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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". 

 

The Symmetry of Good Fortune

Susan Boyd

Good fortune has a way of humbling us. It comes despite our weaknesses and sins (just ask the inmate who won the lottery), cannot be predicted, and departs as quickly as it came. So good fortune should be savored and never taken for granted. I had two bits of good fortune this week. First Robbie's high school team won the state high school soccer championship. Like a wonderful set of bookends, Robbie won in his freshman year and now in his senior year. I had missed the first win which he shared with his brother Bryce because I was at my grandchild's birth. So I definitely valued this experience. Three decisive games led to the championship and each had its moments reminding me of the significant traditions and connections soccer provides.

The quarterfinal game on Thursday afternoon featured our high school's soccer nemesis. Two years ago we lost to them in the quarterfinals and last year we lost to them in the finals in overtime when we were leading at half-time 2-0. So this game carried lots of baggage for our players and the fans. Everyone knew the history and everyone felt the pressure. In the tenth minute Robbie caught a rebound from a corner kick, settled it with his left, and shot it with his right before anyone had a chance to regroup. This was not the winning goal, but helped shake off the nerves. Nothing could be presumed. After all we had led last year for 70 minutes and ended up losing. Additionally, we had not been scored on by a state team this year, so it was poetic justice that this opponent who had plagued us for two years scored the first in-state goal against us. But that turned out to be just a minor blip. The final score was 4-1 in our favor. Despite the large, cheering crowds, you could still hear the collective sigh of relief. 

The semi-final game on Friday night proved to be the true test of our mettle. It was also against the high school Robbie and two other Marquette players would have attended had they not opted for a Jesuit education. Homestead was made up of players Robbie had known for years and had played soccer with. Just before the game, some Homestead parents parked next to us. Their son Stephen had played soccer four years with Robbie, and we were good friends. Now we were on opposite sides of a contest whose prize could never be captured again by these seniors. We joked that after the game we probably would never speak to one another again. Then as the opening whistle blew what do you know? There was Stephen assigned to defend Robbie. What cruel irony! Two other players on Homestead had been on Robbie's first soccer team that Bruce coached. They and Stephen proved to be most formidable as we struggled to find the back of the net. Andrew was their strong and steady center midfielder and Kevin was their unbelievably mighty goalkeeper. In the end we had twenty-three shots on goal including a point-blank shot by Robbie that Kevin somehow managed to deflect. 

Our inability to finish had never been more frustrating and more significant. It was win or go home. As the shots flew and either caromed off the posts and crossbar or arched just wide or high or found Kevin's sure hands, the tension in the stands increased to the point where the concentrated energy might have been affecting the earth's rotation. Time certainly did seem to stand still except on the scoreboard where it ticked relentlessly to 80:00. By the end of regulation we were tied 0-0, so we entered an overtime of two 10-minute halves cursing the déjà vu of this moment (different school, same scenario). In Wisconsin overtime ends with a golden goal, which is how we lost in the finals last year. Remarkably in the ninth minute we got a corner kick and scored on a header by Brian that squeaked past Kevin his club teammate. The eruption from all that released tension certainly helped warm our spirits despite the 32 degrees and brief snow (yes I said snow) showers. The victory still felt bittersweet as I looked out over the field of dejected Homestead players – boys I had known since they were five or six.   Their dreams of victory were no less ardent than ours. I saw Stephen's parents right after the game and we gave one another hugs. Stephen had done an excellent job of defending Robbie. He should be commended.  I also saw Andrew's dad the next day at the finals, and although he was disappointed, he recognized what an amazing game both teams had played. We both knew that Robbie and Andrew, whose soccer friendship began when they were five, would meet on the playing field again either as opponents, teammates, or fans.

