Single-Digit Soccer: The parity problem

Sports are inherently meritocracies. At some point, you simply can’t make every player equal.

When I scan the U8 league for the season ahead, I see quite a mixture. A lot of kids have been playing indoor soccer together in the winter. Then you have the kids with everything ranging from a general indifference about soccer to actual developmental challenges.

So are these players evenly scattered across the league? Well, not exactly.

I don’t think there’s anything nefarious going on. Sure, I’ve heard a few stories in various clubs in which crafty parents and coaches gamed the system to put together their eventual U9 travel killers as early as U7 or U6. Even in those cases, I can’t really complain. Some parents and children are simply more serious about soccer, and they’re going to be more comfortable playing with other families who feel the same way. In other cases, the basic geographical spread still kicks up an uneven talent pool — for some reason, a couple of local elementary schools have families that are really into the game and others do not. Some neighborhoods have affinities for hockey or baseball that take the kids play one season a year rather than three (fall outdoor, winter indoor, spring outdoor).

That poses two challenges:

1. Keeping the games fun. The slaughter rule helps — if a team is getting crushed, we’ll run an extra player onto the field. Then there’s the other question: If you have a big enough league where the teams don’t all play each other, do you keep the loaded teams away from the inexperienced teams?

I’m torn, frankly. The good players on the inexperienced teams would surely enjoy the opportunity. But I think it has to be an occasional thing. Week-in, week-out, you’d have to have some variety.

2. Making sure all kids have an equal shot at travel opportunities. This is trickier. Once a club’s staff realizes that Coach X’s team is really good, it’s easy to think of that team as the future travel pool.

I have to remind myself that U9 travel doesn’t set anything in stone. Some players blossom late. Some coaches may suddenly notice that a U11 player in the house league has been overlooked. Right now, we’re still playing “mobball” to some extent, and a skilled but smallish player who shies away from the mob isn’t going to shine in games until teams get the hang of spreading the field.

And I think our club is doing a lot of things right in opening up other opportunities. We have all sorts of “academy” programs for kids who might want more coaching than I can offer while I’m herding cats. That’s also a great opportunity to be sure the club staff has seen them in action. All I can do is keep reminding the parents that these programs exist.

Aside from that, I’m just getting some practice plans ready with the help of the U.S. Soccer youth curriculum. So at age 8, we’re supposed to be playing 7×7, but we’re not supposed to teach tactics. Um …

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