What is Happening to the Idea of Team?

I think I understand the many influences and issues in youth sports better than most. I should. I spend every working moment and beyond immersed in youth sports. My role is not restricted to one specific area rather it is one where I have to be actively engaged with players, coaches, parents, clubs and league directors. I am lucky to add to this group by having acquaintances with national and indeed international administrators and influencers in the game.

As I travel around the country and talk to friends from around the world what seems apparent is that the meaning of TEAM, the value of team, and the character traits presented to athletes by participating on a team is under threat.

Unfortunately, the concept of TEAM is being diminished and some wish to make being on a team convenient and disposable.

I have seen all the following over the last 12 months.

  • Kids miss practices and games due to being on other teams.
  • Kids miss practices and games due to birthday parties, dance recitals etc.
  • Parents tell kids to avoid telling the truth about why they miss.
  • Players leave games halfway through when their team is already players down.
  • Players explaining that they cannot give their best effort as they are saving themselves for the next game.
  • Players explaining that they cannot try harder as they just game from another game.
  • Players stop trying to compete when losing 3 or 4 nil.
  • Key teaching moments in games when a coach had the chance to make a valuable character growth teaching point passed up as the result came first.
  • Coaches step in and solve conflicts when players had the opportunity to grow by sorting it out themselves.
  • Parents pull kids from games because they are not playing in the position the parent thinks they should.
  • Coaches afraid to address the issues when a player lets the team down for fear of reprisals and parent rebellion.

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    I have always viewed myself as a teacher, soccer is simply the classroom that I get to practice and perfect my craft in. My passion for the “classroom” is in no doubt driven by my personal experience. I was a troubled kid and teenager, full of self-doubt, insecurity, nerves (displayed with a horrible stutter) and confusion over the world and my place within it.

    A soccer team came to my rescue.  It gave me a place to belong where others valued my desire to try as hard as I possibly could no matter the score.

    I reflect now on the things my youth team gave me, and the things the experience of being on a team taught me:

  • You never quit.  Whatever the score or whoever the opponent you work harder – resilience is key. I played one game with the flu and ended up being taken to the hospital as I collapsed on the field.
  • You never let your teammates down.  You are loyal and reliable to a fault. Not one of my teammates ever doubted I would be there. In turn I never doubted they would.
  • You work hard and go the extra mile to help your team.  Nothing comes easy. I was a very mediocre player who through an enormous amount of time with a ball and training on my own managed to get to play at a high level.
  • You learn to communicate in a very honest and demanding way that the needs of team come before your own needs or desires.
  • You figure out after many attempts how to deal with adversity, confrontation and loss in a noble way that allows you to grow from each problem rather than be emotionally crippled by it.
  • You learn about sacrifice. However inconvenient it may be the team must come first.
  • You learn to respect the game and the opponent.  At times you come across an opponent who exemplifies everything you wish to be – they are brave, determined, hardworking and honest.
  • Because you love your team you learn not to cheat. You don’t cheat by not giving your best, you don’t cheat in a game (“ref it went out”) and most importantly you don’t cheat yourself by ever letting anyone down.
  • If you give your word you keep it. No matter what it takes as the sense of honor you will develop will be yours for life.
  • More than soccer I hold the value and the life lessons that being on a team can bring as being the most important developmental factor in sport. The character traits that a true commitment to being on a team can bring are priceless. Better to chase these that the college scholarships.

    I understand the discussions on broad based physical literacy as I do that on sport sampling, the dangers of early specialization and those of overuse injuries. I am acutely aware of the win at all cost’s nature of many youth sports clubs and environments. In short, I think I have a decent grasp of all the issues within youth soccer.

    With all that being stated I can say that all parents, coaches, clubs and administrator should get back to promoting the value of TEAM and should do so now.

    Realize your kids will probably not become professional athletes or get a college scholarship. They may, by virtue of being in a good team environment and BEING HELD ACCOUNTABLE FOR BEING AN ACTIVE AND HONEST PART OF A TEAM pick up and master many life skills that will be needed in abundance throughout adulthood.

  • It’s a 2 way street which is contributing to this. For the parents, its the impression that for the clubs its only about the money, and for the coaches, only about the wins (because that’s what they are judged by). For the coaches, it’s the impression that the parents consider the kids free agents, willing to do the club tryout shuffle every year, looking for the better and shinier toy.

    Team and individual have a symbiotic relationship and loyalty is a two way street. If teams are going to engage in some of the more egregious behaviors it’s hard to get a buy in from parents that they should care about the team (and not only their player) particularly since it’s the parents job of looking out for the kid: “upgrading” team members who got you to new brackets for ringers, bringing in guest players which impact team member playtime, benching weaker players instead of developing them, favoritism, direct soccer at the expense of teaching the kids, etc.

    At the travel level, it’s hard to image but I suppose that it occur that kids are missing games due to birth day parties and playdates. If they are, and the rest of the team isn’t objecting, the entire team might consider whether they even want to play travel ball. At the rec level this supposed to be expected: it’s rec and no one is really all that into it. My son was a goalkeeper on his 2nd year AYSO team….I remember asking the striker who he was friends with if now that the season was over they’d like to practice with us, to get ready for Extras tryouts….they said they had season passes to Disneyland, which is all right…what’s neat about soccer now is they have different levels for different levels of dedication.

  • Thank you for such a wonderful article. I’m a young adult who grew up playing soccer competitively and these pointers really hit home. I would 100% give soccer credit for teaching me many of the life skills I have today.

  • Great article Tim. I agree that coaches need to develop the skill of identifying teachable moments and what/when isn’t – then having the courage to deliver the life lesson.

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    Tim Bradbury

    Tim Bradbury hails from Stoke-On Trent, England, with a teaching degree from London University and a masters in sociology and education.
    Tim has obtained all major coaching qualifications with both the USSF and the NSCAA, including both the NSCAA inaugural Master Coach Diploma and USSF "A" License in 1987. Tim has coached collegiately, with ODP, State Associations and in the youth game. Currently the DOC Instruction at SUSA, he is on the National Staff for both U.S. Soccer and United Soccer Coaches.