We were a team, a collective. We had an excellent coach (Vincent Pandoliano), and gave everything we had to each other and to the sport. Our game was passionate, honest and exciting. We always got the same feel from the sidelines – loud and proud support.
That explains some of the heartfelt disappointment felt by me and my son, now 14, with his youth soccer academy here in New York.
No skill but lots of spirit
We relocated here from Hong Kong in July 2017. Years before, my son picked up soccer over there. His first team sssssssucked! They lacked basic skills, individually and collectively, and got punished for it repeatedly.
What struck me, however, was the camaraderie among the boys on the team. They did everything together. The sport connected them and, little by little, they improved. Because of this strong team spirit, my son was eager to go to practices, learn soccer skills, and support the team as well as he could – in losses and wins.
He eventually landed on a team at the Hong Kong Football Club. It was his earlier perseverance that helped him get selected out of a group of more than 30 boys. He experienced failure early on, learned from it, and relentlessly worked on his skills. I was superbly proud.
This new team was wonderful: great coaches, friendly and talented players, amazing team spirit. That team spirit carried them to several unlikely victories and, ultimately, to season’s championship. Notably, the boys didn’t really care about individual accolades. They, instead, made numerous rounds of congratulating one another – something no parent was expecting from a bunch of seemingly selfish teenagers. I felt like I was reliving my volleyball days. It was heartwarming.
Smirks, scorn and youth soccer players
This is why both of us were so terribly disappointed when he started playing on his current youth soccer team in NYC.
We took a risk of committing to this program because there were literally no other similar options available given the timing of our arrival in the city (all tryouts and selection are completed in the spring). The uniform and related gear took more than three months to arrive – all because the academy made an agreement with an incompetent “mom and pop” vendor and didn’t have reserve stock. My son ended up borrowing bits and pieces of the uniform from fellow players – only to receive smirks and occasional scorn from them. Smirks and scorn! I kid you not.
Smirks and scorn very quickly became a team trademark of sorts. My son would often return from practices bewildered and sad. Why? Teammates chastised him for making mistakes. The coach seemed to either pay no attention to or encourage this behavior. He’d appear right before the practice and disappear immediately after. No feedback, no individual attention, no care. To date, he hadn’t responded to a single email I’ve sent requesting a meeting.
The clique culture on the team was most disheartening. Boys were friendly only in small groups of 3 or 4, and this was evident in their game on the field: “passing to friends.” Before games, players wouldn’t even greet all of their teammates. I was completely blown away when my son told me that one of his teammates called him “the worst player on the team” after “taking a poll.” When I shared this issue with the program director and asked for a meeting he told me he was “going on vacation” and delegated the task to the head coach. The head coach’s reply was generic and bureaucratic.
My wife and I are very lucky to have a resilient boy. He is able to find joy and friendships in various places if not on the soccer field. What’s more, to his teammates’ and coach’s surprise, he shined in an indoor 5-on-5 tournament recently, helping his team win first place.
What about kids who are not as resilient? How would they be affected? What would they learn in the course of a year’s commitment? Will this atmosphere defeat their aspirations in this sport?
Recently, my son’s friends who play on other academy teams started asking him to try out and join them. I’ll be very happy when he does. He still loves soccer.
Learn from my mistakes
A few takeaway points for parents looking for youth soccer or other sports programs:
- Don’t just seek general feedback from other parents and community members about a particular sports program before you sign up. Most don’t monitor the actual team dynamic and other important nuances in organization and coaching.
- Interview the head of the program, head coach, and the specific coach who will work with your child when possible. Ask to observe a few practices and pay attention to interactions on the field (from the coach and among players).
- Talk to your child in advance about various tactics of dealing with pressure and conflicts. Monitor their moods on the field and after practices or games. Be present with your unwavering support.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ilya Umanskiy, a father of two, lives in lower Manhattan. His family recently relocated from Hong Kong after five years abroad. In his professional life, Ilya helps clients manage operational and reputational risks and advises young and aspiring professionals on soaring above mediocrity. His family time includes soccer, ballet, running and yoga.