Recreational soccer—or “rec” for short—is generally most youth soccer players’ formal introduction to the sport. These leagues usually host their games in local parks and local school fields. Rec teams do not involve tryouts and are grouped generally by age rather than skill. In some areas, kids first get involved with organized rec soccer when they are as young as four years old and can continue through high school. Some regions even support adult rec leagues, offering community and physical activity to grown-ups who love the game. The sizes of the goals, fields, and teams often start small and increase incrementally as the kids themselves age.
Because recreational leagues are local and often defined by their lack of rigidity, individual leagues often closely reflect the areas in which they are based. A number of critical characteristics are nonetheless almost universally shared across recreational soccer leagues. To better understand how recreational soccer takes shape, we spoke with Professor Laurent Dubois (Duke University historian by day and U11-14 girls rec soccer coach by afternoon and weekend). Much of this page will explore what Professor Dubois had to say. We are confident that presenting a profile of his experiences and his team will give parents a helpful window into the world of recreational soccer. For those interested, our full interview is available just below.
Professor Dubois first became involved as a coach when some friends of his no longer had a coach for their daughter’s team. An avid soccer fan, Professor Dubois agreed. As is often the case for recreational soccer, Professor Dubois co-coached with a parent of one of the players. Rec teams usually have players’ parents coach, and it’s not unheard of to have a parent volunteer despite never having played themselves. This is possible because the primary aims of rec soccer generally stand beyond the sport. Training kids to understand teamwork, overcome obstacles, triumph respectably, play fairly, and rebound after losses are all more important goals than the ones on the scoreboard. Rec soccer is more about teamwork than winning—though Professor Dubois never complains when his team enjoys both.
Parents who prioritize their children’s personal development over their athletic development are generally more laid-back about the sport. This, Professor Dubois remarked, was an important part of why he was willing to coach. “The famous thing about coaching in America is that everybody always says it’s not the kids, it’s the parents” who make it difficult. While intense soccer-star parents may have their children in rec leagues until they turn seven or eight years old, those parents and children generally leave for travel and cup/elite teams. Very few rec league parents are seeking personal fulfillment through their children’s soccer stardom. Far more often, rec league parents want their kids involved in several different activities and focused primarily on their academics. An academic himself, Professor Dubois respects this emphasis. Kids should have friends and make friends at soccer, but rec soccer is never their only social sphere.
Rec soccer’s flexibility makes it more amenable to a variety of situations at home. Most rec teams, like Professor Dubois’, practice only once or twice per week and play once on the weekends. This makes rec soccer more accessible for kids whose parents have jobs and several other children to juggle. The field is close and local, and many of the families know each other outside of soccer. As a result, carpool groups generally emerge and already-existing ties between families strengthen. Local matches, parent coaches, and simple equipment make rec soccer fairly accessible to families of different sizes, incomes, and employment statuses. Their players are often as diverse as their regions and organizing bodies. For Professor Dubois and his Durham City Parks team, that’s pretty diverse. In other areas, local parishes or suburban soccer leagues might be less so.
The relatively small time commitment for rec soccer teams can be a blessing and a curse for the communities they begin to form. When kids skip a soccer match for a ballet recital or for a routine dental visit, it can feel like a curse. Disparity of devotion to the team and game can sometimes be a source of tension in rec teams. While the difference in the level of commitment is probably greater in these leagues than most, the level of players’ emotional buy-in and frustration over those differences is relatively small compared to more competitive leagues.
Because these teams are laid back and relatively low commitment, they allow for more internal cooperation than competition. Recreational soccer players often build each other up rather than tearing each other down for more playing time. Players can more easily persuade their friends from school and other activities to join the team. When they have fun together, they can trust that they can continue playing together in future years without fear of getting cut at the next tryout. Over several years, rec soccer players and parents can form strong bonds. It’s not uncommon for Professor Dubois’ players to see him around Durham and excitedly say hello. Parents organize end-of-season potlucks and award ceremonies. Late in one season, the parents of one of Professor Dubois’ players showed him a poem that their daughter wrote about how meaningful it was playing on the team he coached. She enjoyed the sport but was most grateful for the people. Victories like these always feel more important than the outcome of a soccer match.