Backstory: Kids' soccer – the parent trap

Ah, fall! The hint of chill! The auburn leaves! Those special weekend mornings, when millions of American parents awake and think, "Dear Lord please, please, please let it be raining so they'll cancel soccer."

Or, failing rain, they pray that the health department has banned 8-year-olds from gathering in groups larger than three. Anything to head off those hours spent on the sideline, watching your son ignore the ball so he can dance like a ninja.

"Ugghh, it's beautiful out," my wife said last Saturday, peering out our bedroom window. "You're a writer. Invent a religious holiday."

I know, I know – soccer is a wonderful game, lots of exercise, and I'm sure your daughter's travel team is very nurturing. Yes, I know it's now the most popular youth sport in the nation. Next World Cup, watch out, Bolivia!

Nor do I intend any criticism of my childrens' coaches. They've all been great. It's tough teaching dribbling to 11 second-graders, every one of whom has had doughnuts for breakfast. But I'd just like to open a discussion as to whether youth soccer in America is OK, or a rapacious, over-organized, time-destroying semi-cult.

I mean, come on. To the uninitiated, the scale of kid soccer comes as a shock. At peak hour, so many children swarm over our league fields that they look like Chinese peasants building a Yellow River dam. And lots of those kids don't get weepy at the mention of Mia Hamm. Europe, South America, Asia, sure – gather a bunch of children, give them a ball, and they'll start playing soccer. Do the same thing in the US, and they'll do what comes naturally: stare at the ball awhile, and then drift off and talk about the X-Men.

Plus, US youth soccer – and, in my experience, youth baseball, youth lacrosse, and pretty much any activity that involves an adult and a clipboard – seems to involve a lot of waiting. Waiting in line for drills, waiting for halftime, waiting for someone to chase the Akita that ran away with the ball.

True, soccer can have a calming effect. At my house, when the boys are racing up and down the stairs after the cats, all I have to do is shout, "Who wants to go practice soccer!" Next thing you know, they've grabbed Dragon Slayers' Academy books and gone into hiding.

And there is one aspect of Saturday morning leagues that my boys love: the snacks. From the seriousness with which they discuss what to bring in their backpacks, you'd think they were planning their life's work. They get together with their buddies between heading drills and talk over food with frightening animation.

"Dad," the younger one said last week, "Nobody wants orange slices. We want Halloween sandwich cookies. And those orb-shaped water bottles. They're a burst of fun." This, from someone who runs at the ball in a looping swirl intended to bring him into the target area after all danger of action has passed.

So here's my idea: a snack league! Let's give them want they want. We can name the teams "Fettucine" and "Alfredo." They can get together on Saturdays and practice tearing the tops off those fiendish tubes of yogurt. And who knows? Once it's an organized activity, they might get bored with it. And drift off, and start kicking a ball around.

Peter Grier is a Monitor writer in Washington.

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