In Youth Sports, Life Lessons Beyond the Playing Field

Most youth athletes won’t receive sports scholarships, and even fewer will go pro. That’s beside the point.

The author giving a pep talk to one of his players. (Photo by Will Crawford)

I’ve coached hundreds of youth soccer players and none have gone on to win the World Cup.

Despite this obvious coaching shortcoming, I’ve come to realize it doesn’t make me a failure on the sidelines. Even in the hypercompetitive battleground of Northern Virginia travel soccer, where players angle for elusive college scholarships, parents chart playing time to the second and coaches have no qualms about poaching top talent from their competition, youth sports can and should be important for reasons that supersede the results on the field.

Especially in our tumultuous times, I see the girls on my under-16 travel team picking up life lessons that ultimately will be more valuable to them than the ability to execute a diving header. It just takes a little effort—for players, parents and especially coaches—to look beyond the trophies and championships.

Here are a few takeaways that I hope will shape this generation of players and who they become as adults. I’m a girls’ soccer coach, so I speak in those terms, but similar lessons await on other fields, courts and rinks in the world of youth sports.

Speak Up for Yourself
Our players have watched their heroes on the U.S. Women’s National Team battling hard on the field while also advocating for themselves on issues like pay equity. Youth soccer empowers girls to speak out and to be heard, but with lower stakes to increase the margin for error. We want our daughters to become comfortable voicing their opinions, even if it doesn’t always go their way. No, we aren’t switching to a four-back set. Yes, we can change our pregame warm-up routine and ditch my musical selections (hurtful, but fair). I hope our players go forward in life with a certainty that they get to have opinions, express them and push for them to be enacted.

Tone Is Tough
As my players demonstrated when they cheered the shelving of my music playlist, it’s important to keep tone in mind. How we say things affects how those messages are received. On the soccer field, there is a necessary urgency when you’re relaying the fact that the opposing striker is running free and should be marked at a teammate’s earliest convenience. Things can turn shout-y. But we’re learning that a calmer follow-up conversation, after the on-field emergency has passed, can help soothe feelings and get everyone on the same page. And we’re (slowly) learning that we shouldn’t take it personally when someone yells at us. We are all best served if we assume our teammate—or coach—is coming from a place of wanting to help, even if it doesn’t sound that way at the time.

Help a Teammate
Speaking of helping, one of the tenets our team stressed throughout the past season was the concept of helping a teammate out. In soccer terms, that includes things like making the extra pass or telling a player if she has a man on. Yes, those are nice, considerate things to do. But as importantly, they help build the success of the entire team. When each individual works not only to improve herself but her teammates, it raises everyone together and allows the whole group to achieve shared goals.

Prioritize Your Life
We all learned over the past year that, contrary to what your coach might have told you in the past, soccer is not the most important thing in life. Covid and quarantine and loss of soccer shifted all our perspectives and allowed us to better determine how the pieces should fit together. During the fall season, we had players miss practices and games for swim meets, high school basketball practices, family trips, marching band competitions, personal wellness and even—gasp—to catch up on schoolwork. And the world did not end. My players helped teach me that soccer is something we do for fun when we can.

Focused Fun
When our team plays stressed, we don’t play as well. When we’re chatting about math quizzes and homecoming dresses, we don’t play as well. When we play with a sense of focused fun, we are absolutely at our best. There’s a calmness and a composure and a joy to our performances. There’s a life lesson here about finding things to study and careers to pursue that grab and hold your interest while also being something you enjoy. That’s when you’ll do your best work and be your best self.

Looking at all sports, roughly 7% of high school athletes go on to play a varsity sport in college, according to

In girls’ soccer, the odds of a U.S. high school player making any college roster are 10-1; 48-1 for making an NCAA Division I roster; and 1,435-1 for making a pro club.

The odds of learning valuable life lessons about teamwork, conflict resolution, prioritization, self-esteem, friendship and the value of hard work are significantly higher—if we remember what youth sports should be about.

Annandale resident Roger Friedman has spent his evenings and weekends coaching soccer for more than 20 years. He coaches his teenage kids on Burke Athletic Club teams that play in the National Capital Soccer League, including the Blast, the team referenced above, which has won the top division three of the past four seasons.

Categories: Parents & Kids