Sylvia Choi (text), Birgit Lang (illustration)
We would like to introduce you to Noah: Noah is nine years old and lives in one of the largest Swiss cities. His name is different but his family does not want his name to appear in the newspaper. Noah loves to play football. With colleagues during recess and after school and with the neighbors’ children – even if, as he himself says, he is not the manager in football. This does not dampen his enthusiasm. Until he starts at the club – that really pushes him away from playing football. Because the volunteer coach, who also coaches his son on the team, has big plans. Although it is a B team, many of them are just starting out, but according to the parents, the coach repeatedly emphasizes: “The dream of becoming a professional football player is still possible!”
Noah, who just wants to have fun playing, explains at home that two of the kids on his B-team want to be pros. That’s why everyone should train a lot more now. Twice a week in the evening plus a match every weekend is not enough for a coach. You should stay there for at least a week during the holidays, and preferably three weeks during the summer holidays, so that the kids can practice every day. During the week, the coach prepares a third additional “voluntary” training session. If you do not want to attend or cannot attend, you can switch to the C team. In general, a change to the C team, where the coach, as he says next to the field in sight of the children, would lower the “fools”, like the sword of Damocles on Noah. You should not miss any training, otherwise there is a risk of relegation. You have to play every match, otherwise there is a risk of relegation.
You want to train only twice a week and not three times a week, because at the request of your parents, you can also play an instrument, and sometimes you want to say goodbye: you are one of the “fools”. Parents step in with the coach, pointing out that it’s a B team and the focus shouldn’t be simply on playing and having fun? They fall on deaf ears: “This is no longer kindergarten, this is about performance!” As the coach was said to have said. And because Noah doesn’t train three times a week, but he also doesn’t want to be one of the “fools”, he stops completely after a lot of crying.
The detailed nutrition plan was too much
Or let’s take a break from football, Sophie. Her name is also different. Sophie is thirteen years old and hails from a rural canton. Sophie loves to swim. No offer for leisure swimming entertainment in your area, the nearest swimming club offers only competitive swimming. So Sophie started competitive swimming when she was eleven years old. She’s really good right from the start without much effort and won two races.
Trainer Licks Blood: Soon Sophie will train three times a week. The coach wants her to train independently on the free Wednesday afternoon too; He would have preferred if I stayed in the water for an hour to an hour and a half six times a week. Next to the school of course. There are contests on the weekend. performance, performance, performance. When the trainer presents a detailed nutrition plan that organizes what Sophie should eat every day up to the gram – not just before and after training – Sophie and her parents have had enough. Sophie no longer competes in competitive swimming.
For every Lara Gut-Behrami, for every Ariella Kaeslin and for every Breel Embolo, there are thousands of sports fans who have neither the talent nor the ambition to become the best athlete. Of course, the same applies to children and young adults. But while the grievances of children of high-level sporting potential and ambition, for example at Magglingen, have been, or continue to be, years ago, they have more recently been forgotten: also for the “average” or perhaps even below average Kids like Noah or not very ambitious people like Sophie, who simply enjoy working out or team sports, the pressure to perform in sports is sometimes overwhelming these days. Noah and Sophie are not isolated examples. This is shown by the appeal we have made on social media, as well as the surveys in the region. We wanted to know from parents if their kids had left the club and why.
He was eliminated due to poor play
When our social media team called, a dozen parents got in touch, and again when we called in private. However, no parent wants to see their child’s name in the newspapers: they fear that their child will be bullied afterwards. All the kids whose parents wrote to us feel the same: They left clubs, often football, because the pressure was simply too high – or because they were treated harshly because they were so bad. For example Foton, eight years old, who used to play football every minute. He was not allowed into the club after two trial sessions, which was very bad. His father says that Alem has bonded with Foton, and has been ashamed for weeks. If he falls on the sports field while training his teammates, he begins to cry regularly. Since then, he has not dared to play in school when others kick during recess and often stands alone.
Much of the sport is practiced on a voluntary basis in Switzerland, as it is offered at club level. There are about 800 football clubs in Switzerland alone, and 1,450 throughout Switzerland. More than 58,000 young people between the ages of 10 and 14 play football in these clubs – and these, in turn, especially at non-professional levels rely on volunteer coaches. Sometimes these are the parents who coach their children for the sport they once succeeded in – or wanted to succeed in.
