There comes a point when youth sports stop being an all-inclusive, feel-good free-for-all and start being a meritocracy. It seems my nine-year old son has just crossed that threshold. And while he doesn’t seem to be freaked out about the perpetual evaluations and the looming possibility of failure, his mother and I most definitely are.
Before you get the wrong idea, this is not a story about an overbearing soccer parent who thinks his child is the second coming of Landon Donovan. It’s quite the opposite. My son is a competent athlete—nothing more, nothing less. For the past five years he has enjoyed the carefree atmosphere that comes with playing recreational league soccer. In “rec league,” as it is commonly known, every child who wants to play is welcome. Playing time is distributed with an even hand, irrespective of skill.
But two weeks ago, we reached a fork in the athletic road. More than half the members of my son’s rec league team decided to try out for Classic soccer, which is the next level up. In order to participate in Classic, each player must pass a skills evaluation administered by the league. So much for being carefree. So much for the utopian notion of inclusiveness. This is about to get real. This is about to get cutthroat. Tears are going to be shed. Kids are going to get cut. Feelings will inevitably be hurt. Emotional scars, however shallow, are sure to be etched. I’m not sure my little guy is ready for this. I’m not sure I’m ready for this.
The league that oversees this athletic coming-of-age is called Montgomery Soccer, Inc. (MSI), and if you live in the part of Maryland that I do, those three letters are omnipresent. They adorn the chests of more than 15,000 soccer playing children in the county, and on Saturdays in the spring and fall, it’s hard to move five feet in a restaurant, mall, or other public space without running into a kid wearing a mud-stained MSI jersey. MSI has becomes such an abiding Maryland institution that during the 2002 gubernatorial race, opponents Bob Ehrlich and Parris Glendening both filmed campaign commercials at MSI games.
Until two weeks ago, all I knew about MSI was that they had access to a silkscreen machine to make all those jerseys, and that somebody in the office was a wiz with Microsoft Excel. After all, it takes one heck of a spreadsheet to coordinate the fields, officials, and schedules to reliably accommodate 900 teams per year.
But as it turns out, MSI also has a heart.
The skills evaluations took place on the back fields of Julius West Middle School in Rockville. About 100 kids were signed up, as ours was, for the Saturday afternoon session. Roughly 900 other Classic hopefuls would be evaluated at other gatherings. Having arrived early, the kids burned off their nervous energy by kicking the ball around with their friends. We parents, on the other hand, (though I suspect few would admit it) spent our extra time sizing up the competition and doing fruitless equations to calculate our children’s chances of being accepted. Rumors were flying around the parking lot that only half the kids would make the cut. Others insisted the figure was closer to 90 percent. “MSI has bills to pay,” one parent suggested. “They don’t get money from kids they cut.”
Just as the tension was becoming unbearable (at least for the grown-ups), a gray-haired man in his fifties, with kind eyes and a soothing voice, gathered the children and parents around him and established the afternoon’s tone by asking a simple question: “Do you guys love soccer?”
The children responded with a roar.
MSI director of operations Gary Wheeler was the one doing the talking. If I’m ever on the wrong end of a hostage crisis in a bank, I hope he’s the one outside the door with the bullhorn, because he knows a thing or two about breaking down a tense situation.
“This is not a big deal,” Wheeler told the kids. “This is one little evaluation. For those who have a disappointment today, I want you to remember—many kids who excel at soccer now won’t even be playing the game in two or three years, and many players who are behind now will develop into great players in those same two or three years.”
It was a refreshing message. It was a nurturing approach in the face of an inherently harsh situation. It put the kids at complete ease. Even the nervous-nelly parents seemed to take a breath.
MSI executive director Doug Schuessler is acutely aware of how stressful the tryouts are for kids. He and his staff do everything in their power to mitigate the nerves. “Everyone arrives anxious,” says Schuessler. “We try to put the kids in an environment where they just play—just have fun with their buddies.”
But Schuessler says the parents are a different story. Once the tryout begins, families are strictly forbidden from having contact with their children. They are instructed to stay outside the perimeter of the fields, as delineated by an asphalt walkway. (Wheeler called it the “demilitarized zone” during his pre-tryout speech). Moms and dads are asked not to coach or instruct their children during the hour-long evaluation. Cheering is allowed, but that’s it.
Still, parents flout the rules. Schuessler says more than one has attempted a “sneak attack” into the DMZ by entering through the woods on the far side of the fields. They are politely escorted back to the safe zone.
MSI attempts to further reduce the drama of tryout day by not offering results on the spot. They believe the kids need time to wind down from the experience before processing the news. The league posts the results (using registration numbers, not names) on its website 72 hours after the tryout. Emotions invariably rev at a more reasonable rate three days after the fact.
But even at that stage, some parents attempt to game the system. Schuessler says one father submitted a doctor’s note explaining that his child’s emotional growth would be irreparably stunted if he were to be excluded from the Classic player pool. “It tugs at your heartstrings,” says Schuessler, “but our evidence tells us otherwise.”
I sympathize with that father’s instinct. All parents ache for their children to avoid pain and disappointment. We defy our better judgment at times to act on that imperative. Of course, sport is the world’s ultimate merit-based paradigm. Pain and disappointment are not only unavoidable, but developmentally useful for children. MSI understands this. It just happens to be humane about it.