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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". 

 

Some Light Reading

Susan Boyd

I hope all of you have been watching the FIFA Women’s World Cup. There’s been something for everyone’s sense of drama: upsets, bad calls, nail biters, extraordinary play, and stupendous feats of athleticism. By the time this is published, we’ll know if the U.S. Women’s National Team will be playing in the semifinals. The great news is that FWWC is pulling in record viewership. The U.S.-Columbia game had 4.1 million tuned in with a peak of 6.4 million. Only two other broadcasts had higher numbers on Fox Sports 1: Game 4 (5.1 million) and Game 5 (4.9 million) of the 2014 National League Championship Series between St. Louis and San Francisco. Likewise, Canada nearly drew more viewers for their opening game vs. China than the Stanley Cup game that evening. Quite a spectacular outcome given that hockey is the national sport. Even Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Benoit couldn’t put a damper on the upswing of interest in the event when he tweeted that “Women’s sports in general [are] not worth watching…Women are every bit as good as men in general, better in many aspects, their sports are just less entertaining. TV ratings agree, btw.” Apparently he missed the reports on the Women’s World Cup, as well as the ratings athletes like Serena Williams and Ronda Rousey pull in.

While watching the matches, I couldn’t help but notice the various scrawls on the message boards surrounding the pitch. While FIFA has suffered a tarnishing of their image, there were several reminders of their charitable programs and social platforms. I wondered if these millions of viewers in the U.S. (estimates are 1 billion world-wide) had: A. taken note of the advertisements, B. looked the programs up, C. acted on anything they had learned. After all, there was plenty to watch on the pitch, so people would be forgiven for not heeding the constant verbiage scrolling in the background. I decided to look the programs up, curious as to what FIFA was touting. There were four agendas:  Football for Hope, Football for the Planet, Say No to Racism, and Fair Play. Each of these has a particular purpose in promoting FIFA’s image which certainly needs some propping up. Adding to the quartet is adidas’ campaign #BetheDifference.

Football for Hope started in 2005 to promote the issues of children in impoverished areas. FIFA works through local private and community-based organizations supporting the resources used to foster the social development of youth. Much of FIFA’s support comes in the form of football-based programs. During the Men’s World Cup in Brazil in 2015, FIFA sponsored a festival with delegates from 32 of some of the 108 world-wide organizations involved in the Football for Hope initiative. The projects span a variety of social issues, from homelessness in the UK and landmines in Laos, to HIV/AIDS education in South Africa and responsible citizenship in Brazil. For the World Cup, Football for Hope focused its resources in Brazil, donating $1.05 million to programs in Brazil and an additional $2.05 million world-wide. FIFA encourages the communities receiving funding to hold matches where there are no referees. All conflicts are resolved through agreement either by admission or through dialog which FIFA believes promotes personal development and mutual understanding. Likewise, representatives from the communities being served meet regularly to discuss ways to use football to advance and improve social concerns. While the money FIFA contributes is substantial, it pales to what they made alone from the 2014 World Cup, which was $2.6 billion – that’s billion with a B.

Football for the Planet is the official environmental program for FIFA started in 2006 during the World Cup in Germany. The program has evolved over the past decade to embrace some fairly sophisticated efforts in off-setting the ecologic impact of the World Cup matches on the host country’s environment. For the 2014 competition in Brazil FIFA worked on three fronts to reduce the harm an influx of millions of fans would have on the environs. First FIFA worked to offset carbon emissions which have the largest effect on climate change. They estimated that the World Cup would produce 2.7 million tons of CO2 emissions of which FIFA had control over 250,000 tons. Using local emission programs, FIFA offset all of their CO2 emissions. Second FIFA required that new stadiums in Brazil be sustainable. For example they encouraged the installation of solar panels and expected the stadiums to earn the maximum points of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for green building which encourages sustainability and efficiency. To that end they sponsored training sessions in building green for the architects and contractors of each stadium. Third, FIFA developed waste management programs for the stadiums helping vendors to institute proper waste disposal to include strong recycling efforts. Additionally FIFA used its mascot to instruct spectators on responsible waste disposal.

