What German soccer can teach us about youth sports

Germany's soccer system provides excellent perspective about youth athletics. Photo: slam.canoe.ca

WASHINGTON, DC, March 18, 2013 - Each year thousands of U.S. high school students exchange with students from another country. It’s a cultural experience that provides unrivaled exposure and information.

At a recent parents’ meeting about a German exchange program, I discovered that German schools don’t have organized sports like we do in the U.S. Neither their high school equivalent schools nor their universities have anything close to Hoosiers basketball, March Madness, Alabama Crimson Tide, or the Rose Bowl.

What Germany does have is one university called The German Sport University (Deutsche Sporthochschole Köln), whose intent is to provide degrees or certificates in sports management. It has about 5,600 students.

Germany also has a highly-developed, revitalized youth soccer program that feeds into its national soccer league, Bundesliga.

Poor sportsmanship in U.S. youth sports seems to be a problem unique to this country. At first, the assumption is that it’s because Americans are more driven, more focused on winning, and more invested in our children.

As a country, the U.S. values sports as an integral part of our cultural identity. Who are we if we a team from our hometown or college isn’t winning? Who are we if our pro teams don’t win “national” competitions like the Superbowl, championship NASCAR races, the Stanley Cup, the World Series, or NCAA basketball tournament?

A lot of people feel like we’re nothing if we’re not winning – not winning a youth tournament, a high school championship, a college scholarship and title, a pro contract, or a national championship.

The challenge is to understand that that’s not true.

German schools and universities don’t use sports as enrollment draws or fundraisers. They don’t use them as rallying points to whip team/school pride into a frenzy in order to best another school. German football (soccer) is a sport that exists outside the state schools systems and feeds into the national team. And while there is certainly a great deal of participation in and focus on soccer in Germany, it doesn’t dominate the educational system or potential career choices the way it does here.

There may not be a lot of data about sideline sportsmanship in German youth soccer, but one very prominent and telling display of German sportsmanship occurred just this past September.

Jack Bell, soccer blogger for the New York Times, wrote “An Outbreak of Sportsmanship in Italy.” According to Bell, German striker Miroslav Klose scored a goal, but illegally touched the ball with his hand instead of solely with his head.

“Klose, to his eternal credit, admitted the infraction, and the goal was disallowed…It was a rare display of sportsmanship, on any level, and one of a few in recent memory in world soccer.”

The German team lost that game.

Comments on Bell’s post included a reference to Klose’s reputation as a clean player and how it seemed important to him to maintain that reputation. How many U.S. athletes do we see holding themselves to that same standard? How may youth athletes do we see admitting to game-changing mistakes? What should be the rule has become the exception.

Americans’ focus and preoccupation with sports has allowed us to believe that they are important to our identities when they really aren’t. No one is less of a person if their team doesn’t make the playoffs. Sure, it’s fun to win, but it’s not the end of the world when a team doesn’t. Germany isn’t immune to national sports pride, but it appears to be tempered by the structured system of training and recruiting.

Nicholas Kulish, Berlin Bureau Chief for The New York Times explores the role of soccer in German culture, especially in light of Germany’s revitalization in the last few years. In “A German Resurgence, Feet First,” he writes, “In a little more than a decade, Germany has invested nearly $1 billion in its youth programs, with academies run by professional teams and training centers overseen by the national soccer association, the Deutscher Fussball Bund, or D.F.B.”

The U.S., in all of its major sports, have pay-for-play teams, independently-run training centers, less standardization of coaching protocols, and more financial incentive to win at all costs. Families are lured into spending money to achieve athletic success whether or not their child has extreme potential.

It’s not practical at this point to suggest that the U.S. reform our systems of professional, college, high school, and youth sports. But it’s interesting to consider the effect such a reform might have on sportsmanship issues in youth sports. Maybe somwhere down the line we’d have a player like Klose step up to the plate and show our young people what it means to be a true sportsperson.






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Jenni McNamara

With over ten years’ experience in the youth sports as a parent, coach, administrator, and fan, Jenni McNamara has seen how good sportsmanship can positively affect kids and families, but also how poor sportsmanship can have a devastating impact on their physical and emotional health.

As a volunteer with USLacrosse, first on its Youth Council and now on its Board Development Committee, Jenni has seen a national trend toward integrating sportsmanship into activities at the youngest ages. Her company, CHILL Manager ™, provides tools for organizations looking to enhance their sportsmanship efforts.

She writes a blog on sportsmanship at www.chillmanager.blogspot.com and her training information can be found on her website: www.chillmanager.org.


Contact Jenni McNamara


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