Keeping the ball rolling

Women's World Cup soccer shines light on youth programs (5/24/2002)

Brion's comments:
'Following the United States's World Cup victory, assigned me to look into the connection between that event and the wildly successful youth soccer programs in this country.'

Feature article:

Like one of her decisive mid-field tackles, Carla Overbeck doesn't hesitate when asked what the women's World Cup this summer means to youth soccer in the United States.

"I think it will have a great impact," says Overbeck, captain of the United States women's national soccer team and Most Valuable Player of the World Cup final victory over China in late July. "Obviously there were millions of Americans watching, and lot of those were kids. It reinforced the opportunities that they have, the doors that have been opened for little kids growing up.

"And it's not just the girls, it's the little boys too. We're hoping that the little boys and girls watching this will know that they do have an opportunity to possibly play for the national team, or play in the World Cup or in the Olympics. And hopefully they'll continue to play soccer, and those who aren't enrolled to play soccer will sign up this next season."

According to Virgil Lewis, chairman of the U.S. Youth Soccer Association, Overbeck's expectations are right on the money. Though Lewis cautions that it is still too soon to tell exactly how great an impact the World Cup and United States victory will have on enrollment in the 3.2 million-member association, he said the early returns are very encouraging.

"This past year, we had a little over a 10 percent growth, instead of our usual 8 percent, and I'm attributing that 2-plus percent to the excitement of the build-up of women's World Cup," says Lewis. "I'm going to say that, field space allowing, we will experience a 15 to 20 percent growth rate this year. That's as much as a 12 percent increase simply because of what the women's World Cup team has done for us."

Noting that many of the players from the United States and other countries as well came through the USYSA system, Lewis says the World Cup was the perfect moment to re-energize an already robust youth soccer program.

"We certainly want to capitalize on it, because we believe in the value of our game for youngsters. We do want more children to have an opportunity to play youth soccer. And we know with the excitement out there that moms and dads are going to be into it. We're going to make it available."

Dick Wilson, executive director of the 650,000-member American Youth Soccer Organization, echoes similar sentiments.

"You'd have to be foolish to not get the message. If you attended any of the women's World Cup games, who was in the stands? There were lots of young girls in the stands," says Wilson. "I believe there will be a significant number of girls that haven't played soccer interested in giving it a try."

The success of the World Cup, says Wilson, could go a long way in helping overcome certain cultural barriers that discourage young girls from playing sports in some parts of the country. At the same time, Lewis points out that the women's game pulled off a neat daily double by drawing large numbers of male spectators and viewers.

"The brand of soccer that these women play is beautiful," says Lewis. "It's clean, it's aggressive, it's attack-oriented. It's very very good soccer, and very exciting soccer. And I think we've turned a bunch of guys onto women's soccer."

Wilson also noted that the United States national team reaffirmed the belief that soccer is a sport where success is more often the product of teamwork, not the actions of an individual (superstar Mia Hamm, for example, only netted three goals in the tournament before her penalty kick goal in the final).

"Soccer is a true team sport - a star out there can't do much alone," says Wilson. "Kids often see the Michael Jordans, the Mark McGwires, the individual stars that come out of what are basically team sports. And I think the child that is average suffers some frustration by the fact that they're graded by their individual abilities even in a team sport. I don't see soccer doing much of that. Even kids, in their simplest approach to things, feel they're contributing."

Overbeck and teammate Kate Sombrero agree, saying that soccer provides a fabulous opportunity to teach youngsters valuable lessons in life.

"Soccer allows for individuality, but you're doing it with 10 other people, and everyone wants to be a part of that," says Sombrero, a starting fullback on the US squad. "You learn so much about life - you learn about sharing, you learn about dealing with tons of different issues, like competition, and jealousy. It's a miniature of life."

"As far as the kids are concerned, it teaches you to be a team player," says Overbeck. "I've always enjoyed team sports, because of the camaraderie and the friendships that you make. I think that's what attracts kids to the game - a real sense of team. You have to know what your role is on the team, and learn the team concept. It's not just about 'me.'

And some of those lessons ring true for parents as well, says Overbeck. "As a parent, you learn to be there, and be supportive of your child, whatever role he or she is playing," she says. "As people learned from our team in the World Cup, every single person is a vital part of the team, whether they're starting and playing or providing support from the bench or whether they're the coach or on the staff. It's very important to recognize that every single person on the team plays a vital role."

Regarding parents, both Lewis and Wilson say they hope that the excitement generated by the World Cup will also encourage more women to join their local leagues as coaches and officials.

"We went so far, with some criticism, I might add, to having 'ladies only' clinics for coaches and referees," says Wilson.

The 31-year-old Overbeck and her teammate Joy Fawcett took a particular interest in the positive influence that the women's team had, and their own status as role models. The reason? They're both moms.

"We welcome the role model status with open arms, because when we were growing up we didn't have a role model in our sport," Overbeck says. "Now these young girls and young boys can look up and possibly aspire to be like us, and to play for the national team some day. We just hope they set goals, have dreams and go after those dreams."

And players such as Sombrero, who at 22 is one of the younger members of the team, recognize the importance of supportive parents.

"For both kids and parents, it's all about having fun," says the fleet-footed fullback. "I think it's hard for parents if their child is not the best player. But I think the best thing for parents is to support your kid, regardless of how they played. With my parents, as long as I gave a 100 percent effort, they were happy. It didn't matter if I played bad or I played well. The worst thing you can do is scold your child. Tell them if they're not going to give 100 percent, don't go out there. But as long as they're trying hard, that's all that matters."

So what lessons do the U.S. national team players hope youngsters take away from the World cup experience, and into this fall season?

"Keep playing hard, and keep trying," says Sombrero, a Notre Dame graduate. "If you're having fun, stay at it. It doesn't matter if you're not the best player on the team - I never was. If you love it, good things will happen."

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