Say No to Racism is an education program that grew out of FIFA’s article 3:  Discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of ethnic origin, gender, language, religion, politics or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion. For many years this article was not clearly and consistently enforced, but over the last decade more incidents of discrimination and hate speech appeared at FIFA-sponsored events. Black players regularly face abuse which includes bananas tossed at them from the stands, racist chants from fans, and racist taunts from other players. Anti-Semitism comes in the form of fans openly waving Nazi flags at matches and taunting Jewish fans and players. For many years, FIFA simply turned a deaf ear and blind eye to these overt acts, choosing to let “boys be boys.” However, with riots at Egyptian matches based on deep religious divides, dangerous anti-black sentiments in Europe, and hooliganism based on racial biases, FIFA realized it needed to act. More dangerous to the organization is the threat by several African nations and individual black players to boycott the 2018 World Cup in Russia if racism isn’t addressed. To that end, in May 2013 the FIFA Congress adopted a resolution on the fight against racism and discrimination which highlighted the need for strong punishments to support the position that racism has no place in football. FIFA has joined with the continental soccer governing organizations such as UEFA and CONCACAF to sanction teams, players, and administrators who practice or condone racist actions. Sanctions based on prejudicial behaviors have now come regularly and without mercy for the offenders. Unfortunately the idea of solving such a complicated issue as bigotry by just “saying no” is about as effective as Nancy Regan’s campaign to just say no to drugs. Nevertheless, it is heartening to see that FIFA is taking the issue seriously and encouraging fans to recognize the harmful effects of bigoted behaviors on the sport.

Fair Play has ironic implications considering the level at which FIFA’s integrity has come under attack. The program uses the slogan “My game is fair play” to promote respect on and off the pitch among all players, officials, coaches and fans. The purpose is to play the game peacefully with integrity, fairness, dignity and respect. FIFA might want to take a page from its own promotions to find ways to conduct their activities with the same four cornerstones of behavior. Once a year they dedicate a week to highlight the people who best exemplify the principles of fair play. One person or group is recognized for special acts with the annual Fair Play Award. At every FIFA tournament teams are judged on their behavior and one team is selected for the tournament Fair Play Award. FIFA also encourages individual clubs all the way down to youth soccer to promote fair play both on and off the pitch, asking clubs to be sure to highlight those who exemplify honorable behavior.

Although not directly a FIFA program, adidas sponsors the “Be the Difference” platform. Obviously created to sell more shoes, it highlights the energy required to be a top soccer player. As adidas states, “Soccer is changing. In the style and way it is played and in the types of players who grace the game. For a team to be successful, you need two types of players – Playmakers who orchestrate and control everything, and Game changers who smash the defense and cause chaos. Pick your side and be the difference.”  While an advertising ploy, the statement is powerful for young soccer players who may feel that they are marginalize if they play any position other than striker. The commercial purposely doesn’t identify impact by a particular position, rather by performance which supports the idea that every child makes a significant contribution to the success of a team. I think besides getting kids salivating about a particular boot, the campaign elevates the importance of every player by exposing the ability to make a difference comes through passion for and investment in the sport.

If you remember while cheering on your particular team or player at any FIFA event, check out the boards around the pitch. There are mostly advertisements displayed there, but occasionally there are some interesting statements being made about soccer beyond the competition. I will agree with FIFA on the point that we need our kids to see how we behave in our soccer lives needs to mirror how we behave off the pitch. We can be part of the solution of many of the world’s problems by simply applying some of the principles we learn while playing:  cooperation, respect for authority, charity, fairness, integrity, tolerance, and accepting success with humility and defeat with dignity. Sometimes what appears in the background can be a good read to remind us of these values.

