Debra Macklin gets up early on a damp spring Saturday and checks her e-mail. More rain is forecast. Will her children’s soccer games be rained out? A message is indeed awaiting her: Coaches have been driving around checking fields; the day’s games are on unless there’s another downpour.
The message came in at 3:01 a.m.
Macklin is a soccer mom in Fairfax County, Virginia, a suburban area of Washington, D.C., that is noted or notorious, depending on the point of view, as one of the most soccer-crazy corners of the United States. The wealthy community of McLean, where Macklin lives, is a particularly fertile soccer hothouse. McLean has one of the largest and most comprehensive soccer programs in America—kids play lots of soccer, the parents are highly involved, and both children and parents take soccer seriously. Some would say too seriously.
Macklin is cheerful and matter-of-fact about being a soccer mom as she sets off in her Chevy Suburban with Madeleine, 11, and Teddy, 6, for their games. Her 9-year-old twins, Catherine and Victoria, stay home with their dad—Debra’s husband, Ted Macklin; the twins’ games are later. The following day is Mother’s Day, but Macklin doesn’t expect any big brunch or dinner in her honor. “I’ll be driving to more games,” she says.
Teddy and his 6-year-old teammates warm up under a lowering sky. “Little kicks, guys, little kicks,” their coaches holler. Macklin, in jeans and a sleeveless top, her long blond hair loose, helps the team get organized. Like many soccer parents, she never played the game herself but finds it easy to understand. She has been an assistant coach for two teams since she became a full-time mom last year after retiring at 46 from her job as a marketing executive. Madeleine fetches a soccer ball from the minivan and sits on it, expertly, on the sidelines.
A NONPROFIT CLUB, MCLEAN YOUTH SOCCER INC. oversees 3,500 players in the area—about half the youth in the community play at some point between ages 5 and 19—on 270 teams at various levels, from kindergarten “swarm” soccer to elite squads aimed at developing teenagers who might try out for the U.S. national team some day. Teddy, like all the younger kids in McLean Youth Soccer, plays in a “house” league against others from McLean. Children are assigned to teams randomly, and typically scrimmage three-on-three or four-on-four to make sure every child gets some touches. No scores or standings are kept. Beginning in third grade, at age 8 or 9, players are drafted each year by coaches according to their ability. The best players are selected for all-star “traveling” teams that compete against comparable teams from other towns in the Washington area, and may play three to four days a week. As the children get older, the number of players on the field grows to eight-on-eight and, finally, “real” soccer, 11 per side, when they are in sixth grade. That’s when serious youngsters in McLean Premier Soccer—the most elite traveling teams—may start playing almost every day, almost year-round. Parents stop coaching them and hire professional coaches and trainers for the highest-level teams. Many parents also hire personal coaches for private sessions with their children. As a result, several McLean teams are ranked nationally. (Yes, there are Web sites that purport to rank the best teams of 13-year-olds across the country.)
TEDDY'S TEAM, THE SHIN-SMASHERS, IS PLAYING THE Yellow Scorpions. Barely two minutes into the game, a parent sees lightning. The players are herded off the field into the safety of the assembled cars and vans, the parents gather up cones and balls, and the heavens open. After a few minutes, the coaches and refs agree that the game won’t be resumed, and the cars begin pulling out. Macklin steers hers toward another field on the other side of town, where Madeleine’s team of 11-year-olds is scheduled to play next. Perhaps the rain will let up for that game.
A number of parents, coaches, refs and McLean Youth Soccer administrators happen to be gathered at the next field. While waiting for the rain to let up, they are happy to talk of perceptions and misconceptions about youth soccer programs, including theirs. McLean is an inside-the-Beltway bedroom community where the typical family income exceeds $155,000 and the typical family home costs $350,000. Two-thirds of the adults have college degrees, one-third of them graduate degrees. They are Washington lawyers, bureaucrats, lobbyists and executives. Quite a few of them work for the U.S. government.
After growing up as baby boomers, many are overachievers who don’t expect—and won’t accept—less from their own children. The parents complain that they are overscheduled, but that doesn’t stop them from overscheduling their children, too—while at the same time lamenting that it’s too bad kids don’t have a chance to just be kids and play on their own any more. One dad admits he got into coaching primarily so he could control the practice schedule, and also so his son “could do everything” without conflicts with piano lessons, choir practice and other sports. He got out of coaching after realizing that the only players he yelled at—and the only ones who gave him any lip—were his own.
Parents are conscious, and sometimes painfully self-conscious, of the time and money involved, especially if they think their children are really good at soccer—or, more commonly, if they think their children might someday be really good. In truth, barely a handful of the 3,500 youngsters playing McLean Youth Soccer will be good enough to play Division I college soccer. But that doesn’t stop parents from shelling out $1,000 or more per year for equipment and training, sometimes a lot more, beyond the $90 per season it costs just to play McLean Youth Soccer. Parents of traveling soccer players routinely drive up to 90 minutes to games. They build high-tech Web sites for each team and donate off-season workdays to get fields in shape.
