Andover Hosts Panel On Specialization in Sports

Last Sunday, Andover hosted Sunil Gulati, the current president of the United States Soccer Federation, along with three other panelists and a total of 85 coaches, athletes, and parents for a panel on recent changes in youth sports development and soccer in particular. Issues that the panel addressed ranged from whether children should specialize in a sport at an early age and the looming gap between men’s and women’s professional soccer despite the recent success of the women’s national team, to the role of parents on the sidelines. Coach Bill Scott, head coach of Andover’s Boys Varsity Soccer, first conceived the conference idea in the wake of the formation of the United States Soccer Development Academy. The Academy essentially forces young soccer players to choose between playing development or high school, and was controversial due to the deep rooted high school team sports in American culture unseen in Europe, said Scott. “What they were doing is modeling the new US approach to soccer after the German approach,” said Coach Scott. “Totally controversial, I thought it would be great to have a conversation about it and sports specialization, and about life balance for kids in terms of their commitments to academics and sports.” “After Sunil Gulati contacted me about two years ago asking for my opinion, I grew close to him. Recently, when I suggested this, he said yes right away,” he continued. “I thought it was a wonderful opportunity.” Gulati has had extensive experience and influence on soccer in the US, serving as the Vice President of the US Soccer Federation for six years before being elected President in 2006 and re-elected again in 2010. Joining him on the panel moderated by Dean Conway, a prominent leader in youth soccer in Massachusetts, were three other renowned figures in the athletic world—Mike Burns, current General Manager for the New England Revolution and former starter for the US national team, Jennifer Hughes, head coach of the women’s soccer team at Amherst College, and Christina Fink, two time Olympian and sports psychologist. “It was a really dynamic group of people,” said Coach Scott. The variety and expertise provided by all four panelists fueled the in-depth discussion and shed light on current issues for young soccer players that resonated deeply with current Andover athletes. “I learned about how hard it is to be a soccer player at an elite level, as opposed to just an average one,” said Dylan Mott ’15, who has played on the same team as Gulati’s son and introduced Gulati on Sunday. “I learned about how much time you have to put into it.” Hannah Guzzi ’14 said, “It was really interesting to hear, especially Sunil Gulati’s opinions on the questions they posed, and especially youth development because my dad has been my soccer coach ever since I came here, so I can give him the information too.” She added, “I learned so much, and it was cool to be with people so many people so invested in soccer.” “It was really personal; [Gulati] was unbelievably funny and charismatic and cared about the game,” said Graeme Henderson ’14. “I liked that there were a bunch of prep school teams there that really cared not only about expanding women’s game but also helping the prep league become better.” The two-hour long panel held in Davis Hall on Abbot Campus left the audience with a sense of promise, both on a personal and a larger, global scale. “The future looks good under Sunil,” said Andy Manos ’16, another member of Andover soccer. “I learned that Sunil knows a lot about the game, has got a lot to say, and has high hopes for the future of the youth program in America, both girls and boys, and both women’s and men’s professional soccer in America.” “It was great to hear about what they have to do to improve, the package deals they’re trying to do, and I learned how to treat my siblings playing soccer since that’s always been a grey area for me,” said Josh Murphy ’15, also a family friend of Gulati’s. “I hope that they [hold a similar panel] again.”