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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on every Monday.  A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom". 


The Ugly and the Beautiful

Susan Boyd

Soccer is called the beautiful game, but sometimes it fails to like up to this moniker. Take the recent ban of two of the highest FIFA officials: FIFA president Sepp Blatter and UEFA president Michel Platini. The two men were sanctioned by FIFA’s ethics committee and banned from representing FIFA or any of its affiliated organizations for 90 days; a ban that can be extended another 45 days. This comes on the heels of Blatter being named in a Swiss investigation for arranging a TV rights deal between FIFA and Jack Warner, former president of CONCACAF, which involved substantial pay-outs. Platini was expected to take over as head of FIFA when Blatter resigned in February, but his own ban puts those plans on hold. Another likely candidate, South Korean Chung Mong-joon, was recently banned for six years. Therefore the role of interim FIFA president has fallen to Issa Hayatou, the head of the Confederation of African Football. Ironically, Hayatou was sanctioned in 2011 by the International Olympic Committee for taking bribes from a sports marketing firm. It seems there is no one with clean hands who can take over FIFA, at least not from the present board. Rumors have long swirled around the organization that members of the board took bribes to give the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Most fans of the game especially questioned the 2022 award to a country that has summer temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. The World Cup is played in the month of July. Just two weeks ago, FIFA conceded the point by rescheduling the 2022 World Cup for the balmy 104 degree days of November – a move that has far-ranging effects on scheduling for national and international leagues and tournaments. It’s been an ugly year for FIFA.

Despite these dark incidents, soccer still has the power to inspire. My faith that soccer, in particular youth soccer, can survive the machinations of some powerful, corrupt leaders comes from the joy I see at every youth game I attend. In the last few weeks I’ve come across three truly amazing stories in which soccer plays an important and inspirational role. These few vignettes I think are far more indicative of what soccer has to offer our kids and our families than the sordid backroom dealings of some men who don’t really see soccer for what it is – a beautiful game played for enjoyment.

In Thailand, there are large communities of fishermen and their families who live on floating man-made islands off the coasts. Kids in these villages were limited to the sports they could pursue due to their restricted neighborhood. They raced boats and swam, but what many loved to do is watch soccer. In 1986, in one such village, Panyee, a group of kids decided to form a soccer team and build a floating pitch on which to play. This was uneven, undersized, and roughly constructed with tiny goals, but it provided some benefits as well. The small size meant that the players had to concentrate on footwork and the fact the pitch was floating in the middle of a sea meant it got wet and slippery, teaching the players how to handle adverse surfaces. They decided to enter the top Southern Thailand youth tournament called the Pancha Cup. They advanced to the semifinals despite a lack of training facilities and coaching. Behind by two goals at halftime, they managed to fight back and even the score in the second half, but lost on a last minute goal. Disappointed, they were nonetheless happy to have accomplished what they had, and the village was so proud of their efforts that they constructed a new pitch that was full-sized, smooth, and even. The kids continued to practice and to enter tournaments over the years, eventually rising to be one of the premier youth clubs in Southern Thailand becoming youth champions 2004 through 2010. They accomplished all of this without fancy equipment, expensive coaches and limited competition. Their story demonstrates the role of passion in development. Their love of soccer informed their desire to play even if it meant playing under the most unusual and adverse conditions.

Here in the United States, another island soccer program proves the significance of teamwork and passion. A 12-year-old player, Luc Gandarias, on Whidbey Island, northwest of Seattle, plays soccer despite being legally blind. Luc suffered from late on-set hydrocephalus when he was 7. This condition creates excessive fluid build-up in the brain, putting pressure on the organ leading to loss of functions and possibly even death. Luc ended up losing all sight in his right eye, can only see shadows out of his left eye, and lost 50% of his hearing in his right ear. But he was determined not to be defined by his disabilities. He fought to return to soccer, and his teammates were supportive. Because he has a shunt above his ear to release fluid from his brain he wears a head gear that looks a bit like a 1920s football leather helmet. He uses his hearing to find his way on the field counting on his teammates and occasionally his father to give him direction. His coach agrees that besides being an inspiration he has also provided his team with a reason to talk to one another on the pitch, a skill many players never fully learn. More importantly, Luc wants kids with disabilities not to dwell on them, but to push through and find ways to achieve whatever they want in life. "This is my way of showing everybody — all the blind kids out there — that they can do what they want,” he said. “If you set your mind to it and you put your best foot forward, it is all possible.”

