This fall I'm going to be a soccer ref. I played plenty of soccer in high school, and intramural soccer in college, but being a ref is a new thing. So this piece about the relative merits of training versus competition in kids' sports interested me:
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.... 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.
So why does this approach work?
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.
It turns out that "kids find drilling and learning fun." Just as important for the long term, researchers have generated "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."
So why don't we do it? Blame the parents....
"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.