At first glance, Saturday appeared to be like any other on the grassy fields at Hamilton Recreation Center in Northwest Washington, hordes of kids participating in youth soccer matches while their parents sat on the sidelines and watched. One mother stood out from the rest, constantly calling out to her second-grade daughter as parents around her sat in near silence. And as halftime rolled around, the daughter came off the field and went straight to her mom, sharp words of wisdom on the tip of her tongue:
“Mom, you aren’t supposed to do that,” she said. “It’s Silent Saturday.”
One of the city’s largest youth sports associations experimented with peace and quiet this past weekend during DC Stoddert’s first “Silent Soccer” event. Parents were limited to minimal cheering and nonverbal feedback. Clapping was preferred; whistling was allowed. Coaches were asked to limit their in-game feedback, encouraged instead to provide coaching points at the start of the game, during halftime and postgame.
“The parents were saying, ‘This was the hardest game of the season for me,’ ” said Nick Papadis, DC Stoddert’s communications manager and an eighth-grade girls’ soccer coach. “Meanwhile the kids are going, ‘This was the easiest game of the season for me.’ ”
It was the first time the organization held such an event, meant to “let the players enjoy the game of soccer and make decisions on their own,” according to DC Stoddert. Similar events have been held across the country.
And so DC Stoddert hosted several hundred recreational games in near silence Friday and Saturday. The group — which boasts 6,000 players on recreational or travel teams, staging games across public and private D.C. fields — partnered with the Potomac Soccer Association to enforce its Silent Soccer rules during Sunday’s travel games at the Maryland SoccerPlex.
“I think it is mostly to call attention to it for the parents, because some of those kids will go home and say, ‘That was great,’ ” Papadis said. “And parents will go, ‘Wow, I didn’t say anything, and I liked it.’ It is kind of planting the seed that your kids can think on their own. They don’t need you telling them how to play.”
Monica Nelsen, a coach whose second-grade co-ed team played at Carter Barron on Saturday, said it was “so nice” not to hear the voices of parents yelling and screaming from the sidelines.
“As a coach, I think it is helpful to yell encouraging advice,” Nelsen said. “It would be amazing if it were just that. Some parents can just be over the top. It just really gets me down with some things parents say.”
Participation in the weekend of silence was optional but strongly encouraged. Referees were not charged with enforcing the rules.
“Players were really forced to communicate more,” said Jennifer Gootman, DC Stoddert’s executive director. “The best situation was how the coaches set that up and how they told them beforehand that they needed to rely on each other and help each other out more.”
The organization chose to experiment with Silent Soccer halfway through its season so that parents and coaches might fall into their bad habits — yelling, being overbearing — and then recognize their behavior.
“Basically they are playing chess, and their kids are part of the game,” Papadis said of some youth soccer parents. “They are saying, ‘Hey, do this; now do that.’ These are just parents on the sidelines. Coaches are another story, but you get plenty of parents who are very vocal and carry on.”
The idea was inspired by other groups, like Real Colorado and the Colorado Soccer Association, which have been putting on Silent Saturdays at least once or twice a season for years. These events, organizers say, are one piece of a bigger goal: giving the game back to the players.
“Everything we do is not a solution in and of itself, but part of a pathway and part of a plan,” said Jared Spires, Real Colorado’s chief operating officer. “I think that is where you find success in youth sports. We can’t just do a Silent Soccer Saturday and think it is going to rectify every bad situation.”
The South Carolina Youth Soccer Association held an entire month of silence on the sidelines of youth soccer matches in September. Burns Davison, the association’s rules and compliance chair, said the feedback from parents, coaches, players and referees was overwhelmingly positive.
“After that, quite a few clubs embraced the concept and culture that they wanted for their clubs,” Davison said. “It reminded parents to be active listeners. … It’s about the kids. It’s not about you. This was never intended to be a one-and-done thing”
DC Stoddert plans to continue holding Silent Saturday once a season, with the next opportunity arriving in the fall. While the association received some negative feedback before the weekend from parents who argued that soccer isn’t meant to be silent, Gootman said the response has been nearly all positive.
“It wasn’t perfect,” she said, “but we need to work together to change the culture.”
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