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Nothing to Sneeze At

Susan Boyd

It may seem a bit hyperbolic to say, given all the scandal coming out of FIFA in the last month, but the biggest FIFA outrage surrounding the Women’s World Cup has been the use of synthetic turf fields for the competition. This is the first Cup, both men’s and women’s, to be played on artificial surfaces, and the women have complained mightily filing a lawsuit against FIFA to force them to switch to natural grass. The suit was eventually withdrawn and the event went forward using engineered turf. Sadly, two beautiful grass fields were dug up and replaced with artificial turf because FIFA rules require that every pitch be exactly the same. Ironically, if Canada wants to bid to sponsor the men’s Gold Cup or World Cup those two fields will need to be returned to natural grass. Others outside of soccer joined the protest, including Tom Hanks and Kobe Bryant who tweeted a photo of USWNT player Sydney Leroux’s torn up legs after a game. A boycott was considered, but many teams were unwilling because the World Cup is the top stage for players, and many nations get very few chances to compete on such a revered international platform. Other than a successful legal challenge, the women athletes felt they had no choice but to play on the surface dictated by FIFA.

Here in Wisconsin, most of the college pitches and many of the high school fields have switched to artificial grass. It is less difficult to maintain in our weather extremes and extends the outdoor playing season from February into December. Grass would be far too fragile during approximately six months of the year. Some institutions that can afford it have artificial practice fields installing grass on their competition pitch. Clubs conduct fund raisers to be able to construct at least one synthetic surface field and use that fact to tout themselves as a great choice for young players. For many people artificial grass has been seen as a tremendous advance which reduces field maintenance, although not necessarily costs, provides for a longer season, and gives players a consistent pitch. It could be the panacea for a dozen woes, yet professional players are increasingly adamant about refusing to compete on artificial surfaces. David Beckham refused as early as 2007 when the LA Galaxy played the Toronto FC on their engineered field. Which brings us to the Women’s World Cup and FIFA’s decision to require artificial turf in all stadiums and the women protesting that decision.

Artificial turf began in 1965 with the installation of ChemGrass at the Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. ChemGrass became known as AstroTurf in 1966 when it was laid in Houston’s Astro Dome to much fanfare and great expectations. Artificial grass has undergone several generations and its newest best form, the one used for the World Cup, is called 3G pitch system which has been approved by FIFA. Artificial turf opened the floodgates of indoor facilities which obviously couldn’t support grass so depended on wood and concrete surfaces. Some places used what could only be described as a “carpet” stretched over concrete. It was cheap, and like a carpet it would stretch leaving gaps between seams and ridges where it bunched up. It was unsafe to play on and unsafe to fall on since it rarely had under padding. So having a grass substitute seemed like Nirvana. And for many of the indoor arenas and sports parks it has been created a huge advantage providing year round opportunities for all athletes. Batting cages, lacrosse fields, and soccer all depend upon these engineered products to provide an indoor experience as close to grass as possible.

However, as more and more artificial turf facilities cropped up, the criticism of the surface increased. Players complained of increased injuries, especially ligament damage, joint stress, and turf toe. On top of that, the bristles that substitute for grass tear up the skin with rug burns, cuts, and bruises. Athletes felt that the surface shortened their playing lives, endangering the years of careful training they went through to ensure the safety of their bodies. Football had led the way with artificial turf but now the 21 teams who don’t have full grass fields use a mixture of grass and synthetics called FieldTurf. The surface is fairly close to real grass and requires the same maintenance as regards to watering, mowing, fertilizing and sunlight. New types of turf had to be developed because NFL players had the same complaints that the women soccer players are expressing for this World Cup. FieldTurf eliminates many of the concerns as far as injuries and discomfort. However, FIFA has not approved this product and instead has only endorsed the full 3G turf, which is what is being used in Canada.

Artificial turf also has the problem of absorbing and holding heat especially under direct sunlight. At one of the recent World Cup games the field temperature was 130 degrees Fahrenheit, when the ambient temperature was only in the 80s. It’s ridiculous to play under those conditions. At a tournament Bryce attended in Las Vegas in August, the turf got so hot that the soles of the ARs melted if they stood in one place too long. Eventually, the sponsors had no choice but to change the schedule to play games only in the early morning and after 7 p.m. It’s hot in Vegas in August, but grass fields would have never been unplayable in the heat. They may have withered, but they would not have retained and bounced back heat at intense levels.

