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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." 
Opinions expressed on the US Youth Soccer Blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of US Youth Soccer.



Susan Boyd

I used to teach a course in technical writing. I had to drill into my students that technical writers can’t make assumptions about the reader’s knowledge of a topic. Writers must provide clear definitions of terms, create uncomplicated processes and provide volumes of information as they deliver instructions for projects from setting up a computer, to building a grill, to operating a voting machine, or to playing a game. In order to impress upon my students the importance of thinking ahead and creating clear technical instruction I had them do an interesting exercise. I divided the class into groups of three and provided each group with a relatively simple graphic design. The group’s job was to develop instructions whereby another group could recreate the design on the blackboard simply using the instructions. Let’s say the design was a circle with a line bisecting it parallel to the floor and a triangle under the circle with the apex of the triangle touching the circle. Students dove in, snickered at the simplicity of the task, wrote their brief instructions, and then traded them with another group. Here’s where the fun began. The students wrote, “Draw a circle.” The group creating the design on the blackboard froze up immediately. They had no idea how big the circle was. The next instruction was “Bisect the circle with a line parallel to the ground.” But the group had no idea how long the line should be and if it bisected evenly with the ends all inside the circle, outside the circle, and or uneven in length through the circle. There were even students who had no idea what “bisect” meant. The next instruction was “place a triangle under the circle with the top of the triangle touching the edge of the circle.” Yet again, the students were confused. Was it an equilateral triangle, obtuse, right or isosceles? How big was the triangle? How far down should the triangle be drawn? What the groups glibly thought would be a piece of cake turned out to be complex and confusing.             

Parents make assumptions all the time about what our kids should understand, and we get frustrated when they don’t seem to be leaping to accomplish a task. Just this weekend I was out of town watching two of my grandsons in Columbus. There was a horrible snowstorm in Milwaukee, and Bryce was watching the house. He called me in a panic because he couldn’t get the snow blower to work. I said it was probably out of fuel, and he informed me he had filled it up and it still wouldn’t start. With a sinking heart I asked if he used the gas tank by the lawn mower, which contains pure gas, and the answer was yes. Unfortunately, the snow blower requires an oil and gas mixture and that can was set in front of the machine. Bryce was embarrassed, but I told him that unless he had bought the blower and read the instructions, he would have no idea that it needed a different fuel. It was an important lesson to me that I couldn’t just assume that he would know how to run the snow blower. Do our kids intuitively know how to run the washing machine, the vacuum or the dishwasher? Did we? Yet even our kids think they should be able to do it automatically. They see us approach these tasks with ease, and so they expect to do the same. When we try to explain how to do something, we run the risk of wounding our children’s pride. It’s a thin line between being helpful to them and demeaning their abilities.              

We face this challenge daily. I did a blog several years ago about the humorous aspects of these misunderstandings, but there are more serious outcomes that can affect how we interact with our kids, their friends and teammates, coaches and other parents. I was watching my grandson’s 9-year-old basketball team’s practice where they scrimmaged a girls’ team. The game was lively and funny. I was sitting next to a mom who had played basketball in high school, and she was getting increasingly frustrated that her daughter didn’t know how to set up a pick. She felt it was intuitive because she herself had done them over and over for 10 years. She expected her daughter to launch right into the skill. During a break in the action, the mom called her daughter over and began quizzing her, “Why don’t you set up a screen? Why do you act so timid? Why aren’t you taking more shots?” I saw two distinct expressions on the child’s face: First, total disgust at her mother’s instructions and second, befuddlement over what she was supposed to be doing. Using pick interchangeably with screen was a matter of using synonyms for the mom, but to a child completely clueless as to how the two activities are actually one in the same, it was confusing. The mother’s expectations ran in direct opposition to her daughter’s understanding and ability. Skills, that for adults come easily and logically, only do so because we have had years to develop the context in which to understand them. A slide tackle for a child contains words that she understands, but the intent of those words get muddled. We shouldn’t expect any player to automatically know what a slide tackle means and how to execute one, but we do it all the time. We show our frustration at their misunderstanding which only makes the situation worse. Kids become disappointed in themselves for not intuitively grasping a skill because the adults seem to believe that those skills should spring innately from their children.             

We can develop a great deal of impatience when we rely on someone to have the same understanding of a situation or a skill as we do. We forget that learning requires time, context and maturity to result in the abilities we consider intuitive. Take the offside rule for instance. Those of us with years of experience in soccer usually understand the rule. But that is not necessarily the case for most young players and for many adults. Add to the mix the misunderstanding of “over and back” for offside and you can have parents completely apoplectic when the offside flag goes up. Those of us who get it have little tolerance for those who don’t get it, and we tend to judge them for their inability to understand the rule naturally. Coaches can assume their young players know certain skills when in fact they have no idea what the coach is talking about. Wanting to please they will struggle to fake their understanding as best they can, feeling inadequate and foolish in the process. A coach can aggravate the situation if he continues expecting that players should intuitively understand his commands. Telling a goalkeeper to keep her feet doesn’t translate into staying upright as long as possible to watch the play develop then dropping to save a ball. It translates into staying upright even once the ball is kicked to the lower left post. When reprimanded for not going down to save the ball, the confusion on how to “keep your feet” versus diving for a save simply deepens. Until the process is completely explained, players will continue to misunderstand the skill. “Clearing the ball” seems absolutely intuitive, when in fact few youth players have any idea that to clear a ball means to boot it from the defensive end to the offensive end. Continually shouting “clear it!” won’t make the term anymore obvious. Clear has synonyms which mean pure, distinct, unobstructed, transparent, and obvious. The synonym which most embodies what “clear it” means is to free the ball, but even that is ambiguous.  Clearing the ball can only be completely understood when fully explained.            

