey Friedman, who wrote the literal book on children’s competitions, “Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.” In an excerpt published by the Atlantic in 2013, she argued that mandatory schooling created a separation between school time and free time, with parents scrambling to fill the latter. First public, then private sports organizations — like the YMCA, Pop Warner and Little League Baseball — grew from the void.
In the 1960s, college admission became “a badge of parental fulfillment,” and competitive sports — or arts or academics — were viewed as helpful toward acceptance. And even though application numbers fell in the next two decades, parents funneling their kids into competition did not.
“Parents started to understand that it could be hard to get into college,” Friedman told the Deseret News.
Parents today are also concerned that if their children don’t compete — early — they’ll fall behind in “the tournament of life.” Friedman isolated five factors they’re hoping to cultivate: Internalizing the importance of winning; learning to recover from a loss; managing time pressure; performing in stressful environments; and feeling comfortable being judged by others in public. She calls this mixture “Competitive Kid Capital,” and developing it has become the core purpose of youth sports involvement for many American parents. Even if they say their first priority is something like learning teamwork or leadership, Friedman said, their underlying goals usually become clear with some drilling.
A 2018 press release from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons also noted a “paradigm shift” in parents’ approach to youth sports specialization this millennium. “Gone are the days filled with pick-up basketball games and free play,” it lamented. It reported 54.7% of parents surveyed urged their kids to specialize in one sport. Similar numbers were reported in a 2017 study: 49.7% of surveyed parents encouraged specialization.
This could be, in part, because societal standards have evolved. Kids wandering down to the sandlot alone isn’t viewed like it once was (Utah is trying to change that). But another study tried to isolate factors driving the rush to specialization. It concluded that while specialization could be a sign of healthy aspirations, “extrinsic influences” were common among specialized athletes. Extrinsic influences meaning coaches — who told one-third of surveyed children that they needed to specialize — and parents in pursuit of the most straightforward path to Competitive Kid Capital.
In his book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World,” David Epstein argued that early specialization rarely equals success in sports. Among elite athletes, Epstein found “they typically devote less time early on to deliberate practice in the activity in which they will eventually become experts. Instead, they undergo what researchers call a ‘sampling period’” — trying out many sports/activities until discovering one they’re passionate about.
Gladwell noted Epstein’s persuasion on “Range’s” book jacket. “For reasons I cannot explain,” he wrote, “David Epstein manages to make me thoroughly enjoy the experience of being told that everything I thought about something was wrong.”
Crafting finished products
Back in Kaysville, O’Sullivan explained that one of his biggest issues with youth sports is language. Calling children “products,” referring to them as “talent,” and especially saying they’re “elite.”
“Does anybody have an elite child?” he asked.
Many of these adjectives can be traced to the industrial machine surrounding American youth sports, including publishers of youth sports magazines, their advertisers, organizational app developers and uniform/apparel sellers. The term “cottage industry,” Friedman wrote, is appropriate. “People have found they can make a living at this,” she said — a realization she blames, in part, for the rise of specialization. “And I don’t think they’re bad people, but” they’re incentivized to keep kids involved.
Because there’s a tremendous amount of money to be made on youth sports, she advised parents beware of questionable operations. Reputable programs, too, are put under tremendous pressure to win — now — within this infrastructure. If they don’t, they risk losing talented players to other programs. This can create a “cascade effect,” where other players follow the first player’s lead.
Multiple Utah club soccer coaches with international experience reported how different competitive infrastructure is in America. Marco de Ruiter, technical director at Sparta United, is from Amsterdam; and Lee Davis, originally from England, is the technical director at Wasatch Soccer Club. Both observed that winning here is viewed as equalling development.
“That’s all we see over here,” Davis said. “Parents leaving teams and coaches because they want their kid to be on a winning team.”
An infrastructure built around winning can promote other bizarre behavior, like parents assigning added prestige to coaches with foreign accents. Friedman quoted one soccer coach who said his accent gave him “instant authority,” and David Josse, president of North Utah County Soccer, told the Deseret News he’s had parents express the same sentiment.
America’s youth sports infrastructure also feeds a potentially toxic ambition: accumulation of prestige.
In search of bragging rights
On a recent Tuesday, near the northern shore of Utah Lake in Lehi, Mike Raffael shepherded a group of 16 kids, 8-9-years old — the newest members of Arsenal FC.
Birds chirped in the distance. Mountains jutted in every direction. Sun shined through a cloudless sky. The only non-picturesque part was the 90-degree heat. With no shade near the practice field, most parents were set up about 50 feet away, their umbrellas tilted toward the sun. They remained quiet for most of practice, but even among younger kids, massive parental investment — both financial and emotional — is becoming more common.
Raffael remembers one mom who asked him how her daughter would “be seen.”
“By who?” he asked.
“The colleges!” she answered.
Her daughter was 12.
