by Coach Diane Boettcher
Coach: “Living in rural America makes it hard for good players to keep progressing. Do you have any advice on knowing when your child is ready to make the sacrifices necessary for going to the highest level of play?”
The certain, simple answer is when the level of local play no longer challenges and the child asks the parents or the coach what else might be out there. Then the parent must size up what the family can contribute by way of motivation, resources, transportation and, to some degree, genetics in relation to the child’s aspirations.
Opportunities for rural players are different in different states. A talented rural player in a small state (Delaware, Rhode Island, Vermont, etc.) cannot be ignored by Olympic Development Program or club coaches and finds encouragement to travel to participate. The tradeoffs are travel time, expense and making new friends. The other end of the spectrum is a rural player from a recognized soccer powerhouse state (California, New Jersey, Texas, etc.) where population centers are competitive cauldrons of club and ODP play. Enough talented players to fill teams reside locally, leaving little room for a rural player to break in even if motivated to travel an hour or two. And inside that spectrum with even different barriers are rural players from geographically large states with populations that skew to one or two parts of the state. For example, eastern Nebraska, southern Minnesota, and Reno or Las Vegas, Nevada each have fine soccer communities that make it difficult for teams to look to far flung rural areas for players willing to travel four or more hours for practices; or even farther for games.
Generally, the sacrifices to enable the highest levels of play are time and money. The child sacrifices time with local friends, learns to use time wisely for schoolwork and spends a lot of time traveling. The child has to use time for extra physical training and devotes more of what would otherwise be leisure time for soccer. Depending on the family, the child may also have to contribute financially toward soccer, perhaps by foregoing other opportunities. One test for a child’s willingness may simply be to guest play for a club team one weekend or occasionally to test the player’s resiliency both for travel and for making friends.
Both time and money are the sacrifices of parents. The same parent who may be commuting to work great distances would spend the weekend driving the soccer player. Teams might have mandatory midweek training sessions, truly testing rural parents. Further, it is usually the burden of parents to seek out the ODP or club opportunities and press for their child to get even a shot at them. The expenses of travel and participating are often not the highest hurdles for parents. More difficult may be pursuing just how their child might find high level opportunities.
Parents of rural players should investigate their state’s youth soccer Olympic Development Program. As well, those near another state’s more populous border can sometimes be able to cross states to participate more locally. Finding, choosing and being accepted by top level club teams can be challenging. The internet, state soccer publications, word of mouth, and coach recommendations all can be sources, but a lot of time and travel must be dedicated even to investigate. A college or university coach or assistant can be a great source of information on club teams, but they cannot talk to players or parents during the busy fall season or during certain times in the NCAA recruiting calendar. Rural school or club coaches may be willing to help find opportunities and reach out to contact other coaches for reliable information.
Mia Hamm did not grow up in a soccer powerhouse location, so her family let her go to another school to pursue her soccer dreams. There are those who go away to soccer academies and private schools because of their soccer aspirations. Rural players who go away sacrifice family ties and money, but find greater immersion and less travel strain. Though, their parents still have to travel to see them play.
Perhaps the issue is not so much the child’s readiness for the sacrifices, but the parents’ wise consideration of all the factors and choices.