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Book review: Joanna Lohman’s “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions” takes the holistic approach

Like a lot of parents, an imperfect book that’s trying its best.

SOCCER: MAY 16 NWSL - Sky Blue FC at Washington Spirit Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Anyone who has spent any time around youth soccer in the United States will eventually hear the moaning and groaning: it’s too expensive, we’re specializing kids too soon, this system will never create globally competitive superstars. All the complaints have their merits (and their drawbacks).

But that’s not quite what Joanna Lohman and Paul Tukey’s new youth soccer book is about. Sure, the title is Raising Tomorrow’s Champions, which might make you think this is another book peddling a get-your-kid-to-the-national-team scheme. Those books, coaches, and clubs abound, promising they’ll put kids on elite pathways and get them scouted and recruited for the low low price of thousands of dollars a year. But this is not that book; this is an attempt by Lohman and Tukey to take a more grounded, whole-person approach for any parent who has a child playing soccer, from the community rec level all the way up to elite college players. It’s not a perfect book - more on that below - but as an attempt to guide parents through the ever-more-turbulent waters of the US youth system, it’s a very decent one.

I talked to Lohman by phone before the book’s release. Our conversation ranged across a lot of topics, just like the book. She said her co-author Paul Tukey approached her about it after she had done some training with his daughter in the Washington, D.C. area. As a soccer dad, he had concerns - he was getting a lot of unsolicited opinions and questions about his daughter’s progress, which may sound familiar to a lot of parents - and he was “confounded,” in Lohman’s words. Tukey’s family was also a host family for former Washington Spirit player Havana Solaun for two seasons. He had seen up close how difficult it was, and still is, to make a living out of women’s professional soccer, as well as the mental and physical struggles of someone trying to earn a starting spot on a pro roster. They agreed to work together.

The book is divided into five sections: the first goes over sensitive topics youth players are likely to encounter including racism, sexism, and homophobia. The second is about how parents and coaches can feel out what level of soccer and what kind of environment is right for a player, even if it means choosing not to go with an elite club. The third is about common issues players might encounter mentally and physically. Section four discusses the pros and cons of actually competing at the elite level, and the last section is filled with essays and reflections from players. There’s a sense that the book is trying to set a comprehensive table, showing parents the current landscape and giving them the tools to navigate it. Not in the sense of telling them do this, do that, and your child will play for a national championship team, but in the sense of helping young players keep their heads screwed on right as the pressure mounts to perform and win. The book succeeds at this in many ways, but isn’t as successful in others.

Let’s get the concerns out of the way before we dive into the successes. Reading this book, my primary concern comes in chapter seven, which focuses on Jerry Smith, now in his 35th season as head coach at Santa Clara. Smith won an NCAA championship with the Broncos in 1996. There are numerous testimonials from former Santa Clara players in this chapter praising Smith as a coach, but the descriptions of what Smith made his players do may ring some alarm bells, including insulting players by repeatedly calling them “soft” and punishing them for losing with an hour of sprints the day after playing the game - a day normally used as their off day, when, as the book points out, players were dealing with injuries and resting. While praising Smith elsewhere in the chapter, Marian Dalmy described that day as “I have never been beaten to the ground so much in my entire life,” and said multiple girls were crying.

In my opinion, Smith’s position as a “tough love” style of coach isn’t challenged or examined enough in the book, and questions about what crosses the line from “tough” into “abuse” aren’t raised explicitly enough. These are key questions that parents should be keeping in mind as their children enter progressively competitive environments, with the commensurate pressure to succeed. The line between motivation and abuse can be nebulous, and can vary by player, as different people respond to different motivations. Smith’s chapter is subtitled “One long-time mentor sets a standard for how to practice the profession of impacting women’s lives,” positioning all the stories in the chapter as part of that standard.

I asked Lohman if she had had any concerns during writing about the way his behavior was framed, particularly the story about making players run sprints until they cried. Lohman said, “This is a judgment for the reader, the parent and player, to make. Girls, and boys, cry all the time in practice when it’s hard. Working someone out to the point of exhaustion and tears can be seen as part of the elite athletic experience, or it can also be seen as abusive.” I would certainly caution any parents reading to keep that in mind.

Now to the book’s successes, and they are many. To summarize them, this book does a good job of painting a more complete picture of the realities of America’s youth soccer system, and it covers the realities across a spectrum of abilities. Whether you’re a parent trying to figure out where to even start your kid in the local youth ecosystem or your heavily recruited superstar is thinking of going pro early (chapter 14, btw), there’s something in here for you. There’s even discussion of what life is like for players who ultimately never make it to the top of the sport, and how most women absolutely need to keep a secondary career in mind as a backup - a refreshingly healthy POV in this landscape. That was probably the part that actually most resonated with me as I read it; sure there are plenty of sports psychology anecdotes and rah-rah triumphs, but there’s also some clearer-headed reality that some players will simply not “make it” no matter how hard they work, and to deal with that is also a process that has value.

Another major point I appreciated was the initial section that emphasized that sports are a way to talk to your children about deeper issues, particularly when they’re going to be called on to excel in a team setting. The book’s tone swings more towards a parenting manual than a youth soccer guide in these sections.

“We’re having a coming of age moment in our country and in the world, especially us too in women’s soccer, where you’re starting to see the platform of these players really be utilized for social justice. So that was a really important piece for us to have that be the first three chapters of our book, and to really lean into that because these are the issues that children are now facing,” Lohman said.

Of course, a lot of players and parents will be getting this book because it’s stuffed with stories and messages from dozens of big international players. The cover alone boasts of “life lessons” from Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach, Crystal Dunn, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Michelle Akers, and Shannon Boxx. The player focus is a big plus, allowing for a variety of perspectives from players with different pathways into the game.

Lohman also made it a point to talk about doing her best to consciously include Black voices; she said the book featured 30 current and former Black national team players, among them Jess McDonald, Danesha Adams, Crystal Dunn, Staci Wilson, Saskia Webber, and Danielle Slaton. It would be nice if these womens’ voices were interwoven a little more throughout the book instead of primarily gathered in the chapter on racism; later discussions about things like pay-to-play, finding individual mentors, or college recruiting could benefit from a more intersectional approach that acknowledges not everyone has access to the same resources. For example, in chapter five, which is subtitled “In America, the pay-to-play system stands between every player and her college or professional dreams,” one of the primary story focuses is Steve Baldwin and his daughter. Yes, the Steve Baldwin who owns the Washington Spirit, and is surely not struggling with club uniform fees. There’s some short asides throughout the book about recognizing that youth soccer can be expensive, but the book stays more committed towards broader strokes, rather than specific deep dives.

In the end, this book’s attempts to be all-encompassing are both its strength and occasionally its weakness. Players looking for their specific experiences to be reflected back at them may not find it here, although there’s certainly been a good faith effort to try and cover many different kinds of stories. But for those looking for a more holistic guidebook to help set healthy expectations and navigate the emotions and mental pressures that inevitably surface alongside youth sports, this is a good starting point.