Structure is great, but so is the freedom, creativity and fun that comes with just getting on the field to play a game

A college coach who coaches for a premier soccer club in the summer once told me: “When coaching kids, the best way for them to learn the game is to PLAY. We can organize drills for them and make coaching points, but the only way they will truly learn the game is if they’re having fun and correcting their own mistakes."

(I always wondered if he ever told that to the parents of the kids on the team who were paying $2,000/year for their kid to play “premier”).

Over the past 20 years, organized sports have become the norm in this country. Your child wants to play basketball? Great, you can sign him up to play at the Rec Center. Your daughter wants to play lacrosse? You can sign her up to play for her town club. Your son wants to swim? The school offers a program.

Gone are the days of kids getting home from school, meeting up in someone’s backyard, and playing whatever game they feel like that day. I finally understand how my parents felt when they used to tell my sister and I stories of how they used to walk to school … in a snowstorm … in June … uphill both ways.

While structure is good for children, they are constantly being pushed to their limits – in school and in sports. Some youth programs schedule events 18-months in advance, just so their activity is the first one to make it on the child’s calendar. Is that really what it has come to?

As much as I love to coach, I understand that the best teaching tool is the game itself. Recently, in addition to our once-a-week training sessions, I started offering a pick-up soccer night to my Academy players. I rent gym space at a local high school on Monday nights, set up some goals, throw pinnies on the floor, and say, “Play!”

Boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 15 from three surrounding towns show up and just play. They make their own “even” teams, quickly learning that it’s no fun for anyone when all the 15 year-olds are on the same team. They call their own fouls. The younger kids get excited when they dribble around an older player, and the older kids enjoy being role models to younger kids, who are always trying to replicate a move or learn a cool handshake that the high schoolers teach them.

As a spectator, it is fun to watch and embodies everything that youth sports should be. Monday night pick-up has been so successful, that Victor Parks & Rec is going to offer a 3-week pick-up program over the summer, where players can just show up and play.

The struggle is real. While this is just a just a small step toward improving what youth sports has become today (a cesspool of overzealous parents, club politics, poor coaching, and a win-at-all-cost mentality), maybe, just maybe, this will begin to take youth sports away from the for-profit, state-of-the-art indoor facilities and put youth sports back where they belong _ in the backyard.

Coach McConnell has 11 years of experience coaching youth soccer (ages 5-17; Rec, Travel, and High School), possesses his US Soccer Federation C License, currently coaches Victor Travel and Bloomfield JV Girls Soccer, and runs WNY Soccer Assist Development Academy (wnysoccerassist.com).