Any artificial surface, even FieldTurf, uses granules and sand to give the surface buoyancy and depth. Many of the granules are made from recycled ground tires which contain heavy metals which are recognized carcinogenics. Players get these bits ground into their open cuts and sores, breathe them in, and even “eat” them. Lately, census studies done on athletes who compete primarily with fields holding these pellets has shown a strong link to blood cancers, especially in goalkeepers. No scientific study has been done yet, but the numbers are staggering. Ethan Zohn, a goalkeeper and winner of the third season of Survivor who founded Grassroots Soccer with his winnings, discovered he had Hodgkin’s disease. He didn’t make any connection between his cancer and goalkeeping until he met other keepers with cancer. Goalkeepers are most susceptible to contact with the rubber beads since they spend more time on the ground and have them kicked up into their faces and mouths. He began to keep a list which has grown to over 50 players in five years. He then met Amy Griffen, the assistant coach at the University of Washington, who had discovered on her own the same connection. While visiting a goalkeeper in the hospital getting treatment the nurse stated, “You’re the fourth goalkeeper I’ve hooked up to chemo this week.” Together Zohn and Griffen have been pushing the scientific community to look into these cases and do a controlled study. Additionally under constant sun the fields exude a strong chemical scent which critics say isn’t natural and could be toxic to everyone, fans included.

On the other hand, artificial turf has proponents. Players who suffer from allergies are grateful for the artificial surface which doesn’t aggravate their hay fever and skin reactions from grass. Kids with asthma have far fewer attacks when they play nearly exclusively on artificial surfaces. Despite the rough surface, fake grass does offer a consistently flat surface for play allowing kids to develop dribbling, passing, and running skills with reliable repetition. For the youngest player these plastic turf fields also eliminate the divots and rocks that plague grass fields. For those young kickers the toughest impediment isn’t rug burn, it’s those little bumps and holes that trip kids up and make soccer less fun. The best reason to support the use of artificial turf is that it does extend the playing season either by making outdoor fields playable in most weather or by offering superior indoor facilities with a cushioned playing surface rather than a hard surface. These increased opportunities offer our young players better and more consistent training.

We parents have to read the literature and make the decision on how safe we think the artificial surfaces are for our kids. There are definitely some serious concerns, but there are also advantages. The real issue for the World Cup players is the basic unfairness of the FIFA decision. While no men’s competitions are dictated to be played on artificial turf because the men have the same concerns as the women, FIFA ignored these concerns when it came to the women. Although the ball rolls faster, the surface allows for a quicker pace, and the synthetic fibers can withstand heavy rains, adult players still prefer the natural surface. They like the quirks that different pitches offer because it makes the game not just against the opponent but also against the elements. However for younger players they need the even and all-weather practice surfaces that allow for development of skills which can then be extended with indoor facilities. My sons heartily favor natural over artificial surfaces, but they also appreciated the synthetic pitches. In college they played on artificial turf, and in fact their college field was only the sixth one in the US officially approved by FIFA for FIFA-sanctioned games. So they had the experience of playing on some of the best of the fake. But they also both agreed that the burns, slashes, and cuts they got on those surfaces left scars they carry today, and their ankle stresses were certainly due to the less forgiving underlayment of artificial turf. Robbie suffers from hay fever, so he does agree that he had better breathing when on synthetic surfaces. I’d say the pros and cons are fairly even – it’s a draw for most players but unfortunately a defeat for the World Cup women.

