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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". 

 

Be Careful

Susan Boyd

My wise grandmother used to say, "Be careful what you wish for." I had plenty of examples where the adage proved appropriate throughout my life. When I grew to 5' 8" in the third grade, my wish to be tall seemed ill-considered. My desire to have long hair had a tragic outcome when I fell asleep chewing a wad of bubble gum. Begging my dad to bring home the cat who had wandered into our campsite on Vashon Island looked like a major victory until she insisted on giving birth to a litter of kittens twice a year in my bed. So when our soccer club had a meeting about traveling tournaments, I thought it would be a fun family activity and enthusiastically voted to let the Under-10 teams be part of the planning without considering the consequences.

I still say that my initial support of the plan had a reasoned argument and plenty of support from other parents. But few of us had the benefit of hindsight and those who did were considered wet blankets for dissenting. Ah, what a difference five years makes. If I had it all to do over again, I would have socked away the cost of those traveling events until Bryce and Robbie reached Under-15. I would have had a great start on a college fund or the opportunity to pay for a flight on Richard Branson's out of the atmosphere rocket ship in 2011. In their place I do have some great memories, lots of miles on the van, and a detailed personal knowledge of most Midwest cities over 50,000 in population.

The temptation to rush into traveling for soccer locks on to our sensibilities early. We watch the older teams planning so eagerly for those traveling tournaments and we want our kids to have the same opportunity. The argument could be made that tournaments provide increased competition. But there are tournaments close enough to home that will fit the bill and don't require hotel rooms and plane tickets. That exotic allure of spending a three day weekend in Evansville or Dayton quickly fizzles under the logistics of making those trips. Family togetherness flies out the window when the daughter is playing in Collinsville and the son has a band concert at home.   While most families are willing to take on a foster kid or two on these trips, it still means a weekend without sharing the experience.

Sometimes the strain of missing local activities can make a child decide to quit soccer. Kids might miss the 7th grade dance or Easter with the cousins in order to attend tournaments. Not many 12 year olds enjoy making tough life decisions before they reach full puberty. While all commitments do require some sacrifice, there really isn't a reason for kids to sacrifice their social life and parents to sacrifice their money before the player reaches age 15.

For the sake of sanity, I encourage most soccer teams to forego the long-distance tournaments for local events (less than a three hour drive). That allows families to drive back and forth and save the cost of hotels. Kids can still enjoy their social life, families can still spend time together even with multiple commitments, and everyone can ease into the constraints of travel. Slowing down allows players to find out if they want to give up entire weekends just for soccer. Once a team reaches Under-15, then players have usually decided to take the challenge of select soccer seriously. Therefore players need to start being noticed by college coaches. The time has then come to take off the floaters, abandon the shallow end, and immerse fully. Now the travel makes full sense.

I have seen tournaments with divisions down to Under-8. While I applaud the diversity, I also encourage moderation. If the Under-8 tournament is close enough to home, why not give it a try. Players can embrace the one shining positive we have taken from all our tournaments and that is enlarging our circle of soccer friends. Over the years we've had the chance to watch players grow alongside our sons and enjoyed catching up on the sidelines with the parents. But traveling for traveling sake doesn't up the ante for skill development, player growth, or competition. Teams training daily for two to three hours would have more impact on player development than attending three or four traveling tournaments in a year.

One of the arguments about soccer has been that it has become too expensive. Yet the real expense of soccer ends up being the long trips teams make. No one needs classy expensive uniforms, they can train on community fields, and league fees are usually insignificant when split among all members. Coaching makes up the remaining and biggest expense, but players do get the biggest bang for their buck. For whatever it costs to attend a distant tournament players could get ten or fifteen hours of private coaching. Split that among a team and it translates to fifteen to eighteen times as much coaching. So the true advantage of a tournament is the opportunity to be exposed to college coaches and to the highest levels of competition. Those two goals are both admirable and necessary, but not until a player is older.

Although my grandmother never saw a soccer game in her life, her sage advice rings true for any soccer family. Measure your wishes by the true benefit. Don't be afraid to proceed slowly when it comes to upping the ante for your child's participation. You can't go wrong wishing the best for your child, just be sure that what you wish for is the best for them.
 

