One League's Strategy To Keep Youth Sports Fun: Let Kids Play In Costumes

Apr 23 2014, 4:59pm CDT | by

The Arkansas United Soccer Club has come upon, I think, what is a great idea for any youth sports organization preaching that it wants kids to have fun: putting on games in which its players dress in costume, rather than the official uniform.

The Little Rock-based organization calls its events Superclassicos, a nod with an extra “s” to the Superclasico games played between bitter rivals. Except that Arkansas United’s Superclassicos, played twice a year, are meant to take the edge off the season for kids and parents, rather than heighten tensions. What’s more fun than playing a game while your hair is sprayed green, or you’re dressed like a princess or dragon — and your parents are smiling and taking pictures instead of yelling instructions?

I don’t know how many leagues do this, but I know there aren’t enough. There’s nothing wrong with actually teaching kids a game, but an early age one goal is to have fun with it, and doing something out of the ordinary, if nothing else, might delay their appointment on a therapist’s couch because of their youth sports experience. (My 8-year-old daughter’s wonderful softball coach says he reads this blog so: hint, hint.)

“Some coaches, some parents will take kids’ game too seriously at times,” said Matt Dishongh, an Arkansas United coach. “When you have kids showing up in costumes, it’s hard to keep that mentality.”

Dishongh, 45, a publications editor for a hospital system, came up with the idea for the Superclassico the first year he coached his oldest son in soccer. Dishongh, a late convert to the game when a friend from Nepal coaxed him into an intramural league as a University of Arkansas student, said he had always tried to make soccer as fun as possible for the kids. To that end, for the last game of the fall 2011 season, around Halloween, Dishongh approached the opposing coach with the idea of “wanting to do something crazy.” The coaches decided to hand out vuvuzelas to the parents, play some music during the game — and have everyone, including coaches, dress up in costume. (Dishongh went as DJ Lance from the kids’ TV series “Yo Gabba Gabba.”)

“You’ve got one kid as Hulk Hogan, one kid dressed as a pirate with a parrot on his shoulder,” Dishongh said. “The kids had smiles on their faces. Parents were taking pictures and laughing.” Dishongh suggested to Arkansas United that it extend the Halloween games to all leagues with players younger than 8, and it agreed.

About 600 boys and girls players in leagues featuring players younger than 8 years old have shown up in costume for Arkansas United games each of the last two Halloweens, while a St. Patrick’s Day Superclassico was added for 2014 — “come in all green, plus the attitude and hair of Green Day,” Dishongh said.

Though his son is 9 and has aged out of Superclassicos, Dishongh’s 5-year-old daughter, whom he coaches, is an eager participant, dressing up as a dragon for the Halloween event. Dishongh runs his own unofficial Superclassicos, as well, such as a game coming up April 26 in which the two sides will be dressed in tropical shorts, sunglasses and anything else that signals the upcoming summer.

Dishongh said he doesn’t have any numbers to show whether any more kids are joining soccer, or sticking with it, because they get to dress up in costume a couple of times a year on the pitch. Very few kids will end up playing professionally. But many will remember their experience fondly if coaches take a little time to do something unusual and recognize that these are kids just discovering sports, not launching their first step to a future multi-milliondollar deal.

“‘Are you here to play soccer, or are you hear to goof off?’” Dishongh remembers hearing a coach yell to a 5-year-old player. “I couldn’t believe the attitude he had to this kindergarten kid. I wanted to yell back at him, ‘He’s here to goof off.’”


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