Single-Digit Soccer: The score is always 0-0

Perhaps Caddyshack was ahead of its time. Chevy Chase’s character just went out and played golf — very well. Score? Nah. Didn’t keep it.

A lot of youth soccer leagues don’t keep score in the early ages — in our case, we don’t keep track until U9. And the travel leagues don’t keep standings until U11. (Oddly enough, our U9 house league had standings on the Web for all the world to see.)

In Canada, they’re going a step farther. Under age 12, no scores, no standings. (UPDATE: Here’s some info about the plan as a whole, which addresses far more than scores and standings.)

In a country in that loves its hockey fights, such a plan is going to draw some flak. Fighting back against those critics is player-turned-commentator Jason deVos, who issued a strongly worded defense of the plan against what he calls ignorance and misinformation.

Jason is a sharp guy who does his research, and I’m sure a lot of the critics (Don Cherry? Really?) don’t fit that description. He’s got some backup from a thoughtful Toronto Star column on competition vs. cooperation, A couple of other columnists, including Duane Rollins, think the plan’s backers are losing the PR war. There’s no question that some of the concerns raised in this plan are valid.

But to give a sneak peek at the book I’m writing now, I’m a little skeptical about turning off the scoreboard. And that’s based not on Don Cherry’s macho notions of sports but on my experience coaching a wide range of kids — some exceptional, some decidedly average.

One point from the deVos column:

This pressure-filled environment has nasty repercussions for children. Rather than fostering their natural creativity and curiosity about the game, it stunts their development. In such an environment, children are not free to make the mistakes that are necessary for learning to occur. They play the game with a sense of dread, fearful that a mistake will lead to a goal against or a lost game.

Valid concern. But does that pressure go away when the parents aren’t writing down a score? Jason and others concede, correctly, that the kids know what’s going on. I’ve seen kids in U8 games get upset when things aren’t going their way, even though I shut off all discussion of score-keeping. “When we kick off again, the score’s 0-0.”

So the pressure of mistakes is still there. What we lose in the Canadian plan is the accomplishment of winning.

Last season, the first season my U9 team had scores, we had a rough regular season. Then we played a season-ending tournament in which everything suddenly came together. We beat two teams that had beaten us in the regular season to reach a final against a third that was unbeaten through nine games. We won that one, too.

The scoreboard critics say such things mean more to parents and coaches than they do to kids. I’m not so sure. My kids were experiencing the thrill of victory. One parent told me, “He’ll remember this for the rest of his life.”

Another consideration deVos raises:

They have taken an adult competition format, involving promotion and relegation, and imposed it on children.

My impression of promotion and relegation in youth soccer is that it’s there to keep teams of similar ability grouped together. You won’t have any 10-0 blowouts, regardless of whether anyone’s officially counting the 10 goals. And elite U10-U11 players will be challenged rather than relying on a handful of tricks and athletic ability to overwhelm a bunch of kids who haven’t developed yet.

One way to do this without putting too much pressure on kids is to keep the division structure opaque. I played for a U14 team that was “promoted.” To this day, I don’t know what we were promoted from or to. Division 1? Of what? Was there a Premier League above that? Was this all of Georgia or just Atlanta-through-Athens? Good thing the Web didn’t exist in those days.)

(One possible irony, though I can’t find enough detail on the Canadian plan to confirm this: Will they still have tryouts for elite teams? If so, are we just substituting individual accomplishment — making an elite team — for team accomplishment such as winning?)

And is the best course of action for elite players the best course for everyone? Steven Sandor isn’t so sure:

Not keeping score will, if done in an elitist manner (which, unfortunately, our insular Canadian soccer tends to do pretty well) drive the average kids away. But, there’s no doubt that the no-score system helps the elite kids.

In other words — the vast majority of kids playing soccer at age 11 aren’t going to be professionals. Many of them won’t even play at age 14. That scares a lot of soccer people to death, but really, it’s OK. A lot of 11-year-olds play several sports and then choose one on which to focus at age 14. (For me, it was running, which was a really stupid idea in retrospect.) When I talked with MLS draftees last month in Indy, most of them had done exactly that, laying down their basketballs and baseball gloves in their teens.

So for these kids, all they’ll remember of soccer is a bunch of scoreless games, all designed to prepare them for a future that they weren’t going to pursue?

The best axiom I’ve heard for youth sports is simple: “Let kids be kids.” The soccer community tends to forget that youth sports are supposed to be a kid’s activity, not just a breeding ground for future World Cup players. A lot of these kids want to play games and tournaments with trophies on the line. Why rob them of that experience? “Because the rest of the world does it,” frankly, isn’t a good argument. And you’re still going to have good coaches helping players improve while bad coaches just try to win, even unofficially, by any means necessary.

I think there’s a creative way to address the valid concerns deVos and others are raising. We’re already doing a lot. We delay scorekeeping and standings for a few years already. Even when we start traditional league play, we rotate kids through different positions and spread out the playing time, giving everyone a complete soccer experience.

Maybe it’s as simple as having a lot of “exhibition” or scrimmage games that don’t count toward standings, then a tournament at the end of each season. Maybe it’s something more clever than that.

The important part is to continue the discussion, not to end it with a concrete plan handed down from Canada’s Olympus. Daniel Squizzato puts it well: “Don’t confuse legitimate criticism of the (Canadian) plan with an outright aversion to change.” Change is good. Realistic change is better.

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