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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on USYouthSoccer.org every Monday. A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom." 
 
 
Opinions expressed on the US Youth Soccer Blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of US Youth Soccer.

 

Hard Knocks

Susan Boyd

My son’s soccer coach argued regularly that soccer was “getting too soft.” He would proudly display his war wounds earned through years of battles on the pitch. “We never wore shin guards,” he’d proclaim whenever a kid would go down after a swift kick to the legs. “You need to be a man,” and he’d roll up his pants to reveal gouges, bumps, and scars riddling his massive shins. “That’s real soccer,” he’d declare. When discussions began about the effects of concussions, he dismissed the talk as too “touchy feely” and announced that no goalkeeper on his teams would ever wear a head guard. Bryce was a keeper. Part of the coach’s bravado was certainly a knee-jerk reaction to the prevalence of dual soccer and football players on his squads shuttling back and forth between practices and games for both sports. He wanted to sell soccer to those parents as a real man’s sport where players run non-stop for 45 minutes and have no protection, no oxygen, and no sideline cooling stations. Why should football players have any concerns over concussions when they wore helmets, neck supports, and padding? Soccer players hit heads all the time without benefit of any protection, avoiding any concern for concussion. For this coach, a concussion was less than a non-issue; it was a ridiculous distraction.

This week the NFL announced a $100 million campaign to address the issue of concussions among youth players. This initiative called the “Play Smart Play Safe” program will primarily be devoted to medical research to discover how concussions occur in players and in developing technology to create a safer environment for players. Included in the program will be a push to help youth coaches learn the latest techniques for protecting players from concussions through safer on-field tactics and proper equipment use. The hope is any results will translate into policies and materials for adults as well as for other youth sports. Likewise there will be a strong move towards evaluating players with strict concussion protocols for any hard contact involving the head. Part of this push is to help assure parents that football is safe for their children to play. Participation has dropped in the last few years with even ex-pro players saying they wouldn’t allow their own children to compete. But a more important aspect isn’t so self-serving; they want to make the sport as safe as possible for everyone who plays because that’s the right thing to do.

I can just imagine how my son’s coach would react to this news. $100 million would go a long way to improving soccer exposure and facilities in America. I’m sure he’d rather see people contributing to promote the sport that he grew up playing in Serbia and that most children around the world play on a regular basis. The NFL is a billion dollar industry who has every reason to want to keep their sport front and center in America’s attention. The seven most watched programs in U.S. television history are the last seven Super Bowls. The income generated from each event ($620 million) is higher than the GNP of nine countries. Therefore, donating $100 million towards a project to improve concussion rates in youth players is truly a very small percentage of the NFL’s budget. Nevertheless, there are plenty of researchers on the topic who are grateful for the monetary support of their studies. The emphasis seems to be on finding a technological answer to preventing concussions – better helmets, more neck support, impact sensors, and scientific tools to assess possible concussion. My son’s coach would definitely not favor that approach, and he is not alone. There are many critics who argue that depending on science to relieve concussions gives players and coaches a false sense of protection. They believe the emphasis should be on education that addresses three areas: improved coaching techniques, alerting parents, coaches, and officials to the symptoms of concussion, and providing trained concussion evaluators at every practice, game, and tournament.

How common are concussions in youth players? A fairly significant number of players suffer concussions, although most recover sufficiently to return to playing after a few days of rest. The five sports recording the most concussions from highest number to lower are bicycling, football, baseball, playground activities, and soccer. There are 1.6 to 3.8 million sports- and recreation-related concussions reported in the United States, although most don’t require a hospital or doctor visit. However 6% of the annual emergency room visits annually for children 5-8 years of age during 2001-2005 were due to concussions (135,000 annually). In soccer the rate of concussions among female youth players was 68% higher than among males and in basketball their rate was 268% higher. Among high school athletes during the 2008-09 school year there were 400,000 concussions. The greatest percentage of injuries in youth sports occur during practices (62%). Emergency room visits for concussions sustained during organized team sports doubled for 8 to 13 year olds from 1997-2007 and nearly tripled for older youth players. High school athletic trainers testified that nearly 15% of all sports-related injuries reported to them were concussions. History of injury is a risk factor for future re-injury, which speaks directly to the critical need for education, prevention techniques and equipment.

