Single-Digit Soccer: What age for travel? Tryouts?

We’re in the midst of travel tryouts, in between massive thunderstorms. That means a bunch of second-graders are out showing their stuff, hoping to make the cut for U9.

Of course, we’re not supposed to be doing that, according to … well, everyone. No one seems to be making the case for starting travel soccer at the U9 level, and yet everyone’s doing it.

Consider the U.S. Soccer “Best Practices” guide (PDF). They recommend “a few organized matches per season” and “little or no travel” through U10. (I’m not saying I agree with everything here. They say 9-year-olds should NOT be organized and hold their positions. The reality: Competitive 8-year-olds with a real interest in soccer want to play real games. They’re sick of “magnetball” — particularly if they’re little guys who don’t fare well in a scrum.)

SoccerIndiana.org did a neat state-by-state survey (PDF) asking when “competitive play” begins. Most states started around 10 or 11. Most directors surveyed said they’d rather start a little later.

Then there’s this essay based partly on the book Game On by Tom Farrey, which suggests that we Americans are the only ones pushing our kids to play such organized sports so early in life. (The English parent on my team would disagree.) It points to a real issue with having travel tryouts so early — the “early bloomers” could end up getting all the coaching attention. I think my club is trying to address this problem by having programs geared toward House players as well as Travel players, which is one reason I like my club!

I can see a couple of advantages to having tryouts and travel soccer early. Some kids really want that level of competition. And serious players can get serious coaching without being bogged down by the daisy-pickers who drive us U8 parent coaches to distraction.

But can we do that without putting 8-year-old kids through a meat-grinder tryout at an age in which it’s really difficult to spot the best players?

I think so, and the answer may be what some local clubs are doing at the U8 level. Offer additional programs to your House league. And don’t have tryouts for them. The most serious players — who, not coincidentally, will usually be the best players as well — will sign up.

Give everyone the “free play” so treasured by the youth soccer cognoscenti these days. Then give the most soccer-savvy players a chance to do a little more.

At least, that’s the hypothesis I’m sticking with for now. That might change tomorrow. These aren’t easy questions with easy answers. But the good news is that no one’s listening to me.

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