Hyped-up soccer parents taking fun out of the game


By Judith Stiles

For parents in New York City, the spectator sport of the decade is not at the stadiums or on TV. Rather, it is on the local ball fields, where adults scrutinize children playing sports. In droves, parents attend high-stakes competitions on the weekends, sandwiched in between multiple practices during the week.

As early as when their children are 10 years old, some parents start grooming their budding athletes to earn coveted college scholarships, in the hopes of defraying this enormous expense, which looms large. Other parents watch their children for glory, for displays of athletic prowess or for the triumph of winning, which translates into bragging rights over the office cooler.

Most coaches agree that packs of parents hanging around on the sidelines puts too much pressure on young players who are most often simply looking for fun and some downtime. Hyper parent involvement leads to strong opinions about how competitive games should be played, which can lead to trouble. Since there are almost no casual pickup games in the city, no sandlot baseball of yesteryear, if a kid wants to play ball he or she will be saddled with a coach and often a trainer for games and practices, as well as a parent or two who cannot resist giving out tidbits of coaching advice.

On top of that, the player has to contend with the opinions of all the other parents who often contradict what the main coach is saying. “I had my teammate’s father yelling at me on the sidelines of a soccer game to get back on defense, while my coach was yelling to push up to pull the opponents offside,” said one 12-year-old soccer player from Downtown United Soccer Club who begged to remain anonymous. “It drove me nuts and I wound up running in zigzags everywhere,” he added, biting his fingernails.

Downtown United’s soccer coach, Kennichi Yatsuhashi, who also coaches the men’s soccer team at Borough of Manhattan Community College, believes that parent involvement has radically changed the nature of youth sports in the city. “Nobody really wants to talk about it, but because the parents are paying high club fees and coaches’ salaries, they expect results and they have demands and strong opinions,” said Yatsuhashi as he puzzled over the negative impact of this recent trend.

Once a year Yatsuhashi teaches a certification class to other coaches in which he promotes a new kind of coaching style. Coaches are encouraged to ask kids questions about how to play, rather than giving a set of formulaic answers. For example, Yatsuhashi suggests asking youth players, “What is the most effective way to shoot the ball, with your toe or your instep?” The coach will then demonstrate, the players will experiment, and usually come up with the right answer, without someone barking orders at them.

If Coach Yatsuhashi could control the universe of youth sports he would tell parents to simply ask their children after a game, “Did you have fun?” and leave it at that. “Right now, in New York City, parents are the center of what is happening on the field and that is not good,” he adds.

Having zeroed in on the problems related to organized youth sports, as an antidote Yatsuhashi and Downtown United and Loisada soccer clubs are hosting a series of more casual games in the “Festival of Soccer” for children ages 8 to 12 years old. The event includes small-sided games with no fixed teams, no positions on the field, no uniforms, no scores, no standings and no goalie. Parents are lured away from watching the games with the bait of free doughnuts and coffee, which seems to hold their attention for a while. A few players at a time are rotated from game to game at 20-minute intervals, so it is almost impossible to get caught up in keeping score. Coach Yatsuhashi believes if children start their experience with soccer in this type of setting, they will develop a passion for the game, the freedom to move around the field as they play and a chance to be creative in their approach to soccer.

Over the weekend, at the second Festival of Soccer at Pier 40’s courtyard field, Coach Dave Lovercheck of Downtown United and Loisada’s Fiohdna Giordani, set up the goals, grouped the players in teams of four, blew the whistle and stepped back to watch the kids have fun. Although Coach Lovercheck asked the players not to slide tackle before they began, Miles Giordani couldn’t resist a little slide tackle to pop the ball in the net, but there was nary a critical word from a parent or coach. The main rule of the festival was to back off and allow the players to play loose and free on the field and have fun.

While sipping coffee, some fidgety parents were nervously debating if this less-structured approach to the game would help the kids be “better at soccer” in the long run. For the answer, look no further than Coach Yatsuhashi’s practice with his B.M.C.C. men’s team to discover striking similarities to the play in the Festival of Soccer. In the men’s practice, players from 14 different nations played small-sided games without goalies and without fixed positions. Most of these players learned the sport as kids playing casual pickup games that see a lot of movement and improvisation on the field.

And guess what, parents? The B.M.C.C. men’s team had an unprecedented winning season when they took first place in the Region XV Championship, handily beating their chief rivals from Ulster Community College by a score of 4-1. All four goals for B.M.C.C. were scored by Jerry Boateng-Bekoe of Ghana, and you can bet the family piggy bank he played a hefty amount of street soccer as a kid.

For more information on the winter Festival of Soccer log on to: www.lyssoccer.org.