Silos

Sam Snow

I've been travelling consistently since the first of 2009 to a variety of soccer events. I've been to Orlando, Florida; Antalya, Turkey; St. Louis, Missouri; Greensboro, North Carolina; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Anchorage, Alaska; Pomona, California; Los Angles, California; Warwick, Rhode Island and now I'm on my way to San Jose, California, for the 2009 US Youth Soccer adidas Workshop. 
One of the things I have noticed in these travels is the shared passion for soccer of the many people I meet. They all are committed to the game, but not just the game, instead the people in it. While everyone in soccer across the world has their differences with one another the majority truly care about the people in the game.
 
I have noticed too that many folks are sure that somehow they and their situation are different when in fact they are all the same. Regularly, I hear soccer folks say to me things such as - Well coach, you have to understand that around here our parents are really competitive and they just don't like the idea of not keeping score for their six-year-old. It is an eye-opener for them to hear that everyone in youth soccer in the USA says the same thing. When I tell them that some get it and others are still convinced they are somehow different. The only difference in American youth soccer circumstances is the size of the state and occasionally the accent. Otherwise we are all in the same youth soccer boat with similar successes and challenges.
 
We must break down the silos that we have built up around us and build one huge team that is soccer in America. It doesn't matter what your role is in the game you are part of the team. Every team member has something to contribute and every team member should be respected for their contribution. All aspects of the game are interlocked like the Olympic rings. You may be in one of the rings furthest from the opposite end, but you are still interlocked. Soccer in our nation still has many hurdles to overcome and we must not be hurdles to one another or create our own hurdles. So let's begin in 2009 to tear down the silos and build our team.
 

A Safe Bet

Susan Boyd

A Safe Bet
 
I don't usually tempt fate. I change my oil every 3,000 miles, I buy travel insurance, I never step on cracks. But sometimes fate doesn't require tempting; it just appears. Robbie had a tournament this past weekend in Las Vegas so we had to travel on Friday the 13th. When we checked into the hotel we were given rooms on the 13th floor. If I was a gambling person I probably should have bet big, but I'm not. Like I said, I don't tempt fate.

Las Vegas didn't cooperate on the weather. Even a contingent of Wisconsinites resorted to hats, gloves, and winter coats. Nevertheless it was a pleasure to finally watch the boys play outdoors for the first time in three months. Watching the players laugh, run, and jostle reminded me of young colts let out of the stable for the first time. Their energy is boundless.

Despite the fact that the tournament included only Under-15 through Under-19 boys and girls, young players crowded the sidelines and empty green spaces with impromptu play. Some of those dribbling the ball had just learned to walk, yet they showed great finesse streaking between the fields. Three of my grandchildren live in Vegas, so they came to watch. Even though they have had limited exposure to soccer, within minutes of me pulling out a size 3 ball from my bag, they were dribbling and passing like the three, five, and eight year old pros they had suddenly become. The generosity of inclusion quickly follows as other kids in the area join in. 

I don't know if my Vegas grandchildren will end up playing soccer like their uncles. But I like the fact that they find the same joy and exercise in the sport for the time being. I'm resigned that my oldest grandson in Ohio will probably be a baseball player, though there's still hope for his younger sibling who seems to love soccer.  What I do want to see happen is that all of them participate in some sport. It's unlikely that they will all end up playing through high school. Despite some natural athleticism, they also need the passion for the sport. Their passions may end up being music, or art, or science. Nevertheless, I hope they all participate in sports in their youngest years.

Watching what I call "run and screech" time with the kids, I recognize the benefits that organized sports offer. While kids can benefit from unstructured activities on occasion, they gain other significant benefits from structured exercise. Playing on a team or even doing an individual sport teaches kids the discipline of commitment, the humility of defeat, and the pride of victory. Kids learn to listen to instruction, to watch themselves improve, and to set goals for future successes. Sports provide good health. Sports also provide one outlet for parental support and praise. 

I also saw how kids' enthusiasm can be quashed quickly. Two boys about five and six were kicking around the soccer ball behind me before one of the games. The boys were inventing games to play such as "stand on the ball and pop it out" and "dribble backwards." They were definitely enjoying their unstructured "run and screech" time, when Dad intervened by insisting they play by the rules. He spent a great deal of time organizing the two of them to face one another in combat with goals laid out on the grass between chairs and coats. Like a leak in a balloon, the enthusiasm seeped out leaving two deflated young players suddenly laboring rather than cavorting. With the best of intentions parents hope for the perfection of greatness, but it's the imperfect moments that often provide the most fun and the greatest growth.  While sports can demand refinement of skills, sports for youngsters should emphasize participation, joy, and broader rewards such as good health and sportsmanship. Parents can relax knowing that their responsibility isn't to teach. They just need to provide the opportunity and cheer from the sidelines. If a sport becomes a passion, that passion grows in the child internally and can be nurtured later.

