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Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game

Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game

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Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game

251 pages
4 hours
Aug 27, 2015


Soccer is a fun, healthy activity for children. It's also a battleground for adults who want to take the sport several different directions. 

Is youth soccer a breeding ground to grow the USA's talent pool for future World Cup wins? If so, should we be herding talented players into elite groups away from their friends at early ages? And can soccer clubs meet the "elite" needs while also serving the community?

Beau Dure, author of Long Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer and Enduring Spirit: Restoring Professional Women's Soccer to Washington, first encountered these issues as a journalist covering U.S. Soccer's efforts to revamp youth development. Then he got a different perspective, coaching his two young sons. He saw a disconnect between what soccer organizations say and what they do, and he saw idealized development models that don't make much sense to the flustered parent-coach responsible for introducing the game to kindergartners.

In our efforts to make superstars, we often make sports less fun and more harmful. Players end up quitting in vast numbers, a crucial problem in a country that struggles with health and obesity.

This book examines those issues along with less serious topics, such as whether burping in unison is a good bonding activity. Dure spoke with leading youth soccer organization directors and with past and present professional players to get their insight.

For the parent, this book is a guide, blending serious research and funny anecdotes to navigate through the alphabet soup of organizations, leagues and clubs competing for players and dollars. 

For the coach, this book is a look at what works, what doesn't, and what should never be done again.

For administrators who run everything from a local club to U.S. Soccer, this book is a plea for sanity and a simple request to focus on one goal: Give every player the opportunity to play at a level that best suits his or her interests and aptitude.

Aug 27, 2015

About the author

Beau Dure is an alumnus of Duke University and USA TODAY. He lives in Vienna, Va., with his wife, two sons and two dogs. He spend his weekdays at Starbucks and his weekends on soccer fields. 

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Single-Digit Soccer - Beau Dure

About this book

Let’s be clear up front: This isn’t your typical soccer book. This isn’t the inspirational tale of a world-class soccer player who overcame that loss in the state final, ending her team’s 357-game winning streak, to go on to international glory. This isn’t a book of soccer drills that assume your 6-year-old soccer player has the attention span and spatial awareness of a chess grandmaster.

This is a book for those of you who have had to fish kids out of the woods to continue a game. This is for those of you who stare at the alphabet soup of soccer organizations in your area and toss up your hands in frustration, saying you just want to find a good place for your kid to play a sport. It’s for those of you who have 9-year-old prodigies and aren’t sure whom to believe out of all the people in different jerseys telling you what you should do with them, and it’s for those of you who have 7-year-olds who conduct grand botanical experiments when they’re supposed to be chasing a soccer ball.

Sounds frustrating, doesn’t it? But soccer is rewarding, for player and parent. And players and parents might actually learn something.

It’s also a book for those of you who are at the elite levels—not just high-level travel parents but also the thousands of coaches and administrators who have carved out a place for themselves in the booming youth soccer marketplace. It’s feedback on how your messages are being received among the people who’ve signed over their kids to get anything from a bit of exercise to a chance at a pro career. It’s also a request to remember that we’re dealing with kids here, not mere fodder to be fed into a giant machine that produces World Cup winners.

It is, quite frankly, a plea for sanity.

So as I start the long list of people to thank for this book, I’ll start with you, the reader. Thank you for reading this book. Thank you for thinking about the various issues that pop up as we try to make youth soccer a good experience for everyone. Thank you for maintaining a sense of humor as we do that.

Thanks to Monique Bowman for helping all reporters navigate the massive National Soccer Coaches Association of American (NSCAA) convention, and thanks to the many speakers and panelists whose insights are all over this book. Thanks to Robin Fraser, one of the most thoughtful guys in soccer, for stopping by the NSCAA media room to chat with me at the 2014 convention. Thanks to Sam Snow, the 21st-century youth soccer coaching guru, for his insights and enthusiasm.

Thanks to the Houston Dynamo’s Lester Gretsch for gathering comments from Kofi Sarkodie, Andrew Driver, Mike Chabala and Bobby Boswell. Thanks to Christian Lavers and Rick Wolff for their input, and thanks as always to Garth Lagerwey and Alexi Lalas, who agree to be quoted in nearly everything I write.