In Pittsburgh, a high school player, who is still learning English, performs as goalkeeper — without legs. Emmanuel Hilton plays on the JV team and has excelled in the position. He was born without legs in the Congo, where his mother, appalled by his birth defect, threw him out into the middle of a busy highway. Luckily, a motorist stopped and rescued him before he was hit. He ended up in an orphanage where he lived until he was adopted by the Hilton family a year ago after seeing his smiling picture in a brochure. This story touches me particularly because I have two adopted sons who came to our home when they were 3 and 1-and-a-half years old. I know the traumas that abandonment and abuse can cause, and I also have seen the healing power of playing soccer. Both our sons have seen soccer as a form of salvation from their pasts, and I’m sure Emmanuel feels the same. He goes by the name “E-man” and has been fully accepted by his teammates. He had been reluctant at first to try out, but he exceeded all expectations, according to his coach, and gets the team motivated from the back. Likewise, he feels uplifted because he has a community of friends who support him and depend on him. As he says, “They like me, they’re happy, so I feel comfortable…” He energizes the team, which energizes him. “It (missing legs) doesn’t matter to me. I can do anything. I can do anything right now.” 

We can get caught up in the “what’s next?” part of soccer, and forget to enjoy the beauty of our kids playing. Reading these stories, I understand that when we get so entranced by the glory, we forget the pure joy. The Panyee FC, Luc and Emmanuel have overcome some tremendous odds, so they provide inspiration. However, we need to also note that none of them feel they are extraordinary. Instead they are part of a team, enjoying and appreciating the efforts of others, and contributing to whatever roles their team asks. That’s something every kid can do. It’s a philosophy that the leaders of FIFA might better embrace.

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Inherent Risks

Susan Boyd

Two weeks ago, a New Jersey high school quarterback, Evan Murray, got injured and died following a game. He took a hard hit, seemed in distress, but then got up and left the field on his own power. This was not a concussion, rather a body strike that lacerated his spleen leading to critical internal bleeding. The media picked up this story immediately and it appeared on the Today Show, CBS Evening News and CNN. Additionally, the press also covered this story, most notably USA Today’s Kristine Meldrum with her article, “Are abdominal injuries the next concussion story?” This was essentially a repeat of a story on NBC News that appeared in August, one month before the New Jersey quarterback’s death. The story followed an incident that happened in 2008 when Brian Haugen went up for a pass and got “sandwiched” between two players. He wobbled off the field and was rushed to the hospital, but his liver had been crushed and he died. In the wake of this tragedy, his parents began a foundation in his name that is one of dozens throughout the United States dedicated to addressing internal injuries for youth players.

As parents of preteen and teen players, we hear about the dangers in playing contact sports yet have a desire to put our heads in the sand. None of us want to be the parent who knowingly places our child in harm’s way, while we also intuitively understand that we have to weigh risks against benefits in everything we do. We regularly drive our kids to practices and games knowing full well that people die or are severely injured in car accidents. We fly to our vacations with the understanding that occasionally planes crash. Our kids bike ride (sometimes without helmets), run around with pointed sticks, climb trees, eat unusual foods, wrestle with friends, and play dodgeball. All these things have inherent risks that we accept and try not to think too much about. So how dangerous are youth sports?