If I were a betting woman, I'd bet that most of the kids, both young and old, on those fields will never end up playing soccer past high school if even that long. I would also bet that most of the kids, if left to their own devices, will remember their soccer days fondly. The absolute benefit of youth soccer unfolds in the unbridled moments on the field when the players just enjoy one another and the play. Remembering that in any pursuit only a very few will arrive at the pinnacle of success means recognizing that for most the pursuit should be fun, low in pressure, and contribute to a player's sense of self-worth. If we melt away all the elite programs and just focus on the majority of players in youth soccer who participate because they want to be part of a team, want to taste some victory, want to have some exercise, and want to enjoy a family experience, then I bet we can all appreciate the true value of youth sports. It's a winning bet. Remember, I don't like to tempt fate.
 

A Brief Analysis

Susan Boyd

Last week I covered several of the primary opportunities in elite youth soccer which are used by National Team coaches to identify and develop players in order to make the US competitive in the world arena. Presently women enjoy great success at the highest levels of international soccer, but men falter remaining in the second tier of international play. So most newly developed identification and development programs target boys. 

The United States faces three roadblocks to success not faced by most other nations in the world. 1. Our sheer size and numbers make it difficult to create a consistent, widespread identification and development program. 
2. We don't have the broad interest and fan base which leads to the creation of numerous professional clubs which can sponsor the development of young players. 
3. NCAA rules prohibit the types of programs used in other countries throughout the world. 

Given these major roadblocks, which of the present identification and development programs best address and overcome these problems and what changes could programs implement to directly engage the problems?

US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program (US Youth Soccer ODP) provides opportunities in every state for players to participate in an identification and development program. It remains the only organization which has a program in every state. However, it has its difficulties. Most state associations attempt to hold tryouts in several areas in the state to allow players who are a great distance from major metropolitan areas the chance to tryout without traveling a great distance. In reality, the availability of large training facilities, the concentration of top coaches, and the numbers of players coming from cities means that as the program continues during the year, it becomes centered in the cities. For states with long periods of inclement weather, the absence of indoor practice facilities in rural areas makes it very difficult to conduct training for the convenience of players from those areas. In addition, because the program runs in tandem with club and high school seasons, US Youth Soccer ODP can't expect concentrated, long-term training for its selected players. Finally, as with every program, cost becomes a factor. With so many elite programs available, parents have to budget which one they select because paying for each of these programs becomes impossible even for those with strong incomes. Nevertheless, US Youth Soccer ODP remains a fairly reasonable cost and definitely an available program across the United States.

Super Y League (SYL) provides players the opportunity to train, play, and possibly be identified during the "off" season of soccer, the summer. It also provides players from more rural areas the opportunity to play with top players throughout the state during a time that travel is both safer and more convenient. Since SYL allows players from many clubs to come together and play, it does offer a venue for top competition. The main difficulty with SYL is that it only runs for the summer. Teams do try to train in the spring, but usually can't get the entire team together until after US Youth Soccer State Championships because of club commitments. The very best players usually play on a team that will compete in their State Championship, and perhaps move on to US Youth Soccer Regional and National Championship, so those players are available sporadically. Identification depends on the coaches of every team noting and selecting players from rival teams they play as well as coaches selecting their own players. Since rival coaches may only see a player in one game and since home coaches may have favorites not based on careful analysis, the selection of players for SYL National Camp doesn't always identify the best. Again, cost is a factor as is travel. SYL franchises usually go to clubs in the metropolitan areas.

US Club Soccer's id2 program and its own national championship does provide for players at U13 to attend a national camp and to experience that level of training and scrutiny. Again club coaches help in the identification of players to attend the camps. The national championship contest provides tournaments where players can be scouted, but the emphasis remains on the younger player. Cost is less of a factor since most of the program is part of a club's activities and therefore part of the original dues. National camp will have an additional expense. If players are not a member of a US Club Soccer team, then they will usually not be part of the identification process, so it has a limited scope. However US Youth Soccer ODP offers a national camp for the youngest players in US Youth Soccer ODP where players are selected in the regional camps. State teams are always double the size at the youngest ages, fielding a younger and an older team, affording more players the opportunity to attend regional camp and be identified for national camp.

