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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". 

 

Head Bangers

Susan Boyd

An explosive book was published last month that exposes the concussion crisis in the NFL. "League of Denial" by two brothers, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, who are reporters for ESPN, takes a critical look at how the NFL ignored for decades the long-term debilitating effects of concussion on thousands of players. They use statistics, interviews, anecdotal stories of particular players, and a review of hundreds of documents referring to the effects of concussion leading to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The leading expert on the subject is Ann McKee, who in 2012 examined the brains of 34 former NFL players discovering 33 showed evidence of CTE. As she put it, when questioned on the extent of the problem, "I don’t think everyone has it, but it’s going to be a shockingly high percentage." Her assessment is borne out by a study of high school athletes in the 2008-2009 academic year by Meehan, d’Hemecourt and Comstock in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. They looked at 544 athletes in various sports, both men and women. Of the players they examined in each of nine sports, they discovered that 56.8 percent of football players had suffered a documented concussion. The next highest percentage was surprisingly girls soccer with 11.6 percent compared to boys soccer with 6.6 percent. Wrestling and girls basketball follow with 7.4 percent and 7 percent, respectively. Girls do suffer more concussions and have a longer recovery time, which has been largely ignored in the discussions about head injuries. Most news stories focus on injuries to boys and men, but the statistics show that we should be closely monitoring females. A 2008 study by Northwestern University showed that 29,167 girls compared to 20,929 boys had concussions in 2005. Given that more boys participate in high school sports than girls and given that boys play football, having the highest percentage of concussion per player population, we should be not only cautiously aware, but seriously attend to the condition in women.
               
Dr. Ann McKee figures prominently in another book by Robert Cantu, M.D. and Mark Hyman, "Concussions and Our Kids," which, as the title implies, explores the causes, effects, recovery and prevention of concussions in youth athletes. Dr. Cantu is one of the founders of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at Boston University. Dr. McKee performed studies on the brains of scores of athletes who had died either unexpectedly or from self-inflicted wounds finding widespread abnormalities in those brains. Dr. McKee takes the view that, "We need to do something now, this minute. Too many kids are at risk." Of course, she sees the worst case scenarios, athletes who suffered from CTE, most of them competing at the professional level with intense practices, games and training. However, Dr. Cantu sees mostly young people in his practice who have their routines and dreams shattered by the effects of a concussion. Mark Fainaru-Wada in an interview on "The Daily Show" admitted that he loved the game of football and "its violence" even as he had studied the widespread incidents and after-effects of concussions in those players. As he put it, "They are adult players who now willingly understand and take the risks, so there is no reason for fans to feel guilty." What he neglects to understand is that in order to get to the level of NFL membership, players have to come up through the ranks beginning with youth football, where the risk for concussion is just as great and where the players are too young to make informed decisions on their participation. Where will the new generation of tough NFL players come from if not from the networks of youth, high school and college teams? Parents have the primary responsibility to decide which sports their kids will play, how intensely and for how long.
               
Recently our local NBC affiliate went around to various football games to interview parents after a particularly devastating study on concussion was published. Sticking microphones in front of these parents during games, the reporters asked, "Knowing how serious concussions can be, why do you let your son play football?" Naturally, the responses all tended to the defensive since their parenting had been directly challenged publicly. I wish the reporters had asked instead, "Does your school have a concussion policy?" or "Has your child ever suffered a concussion and how did you handle it?" Obviously, most parents are aware of the possibility of brain injuries in sports, but many may not be aware of the symptoms and proper treatment of these injuries. The choice to allow our kids to play sports, especially sports with a high degree of concussion consequences, can’t be totally dictated by the possibility of any injury. If it was, no one would play. The more responsible approach will be to educate ourselves on how to recognize and treat these injuries. 
               
Concussions can occur without any head-to-head contact, but those types of concussions usually result in the most severe and long-lasting effects. Concussions can happen with any type of jolt to the brain stem or brain itself that could be due to things such as a jarring leap to the ground, whiplash, sudden twist of the neck or shaking of the brain. There are four main categories of symptoms:
 
o   Cognitive: Feeling in a fog, difficulty in remembering things, poor concentration
o   Emotional: Nervousness, irritability, sadness to the point of depression including thoughts of suicide
o   Sleep Disorders: Trouble falling asleep and sleeping more or less than usual
o   Somatic: Headaches, nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and noise, dizzy spells, problems with balance, visual problems
 
The latter are the symptoms most commonly associated with a concussion and are the usual immediate signs, but just because these pass doesn’t mean that the concussion wasn’t severe or is "over." Most effects of a concussion can last for days, weeks and even longer. The standard recovery period is 7-10 days of rest from all activities including diminished academic participation. We rest the body, but really it is the brain we need to rest. We need to remove as much stimulus to the brain as possible in order to give it time to heal. This is the element few doctors, coaches and parents consider. However, Dr. Cantu states that this could be the most important aspect of avoiding the long-term effects of a concussion, including CTE. We parents need to be aware of and address all the symptoms.
               
