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Parents Blog

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

 

Taking a Cue

Susan Boyd

The primaries are over, the nominating conventions held their balloon drops, and we have now entered the final 100 days of our national election process. Without condoning any particular platform or agenda and without offense to the two major parties, I couldn’t help but notice that their individual slogans could apply to youth soccer. The Republicans declare that it’s time to “Make America Great Again” and the Democrats proclaim “Stronger Together.” I think parents should take some significant stock of our involvement and support of youth soccer with those slogans in mind.

Do we need to make youth soccer great again? Internationally, adult/professional soccer continues to grow stronger through increasing broadcast rights, league expansions, new stadium construction, and swelling viewership especially in North America. There have been some blips, not the least of which is the still simmering FIFA kickback scandal which has several cases pending and charges yet to be made. However, FIFA is starting to clean house, and their problems haven’t really made a dent in the popularity of soccer world-wide. Youth soccer on the other hand needs more attention. There’s no concern about popularity as soccer continues to be one of the top youth growth sports in the United States. The problem is that youth soccer’s membership is constantly changing just by definition. It only lasts a few years for participants either because they lose interest or they simply grow out of the category. Every year there is a large influx of new participants who aren’t schooled yet in the sport, and I’m talking about the parents as much as the kids. Those first years of soccer occur during a child’s significant period of not only physical, but mental, emotional, educational, and moral development as well. Unfortunately this all happens in the fish bowl of expectations, both those of a child’s parents and those of his or her teammates’ parents. These expectations can lead to some uncomfortable and unrealistic pressures during a delicate time in their maturation asking kids to perform to standards imposed on them rather than self-generated.

So I suggest we make youth soccer great again by remembering why kids play and honoring those reasons. Because youth soccer remains by definition constantly in flux, experienced parents are only separated from novice parents by a year or two. Those of us with a few years under our belt need to remember we set the example for those who follow. As we get more comfortable with the rules and sideline etiquette we may become more vocal and critical. Therefore, we need to constantly reassess how we are behaving around and towards our players. The very youngest athletes are usually wholeheartedly supported without expectation or censure. Watching five, six, and seven-year olds cavorting on the soccer pitch is pure delight because they are so joyful and free-spirited. We aren’t disturbed by “own” goals or kids running the wrong direction or the bees all swarming to the ball every chance they get. We think it’s great fun to watch these jubilant contests on a warm spring or fall afternoon. Then the kids grow up, and parents start to see potential. It might be a comment by someone on the sidelines who says, “Your daughter is really fast” or a coach who says, “He already knows how to do a slide tackle,” but it doesn’t take much for us to begin to foresee a tremendous future for our children in the sport. Add in the heightened emotional context of a World Cup or Olympics, and we begin to imagine our child’s face plastered on a Wheatie’s box and endorsing their own underwear brand. These dreams are wonderful, and if the child shares that dream then we should be supportive, but it’s a wide chasm between support and pressure that we often quickly dismiss. We lose sight of why our kids play which means we shift from cheerleader to coach far too early in their journey.

It’s important that we hold on to the reasons our kids started a sport in the first place – to have fun, to share a pastime with friends, and to get some physical activity.  For the large majority of youth players that will be their entire sports experience. They aren’t going to be the big stars, but they are going to be the big winners. They will remember their play with fondness and delight. It should be important that all kids are able to hold on to that glee as long as possible. As parents, we need to be the leaders in assuring that possibility by maintaining the role of advocate versus lecturer for as long as possible. Determined kids will pursue their passion so long as time, money, and talent hold out. However, kids could be easily discouraged from that pursuit by their parents’ attitude if it rolls over to criticism, pressure, and high expectations because they feel they can’t live up to that standard. Therefore, we can help insure that the sport always holds some measure of fun by not moving too swiftly away from glee into analysis. It’s okay just to enjoy the game without dissecting it.

