By John Dockendorf, executive director
I never thought I’d be a soccer dad. I always envisioned that weekends with my four kids would be spent hiking in the woods or mountain biking. Instead, Jane and I spend spring, fall, and even winter weekends dividing and conquering as we figure out how to get our kids to different soccer games in multiple states. These parental challenges are not unique.
My kids love soccer, and I applaud the many good things the sport brings. I like the friends my children have made through soccer and their families. I like the conditioning and emphasis on activity and health. I like the camaraderie, focus, and the teamwork they’re learning, and many of their coaches are inspirational role models. I love the fact that my girls look up to Tobin Heath and Carli Lloyd instead of Miley Cyrus and Rihanna.
But while soccer is a great activity, I worry about too much of a good thing. Finding a passion, working hard to attain skills, and being able to measure one’s growth through competition is a great way to build the confidence that will serve one throughout life. But now, we feel pressure from coaches and other parents to focus on soccer exclusively and even to spend the upcoming summer at various soccer camps.
Whether this quest for single-sport specialization is driven by parental dreams of being part of the elite 1 percent of high school athletes who actually go on to play NCAA Division 1 sports—or the even scanter .0008 percent who go onto play professional sports—or simply the lure of an elusive scholarship to beat the skyrocketing costs of college, I feel that this pressure to specialize exclusively on a single sport is ultimately not in my kids’ best interest.
The bar has been set ridiculously high for those who wish to excel. Globalization has created a world that rewards the specialists at the expense of the generalists. We can all quote Malcom Gladwell’s statistic that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be great at anything. And that bar keeps getting raised. The level of play in high school or even middle school sports has never been higher, but has anyone stopped to question if this is ultimately important? Is there any correlation between the actual caliber of play and the life lessons one can learn through sport?
A study of Olympic athletes found that successful athletes grew up in an environment where fun was emphasized over winning until the teenage years. Personality qualities inherent and consistent in medal-winning Olympians were ability to focus, self-confidence, optimism, resiliency, mental toughness, work ethic, and ,of course, sports intelligence and natural athleticism. I’ve been fortunate to know several Olympians, and none from my sample size had parents who pushed them. All were incredibly self-motivated, naturally athletic, disciplined, and willing to give up their personal lives in order to pursue Olympic dreams. Few teenagers have this drive or dedication.
I don’t expect my kids to play soccer in the Olympics. As parents, we can’t do more than we are already doing, even if our kids have the talent and drive. Instead, I hope to be able to raise well-rounded, balanced kids who will gain competencies in many different areas. If they get asked to do something like go sailing, play bocce ball, or go to a symphony, I would hope they would have at least a working knowledge of each so they could be an eager participant. I want my kids to peak in their 60s, not their late teens. I hope they won’t look back at their high school sports career as the highlight of their life, but rather just one of many valuable growing experiences that helped prepare them for an engaged life filled with continuous growth.
I feel fortunate that despite my kids’ deep love for soccer, they would never sacrifice their summer Adventure Treks experience! I’m lucky they started Adventure Treks early enough that when comparing offers to attend soccer camps with friends from their teams, they are able to make a fair comparison. My kids have so much fun at Adventure Treks and enjoy their camp friendships so much that A.T. is the only thing in their worlds that can consistently beat soccer. I also know that the mental break from soccer is a good one, and that this break may even improve their play.
But an Adventure Treks summer does so much more for my kids than if they did more of the same and played soccer all summer. At Adventure Treks, students acquire skills in several different outdoor activities. Small successes lead to bigger successes. And these successes build confidence and self-efficacy. (And many other of the same traits inherent in successful athletes.) Kids learn new and different skills, and ones they will be able to use into old age. While Instructors don’t have names like Cristiano Ronaldo or Mia Hamm, AT instructors are realistic role models who engage and get to know my daughters. Sure I love soccer, but I think my kids learn more about teamwork, character, the give and take of living in a community, grit, optimism, and leadership at Adventure Treks than they do on the soccer pitch.
I feel bad for the kids who are forced to cancel their AT reservation each year because of sports commitments. These are usually good athletes who are pressured by their coaches and worried that if they don’t devote their summer to the same sport they practice the rest of the year, they will fall behind and miss out. It’s a decision real in the moment but usually regretted in retrospect. Sure, sport has lots to teach, but so does Adventure Treks. Ultimately, it’s about balance.
Summer will be here soon!
Best regards, Dock
Changing the Game Project Blog, John O’ Sullivan
Whose Game is it, Anyway? Ginsburg, Durant and Bakltzel
Psychological Characteristics and Their Development in Olympic Champions, Daniel Gould, Kristen Dieffenbach, Aaron Moffett