In my last post, I discussed when to start soccer training at home. But, what about more formal, third party soccer training? If you live in a decent sized metropolitan area, my guess is that you will see advertisements from local clubs or even the local parks and recreation department for early childhood soccer training. Some programs start “soccer” training as early as 18 months! These programs are generally skill based programs, teaching the very basics of dribbling and kicking. Typically, there are no true soccer games played.
Toddler Soccer Programs
I have mixed feelings about these programs. On one hand, they give children early exposure to the sport, but on the other hand, you can accomplish much more than these classes if you just work with your child as I’ve outlined previously. For those of you that feel like you don’t have the time, energy or knowledge to help your child with this phase of soccer training or if you just want a structured social activity for your child, these classes might be a good option. But, for those of you willing to give the ball manipulation training a shot, I would suggest saving your money.
I remember being so anxious for my son to play soccer that I started him in several of these classes as early as possible. But, after seeing what the children were (or rather weren’t) learning, I opted to avoid these classes for my daughter. Again, my daughter is currently a division 1 player, while my son is a division 7 player. The classes probably didn’t hurt my son’s development in any way, but they didn’t exactly accelerate it either.
When to start formal training
So, when should more formal soccer training actually begin? By around age 4 or 5, you will likely have more options for your child. Many recreational programs and competitive clubs start leagues around these ages. Kids will be divided into teams, assigned a coach, have team practices and play actual mini soccer games.
When I was a kid, we launched immediately into 11 v. 11 games on a large field at this age. Talk about a swarm of kids buzzing around the field! It was certainly magnet ball and probably not very helpful developmentally. Productive touches were few and far between.
Fortunately, U.S. Soccer has learned a lot since 1977, so the norm has become small sided games on a much smaller field. The U.S. Soccer guidelines for U6 (6 years old and younger) players are as follows: 4 v. 4 (no goalkeeper) on a field 25-35 yards long, 15-25 yards wide, with a goal size of approximately 6 feet by 4 feet. These guidelines create an excellent environment for young players to learn the game of soccer and experience meaningful touches.
That said, there may still be some leagues that start this age with 11 v. 11. Avoid those leagues! Your son or daughter may play an entire game without even touching the ball in that environment. Needless to say, that will not help your child grow in the game of soccer. Touches on the ball are absolutely essential for development.
Competitive vs. Recreational
If you have a choice between a competitive club/league and a recreational league, which should you choose? if you live in a rural area, you may be stuck with whatever league is available. Otherwise, that’s a question that’s not easy to answer.
Cost is probably the first factor to consider. Recreational soccer is typically far less expensive than club soccer. The much derided pay for play model dominates in the United States. So, if you want your child in a high-flying club, you are going to have to be willing to pay a substantial sum. To give you an idea of the cost difference – for a 4 or 5 year old child in Kansas City, Fall 2019, a local recreational league charges about $80 for a season, whereas a local club league charges almost twice that at $150.
Keep in mind, that the cost above is for kids at the earliest ages. My daughter is 13 and her club fees are about $800 for a season! Recreational costs do not increase much as the players get older, so, at 13, club soccer is about 10 times more expensive than recreational soccer!
The next factor is coaching. A quick story: I started my son out in a recreational league playing what they were calling “indoor soccer”. It was actually futsal, but the difference is not important. The reason I chose the “indoor soccer” league over the more traditional outdoor leagues is that the beginning age was lower for “indoor soccer”. In other words, my son would be playing games a whole year earlier than he could play games in outdoor. Again, I was pretty anxious to get him going!
The problem with recreational coaches
I still remember getting the call from his coach after the teams were formed. The coach sounded like a good guy, and I was excited as we walked into our first practice. Unfortunately, the excitement didn’t last too long as I quickly realized the coach had no idea what to do with the kids. He was just a dad who volunteered to help out.
So, after he floundered for a while, I stepped up to at least divide the kids with the idea that smaller groups might be easier to manage. I put my group through some basic dribbling drills that I had read about while he continued to flounder with his group. That continued for a few practices until the coach finally turned over all of the training responsibilities to me. I had never intended to be a coach, but I loved it, and that’s when my coaching “career” began. We didn’t do very well that first year, but the next year, I took over full coaching duties, and my team won nearly every game.
That, however, demonstrates the potential problem with recreational soccer. If I had not been involved, my son would have been coached by a well-meaning parent with absolutely no clue about soccer. Any kind of progress would be tough in those circumstances.
So, what about club coaches?
A club coach on the other hand, will likely be more knowledgeable, but will probably also be more focused on winning as opposed to developing his or her players. The fact is that club coaches are typically paid coaches, which means they are dependent on convincing parents that they are worth the money. The best, most objective way to convince parents is to put up a winning record. Parents are typically competitive by nature (just like I was in coaching my first team) and want the most optimal situation for their children. Nobody wants to put their child on a losing team. If they’re losing, the coach must not be good. If they’re winning, the coach must be great. That’s not necessarily true, but we’ll discuss what’s wrong with “winning” in a future post.
Is Your Child Ready for Competitive Soccer?
Another factor to consider is your child’s readiness for competitive soccer. Most players can handle recreational soccer, but competitive soccer can be too much for some kids. So, how do you know if your child can handle competitive soccer? Check out Should Your Child Play Competitive Soccer? How to Know.
The bottom line
The bottom line is that there is no absolutely right or absolutely wrong answer to the question of recreational vs. club when starting soccer training. The ideal situation would probably be a knowledgeable parent coach of a recreational team, but that is sometimes difficult to find. Keep in mind that, even if you start with recreational soccer, you will likely want to transition to club soccer at some point as your soccer star develops. Check out my post about how to select the right club and coach once you’ve decided to make the competitive leap!