Likewise we need to always be supportive and positive with our player’s teammates. All too often I hear some really ugly comments directed towards kids, and I know I have uttered them myself in times of frustration. I remember distinctly voicing “not again” when a kid performed his patented back heel pass that went errant 99% of the time. He heard me, and I saw his crestfallen face as it snapped to look at me. I was completely embarrassed that I could cause so much pain in that young man by two small words. It kept me quiet for a long time but the damage was done. I knew he would hear those words every time he attempted the move making him hesitant to even try. How would he get better if now he was so afraid of engaging any parent’s displeasure? My frustration didn’t justify stifling this kid’s efforts to develop a skill given the time to fail and learn. We forget how much power our language actually has despite the “sticks and stones” argument. Words do hurt. Words can also provoke, which is another ugliness that comes up during youth games. Something a parent says about an opposing player gets picked up by a parent from the opposing team who feels the need to defend the honor of his/her team or his/her team’s player or even his child.  This can lead to a shouting match at best and at worst to a physical battle, neither of which makes youth soccer great.

We can make youth soccer great again by also supporting the concept of development over the policy of winning. It’s true that college scouts are more likely to come to the games of the top teams in the country because they argue that they get to see more talent in one visit. Therefore, a kid playing on a weaker team may be at a disadvantage, but there are other pathways to being identified for college and pro play. One of my son Robbie’s friends is Ethan Finlay who he met through US Youth Soccer’s Olympic Development Program. Ethan lived in a small central Wisconsin community without showcase soccer teams. He got exposure through ODP and in his later high school years did travel to Milwaukee to play with the top club there. Primarily though he was identified through his ODP play. He presently plays for the Columbus Crew and is on the US Men’s National Team full roster, earning his first two caps in 2016 in Iceland and Guatemala. Ethan’s story arises when a player gets strong development as a youth player and exposure through programs like ODP, Super-Y League, and guest playing in college showcase tournaments. I shared many bus trips with Ethan’s father whose support was driving him places, cheerleading at every game, and staying incredibly positive and criticism-free. He reminded me of why youth soccer is so wonderful.

We also need to remember we are “Stronger Together.” Tearing down teammates in front of our children gives them license to disrespect them as well. Kids should be learning how to appreciate the power of a united team which is achieved through respect, compromise, trust, and friendship. Putting a wedge into that framework by us belittling or questioning a teammate can have long-term ramifications for a team and our own child’s place on that team. A group of positive parents on the sidelines will be far more motivational than a scattered group of naysayers constantly questioning plays and players out loud. We take our cue for our sideline behavior first from our own living room interaction with professional teams on the TV and from the other parents around us. For youth soccer, new parents don’t want to make any waves, so they will follow the lead of the other parents with whom they interact. We need to be good role models and abandon our anonymous criticism of players, coaches, and officials that we feel free to express in the seclusion of our homes or the open range of a professional sports contest. Kids are not professionals. They don’t have the self-confidence to withstand criticism yelled at them or the concentration to listen only to their coach. Kids want to please us, and if they perceive we aren’t happy with them, they will do whatever they can to reverse that opinion. They are with their coach a few hours a week; they have to live with their parents 24/7. We need to work in partnership with the other parents and the coach to be supportive and positive of what is happening on the field. We should be willing to rein in parents who slide into criticism, and we should be leaders when it comes to setting rules of sideline decorum.

At my grandsons’ baseball practice diamonds there are signs on every backstop reminding parents “Our kids are not professionals. They just want to have fun. Winning is great. Playing well and joyfully is better.”  I’m sure most people ultimately forget the sentiments are there, but I’ve seen parents point out the signs to other parents who are growing hyper-critical during a game. We need to be a combined force of support that relishes every game no matter the outcome and shows our appreciation for the players’ efforts. Kids need to take risks if they are ever going to improve which means they’ll make mistakes, sometimes fatal to achieving a win, but it’s all part of development. Kids will take their cues from us. We can unite to give our youth a strong supportive foundation from which to build their passion and skills.

Comments (1)

 

Weird and Wonderful

Susan Boyd

At the beginning of this summer I wrote a blog that detailed things to take on those long trips to soccer tournaments. Now with summer two-thirds over, but with the fall season games and tournaments on the horizon, I’d like to peek outside the car to highlight some of the ways to make those trips more organized, engaging, and educational. The latter becomes much more important in the fall and spring when our players may need to miss school in order to compete. It’s not always easy or even prudent to skip class for soccer, so parents feel that tension between academics and sport taking priority. We search for the rationalization to justify the absence.  Making the trip its own reason for going rather than just a means to get from A to B could not only excuse the time out of the classroom, but also make the journey more of an adventure than a chore. After all, the United States is a vast nation with ever-changing topography, cultures, and populations. One of the great advantages of being on a travel team is being given the chance to explore and experience that variety.