The Center for Disease Control estimates that 30 million people under 20 years old play organized sports in the United States. Safe Kids Worldwide reports that in 2013, 1.24 million of these players were seen in emergency rooms with sports-related injuries; the largest percentage, 37 percent, are players in the 13-to-15 age range. That translates into nearly 460,000 kids – a rather staggering number. However, according to Youth Sports Safety Statistics, there were only 120 sports-related injury deaths of young players in 2008, 49 in 2010, and 39 in 2011, showing that education and preventive measures have been helping, creating a reassuringly miniscule .00013 percent of players dying due to sports in 2011. In comparison, the CDC reported that 895 children ages 5-to14 were killed in car accidents in 2010 and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recorded 2,524 deaths for teenagers. That means that a child is far more likely to be die on the trip to a game than in the game itself, though even those numbers aren’t scary. Somehow we don’t depend on statistics basing our fear of serious injury or death during a game on stories played out in the evening news. Everything – cars, planes, bikes and sports – can be made safer, but calamity can’t be eliminated. The question is how much risk we will tolerate in various activities.

Statistics should set our minds at ease. Although the results of catastrophic injury during sports activity are tragic, they are infrequent. We do need to keep in mind that youth players (those under age 19) have less developed musculature around their rib cage and abdomen to resist hard hits, and the younger the player, the more vulnerable his or her brain is to injury. Adults fare much better. Despite their larger size and power when making contact with one another, they have the advantage of natural body protection, longer training in avoiding serious injury, and access to protective wear that has been traditionally only been available to college and professional players. In fact, most high schools don’t offer any specialized protective gear, but many schools are now providing educational programs that give parents the option to learn about and purchase protective gear choices. In fact, Brian Haugen was given this option a day prior to his accident, but that information wasn’t passed on to his parents, who stated they would have bought the gear in a heartbeat. Now the Haugens have provided 1,500 EVO Shields, also known as “rib shirts,” which protect against internal torso injuries, to high school players and hope to double that amount this year. More importantly, they are funding research at the University of West Florida (UWF) into how often serious internal injuries occur in youth players, what those outcomes were, and whether the injuries could have been mitigated or decreased in severity through preventive measures. As John Todorovich, chair of the UWF health, leisure and exercise science department states, “We now have national…concussion data, but we just don’t have the same type of information around the torso area.” Safety gear is available in all sports, but making parents aware of what’s available and getting kids to wear it can be difficult to achieve. At Robbie’s soccer game last weekend, the opposing team’s goalkeeper wore a protective head gear, which is the first I had seen at a recreational game. These aren’t regularly sold at soccer stores, so parents may not know they are available or how they protect. Likewise, kids might feel shielding equipment makes them look dorky, which is why it’s difficult to get them to wear bicycle helmets and knee and elbow pads. However, the more kids do it, the more players there will be who find it cool to follow the trend.

The unfortunate fall-out from the heavy media focus on anecdotal cases is that people see them as far more inclusive that they actually are. As a result, schools have begun to have discussions about ending football programs and other sports based on injury concerns. This alarmist approach isn’t responsible or reasonable. Certainly, if you are the parent of a child who suffers severe injury or god forbid death while playing, then the statistics just fly out the window. Nevertheless, we don’t all stop driving because we read about a fatal crash. We don’t even ban teen driving even though the clear statistics show that 15 and 16-year-olds have the highest percentage of driving accidents and fatalities. With far less disastrous outcomes in youth sports, it’s a bit surprising to see the reaction encouraging throwing the sport out. But it’s happening. Ohio football dipped from a high of 55,392 players in 2008 to 45,573 in 2013. Michigan football participation has dropped 10.5 percent since 2007, this year recording its lowest numbers since 1995. Nationally, high school football numbers have dropped 250,000 in the last five years. Individual high schools across the country have abandoned football for fears of injury and under pressure from parents who encourage their children to choose less “dangerous” sports. Soccer has substituted for these programs including being the center stage for homecoming celebrations. However, as football declines and soccer increases, so too will the concerns about injuries suffered by soccer players. In a decade, we may see the same arguments being put forth for the dissolution of soccer as has been forwarded for football. For example, concussion risk among female athletes is highest in soccer with 6.7 incidents per 10,000 athletes. Soccer is also where the highest incident of ACL injuries occur among females, which are not life-threatening, but can be career-ending.

