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Parents Blog

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


Mascot Love

Susan Boyd

In exciting news for soccer fans all over the United States, the second tier professional United Soccer League is aggressively expanding, pledging to add a total of five more teams in 2014 and then adding another half dozen over the next three years. The North American Soccer League also has expansion plans and third tier Premier Development League has moved into smaller markets, making professional soccer even more accessible. The opportunities for families and especially youth players to be within easy distance of professional teams are rapidly becoming as good as Europe and South America. That exposure will help kids observe and rub elbows with a higher level of soccer that will also amp up their own game. Even more exciting, David Beckham announced that he will be bringing an MLS team to Miami. He has already lined up private funding for building a stadium, considered the most important first step in acquiring an MLS franchise. However, I would argue that an even more significant first step must be taken by all these expansion teams — the selection of a nickname and appropriate mascot.              

We are mascot crazy in America. We identify with our sports organizations through their nicknames and mascots, sometimes even more prominently than through their actual names. Teams nurture their mascots as significant branding using them both at the games and at promotional appearances. Kids love to high-five, hug, and occasionally punch their favorite mascot, clamoring to get close to their beloved critters for a picture. Amazingly, many English, Brazilian, German and Italian teams have mascots that never really see the light of day. We don’t identify mascots with our favorite EPL teams. No one cheers Arsenal’s Gunnersaurus Rex running on the field, his spiky tail flickering in the bright lights as he urges the crowd into a frenzy. Sadly, as the number of teams increase, the field of possible mascot candidates narrows.              

Beckham conceded that he and his investors still haven’t come up with a name for their proposed team, although he confirmed it wouldn’t be “Goldenballs FC” after his own famous nickname. In America the team name is important not only to establish the identity of the franchise but to determine the mascot to promote the brand going forward. People need to know what stuffed animal they will be buying their kids, what image will be emblazoned across their T-shirts, what loveable character will be making trick shots during half-time, and how they should be informally addressing their team. We depend on our mascots to serve as the intermediary between the team and ourselves. If we can’t have a picture with Clint Dempsey, then we settle for a picture with Gorilla F.C., the mascot of the Seattle Sounders (yes a gorilla is the mascot of a Pacific Northwest team on the shores of Puget Sound not in the mountains of Rwanda – go figure).              

Seattle demonstrates how difficult it is to locate and select a mascot that makes sense. How did the entire culture of mascots begin? We actually have the French to blame even though America has embraced mascots with far more vigor than any other country. Edmond Audran wrote an opera in 1885, “La Mascotte” with libretto by Alfred Duru and Henri Charles Chivot. La Mascotte translates as good luck charm, and the tale was about a girl who brought fortune to all who came in contact with her. So the purpose of a mascot was to bring good luck. The first serious mascot in America was for the Chicago Cubs and was an inanimate taxidermy bear cub introduced in 1908. Early mascots were all “live” creatures (either caged or stuffed), but eventually they morphed into costumed mascots whose actors must remain anonymous and be mute for some reason. Many teams have had nicknames predating mascots, which did not lend themselves to physical characters, for example Alabama’s Crimson Tide and Indiana University’s Hoosiers. Alabama opted for “Big Al” an elephant, because as we all know, elephants are indigenous to Alabama. Indiana tried out a bulldog named Ox, a bison (not named Bulldog), and “Hoosier Pride” for a short period of time and then just gave up and, gasp, has no mascot. By the way, their school colors are white and crimson, so maybe crimson is a mascot curse. However, most schools with non-mascot evoking names have mascots. For example, Brooklyn College, known as the Bridges, has a bulldog, and Knox College, nickname The Prairie Fire, has a mascot called The Prairie Fire. I’m not sure what it looks like but I’m hoping it’s not a stunt person set ablaze right before the start of a game.             

Knox College points out another difficulty with creating nicknames and mascots. In the past, no one thought anything of naming a team after Native American icons such as Seminoles, Braves and Redskins. Knox used to be known as Siwash, a name referring to certain tribes in the Pacific Northwest, even though the college is in Illinios. However, its French roots (those pesky French again) mean savage, so it became offensive. In 1993, the name was dropped in favor of “The Prairie Fire.” The controversy over names considered racially inflammatory has created serious clashes between fans, owners and the general public. These battles clearly indicate the level at which nicknames and mascots drive team loyalty. Marquette University dropped their Warriors affiliation in 1994 because it was considered to be disrespectful to Native Americans and opted for The Golden Eagles. However, 20 years later there is still a prominent and vocal group who want to return to the Warrior nickname and mascot, circulating petitions and appealing to the university Board of Trustees to approve the change. We have recently seen a tremendous backlash against the Washington Redskins with many sports reporters refusing to use the nickname in their writing, while the Washington front office refuses to consider a name change. Those who defend the names argue that they are honoring Native Americans and their proud history of strength and endurance, while distractors point out the stereotypical behaviors associated with these names such as the Braves’ “Tomahawk Chop,” which have no basis in ethnic traditions. These mascot battles will carry on even if all teams remove their Native American components as evidenced by long standing battles over previous changes.              