Organization of any trip relies heavily on locating convenient and affordable housing on the way. While I appreciate web sites such as Trivago.com, Expedia.com, Priceline.com, and Hotels.com, none of these make discovering lodging on a specific route easy. Generally they list hotels by proximity to cities and airports without regard to the interstates or geographical locations of their listings. You can get a confusing map crowded with pin drops, but you have to do some expanding to find a clear enough overview and even then these sites don’t include the filters of price, extras like breakfast, and discounts. I’ve found I-maps to be extremely helpful (www.i-maps.com/hotel-locator/). The site lets you select a state, then a city, and then click on an interactive map with filters such as deluxe and budget hotels. On the left margin is a list of nearby cities to help find some locations that might be a better fit for your route. Finally it lists discounts available and how to obtain them for the hotels on the map. Since the map uses all significant roads, it’s very clear to see what might be the best exits for you. Despite the site’s excellent price filters, I still suggest calling the hotel directly once you’ve settled on a choice. Often the manager has the power to override the web-listed rates. If you plan to book several rooms, use that as a bargaining tool, or if you plan to book the same room for your return trip. A hotel that is $10 or $20 more expensive than another but provides breakfast is actually the better bargain. Sometimes the spread includes fresh fruit, muffins, small boxes of cereal, and yogurt that you can collect for snacks on the road. Invest in a discount club such as AAA or AARP and sign up for every loyalty program. They are free and just being a member can earn you some perks even if you haven’t collected any points.

Look for bed and board together. In other words, find hotels that are nearby restaurants that are inexpensive and acceptable to kids. I’m a big fan of the all-you-can-eat establishments, especially when traveling with teenagers. Some I’ve tried are CiCi’s, Sweet Tomatoes, Souplantation, Golden Corral, Old Country Buffet, and Ryan’s Grill. They include fresh salads which are often lacking at fast food restaurants. Since the reason we end up driving to tournaments a long distance away is often so we can take a number of kids whose families can’t afford air fares, we may caravan down as a team to share expenses, and these buffets can easily accommodate large parties. Traveling by car lets you bring along a cooler so you can make lunches on the way and during the tournament. Kids can get pretty tired of PB and J or cold cuts. To spice up the menu I turn to a great recipe web site Weelicious to find some tasty yet unusual snacks. I love this site because it separates recipes by infant, toddler, child, and teen and you can also add filters such as allergen-free recipes or specific types of foods like snacks (weelicious.com/category/snack-treats/). Some choices may be too bizarre. For example I doubt I could ever get my kids to eat beet chips even if I labeled the deep crimson snacks “Red Velvet Delights,” but there are several varieties of Rice Krispy bars and high protein muffins that aren’t dense and hard to swallow. Looking through the choices should give you plenty of options when stocking up the minivan larder.

Once you have room, board, and “in-flight” snacks arranged, you are free to discover what attractions can be found along your route. I classify these as scenic, historic, institutions, and roadside wonders. I just returned from ten days in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, which reminded me of how much spectacular, untouched beauty there is in America. Although it’s unlikely that any route to a tournament would travel through or even near these National Parks, there are plenty of smaller, accessible parks all over the United States. Even if you don’t go hiking or spend a day exploring, you can still stare at wonder for a few minutes at Devil’s Tower and Mt. Rushmore or travel along the Natchez Trace Parkway. An annual National Park Service (NPS) pass is $80 and allows the owner of the pass and all the passengers in the car admittance to any NPS property of which there are 401. Seniors can get a lifetime pass for $10 and 4th graders are eligible for a one-year pass for free. You can buy these online (www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/passes.htm) as well as plan your trips at the NPS web site (https://www.nps.gov/index.htm). The NPS oversees not just vast open lands but historical memorials, parkways, battlefields, and scenic rivers and lakeshores. Many of these locations include scenic overviews that are simple turn-offs from major roadways. Therefore, they easily included in any travel itinerary in the area. They also include some surprising options such as the National Mall in D.C.