TALKING ABOUT ALL THIS IN THE PARKING LOT IN THE rain, Bob Belair, a longtime McLean coach and administrator of the traveling teams program, observes, “A lot of people think soccer parents are out of their minds. But not everybody in the soccer community is a nut.” Like most parents, Belair got involved when his eldest child reached age 5 and stuck shinguards inside his socks for the first time. Belair began coaching, and over the years went through a series of soccer certification courses. The first course was only eight hours. The most recent was over nine days in New Hampshire.
Belair says critics focus on the elite aspects of youth soccer without recognizing that the goal is to offer “an entire menu” for players. For those who just want to have fun with friends, there are house leagues. But some want to push themselves, want to develop their skills and want to win. “Some kids really get a sense of accomplishment out of it,” he says. Those are the youngsters who play or practice almost every day during the two regular seasons in autumn and spring, go to one or more soccer camps and tournaments in the summer, and play in indoor leagues in the winter.
While the adults talk in their cars and under umbrellas, Madeleine listens at first. But she has come to play, and she is bored. She quietly slips out of her mom’s van with a soccer ball and skips onto the field, squinting into the rain. She drops the ball, kicks it and chases it around the field all by herself.
On the sidelines, the adults are discussing a McLean team of 12-year-old boys that’s having a disappointing season. Under a professional coach with two assistants, the team is suffering a losing streak. It had been relegated from Division 1, the best of the six divisions in the National Capitol Soccer League and one of the top boys’ leagues in the country, to Division 2. Then to Division 3, then Division 4. Now the parents fear the team won’t win enough games to keep from being moved to Division 5. The parents of the boys on the team are afraid that McLean Youth Soccer might disband the team.
Belair says that won’t happen. Not directly, anyway. Instead, McLean Youth Soccer might try to recruit a professional coach from another Division 1 team outside McLean. The new coach would no doubt bring some of his players with him, and might recruit the better players from the faltering Division 4 team. “If we don’t have a Division 1 team, something is wrong,” Belair says. “We can bring in another Division 1 team, and there would be an opportunity for McLean kids to play on that team. That would be consistent with offering an entire menu.”
THE RAIN, MEANWHILE, CONTINUES TO FALL, AND THE entire day’s schedule of games, dozens of them, is officially washed out. There will be no joy in Soccerville. Madeleine, soaked but smiling, comes off the field and suggests breakfast. Her mother points the minivan toward a diner where a big corner table is occupied by McLean soccer people, including Ted Kinghorn, the chairman of McLean Youth Soccer.
Kinghorn, an accomplished Washington lobbyist who prefers to say that he and his multidiscipline consulting firm “do advocacy, government affairs,” is a former college soccer player, lean and fit-looking in middle age. He speaks quietly, seriously and with a certain amount of intensity. Especially when he talks about McLean Youth Soccer. It is the largest community service organization in McLean, and registration is increasing by 15 percent a year. There are as many girls as boys in the program. The club helps disabled children learn and play soccer, and collects lightly worn cleated soccer shoes to pass along to inner-city youth. McLean Youth Soccer spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year maintaining fields owned by Fairfax County and local schools and churches. The organization is campaigning to renovate old fields and build new ones, some with lights and artificial turf.
The fields campaign, Kinghorn acknowledges, has become controversial. Three separate neighborhood organizations are protesting that new fields will wipe out existing woodlands and lead to increased traffic and noise. “In every community there are half a dozen people who object to everything,” Kinghorn scoffs. “They’re worried about noise pollution. Children playing? That’s happy noise.” He says that the appointed and elected officials in the community have supported McLean Youth Soccer proposals. He maintains that Fairfax County needs 60 new fields to meet the growing demand for soccer, and eight of them should be in McLean. “Children cannot gain the benefits of youth sports if they don’t have the facilities to play on,” he says.
Kinghorn urges critics to look beyond McLean Youth Soccer’s well-organized campaigns. He says the motives of the club’s hundreds of volunteers, most of them parents of players, go beyond living vicariously through their children’s athletic successes; they are more interested in building children’s fitness and self-image. “It’s less about soccer for them than creating a vehicle for kids to learn life lessons,” he says. “We’re trying to help, in our own modest way, facilitate those life lessons.”
AS BREAKFAST WRAPS UP, the sun comes out. Kinghorn and Macklin sigh. The fields will still be too wet to play on for the rest of the day. But if there were a field with artificial turf, the teams could be playing “right now.” Expensive new facilities are usually considered progress—but if artificial turf had been in place, two of us would have missed the best play of the day.
It was back when we were at the second field and 11-year-old Madeleine, ignoring both the pelting rain and the adults talking under umbrellas on the sidelines, put her soccer ball down a few yards from the goal. She trotted away from it, then whirled, ran full speed onto the ball and smacked it with her right foot, hard and straight, into the upper right corner of the net. She raised her arms to the wet sky, her blonde ponytail bouncing. It was a triumphant moment, but the other adults didn’t notice, and Madeleine didn’t care.
Timothy Harper, an author, freelance journalist and editorial consultant based at www.timharper.com, has coached his own children’s basketball, baseball and softball teams.