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Is Youth Soccer Too Competitive?

Tryout, travel teams can be major commitments. Finding right fit is key.

For Potomac's Kristen Moshyedi and her husband, every weekend is like a carefully orchestrated ballet. In constant cell phone contact, the pair deliver their four children from game to game, field to field, relying on other parents to ferry the children when one of them can’t make it.

“We’ve had up to 13 games on a weekend. … If there’s no tournament, [we have] two lacrosse games, three soccer games, and a baseball game every weekend, and that’s because my youngest isn’t playing soccer in the spring. That’s assuming there’s no tournaments or no makeup games,” Moshyedi said.

The Saturday soccer dance is a mainstay of the suburban culture that spawned the term “soccer mom,” and is something parents and children say they value. Youth sports provide children with the opportunity to learn about work and sportsmanship and give them the chance to befriend students from other schools and bond with classmates and neighbors.

But with more than 15,000 students now participating in youth soccer through Montgomery Soccer Inc. — the county’s dominant non-profit soccer organization — those benefits are tempered by fierce competition for tryout-based teams and the overwhelming commitment that those teams call for, some parents say.

One parent recalled bringing her son to a Potomac tryout and being told by another parent that she had the wrong location. In fact, she was in the right place, but the other parent might have been trying to steer her off course — keeping her son out of competition with his own.

Others described being offered spots, but being given just hours, or minutes to commit.

For the children that do make a competitive team, the commitment can be massive at a young age.

“At the age of nine … you’re talking about eight hours of practice a week,” Moshyedi said. “There’s no coming home and playing. That’s a hard thing for me to have the kids give up.”

But Doug Schuessler, executive director of MSI, said such negative experiences affect a small, if vocal, minority of MSI families, and that the organization has spent years designing a tiered system of leagues that offers teams to match every level of competition and desired commitment.

Another problem is that players on competitive teams can feel that they have to play soccer year-round to keep pace with other children who are doing the same thing.

“It’s very intense. It’s a shame. It’s a shame that they can’t just play that sport for whatever season it is. Baseball has become year round and basketball is year round and soccer is year round, and you lose your advantage if you play another sport,” Moshyedi said. “If my kid only plays in the fall … he’s not being exposed to what a lot of the other kids are.”

THE FIRST LEVEL, representing about two-thirds MCI participants is its recreational or “Rec” league, for which any child can register and everyone is guaranteed to play at least half of every game.

After children register, MSI forms Recreational league teams on the basis of neighborhoods and school representation. The goal of the system is “to reduce immediately the sense of competitiveness where people pre-form teams, and kind of stack them,” Schuessler said.

In the Rec league program, MSI does not publish scores or standings for any age group.

The next tier at MSI is its Classic level. To play on a Classic team, a child must first be “carded,” meaning that he has passed a skills evaluation run by coaches and MSI staff. Then come the weeks of tryouts, where parents say they find themselves trading sidelong glances with the same parents at Avenel on Tuesday, Hoover on Wednesday and Cabin John on Friday as their children compete for the same limited spots.

Classic league begins with the under-11 age group — generally children who are entering 5th grade — and continues through high school. At the Classic level, MSI publishes team standings.

“It’s not cutthroat; it’s still kept in perspective,” Schuessler said of Classic, which draws in about 4,000 participants. “We think and hope that we’ve matched the level of competitiveness. There are always going to be some classic teams who are more committed to additional participation than others.”

Cutthroat attitudes at tryouts and seemingly round-the-clock practices are simply “not the mainstream experience,” Schuessler said. “We always tell parents in the Classic process, … when you are going to Classic it is a higher level of commitment, but every team is going to be different. You should be interviewing the coaches, because you are selecting them. Find out exactly what the commitment will be, and find a fit for your child.”

As for the skills evaluation process, which some parents call “a tryout just to try out,” Schuessler said, “That was something that was created about five years ago. The idea was to accomplish two things; one was to help parents and their kids understand what level of play matches their individual skill level, so they can make an informed decision. Two was to ensure that there was some level of balance in the league when teams are formed for the first time.”

The highest level of competition is known as the Premier, or travel leagues. MSI doesn’t actually run Premier, but helps form teams that compete at the regional level.

Schuessler admits that Premier is “extremely competitive” but stressed that ultimately parents create the atmosphere — friendly or unfriendly — that defines their children’s teams. Concerns about time commitment and competitiveness rarely come from Premier families, since only the most deeply-involved soccer families participate: a selective league that is also in many ways self-selecting.

KERRY ALERS’ oldest son Nick — who will be an eighth-grader at Hoover Middle School next year — plays at the Premier level and also on the state Olympic development team. Her other three children play at various competitive levels.

Last weekend, Nick had a tournament in New Jersey and stopped to play a game in Baltimore on the way back down, returning late Sunday evening.

That commitment is “a juggling act” Alers said, but she emphasized the value she and her husband perceive in their children’s sports.

"We’re in this because we think it’s very beneficial for our kids — their self esteem, their confidence,” Alers said. “If it becomes overwhelming, we’re not doing it. You only have one time to be a kid.”

Alers said that competitive soccer has been the right match for her children, but that she would support their playing at whatever level they felt comfortable.

“There are some parents who are in this who are building little professionals. That’s definitely not what we’re going for,” she said. “You try to find a team for your child where you fit in, where your kid plays just as much as everybody else.”

AS THE SUN began to sink low behind Hoover Middle School Monday, coach Lance Van Winter’s under-11 girls Classic team showed no signs of feeling overextended or pressured.

A handful of parents mingled and looked after younger siblings while the girls — soon to be known as the Potomac Kickers, Van Winter said, ran through drills, relays, and small scrimmages.

“My definition of classic is the kid likes to compete. He doesn’t have to be the best athlete and he doesn’t have to be soccer-only. He just likes to compete. If he likes to go out there and do it, it’s fine … I don’t really care if you’re the next best player in the world. And if you are, you’re going to leave anyway, which is fine,” Van Winter said.

Van Winter, of Potomac, said that he feels Classic strikes a good balance of being competitive and reasonable. He noted that Classic teams are limited, by rule, to two practices a week.

Still, Van Winter’s twin daughters demonstrate the purpose of the options MSI offers: one decided to play on the Classic team while the other chose to stay at the Recreational level. His son, a rising seventh-grader at Hoover, has played Classic for years and is now moving up to the lowest rung of Premier competition.

Trying out for fifth-division Premier with Van Winter’s son were several first-division Premier “drop-outs,” Van Winter said, who had been overwhelmed at that level: “They would drive to Richmond [and] play eight minutes.”

Asked about this problem of “burning out,” Schuessler, MSI’s executive director said, “It certainly is true. But you have to put it in context. It’s not any more true for soccer than any other sport.”

Seven Locks Elementary parent Amy Gleklen’s son has played both MSI soccer and tryout-based basketball in the I-270 league. She said her experience with various competitive sports has kept things in perspective.

“On one level I feel like it’s kind of a natural progression, because you want your kid to find a level that it’s going to be competitive,” she said. “Is it overboard? I don’t know. I think every sport’s like that now.”