Historical landmarks can be a great place to stop for lunch and share some of the narration of our nation’s founding and growth. Collecting many, if not all the sites is Wikipedia that includes an interactive map (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._National_Historic_Landmarks_by_state). Look for interesting and convenient stops along the road. You don’t need to spend a lot of time, and if you combine the stops with lunch or a bathroom break you won’t be extending the travel time by much. You could also take in a few museums either at an overnight stop or at your final destination. One of our favorite is the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis, a city at the crossroads of the highways many of you will travel this year to tournaments. Again Wikipedia gives a great catalog of these citing that there are over 35,000 museums in the United States and using a list of states with two methods for tracking down museums in those states (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_museums_in_the_United_States). Often your local zoo and/or public museum will have reciprocating programs with institutions around the States. So supporting your local associations can also reap the benefit of not having to pay entrance fees across the U.S. Spending a day at the zoo, can be a great way to relax between matches (www.officialusa.com/stateguides/zoos/) especially if you have younger siblings along who might need the opportunity to run around while visiting some exotic creatures. Many of these memorials, museums, and zoos run educational programs in which the family can participate – another way to solve the missing school dilemma.

Finally there are those amazing roadside attractions that can make every trip especially memorable. These are things like the chicken who plays tic-tac-toe and the giant concrete elephant. They are rarely enlightening or historical; they offer little in the way of education, but they do bring a sense of wonder and delight.  Doug Kirby, Ken Smith, and Mike Wilkins have spent the last 20 years scouring the U.S. for these off-beat and endearing attractions (www.roadsideamerica.com/). They update their web site daily, so check back often to see what has been added. They try to keep up to date on operating hours, entrance fees, and restrictions, but they carry a disclaimer that their information may not be current. It’s best to call to be sure. That actually would hold true for any of the things you decide to visit. A quick call while on the road to be sure that a park, museum, or attraction isn’t closed due to a special event or construction would be smart. Also check if you get a discount on admission if you buy the tickets early online. I got tickets for an event with the grandkids in Salt Lake City while I was waiting in Minneapolis for my connecting flight. Technology can make things go even smoother and be less costly.

Now you’ve got a route planned, you’ve packed in several historical and hysterical highlights, and you’re feeling a bit better about taking the kids out of school. However I’d like to suggest one additional step that will make teachers appreciate your kids upon their return: have the kids keep a travel diary. This doesn’t need to be elaborate or lengthy, but should be done as contemporaneously as possible to the sites you visit. Just get a regular notebook and ask the kids to write down their reactions to what they saw and did, not just a straight narrative. Along with saying “I went to Fort Sumter,” also write how they responded to what they saw such as “At Fort Sumter the cannons were in dark holes in the walls. Lizards and spiders were crawling all over, so it was really creepy. I don’t think I would like to have lived like that. Those soldiers were brave to endure both being shot at and lots of creepy crawlers.” Let the kids choose one or two postcards from each location that they feel demonstrate what they were most impressed with and tape those in the notebook along with their comments. If they learn anything of particular note historically about the locations they should include that as well. You can even create a themed trip (forts, waterfalls, or historic homes) or you can make it just a hodgepodge of experiences. It really doesn’t matter. What’s important is that the family has the opportunity to share in discovering all that is weird and wonderful about America.

 

P.S. Opening ceremony Friday August 5th for the Olympics, but soccer begins August 3rd!

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Raise the Curtain

Susan Boyd

In just a few days Rio de Janeiro will hold the opening ceremony for the 2016 Summer Olympics.  The city, which once evoked as “tall and tan and young and handsome” and bathers on sun-drenched beaches and dazzling Mardi Gras celebrations, has of late been portrayed less favorably.  There are stories centered around body parts washed up near the beach volleyball venue, police warning tourists that they will not be protected, the threat of the Zika virus, rampant pollution so bad that venues for rowers, long distances swimmers and sailors have installed showers onsite to immediately cleanse the participants of all bacteria and toxins as soon as possible, and panic that several complexes will not be completed in time.  This all is playing out against the backdrop of extreme political unrest and a severe economic crisis.  It’s no wonder that several American athletes have opted out of this Olympics.  Nevertheless, NBC, which owns the broadcast rights, has remained upbeat, counting down to August 5th with interviews and human interest stories of athletes, occasional on location reporting, and constant messages flashed at the bottom of their programming. 