Interestingly, another reason for abandoning some contact sports is a fear of lawsuits. Despite the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) being hit with a concussion lawsuit this year, only one high school football program has dropped out, but if the IHSA lose, it may be more inclined to reduce football state-wide. The lawsuit charges that the IHSA didn’t do enough to protect players from concussion, and the next court hearing is set for Oct. 16. Statistics on injuries will play a large part in how the case is decided. It will be interesting to see how the court rules concerning the IHSA’s responsibility, if any, in concussions suffered by players. As schools come under threat of lawsuits, they do a cost benefit analysis and decide to eliminate the things that lead to suits, primarily contact sports such as football, soccer, rugby and hockey. Naturally, there are risks to playing sports, and some of those risks are serious, though occur minimally. However, it may be more cost-effective to institute greater safety precautions and provide safety equipment which reduce injury. Schools may choose to require headgear for soccer players and rib shirts for football players. Coaches and trainers will need to be up to date on protocols not only for concussions but also for internal injuries, being able to detect the symptoms and severity of those damages. When a child is hit in the chest by a fast pitched ball and his heart is ruptured, he might have been saved by a “heart guard” which is a pad many leagues are now requiring baseball players to wear. However, the more protection that is available, the more parents may believe that their player can avoid injury. So when a child dies or gets a catastrophic body blow, the parents want to sue, believing the school or league could have done more to protect them.

The truth is that no magic solution exists. Injuries and fatalities will occur in cars, sports and household accidents. Unless we envelope our kids in bubble wrap, tie them to a feather bed, and keep them isolated from all germs and bacteria, we can’t protect them from everything. It’s good for them to get out and play, and parents can continue to educate ourselves on ways to make that play safer, though never free of risk.

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A Few Tips On Running Your Training Session

Sam Snow

A Few Tips on Running Your Training Session

Before you take the field for your next training session, check out some of these tips that could enhance your session.


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Figure 1 -  At the outset get eye level with the players – it helps to bond the group and to keep the attention of youngsters


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Figure 2 - Get into action quickly - less talk, more play


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Figure 3 - When you are explaining the rules of the activity or making a coaching point for the team, gather them in front of you for clear communication and undivided attention


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Figure 4 - Organize the equipment, the training space and the players before you start an activity during the training session


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Figure 5 - Sometimes you can adjust the training space [dimensions of the grid] on the fly


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Figure 6 - There's not always a need to stop an activity as you set up for the next activity


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Figure 7 - Occasionally have a fellow coach video tape your training session


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Figure 8 - Ask for feedback on that video from your club director of coaching or a more experienced and higher licensed coach in your club


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Figure 9 - ALWAYS maximize the kids playing time

For more tips on creating a training session check out our freshly updated document on "How to Write a Training Session Plan"

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Crazy Quilt

Susan Boyd

Every week, I come across some fascinating soccer stories that aren’t necessarily worth an entire blog, yet are entertaining. Therefore I’ve gathered a few of these here in a hodge-podge of reports that highlight the wide-ranging impact of soccer on our lives.

This past week, we played host to Pope Francis, who visited Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia. We witnessed the heart-warming incident of a daughter of immigrants appealing to the Holy Father to speak to President Obama about the status of undocumented, watched the Masses performed in the three cities he visited, and heard him address Congress. However, a small item that missed most media outlets appeared in the Washington Post. It seems that D.C. United provided the Pontiff with his own special jersey emblazoned with Pope Francis and the number 10. Francis is well-known to love soccer and is an avid follower of club San Lorenzo from Buenos Aires, Argentina — his boyhood home. He hosted the Argentine and Italian national soccer teams at the Vatican two years ago, and during a public Vatican appearance last year, he was given an Argentine National Team World Cup jersey.

