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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". 

 

Maybe participation trophies

Susan Boyd

I don't know how many of you followed the unfolding drama of the 33 Chilean miners trapped for 69 days one-half mile below ground, but I found the rescue mesmerizing. Each miner had a particular trait that the news media used to label him, and so we got to know the miners as the one from Bolivia, the one who had a new daughter, the one who had a mistress, and so on. They each have names, of course, but we got to know them not as Luis or Pedro, but as some aspect of their private lives, now made glaringly public. One miner had been a professional soccer player in the 80s and 90s, Franklin Lobos. The media spoke often about his soccer playing and how he had even played for Chile in a pre-Olympic international qualifier. He spent most of his career on teams in either the 2nd or the 1st Division, so he was known around the country. He began on his regional team in the Atacama Desert where he returned in 2005 to drive trucks for the local mine. His soccer nickname was "El Mortero Màgico" – the Magic Mortar – a bit ironic for someone trapped in a collapsing mine.

While trapped, the miners received feeds of Chilean soccer games for entertainment, which makes sense. It's their most popular sport and a good way to kill two hours of the many they spent underground. I was a bit curious as to how they watched the games. I understand sending down a cable through which programming could be provided, but what did they watch it on? Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer never seemed to find that a curious enough question to pursue. Did they project the game on a sheet on the cave walls or did they manage to send down a 19" TV that 33 men were supposed to gather around to watch? I digress. My point is that soccer seems to make its way into lots of the world's events no matter how remote they may be from actual soccer.

So here's the kicker (excuse the pun). Chilean President Sebastian Pinera has announced that there will be a soccer game between the miners and the rescuers. The miners will be captained by Frank Lobos.  No word on who will captain the rescuers. The game will take place Oct. 24, and I suspect CNN will carry it live either on the network or on its website. The President stated that the winners would get the presidential palace La Moneda and the losers will have to go back into the mine – ha ha. You know how comics say that sometimes it's too soon to joke about something? Well President Pinera should have heeded that advice.

First of all a contest to determine a winner between men who narrowly escaped death and the men who brought them to safety seems a bit macabre. Would I want to get into the boxing ring with the policeman who saved me from a kidnapping? Would a family want to challenge the fire department to a game of street hockey a few hours after surviving a house fire? It may be that I really don't understand the full allure of soccer in other countries since we aren't as fanatical in the U.S. But the prospect of a contest between rescuers and the rescued makes me wonder if anyone could be a winner in that situation.  Will there be trash-talking, cheap fouls, aggressive play? Will the referees issue cards? Will there be a Cup?

Sports are a matter of pride for those who play them. Yes we play for fun, but we never play just for fun. Ask anyone on a U-8 team or on the sidelines during a "friendly" game what the score is and everyone knows. Sports embody competition. So how will winning or losing a soccer game help the psychology and post-traumatic stress of the miners? If they win, they have just defeated their saviors and if they lose they will take another public ding to their fragile self-confidence. Right now I would think that everyone involved would want to find ways to restore their sense of well-being. How can defeating their rescuers or losing to their rescuers accomplish that? Nevertheless, according to news reports, the miners "warmly" greeted the idea, cheering and clapping when the president proposed it in the hospital. Realistically I'm not sure they were in a position to show any dissent if they felt it given that the president was the one who organized and authorized the expenses for an aggressive rescue. Some of you may say I'm over-thinking this entire event; after all it is just a game and might be a bonding experience. But if that is the case, then I suggest they play a game in which the teams are mixed with rescuers and miners on both sides.   And I absolutely suggest that President Pinero refrain from jokes making losers return to their worst nightmare. Find a way to make everyone a winner because right now that's what they are.
 

Know it all

Susan Boyd

I'm as competitive as the next person. I like to win at word games and trivia, and I always want my kids and grandkids to win at their games. I also found out that I'm competitive with my GPS. On a recent trip to Columbus, Ohio, my TomTom suggested that I take a route I didn't think was wise. Once I veered from the directed course, the machine became insistent, recalibrating my route dozens of times and urging me in a pleasant tone, "in 500 feet turn right and stay right. Turn right and stay right. Turn…" as I breezed past the exits one after another. The machine remained calm in the face of my defiance, finding alternate routes that I swear went through several backyards and across a baseball field to get me back on track. I fully expected it to finally say, "Okay, do what you want. It's your funeral." But it never did. I, on the other hand, kept yelling at it, calling it names and declaring my own superior knowledge of the route. I think, in retrospect, the GPS was right because I did get caught in a big back up, but you never heard me admit that to the machine. On the way home I docilely followed all instructions without question.

