Do I Really Need to Explain Why 7-Year-Olds Shouldn’t Sign Professional Contracts?

Real Madrid signed 7-year-old Leonel Angel Coira to a one-year contract with their developmental program Monday. Am I the only one who thinks this crazy? (AP Photo/Coira Family)

Real Madrid, perhaps the most successful soccer team in the world, announced Monday they had signed Leonel Angel Coira from Argentina to a one-year contract. Not really newsworthy, except that Coia – who goes by the nickname “Leo,” after favorite player Lionel Messi – is 7 years old. Seven. He’s a second grader. And he has a professional contract.

Before I start to rant, let me make it clear what Coira does and does not have. Coira will not be playing on the Real Madrid team that competes in La Liga, Spain’s uber-competitive professional soccer league. He will not play adult professionals, unlike Diego Fagundez, the 16-year-old from Leominster, Mass., who’s now a member of the New England Revolution.

Coira is signed to Real Madrid’s “Benjamin” squad, the youngest Real Madrid team, made up mostly of players under 9. Basically, Coira has an annually renewable contract with Real Madrid’s development program, and if Coira sticks with soccer long enough to reach the top level (around age 16), he will be on the fast track to signing with a club whose players average more than $7 million a year. Until then, neither the parents nor the team are at fiscal risk: the team pays for transport and training without further compensating Coira’s family.

The deal is about as sensible as a deal for a 7-year-old can be. All the same, this is lunacy.

No 7-year-old is mentally prepared for the rigors of a professional training program. Children that age are barely self-aware enough to even know if they like something or not, let alone to weigh the pros and cons of the time commitment joining a program like this will be. Starting a child on a program this intense is a mistake. Coira is going to burn out on soccer, and burn out fast.

I learned in sports psychology that giving your child the best competition and the best coaches won’t actually make him or better better. Starting him or her early will lead to earlier excellence but a briefer athletic career. Limiting him or her to one sport early will stunt the child’s social growth and put him at higher risks for drugs and behavioral issues. Don’t believe me? Just ask Jennifer Capriati.

So, so many child prodigies get pushed too early to the big stage, and they crash and burn. If Coira’s parents really want him to be a soccer superstar, they should take him out of this program immediately. It is a mistake to push him this far so early in his life. He might be a fantastic soccer player for his age, but the social skills he would develop learning how to teach weaker teammates in less competitive leagues will be far more beneficial to him later in life.

Most MLB teams have at least one “academy” in the Dominican Republic, signing players as young as 17 (and actually paying them) to come live and train and learn. When they reach the proper age and developmental level to transition to the U.S. minor leagues, they’re already in a team’s system, with experienced administrators having long since handled paperwork issues like work visas. Teenagers have already gone through at least a few stages of social development, and their self-awareness and resolve are strong enough that their professional aspirations can be taken more seriously.

Soccer in Spain takes the “get ’em while they’re young” strategy to a far more dangerous extreme. According to the AP report, most of the Spanish soccer teams have developmental programs, including Barcelona’s “La Masia,” a soccer complex and dormitory for dozens of players 11 and older. How can you trust the intelligence of children that young enough to think this is what they really want? And if they don’t know what they want, how can you?

When I was 7, I wanted to be a “library go-to.” My parents treated that goal as the adorable ramblings of a young child, as they should have. All desires are brief flights of fancy at that age. Any push to achieve those desires is far more reflective of the parents’ dreams than their child’s.

Coira is a 7-year-old who will now be expected to continue with soccer for the next 30+ years of his life. At some point, the thought of doing the same thing for that long is going to feel toxic.

When that happens, hopefully Coira will be mature enough to get out with his soul intact.