Indoor soccer has become a necessary evil especially for those of us in hostile winter climates. Too rainy, too cold, too windy, and/or too snowy, we can’t continue to play outdoors for at least one third of the year yet we need to keep training in order to keep up with teams from more welcoming weather areas. We try to stay outdoors for as long as possible. I’m going to a game tonight where the temperature will be below freezing, it will be sleeting, and the winds will be around 25 m.p.h. We are hardy folk in Wisconsin. After all we think ice fishing is fun. But those conditions are more in line with ice fishers than soccer players. So reluctantly youth soccer understands that eventually we need to move the game indoors where the fields are smaller and where the game uses walls to make plays. Moving indoors means confined and windowless spaces where noise, odors, and tempers get magnified. It’s not ideal and it’s not pleasant.
In our hubris we think we can play outdoors a lot longer and a lot sooner than the weather permits. We watch the English Premier League play all winter long, but England enjoys the warming influences of the Atlantic and the North Sea (yes even the North Sea brings some warmth), so frigid temperatures and snow are infrequent. Rain is not, but that comes no matter what the season. In the Plains states, the Midwest, and the Northeast, we face that ugly phenomenon called "The Canadian Clipper" roaring down from the Arctic Circle to bring sub-freezing temperatures, high winds, and blizzards. Weather reporters say the same thing, "We will experience colder than usual temperatures." My question is "what is usual?" Last year this week the temperature averaged 45° and this year it will average 30°. Next week we’ll average 40° and last year this time we averaged 25°. I can’t figure it out, but the reporters seem to know "normal." When we try to extend our outdoor season we usually end up sorry. In 2006, the NCAA College Cup was in St. Louis during the first weekend in December. Shockingly there was a huge blizzard closing the airport, most freeways, and the outdoor fields where the games were to be played. Ironically the two teams in the finals were UCLA and UC Santa Barbara whose players rarely saw snow, much less played in it. After plowing off the fields, sight-lines from the seats were obstructed by the huge piles, and players had to run up and then down snow piles to execute corner kicks. This year the College Cup will be held in Philadelphia in an outdoor facility during the second weekend in December. Good luck with that! One year the Wisconsin State Soccer Association rented the Marquette University turf practice field in mid-February to hold Olympic Development try-outs. There was a huge snow storm two days before we used the field, so it was covered in about four inches of snow, which we promptly trampled into a skating rink leaving players skittering across its surface unable to showcase any talent other than figure eights. Therefore, indoor becomes our best option from November through March.
The first problem with indoor is the limited number of fields available. In my sons’ club we negotiated with the city school district to rent as many of the local school gyms as possible. It meant we were competing with band concerts, polling locations, basketball leagues, and the other soccer club in town. My job was to schmooze the director of recreation and apply for space the second we were allowed to do so. I filled out applications in July for space in November and stood outside the recreation office at 6 a.m. in order to be first in line to procure the necessary space. This scenario plays out across the country as clubs vie for limited and inexpensive indoor practice locations. For the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program, I called indoor golf shooting ranges, soccer and lacrosse indoor facilities as far as 100 miles away, and colleges and universities for their gym space. The process is cut-throat and necessary. The number of indoor spots is only a fraction of what’s available outdoors, so to accommodate all the soccer players becomes an impossible task. Clubs search for any area that is covered, flat, and as inexpensive as possible. We even accepted covered picnic areas in city parks with tables stacked up at one end and open to the elements except for the roof. Clubs accept any port in the storm.
