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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". 

 

For Love of Country

Susan Boyd

This week the United States Women’s National Team marched decisively toward qualifying for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup by winning the CONCACAF Championship. The top three teams automatically earn a berth and the fourth place team will participate in a play-off against a CONMEBOL team (South America) for one last spot that the two leagues share. Presently, they are ranked as the top women’s team in the world. The World Cup will be played June 6 – July 5, 2015 across Canada. Having watched the CONCACAF games, I’m impressed with the quality of soccer. The matches have so much to offer youth players. While we focus on the male superstars, we too often forget the level of soccer that women play. Skill, team tactics, determination, power, and spectacular performances come together with the women’s matches. These are great opportunities for youth players, both girls and boys, to witness some of the brightest and most athletic players in the world practice their craft.

I mention all of this because having the World Cup in Canada means it’s more accessible to us than any of the upcoming Men’s World Cups. In 2018, the men will play in Russia. Who knows what our relationship will be with Russia by then given recent world events. I also remember the 1980 Olympics in Moscow that America boycotted, so there’s a precedent for not participating due to politics. The 2022 World Cup will be in Qatar in the heart of summer, so heat will be a tremendous factor. Again, we may find politics playing a role in who attends the event, to the point some teams may not feel safe to participate. The Middle East will hopefully settle down by then, but it may also explode further. Given that backdrop, Canada will be quiet, safe and manageable for families and teams.

Soccer fans support and promote the men’s game, yet some of the most athletic and amazing players come from the “fairer sex.” When looking at World Cup records, women stand equal with the men, and several women surpass the men in the number of consecutive World Cups and goals. Nail-biter games have elevated the Women’s World Cup. In 2011, the U.S. lost to Japan in an extra-time game that had breathtaking moments of great play and close calls. They beat China in 1999 in a double overtime game that was decided by penalty kicks. In six Women’s World Cups, the U.S. has won twice and come in either second or third in the other four years. It’s a pretty amazing record, one that promises to continue next year. This is all the more reason for young fans to come watch live matches at such a high international level that are at our doorstep. The United States obviously has an amazing team, but Japan, Brazil, Germany, Norway and Sweden have top squads that offer intense competition and crowd-pleasing play. Certainly, you can watch these games on TV, and at a bare minimum that’s what we soccer families should be doing. But given this great opportunity to go see matches live, I’m hoping parents and youth soccer clubs will seize the good fortune the locations offer.

FIFA, through Ticketmaster, tender a number of ticket packages that include a full pass and a half pass to the venues across Canada. Those who purchase the packages will have the first chance to buy tickets to the finals on July 5 in Vancouver. Specific seats for the packages will not be available until November, so right now all packages can be obtained. However, once the teams are selected and the venues where those teams will play announced, ticket sales will pick up and sell out quickly. You can either take a chance now to buy passes for a stadium close to you or you can wait for the schedule and risk not getting good seats or even any seats. United States matches will sell out quickly. You can get tickets through this link at FIFA www.fifa.com/womensworldcup/organisation/ticketing/. As a warning, you will only have two minutes to complete your order, so have your credit card ready before you open up the site. Group sales are available through the same link if your youth team wants to attend some games. One last warning, remember that you now need a passport or a passport card to travel to and from Canada, so if you don’t have one of those documents for everyone in your party, you should apply now. Passport cards are the least expensive and get you into Canada and Mexico for land crossings as well as the Caribbean and Bermuda sea ports but not for air travel to any of those locations. 

The drama, athleticism, and excitement of international soccer isn’t limited to the men’s teams. For a much more reasonable cost and considerably easier travel, you and your family can attend the top level of international competition. While we have to separate the men and women due to some physical differences in strength and force, there is no real separation in skill and team tactics. The chance to participate in a world-class event will be available just north of us in a country that speaks English, has a currency close to our own, and a pleasant summer climate. You couldn’t ask for a better family soccer trip. These women do have professional options but at far lower pay than any of the men make. If you go, you will be witnessing the dedication and passion of soccer from players who do it more for love of the sport than for wages and endorsements. That kind of intensity for country and sport argues for some really special competition where youth players can see the best that the world offers and the heart it takes to be the best.

