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Will the soccer theory work in practice?

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Just a few thoughts about the WYSA task force that’s looking at proposals to put practice and skills development ahead of competition for soccer players 12 and under, which you can read about here.

It’s as much about the comments posted on our website and Feedback site as about the task force’s issues themselves.

I coached recreational-level soccer at our community centre for eight years, and several years we simply stopped practicing before the season was done, because so few kids showed up. We even had boys who literally did not come to one single practice the entire season, they just wanted to play the games, or at least play some of the games, and their parents saw no value in practice or skills development.

You can’t run a decent practice with six out of the 17 or 18 kids on your roster. We tried different times of day, we tried every day of the week, we planned practices with a variety of fun drills, and we planned them to end with scrimmages. None of it worked.

Practice and skills development just weren’t high on the agenda for way too many parents and their kids, who usually were the players who needed them the most. Many weak players saw no point in coming out and improving. Parents signed up their kids for soccer so they’d have something to do outdoors in May and June, or because they had a friend on the team, or because their kid was in six other things and soccer was something he could go to if he ever had a free evening from swimming and piano and scouts.

But, no one believes more fervently and devoutly in unconditionally equal playing time than the parents of the kids who have the worst attendance on the team.

And by attendance, I don’t mean missing a game or practice once every three weeks, I mean coming to only 40 or 30 or 20 per cent of the games and practices over the course of a season. That was one of the biggest challenges and frustrations in recreational soccer, and from what I see as a referee, with coaches sometimes desperately looking at the parking lot and trying to summon the power of The Force to will one more player to show up so that they can avoid a forfeit, that hasn’t changed, especially outdoors.

Good luck with changing that mindset.

If you’re going to run a good practice, every child needs a ball on her foot for the entire practice. We had enough equipment to do that for the two seasons I coached my daughter at competitive levels, but you’re lucky to get four or five balls on a recreational team. A kid needs 3,000 touches in a practice to develop the ball control from which all good soccer things flow, the developing player needs to be feeling that ball moving around under his or her control even when you’re talking to them or describing the next drill. Balls cost money, and the only source of money is parent fees.

Maybe schedules can be drawn up so that community centres can put a couple of age groups together to practice, or have a club’s boys and girls in the same age group practice the same day, so there’d be a better chance of having enough kids to run a decent practice.

People were complaining in their comments about their kids being coached by people who know nothing about soccer.

Gee, ya think?

Unlike hockey or baseball, most of us didn’t grow up playing soccer. I’m sorry to break this to you, but when you pay your registration fees at the community centre, the convenor doesn’t dip into a vast pool of coaches who’ve moved to Winnipeg after 15 years of playing professionally in England, Italy, or Brazil. You’ll get a lot of soccer-neophyte moms and dads who’ve stepped up because there was no one else, which is how I got started in 1996.

I’ve told the story before of the father from our rec team who told me how bitterly disappointed he’d been to discover just how little I knew about soccer. He’d expected that by the time his son was 10, his lad would be coached by someone with experience at the highest levels of soccer. This dad had played in Europe, so I asked him to help out the team, and he looked at me scornfully and sneered, "I’m far too busy."

Sigh.

There are far more training courses around now than there were when I started, and chances are that if WYSA implements this concept, you’re going to need some new coaches. You think the screamers, the ones who bench weaker players because it hurts the chances of winning, the ones who make referees’ lives miserable, how many of them do you think are going to stick around if there are no standings and no playoffs and no city championships out at Blumberg or at the U of M complex? And who’ll replace them, if not moms and dads who have their heads on straight?

And let’s not forget the jobs that will be lost, and the devastation to Manitoba’s economy heading into a provincial election, if there are no more city champions jackets and hoodies to be bought for kids 12 and under and their adult coaches and managers.

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About Nick Martin

Nick Martin is the old bearded guy at the back of the newsroom, the most experienced reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, having started his career in Ontario in 1971.

He’s been covering education for the Free Press since the spring of 1997, after decades primarily covering municipal politics, including a four-year stint at the Ontario legislature for the London Free Press.

Nick moved to Manitoba in 1988 with his Winnipeg-born wife, who is a professor at the University of Manitoba. They have two kids, both of whom graduated from Grant Park High School: son Chris and daughter Gillian.

Nick has won a national journalism award from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, two Manitoba Human Rights Journalism awards, and the Ontario Reporters Association investigative award.

Nick is a long-distance runner, having finished and survived 18 marathons and 15 half-marathons and 30-kilometre races, and having (barely) survived 10 years as an outdoor and indoor soccer coach.

Nick became a soccer referee in 2007, delighting in his 60s in outrunning 16-year-olds and keeping his distance from obstreperous coaches and parents.

Nick and his wife have discovered a mutual love for kayaking at their Whiteshell cottage, and are both regulars at the Reh-Fit Centre. They hold season tickets to both the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Warehouse, and as empty nesters, have rediscovered the joys of an active winter vacation.

A native of Jarrow-on-Tyne, England, Nick is a member of the Toon Army as a Newcastle United supporter, and a proud citizen of Leafs Nation.

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