We also can’t assume that a "real" concussion requires that a player be unconscious for a period of time. Going out cold is definitely a serious condition and can be a clear signal that we need to be diligent in treatment. However, many concussions don’t result in a black out, which is why so many go unreported. Therefore we have to look at other symptoms. Athletic trainers and coaches need to be well-versed in how to assess concussive episodes. Many organizations provide laminated cards with key points and questions for detecting concussions. The most comprehensive test has been endorsed by several sports organizations, including FIFA. Called the Sports Concussion Assessment Test 2 (SCAT2), it seems overwhelming but is exactly what coaches and trainers should be administering on the sidelines. The test gives scores that help assessors detail in a more objective manner what used to be done totally subjectively. Many evaluators have expressed amazement at how detailed the assessment is and how it quickly pinpoints serious conditions that would have been previously overlooked. Parents should ask their clubs to print this off and have it kept on the sidelines in the coach’s bag for every practice and game. Most importantly, adults need to err to the side of caution until a child can be assessed by a doctor. That means no reentry to a game with even the slightest concern about a concussion.
               
Now comes the most important question, the question those reporters asked, but it is not being offered to invoke defensiveness: Why do we let our kids play sports that could result in serious, debilitating, even long-term injury? The answer is simple – because kids need to play sports. The benefits far outweigh the anecdotal and statistical data conjured up by the number of studies done in recent years. Kids develop better physically and cognitively when engaged in sports, they learn important lessons about success, failure, collaboration and sacrifice, and they have fun. The real issue is how we mitigate the injury issues that come with doing sports. We have to make sure that kids have the best safety equipment and training possible, that coaches are well-versed in proper management of potential injuries, and that proper emergency equipment be available either on site such a body boards and first aid kits or readily available such as ambulances and EMTs. We also need to be willing to insist that our children take a much-needed interruption from playing should any injury occur until completely cleared to reenter the sport by a physician. Big games will come and go, but a child’s health needs nurturing and protection since it is the only health he or she will have for a lifetime. With all the attention now being paid to the issue of CTE in NFL players, there will certainly be even more research on how to prevent and treat concussions which can only benefit our children. Most importantly, we can’t just be focused on boys receiving concussions or on football being the primary culprit. We need to be vigilant for our girls and for all sports as well. 
               
Some children are more prone to concussive events and unfortunately they may not be able to continue playing the sport they love. Two of my grandsons play football and one plays lacrosse, both of which have concussion issues. My oldest grandson, who is 13, has a teammate who has already suffered his third concussion. His grandfather is a college football coach and he lives in Columbus, Ohio, home to Ohio State, so leaving the game will be difficult. However, this is a decision his parents may have to face soon. There are other activities with less risk for concussion, and athletic children should be able to make a transition to another sport. We have to be prepared to counsel our children properly without taking into account our own dashed dreams for their athletic career. As a nation, we have not taken concussions seriously enough, but over the past five years a number of significant studies have highlighted not only the extent of the episodes but the possible prevention and treatment of concussions. This serious attention to brain injury hasn’t completely trickled down to youth sports, but it has made important changes. As a parent you can ask what your sports organization, club, team and high school have as policies concerning concussion. You can demand that they keep up with the latest studies and standards, including offering them the SCAT2. Significantly you need to be the advocate for your child’s safety no matter what the policies might be. If you expect a higher standard don’t be afraid to demand it for your child. We don’t want our child lying on a medical examiner’s slab at age 50 due to complications from years of concussive episodes and CTE. We’d rather our children were healthy enough to become the medical examiner or any other profession beyond the decade they might be able to play professional sports. In the eight decades of most people’s lives, that’s a tiny sliver of time for a particular achievement, and no one’s achievement needs to be measured solely by athletic prowess.

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Youth Tournament Soccer

Sam Snow

I received this question from the US Youth Soccer Facebook page from a parent in Manassas, Virginia.
 