When San Lorenzo won the Copa Libertadores last summer, Argentina’s most prestigious club soccer competition, the team brought the trophy to the Vatican to celebrate their first-ever cup win with their patient life-long supporter. Given this history, Paul Hill (the subject of the film “In the Name of the Father”) suggested to D.C. United’s general manager, Dave Kasper, that it might be a meaningful gesture from the Catholic citizens of D.C. to provide the Pope with a jersey from the city’s MLS team. Hill used to be married to Robert and Ethyl Kennedy’s daughter and D.C. United plays in the RFK stadium. Since Ethyl had VIP access to the Pope’s White House visit, the delivery of the jersey was easily arranged and assured. Well sort of. Apparently Hill’s daughter and RFK’s granddaughter had to ultimately entrust the jersey to a papal aide, who promised that the Pope would receive it. And the number 10? That was easy. It’s Argentine nation soccer hero Diego Maradona’s number, and it’s Lionel Messi’s number. In fact, every self-respecting Argentine soccer fan swears by the number 10. Although maybe I shouldn’t say “swears by” when the Pope is involved.

We’re in the meat of the fall soccer season when youth clubs, most high schools, all colleges and our professional and semi-professional North American teams competing. That means we’re shuttling between our children’s matches and practices, and fields are overscheduled. I drive to or by dozens of fields every weekend, and they are mobbed with players finishing one match as others mill around nearby waiting for their turn to play. Parking lots are chaotic and crowded. I’m sure it’s the same wherever you live. With less than 12 hours out of 24 with any daylight, clubs schedule fields tightly and the effect only gets worse should there be games canceled due to bad weather. Every free, clear day is used to the maximum. So imagine my surprise on a gorgeous, mild weekend day when I arrived for a match at a soccer park to see the place deserted with the exception of the two teams I had come to watch. Six fields were completely competition fallow. I couldn’t believe it. There had been no heavy rains to turn the pitch to mush or threats of electrical storms on the horizon to limit play. Nothing was amiss yet it was a soccer ghost town. With some investigation I found out the culprit was a lack of referees to monitor games because of a tournament elsewhere in town using the available pool. So non-tournament matches were actually canceled and had to be rescheduled. It got me wondering how often this happens nation-wide. In reading message boards, articles, and blogs, I’ve discovered that most states report a severe referee shortage. Utah has stopped sending three refs to high school games because there are only enough certified officials for two at each match. I read reports from North Dakota, Maryland, New York, Western Pennsylvania and California, among others.

Of all the states responding to inquiries about referee shortages I only found one, North Carolina, reporting an actual surplus. Most referee administrators point to the increased verbal and even physical abuse referees endure as a reason for the dearth. The youngest officials have become disenchanted with minimal pay and maximum stress, so are leaving in record numbers which affects the future pool of experienced and older referees. Since most league rules require at least one certified official must be on the pitch before a game can be conducted, the shortage has begun to affect schedules evidenced by what I witnessed last weekend. In fact at that game a third referee did not show up until 20 minutes into the first half. As the number of referees becomes limited so does the professionalism of the game. Without certified assistant referees to assist the center ref, the burden of all decisions falls on one person who can’t possibly be watching for offside while also watching for field fouls. What happened this weekend may become more common and make completing the soccer seasons all the more difficult by adding no refs to the problems of weather and field availability.

USA News and World Report just detailed a study by the Soccer Price Index, which ranked MLS as the world’s worst soccer value among 25 countries considered. This index analyses the value a fan receives as measured by ticket price and quality of competition. England has the most expensive ticket prices, averaging $82.60, but ranks third in the world in terms of competition, so the EPL has an overall value ranking of fourth. Germany ranks 10th in ticket prices at $35.36, and a league ranking of second, which puts that country in first place.