Since sports-related concussions don’t play favorites and seem to affect youth players at a significant rate, occasionally even higher than that among adults, it might be useful going forward to form partnerships among youth sports organizations and their adult governing agencies to address this issue. Certainly what the NFL is doing will benefit more than just young football players because these results will be applicable across several sports platforms. However, imagine how much more research could be done that specifically targets the dangers concussions hold for youth players if there was a joint effort with MLS, US Soccer, NBA, World Rugby, FIFA, and other national and international sports organizations. Donating what funds they could add to NFL’s contribution could give a concerted push to identifying causes of and creating preventive solutions for concussions that would benefit more than just youth players. While equipment innovations aren’t in the picture for sports like soccer and basketball, they certainly would be important for bicycling, football, and the playground. Additionally research might reveal how better playing surfaces could help prevent concussion, which would benefit every sport.

Concussions gained national attention through NFL players suffering severe mental deterioration, so the spotlight was focused on football. Now that medical researchers have access to the brains of deceased players so they can study how concussions change the brain, their findings won’t just impact football. Likewise, serious explorations of how to prevent youth concussions through better coaching techniques and playing guidelines in youth football will help all youth players. US Soccer has already mandated that players who are 10-years-old and under shouldn’t be heading the ball. When he heard this, my son thought the policy was ridiculous. “How will they build up their neck muscles to handle headers if they don’t train for them regularly?” His point of view was probably the result of some lingering influence from his tough coach. However, when I explained the science behind the decision (Kids’ brains are smaller in their brain cavities, so they rattle around more.), he understood the requirement. That scientific insight came from research. More is needed. Finding funding should be a top priority which would greatly benefit from a joint effort.

Deciding the thrust of the research will be more difficult. The NFL wants to focus on equipment; soccer would probably want to focus on preventive training techniques. Therefore, a partnership may be unworkable, even if it would be far more impactful by creating deep financial pockets for research. Nevertheless, I would expect that any discoveries however funded and by whom will benefit all youth sports.

What can we, as parents, do to reduce the possibility of a concussion for our child? At a minimum, we should never take a head injury lightly. If a child gets hit in the head even if he or she doesn’t black out or even wobble, that player should be removed from the game to be assessed. I sadly watched a football game in which a player received a blow to the head. He ran off the field on his own power and exhibited little effect from the hit. He sat on the bench for about a minute and then suddenly collapsed to the ground. He was rushed to the hospital and got treatment, but ended up being debilitated by the bleed in his brain for the rest of his life. On some occasions a bleed can be slow and symptoms only show up as much as an hour later. Therefore, no child should return to play that game, even though the “tough guy” standard says he or she should suck it up and get back in there. Every adult should be trained in concussion protocol. It’s available online on dozens of sites. Here’s the form physicians use to do a pre-evaluation to set a baseline for a player and then a check list that should be gone through after any head injury (www.brainline.org/downloads/PDFs/AcuteConcussionEvaluation_ACETest.pdf). The NFL offers an even more extensive form which includes questions to ask the player to help assess his or her mental status (www.uwmedicine.org/services/sports-medicine/Documents/NFL-SIDELINE-TOOL-Post-Injury.pdf). I’d suggest that these forms be accessible to coaches at every practice and game. As a parent, you can stuff some copies in your bag and in your child’s soccer bag. When in doubt make a doctor’s visit. Know the symptoms of a concussion since these may not appear immediately. Obviously dizziness would be a strong signal, but vomiting, drowsiness, slurred speech, and confusion are serious indicators that the brain has been injured. Having a baseline study on file with your family physician will help your doctor assess the level of change and seriousness when considering a concussion. No one should rush back to playing. Guidelines say that any loss of consciousness, even for a few seconds, dictates three to five days away from any activity. If the blackout lasted longer, a longer period of rest may be necessary. Don’t minimize symptoms when a child presents concerns. Consider the level of change in a child’s alertness, acuity, and pain (headaches and neck pain in particular).