“It is,” Raffael said when asked if chasing scholarships, notoriety and prestige is problematic. “Absolutely.”
Scholarships seem to be the outlier of that group. But chasing scholarships makes little financial sense. Chances are minimal — only 2% of high school athletes are awarded college scholarships.
“I’ve seen parents spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars pursuing a college scholarship,” Travis Dorsch, founding director of the Families in Sport Lab at Utah State University, told TIME. “They could have set it aside for the damn college.”
Even if most parents don’t believe their child will be the next Serena Williams, the messianic devotion to prodigy stories like the Williams sisters delivers a subtle psychological signal. Perhaps none is more famous than Tiger Woods.
Epstein opened “Range” with a reprise of Tiger’s ascent to fame, starting with the then-2-year-old out-putting Bob Hope on The Mike Douglas Show. From there, Tiger engaged in deliberate practice throughout his youth and mastered golf.
Epstein also offered a contrast: tennis superstar Roger Federer.
Growing up in Switzerland, Federer played basketball, handball, tennis, table tennis, badminton and soccer. He also skied, wrestled, swam and skateboarded. Rather than pushy, a Sports Illustrated writer once called Federer’s parents “pully” — they almost discouraged his athletic pursuits. Federer gravitated toward tennis himself as a teenager.
But it’s easy to see why parents latch onto Tiger’s narrative. It allows them to be proactive. Dennis Burrows, director of coaching at Utah Soccer Alliance, said it also gives parents an ego boost when their 10-year-old plays for a top-ranked club.
“That’s their trophy that they’re showing everybody,” he said.
Josse said he’s even had parents who left for a new team because it was more expensive. It reminded him of his former employer: a software company that shipped its product on 25 floppy discs. When he suggested the same info could fit on one, he was told no one would pay $5,000 for one floppy disc.
At Raffael’s practice, the parent sitting closest to the field was Edgar Ovalle, 34. His son Isaac, 8, played recreational soccer for a couple of years, but they moved up for better instruction.
“I love it,” Ovalle said. “There’s structure. Players are serious. Parents are serious.”
Isaac, his father said, loves it to; Ovalle never has to hassle him about changing into his uniform before practice. But does it ever get too serious?
“I don’t think so,” Ovalle said. “I grew up in a very strict family, so a lot of this is just perfect for me.”
When asked if Raffael keeps practice fun, Ovalle said, “I don’t think that we’re here for fun. We’re here to improve. The boys do have fun, but they’re here to learn.”
Each time Raffael turned his back during practice, they kicked up grass or unleashed armpit farts; you’d have a hard time finding more combined distraction than at a soccer practice for 8- and 9-year-olds. Raffael admitted, though, the pressure to win remains enormous. In search of accolades, parents can bankrupt a club by pulling their kids and moving them to a winning team or a more prestigious program. America loves measuring, and it’s hard to measure development. But national rankings? Easy.
“The question is, are we developing people?” Raffael asked. “Or are we trying to develop pro soccer players?”
A case study: Youth soccer in Utah
On a recent Saturday around noon, players competed in the Utah Glory’s annual summer tournament. The youngest kids only played three games; the rest played a minimum of three but up to five. The contrast was obvious.
On one undersized 6- and 7-year-old field, the referee was a teenager; only four kids per team played at a time, and the parents cheered when there was a goal and didn’t yell at their kids for getting out of position or missing a shot on goal.
On the field for the U17 championship between the Utah Glory and Cobras FC, tensions were high even in the first half. When the ball got near the Cobras goal, one supporter yelled for the goalie to “kick that (bleep) out!”
Moments later, the Glory parents unloaded on one of three referees. “Come on!” one screamed. “Are you blind!?” Another pleaded, “Ref, just call it fair! That’s all we want!”
The parent who yelled at the goalie yelled back at the opposing team’s parents, telling them to “chill.”
Weekly summer tournaments are one part of an expansive system of club soccer in Utah — one that is perhaps best known for its philosophy of promotion and relegation.
Skye Eddy Bruce, president of the Soccer Parenting Association, pointed out that Utah’s system of promoting and demoting teams based on performance — from the time kids are 8 — is unusual.
“This whole promotion and relegation for youth sports is not anything like what the rest of the country does,” she said. “... It just really builds this intense focus on winning.”
But because the state’s main youth soccer governing body, the Utah Youth Soccer Association, sanctions competitive play and promotion and relegation starting at 8, Burrows said it’s difficult to push back. Club soccer often relies on bringing talent through its system for many years. With parents looking for competition as early as possible, he said if they don’t provide it at the youngest levels, their player supply will dwindle.
The system is intended to ensure proper parity. When teams aren’t sorted properly, results can be disastrous. Karli Smith, president of Elite FC in Tooele, has experienced this reality.
“That is crushing for a child,” she said. “That’s heartbreaking as a coach, so I super appreciate the fact that we’ve got different levels relative to skill sets and placement for it, too.”