"Hi, my family is new to youth tournament soccer so I wanted to check something out. The kids played 4 half games yesterday. Today, depending on seeding, they will play one to 3 full length games. Is this standard? These kids play really hard and I question the safety of this. Is this just standard in soccer...3 hours of hard play in one day? I saw kids playing on sore feet after 2 hours yesterday. These kids are playing in Herndon today and I'm just concerned we will have a lot of unnecessary injuries, but maybe I don't know the sport."
 
While the tournament situation described is not standard it does not surprise me given the number of bad decisions by adults in youth soccer. At the most teams should play one full match per day at a tournament. Even that is too much stress on the body if games take place for consecutive days. The human body needs 48 to 72 hours to fully recover from strenuous exercise. This is why you see at least three days between matches in the Olympics and the World Cup. The State Association Technical Directors of US Youth Soccer have released this Position Statement on tournaments.
 
TOURNAMENT PLAY
 
We believe that excessive play at competitive tournaments is detrimental to individual growth and development, and can serve to reduce long-term motivation. Do not multiple matches being played on one day and one weekend have a negative effect on the quality experience and development of the individual player? Further, far too many playing schedules include so many tournaments and matches that there is never an "off season." We believe that players under the age of twelve should not play more than 100 minutes per day, and those players older than thirteen should not play more than 120 minutes per day.
 
We also recommend to tournament managers and schedulers:
  • The players should be allowed ample rest between matches.
  • That all tournament matches be of the same length and that no full-length match be introduced during play-off rounds.
  • Kick-off times allow players a reasonable opportunity to prepare for competition. This encompasses rest and recovery, nutrition and adequate time to warm-up and stretch after traveling a long distance in addition to taking into consideration extreme environmental conditions.
Here are two related Statements from the national State Association Technical Directors.
 
FESTIVALS FOR PLAYERS UNDER 10
 
We believe that Soccer Festivals should replace soccer tournaments for all players under the age of ten. Festivals feature a set number of minutes per event (e.g., 10 games X 10 minutes) with no elimination and no ultimate winner. We also endorse and support the movement to prohibit U10 teams from traveling to events that promote winning and losing and the awarding of trophies.

STATE, REGIONAL AND NATIONAL COMPETITION FOR U12’S
 
We believe that youth soccer is too competitive at the early ages, resulting in an environment that is detrimental to both players and adults; much of the negative behavior reported about parents is associated with preteen play. The direct and indirect pressure exerted on coaches and preteen players to win is reinforced by state "championships" and tournament "winners." We therefore advocate that, in the absence of regional competition for under 12’s, state festivals replace state cups. We also strongly recommend that with regard to regional and national competition the entry age group should be U14.
 
 

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Bits and Pieces

Susan Boyd

Every week I read several soccer-related news outlets such as the USSF website, Soccer America, College Soccer News and Soccer Times. These sources give out information on the various youth and adult national teams, college rankings, soccer stories and various soccer matters. However, many of the more interesting youth sports stories come from the general news media. This week seemed to deliver a more than usual number of stories that impact those of us with youth players. The issues raised by this week’s reports cover a wide-spectrum of provocative topics which highlight fascinating ideas affecting youth sports. So this week I decided to look briefly at each of these stories giving you readers a taste of the discussions out there.
               
Last week, it was reported that Peter Edwards in Wales had made a £50 bet with a bookmaker 16 years ago that his grandson, Harry Wilson, who was 18 months old at the time, would not only grow up to be a proficient soccer player, but would actually play on the Wales National Team. When Harry entered as a substitute in a National Team game last Tuesday against Belgium, Peter collected £125,000 (just over $200,000). True, Wales is a country of only three million and only 360,000 of those are 18-24 years old, meaning Harry was one of approximately 180,000 men a year available to be drafted by the National Team. That translates into Peter Edwards having a 1/180,000 chance that his grandson would be a playing member of the Wales National Team, odds that would prompt me to place a bet and further indicate that the bookmaker might have been a bit hasty in taking the bet. Nevertheless, I’m wondering how many parents and grandparents might seek out a Vegas odds maker to lay down a bet on their budding soccer player on the off chance that the tens of thousands of dollars we lay out for our kids to develop into competent athletes might be covered at the end with a well-placed bet. The expenses will certainly never be covered by any scholarship to college or mega-million dollar contract with a USL, MISL or MSL team. We ostensibly lay a bet every day when we write a check to our clubs for that year’s training, or pay for summer soccer camps, or fill-up the car for another trip out of state which will never result in a monetary pay-out. In fact, statistics clearly show that if we invested the money we spend on youth sports in a college fund instead, most of our children would be able to afford an Ivy League education without borrowing a penny! But we make the investment in their sport because they love to play and it gives the family an activity in which everyone participates. We get to cheer our children on, possibly see a bit of the world in the process, and end up with the satisfaction that we all "win" even if we don’t see the results on our bank’s balance sheet. Priceless.
 