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Singing in the Rain

Susan Boyd

While we love attending our kids’ and grandkids’ games, few of us look forward to those drizzling afternoons under grey clouds with temperatures bordering on the Arctic. But we muster it together because we want to support our players, and there’s a bit of guilt knowing we can cover and warm up even as they are slogging through the mud and cold. If they have to play in these conditions, the least we can do is sit in them. At the same time, I’m getting older and apparently more porous because the wind just whooshes through me, dropping my core temperature. Then again, I’m the one who decided to have a 22-year difference between my oldest child and my youngest, so sitting in the elements for a couple decades now is the consequence of that choice. Throw in five grandkids’ sports and my all-weather exposure is expanded. Here in Wisconsin we understand sitting in the worst weather to see sports. We are home to the Ice Bowl after all. The Packers have played in an open arena with metal bleacher seating on concrete tiers for nearly a century, so we’ve learned how to stay warm. I accomplish that by watching the Packers on the TV in my family room. However, I can’t avoid all inclement weather through the grace of televised games, so I need to have my foul weather outfit at the ready.   

The best solution is naturally to encourage kids to play indoor sports like fencing and basketball. But this being a soccer web site, I know that ship has sailed. I have grandkids who chose football and lacrosse, so they seem intent on maintaining the exterior sporting experience. I have one granddaughter who does dance, God bless her, but another who is a horsewoman. This Saturday, Robbie has a game at 2 p.m. in weather which promises something between a biblical deluge and a Donner party blizzard. The bleachers back onto the river with serious wind gusts and no cover anywhere. It must be October in Wisconsin. So because this is where we live, soccer is what Robbie plays, and Saturday will be his game, deluge or not, I’ll be there depending on my gear to withstand the dreadful conditions.

I really love my rain suit. It’s royal blue, covers me head to toe, and repels the elements with reliability. Unfortunately getting into the suit requires some monumental gyrations. The pants don’t glide effortlessly over shoes and especially not over boots, so I have to remove these before pulling on the neoprene slacks. The suit doesn’t breathe very well, which seems like a benefit at first – holding in my body heat – but actually it reduces me to a sodden mess all too quickly. Nevertheless I love that I don’t need to be holding an umbrella dripping down my back or onto the person sitting in front of me or creating a bivouac tent out of garbage bags. My hands are free to clap, pump in the air, or hold a cup of cocoa. The rain suit I own is from Coleman, but I’ve seen others equally as capable from Eddie Bauer, Erehwon, REI and Columbia. I have the zipper style, but there’s snap ups, and snap ups over a zipper, as well as pull overs with drawstrings. I think there are silkier materials that don’t hold in the heat so feistily, but I have a history with my rain suit, so there you have it. I’m loyal.       

Then there’s my ear muffs. Hats tend to ride up and off my cranium. Maybe I’m a Conehead or maybe hats just ride up and pop off everyone’s head, but I can’t seem to keep them over my ears, which is the part of my noggin that gets the coldest. So I bought these ear muffs several years ago that have a stretchy knit band with two globes of fluffy material that fit right over my ears snugly. I can then pull my rain suit hood over them and have a nice thermal dome. I’ve tried the ear muffs that have a stiff plastic adjustable band but they require elaborate adjustments and still tend to pop off. And the tiny stretchable covers that are worn as “ear socks” make me feel too much like an odd Vulcan far removed from my mother planet. So I protect my ear muff fearful I won’t be able to replace it should it stretch out or break or get lost.   

