Dr. Dave Whiteman, a physical scientist, was a driving force behind the creation of the Greenbelt Soccer Alliance (GSA), an organization that focuses on providing pure recreational, small-sided soccer for children. He is currently the president and a coach. GSA is a City of Greenbelt Recognition Group, which entitles them to obtain permits to use the city's soccer fields and meeting rooms without charge.
Whiteman grew up playing baseball. He only played soccer by accident, replacing the team's goalie for one season, but is now a dedicated soccer fan. "Soccer is a fantastic sport especially for kids," says Whiteman. "It's physically active and develops stamina, it's cheap, and it's THE world sport." His two young girls are growing up with soccer.
The idea behind recreational soccer is simple: Since parents cannot let their kids go outside and run around without supervision these days, parents rely on community organizations to provide their kids physical outlets in the form of supervised, safe activities.
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Dave Whiteman and his daughters pose in front of the soccer goal. Photo courtesy: D. Whiteman
"Kids have to blow off steam," says Whiteman. "When parents put their kids to bed, they want them to conk out so the parents can get some piece of mind." Soccer is his way of teaching children to enjoy and have fun doing physical activities.
"Pure recreational soccer does not have any tryouts, official scores, or standings. We have rules designed to even out the competition between teams. Everyone is guaranteed to play 50 percent of the game regardless of ability," explains Whiteman. In contrast, select recreational soccer has tryouts but uses rules to even out the competition. "With travel team soccer," says Whiteman, "using professional coaches means you are in it to win it."
In small-sided soccer, the youngest kids play on the smallest field with the smallest number of kids on a team. The point is to allow the kids to run between the goals quickly enough to maintain their attention and allow them to successfully make goals. "If the field is too big," says Whiteman, "the youngest kids start to pick flowers instead of playing soccer." Even three-year-old children can play. "You keep the youngest kids engaged by making it all about fun. If they happen to kick a ball on the field, so much the better." Small-sided soccer, which developed in the poor areas of places like Argentina with limited space and sometimes fewer children, is the model endorsed by the U.S. Youth Soccer Association to which Maryland's soccer Association belongs.
Whiteman believes that people evolved through natural selection to be competitive by nature. Although not against competition, he feels that competition should be developmentally appropriate. Even though there are no official scores, the kids themselves keep score and create a competitive environment. He is concerned that young kids who pressure themselves to succeed could be crushed by losing. "It is not developmentally appropriate or healthy for the league and parents to add additional pressure to win. Also, we want to avoid bad behavior from overly-competitive parents," says Whiteman. As the kids grow older and their physical strength and cognitive abilities increase, they then play on larger fields. "Competition is a matter of age and environment," he says. "Older kids can handle more competition."
Some could question whether or not pure recreational, small-sided soccer prepares children for the real world. "There are things that an adult might do that are not appropriate for a kid to do. We are establishing an environment more appropriate for kids to develop in that is reflective of our ideals. This is in recognition that we as humans are flawed by our competitive nature," explains Whiteman. He adds that parents who do not subscribe to this developmental theory can always find competitive soccer leagues for their children; he is merely providing a non-competitive option.
With great emotion, Whiteman recalls hosting a dinner at his home for a NASA workshop with international attendees. The dinner was held around the time of the 2010 World Cup for soccer. He watched with amazement as his then eight-year-old daughter spoke freely and easily with people of various nationalities about soccer and the World Cup. "I thought to myself – soccer is training for living in the global community. Learning about the world's most popular sport connects my daughter with the rest of the world. Soccer is something everyone around the world can talk about with great passion," he says. And he does.
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