Thanks to the women’s soccer greats who have always been there as a sounding board for my pet theories and inane questions: Julie Foudy, Kate Markgraf, Brandi Chastain, Tiffany Weimer and Joanna Lohman.

Thanks to a few others who have also dealt with my sub-Socratic questions and offered good feedback, especially Charles Boehm and Jon Townsend. Thanks to Boehm and Chris Hummer for the opportunity to share some of my thoughts at SoccerWire.com.

Thanks to those at BigSoccer who talked about their coaching and parenting experiences with me.

Thanks to my past employers and editors who have encouraged me and challenged me over the years, especially Deb Barrington, Steve Berkowitz and Gary Kicinski.

Thanks to Mike Allen, Pete Wacht, Jane Dawber, Eddie Lima, Mike Gurdak, Ryan Phair and everyone at Vienna Youth Soccer for their efforts in running a community youth soccer club that truly represents its community, and thanks to all of them for encouraging me to bring this book to fruition.

Thanks to my fellow coaches—especially Andrew Ritter, Lee Chichester, Jason Steiner, John Meginley, Damon Lee, Michele Sullivan, Chris Hegedus, Rob Lancaster and Mike Lyons—who have bounced around ideas with me and set up goals on cold, dewy mornings.

Thanks to Mary and the crew at Starbucks at Vienna Marketplace for providing a nice environment and steady refreshments for this and all my other writing endeavors.

Thanks to Laurel Robinson, a fellow survivor of newspaper copy desks who graciously and patiently cleaned up the bad style/grammar I’ve become enamored of (sic).

Thanks to all the players I’ve had the privilege of coaching. Their names are changed in this book for privacy reasons (no, Speedy isn’t anyone’s real name), but I hope they’ll recognize themselves and smile. Thanks to the assistant coaches and parents who’ve helped keep the teams running and keep the players well supplied with snacks and support.

Thanks to my two wonderful boys for playing soccer and giving me the opportunity to coach while being the kind-hearted, cheerful boys who make it fun. And thanks especially to my wife, who has cheered for our teams while occasionally talking me back from the brink of despair when everything was going wrong, and cheered me toward completion of this project.

Terms, abbreviations, things to know

From my years at USA TODAY, I know how difficult it is to write something for a general audience that might not understand soccer without boring the cognoscenti to tears.

For this book, I made a few choices. I’m not going to give extended intros for names like Lionel Messi, Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach or Pele. I’d recommend looking up anything you can about them at your leisure, but for the moment, just know that they’re terrific, historically significant soccer players in whose footsteps your kids might aspire to follow.

A couple of other things I’ll explain here and then not in the rest of the book:

U5, U6, U8, etc.: Short for Under-5 and so forth. Those are the age groups in youth soccer. To play at U6, a player can’t turn 6 years old before the organization’s cutoff date. In international tournaments for older players, the cutoff is January 1. In U.S. soccer, it’s usually around July 31, coming close to aligning with school years but not quite. Most U7s will be first-graders, most U8s will be second-graders, and so on. If you have a kid with an August or September birthday (I have two), you may have a choice of letting your child play up with his or her grade level or down with his or her age group.

4v4, 5v5, 11v11, etc.: Simply the number of players on each side in a game. If each team has four players, it’s 4v4. Most teams don’t play 11v11 (a full-sized game) until U12 or even later.

Travel and House: Travel teams are assembled, usually based on tryouts or perhaps some other evaluation, and play teams from other clubs. They tend to demand significant commitments of time and money. House teams are more recreational and usually play teams within a club, though at older age groups, several clubs may band together to form a larger recreational league. House and recreational are mostly interchangeable.

Academy: This means whatever your local youth club is trying to sell. Some clubs have teams in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, which means those teams are Academy teams and the younger teams such as U12s may be Pre-Academy. Some clubs call all their travel teams Academy teams, which would mean Pre-Academy would apply to U8s and anyone else too young for travel. And some use Academy for any program in which an actual pro does the coaching. I’ll generally steer clear of this term unless I’m talking about the Development Academy. Or Athens Academy, my alma mater, where I should’ve listened to the coaches who advised me to play soccer instead of running track.