I fluctuate on gloves. I keep dozens of pairs of those “one size fits all” knit gloves in the car and for many occasions they’re all I need. But I also have a pair of wonderful thick insulated ski gloves that actually keep my fingers from losing all feeling. I get so distracted as I feel my fingers teetering on the brink of frost bite. I used to ski competitively, and I could skid out on an ice patch doing 60 mph ripping the skin off my nose, cheeks, and forehead, and still not be as uncomfortable as when my fingers get too cold. I do keep hand and foot warmers available but I find they have a limited “range” and tend to run out of heat long before a match is over, leaving my fingers victim to the cold. So a great pair of gloves is essential for maintaining comfort. And they have to be water repellant (as opposed to water resistant which is a polite way of saying “ha, ha fooled you - your fingers will be soaked soon!”). 

I believe firmly that the right pair of socks makes all the difference. Just like I can’t stand the tingles in my fingers from frozen nerves, I likewise hate the pins and needles of chilblains in my toes. I trust in wool. It breathes, it’s warm, and it doesn’t hold moisture. I spent a small fortune on a pair of wool socks from New Zealand that have brought me great comfort over the years. New Zealand sheep apparently have special oils in their wool that make anything knit from it smooth and sleek. I don’t know if they are really better, but I was in New Zealand in the fall and needed some warm socks, so my options were confined to New Zealand wool. The brag that they are the best in the world helps me justify the expense. And they have stayed soft, oiled, and warm all these years, so they were probably a good buy.

When I don my warrior outfit to fight the elements, I feel a bit like Paddington Bear. Paddington is the other famous bear out of England, the first being Winnie the Pooh. If I used Pooh as my role model, I’d be painted up as a rain cloud and floating over a honeycomb. Paddington is far more sensible when it comes to the inclement weather. He has a large floppy yellow sou’wester perched on his head, a duffle-coat inspired rain slicker, and, of course, that all-important London accessory, Wellington boots. Commissioned in leather by the Duke of Wellington in the early 1800s, the boot has evolved into a rubber or PVC puddle avoidance must-have. You can get them in basic khaki green, which is the workhorse variety, or spice them up in brilliant patterned designs. No matter your taste, waterproof boots need to be on your feet for any sloppy day, even if there isn’t rain falling. With my warm wool socks over my feet shoved into waterproof boots, I feel plenty toasty. 

Insulating your extremities and your bum from resting directly on a surface seems fundamentally important. Why let the stored up cold and disgustingly sloppy earth add to your misery? I carry two foam cushions with me to all games. One I use to elevate my feet off the ground, out of the direct cold and damp. I keep it in a plastic bag that I can remove and wash when I get home. Furthermore, I bring some insulation for my seat as well. I have a folding bleacher seat that heats, but I also have to remember to keep it charged. So there are games where it didn’t have enough juice to stay warm. Therefore, I bring a foam pad for my seat. Keeping my body away from what can only be described as a metal or concrete block of ice means I can keep my temperature better regulated. I found that the foam needs to be at least 1 1/2 inches deep, but I prefer 2 inches because over the course of a two to three-hour game, the foam compresses and puts me far too close to the chill. 

Of course not all games happen in the cold. I’ve been to my fair share in Florida, Las Vegas and Southern California to understand that I can be just as uncomfortable in the swelter as I am in the frost. So I like to keep a small cooler filled with ice water in which I soak hand towels that I can wrap around my neck or press on my wrists or temples. Despite wanting to keep my hands free during games, I do have an umbrella for those hot sun-scorched days. That umbrella’s fabric reduces 90% of all UV rays, which is important. Shade won’t keep you from burning in direct sunlight unless it is provided by UV material. I also keep plenty of sunscreen, including UV lip balm. I have a broad-brimmed UV sunhat and good polarized sunglasses. You won’t want to wear a rain suit in a summer storm because it would be far too hot, but a light water repellant jacket with a hood should be sufficient. I actually don’t mind getting water-logged by a warm summer rain storm, but that might be due to how many really cold rainy games I’ve sat through. 

