Kids' soccer is so prevalent, it's almost a rite of passage for American children. And the game is popular all around the world. Is it right for your young athlete?
The basics: Soccer (called "football" outside the United States) is played on a rectangular turf field with a goal at either end. Teams compete to kick (or head) a ball into the opposing team's goal. Players must use their feet, heads, or torsos to propel the ball; only the goalkeeper can use his or her hands or arms to stop the ball from entering the goal. Boys and girls both play (often on coed teams when they are young).
Age kids can start: 4 (American Youth Soccer Organization); 5 (US Youth Soccer Association). Some cities or recreational centers may offer soccer programs for kids as young as 3; the game is easy for kids to pick up at a young age.
Skills needed/used: Teamwork, endurance, speed, agility/footwork (handling ball with feet)
Best for kids who are: Social (enjoy team play), high energy
Season/when played: Spring, summer, fall; year-round in many areas; indoor soccer leagues also available.
Team or individual? Two teams of 11 players each; short-sided teams (with fewer players) are common for children under 10 and allow more playing time for each child.
Levels: Age-grouped and school-affiliated teams, up through high school and college. Starting as early as age 7, kids in many areas have the option to play in either a competitive (traveling) or noncompetitive league. Talented players may be selected for elite leagues, training camps, or development academies. The best players can play at the Olympic Games or on professional teams in the U.S. and around the world.
Appropriate for kids with special needs? TOPSoccer (USYSA) and VIP (AYSO) are leagues for kids with physical or cognitive disabilities. Children with severe asthma or other chronic health conditions may have difficulty participating.
Fitness factor: High. All players except the goalie spend most of the game running. Coaches should encourage every child to have lots of opportunities to play during practice and games (every child brings his/her own ball to practice, to use in drills). Soccer builds aerobic fitness, leg strength, and balance.
Equipment: Soccer shoes with rubber or molded plastic cleats, shin guards (look for the kind with built-in ankle protection), uniform, ball (smaller, lighter balls are available for younger children).
Costs: League fees (up to $100 for noncompetitive leagues; $500 or more for travel teams), equipment, tournament fees (varies significantly, but can reach $500 per tournament per family including fees and travel expenses).
Time commitment required: For the youngest children, an hour a week (30 minutes practice, 30 minutes game). As players move up the ranks, practice time and number of games increases significantly. Players on competitive ("travel") teams will travel longer distances to games and may attend at least one out-of-town tournament per season.
Potential for injury: Surprisingly high. Risks include collisions with other players, the ground, or the goalposts; repetitive strain injuries, especially to the ankles and knees and especially in girls; heat-related illnesses; and concussions (from heading the ball, collisions, or falls). Precautions taken by players, coaches, and leagues can help reduce risk. You can get a tip sheet on preventing soccer injuries from the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.
How to find a program: Your child's school or your city's parks department may sponsor a league. Or try:
Associations and governing bodies:
- US Youth Soccer Association (USYSA)
- American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO)
- U.S. Soccer (governing body for all forms of soccer; founder of Major League Soccer)