The STATE of Soccer in WASHINGTON
Zoe Birkbeck joins goalWA.net as part of our new internship program that connects us with young writers, photographers and videographers to give them experience covering soccer online in the state of Washington. Zoe is highly active in the sport. The Roosevelt High School (Seattle) senior is a player (goalkeeper), coach and assistant referee.
In her first piece for us she talks about her experiences at a recent youth tournament in Bellingham where she was an assistant referee as well as a fan on the sidelines.
Weekend in Bellingham: Joy and Strife in Youth Soccer
by Zoe Birkbeck
I’ll be straightforward, I’m obsessed with soccer. If you called it a fixation, it would be the understatement of the year. Ask anybody who knows me, and they would agree. Soccer is all I do; ever. I started playing soccer when I was 11 years old, and fell in love with it. I’m 18 now and have been coaching and refereeing for 6 years and have been a full-fledged Sounders season ticket holder since their first year in MLS. For the past few years of my soccer life, I have found myself continually surrounded and involved with Washington Youth Soccer. Through my different occupations in the sport, I have seen, and experienced many things (both good and bad) through the continually developing youth soccer leagues. This last weekend, I spent my time prowling the soccer fields at the Bellingham Puma Pacific Coast Challenge. A tournament for high-level boy’s teams, over the weekend I experienced some of the joys and strife that are a part of the full picture of youth soccer.
Reffing and Chatting with players in “B-ham”
While in Bellingham, I spent most of the three day event getting sun burnt while refereeing matches. I was lucky enough to referee pleasant and talented players and parents in all of my matches, which was truly a blessing of its own. Most of the boys I dealt with were young, but the amount of passion for the sport that flowed through their bodies was far beyond their age, and far beyond anything that I had ever seen or encountered. It truly blew me away to see boys younger than 14 so obsessed and in love with the game. My first match brought me an interesting conversation with a captain from one of the two teams. While waiting for the game to start, one of the boys by the name of Charlie asked me if I watched the English Premier League. I was surprised at first, mostly because the players don’t usually try to make conversation with those in yellow, but also because I had never met a boy under 12 that knew much about international soccer. I replied that I did, and Charlie told me all about his aspirations to go play soccer in college and then go play for Manchester City after he graduated. I was flabbergasted. This young boy, at only 12, already knew that he had a passion for soccer, and that it was what he wanted to do when he grew up. The most amazing thing is that youth soccer helps create these little soon-to-be Clint Dempsey’s. Charlie is part of youth soccer around Washington, and he is able to follow his goals and aspirations, much like many other kids who I’m sure have the same idea in their mind.
Later that same day, I had the delight of refereeing another brilliant game of soccer. It was a boy’s under-13 match, two teams from the same club playing each other. At first I was a bit concerned that there would be some problems. After all, testosterone plus bragging rights don’t usually add up to happiness on the soccer field. Luckily though, I was pleasantly surprised. Both sides were respectful and cordial to one another, and both teams played very good games of soccer. The A team won, but afterwards I was taken aback. I saw the boys of both teams giving each other high fives and taking pictures with each other after they had shaken my hand. The coaches were both smiling and joking with one another, and the feeling of achievement was mutual. They were all victors at that time, and it didn’t matter who had actually won. Such an occurrence is rarely ever seen at the professional level, and it was awe-inspiring to see that both friendships and the idea of sportsmanship runs deep and strong in youth soccer. Unfortunately, while passion and sportsmanship is great to be seen, Washington Youth Soccer also must deal with some problems, a couple of which I saw while up in Bellingham.
My main reason for doing the drive to Bellingham was to watch my younger brother play. Being a fan of soccer, I always love cheering him on, and usually end up making bets with the team parents about who is going to score. His team had played well, and they had made it to the final. Their opponent, another Seattle area team, was very talented, so we were expecting a close match. Much to everybody’s surprise, and the other parent’s dismay, my brothers’ team beat them by a multiple goal difference. As the goals began to come, so did the insults and the verbal abuse from the parents on the other team. Most was directed at the referee and at us, but some began to be directed at the players themselves! I was so confused. Did they not realize how ridiculous it was to hear a grown man throwing insults at a middle school boy? And truthfully, do parents believe that if they yell at their child, that they’re suddenly going to turn into Leo Messi and score 15 goals? Obviously quite a few parents do, as this is a very common occurrence in many games. At the end, the boys shook hands, and all was well between them. The parents were still very upset though, and they continued to berate the officiating crew about the mistakes they may or may not have made. These types of things shouldn’t be happening at any youth level game. OK, I understand that your child missed out on winning a ‘Champions’ t-shirt, but is that really a legitimate reason to make yourself look ridiculous? As a fan and a player, I understand that games get intense, and it stinks to lose, but this kind of behavior needs to improve in youth soccer at all levels.
Hey Coach, the kids are following your lead
Another problem I witnessed while in Bellingham was a large number of unnecessary dilemmas being caused by coaches. While most of them were seemingly unintentional, they were still occurring. During my second day of refereeing in Bellingham, I had the joy of refereeing two very well known and talented U16 teams. The game started off fine and without problem, until one of the coaches decided that my officiating crew was favoring the other team. After this mental decision of his, every single call, move, and breath we took, he would scrutinize and criticize. After a while, the boys began to listen to their coaches’ antics, and all of a sudden, we had a team of boys who decided that their coach was right; the referees must obviously hate them. We went from a game that had started off fine, and by the second half, we had become their most loathed enemies. All because of one man’s opinion on the sideline. In youth soccer, coaches need to remember how much power and influence they have over their players. They are their kids’ role models, and everything they do is seen to be the right decision. I am lucky enough to have had the opportunity to coach youth soccer, and the kids do look up to their coach as someone they want to follow. So seeing their coach screaming at a referee removes the real joy of playing, and instead creates a hostile situation for everybody involved, especially the players.
Growing as players and people
With the population of youth soccer growing every year, and with Washington having one of the largest in the US, more and more kids find themselves involved in the world of soccer. While soccer is indeed one of the most played sports by children in the US, one must not forget what they could possibly be exposed to. They could be exposed to great things, such as new friends with similar tastes, or a new idea of sportsmanship. Both of which could help shape a child to become a happier and more respectful person. But let us not forget the slightly lesser things in which they could be exposed to as well. One of which includes verbal abuse by someone involved, either the referees, parents, coaches, or even the other players. While up at the Pacific Coast Challenge, I saw examples of why youth soccer can be both a wonderful environment for kids, yet also, an environment that can sometimes harm kids and others that are involved. It is my belief that with a bit of effort from everybody involved, youth soccer could be one of the greatest places for a child to learn and grow as a person.
Parents, when you’re at your child’s next game, and the referee seemingly makes a mistake, understand the stress they are under. No matter what call they make, half the people involved will be upset with the call. Coaches, understand how much your players look up to you as role models. Before you comment, think about how you want your players to act. Players and referees must be respectful and helpful to one another, as it is a partnership that must occur every single game. Without both there would be no game to play.