Our capacity to convey ideas to our children and others cannot count on their ability to understand those ideas with the same intuitive awareness we possess. Our intuitiveness comes from experience and repetition, not from some sudden innate epiphany. Expecting others to have the same context isn’t fair. But we forget how our knowledge developed over time. We only have our present understanding against which we measure what others should understand. At my daughter’s house, I had to do the laundry. I have been washing clothes for more than 40 years, so washing them on this particular day should have been easy. In a distinctly humble moment, I realized I had no idea which detergent to use, how to add the detergent to the laundry, how to even turn the washer on given the complex combination of time, temperature, agitation, fabric type and weight of the load. There were literally bells and whistles the likes of which I had never encountered. Only after doing one load did I discover a secret compartment where detergent, bleach, and fabric softener could be dispensed. It was all so confusing and did not fit at all into that intuitive style of washing I had carefully developed over the years. I felt the same as I’m sure I did the first time I ever tried to do a load of wash, which was on a much simpler machine. It gave me a much needed perspective on how we all assume that because we know and understand something, everyone will know and understand it, when in fact the only intuitive knowledge should be that intuition has no standards or expectations.

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Interview with Tom Sermanni

Sam Snow


Coaches, administrators and parents please take a moment and watch this video interview with Tom Sermanni, head coach of the USA Women’s National Team. 


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You Won’t Know If You Don’t Ask

Susan Boyd

On the heels of Valentine’s Day, it may seem premature to talk about spring soccer. This winter wrapped many of us in deep snow and dangerous ice blankets, so venues even in Texas and south across the Gulf Coast to Georgia aren’t ready yet for soccer practices and games. Nevertheless, team meetings will begin soon, and parents need to be prepared to ask the right questions. The answers will dictate how the spring and summer progress, and they will influence whether or not our children continue to play with the same club. Even though tryouts usually don’t happen until July, we need to arm ourselves with information so we can make informed decisions before committing our money and our time. Asking all the significant questions now will give us the opportunity to see if the answers pan out over the course of the spring.           

We must never be shy about gathering the facts. Parents may worry that if they bring up the worrisome issues of playing youth sports on a team they will be considered troublemakers. My argument is that if that’s true, the club may not be the right place for you and your child. You need to be free to make informed decisions, and since you are paying the fees for your child to play you have the right to know if your money is being spent appropriately for your family’s goals. Clubs should welcome your questions. Laying everything on the table means that everyone will be on the same page. It’s confusion that causes hurt feelings, disappointments and conflicts. Some families will seek out a team that focuses on winning, while others are looking for a team that focuses on development. It’s not about what’s right or wrong for all, but what’s right for your family. To discover the accurate fit, you need to ask the right questions.  I categorize enquiries four ways:  credentials, player expectations, safety, and parent expectations.          

Club, coach and team credentials help you decide if they represent the type of structure you seek. What national organizations is the club affiliated with, since these regulate the club? This makes clear who you can turn to for mediation if you end up having a disagreement or problem with the club. It also establishes that the club is serious about its professionalism. Competitive leagues are generally formed under the umbrella of state and national associations, so which one the club adheres to will dictate in which leagues the teams will play. If you and your children are interested in a more competitive experience, then find out what opportunities exist within the governing organization’s structure. Not only ask “do the coaches have licenses,” but also under what auspices they are licensed, and what level of license they hold. In many leagues, people can’t coach a team without a license even if they are volunteers. Any level license indicates that the club and the coach take the job seriously, want to learn the most advanced techniques for proper coaching, and submit themselves to background checks, a prerequisite for a license. What does the coach do off the field? That helps decide if he or she has interests and skills that mesh with our kids and has activities or a job that could interfere with coaching commitments, such as being a teacher or coaching for another club. Finally, I suggest asking what the team credentials are. Has the core group been together a long time? What is their record in league, tournaments, and state, regional and national arenas? These answers will help you decide if the team is driven enough or too much for you, and if your child could possibly be low person in the pecking order.              