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Overuse and Commitment

Susan Boyd

Here’s a conundrum. Your youth player shows strong talent in and passion for soccer. He or she wants to play this sport to the exclusion of all others. However, we hear the criticism of such a choice. Physicians and trainers talk about the dangers of repetitive motion injuries. Psychologists caution that the pressures of intense, continual competition can adversely affect the mental development of youth players. Sociologists warn that the isolation from focusing on a single activity with a finite group of friends can complicate a child’s social interactions. Many experts will recommend that children don’t concentrate on a single sport until high school. On the flip side, and here comes the puzzling part, most successful world-wide soccer athletes began intensive training early in their careers. In fact, they will argue that the earlier a player begins to train exclusively in their sport, soccer in our case, the better chance they have to create and sustain a career in that sport. How do we as parents assess whether the choice to specifically select soccer or to open up our children’s sports experience to a variety of options will be the right one for their future? Barring the expertise of a true psychic or a keenly accurate Magic Eight Ball, we don’t have much to base our decisions on other than our own limited intuitive knowledge of our child’s abilities and stamina. It’s hard to say after only observing six to 10 years of our son’s or daughter’s lifetime what assessments we can make about their play, their strengths, and their adaptability. There are some significant studies and professional outlooks on this topic which may help guide our decisions.

By way of open disclosure, both my sons gave up all their other sports and arts interests by age 11. We certainly agonized over that decision, especially because each had good talent in other areas which we didn’t want them to later regret not pursuing. However, we were primarily motivated to their request because each showed tremendous passion for soccer and seemed genuinely unhappy playing other sports. For example, Robbie left every baseball game dejected and frustrated, which seemed confusing since he always got at least one hit during every game, his team won every game, and once he had an unassisted triple play. But he just couldn’t handle the down time waiting for his turn to bat, waiting for a hit to activate field play, and waiting for half an inning to get back out on the diamond. He liked the constant action of soccer where he was lucky enough to play most minutes. After several car rides of him pouting in the back seat and exhaling in loud, angry sighs, I gave in and let him drop the last additional sport he was playing. It may not have been an informed decision, but it luckily proved to be a good decision for both boys who continue to play and watch soccer with the same gleeful passion they had in elementary school. It could have ended differently, even disastrously, so I do wish I had paid more attention to the literature before we made the choice. There are the three areas to consider:  physical, psychological, and social. The opinions vary, but the examples exist to help us chart a course.

On the physical end, physicians and trainers want parents and coaches to carefully consider the effects of long-term repetitive movements on the physical development of players’ muscles, joints, and actual growth. The concern is that young players who don’t have the bone strength and long bone growth to maintain the rigorous training that year-round soccer demands without injury and/or physical damage. The American Academy of Orthopedics defines these overuse injuries as “continually us[ing] the same muscle groups and appl[ying] unchanging stress to specific areas of the body. This can lead to muscle imbalances that, when combined with overtraining and inadequate periods of rest, put children at serious risk…” They recommend limiting the number of teams a child plays on and not playing a sport year-round, taking a season to play a different sport. Likewise Alexandra Fenwick in Sports Illustrated found that "Counter to the prevailing notion that early specialization is key to a pro career, studies show that future elites actually practice less on average in their eventual sports than near-elites and that most U.S.-born big leaguers play multiple sports through high school.”  On the other hand, soccer players in around the world begin in the sport at age five or six and play it exclusively throughout their youth. What all medical experts do agree upon is that children exhibiting the symptoms of overuse injury should take a break. Those symptoms include pain that doesn’t subside with time, swelling along with redness that doesn’t improve with treatment, and visible motion problems such as limping or not running as well. Experts also agree that players who don’t develop physical stamina through proper training will suffer more injuries. Therefore it’s important that if a child chooses to pursue soccer exclusively and at a high level, he or she gets the appropriate training and medical supervision.

We never should make our decision on the dream of our child playing high school, college, or professional soccer. The numbers just don’t justify it. There are well over 13 million youth soccer players in the U.S., split nearly 50/50 between male and female players, but only 410,000 in men’s high school soccer. Around 6% or 24,000 go on to college and less than 2% of those go pro. Those aren’t the kinds of numbers to justify the risk of early injury through specialization. So the physical argument of the puzzle is significant when urging your child not to focus entirely on soccer. We need to also look at other factors as they regard what to do with our children’s desire to be a soccer player exclusively.