Coerver: A Dutch coach named Wiel Coerver developed a well-organized teaching system that focuses on teaching ball skills. His drills are especially popular at young ages, where kids can learn fundamentals that should suit them well down the road.

U.S. Soccer (capital S) or U.S. soccer (lowercase s): The U.S. Soccer Federation is the sanctioning body for the sport in the United States. Its affiliates include U.S. Youth Soccer, AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) and U.S. Club Soccer. Those affiliates have some leeway to pursue their own goals, and on occasion, what you’ll hear from one body contradicts what you hear from another. Nice and clear, isn’t it?

I use U.S. Soccer (or USSF) when I’m referring specifically to the organization, but it’s not always practical to say that for every soccer activity in the USA, so you’ll also see U.S. soccer at times. I try not to say American soccer because I don’t want angry letters from people in other countries in the Americas.

NSCAA: National Soccer Coaches Association of America, a tremendous resource for coaches to share information and advice. Their annual winter convention collects enough soccer brainpower to light up the East Coast, and you’ll see several lectures and discussions cited throughout the book. You’ll frequently see me write at NSCAA, which means at the NSCAA convention. Brevity is . . . wit, to steal the name of a fun but dormant blog.

Reality check: You’ll see a few of these scattered through the book. Some are for parents, reminding all of us to consider what we really expect of our kids. Some are for administrators, reminding them that our kids aren’t just fodder for a giant national team-development machine.

You’ll also want to know a few names that will pop up often:

Bob Cook: Started a blog called Your Kid’s Not Going Pro and moved it to Forbes in 2011.

John O’Sullivan: A veteran youth coach who is tackling issues in the sport with his book and blog Changing the Game. The subtitle outlines his goals: The Parent’s Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids.

Claudio Reyna: One of the best players the USA has ever produced. After his retirement, he went to work for U.S. Soccer and developed a comprehensive youth soccer curriculum.

Sam Snow: The longtime coaching director of U.S. Youth Soccer is dedicated to educating the next generation of coaches.

Mike Woitalla: Soccer America writer who covers a lot of youth soccer issues.

Sources and footnotes

The bibliography at the end is my formal attempt to list everything that has influenced me over the past five years as I’ve learned about youth soccer. The footnotes, which I’ve tried to keep scarce so this won’t read like a grad school dissertation, will be informal, clarifying any unfamiliar terminology or anything that needs to be directly cited. Or just tell you to go to YouTube to watch a funny video.

As I often say when I’m signing books, enjoy the Beautiful Game!

Chapter 1

Pass it! No, no—with your feet!

The spring sun was shining. The grass at the elementary school was a healthy green, not yet ravaged by a season of wear and tear. The lines marking two small soccer fields were crisp and clear.

And I found myself kneeling on one sideline before a group of sad, frustrated second-graders.

We weren’t keeping score. We don’t do that at this age. But we all knew. We were losing. Badly.

Some of the blame fell on me. One of my biggest responsibilities as head coach was to split my team between the two fields of 5v5 games and try to keep a competitive balance on each one. But one of our better players had turned up late, as usual. And Speedy, our brilliant player who could run faster with the ball than most players run without it, had been banged up in the first quarter.

We were left holding up our end of a 5v5 game with a side that included one player who was blissfully unaware that a game was unfolding around him. Another, a nice kid who had developmental issues, was occasionally willing to be coaxed into taking a kickoff but unable to participate in full.

The other team was, to put it charitably, aggressive. Speedy didn’t fall and hurt himself on his own. When one of their players started a pileup that left two of our kids shaken up, I stopped the action to yell at everyone to cool it. The other team’s assistant coach on the field applauded, but I sensed that he thought I was talking only to my players.

Before the game ended, one of my best players was gone. His mother had taken him away, claiming a schedule conflict. She later wrote me a vociferous complaint about the other team.

I held up the postgame handshake to remind my players to show good sportsmanship as we departed. I had focused mostly on the field in which we were losing badly, but I knew things were rough on the other field as well. An Angry Parent from the other team had grabbed me to complain about one of my players. The parents on my team later assured me that Angry Parent’s son was initiating many of the shenanigans. I just wanted to get through the handshake and get the hell off the field without further incident.

