Hands off the kids
Youngsters need the freedom to come into their own
Posted: Tuesday September 11, 2007 4:56PM; Updated: Tuesday September 11, 2007 5:10PM
As in the U.S., it's back-to-school time here in the U.K. Kids across the country have been reacquainting themselves with life in the classroom after the long summer. It also means the return of that dreaded institution -- the Saturday morning soccer club run by pushy parents.
In my local park in south London, scores of fluorescent-bibbed boys, some as young as 4, spend their weekend mornings receiving orders from adult coaches who are old enough to know better.
This is organized soccer at its worst. The parents mean well, but all too often they are reliving their own dreams through their offspring.
Of course there's nothing wrong with offering parental support. I have sat through endless school dance and drama productions at the behest of my daughters. But most of the games I see during my Saturday morning jog are run by dads who have taken it upon themselves to organize "professional" training sessions for the kids.
The more professional the sessions, they reason, the better. Yet most seem far more concerned with having the right equipment -- corner flags, plastic bibs, training cones -- than with ensuring the enjoyment of the kids in their charge.
In almost two decades as a soccer journalist, I have not met a single professional soccer player who attributes his success to any training sessions organized by his parents.
Steven Gerrard is always keen to thank his father for driving him to and from endless training sessions across Liverpool. John Terry often mentions the Senrab boys club in east London, where he played competitive games as teenager. But I don't recall Wayne Rooney thanking his dad for forcing him to do shuttle runs up and down his local park in Croxteth. And I don't remember Ronaldinho expressing gratitude for being cajoled into wearing a plastic bib for five-a-side kickabouts.
The simple reality is that kids develop most as footballers when they are left alone to play -- free from interference from adults. Talent is innate, it cannot be coached out of a child by an ambitious parent. There may be cases in individual sports such as tennis of hot-housed child prodigies achieving great things as adults. But in team sports, such processes are rare.
Even with teenagers, it is hard to spot the genuinely talented. The recent Under-17 world championship in South Korea is a case in point. It was won by Nigeria, which beat Spain in the final to record its first success in the competition since 1993. Inevitably, big things are being predicted for the stars of the latest tournament, especially as Spain's best player, Bojan Krkic, is already on the verge of Barcelona's first team.
But I looked up Nigeria's victorious '93 squad. By my reckoning, only four players from the 18-strong party -- Nwanwko Kanu, Celestine Babayaro, Pascal Ojigwe and Wilson Oruma -- went on to enjoy lengthy professional careers in Europe.
In the 1991 event, Ghana's Nii Lamptey was voted player of the tournament. At the time, Lamptey was hailed as the "new Pelé" -- by Pelé himself. Lamptey joined Belgian club Anderlecht at the age of 16 but never fulfilled his potential. Off the pitch, he suffered personal tragedy (both his children died soon after birth) and he drifted from club to club, and from continent to continent. He was last heard of trying his luck with Jomo Cosmos in South Africa.
Lamptey was a victim of the huge pressures heaped upon young players. The media has to shoulder its portion of the blame. But parents could do their bit, too, by leaving kids alone to enjoy their soccer for as long as possible before things get serious.
Gavin Hamilton is the editor in chief of World Soccer Magazine. He contributes to SI.com on alternate Mondays.