I choose to stay positive and, along with many others, am looking forward to these amazing two weeks, especially for the soccer.  Although the US men didn’t qualify, there will be plenty of great men’s soccer to watch.  We can also cheer on the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) while watching some high caliber female soccer players from around the world.   The USWNT will play against New Zealand, France, and Colombia.  Matches for men and women begin August 3rd and 4th, with the USWNT playing New Zealand on August 3rd at 6 p.m. EDT on NBCSN.  The USWNT roster has several well-known members fans will remember from the 2015 World Cup team including Hope Solo, Ali Krieger, Alex Morgan, and Carli Lloyd (ussoccer.com/stories/2016/07/12/15/35/160712-wnt-jill-ellis-names-2016-us-olympic-womens-soccer-team).  The entire men’s and women’s tournament schedule can be downloaded at resources.fifa.com/mm/document/tournament/competition/02/73/19/20/olympicgames_rio_matchschedulemix_fifa_02052016_neutral.pdf and the TV schedule for all the Olympic events can be seen at nbcolympics.com/live-stream-schedule.    

I remain hopeful that these Games will be as powerful as ever because the Olympics are inspirational for young athletes.  Watching competitors who have achieved the highest level in their chosen sport gives these kids something to strive towards.  More importantly, kids can observe techniques, preparation and skills that these premier athletes exhibit, which the youngsters can emulate.  Kids can stretch the boundaries of their experience by watching athletes from all over the world while understanding that as great as the United States is in sports, we are not the only country in the world with the best of the best competing.  Hopefully, despite the overall negative atmosphere of the Olympics, kids will be able to see and learn about the country of Brazil along with video postcards of other competing nations.  Additionally, our children will be watching sports that aren’t big fan favorites in the United States, but have huge followings elsewhere around the globe such as rugby, cycling, table tennis, archery, and water polo.  Perhaps they will be inspired to seek out one of these lesser known yet well-appreciated sports to pursue for themselves.  Athletes need a sport that fits them, rather than trying to make themselves fit a sport.  There are plenty of athletic kids who aren’t fast or strong, but have steadiness or quickness that would make them right for archery or table tennis.  We don’t want to limit them to the four or five top sports played in the US.  There are 32 sports represented at the Olympics but even these don’t include several significant sports such as cricket, baseball, and walking.   That makes options for our children nearly limitless.

Generally following the Olympics there is a bump in girls who sign up for gymnastics and kids who clamor to dive.  Using the Olympics to judge our own kids’ interest in sports can be very important.  Many children are reticent to try a sport because they don’t see themselves in the athletes of sports like soccer, football, and basketball.  Short girls will suddenly realize that their statue is valued in gymnastics, boys without speed will be delighted watching the moves of Taekwando and Judo athletes, and kids who love the water but aren’t the best swimmers may be excited by the prospect of diving.  When our children show enthusiasm for a sport we need to jump on that interest to provide training opportunities.  Many sports have state youth associations that are listed I would say in the phone book, but in truth we now find them with search engines.  Likewise all sports have some type of governing organization which would be happy to steer us parents to coaches, teams, and clubs nearby where our children could participate in a sport.  After an Olympics both of my daughters fell in love with the equestrian events.  This is a sport that requires top dollar to pursue, but luckily we were living in Europe at the time where there is training for novices for a reasonable cost.  The girls even got a week of training from the top equestrian rider in Ireland at the time for a mere $10 an hour.  Amazing when training in the US can cost thousands.  By the time we returned to live in the US, the girls’ interests had shifted to dance and swimming, so I didn’t have to face the question of “what are we going to do now?”  However, I have since learned that there are affordable riding academies in many communities which can get kids started in the sport.  So I would say that whatever sport sparks their interest during the Olympics is a sport we can provide for our kids.