Rivalry is also part of human nature
The suspicion arises that the motive of parent coaches is sometimes to enable their children to realize the dream that they themselves have been denied. This was also confirmed by Basil Eckert, co-chair of School Psychological Services in Basel-Stadt: “Although there are no data or surveys on this, it is likely that the subjective impression is correct – anyone with anything to do with children and sports is likely to have met Already with a coach or such a coach.” Eckert, like Steve Beutler, head of the Basel-Stadt sports office, which represents the interests of the cantons and municipalities, does not want to see the work of the clubs underestimated. “Putting the clubs under public suspicion because they will put so much pressure seems wrong to me, the clubs are doing very important work,” says Butler. To some extent, it is also normal for one to want to measure oneself.
The pressure doesn’t just come from individual coaches. Anyone, as a mother, father or grandfather, who has stood on the edge of a soccer field where children are playing a game knows that there are also plenty of fathers on the sidelines who shout out exactly what their child should be doing — and the tune isn’t often particularly pleasant. Eckert also sees a problem facing society as a whole, as the pressure on recreational activities is only part of the greater misery for many children and young adults. “The pressure to do that sometimes on our kids is enormous,” Eckert says. “We are all increasingly living in a meritocratic system, the pressure of which unfortunately also affects children and young people and their leisure time.”
Free play will be important
But from a developmental psychological point of view, this is completely counterproductive for children and young adults. Instead of guided training, free play will be far more important to brain development, say Eckert and other experts, such as play teacher Susan Stocklin-Mayer or educator Margaret Stam. Experts represent well-documented facts from brain research: In free interaction with others, you not only learn a lot in a playful way, but also create circuits of creativity in the brain. Social interactions are enjoyable, free play, and in general free time, primarily enable learning effects – and also ensure psychological and emotional well-being. “It is often forgotten, that the brain needs spacers to store and process things,” says Eckert. “Only in this way are the neural connections that reinforce and secure new content and skills created.”
Learning and later success go hand in hand with fun, social interaction, and enough free time. On the other hand, stress actively hinders learning: when the stress level rises, the areas of the brain that are actively thinking are blocked. This is evidenced by brainwave measurements in countless studies.
The fact that the pressure on children and young people due to social expectations is too great for many and that there is so little freedom is not an affirmation but a fact. This can be seen by the number of mental illnesses in young people. The Corona pandemic has made this even more explosive – several Swiss media outlets have reported on the emergency in adolescent psychiatry in recent months. There is a shortage of places and staff, and children with severe anorexia can find no help as long as they do not suffer from severe, life-threatening deficiencies. Depending on the study, one-tenth to one-fifth of young adults now have depression, eating disorders, sleep disorders, anxiety disorders such as panic attacks, or behavioral problems such as aggression. But that’s not just because of the pandemic, says Eckert: “Even before the pandemic, the numbers were steadily increasing.”
Low-threshold offers may be important
However, sports and exercise are part of the healthy development of children and youth. “About an hour to an hour and a half of exercise per day in addition to daily activities would be ideal for healthy growth,” Butler says. And according to Eckert, the so-called “low-threshold” performances are of particular interest. In other words, places where children and young people can meet and play sports without direction, measurement or judgment. For example, places suitable for skiing or cycling. At least in the Basel region, the need for such performances is well known. We already have several low minimum offers in Basel. These offers should be expanded based on a concept that is currently being worked on,” says Butler. “Of course, this also requires the corresponding budget, which must be approved by the Greater Council.”
But what do you do from the point of view of the parents? “As parents, it’s important to listen to kids when they say they want to give up a hobby,” Eckert says. Even if this is often associated with disappointment on the part of the parents. For example, Sophie’s mother says she struggled for a while that Sophie wanted to quit: “Even though I knew the coach was putting a lot of pressure and it bothered me over and over, he made me happy to see that Sophie was so good at something. And as a parent, You also invest a lot of time, for example in driving services to competitions. You also invest a lot emotionally.” But Eckert says clearly: “It is much more important than supporting the child from a parent’s point of view to make room for what is called intrinsic motivation,” ie enabling the child or young person to know where his interests lie. “This does not work if a large part of the free time is planned for club activities and music lessons.” So a little is definitely more for Noah and Sophie and maybe also for Vuitton.