It takes a village to raise a champion
Not long ago, my cousin’s son was kicking around a soccer ball at his sister’s game in Waukee when a man approached his mom.
The man was apparently impressed with the boy’s foot control, and said their soccer club would love to have him.
The kid is in preschool.
Had it been my kid, I’m personally still of the mind-set that I would have immediately been suspicious.
“My,” I would’ve thought, “sex offenders are getting rather bold these days.”
Just the idea that a grown man is out scouting kids who aren’t yet even allowed to cross the street on their own is absurd and, yeah, sorta creepy.
It would be funny — oh, those nutty suburbanites! — if it weren’t beginning to happen here, too.
The concept that we can no longer wait until high school (or even middle school) to see which kids emerge from puberty with athletic ability — preferring instead to groom our future champions from Pre-K up — isn’t at all unique.
The Suzuki Method has been in use for years to teach children violin.
The idea behind the Suzuki Method is that no one ever really teaches a child how to speak their native language. It just comes naturally from being immersed in it.
So if you immerse your child in the language of music beginning in the fetal stage — followed by formal lessons starting at 3 or 4 — they should be playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto before they get their first zit.
When I worked the arts and entertainment beat at a daily newspaper in Ohio, I occasionally would interview the local symphony’s guest soloists, most of them young and absolutely brilliant, with prizes and critically acclaimed recordings already to their names.
Invariably, I would learn that each began playing violin at the tender age of 3.
As someone who grew up in a town (Jefferson) without an orchestra program, and where kids don’t officially pick up an instrument until fifth grade, I never quite got used to hearing that.
From there, I had a habit (good or bad, I don’t know) of veering the interview into their personal lives. I wanted to know more about their childhoods.
To them, they were perfectly normal childhoods.
To me, I instinctively started interviewing them like they had been child soldiers in Myanmar or the Congo.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in a community with so few resources, but I still believe that childhood should be a period of self-discovery.
Seeking out formal training in violin for my kid who’s 3 is more about me imposing my will on them.
That’s the way I feel about our community’s newfound emphasis on more competitive youth athletics.
My son, who’s 8, has been enrolled in the rec center’s soccer programs from the time he could.
That first year, there were scores of kids at Kelso Park learning the basics of soccer (a game that most of us parents still know nothing about, other than it’s enormously more fun to watch than tee ball).
But then kids who looked to be having a grand time would just vanish between seasons. Talk would surface that so-and-so had been “recruited” by the Jefferson Fieldhouse to play.
So, wait, you mean to tell me that while I was cheering and laughing during the rec center games, there were other adults who were seriously scouting the prospects?
I’m not sure if I should be honored or creeped out.
Sports has always been, and probably will always be, a big deal in our society. And the smaller the town, the harder it is for a kid to find an alternative niche.
Between the increased emphasis on competition at the youngest levels and the lionization (this season in particular) of the high school football program, Jefferson is at a point of no return.
You’d think we knew nothing about the research into concussions and traumatic brain injury.
No less than Bryce Paup — so far one of only two Greene Countians to make the NFL in our collective history — once told me during an interview he wouldn’t allow a child to play tackle football before at least junior high.
Obviously, our friends in the rest of the civilized world knew what they were doing when they embraced soccer.
But now with the formation of a high school soccer program locally, we’re looking to groom the state championship team of 2026.
The ranks of rec center players have, from the looks of it, been decimated by the new private clubs. It would seem that the rec center is now a sort of triple-A farm team for the Greene County Youth Athletic Association.
There are so few rec center players past a certain age that parents have to drive the kids to Fort Dodge to play every Saturday.
We’ve told our son that if we’re going to drive him 45 minutes one way to play soccer, we’re more than happy to drive him somewhere to get music lessons.
If he wants a cello or a guitar or even a harpsichord, just say the word.
I think he thinks we’re joking.
I was never a jock, but I don’t mind if my son wants to be one. If it turns out he can throw a wicked pass downfield, so be it, especially if it means free college.
But I’m also a realist.
This community has produced far more graduates who’ve gone on to be employed professionally in music than athletics.
Even so, we’ve made it more difficult for our students to actually be in band.
I implore the adults who want to elevate the competitiveness of youth athletics to proceed with caution.
In a small town, this isn’t just about wanting to groom winning teams. This is a social experiment they’ve undertaken — one that will inevitably divide our kids years before they can even comprehend why so-and-so won’t play with them at recess.
We either slow this thing down or risk veering entirely into “Dance Moms” territory.