Texas has become the symbol for Friday night high school football. They love their teams there, and most towns support the teams with a fervor not borne of a personal connection to any player. Families attend football games well before any of their kids hit high school and for years after their kids have gone on to college, marriage and their own families. It’s a tradition that runs as deeply through the psyche of the population as the waters that run through the Rio Grande. So last week when Aledo High School faced Fort Worth’s Western Hills High School, football fever was in high gear. So was Aledo High School, which by halftime had piled up 56 unanswered points against Western Hills. To rub further salt in the wounds, Aledo is a town of 2,700 to the west of Fort Worth, a city of nearly 800,000 and the 16th largest city in the United States. It was certainly a classic David vs. Goliath tale. When the final whistle blew, the score was 91-0, the true definition of a beat down. Following the game, a Western Hills parent filed a complaint with the Texas High School Athletic Association alleging that Aledo’s coach was guilty of bullying for allowing and possibly encouraging his team to quash its opponent. This is an interesting concept that a team can bully another team by defeating them so decisively. The Aledo coach, Tim Buchanan, argued that he actually kept the score down by using second and third string players, running out the clock, and not using unusual coaching options to run up the score. Even the Western Hills coach stated that he didn’t feel that Aledo bullied his team. Neither did the athletic association, which dismissed the case.
 
This all brings up an interesting issue about playing a game that is properly coached with proper team tactics. Robbie’s club team had a similar situation one summer. They were playing a Super-Y league game at noon and then immediately leaving to go play in the US Youth Soccer National Championships. Their opponent for the Super-Y league brought only 12 players (so just one sub) on day that was well over 90 degrees. Robbie’s team took an early and commanding lead, but his coach had a dilemma. If we played a different tactical game to insure the score didn’t get even more lopsided, he risked his team not going to the championship in top form, but continuing to play "tough" against a weak and poorly manned opponent wouldn’t really yield any better preparation for the team. In the end, he opted for employing unusual tactics moving the offense to the defense, requiring that all goals be headers, and ordering that every player have only one touch before passing. Even with these "rules" in place, Robbie’s team eventually won 12-0. The opposing team groused loudly about the bad sportsmanship we showed. The only other alternative was to either call the game early or to have the opponents forfeit the entire game. And that idea was presented to them, which they refused. The Aledo coach had the same reaction, "How do you tell your kids not to play hard?" I tend to agree. We train our players to a certain level of proficiency making it difficult to ask them to revert to bad habits and weak play. Sometimes games just end up lopsided, embarrassing and painful to swallow. Most of our kids, mine included, have been at the humiliating end of that spectrum. I’m not sure if it is character building, but it is a fact of life that sometimes our adversary is really that much better than we are.
 
We have all heard the taunts from both players and fans that cross the line denigrating racial, religious, social and gender characteristics. Pro players, including all-stars Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah have been fined for using homophobic slurs. Recently, a video went viral of a 7-year-old Jets fan taunting an adult Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan without a single grown-up (and I use the term ironically) putting a stop to his outrageous behavior. As one authority put it, "People shouldn’t become numb to it and tolerate it." And that’s exactly what is beginning to happen. The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which oversees all high school sports, has issued a ban on biased language at any game that has officials. They are the first state to do so, but several other states are looking at New Jersey’s policy with the idea of creating their own. The ban is read to all players and coaches by the referees, who carry a laminated card outlining what language will result in immediate removal from the game and a report to the state’s Division on Civil Rights. The same rules are read to fans over the loudspeaker before the opening play and fans are subject to removal from the game and prosecution by the Civil Rights authorities. The issue came to head last Thanksgiving in a game between Paramus Catholic High and Bergen Catholic High when the Bergen fans began taunting Paramus player Jabrill Peppers, who is black, with racial epitaphs and signs such as "Peppers Can’t Read." Fans also wore prison stripes, a clear reference to Peppers’ father who was incarcerated at the time. The Paramus coach, who is white, also came under fire for supporting his black players. The level of disrespect, vulgarity and bigotry had reached a level that people could no longer ignore. My sons are African-American and Hispanic, so they have faced their share of bigoted comments from fans, players and even their own coaches. But the ban extends to all levels of biased language, including religious bigotry and homophobia. The ban is so important that swearing may not land a player in hot water but using the "N" word or calling any player a homophobic name will result in a one game suspension and disciplinary action by the Division of Civil Rights. While New Jersey readily agrees that it can’t legislate an individual into becoming unbiased, the state can insure that public outbursts directed at players as young as 14 won’t be tolerated. As the level of rhetoric at sporting events gets more manageable, perhaps people won’t feel so free to express their own prejudices openly in other venues. Only time will tell.
               