I applaud the NFL for its initiative and can look past any self-serving aspects of their investment because any study in reducing concussions among youth players is a step in the right direction. There are head gears for soccer players, but these are not widely accepted as they don’t fit into the image of a standard soccer player. There are also head rings that look a bit like ear muffs but again are regarded as “geeky” looking. Should more professional players start wearing the gear, they would be more acceptable to youth players. Until then the best line of protection is the coach who can promote a safe playing environment and will teach proper techniques for headers, tackles, and player to player contact. Since most concussions occur during practice, it’s important that coaches regulate the tempo and intensity to insure safety. A game actually has a more controlled environment because the teams are moving in expected directions and have singular jobs, whereas in a practice, there are lots of kids on the pitch often doing different drills in different areas which the coach can’t completely oversee. Finally, keep your cell phone charged to call 911 if necessary and know the actual address of the field since sometimes fields are difficult for emergency workers to locate. Most concussions will be transient and not impede a player from returning to the pitch after a proper period of rest, but repeated concussions can put the player’s brain at risk, so whatever we can do to understand how to assess, treat, and, importantly, prevent concussion will make youth sports all the more enjoyable.

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Stop the Ls

Stickley

In the National Youth Coaching Course we talk about avoiding the three L’s during a training session. Those three L’s are Lines, Lectures and Laps. The cartoon below, in its own way, says it all. You see kids in school who have been listening to lectures, so why would a coach do that to them after school at soccer practice? The rule of thumb for all coaches, at all levels of soccer, is talk less and play more.

Laps

In the cartoon you also see the boy daydreaming about a drill of dribbling through the cones. The odds are the rest of his teammates are in a line at the end of the line of cones waiting for their turn to dribble through them. Boring! Ideally, no lines of players in a training session, but if there’s no way around it then at least keep it to several short lines of players – say three max.

Finally, in the cartoon you see the boy awakened from his daydream by his teacher (who when wearing shorts and out on a soccer field is known as the coach). The youngster is sure that he’ll be punished by running laps. Frequently coaches use running as a punishment for misbehavior during a training session. Some coaches have even used running as a punishment for an entire team at the end of a match if the team did not meet the coach’s expectations of performance. For the individual and the team using running as a punishment hurts team morale more than it solves any behavior problem. First of all, soccer is a game that requires a lot of running. You have to like running to play the game. Why give something so integral to the sport a negative connotation both mentally and emotionally for the players? This is just the opposite of what the coach should be trying to achieve in developing a team. If punishment is needed for misbehavior then there are many other options the coach could use other than running as punishment. Soccer coaches should never use running as a punishment!

Coaches, let’s unite to stamp out the three L’s in youth soccer!

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Much Ado About Something

Susan Boyd

Various sports periodically use their public platform to highlight social injustices. Leagues, teams, coaches, and players may speak out collectively or individually when they perceive an issue that requires attention. In 2005 after a particularly ugly year for racial incidents on pitches across Europe, French soccer player Thierry Henry began the Stand Up Speak Up campaign in conjunction with Nike, who produced wristbands to both advertise and support the movement. Since that time, racial incidents on the pitch seem to have dropped from that peak, but are still prevalent throughout Europe including clubs who refuse to recruit and sign black players, taunting of players, attacks on players both on and off the pitch, and general hooliganism sparked by racial prejudice. While the protest was well-meaning and broadly supported, the overall impact wasn’t as productive as one would hope based on the exposure the situation received. Nevertheless, many sports analysts, political pundits, and world leaders joined in, praising how the movement had sparked a serious discussion of race in sports. Sound familiar? Though not as controversial as Colin Kaepernick’s refusing to stand during the national anthem, both Henry and Kaepernick were attempting to highlight how minorities experience racism daily and to energize a discussion.