With the Olympics in full swing, we are introduced to the mascots of the games. This tradition began with the introduction of mascots at the 1968 Winter Olympics in (wait for it) Grenoble, France. Now we are occasionally confronted with up to five mascots (China Summer Olympics 2008), made all the more confusing with names in the sponsoring nation’s language. The Olympics provide the only significantly recognizable non-American mascots, whose primary purpose is to sell merchandise and create a “cute” visual to promote the games. This policy has backfired several times. Fatso the Fat-Arsed Wombat during the Australian 2000 Summer Olympics was meant as joke and protest against all Olympic mascots yet ended up becoming more popular than Syd, Olly and Millie, the official mascots. People agreed that Nevi and Glitz for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy were just plain creepy as a human snowball and ice cube. 

Mascots can be so tricky. Just as some children have faces only a mother could love, mascots have constructions only a fan could appreciate. Stanford’s “Tree” looks like Tannebaum on drugs. I recently learned that the costume is homemade by a Stanford Pep Band member, so that may explain its disturbing appearance. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers have “Big Red” as their mascot, which appears to be a giant, gelatinous felt blob. This shapeless mass has a “head” demarked from his “body” by a black swash of a mouth extending clear around what would most likely be his neck. If I were under the age of 12, I wouldn’t want to get within 50 feet of this creature, much less pose for a picture with it. The Texas Christian University Horned Frogs mascot is a mix between the Teenage Ninja Turtles and “Child’s Play” villain doll, Chucky, complete with demonic grin. I’m sure I’m offending the fans of these teams, but if they could look objectively at their mascots I think they would have to agree with me.            

Our family has strongly supported the University of Oregon with its engaging “Donald Duck” mascot. Up the road is Oregon State’s Benny Beaver, a bit less cuddly and the focus of any number of cheap jokes. But out there are worse mascots like a slug, a parrot, a shock of wheat, an artichoke, a spider and a hockey puck. As schools, professional teams, Olympic committees and club teams scramble to find distinctive and appealing mascots, the pool dwindles. It will be interesting to see how David Beckham decides to brand his new MLS team. He may hold a contest to find an appropriate nickname and mascot. I would like to humbly suggest that he stay away from some possibilities: The Daunting Dugongs, South Beach Southies, Flaming Flamingoes, Miami Sunstrokes, Reef Rowdies and Everglade Gladiators. The power of a good nickname and mascot to accompany that name can make or break a franchise. So avoid anything blobby, slimy and/or creepy.

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Hail Mary

Susan Boyd

When I begin to lose faith in youth sports witnessing the absurd competiveness, the overbearing parents, the “professional” emphasis that singles out better players at the expense of others, and the lack of joy in play, I wonder if we can ever find that core experience that translates into fun for all young players. Then a story crops up that renews my faith in the real reasons we play and support youth sports. Last month, an amazing feat was achieved by a high school basketball player in North Carolina, but that wasn’t the complete story. In a richly nuanced and powerfully emotional chain of events, a boy and his team made a strong statement about the power of youth sports to change lives without any of the trappings of ambition, self-promotion and parental intervention.             

Josh Thompson, the coach of Bishop McGuinness Catholic High School in North Carolina, decided to have a “Dedication Game” as they met their rival Mount Airy. He brought an old basketball to a practice and asked his boys to write on the ball the name of someone they wanted to dedicate the game to. Most boys chose a parent, grandparent or another significant adult in their life, like a teacher or clergy. However, Spencer Wilson knew immediately who he would write on the ball, his friend Josh Rominger. Josh wasn’t a teammate or even a classmate. Spencer had met him while undergoing treatment for a rare form of tissue cancer called Rhabdomyosarcoma. Spencer had beat the cancer once, but it came back requiring him to have leg surgery when he was 13. Despite weakness, immune problems, and damaged leg muscles, he persevered at basketball, his refuge from the pain, nausea and often hopelessness of his disease. When the cancer returned he was told he had less than a 7 percent chance of survival beyond six months. Then an experimental treatment became available at the National Institute of Health, and Spencer was approved for a trial. In 2011, his cancer went back into remission and his strength and health returned to its pre-cancer levels. His friend Josh was not so fortunate. He passed away from his cancer last year.          