This trip was to go down to see my grandsons play in their football games. The conflict with my GPS made me realize that competitiveness is directly related to the amount of knowledge or skill you feel you possess in a particular situation. I get very competitive when I play word games or trivia because I expect to do well. I am appropriately intense at my sons' soccer games because after a quarter century of watching soccer, I think I understand the game enough to have an opinion about the way a game unfolds. But I know very little about football. I could know more. I've watched it enough over the years. Yet I choose to remain blissfully ignorant because, in truth, I don't care to be an expert. I know four things about football: How to score a game including that a safety is worth two points, that you have four downs to go ten yards, that there is a defensive squad and an offensive squad, and that no play last longer than one minute from whistle to whistle with most plays lasting less than 15 seconds. Oh, I also know what the quarterback is, but I can't tell you a nose tackle from a linebacker or a running back from a tight end. I watch football games relatively benignly, although I can get excited about my beloved Oregon Ducks winning.

So in Columbus I found myself enthusiastically positive the entire time on the sidelines. I had no idea what was the right positioning for my grandson or the proper movement. I just yelled "Go Keaton, go" or "Well done maroon" because they were the maroon team. Around me people expressed disappointment at various plays yelling things like "you should have gone inside" or "get off your line faster," but all I saw was my grandson running, taking people down and getting to the person with the ball. I thought he was brilliant. I discovered that being ignorant about what is good, bad, or indifferent about the game let me just be happy about anything the boys did. At one point, after the other team scored, Keaton's coach came down the sidelines yelling, "that's cheap football" with a very scary intensity that made me want to back away slowly like I would from a bear in the wild. Only competitiveness could make him that keyed up.

I will have to get smarter about football because I will be attending dozens of games that matter to my grandsons. But I'm also a bit reluctant because I know once I understand enough of the nuances of the game it will change how I react. It will allow me to be critical, which means I'll have to fight that urge. Right now I can just blissfully and ignorantly say, "good play" to anything the boys do because I'm just proud that they're playing. I can be unconditional in my praise. I know that my competitiveness makes me somewhat intolerant of fans on the sidelines of soccer games who say things about how the game is being played that I considered ill-informed. But at least they can cheer on their sons and daughters without criticizing, being disappointed in their play, or coaching. Their kids can feel their pride unreservedly. It's not a bad trade-off for everyone concerned.

While I would never trade away my knowledge of soccer, it is an intriguing conundrum for us parents. We need to understand the game in order to talk intelligently with our kids about this sport they love. We need to understand the game to show that we respect the sport they play. And we need to understand the game because we naturally want to understand what we have invested so much time, money, and emotion into. But with every bit of knowledge we acquire, there's those instances when we will see mistakes, bad ideas, and questionable coaching, and we will feel the need to comment. Yelling at what I perceive as stupidity on the part of my GPS comes from my own knowledge of the route and my own competitive arrogance that I know better than some piece of electronics. So it's no wonder that we end up yelling at a game where we know there are people who can hear us and alter their behavior based on our "suggestions." But I can tell you that my trip home from Columbus was so much happier and smoother than my trip down when I just let my GPS do its job. If I could just let my kids, the refs, the coaches, and the opposing team do their jobs during a game I might have less stomach acid and more smiles. It's just that sometimes I'm convinced I know better and that's a competitive urge that's hard to resist.
 

Formula One

Susan Boyd

Most sports films follow a similar predictable storyline about an underdog team or player who, despite all odds and realistic expectations, eventually triumphs in the climactic scene. If it's about a team there's usually a curmudgeonly coach who has some personality quirk that either involves a dark history or behaviors bordering on insanity, but in the end he inspires the team to greatness. If it's about a person, he or she has big dreams that seem to have no chance at success, but through perseverance, the player either accomplishes an amazing victory or shows that he or she has the "right stuff" usually with the love of a good woman or man or parent as support. Vegas will offer no odds on the outcomes of these films because there's no question how they will end. The only issue would be did the film engage us and offer that emotional punch at the end (with an appropriately crescendo-filled soundtrack) to make the formula work.

I have lots of favorite sports films that adhere to the formula: Hoosiers, Miracle, We are Marshall, Goal!, and Remember the Titans. I enjoyed The Blindside because it touched me on a personal level. My sons are adopted and African-American, so our family shared some of the experiences highlighted in the film – although I never confronted a drug dealer and threatened him. But for the most part I feel the same way about sports films as I do about romantic comedies – in order to be good they have to step outside of the formula. Not many do that. But I recently saw a film, a soccer film to boot, that took the sports film formula and turned it on its head: The Damned United. In simple terms this film looked at the 44 day career of Brian Clough as head coach of Leeds United in 1974. On that level alone it would be a fascinating film, showing how a professional top level team operates. But the film is bigger than that.