Youth players drop out of sports in huge numbers when they reach middle school. A big reason for that loss is burn out. When kids have numerous practices with a difficult regimen of games and tournaments, they can feel overwhelmed or in a rut. Dr. Alan Goldberg of Competitive Advantage, an organization to help develop and support top youth athletes, addresses the issue of burnout as a result of pressure to perform, having one’s self-worth attached to success, feelings of isolation from non-soccer peers, and bad relationships with coaches and teammates. Ironically, considering the impact of overuse injuries, one of the main symptoms of burnout according to Dr. Goldberg is complaining of constant injury or illness. These are sure excuses to get a child guilt-free out of the rut without much question from parents and coaches. Excessive complaints can be a sharp indicator that a child is feeling stressed. If kids are getting far more negative comments from a coach than positive it can adversely affect their self-image, especially in tween and early teen years. Having a broader base of activities allows kids to experience a range of successes and coaching which has important psychological benefits. Players can go through phases where they may want to quit, but if the reason is transitory, they get past it and return to their love of the game. This mental factor could be the most important in deciding if a youth should specialize in soccer to the exclusion of other sports. Does your child show strong passion for the sport?  How do they handle defeat?  Do they take criticism well?  How do they handle pressure?  I often think about gymnasts who rarely have any type of career after age 21. If they want to be gymnasts they need to focus on the sport at a very early age. The level of commitment to move to the next level of training and skill requires maturity and strength. Since few kids will move to the stratosphere of abilities, what we parents want is to keep them engaged enough in the sport to continue to enjoy the advantages of playing:  physical conditioning, team work and collaboration, handling wins and losses with dignity, and most importantly having fun. So burnout should be avoided. The best way to ensure that for most kids is to give them breaks from soccer and reducing the work load (i.e. not playing on multiple teams or staying an extra year on a rec team). Sports should not be a source of stress, anger, or helplessness.

Finally we need to consider the social costs of concentrating solely on soccer. Kids might find themselves isolated from non-soccer-playing peers due to the demands the sport makes on them year-round. This becomes more acute as kids get older. Soccer can intrude on school dances, Bat and Bar Mitzvahs, Homecoming, class trips, and service projects, not to mention trips to the mall or going to movies with a group of friends. Since most weekends, nights, and summer days are dedicated to soccer practices and competitions, it can be hard to carve out time for non-soccer activities with peers outside of the sport. All the focus on soccer can also affect the entire family’s social life. If younger siblings have to accompany parents to watch games, they can feel just as isolated, and they can feel short-changed if family vacations are centered on soccer tournaments. We parents need to figure out how a decision to play just soccer (which usually means playing at a higher level) will affect everyone. Our job is to create balance so that no child experiences unfair demands on his or her time. We also need to keep our kids’ egos in checks so that the success of a team doesn’t translate into the single factor establishing a child’s self-worth. It can’t be said too often – playing a sport should be fun which adds to a child’s positive development. Also to be considered are the external pressures a child feels to continue playing a sport. The pressures can come from teammates, coaches, and especially parents. Kids may express a desire to pursue a sport based on these external cues from those children want to please. It’s important that parents continually reinforce with their players that the choice to play or not to play won’t affect how we view our children’s value.

The question of commitment brackets all of these matters. The Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology published a study by Tara Scalan and others examining how commitment is affected by various behaviors during sports and how it affects the overall well-being of a youth athlete. The study defined commitment as “a psychological state representing the desire or resolve to continue sport participation.”  We might call it passion, especially as it relates to making the decision to focus on soccer as a young player. What the researchers discovered, which may seem intuitive, is that players who had sport enjoyment and experienced a personal investment in the sport were the most committed. As enjoyment and investment declined so did commitment. Likewise the more committed a player was, the more their investment grew. The authors stated that “because these investments cannot be retrieved upon termination of involvement, people become more psychologically attached as they allocate increasing amounts of resources to their participation.”  I view it somewhat differently. The investment isn’t tangible but does pay out eventually if managed properly. The return for athletes comes from physical conditioning, pride in accomplishment, learning to collaborate, respect for authority, and emotional flexibility. However, their assessment that players become attached to the sport the more they invest in it becomes a valuable aspect in making a decision. Kids may feel that they can’t quit if they have put all their energies into one sport, therefore putting a psychological pressure on them that we may falsely interpret as passion when it is actually desperation and a fear of failure. Again, talking to our children and especially reassuring them that our love and respect for them isn’t based on their success as a soccer player will help our kids embrace the proper balance in their sports life.