Kaepernick’s protest has been greeted with mixed reactions. While many people acknowledge that there are racial issues that require our attention, fans are split on whether or not his methods were the best way to go about it.  Unfortunately while Colin was hoping to cast light on unjust treatment of minorities and police brutality against African Americans, the discussion seemed to focus solely on his patriotism. While some athletes have joined the movement, most notably Megan Rapinoe in soccer, Stephen Curry in basketball, and even President Obama, who defended his right to protest, the question remains if this is support for his cause or for his right to protest. An important indicator of the support for Kaepernick has come in the record sales of his jersey. To his credit he announced that he would donate all of his profits from those sales back to the community and thanked fans for their support. As we look at these two crusades separated by a decade, we should take note of two facts: (1) sports and race are significantly intertwined and (2) the topic remains in need of exposure.

How do we begin a conversation about race? So often our attitudes spring from our own experiences making it difficult to empathize with the life events of others.  We depend on anecdotal evidence from our lives to make arguments for or against the truth of racial injustice, which makes conversation difficult. But there is also data to support Henry’s and Kaepernick’s concerns.  When Henry’s home country of France won the World Cup, there was a surge of French politicians who called the national team “unworthy” of the victory because most of the players weren’t white. A 2016 European Network Against Racism report highlighted among their facts that people of African descent had unemployment rates from two times higher (UK) to five times higher (Finland) than the rest of their countrymen. Records on U.S. public high school graduation rates shows a tremendous gap: Whites have an 89% rate, Hispanics a 73% rates, and blacks only a 69% rate. Theories abound as to why these discrepancies occur to include unemployment, single-parent families, poor nutrition, and lack of role models. However, the facts are still the facts. We need discussion on how to solve these problems, which is Kaepernick’s point. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center Study, black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men. The study also noted that “fewer than half of all Americans (45%) said the country has made substantial progress toward racial equality, and 49% said “a lot more” remains to be done”. That indicates that many people recognize that racial issues are far from resolved, and they are amenable to conversations on race.

How does this relate to youth soccer? Things trickle down. Kids learn opinions from older kids and adults that they then ascribe to and repeat without testing the validity or rationale for such opinions. Racially charged comments can be expressed at just about any age depending on how much kids are exposed to such language either from home, school, or the media. We also live in an anonymous age online where people express some really ugly personal attacks hiding behind a faceless and shadowy screen name. Our children have been both victims and perpetrators of these attacks, and their experience can spill over to outbursts and attitudes on the field. While a national conversation on race would be exciting and possibly productive, what really matters are the smaller, more intimate conversations we have with our kids, neighbors, and friends. We should encourage our children to express how racial situations have impacted them and how they handled them. No matter what race our children are, they all need to think about their place in the world. How will they react if they are attacked for their race or if they overhear someone attacking a teammate? What do they feel is appropriate language concerning race? What are our attitudes about race? If we don’t have much experience with other ethnicities and cultures, how might we achieve a better understanding? What stereotypes do we hold about all races?  Are we tipping the scales too far in political correctness? Kids want to talk about these things, but they may not have the opportunity in school due to instructional constraints. Teachers may worry that if they initiate or encourage a discussion on race, they will be singled out for saying the wrong things. They may not feel equipped to talk about race. Therefore, kids are left with a variety of news stories, movies, music, and sports, which may influence their experiences with racial issues, yet they have no responsible sounding board to sort out these stimuli and feelings.