Although about soccer, the movie doesn't rely upon soccer to create its impact and soul. In fact the soccer scenes make up only a small percentage of the film. Instead the screenwriters, Peter Morgan and David Peace, who wrote the original book, chose to focus on characters rather than events. Peter Morgan wrote the screenplays for The Queen, Frost/Nixon, and The Last King of Scotland among others and was nominated for an Academy Award for each of the first two. So he brought his rich writing credentials to this film filling out the principal characters with deep emotional souls.   Rather than being about the triumph of a legend or a legendary team, this film is about failure brought on by vanity and bitterness. Clough proves to be a masterful coach as highlighted by some back story, but his motivation for taking the job at Leeds is to settle an old score and to prove himself a better manager than the previous one, Don Revie. By focusing on his personal issues with Revie he cannot develop a rapport with the team who idolized their former coach. He alienates his best friend and puffs himself up to the media.

Rather than depend upon a real time narrative, the film moves back and forth in time, with each shift giving the audience more information and a clearer understanding of how a coach like Clough, once highly respected and successful, could dig himself so deep a hole in so short a time. Here is a story about the very thing sports media loves to create – the consummate sports hero – and then shows his downfall through his own destructive hubris. The message the film delivers is don't ever believe you are bigger than the game, than the fans, than your friends. When my boys saw this film, they declared it was one of their all-time favorite sports films, not because it was about soccer or how soccer teams work, but because it was about maintaining humility despite great success. It took a devastating collapse for Clough to understand that revenge is best earned by one's own honorable behavior and success based on principled action. Eventually Clough goes on to be one of the most successful coaches in EPL history, earning him the epitaph "The best manager that the English National side never had." The movie delivers the powerful message that we all need to maintain our standards no matter what we think circumstances or opportunities demand. When we abandon our humility and morals, than any success is hollow.

The film is rated R for language and some rough scenes, but I think any player over 13 would benefit from seeing the movie. The overall lessons taught and the deeper understanding of the sport it presents outweigh the ear insults. The movie doesn't shy away from the occasionally baser aspects and ruthless depiction of the sport. It provides the realistic context for all the events which unfold giving them the validity they deserve. In the end, it is a feel good movie but not because the kid who couldn't kick a field goal or make a free throw does so as the clock expires to win the game. It reaffirms the concepts we try hard to teach our kids, that dirty play, insults, racism, and cheating should have no place on the pitch. This film proves that nice guys don't always finish last. That's a movie formula we can all live with.
 

Transition

Sam Snow

Last week's blog has brought up some good discussion on transition in soccer and those moments that make up a good match. In brief here are two of the discussions I've had on the topic of ""Soccer is a Game of Moments.""

The first one was about a 2010 FIFA World Cup match between the U.S. and Algeria in which Jozy Altidore missed a chance to score. 

The exchange began with:

"Sam, loved the blog this week. I actually had some e-mail conversation today with some friends from around the country about this exact topic. The conversation was sparked by an article about why the U.S. struggles to produce natural goal scorers and forwards. Your blog topic was a major point coming across in our e-mails." 

I replied with this comment:

"Jozy had his 'moment' and let his mind get ahead of the moment at hand. It's an interesting part of our game that you need to think ahead to anticipate the action, the next move, but there are those times (with a sitter in front of goal in this case) that you need to be entirely in the moment and ONLY that moment. We'll watch a match tonight (FC Dallas against New York) and see that dichotomy unfold again and again."

In observing that match between the New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas, we often saw the players in the moment of when to think ahead a move or two and when to zero in on the moment at hand.  Naturally, mistakes occurred.  Players at every level of play make these mistakes of being in the wrong moment.  The only difference between professional players and youth players is that the pros make the mistakes less often.  In the case of these two MLS teams, the mistake was usually one of being in the present moment and not thinking ahead a move or two, which is also known as reading the game. Lapses in concentration occur even with national team players too.  So, those of us coaching youth players must expect mistakes in recognizing the 'moment'.  Learning how to stay focused for an entire match is a long-term process.  Gradual improvement in mental focus leads to better tactical decision making, reading the game.  Here is yet another reason for Small-Sided Games for preteen players and continuing to use Small-Sided Games in training sessions for teenaged players.

Here's another comment on the topic:

"I liked your recent blog about helping players learn about transition play. I cannot find any exercises to help practice this. Can you send me a link or a practice session for this? I am coaching a U-13 girls' team that is having some difficulty learning this concept
."

In reply I wrote:

"Transition by itself is not really a full training session topic, but a tactical moment which needs to be taught and worked at by players and coaches at every training session. Anytime you have two groups of players playing against one another, from 1v1 to 11v11, the moment the attackers lose the ball they must instantly transition to defense, the team which just gained possession of the ball must now all think and play on the attack. It is the mental switch changing quickly followed by quick physical action. This is the area where too many American players are slow to react, or better yet, to anticipate and be prepared to react, even before the moment of transition occurs.

So, in your training session some of the activities need to be an 'us' versus 'them' situation, which could be numbers even, 4v4 for example, or numbers uneven, 5 v 2 perhaps. I have attached to this message a series of 4v4 training activities which you could play and emphasize transition within these games."

*If you would like to have a copy of those activities just drop me a note.