Anecdotally, my sons never suffered any injuries even though they played on as many as four teams at the same time. I attribute that to good training, rest when aches and pains presented themselves, and regular medical evaluation. There were periods when each considered giving up on soccer, but those feelings were usually based on some transient concern so when it evaporated, so did their consideration of quitting. Personally I would have preferred they chose to continue playing other sports because it was fun to watch them in different situations plus I liked the parents of the kids on those teams and enjoyed their company. We were also lucky that the boys were only two years apart and we had no other children at home. They usually played in the same tournaments, so travel was easy and no one really had to sacrifice. However, we usually took one or two other players with us because their families had other commitments with their other children, so I recognize that we were very lucky in that regard. Everyone has to make their own best decision based on the concerns that are inherent in focusing on a single sport which usually means a sport played at the highest levels. The answer isn’t easy, and it isn’t one-size fits all.

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Susan Boyd

Anyone associated with youth sports knows the broad spectrum of emotions and behaviors on display at competitions. We’ve all seen moments of tremendous restraint, professionalism and dignity. We’ve also witnessed embarrassing scenes of tantrums, condescension, anger and taunting. Contests bring out the best and worst in us as we pin our hopes and self-esteem on wins and suffer through losses. Over Memorial Day weekend I traveled to Ohio to watch two grandsons in their respective baseball tournaments in Dayton and Columbus. Right on schedule, the emotions came out.

Let’s get the ugly out of the way. First, the ugliest behavior didn’t come from anyone at the tournaments, but definitely affects the integrity of sport. Fourteen FIFA board of director members and sports marketing agents were arrested and accused of bribery and corruption. The trickle-down effect on youth sports will be both financial, as sponsors pull out, and disruptive as a tarnished image of soccer gives parents and kids pause. We’ve seen scandals come from powerful people in athletics that left a stain on the sport, especially for impressionable youth. In Milwaukee, the boy-next-door image of Brewer Ryan Braun suffered first through a false denial that he had used performance enhancing drugs then proof that he in fact had. He has rehabilitated his respectability, but the poor kids who had flocked to buy his jersey when he was exalted now felt shame wearing his number. The ugliness that greed and entitlement can bring to a sport demeans the spirit of play.

Ugly sprang up during my oldest grandson’s last game. There was a call against the opposing team. I can’t even recall what that was, because it led to a series of spiraling bad outcomes. The other team’s coach protested the call, and when that failed, continued to yammer disapproval at the umpires from the dugout. Both officials told him to stop at separate times, so by the end of the inning we all thought it would be water under the bridge. Not so. Any close call went our way, strikes became balls for us (nearly half our batting order earned walks in one inning), and as a result we got nine runs that inning. Out of frustration, the opposing pitchers began to throw at our batters, putting even more runners on base. We won in the 4th inning due to a slaughter rule. We needed one more run in the 4th to end the game, and through a series of walks and hit players we got that run. What made this incident so ugly was first that the game didn’t matter and second that the officials colluded to insure our win as retaliation for the boorish behavior of the opposition’s coach. The game was a “consolation” one for teams that didn’t make it to the play-offs. The tournament organizers wanted teams to get a value out of traveling to Dayton, so provided them with a fourth game. What should have been a fun scrimmage got blemished by ego and temper. For my grandson’s team there was little joy in winning because it wasn’t about their skill and persistence. Since the umpires engineered the victory for their own bruised egos, they hurt both youth teams. The adults should have risen above pettiness for the sake of the kids and the spirit of the game, but they were too fixated on being the alpha adult in this circus.