Once Spencer wrote Josh’s name on the ball, he said he felt a burst of strength and optimism. Throughout the nail-biter game, he would touch the ball during each time out and get a new surge of power. He said he felt that Josh was there with him, urging him on. The game eventually wound down to the final seconds with Mount Airy ahead by one and at the free throw line. With only two seconds left in the game and no time outs, Mount Airy missed the free throw. Spencer’s teammate got the rebound and passed it to him at the top of the key. Spencer dribbled once and then heaved the ball 50 feet toward the basket as the clock ticked down. The buzzer went off just as his shot fell through the net, giving Bishop McGuinness three points and the win. Spencer couldn’t believe what he had just accomplished. “It was a dream.”            

Before the game, Spencer wrote a letter to Josh’s mom in which he said, “His joy illuminated the room, and it was always apparent to me that he was special. Just wanted to let you know the impact your son has on my life still to this day. I will never forget him. Play for Josh." Spencer’s coach stated, “It was one of those surreal moments where you know you were part of something bigger than yourself.” These two statements exemplify the best of youth sports. The game was about playing not only for the team, the school and the win, it was also about understanding that no one is more important than the sport. When Spencer played for his friend, he did so without any expectation of glory for himself. He wanted to highlight Josh, and even when the shot went in, his first thoughts were for the role his friend played in the win. Spencer’s parents also had no expectations. His mom stated how difficult it was to watch her son struggle through 15 rounds of chemotherapy and two battles with cancer with little hope of survival. She and Spencer’s father were just grateful that the coach made allowances for Spencer’s treatments and his limitations, keeping him on the squad so he could continue enjoying the sport that sustained him through his agonies. While his shot would certainly make any high school player proud to put on his or her highlights tape, Spencer isn’t looking to cash in on his success. He just wants people to remember his friend. As he put it a week after the game, “Today is Josh’s birthday. He would have been 19 years old. I think of him every day.”            

This message of both hope and dedication enrich the experience of youth sports for all of us. It reminds us that playing a sport isn’t about getting a college scholarship or a professional contract. Those are achievements which may or may not come. Instead we need to live in the here and now, enjoying the  moments of play that occur daily without having to apply each event to some unrealized ambition. Today my granddaughters ran to raise money for their school. They were asked to get pledges for up to 36 laps around the track. My youngest granddaughter just ran her laps and my daughter texted me as she completed 26 still going strong. Eventually she ran all 36 laps plus four more. The event had no winners or losers because it wasn’t really a race other than the runners competing  against their own drive. But in completing the 40 laps, I couldn’t help but think of my granddaughter as a winner for persevering without any reward other than a pat on the back. I wished I could be there to give her a big hug for her day. It’s difficult to remember that youth sports can exist solely for the enjoyment and physical training of our kids. We don’t need any other agenda for them to achieve. We forget that because we are constantly bombarded with stories about 8-year-olds being signed to European soccer contracts and 16-year-olds skipping high school and college to play pro. We are so driven for our children to be the LeBron James of their generation that we forget there is only one of him and there are millions of young players. Having a dream isn’t bad, but sacrificing the fun of childhood in the pursuit of that dream steals from our players and us the opportunity just to luxuriate in the moment.             

My hope is that Spencer’s and Josh’s story will inspire all of us to play selflessly for the joy of the sport. If we can honor the contribution of friends, parents, coaches and families along the way, that would be wonderful. Learning to be part of “something bigger” teaches our children humility and perspective. We would all do well to develop the vision. It is difficult to remember that this is a planet of 6 billion, so the chances of our child being the best and brightest in a sport isn’t even as good as the odds of winning the Powerball. But the odds of our kids having great memories of a childhood well-spent are in our favor if we can remember to provide them love, praise and joy. We always hope that we’ll be the parents of that special one. The irony is that each of us already is the parent of a special child. If that exceptionalness translates into someone as strong and capable as Spencer Wilson and Josh Rominger, then I would say we’ve hit the jackpot.

