As we’ve watched the world catch up to us in the speed events – sprints, hurdles, relays – we’ve often complained about other sports stealing talent away from track and field. Especially when speed burners like Trindon Holliday, Jeff Demps, and Tyreek Hill come along and opt to focus their considerable talents on football.
Of course it’s very easy to single out football because track/football stars get visibility in two high profile areas. After all, they’re usually running backs or wide receivers in football, and then run the high profile sprints in track and field. Add that with the speed they posses, they been landed by high profile collegiate programs in conferences like the SEC and Pac12 that get lots of TV time each weekend. Then throw in that they are usually competing in high profile meets like the NCAA Championships, National Championships, and in some cases the Olympics and/or World Championships, and these individuals get what most track and field athletes covet most – exposure!
As a result, football gets the rap for “stealing” America’s track talent. We seldom think about baseball or basketball taking athletes away from T&F, though I’d wager that there are a lot of potential jumpers among their ranks – and we certainly don’t think about a “fringe” sport like soccer stealing athletes from T&F. I say fringe sport because while soccer is huge around the world, it’s primarily a recreational activity here in the United States. It’s my belief however, that soccer, and it’s year round philosophy is taking talented athletes away from track and other sports!
Why? Because of its “cradle to grave” training and competition philosophy. Consider that soccer has become the recreational activity of choice in most communities. Kids start around 4 years old and play into adulthood. It draws huge numbers of kids into recreational leagues all over country. It’s typically the first organized sports that many youth play. In my community of approximately 75,000 people, the local soccer league has about 6,000 youth participating – outstanding numbers. The kind of numbers that any group of high school programs would love to have as a feeder system.
And soccer could be an excellent entree into the world of sports, as well as a tremendous feeder for several sports, including track, football, and high school soccer, except for its relentless focus on enveloping the lives of its membership. With recreational soccer leagues there is no single season, but a year round progression of one “activity” followed by another.
What starts out as a "fun" activity for kindergarteners, becomes a year round "program" where one "season" ends and the next one begins. Summer outdoor to fall outdoor to winter indoor to spring outdoor! Breaks are measured in weeks not months. There are tryouts throughout the year. And Recreational and "Competitive" (Rec & Comp) divisions with multiple levels buried further within. The goal not being to eventually funnel them into a high school program but more to control their existence from initial entry through adulthood – because there are adult leagues as well.
Where a couple of decades ago, youth sports like Pop Warner football and Little League ended when kids reached high school age so they could focus on the high school counterparts and potentially college athletics, today’s “youth sports” often run up to and into adulthood, and simultaneously with high school sports. Where once it was an honor to represent one’s high school, today’s young people are often faced with a conflicting choice between school and club – with club often winning. And why not, the kids see their club coaches far more than their high school coaches.
Another, perhaps larger problem, is that once a kid has spent five to ten years immersed in a single sport/activity year round he or she doesn’t have the opportunity to truly try anything else – and never really gets the chance to figure out if there are any other sports that they might actually be good at. For most of these kids, not only their athletic life, but their social lives are wrapped up in a single sport. They grow up with a core group of kids that are typically on the same teams season after season. They train together every day. They go to tournaments where there are often three to four games a weekend. As a result they often eat together, and participate in other activities together since most of their weekend time is spent with their teammates and families. A sport like soccer becomes the central focus in the structure of their lives all year long. Take a four year old and add ten years of soccer year round and its hard to convince him/her that while they’ve participated in soccer for the majority of their young lives that perhaps their skill set may actually be better suited to a different sport.
Which is why once they reach middle school and high school and attempt to try another sport, they often do so while trying to maintain their ties to soccer. I had several young ladies this year on my high school cross country team that tried to do just that. They would come to cross country practice and put in a full practice, leave and go through a full soccer practice. Come meet day on several occasions I would have girls show up after playing a full game of soccer and run in the meet. They would often be disappointed in their performances, unable to figure out why they were not performing as well as expected and/or not progressing.
Imagine when there was actually an interlude in soccer that their performances skyrocketed! My best varsity girl actually had difficulty completing workouts throughout the season as she came in without a summer base, beat up from soccer, and stayed beat up throughout the season – and was not an integral part of her soccer team! She literally willed her way to 19 minute performances. I can only imagine what she will do next year when she has a season WITHOUT soccer, as she and her parents have decided that perhaps running IS her better sport.
More so than football – and yes football does steal it’s share of top level athletes – its the year round sports that take away much of the talent that track and field needs. I have another young male runner – junior that weighs about a buck twenty five – that’s convinced he’s a baseball player because he’s played it year round since he was a tot. A true talent who came out for cross country to get in shape for baseball. Now I tell you that the reason that steroids have been big in baseball was NOT to keep baseball players a svelte 125 pounds!
Coaching cross country and track I’ve seen these scenarios time and time again. The stories ending almost always the same. Kid clings to year round “activity/sport” because his/her life has been engulfed by it. Yet in the end, the potential high school/college athlete finds out too late that while their recreational activity has been fun and his/her family for over a decade having fun doesn’t translate into being good enough at the next level. And many potentially great runners – and soccer has its share of sprinters and hurdlers in the mix – find themselves without a sport at all never having developed their true talents.
Imagine if recreational soccer was ingrained the same way in Jamaica. We may not have Usain Bolt or Yohan Blake in the sport of track and field as both played youth soccer in Jamaica. Or if Adam Gemili hadn’t given track a fair shot and discovered that while he is good at soccer he can be great at sprinting.
Youth soccer is big business here in the US. Take the 6,000 kids that play in my local soccer league and multiply by a $100 fee to join and it doesn’t take a genius to add up a quick $600,000 dollars for a single season! A club can do a lot with that kind of money. Run a tournament or two and charge entry fees, sell some shirts and food and drink and a non profit entity can make a nice profit. So I get why the sport has gone year round, as have others.
But at the end of the day, the purpose of youth activities is to benefit the YOUTH. And I’m not sure that limiting their exposure to other sports and even activities is in the best interest of the kids. It’s certainly not in the best interests of track and field. Who frankly, needs to take a strong look at the model of the year round sports and attempt to replicate it to the benefit of our sport. What’s that old saying? If you can’t beat them, join them!