Bad showed up in the usual ways. Although there is no rule against it, teams taunting their opponents from the dugout defies the spirit of youth play. Coaches should lead by teaching and example. Rather than condoning jeering from the team against the competition, they should be teaching encouragement for their players whether on offense or defense. We saw taunting twice, and both times it was really uncomfortable, especially when it occurred in a U-11 game. Bad was demonstrated by the parents who coached from the bleachers, by kids reduced to tears on the mound because they lost their edge and coaches kept them in, by teams knowingly using illegal bats, by coaches loudly and publicly criticizing players, and by parents worrying more about winning than about watching their kids have fun. All too often we accept these bad behaviors because they are so common and we ourselves may engage in them. When immersed in a tournament environment, parents feel the anxiety of a trio or more of games in a weekend that can quickly catapult a team to the finals or drop them in the basement. That anxiety can translate to impulsive outbursts that don’t represent the dignity and positivity that we should maintain in youth sports. We have all been guilty of second-guessing the coach, openly criticizing players, and making demands of our own kids. There’s no doubt that the bad side of our personalities can quickly and unexpectantly creep out. I’ve often wished I could just inhale the things I said out loud without thinking of the impact of those comments on the people around me. We all need to be willing to apologize when we overstep propriety, though many of us don’t. Keeping in mind that our children will mimic our behaviors, we need to try our best to contain those opinions and outbursts. That goes double for officials and coaches. These are the authority figures in our children’s world that most impact their sports behaviors. When the authorities treat the players and the game with respect, kids recognize the importance of exercising their own respect towards their teammates, opponents, and officials.

I saved the good for last because despite the cloud of misdeeds and misbehaviors at the tournament, the overriding mood was positive. We need to acknowledge blight so we can eradicate it. However, we can use the best of a moment as the guiding light for the future. We did witness many examples of extraordinary good sportsmanship. Parents focused on the positives during tough competition and congratulated opponents for good hitting and pitching. Coaches handled disagreements calmly and rationally. When a player was called out at first because he tripped before the base, he burst into tears. Parents from both teams applauded his effort and gave him support as he dejectedly trudged to the dugout. The next time he was up, he got support from the crowd who encouraged him to get a hit. When he reached first base safely, everyone cheered. My U-11 grandson’s team won their first game 19 – 1. It was a final inning burst of hot bats that drove the score from 7 – 1. Naturally the opposing team became frustrated and crestfallen. So after the final out, my grandson’s team quickly gave a cheer to their opponents and the coach publically praised the challengers for their perseverance. As he told them, “It’s easy to keep playing when you’re winning. You showed character in this loss. You should be proud.” These words exemplify the role model adults can be. When a team ran out of water and sports drinks, the other team shared some bottles from its cooler. After watching six games, in four of them both teams left laughing and smiling. When the U-11 team lost a game by six runs, they still raced their coach to the outfield afterwards leaping and shouting with total joy despite the loss. That means they had fun, which is the real point of any youth sport. Only a small percentage of those who start out in a sport will still be playing it by age 15. The statistics show that kids shift their interests after age 14. So these years of playing should ultimately be about enjoying themselves, forming friendships, and learning moral lessons that will carry them throughout life.

I know that both my grandsons will remember the wins and losses from this tournament for a long time. They still talk about games they played two years ago. However, hopefully they will also remember the good from the weekend and block out the bad. What I fear is that the really ugly events made a strong impression tainting all the games they played. We parents need to make those ugly and bad moments teachable, encouraging our children to recognize how the behavior of a few ruined the experience for all. We can direct their attention away from the worst bits and remind them of the best. Most importantly we shouldn’t be the ones creating and/or condoning the uncomfortable experiences. If we can mitigate the outcomes by approaching offending adults, then we should. But if that would only fan the fire, then we should let our children know that we don’t approve. We can offer them positive alternatives so that they learn it won’t always be sunshine and roses but the good things do exist if we just seek them out.

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