Thomas pointed out an unintended consequence.
“The structure incentivizes winning. It’s not set up for coaches to promote player development. We’re talking about 9-year-olds,” he said. “Relegation is a big deal. It ruins people.”
There are tremendous incentives — financial for clubs and status-wise for parents — to reach the top level of this system, called the “premier level.” Programs with premier teams are magnets for top players, so it’s easier to avoid the cascade effect. Davis said coaches and club directors have in many cases abandoned any pretense of development.
“Let’s put this development thing on the back burner,” he said of their attitude. “Kids wanna win. Parents wanna win. Let’s do it.
“Short-term gains and long-term losses,” he added. “That’s what it comes down to.”
John Woodrum II, a 20-year-old youth referee who’s reffed since moving to Utah from Georgia five years ago, said it’s also common to get cussed out by impassioned parents. Or, in the case of his craziest interaction, grandparents.
“It was actually a grandma — or a grandpa; I couldn’t tell which one of them said it,” he said, laughing. “They were like, ‘Hey, let’s kill the referee in the parking lot after the game.’”
Many other examples exist of the thirst for victory bringing out the worst in parents. Like the dad from Idaho who pepper-sprayed a referee in Logan (other cases of parents and coaches harassing/assaulting referees across the country are well documented), or another who implied he was carrying a gun.
The system also weeds out kids starting at 8, even if there’s no way to gauge their athletic potential. Coaches face pressure to win right away, so they select for talent (for young kids, that basically means physical gifts) and exclude those who don’t make the cut. In other words, per Thomas, the system motivates coaches to tell kids they aren’t good enough. And the kids who are good enough can face their own spinoff problems. Thomas often reminds parents to avoid comparing their children or moving them from team to team in search of the best record. They often do so anyway.
“It becomes a lesser form of human trafficking,” he said.
Is there a better way?
The question of what Americans want youth sports to look like was central in O’Sullivan’s presentation to soccer parents in Kaysville. Options already exist.
National recreational leagues like i9 Sports operate on the opposite end of the spectrum from club soccer or AAU basketball, offering for-fun games until athletes reach high school. But for kids who want strong coaching and to learn a game and develop skills, competitive leagues are often the only option. And with parents pushing early specialization, they’ll continue to start young.
But is there a way to combine the development of Competitive Kid Capital with a system that’s more kid-focused and less specialized? In Utah, some are trying.
Burrows and Patrick Rennie, another coach at Utah Soccer Alliance, attended a seminar with Manchester United, a top Premier League team in England. They came back and tried to integrate Manchester’s youth training model: They pulled their 8- and 9-year-olds out of competitive leagues and opted for skill development drills and street soccer.
The pushback from parents was “immense.”
They asked parents to mark how many times their child touched the ball under their new system (many times) versus in a competitive game (few times). It remained a nonstarter.
“We are changing,” Rennie said. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot that just want to win. And player development is pushed to the side.”
Thomas has tried to bring a multisport approach to MetaSport FC. In winter and summer, despite the “12-month culture” of youth soccer, his club offers optional strength, speed and agility training along with basketball and volleyball. He believes it’s more “socially responsible,” although it’s worth noting some kids don’t like it. It’s also hard to promote such a system, Thomas said, if a team stops winning.
Tyler Stockstill, founder of Utah Development Academy, is trying to address another concern about the club soccer experience: inequity. About two or three years into coaching, he was assigned a team of high school freshmen. It was their first experience with competitive soccer, and many of them relied on club subsidies to afford it. Without warning, the club stopped funding them.
“That just really rubbed me the wrong way,” he said. “It felt like they were holding players hostage,” in that their success determined their ability to play.
His club uses grants, donors and other outside sources to subsidize players. The program is still in its infancy, but it’s now near 40% funded.
Jean Côté, a preeminent Canadian youth sports researcher who developed the concept of deliberate play, offers a different approach altogether: The “Four C’s” — competence, confidence, connection and character. His system promotes each area equally, rather than valuing one while excluding the other three.
“In an early specialization pathway, there’s a lot less emphasis put on confidence, connection and character, and a lot more on competence,” he said.
Competence is what wins, but is that all youth sports should be about?
Sweden’s neighbor, Norway, has embraced a youth sport system — agreed to by its 54 sports federations — that promotes some competition, but according to The New York Times, “not at the expense of development.” The Norwegian system doesn’t allow national championships before age 13, nor regional championships, rankings or even published scores before age 11. And Norway remains competitive on the international stage, winning more Olympic medals (39) in Pyeongchang than any country in Winter Olympics history.
After parents agreed that youth sports often don’t promote the best interests of children, O’Sullivan explained that this is, at least in part, because the common model is “linear.” His point could be likened to someone throwing a bag of eggs at a brick wall. If one of them doesn’t break, we’d hold it up and proclaim, “Look! The system works!”