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Consistent Performance

Sam Snow

"My son plays soccer well, when he wants to. The issue is that he is like a roller coaster and has great days, and lackluster days. How do I get more of the great days out of him?"  - Soccer Dad

Consistent match performance is a never-ending effort for players. One can watch a professional team and see dips and rises in the performance of highly talented players. This ‘ebb and flow’ of performance is a natural human characteristic. One must also consider the age and soccer experience of a player. The younger and/or the less experienced player will naturally have more obvious peaks and valleys in game day performance. Research in expert performance, in a variety of fields of endeavor, shows that it takes about 10,000 hours of training and playing to become an expert performer. The clock on the 10,000 hours toward expert performance starts ticking once a basic foundation is laid. That foundation is laid in the U6 to the U12 age groups (Zone 1 of the U.S. Soccer player development pyramid). The expert performance time line begins roughly at the U13 age group; so 10,000 hours is about 10 years of training and playing on a very consistent basis every week. This means a soccer player begins to achieve expert performance in their twenties.

Working toward consistent performance requires a player to go through trial and error as a part of the development process. To an extent ignore poor performance, but praise good performance. This is the behavior we want a player to repeat. Ask the player to replay a good move or a good training session or a good match over again in their head. This will help them imprint the performance in their mind. There is now a chance of it occurring again.

To achieve consistent performance a player must be self-motivated.  Only intrinsic motivation leads to expert abilities!

A soccer club can help establish the right environment for peak performance by continually educating the coaches, administrators and players’ parents on a proper developmental soccer culture, by providing free play (pickup game) opportunities at the club, by hosting skills school evenings, by playing small-sided games, etc.

A parent can help guide a player toward peak performance by teaching and modeling best off-the-field practices; i.e., good eating habits, proper sleep routines, deep hydration habits, personal exercise routines, etc. The parent can encourage the child to practice soccer skills at home. Parents and/or siblings can get out in the yard and play soccer with one another to deepen the passion for the game. Encourage the player to watch soccer on TV and to attend high level soccer matches in person.

But the most important motivating factor for parent to child is for the parent to let the child know that you love watching them play soccer.

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The Coachable Moment

Sam Snow

The questions that I receive from coaches across our nation provide good thoughts for us on the game.  Here are the comments and questions from a volunteer coach and my thoughts in reply.

I am a volunteer coach in a league coaching kids from U7 to U11. I have taken several coaching classes run by my state youth soccer coaching association. These classes have been very useful, but I continue to struggle with identifying the right coaching moments. I want the kids to be able to play as much as possible, but I also recognize that just choosing the right drills is not enough. I have a few questions.

How do I work on choosing the right coaching moments to interrupt? I don't want to interrupt the flow too often, but I often feel like I have spent too much time talking. How do I work on seeing the bigger picture? I often find myself focusing on the ball and fixing the issues around the ball while missing the problems further away that may have caused them.

My reply:

Finding the right coaching moment is an art. A coach will perfect that art when one reflects on each training session and thinks about those coachable moments and how did you interject with the players. With practice and personal evaluation, your skills at using the coachable moment will improve. I also suggest that you follow the steps outlined in the Coach’s Toolkit from U.S. Soccer.  The excerpt below comes from the US Youth Soccer Player Development Model.

When using a games-based approach during training much can be accomplished, through the use of guided discovery and the coach’s toolkit. The toolkit is a vehicle that allows coaches to teach, correct and influence the learning process of a player without taking away their creativity and killing the flow of the game or activity. The following are tools that can be used to progress from individual to group to team interaction:

  • Coaching in the flow – Coach from the sidelines as the training session goes on, without stopping the activity.
  • Individual coaching – One-on-one, pull a player to the side while the activity goes on.
  • Make corrections at a natural stoppage – Free kicks, ball going out of bounds, injury, etc.
  • Manipulation of the activity – For example, a four goal game to teach the players how to look both ways, switch the point of attack or shift defensively.
  • Freeze – The least desired way to teach; stopping the session to paint a picture kills the flow of the activity.

Determining which of these tools is best suited at a certain time of the training session is the key to making the session enjoyable while still being able to teach and learn.

Your issue on focusing most of your coaching to what is happening on or near the ball is not uncommon. You simply need to force yourself to watch the off-the-ball players during a training session. I often tell coaches that if you want to know what a player knows tactically about the game then watch them when they do not have the ball. Where are they positioned on the field? What’s their posture? Does their head move (indicates them scanning the field or ball watching)? You’ll need to also look away from the ball during matches in order to see if the team is staying compact and if the players are reading the game. You need to understand that you cannot watch the game or even a training session as a spectator would. You’ll simply miss too much of what is going on.  You will have a big impact on the players’ performance on and near the ball when you start to coach them off-the-ball.

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