The second problem involves the scheduling of games. The older the player, the later the games. In order to maximize the use of the space, indoor leagues run games non-stop from 6 p.m. to midnight or even 1 a.m. For those of us who think 10 p.m. is late, driving 30 minutes to a facility to watch our child play a midnight game and then getting up at 5 a.m. takes a toll. Luckily most kids only play in one league, so this becomes a concern just one night a week. But as kids get older and focus more intently on soccer, they can be entered in multiple leagues. This also begs the question of all the ancillary personnel such as referees, concession stand workers, facility administrators, and coaches, all of whom have the same impossible schedule and other jobs or school classes with normal hours to get to every day. It’s a tough employment choice. Adult leagues and older student leagues are often played after 10 p.m. Older players can drive themselves, but that’s little help when you want to be supportive and cheer on your 10th grader’s team. And don’t get me started on homework issues. Playing so late means less sleep before big tests, and less focus to devote to papers and assignments. At least with outdoor soccer daylight brings natural restrictions to how late players have to commit to training or games. Eventually more and more fields will have artificial lights, but for now the sun suffices to create training parameters.
Given the season for indoor soccer the third problem is actually getting to the facilities. All too often games and training are paradoxically interrupted by the weather. We can play indoors, but we can’t drive through snowstorms safely to get to our indoor havens. We find ourselves nearly as limited by the weather with indoor as we would be with outdoor. When we can get to our destinations we might find limited parking because the lots, while plowed, have dozens of spots occupied with the plowed snow mounds. Time to get to and from facilities can get extended as much as double when the weather is bad, worsening the already late hours. Often you can go to a game without problem and exit from the facility into a raging snow storm. I also know of a few soccer players who suffered season disrupting injuries walking to or from the indoor facility by slipping on the ice. There’s no "injury pride" when your torn ACL happens in the parking lot instead of on the pitch rushing to defend against a counter-attack.
My personal problem with indoor has always been the sounds, sights, and smells of the experience for the fans. Indoor can be problematic for young players whose teams are competing on the pitch next to an adult team. Every sound is magnified both by the acoustics of roof and walls and by the proximity of teams to one another. Any child you have been protecting from PG language is suddenly thrust into a world of R-rated words. I remember cringing as the four letter and longer words flew back and forth invading the playing space of my pre-teen sons. Every bit of language crystalized clearly without any filter. My only bit of consolation was that my kids were busy playing their game, so many of these outbursts were white noise to them. But that wasn’t the case before and after the game as they sat on the ground between fields putting on their gear. They were also witnesses to some pretty intense physical conflicts between older players. There’s something about being in what is essentially a cage to bring out the animal in even the most docile of players. It wasn’t unusual for three or four physical conflicts to break out during any hour game complete with punching, hair pulling, slapping, and kicking. The only thing missing to equate it to hockey was the use of sticks and I’m sure a few battles had those at the ready in the player box. I think there’s a concentration of ill will trapped in the pressure cooker of indoor which can’t be released by the wide open spaces of outdoor soccer. Finally, most offensive to me, are the smells of hundreds of sweaty soccer socks, shorts, shirts, shoes, and bodies. You enter the moist warm air of any indoor park and you’re blasted by the fetid scent of all those body odors. There is not enough ventilation in the world to waft that odor up and out of the building. It just regenerates without regard to anyone’s olfactory sensibilities. When I speak of the sounds, sights, and smells, I’m not just talking about the males. These problems cross gender boundaries. The women have some pretty unpleasant language, fights, and scents too. Plus young girls face the same problems of overhearing language even as we all wish we could maintain their "innocence" for just another year or two.
So I had to make my peace with the indoor season. It’s as inevitable as death and taxes. Somehow we have to find a way to navigate through the indoor sessions by begrudgingly accepting that there is a lot to despise about the experience. Nevertheless, in the end our kids love the speed of indoor, the opportunity to play during what would have to be a dormant season, and the increase in playing time for even the weakest players since no one can last on the field longer than a few minutes. I learned to deal with what I hate about indoor by focusing on the few tidbits I love: speed, skill development, and the joy of my kids when they play. In the end, all the distastefulness and hardship fade away, and the game emerges as the primary emphasis. Despite this blog’s title, maybe I don’t really love the smell of sweat, but I do love that I have the opportunity to smell it.