The championship turned out to be against the team we had beaten in Robbie's freshman year. They were not as formidable as Homestead, and to some extent the outcome was rarely in question. It didn't change the fact that no one could exhale until the final whistle. In the championship game in 2005 Robbie had scored the last goal and this year he also scored the last goal. We won 5-0 and all five goals were scored by seniors, a fitting end to a fabulous season. Bryce had designed some scarves two years ago, and I had just enough left to give every player. Although I feared jinxing the outcome, I brought them to the game. After the whistle the boys shook hands with the opposing team and then ran across the field and slid on the grass to the student section. Then they collected their scarves, their medals, and the coveted state trophy. Across the scarves is the motto "We are Marquette" which the boys proudly displayed during their various photo ops. This was an amazing and joyful accomplishment, but as these players and fans move forward in life such overwhelming success will come rarely and should be treated with respect without any sense of entitlement. The game against Homestead showed that "grit and will" have to be part of any success, but they don't insure victory. Anyone seeing that semi-final game would agree that both teams exhibited the kind of mental and physical strength necessary for champions.

And as to my second bit of good fortune, I found at my local Pick 'n Save grocery store knit gloves at ten pair for $10. Robbie has his first league game next weekend and the weather report is for freezing rain.  My soccer emergency box was down to three pair of gloves, so I was delighted to replenish for such a bargain price. I took every pair in navy blue, black, and forest green. I suspect the seventeen pair I collected won't last until spring since they evaporate into the same alternate universe that missing socks inhabit. But I can't think about that now. I just wear a satisfied Cheshire Cat grin for finding cheap gloves and whenever I think about those boys sliding across the turf.
 

Flattery Will Get You Nowhere

Susan Boyd

If I didn't know it already, I know it now. Coaches notice kids early. Recently I was talking to two college coaches about the state of soccer and one of the coaches started to talk about the youth teams of a club just over the Illinois border. He thought their Under-10 team was phenomenal and had his eye on a few kids. Here's a guy who doesn't even know if he'll have his job next year or in ten years, but he's already getting his 9 year old recruits lined up.

Once a coach approached me after a tournament when Robbie was Under-11 and inquired if Robbie would come play for his club. This was all very flattering except that the tournament was in SW Chicago, we lived north of Milwaukee, and the coach's team was from St. Louis. Geography didn't faze him in the least. He thought I should hand over my 10 year old son to some family in St. Louis to raise so that Robbie could improve this coach's team. Because there were about 8 million things wrong with this plan, I just gave my best Scarlett O'Hara laugh with a toss of my head, said thank you very much, and moved quickly away. 

When we read about the trades and cuts of professional sports players we understand they're commodities. We also realize that college players are to some extent commodities, but at least have the protection of the NCAA to insure that they don't have to risk their education by being pawns in trades. But increasingly, players in high school and on youth teams find themselves the targets of coaches and scouts for one purpose only – to improve the fortunes of a team and increase the reputation of a club. Under the guise of providing a better playing and training environment they encourage parents to make what could be serious life-altering decisions. Without a touch of cynicism, parents can make very poor choices.

It's important to remember that most offers are never altruistic. Any coach who sees something wonderful in your child is thinking (with apologies to JFK), "Ask not what you can do for this player; ask what this player can do for you." This goes for coaches recruiting for their club team, their school, or for their pro team. They will regale you first with flattery and then all that they can do for your child. But all too often they will use your child until he or she doesn't provide any benefit for the organization and the team. I once heard a coach say, "It's club first, then team, then the player." He also touted the need for players to remain loyal to the club while in the next breath cutting six players who had been with the club for five or more years.

Players are approached often. Recruiting can begin when they are eight years old. Figuring out how to navigate this brambled path is difficult.   Having a coach tell you that your son or daughter could be one of the best players in the country is a mind-blower. The trouble is that if your child's promise doesn't pan out the way the coach expects or if another child comes along with more talent or more promise, your child will be sacrificed. No matter what wonderful pastoral tale the coach weaves, the underlying fact is that winning trumps everything. 

It's not that coaches are inherently evil. In fact most coaches do care about their players. But every club depends on revenue to keep the staff of coaches paid, and losing clubs don't attract enough players to offer coaches better pay. So the vicious cycle drives the process. Coaches often don't have the luxury to foster players who can't contribute to a winning team. I have personally been on the receiving end of both the benefits and the drawbacks of such a system. It's difficult to set aside the flattery and make choices based on what is really best for your own child. It's even more difficult to suddenly find your child left on the sidelines without a team.

