For Stronger World Class Soccer Teams: Let Everybody Play

By Brooke de Lench

As the sheer shock that we the USA failed to qualify last night, and would not be sending a men’s soccer team to the 2018 World Cup wore off, a handful of coaches from boys leagues around the nation began checking in with me today. Was the elimination staggering? Yes. A shock? No. I have long predicted that our nation would not be able to field national teams at World Cups. Heck, in the states we cut our potential talent before puberty and do not include those who struggle to buy cleats and can not pay the crazy fees.

Most coaches checking in with me are from leagues I have provided consultation for at some point during the past two decades. We reviewed and fine tuned their game-plans. Blueprints we developed to ensure strong, safe and respectful teams. Most needed to talk, to review, however, one coach reminded me of an Op-Ed I wrote for the Washington Post over a decade ago: Let Everyone Play. He was simply thanking me for providing the blueprint for full inclusion which has enabled them to be one of the top teams in the nation. He strongly suggested that I share it again. Eleven year later, I stand by my belief more than before.

Originally published in the Washington Post as an Op-Ed, December 10, 2006:

One of the most important things that government could do to reduce drug use, fight the obesity epidemic and deal with a host of other youth problems is quite simple: Include more kids in organized after-school sports.

But to do that, we must first make some major changes in interscholastic sports programs in the nation’s public middle and high schools. The goal should be full inclusion: Nobody gets cut from the team.

The current public high school model — one first-year team, one varsity, maybe one sub-varsity — might have made sense when it was adopted some 80 years ago. Back then, in many schools the number of roster spots on a team was roughly equal to the number who wanted to play. But it makes no sense today, when the number of those who want to continue playing sports in middle school and high school far exceeds the finite number of spots available.

According to a Gallup Youth Study in February, one in five teens is now overweight, and only one in five teens say they participate in sports or recreation five to six days a week.

Obviously, young people who are cut from sports teams aren’t likely to exercise as frequently as they would if they were playing sports; they’re much more likely to spend their afternoons watching television, becoming obese and perhaps getting into trouble.

Another recent study found a positive association between a teenager playing interscholastic sports and the number of his or her friends who are academically oriented. The study also found that participation in interscholastic sports “significantly increased social ties between students and parents, students and the school, parents and the school, and parents and parents” and brought about “a reduction in illicit drug and alcohol use.”

It’s especially important for teenagers to know that they belong, that they fit in. Cutting teenagers from sports teams tells them that they don’t fit in. It’s the wrong message to send during adolescence.

As the most prominent of all high school extracurricular activities, athletics continues to confer on its participants the highest levels of status and prestige in our teenage culture. The feeling among athletes that they are special tends to lead to disharmony in schools, to the creation of cliques and to reinforcement of the jock culture. It undermines the feelings of community, full inclusion and cooperative learning that schools work so hard to instill.

Adopting a policy of full inclusion would be especially beneficial for teenage boys, for whom sports provide an outlet for aggression and a means of connecting socially with other boys.

Under a system of full inclusion, teams would be added as necessary to meet the demand, even if it meant fielding, say, two or three junior varsity basketball teams. Every athlete would practice, but only those with good academic standing, good attendance records and no disciplinary problems would suit up for games. To ensure that schools would field the most competitive teams, the most skilled players would still get the bulk of the playing time at the varsity level. But no one would be cut.

The extra teams could be at least partially funded through additional user fees, with money raised by booster clubs, by donations from local businesses and by the parents of the athletes themselves, some of whom could be recruited as volunteer coaches.

Not only would full inclusion for school sports help our kids, it would eliminate one of the principal reasons for parental misbehavior in youth sports. Given the intense competition for limited roster spots on high school teams, no wonder so many parents are led by our winner-take-all society to act in inappropriate ways — to become violent when they see their child’s chances at winning one of the coveted spots threatened by a coach who decides to sit him or her on the bench.

It makes no sense from a public health standpoint to continue a policy that contributes to an overall decline in physical fitness among adolescents and young adults and does nothing to combat drug use by keeping teens busy in after-school programs such as sports.

About the author

Brooke de Lench is Founding Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute, Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, director of Smart Teams Play Safe, producer/creator of the documentary, The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer (PBS) and author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins). Follow @BrookedeLench

Contact: delench@MomsTeam.com

Originally published at medium.com on October 11, 2017.