Unfortunately, MLS has the fifth-highest ticket prices at $46.22 and ranks 25th in competition, which places it firmly in last place in the index. Those of us in the U.S. might consider traveling to Mexico, where average ticket prices are 24th at $11.72, beat only by South Africa at $9.55. Mexico is ranked 19th in quality of competition, which gave it a value ranking of 11th. I’m not sure what it all means in the end, since national leagues such as EPL, Bundesliga and MLS don’t really have any competition for fans of that level of soccer competition in their respective countries. We go to see the best we can and pay the price we are offered. Players from some of the top international teams have come to the MLS to finish their careers, but the league will take a big step up in competitive quality when they can start to attract young stars to play in the U.S. — and that requires money, so expect ticket prices to increase and our value to stay low as the MLS works to improve its place in the world.

Finally, ESPN’s 30 for 30 had a soccer series last spring that ran until the eve of the World Cup. I’m not sure how I missed it while it was airing, but I’m glad I caught up with it on the internet. I highly recommend the eight stories that touch upon all different aspects of soccer. First is Hillsborough, detailing a horrific soccer tragedy which has changed the way stadiums are built and fans are admitted. ‘Maradona ‘86’ examines the Argentinian’s masterful performance at the 1986 World Cup. Ceasefire Massacre highlights a tragic killing in Northern Ireland where a Protestant terror group murders six men watching in a bar the 1994 World Cup game between Ireland and Italy. The tragedy led eventually to a ceasefire a few weeks later in the beleaguered country. The Myth of Garrincha details the rise of a Brazilian soccer player who overcame deformed legs to lead his country to two World Cup wins. The Jules Rimet Trophy is the subject of the fifth in the series, Mysteries of the Rimet Trophy, which was awarded to World Cup winners from 1930 to 1970. The origins of the trophy are unknown, and it has been a part of some significant scandals. The agony of defeat shapes the film Barbosa: 

The Man Who Made All of Brazil Cry. Goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa was a national hero until Uruguay scored a winning goal on him in the 1950 World Cup championship. Rounding out the series is White, Blue and White, covering the unusual dilemma of Argentine soccer players Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa, who joined Tottenham Hotspurs of the EPL leading them to the 1981 FA Cup Final. They are lauded as English national heroes but that changed rapidly when Argentina invaded the British-held Falkland Islands. Ardiles quit the Spurs and returned to Buenos Aires while Villa remained in England. Their contrasting stories highlight an international conflict. All but the two-hour Hillsborough documentary are 30 minutes long, and each episode can be found on YouTube. ESPNGo has video clips of these shows but doesn’t offer an entire episode. Amazon has the DVD set for $18 although they don’t stream it on Amazon Prime.

Soccer extends beyond the field, touching various aspects of our lives and those of others. We can see ads with soccer as the context for things as diverse as cereal and life insurance. Human interest stories appear in the media regularly highlighting how soccer has empowered someone, provided a springboard for humanitarian efforts, or gave a player a new lease on life. We use soccer fields as landmarks when giving directions. The media pays much more attention to soccer matches and players, which translates into more Americans knowing about international leagues and following players from around the world. We have a soccer-loving pope, the First Daughters play soccer, and Obama supported a U.S. bid for the World Cup.

Therefore, we come in contact with soccer on a daily basis beyond watching our own kids play. It’s that variety of experiences that not only gives the sport validity for our kids’ choice of sports but also opens it up to become a part of our daily lives. I encourage you to take note of soccer stories and bring them to your children’s attention. These stories make great dinner table or driving to practice conversation. We don’t need to just discuss the results from league games or the injury reports of players. We can also talk about whether or not soccer was portrayed properly in last night’s episode of Modern Family or about the news report of soccer playing dogs. Soccer is everywhere, so we should celebrate that.

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