The dream of national team membership, championships, and college play makes all parents vulnerable to the sales pitch. But players do succeed even if they don't succumb to the come-ons. It's up to parents to weigh more than the flash when considering whether or not to go with a particular coach. What will the choice mean to other members of the family? What are the financial obligations? How will the team's schedule affect school? How committed is the player to the sport and to the upward demands of the new team? (Here's where parents have to take themselves out of the equation – their dreams for their kids can't factor in.) How realistic is the coach's assessment of the player? (Here's where honestly watching other players in the same position from other teams helps keep things in perspective.) 

Since my own son made the decision to play for a team hours from our home, I understand the lure of strong coaching, strong competition, and strong opportunities. For him it has proven to be the best choice. Even this year when he could have played locally, he decided he wanted to remain with his teammates in Chicago. Have there been regrets? Definitely! He does his homework in the car, his weekends are eaten up by travel to practices or games hundreds of miles from home, and he has given up the normal after school life of a high school student. But he has made the choice, which is the most important factor in taking the risk. Robbie understood the possibility of being cut and spent his fair share of time riding the bench. But he was committed to the team and the opportunity it offered.

The primary driving force in moving up to more competitive teams should be the player's own hunger for the experience.   Ambition can't come from the parents, otherwise the player won't have the mental, physical, and emotional stamina to deal with the ups and downs of taking those risks, no matter how flattering the invitation may be. If a player has no aspirations beyond high school, then he or she doesn't need to be on an expensive and demanding traveling team. Strong skills and joy can be acquired from most soccer teams. While flattery doesn't grow old, it has to be tempered with realistic ideas about what a player wants out of his or her soccer experience. Flattery can be treasured even if it is never acted upon. After all every player has something to be proud of, so we should flatter them all.
 

Shift changes

Sam Snow

Here's a question from a parent of a young player:
 
"I have a relatively minor question regarding appropriate shift time, not playing time in my daughter's Under-10 Recreation Traveling team (6v6).  My daughter will be nine shortly. With 10 players on the roster, each shift of five moving players is playing about 12 -15 minutes at a time and it seems as though the young ladies are becoming tired quickly.  The last team we played changed shifts about every five to six minutes...By the way, our coach is new and has never coached any organized sport before though she has a local high school soccer player helping out...
 
Is there a recommended time-per-shift at this age?"
 
Shift changes can actually hinder the players learning how to play the game.  Wholesale substitutions change the rhythm of the game and end up with the game being played at a helter skelter pace, often with little in the way of quality tactics.  When the pace of the game is too fast the match deteriorates into kick and run soccer.  For the beauty of the game and to put young players into an environment to learn the game it is better to substitute players one or two at a time.  Since the Under-10 age group is playing halves for the first time (see the Modified Rules for Under-10 at /coaches/RulesSmallGames/) it is a learning experience for the players, coaches and parents.  All of those folks now need to begin learning the rhythm of the game.  The players are being asked for the first time to think about how to pace themselves.  That of course may be impossible to do if the adults surrounding the field are yelling for the players to constantly run at full pace, something which professional teams do not do.
 
The children will naturally become tired, but learning when to run, jog, walk or stand is part of the tactics of the game.  Shift changes do not allow players to learn this tactical part of soccer as they are told to run hard for ten to fifteen minutes and then come off.  That approach can win matches at Under-10 but will cause you to lose them at older and higher levels of play.  It may require a bit more work during the match for the coach to keep track of 50 percent playing time for each child at the game that day, but that is a bit more in tune with the coach's job during a match than telling the players on the field what to do.
 
 
 

Heading

Sam Snow

Recently I had a club director ask for information on the do's and don'ts of heading in the Under-6 and Under-8 age groups. In order to help educate the members of his club he wanted to know the latest thoughts on the subject. These sorts of questions, whether they are on a technical topic such as this one or a tactical question, come up now and then. The tendency from either a coach in a club or parents of players on a team is to want to teach advanced skills or tactics to young players. The logic usually is that well it's part of the game and they will need to learn it. True…but not today.
 
By this approach the logic could be extended to say that since kids will someday be driving a car then you should have your 6-year-old practice driving back and forth in the driveway. This flies in the face of common sense. So to the question of teaching heading to Under-6 and Under-8 players - put simply … DON'T!
 
