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The Science of Why Kids Underperform in Weekend Soccer Games

Children who choke in games may be victims of bad timing.

When kids choke at soccer games it might be because grown-ups are actually choking at scheduling games. Several studies show that while morning matches may be more conducive to adult calendars, they also hinder a child’s ability to dribble down the field. This may explain why children often seem markedly better during practices than during weekend games. (The other explanation might be that they’re kids and not, you know, great under pressure.)

All humans’ athletic prowess shifts as a result of their circadian rhythm. One 2004 study showed that soccer juggling ability peaked around 4 p.m., but did not establish a time of day effect with dribbling (kids aren’t doing a ton of juggling, at least in America). These experiments did not look at children, whose athletic ability and chronobiology tend to differ, but there’s evidence that kids are more alert and have faster reaction times in school later in the day, despite starting early.

To test this, a 2013 study published in the journal Advances in Physical Education compared 15 boys (average age 12.7-years-old) in areas of kicking accuracy, ball control with the body, ball control with the head, zigzag running, and a general coordination test at 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. Participants’ temperatures were also taken during each session, a common marker for circadian rhythms. Results indicated that children were significantly worse at dribbling in the morning, but performance differences in other domains were less significant. However, they did observe similarly notable differences in boys’ temperature relative to the morning and evening. Authors suspect this is correlated with kids’ lower body temperature at that time, which can cause changes in muscular coordination.

Though the study was small, results were duplicated in another 2015 study published in the journal Biological Rhythm Research, but in a similarly small sample of 10 boys (average age 14.6-years-old). This time researchers compared soccer performance at 8 a.m., 1 p.m., and 5 p.m., while also monitoring their heart rates, lactate concentration, and kids’ perceived exertion at these times. Results confirmed that this time of day effect was all about dribbling, and players were indeed much better at it afternoon and evening. Interestingly, their temperatures and perceived exertion were higher in the afternoon and evening as well. Shooting accuracy was not similarly affected by time of day, but what good is shooting accuracy when a kid can’t dribble their way there?

Despite the obvious takeaways, this year’s U.S. Youth Soccer League has games scheduled as early as 7.30 a.m. for their 2017 season. Although these youth players are the best of the best, they’re probably much better when they don’t draw the short scheduling straw. And for kids who aren’t as athletically gifted, they need all the good timing they can get.