Addressing this issue of language has been the mission of an organization called Athletes Ally. Much of their focus is on gender and sexually biased language, particularly with Russia’s recent declaration on not allowing gay athletes into Russia for the Winter Olympics, but the organization also seeks to curb racially and religiously biased language against all athletes. In an interesting move, Athletes Ally recently took on the issue of language that maligns women and their athletic abilities including phrases such as "You play like a girl" or "Take a knee, ladies" said to male players as a way to demean their abilities. This type of personification of male players as somehow inherently weak and incapable because they are like "girls" has been a pet peeve of mine for years. Both our daughters were athletes as was I growing up, so I know how hard women work and how capable they are. We only have to look to soccer to see the amazing athletic prowess of women. Our Women’s National Team regularly appears in and wins both World Cup and Olympic championships. Diana Nyad became the first person (not just the first woman) to swim from Cuba to Florida. Dara Torres broke her own 50-meter freestyle record at age 40, which she had set 25 years earlier when she was 15. Oh, did I mention she was just a year past delivering her first child? Female athletes train as long and as hard as any male counterpart. Playing like a girl should be a badge of honor for any competitor. 
               
Across the United States and around the globe, sports can serve as an indicator of our social climate. I find those stories fascinating because they highlight our deepest desires and our basest behaviors. Keep your eyes and ears open because sports isn’t just about scores and statistics. Sports, especially youth sports, can be a barometer by which we measure many of our moral and social issues. Sports can produce some lively discussions that range well beyond the field or the court.

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Ranking youth players is often more than a number

Sam Snow

Recently an online registration company announced it will begin to rank U9 to U11 teams. Right up front here’s my take on that – bad move! Fortunately the soccer public responded immediately and loudly against such a move. From our Men’s National Team head coach to Soccer America magazine to state and club coaches the pushback was strongly against the ranking of such young teams.
 
I am sure though that many adults will jump at the chance to have their U12 and younger teams ranked. Why? Bragging rights and revenue streams. Those are the only two reasons that otherwise reasonable adults would sell out the kids. Not to mention stalling the growth of the game in the USA.
 
The players will have been sold out since they will be robbed of the incentive to improve. After all, why have a growth mindset and a strong work ethic when you’ve been told you’re number 1 in the nation at the tender age of ten. Good soccer coaches, administrators, moms and dads know that to help young players improve their skills you praise their effort not the outcome. [Read the book Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck for more information on the growth mindset.]
 
Players are already disrupted in their development continuum by jumping from club to club. Rankings at such young ages will exacerbate the problem. This outcome will happen when soccer club customers (parents) quickly change from club A to club B as soon as club B goes up in the rankings with their U9 to U1_ teams. Buyer beware! Choosing the right soccer club for young players (consumers) is more complicated than picking your new refrigerator. Yet many parents will research the new fridge more thoroughly than the club; even though the development of a young soccer player is far more complex than the features on a refrigerator.
 
The aspect of the decision to offer national rankings for U9 to U11 teams being about money is obvious. The registration company will only rank teams in the events with which the company is affiliated; i.e., creation of a revenue stream.
 
A club that buys into ranking systems is also looking for a deeper revenue stream. They hope that by achieving a high ranking they’ll attract more players (consumers) along with their parents (customers). Let’s be clear, rankings have nothing to do with player development.
 
Rankings themselves are dubious at best. The only ranking that can be valid is one in a league with head-to-head competition. Even the FIFA rankings of national teams are a guessing game. No national team coach thinks the world rankings are absolute. I spent six years on the NCAA Men’s Soccer Committee. At the end of the college soccer season we had to rank teams to sort out the post season bids for the NCAA national championships. We considered head-to-head competition, common opponents and strength of schedule. We had three different mathematical formulas to help with those evaluations. We had six to eight hour long conference calls to sort it all out. Ranking college teams who hadn’t played each other wasn’t easy. And this was evaluating teams with adult players on them, not children’s teams.
 
In short, ranking preteen teams is not only a fruitless effort; it can be one that hinders the healthy growth of players and clubs. Just say NO to rankings!
 
 
What is your opinion on rankings? Are 9-year-olds too young? What about 13-year-olds? We want to hear from you, so let us know what your feelings are about ranking youth players by commenting on this article.
 

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