Soccer players do indeed need to learn how to head the ball. It is an important and unique skill in the game. To execute the skill correctly though requires some developed athleticism and ability to read the flight of the ball in the air. US Youth Soccer recommends that heading be introduced at the earliest in the Uner-10 age group.  Young children have great difficulty tracking moving objects, especially if they are in the air.  Most will duck or throw hands in front of the face if the ball comes toward the head.  Children younger than 10 are very reactionary in their movement behavior.  Anticipating where the ball might be played is a skill that has not yet developed.  This ability does not really develop until age nine or 10.  Prior to age nine visual tracking acuity is not fully developed.  Players have difficulty accurately tracking long kicks or the ball off of the ground.  Beginning at approximately age 10, one's visual tracking acuity achieves an adult pattern.  Even then it will take years to reach a point of being able to precisely determine the height, pace, curve and spin of a ball in the air.  How many high school players mistime headers?  There is no need to be in a rush to teach heading skill to children.  Just like geometry in school they get to it in time.
 
Heading the ball is a difficult skill to learn. When should players start? Introduce heading in the Under-10 age group. Teach heading to score and to clear in the Under-12 age group both standing and jumping. Teach heading to pass, backwards heading (flicks) and diving headers in the Under-14 age group. These age groups recommendations are the average, middle of the bell-curve so to speak. A few players may start some of these techniques earlier, especially if they have older siblings playing. Others will start latter, as their confidence grows.
 
Players who can make exact passes with the head, who can save dangerous situations at their own goal by heading the ball away and who can make use of chances at the opponent's goal by means of lightning quick headers are indispensable to their team. The ball can be headed from a standing position, on the run or by jumping up to the ball with one or both legs; the ball can be headed forwards, i.e. in the direction the player is facing, to the side and even behind.
 
Early experiences can be painful if careful progression in building up confidence is not applied. When introducing the technique of heading the ball for the first time, I suggest you start with a Nerf type soccer ball or an underinflated volleyball. Gradually work your way up to a fully inflated soccer ball. Begin with juggling with the head so that the player controls the pace, height, frequency of repetition, movement, etc.   Next go to head juggling with a partner. A good group game for heading is Toss-Head-Catch. In this activity the ball is being served from the hands, so the force is less than a crossed ball and is more accurate. The increased accuracy will allow for more repetitions of correct headers.
 
The whole body is used to head the ball. The movement begins with the legs, the movement of the stomach muscles throws the trunk and upper body forward and the head, from the neck upwards, follows through quickly. The position of the forehead to the ball determines its flight path.
 
Here are the key coaching points for the basic header:
 
Head: chin tucked in, neck stiff, never close the eyes. It is important to watch the flight of the ball until the moment of impact.
 
Upper body: brought back early into the curved position – and then snapped forward. Contact is made with the ball when the body is perpendicular to the ground.
 
Legs: bent at the knees to support the forward thrust.
 
Area of contact: middle of the forehead, sometimes the side of the forehead, never the temples or the top of the head.
 
Among young players there is a physical barrier to overcome when talking about heading and that is simply fear. The earliest and most elementary lesson about heading is never let the ball hit you. Go out and meet it, and make contact with the front part of the forehead where the skull is the thickest. You must attack the ball! You hit it, not the other way around.  The main surface of contact is of course the forehead. The ball must be struck, not cushioned. The neck and back muscles should be rigid to generate power. The part played by the eyes is important! Although it is likely that the reflex blinking action causes the eyes to be closed at the moment when the ball is struck by the forehead, players should be encouraged to watch the ball right onto the forehead; only by doing so can a player time the actual heading movement accurately. There need be no fear of danger to the eyes since they are well protected by the heavy bone structure immediately above them.
 
There is no better feeling in soccer than beating an opponent in the air to plant a header in the net. Once you have done it, there is a hunger to do it again. It is a spectacular way of scoring goals, or come to that of stopping them. Defensively it is a great thrill in consistently clearing the ball in the air, beating opposing forwards and establishing control. The young player who fails to add heading to his or her armory of skills will never go far in the game.