That brings me to player expectations. The primary question most parents will have is what policy the club and coach have on playing time. Often the associations that govern the leagues also dictate playing time issues, so you will also need to ask how these rules are enforced. If you are concerned about playing time, then a red flag for you will be teams that put winning at the forefront. Those coaches will be less amenable towards fielding weaker players for 50 percent or 75 percent of playing time. If you want the winning-team experience and feel your child is strong enough to compete in that environment, then playing time becomes an issue for you if your child is often subbed for a less-skilled player. Be sure you are clear on what those policies are and how they will be enforced. You will also need to know how the club, team and coach treat absences from practices and games and if that policy actually enforced. Bryce’s U-14 team had a number of players who also participated in football, therefore they missed about half the practices and even important tournament games. The club policy was that absences resulted in a minimum of a one game suspension, but the coach never followed the policy because these players were among the most athletic. Therefore, kids who were loyal to the team and its schedule but perceived as having less skills ended up with reduced or nonexistent playing time. It was unfair and ultimately resulted in the team breaking up completely right after the season. No matter which side of the argument you find yourself, you need to know what will be the consequences. What absences will be excused, for example a family wedding, religious ceremonies or family graduations? Parents also need to know what players are expected to have for uniforms (do they have to have warm-ups and an official bag?), how soon before a game they are expected to show up, and what pre-game exercises they need to do.             

When it comes to safety, parents should be diligent. Having coaches licensed means they will have gone through background checks to look for things like predators, felons and those with DUIs. However, there are other safety concerns. You need to ask how many of the coaches and staff have gone through first aid and CPR training. Ask where first aid equipment is kept and how it is monitored — is it restocked regularly and are there people at practices who know how to properly administer the equipment? Are first aid kits available for every team and taken to every game? Does the club have a defibrillating machine? Is there a way to rapidly contact emergency medical and police services and who is in charge of doing that? In other words, is there a medical emergency action plan established by the club to ensure quick and proper response? In these days of cell phones that may seem a silly question, but often fields are in rural areas with conflicting addresses. Emergency teams may not be able to locate the fields. If there isn’t a designated person on the team to make the calls, several calls from parents unfamiliar with the area could delay response. Hopefully the club has contacted police and EMT to give them directions prior to an emergency. What is the club’s policy on lightning? Do they have a lightning detector? Who enforces their policy — individual coaches, referees or parents? Have coaches been briefed on proper concussion protocol? Does your coach have the attitude that players should “tough it out” if they get a concussion? Are players regarded as weak if they don’t return to the game? Is rough play tolerated? Does the coach encourage participants to engage in dangerous play during practices? Is the coach a proponent of dirty play? Robbie played on a team where the coach promoted conflict among the players resulting in numerous injuries just during practices. Again, toughening up players may be exactly what you are looking for, so these types of questions aren’t meant to be judgmental. There’s a style appropriate for every child’s needs and goals. Finally, you should ask what insurance the club carries to cover injuries on the field and during games. While you may have your own coverage, not everyone does. So what will be the club’s liability when it comes to accidents and injury? How much of your fees goes towards insurance? Most importantly the overriding question must be: will you put my child’s safety above all other issues?           

Parents are expected to be part of the team as well, so find out what your jobs will be. Do you need to volunteer a certain number of hours a month? A season? What happens if you don’t meet your commitment? Who enforces this? Can you opt out by paying an additional fee?  In what ways can you volunteer?  How will your hours be recorded and tracked? Many coaches prefer parents don’t attend practices, but that seems to be a nearly impossible condition to enforce. Nevertheless you should find out what the policy is. There are often behavior requirements that clubs try to institute such as sideline decorum, how and if you can contact your child’s coaches, interaction with your child’s teammates, and alcohol. Understanding these rules before traveling to a game or sitting on the sidelines of a practice can prevent misunderstandings. You might also want to ask if there are any restrictions on photographing or filming games. Usually there aren’t, but in some cases the club may have an agreement with a professional service precluding any family recording.              

Clubs should absolutely welcome your questions. In fact, a good club will anticipate these questions with a written code of conduct for the players and parents, a list of safety regulations and applications, an open record of coaching licenses, and a clear history of the club’s affiliations and team records. Clubs should make available to families a list of team members and phone numbers along with parent names. Despite these excellent documents, clubs won’t anticipate all your questions. You’re not a nuisance for asking. Consider yourself a stock holder in the club, which entitles you to know everything about the policies and operation of the club. Who can you approach if you feel your child has been treated unfairly under the rules the club has established? For example, if you have been told there will be 50 percent playing time for all participants and your child has sat on the bench for the first four games, it’s time to find out why the policy isn’t being enforced. It’s also might be time to consider a new club come tryouts. Naturally, you can eliminate many of these problems by determining the actual culture of the team and the history of the coach’s institution of that culture. I always suggest that before U-14, parents look for coaches who promote skill development and fun. But if your child appears to be particularly talented, you may want a more aggressive team at a younger age. Asking the right questions will help you determine if you’ve landed in the proper mix. No matter what you are looking for, answers to your questions will only be as good as following up with observation. A club may promise one thing yet deliver another. So arm yourself with the necessary information and see if it is validated. It comes down to knowing in advance as much as possible — so go ahead and ask.

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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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