Monday, April 28, 2014
Recently, my oldest son announced he needed new cleats. As he put it: “Nothing special. Certainly, not top of the line. I just need cleats that don’t rip apart.” He said this right before he informed me cleats fitting those three categories apparently cost $220 to $270. Yeah, right. When I went online and looked, I discovered plenty of cleats in the $70 to $150 range, so I wondered how the ones he touted weren’t “top of the line.” He had no response other than to say he needed the right weight and durability and, of course, the right colors. I had run into the technology wall. Soccer equipment, which used to be serviceable boots and something round to kick, has now moved into the realm of super-scientifically designed gear. Cleats have become an impressive selection of incredibly lightweight, colorful, streamlined and transitory purchases. New car models have nothing on new shoe models. How do parents fight our children’s urge to gravitate to the shiniest and therefore most expensive baubles in the soccer shop?
Sports products are driven by the professional athletes in the sport. Whatever high-end equipment the superstars use immediately floods the stores, fulfilling the dreams of thousands of youth fans. If Ronaldo runs faster in 3-ounce shoes, then every kid believes he or she will also run faster. Boots in radiant color schemes that light up the pitch in a UEFA Champions League game continue their siren call from the shelves of the local soccer shop. Soccer balls that promise straighter passes and elegant bends serve up rapid sales. Team jerseys, practice shirts, and warm-ups run two to five times the cost of regular soccer clothing. Throw in scarves, pennants, posters, t-shirts, and training DVDS and books to create a black hole of expense for the soccer family. Finding the happy medium can prove elusive, especially when one kid on the team shows up in the most expensive cleats. Just like we all stop and gape as a bright yellow Lamborghini purrs by, kids do the same for top-of-the-line soccer gear. We end up not only trying to keep up with the Joneses, but also with the junior Messis, Wambachs, Beckhams and Drogbas. We are fighting a tide of trendiness.
First of all, very few players need specialized gear other than for the cool factor. While light-weight cleats are great for giving an extra split-second of speed, they also offer less foot stability and support. Youth players with their developing bones and muscles don’t have the physical strengths to make effective, safe use of such specifically designed gear. While they may have faster feet, they may also end up with Achilles’ tendon strains, ankle sprains, calf and shin cramps, and arch collapses due to inappropriate equipment for their developmental level. The damage can extend to other joints, especially knees, as the body tries to compensate for inadequate support at foot level. Luckily the major companies, such as Nike and adidas, have recognized the twinkling lure of the professional gear and create various levels of the same gear with slight exterior design tweaks on the proper “chassis” for a child’s feet. Kids will recognize the design differences, but when parents appear willing to spring for a less fancy model that at least mimics the higher-end prototype, they will often be happy to concur. Ask at the soccer shop or run a search online for these kid and budget friendlier products. Ultimately cost and safety should take the front seat in making your selection. Discuss with your kids the possibility that injuries, even soccer ending injuries, could result from making the wrong choice of cleats. Most kids will understand and happily accept a small change in design to get a pair of the cooler cleats rather than the pragmatic basic black brand.
The older the player, the tougher that argument is to win. The good news is that teen players usually have stopped growing, or at least growing rapidly, so that a pair of shoes can fit one or two seasons. Your budget may allow for a more expensive model but not for all the sparkling options that assault players entering the soccer or sports store. You can put the responsibility on your child. Offer the mid-priced option, but agree that if your child wants to spring for the difference in price between that and the top-of-the-line model, then that would be a possibility. I found my sons, when faced with that choice, let me pay for the mid-price and kept their money. Coolness had a price they let me sacrifice for, but not themselves. Older players also can work to earn some of these treats. State Associations are always looking for referees. The flexibility of officiating games when the player’s schedule allows makes this a great job for soccer kids. Many clubs will pay their players to mow and line fields, run concession stands and clean public areas, including bathrooms. Again, these jobs offer some flexibility. Getting a job with a store like Sports Authority not only provides a pay check, but also gives the employee a steep discount on store merchandise. So that’s a great way for a player to stock up on the elite equipment they crave.
Team jerseys rarely come with a discount. They can cost $120 to $200. This is the time to alert grandparents to the wish list. They can purchase gift certificates to major distributors and online soccer sites for special occasions like birthdays and graduations. There are off-brand replica possibilities for several teams, but rarely for Premier League teams and players. Online auction sites might offer jerseys, albeit discontinued styles, for a bargain. The same holds true for warm-ups. These specialized jerseys shouldn’t be impulse buys. Also consider less expensive official team training jerseys. They aren’t as fancy but come in all the team colors and designs. They can run as low as $50, a much more palatable price for a young family. Saving these purchases, which aren’t necessary to play the game, for significant moments will make them more meaningful and let our kids know that focusing on their development is the important point of spending money. However, I will agree that kids find validation in their sports’ choices by identifying with particular teams and players. Since soccer’s popularity is still evolving in America, finding those factors that make a kid feel proud are important. The cheapest way to do that is by supporting them at their games, attending high school, college and professional games as a family, and watching games on TV. Creating the bonds between parent and child also creates the pride in the sport and the child’s participation in the sport.
Soccer balls make me crazy. First of all, hundreds of thousands of skillful players grew up kicking a can, a melon, a threadbare ball or a piece of wood. So paying over $50 for any soccer ball seems ridiculously extravagant. Then I’ll ask you how many soccer balls your child has lost over the years? I bought a 2006 World Cup ball for nearly $200 for my boys with strict orders it was not to be used for practice. One week later it was lost in the canal behind the Marquette University fields because they brought it to US Youth Soccer ODP practice. UGH! Unless you are in the business of collecting sports memorabilia, there’s no need for such fancy expensive balls. I have found great balls for $3 at Goodwill and kept a huge supply in the trunk for practices and games. Often these balls were selected as the game ball because they were actually quite good. Invest in two good pumps — one for the garage and one for the trunk — and then three or four inexpensive balls. Kids can claim a fancy ball, but when it comes down to it, balls become communal once they hit the pitch, so there’s no need to help a teammate go home with your expensive treasure. Occasionally, high schools and colleges may sell or give away their old balls, so that’s worth a phone call to the appropriate athletic directors.
Today, I’m addressing the issue of my son’s shoes the way I always have. I set a budget and if he wants to go over it, then that’s up to him. I did the research, and, for half the price, I found the same shoes just a half ounce heavier with a slightly different color scheme. He’s trying to save for a car and the insurance to cover it, so having flashy cleats will steal away from having a serviceable car. We’ll see what he opts to do. When all else fails, I return to the speech he hates, but knows is true. I put 10 pennies on the table which each represent $100. Then we look at choices he has to make every day with his limited budget. It’s a tangible representation of the budget none of us want to acknowledge constrains us. A lot of pennies skittered off to the side for rent, car payment, car insurance and food — leaving just one to represent anything vaguely “disposable income,” a term I scoff at. I feel like all we do in the year is dispose of our income and rarely for something fun and extra. That remaining penny also had to cover any emergency and any savings. Looking at the pile of pennies at first seems comforting and sufficient; pulling them out one by one shows how transient his finances actually are. He hates the penny demo, but he also appreciates how it reminds him to stay focused on what is really important. I’m hoping cleats with the coolest gradations of orange are less important in the grand scheme of things.