When Thierry Henry came out with his Stand Up Speak Up campaign, I remember that the wristbands were a prized fashion statement on the soccer pitch. Even today the wristbands are available on eBay. However, the reason for the statement printed on the band was often ignored then and awareness hasn’t increased in the intervening years. Even as kids sported the strap, they had little idea of what it actually represented. In Europe the reasons were clearer since the continent had witnessed several incidents including beer bottles hitting players and bananas being thrown on the pitch with racial taunts. But in the United States those episodes weren’t on the radar for young soccer players. Rather, it was Thierry Henry who was a soccer icon that prompted kids to want to own and wear the wristband. Instead of a social issue, the campaign ended up being an exercise in coolness. I’m concerned that Kaepernick’s stance will likewise be drowned in the rush of young players wanting to sport his jersey for the sake of being coolly attached to the player, not to his cause. As parents, we can have an important role in directing our children’s attention to the issues even as we acquiesce to their wish to have the jersey.  

Talking about race doesn’t mean we all have to have the same outlook or agenda. As the mother of two African American/Hispanic sons I know firsthand some of the difficulties that exist for minority children. I also understand that like me other people come to these situations with their own moral, religious, and political histories that will shape their points of view. We need to hear all of those voices, but more importantly, our kids to need to hear our voice. This weekend the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of African American History opened in Washington, D.C. Visiting institutions like that or a Mexican street festival or a Caribbean music concert with our children can be a way to jump start not only some insight to other cultural histories and populations, but also open the door to talking with our children about the variety of ethnicities and religions that exist in America. Considering the recent concerns over refugees and national safety, I’m certain our children have questions that we can answer. No matter where we stand on the issues, we owe it to our kids to be transparent about our views so they can begin to discover their own way of dealing with the racial matters they encounter at school, among friends, and on the field.

This is why we need to narrow down the conversation to encounters our kids understand and have personally experienced. Even as they hear about Colin Kaepernick’s protest, they probably don’t have the context in which to understand it. However, relating his action to episodes from their own lives will give our kids the basis on which to begin an important discussion, not only with us but also with their friends and teammates. There are certain topics that we should take the lead on – money management, birds and bees, religion, and race. We can’t expect our schools to be handling them because each of these has a very personal quality centered on our own morals, beliefs, and lifestyle. Therefore, we need to initiate the conversation and then be good listeners and guides. Using Kaepernick as a portal to begin the talk seems like a great way to start on a serious and significant examination.

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Street Soccer In War Zone

Sam Snow

This entry is from Andrew Breithaupt. He is a district coach for US Youth Soccer ODP Europe in Stuttgart, Germany.  He holds the “D” License and the National Youth License.  Andrew had a recent trip to Kosovo and had this to say upon his return.

“Kosovo is small country in the Balkans about the size of Wisconsin that most people know nothing about. The country and its people continue to recover from one of the worst civil wars in Europe since World War II.

Recently, I traveled to Kosovo providing humanitarian aid. In a remote area where we were working was a bunch of kids hanging around all day. They watched the entire day while their families herded around the livestock they owned.

The kids had a single torn up old soccer ball that barely held air while they kicked it around. I turned around at the gate as the ball accidentally hit my feet while passing by. I played it back and they motioned for me to join them playing. I dropped my gear and jumped into the play, work boots and all. For the next 30 min we played and played. They didn't speak a bit of English but that just didn't matter, all we needed was the ball and the game. 

Parents in the US often worry about turf fields not being open enough, the newest $200 cleats being sold out, or their child not getting to start the match every game. These kids had one torn up ball among them, some only had an old pair of Crocs on their feet, and one had no shoes at all.  We played on a gravel road with giant tank track ruts on both side and a ditch. The goals were a couple rocks drug over. There was no out of play, they played thru the ditches, gravel, and even boulders like they were just another defender. A couple of them would make an ODP team no question and probably never had a day of training in their life. They just played the game and laughed.

They really put the essence of the game into perspective for me in a way I'd never thought.  It was an experience I'll never forget.”

Stree Soccer Blog

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