The other team’s coaches were miffed that I wasn’t sending my team immediately into the handshake lines, but my lecture worked. Everyone shook hands and left without any problems. I then explained to the other coaches that I had held things up just to make sure my team was calm. They understood. They also warned me that one of my players on the other field was slide-tackling, which you shouldn’t do at this age.

In all, a miserable day on the soccer field. But as I knelt before a small group of dispirited young players with 12 minutes left to play, we had a bonding moment.

They were all complaining about the other team. Their players were holding, pushing, tripping, assaulting, and so on. Even Speedy, who rarely said a word and never complained about anything, was irritated. So was Jimmy, a kid I’d known for a couple of years who was usually respectful and happy.

I struggled to find words of encouragement. I told them not to worry about the other team. Don’t worry about the goals we had given up. Just focus on yourselves.

It was going nowhere. Then, suddenly, a noise emanated from one of the players.


I stopped. Wow, that was good.

Another player answered: BURP!

I was impressed. Hey, can we all burp at the same time?

The players all gave it a shot. Burp . . . buRRRRP . . . buh . . . BURP . . . burp.

Lesson learned: Collective burping can provide a moment of team unity on an otherwise dreary day.

Fast-forward a few weeks . . .

This time, the game wasn’t going so badly. Petey, another of our strong players, had regained his confidence. Speedy was a handful, as always. We were playing well on both fields. The only issue: My guys again thought they were being fouled a lot, and that topic dominated the halftime talk.

Don’t worry about it, I said.

But they keep fouling!

Just don’t foul them back. OK? Don’t even think about it. We’re going to be cool, right? Like Fonzie. What’s Fonzie like?

Even as I finished the sentence, before the blank stares, I knew I was in trouble. No, these players didn’t know the scene from Pulp Fiction with Samuel L. Jackson telling Amanda Plummer to be cool and point the gun at him while he tells Ringo about his epiphany and lets him keep a lot of money. They didn’t even know Happy Days, the show that made Henry Winkler’s Fonzie character an essential part of 1970s pop culture.

You all don’t know Fonzie, do you?

Adrian, the well-disciplined, buzz-cut-wearing son of a marine, piped up. Is he a Muppet?

No . . . Look, Fonzie’s really cool.

He’s a cool Muppet? Now others were wondering: Which Muppet is he?

I tried to dig my way out. No, he’s not a Muppet.

It didn’t register. Are you sure? Is he the chicken Muppet?

"No, that’s Gonzo. Fonzie was on Happy Days."

That didn’t help. "What’s Happy Days? A Muppet was on Happy Days?"

No, no—look, FOZZIE is the Muppet.

That helped. Oh. Is he supposed to be funny? Is he the chicken?

Yes, he’s funny. And he’s the bear, not the chicken.

Back to the point? I thought he was supposed to be cool. Wait, you want us to be like the bear?

OK, let’s start over.

Lesson learned: Use pop-culture references with care.

The next season, the team changed. Under-9 (U9) is the first age group that plays travel soccer in our area, and Petey, Speedy and Jimmy all made travel teams. (Ironically, Speedy’s coach was the same guy whose team had roughed him up a few months earlier.) My son wasn’t interested, so I was coaching in the House league, our club’s league for nontravel players. That included a few good players, a few attitude cases, and a few people still experimenting with the whole team sport concept.

We also kept score for the first time, and our league posted standings. I appreciated that, if only because it reassured me that we were not far and away the worst team in the league.

We really weren’t bad, in fact. We just had some ill-timed errors, and we played all the toughest teams in the league. After going through eight games with one win and one tie, we limped into the postseason tournament.

Funny thing—when they split the 14 teams into two seven-team tournaments, we wound up in the bracket with all the same teams we had already played. No one was to blame—some people had conflicts, and that’s how it worked out.

Expectations were a little low. But on a bumpy, chilly field, strange things were about to happen.

We opened against a team that had barely beaten us early in the season. Through the short 25-minute game, each team created a few chances but failed to score. The game finished in a 0-0 tie, but someone had to advance in the tournament. For the

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