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The world of kids and soccer pressure

IT WAS supposed to be a fun, carefree soccer game, but Katie's dad was sapping the enjoyment right out of it.

Defender Danny Califf oversees a Union Juniors training session at YSC Sports in Wayne. (Greg Carrocio/Sideline Photos)
Defender Danny Califf oversees a Union Juniors training session at YSC Sports in Wayne. (Greg Carrocio/Sideline Photos)Read more

IT WAS supposed to be a fun, carefree soccer game, but Katie's dad was sapping the enjoyment right out of it.

His blatant negativity after every touch she took was embarrassing. Every time she had the ball, completed a pass or took a shot, Katie, 15, looked her father's way for approval. I can count on one hand the number of times he gave it.

What's worse, Katie was playing in a no-stress Saturday morning pickup game - you know the kind, where all you have to do is show up with a pair of cleats, a white and dark shirt for teaming purposes and you're good to go.

I approached her dad and jokingly asked why the intensity in such a nonchalant environment and got a long-winded reply about her being an "elite player" and that she should be "making better decisions" with the ball, especially considering the competition - albeit grown men - paled in comparison to what she faces on her club travel team.

Sadly, there are far too many parents like Katie's.

According to the National Alliance for Youth Sports, 70 percent of kids drop out of organized sports by age 13. The No. 1 reason? Pressure from adults.

It seems the higher the skill level, the more stress young athletes feel from parents to excel. Whether some parents enjoy living vicariously through their child's accomplishments, or played the sport at a high level and believe they know the right way to play it, there are those who believe their input is beneficial to their children's development.

But why?

"In my opinion, [soccer] parents don't have a good metric on what's good and what's bad for their child's development," said Union assistant John Hackworth. Hackworth previously served as a youth coach on the U.S. national team level and was director of U.S. Soccer's residency camp in Bradenton, Fla.

"Many times parents look at a performance in terms of the score line to determine what's good or bad. Soccer is like playing a piano, until you master the skill you can't even think in terms of playing on stage."

For many young soccer players, the stage itself provides its own unique brand of stress. In today's sports landscape where playing for the high-priced travel club or on an Olympic Development Program (ODP) squad holds more clout than playing high school varsity, kids feel the pressures of keeping their place among the best.

Long gone are childhood memories like those of current U.S. national team forward Clint Dempsey, who claims much of his talent was developed by competing in pickup games against Mexican immigrants as a youngster in Nacogdoches, Texas.

Last year when the Union unveiled its youth academy, the program's intent was to welcome players as young as 8 years old and groom them to become the next homegrown talent - if not the next Dempsey. This soccer model has been used in European countries for decades but has just started to take hold in America - in the face of parents who have little knowledge of what it entails.

At YSC Sports, the primary training facility of Union Juniors on the edge of Wayne, parents involved in the program are required to sign a waiver that states:

I agree to emphasize development first and foremost with my child because I understand development is more important than results (especially for children under 12 years of age) and I agree to be a quiet observer of my child's training, and I shall not coach my child during any Union Juniors sessions.

"We take that very seriously; it's important for a child to feel that it's OK to make a mistake because mistakes will happen," said Dr. Christina Fink, primary sports psychologist at YSC. "When I work with kids whose parents were good athletes, I usually stress the importance that they are not the next, they are their own person. I compare it to when [Argentine soccer star Leonel] Messi said, 'He is not the next Diego Maradona, he is Messi.' And looking at all he's been able to accomplish, Messi proves there's nothing wrong with being your own person."

But Fink believes that the offending parents are in the minority and the more extreme parents - you know, the ones who scream louder than the coaches - overshadow the parents who do take a step back.

Hackworth sees it differently.

"I'd say it's a vast majority of parents," Hackworth said. "They put so much emphasis on having their child do the right thing [in a game scenario] they forget that the kid is still developing. When we are talking about youth development in soccer it should be about skill and acquisition first. I think a lot of parents think that just because they've got their kid signed up to play or the kid gets selected by a big club, that they should be expected to always play at a high level. It's completely the wrong way to look at success in a sport like soccer."

I'm willing to wager that among the 8-to-14-year-olds involved in Union Juniors, a high percentage are in awe to be a part of a program that bears the name of a professional sports franchise. But what about the 15-to-18-year-olds? The ones who have felt the strain from both parents and coaches for years? The ones who have missed far too many social gatherings because of soccer tournaments? The ones who are among a higher percentage to lose the passion and quit the sport?

I have a friend who already has his 4-year-old son signed up for year-round soccer camps at YSC. I know this little guy - he'd rather play with Legos than soccer balls. As for my friend, he's the typical former high school star ready to regale with stories about where his own career might have ended up if he didn't tear his ACL playing college ball.

Do I fear he will try to relive his glory days through his son? Do I think, in many ways, Katie's dad subconsciously is doing the same thing?



 Upcoming game:

Portland (9-12-5, 32 points) at Union (8-7-11, 35 points)

When: Tomorrow, 7:30 p.m.

Where: PPL Park, Chester

TV: The Comcast Network

On the web: Streaming webcast at

For kicks: Riding a two-game win streak, Portland will make its first trip to PPL Park. The Timbers will be out to improve on a dismal road record (1-8-3), earning their last positive road result in a 1-1 tie against San Jose on Aug. 1 . . . Expect midfielder Jack Jewsbury to provide the spark, leading Portland with seven goals and eight assists - in 24 matches. Portland also threatens with midfielder Jorge Perlaza (six goals) forward Kenny Cooper (four) and playmaker Kalif Alhassan (five assists) . . . Keon Daniel returns to the Union after missing time for international responsibilities with Trinidad & Tobago. Daniel scored for T&T in his debut in a 2-0 win over Barbados, which moved T&T into second-round qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup . . . Portland also has four returning from international duty: James Marcelin (Haiti), Steve Purdy (El Salvador), Lovel Palmer (Jamaica); Rodney Wallace (Costa Rica).

INJURY REPORT (As of Tuesday)

Out for the Union: Faryd Mondragon, GK (right finger fracture); Levi Houapeu, FW (left ankle strain)

Probable: Brian Carroll, MF (right foot contusion)

Out for Portland: Adin Brown, GK (concussion); Mamadou Danso, DF-MF (right hamstring strain); Kevin Goldthwaite, DF (left knee ACL rupture); Eddie Johnson, FW (concussion); Spencer Thompson, FW (right knee)

Probable: Troy Perkins, GK (right hip soreness)


Chestnut Hill Academy grad Jeff Larentowicz earned his first international cap with the U.S. national team in Tuesday's 1-0 loss to Belgium. Larentowicz, who plays for MLS' Colorado Rapids, entered the match in the 76th minute for Jose Torres.