I’m hoping that all the horribleness we’ve been warned about in these weeks preceding the Olympics don’t come true.  I love the opportunity every four years to get a peek into sports I often forget about or just haven’t had any contact with.  I don’t know the names of stars in most of the events, but that doesn’t keep me from enjoying watching them.  I’m amazed at the level of ability and for the most part humility that these competitors exhibit.  I watch my kids and grandkids play sports, and naturally I think they are remarkable, but then I watch these super humans for two weeks and realize how far beyond most of us they fly.  That’s good for all of us to experience.  We parents need to accept that most of our kids will never compete at that level, but they can have a great sense of accomplishment, a world of fun, and develop life-long friendships, not to mention learning perseverance, team work, and setting goals.  It’s good for our kids to see top athletes because they understand the work that lies ahead of them and the skills they need to hone.  Robbie and Bryce would see a player execute a complicated step over move, which they would then go out in the courtyard and practice repeatedly until they had mastered it to their satisfaction.  Seeing how good they could become motivates our kids to try to get there.  The Olympics only come every four years, so we need to seize the chance to watch these athletes with our kids because in another four years our children may no longer be actual children and at the least will be far older and possibly past the time to begin a new sport.  Therefore I hope that at the very least you’ll watch the soccer and at best you’ll look in on some of the less glamorous sports to get a taste of what’s out there.

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Youth Tryouts

Sam Snow

Hello Sam,

We are approaching the time of year again, I was wondering as to your thoughts on running tryouts? In the past we have run 2 hour sessions over 2 days with the majority of the tryout being drill based. As I am sure you can guess some players look totally competent in the drill, but seem to struggle in game formats. I am a believer that if the player can show their ability during a drill it is at least a base to build on. However, a lot of the coaches in my club want success by winning so they only want the best players, we have a relatively small club and sometimes there are not enough players to make a second tier team so it’s only the best players or the ones the coaches see as the fastest or most athletic that make it. I feel we lose a few technically gifted players each year because of this. I am the club trainer and only advise the coaches who have the last say on who makes it and who doesn't. I was hoping you may be able to suggest a more appropriate format with the right balance of small sided games and drills. Is it better to focus on more game related activities or should we be running the regular unopposed drills to see how the players look without pressure? And how much should we balance the two?


Hello Coach,

I want to be clear from the outset that all soccer clubs must look for players with a good soccer brain first and foremost. Athletic ability is indeed important, but it comes in fourth after that good soccer decision making brain, quality ball skills, a good soccer personality and then athleticism.

In general I believe that try-outs should not begin until the U13 age group. That’s the broad statement, meant for player retention in soccer and the overall health of our sport. Now once we get into holding tryouts much depends on the level of play. So a player trying out in the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program will be expected to have good ball skills so we jump straight to match related activities after a warm-up. So no drills are done with this caliber of player.

At a less talented level of play some drills may be in order to assess technique in an isolated situation. However this is more of a need for coaches who have difficulty assessing talent in game-like situations. So the use of drills tends to be used by inexperienced and/or less knowledgeable coaches.

The more talented coach will use games-based activities to evaluate players since the quality of the players’ performance in all four components of the game will show up in those situations. So from small-sided activities like 2v2 to uneven number games, 5v3 for example, to a full match an experienced coach can fully assess players’ capabilities.

In regard to the evaluation of athletic ability the more scientific the measurements the better the data will be. This is a realm where the facts speak for themselves and no subjective evaluation is necessary. Use standard fitness tests but ones that are age appropriate. For example the Beep Test should be done with players 16 or older only.

Whenever I evaluate players I have a short checklist in mind, but it is one that is prioritized.

1.            Technical speed and consistency

2.            Decision making (tactical awareness)

3.            Attitude/personality

4.            Athletic ability

Then within each of those components I will look at further details but much of that will depend on the age group and level of play. Certainly I will assess an 18-year-old player harder than a 13-year-old on tactical decisions made in the course of a match.

Match Play

Things to consider

  • range of technique
  • quality of opposition
  • understanding of role
  • quality of decisions
  • assertiveness / imposing themselves on the game
  • leadership / role model
  • ongoing assessment (over multiple matches)
     

In the end the most important factor in player evaluation is the trained eye of the evaluator.

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