#DontRetireKid: Local Youth Soccer Program Puts Focus on Keeping Kids Active in Sports
The Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative strives to provide sports activities for children, regardless of ability or community. A new offshoot of this initiative is #DontRetireKid, which addresses the high rate at which children drop out of sports programming. One local organization takes the #DontRetireKid mantra to heart, with the unique ways it approaches traditional children’s soccer.
Soccer Shots Central Northern PA is a franchise of the Harrisburg-based Soccer Shots, with the local franchise getting its start in State College 11 years ago. State College residents and Penn State graduates Eric and Franny Wales are at the helm, providing soccer programs not only in Centre County, but now also in Altoona, Tyrone, Hollidaysburg, Clearfield, DuBois, Williamsport, Lock Haven and beyond.
“Soccer Shots [is] an introduction to soccer for ages 2 to 8,” Eric explains. “The goal is to provide a safe, fun, super-healthy environment, and for children to learn the game of soccer and social skills and most of all have a blast.”
Sports played a large role in both Eric and Franny’s childhoods and Franny went on to play volleyball in college. Eric notes that he played soccer for as long as he can remember.
“It was always a love of mine, along with many other sports,” he said. “I was one of those kids that always tried to play everything and that’s something we encourage our children to do, too.”
Encouraging children to “sports sample” is one of the key elements of #DontRetireKid, as research shows that trying different sports, versus specializing in one sport, leads to less burnout, less social isolation, better performance and more lifelong enjoyment in a sport, according to the Aspen Institute.
“Parents always apologize,” Eric said regarding whenever a child leaves the Soccer Shots program. “But don’t be sorry. Not everyone’s going to be a soccer player when they grow up.” The overall goal, he said, isn’t to get everyone interested in soccer, but to build “strong kids and strong citizens, and for many kids, Soccer Shots is that first step.”
Another key element of #DontRetireKid is appropriate coach training, as the Aspen Institute says that many coaches aren’t trained in effective communication with children and the way they communicate with children sets them up for either success or failure in sports in many instances. Realizing this, Eric and the Soccer Shots team place a high emphasis on coach vetting and development.
“We hire and train our coaches in a very methodic and professional manner,” Eric said. “We do a lot of background checks to make sure that, yes, soccer is important [to them], but a heart for children and a positive and encouraging attitude is critical…”
Soccer Shots also attempts to get as many kids as possible involved in sports, if it’s something they’re interested in, thanks to scholarship funds, while also giving children a pathway to further participation after they graduate out of the program. Soccer Shots partners with other soccer programs in the county, as well as elementary schools, working with around a thousand children each spring and fall, and 400–700 children in the winter and summer. Many of those children go on after age 8 to play sports — both soccer and otherwise — with other organizations or their schools.
Watching these children’s development during and after Soccer Shots is one of the most rewarding parts of his job, Eric said.
“Since we started 11 years ago, that first group of boys and girls we had playing with us — and I was doing all the coaching when we first started — they’re all now sophomores or freshmen in high school. I see so many of them playing [sports] still and that’s very rewarding.”
Soccer Shots Central Northern PA introduces kids ages 2 to 8 to soccer in a fun and healthy environment. Photo provided.