I've always loved soccer. I'd play throughout the day in the 3 school breaks. Get home, have a stack of jam butties, a cup of milk and head out for more footy at the park. I played for my school and local teams. Footy's been good to me: It's
- kept me fit
- given me new mates all my 51 years
- earned me a few bob coaching in the USA and Japan.
From the age of 2, our two boys would take a ball wherever we went: parks, beach, shopping. There's always a chance for a bit of keepy uppies!
As our boys got older, they joined the "esteemed" Dave and Amy soccer school. Most of the kids who joined weren't the best, crying, shy or just not interested. My youngest included.
My boys got older and moved onto the local excellent Coerver academy.
In 4th grade, both our boys were, to our great surprise, picked up by the Urawa Reds academy. This was after 5 selections and 2 interviews, being whittled down from 150 to 9.
Before you get too envious, our younger child has since been dropped in the transition from elementary school to Jr. High School. Our elder child (now Jr. High School 3rd year) is still on the team but he'll find out in June whether he makes it to the High School team or not.
It's difficult being dropped from a J. League team. There are good and bad points about every team, but overall the Urawa Reds was great.
Sports gets a bad name in Japan (deservedly so) for being too much, but with the Urawa Reds, they were certain not to overtrain. Other teams will train from morning to night on weekends. The Urawa Reds, limit the training (and training games) to 2 hours (3 max). Players are not allowed to play soccer outside of Urawa Reds training / games. (Other sports are fine.) At first, we didn't agree with this rule and elder child continued at his soccer school. He most certainly broke his ankle through overtraining. We were stupid.
They are also very particular about food. After training, children must eat (food is provided). The 30 minute window after training is especially important for growth / muscle development. The Urawa Reds want their players to be strong. Parents are coached in what to cook. Every meal, snack should contain the 5 food groups. We went from giving the kids french toast for breakfast to (a typical breakfast now): eggs, rice, salad, fruit, yogurt, salmon.... Snacks are the same (mini version of above). When kids join in 4th grade, there is always the child who is not used to eating so much for breakfast and on trips away throws up the breakfast. That poor child won't play that day, but will be made to still finish the breakfast. It sounds cruel, but the players soon get used to it and become big and strong.
The Reds were interested in the full development of the player. The parents / the children are told (many times) how difficult it is to actually make it as a soccer player. So, don't neglect your studies. Players who fall below a certain GPA are not allowed to play (players submit the record cards to the coach).
Discipline is high. It can be intense and seem over the top at first, but overall it's a good thing. Like teaching, be strict at first and then you can relax. It's the same. When our eldest was in his 1st year with the Reds, a bib went missing (players must bring the bibs home, wash them and return them the following training). 1 bib was missing. No player admitted to forgetting it (we have our suspicions). The coach got so angry, the kids were made to be ball boys for the older kids for 2 practices and then he cancelled training entirely for a week. All over a bib. (I still suspect he took a mini vacation to Bali). Even now, the thought of a forgotten bib wakes me up at night.
The coach confiscates the kids cell phones on trips. He wants the kids to talk to each other, to build team spirit, to sleep as opposed to becoming phone zombies. It does get a bit much though when kids are on a trip for a week with no contact. (Now the coach will send daily updates with photos: a lot has changed in the last 6 years)
Independence is encouraged. This too can seem a bit much. My 9 year old child was required to meet the team in Shinjuku Station. No Moms or Dads were allowed to drop off the kids. The players had to negotiate Shinjuku Station themselves and find the meeting place. Keep in mind that 3.5 million people pass through Shinjuku Station a day. Keep in mind, no kid had a phone (in the age before wide spread phone use). I myself got lost in Shinjuku Station in my 20s, gave up meeting my friends and went home. You'll be happy to know they all met. This was repeated several times. Meeting in Tokyo station on your own. Come to the game on your own. My older child never had any problems, negotiating the trains to faraway places // coming back from Narita on his own after the trip to France.
My younger child.... Required to go to a game on his own at 10 that required 3 trains, I knew we were in trouble when I dropped him off at our local station. Me: what way is south? He points north. And vice versa. He gets on the train (only a choice of 2). He picks the wrong one and is heading the wrong way. Eventually gets it right and meets up with a few players. They get it wrong together. Heading completely the opposite way.... Good thing they left so early. They eventually got there 1 minute before meeting time.
Or how about the time, I was with my elder child going to a game at an unknown location. The map suddenly disappeared from my phone and I realized that from the bus stop we'd have no idea of how to get to the ground. I asked the bus driver. He didn't know. But in a true show of Japanese kindness, knocked on the door of the nearby farmhouse asking them. It was far (a 30 minute walk) and we were running out of time. The farmer drove us. Showing up with 10 minutes to spare.
Did I mention the dread of being late? If late, you don't play. Hence players get there WELL ahead of time. So, even though in the previous cases, my kids were there before the official meeting time (and still did play), all the other players were already there and questioned why my kids were 'late'.
Next week: my 2nd child's new team.