The US Soccer Development Academy has sought to concentrate the qualities of the preceding programs at the club level. This program concentrates on the older youth player looking for prospects for the U-17 and up U.S. Men's National Teams and the National Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla. Encompassing 22 states and the District of Columbia and approximately 1800 players at each of the two age levels, the Academy stands as the most elite of the programs. Its purpose is to identify National Team prospects. Since the total number of players in residency maxes out at about 40-50 players, most of whom had been previously identified through US Youth Soccer ODP, it leaves little room for new additions. Therefore the program also seeks to improve on the training of players at the top level and has recently done a better job of getting them seen by college coaches. However, because of its limited national scope, joining an Academy team remains the privilege of those in metropolitan areas in a limited number of states. Most represented states have only one or two teams in the Academy with the exception of Texas and California which have their own divisions within the Academy. Travel is a huge component of the system, so it is an expensive prospect for most players. 
           
So which programs address the first problem of identifying and training top soccer players? US Youth Soccer ODP remains the only program with a set system in every state. Presently most players on the national teams and in residency have been identified through US Youth Soccer ODP, even if they are presently in other programs. Therefore it is the most accessible to the most players.

The second problem is that the US doesn't have the history or broad fan base for soccer that other world nations have. The Academy has attempted to mimic some of the international training model by having youth teams in the Academy which are sponsored and attached to MLS teams. Unfortunately with only 15 MLS teams they don't even cover 1/3 of the states. Even if you add the 11 United Soccer League 1st Division teams, it doesn't cover quite ½ of the states. With a population of 304 million, the United States has one upper-echelon professional club for every 11.6 million residents. Just as a comparison, England's Premier League has 20 clubs and its Football League Champion Division has 24 clubs. With a population of 51 million it has a professional club for nearly every 1 million residents. England has nine levels of professional soccer with nearly 200 professional or semi-professional teams which stretch over the entire country so that there is a soccer venue available for every 250,000 residents. Even with all our USL and PDL teams, we can just manage 103 professional or semi-professional teams for a total of one team for every 3 million residents. Since players are attached to an adult club team when young and developed by the team for years at no cost to the player, the system works in England because so many youth players can participate. 

This brings us to the final roadblock, the NCAA rules. In Europe and South America, youth players have an economic value for the professional teams they represent. Here in America, NCAA rules preclude a player from receiving financial benefit for their talents if they want to play college sports. Since the opportunity to be attached to a professional club still hasn't reached the level of availability in other countries and since professional positions lag far behind those of other countries, the real opportunity for most of our best soccer players to continue playing after high school remains college. For the 50 or so lucky players to be drafted into the MLS, have a position on the National Team, or be placed in residency at Bradenton, college isn't as important an avenue. But that is barely a drop in the huge reservoir of capable, excellent soccer players in America. Any system that seeks to develop players needs to recognize that the majority of elite soccer players in the US will move on to college play, not professional play. Until we have the broad numbers of teams per capita that other countries in the world harbor, we will be at a disadvantage to ask our top players to ignore college. Elite training programs in the United States need to foster the scouting opportunities for these players to be seen by college coaches. We do the youth of our country a disadvantage if we gather them all up to provide only the competition and venue for a few to be identified for national team inclusion. While we seek to be competitive in the world arena, we need to work to increase the appreciation and fever for soccer by fans, so that we can build the broad base of professional clubs needed to nurture and train our players. Once several thousand players can join training programs which provide development daily in a strongly competitive environment with top professional coaches, we will continue to lag behind those countries which have that advantage. Once players have a greater pool of opportunities to play soccer beyond high school other than at college, we will see players taking the risk to forego the college track and seek long-term, exclusive training with a professional club's youth program. 

Having said all this, we do have an advantage over many other countries, and that is our huge population and our overall love of sports. We should ultimately end up with an overabundance of top players to join the national teams. For right now, coaches have to see deep into the future with players they select at a young age to join the national teams and the residency program since the number is limited. Given how youth can evolve over the course of their growth, it's difficult to predict who will maintain their size, speed, and agility over the years. But with a giant pool of players trained 40-60 hours a week throughout the US, we can begin to locate and select players who have the experience to compete against our international rivals.