No matter what the climate, I like to be prepared for the weather. It’s pretty easy to keep my hands free and to limit the amount of extraneous equipment. I keep a cold rain box in my car next to a hot rain box. I obviously need more clothing items when it’s cold, but I can usually put those on at the car, and then bring my seat and foot cushion along to the game. Keeping things simple doesn’t mean I need to suffer. If you come to Robbie’s game on Saturday, I’ll be the Stay-Puff Marshmallow man seating at the top of the bleachers on the center line. I tell you where I’ll be sitting because I won’t be the only marshmallow man there. It’s Wisconsin in October.

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A Line in the Turf

Susan Boyd

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a time to reflect not only on ways to battle, cure and survive breast cancer, but all types of cancer. Therefore, when NBC News did an investigative report on the possible carcinogenic effects of the black filler pellets (called crumb rubber) used in artificial turf fields, it highlighted the paucity of study on the subject. Despite amazing advancements in the detection and treatment of cancers, we actually know far too little about the direct causes. Scientists understand that it’s a complicated formula involving genetics, environmental factors, age, gender, diet, exercise, length of exposure to possible cancer agents, and lifestyle. Isolating which factors are most significant for any given cancer can prove not only daunting but confusing. Since prevention will depend on discovering the antecedents of a particular cancer, the medical community searches for answers. Right now we are better informed on treatments, which have come a long way, and some promising flags for early detection for such cancers as breast, colon, skin and blood. But we still don’t know how to actually prevent cancers from happening.

In NBC’s report, it looked at the possible link between crumb rubber pellets made from shredded tires and blood related cancers, in particular non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The original concern came from Amy Griffin, the associate head women’s soccer coach at the University of Washington. She was never aware of any players with lymphoma, but suddenly 10 years ago several soccer players she knew, and in particular goalkeepers, were diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). It was brought to light vividly when she accompanied one player to her chemotherapy and the nurse said, “Don’t tell me you guys are goalkeepers. You’re the fourth goalkeeper I’ve hooked up this week.” From that point forward, Griffin began to collect data on any youth players with cancer that she was aware of. Her list now stands at 38 players, 34 of whom are goalkeepers. As the mother of a goalkeeper, that fact naturally piqued my interest.

Before we throw the field out with the pellets, it’s important to know that scientists are divided on how harmful the crumbs are and if there is actually any discernable link between them and cancer in youth players. Since the formula for creating rubber tires varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, collecting data is difficult when dozens of brands mix together in the pellets. There are known carcinogens in tires such as arsenic, lead, benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, but authorities argue that with the vulcanization of the tires the chemicals become inert. Even the EPA has said that their studies show no harmful effects from the pellets. Yet under direct sunlight, the rubber can be 10 to 20 degrees hotter releasing gases which lead to a concern of breathing in harmful vapors. Add that red flag to getting the pellets rubbed into open cuts and abrasions and ingesting them unintentionally, and you make the case for further scientific investigation.

I began my professional life as a scientist, so I know firsthand the seriousness and difficulty of creating reliable studies. It’s hard to isolate a factor in an environment where so many factors meet. What is the genetic history of these players? Are athletes just more prone to blood diseases given the way exercise oxygenates the blood? Which, if any, of the chemicals in recycled tires could be linked to the development of cancer? Why are goalkeepers more susceptible than field players? What about football players who spend huge portions of a game lying face down on the turf? What other conditions do these players share, for example, drinking from the same type of plastic water bottle or wearing the same keeper gloves or living close to a freeway? What length and level of exposure might lead to cancer – just once or twice or long-term intense? Then these results need to be replicated in studies by other groups to be verified as true and reliable. Finally, the results must be compared to the general population. Is there a significant difference between soccer players getting NHL and other young people getting it? These are just a few of the difficulties in ascertaining a connection between crumb rubber and cancer.

Right now there are over 11,000 turf fields in America, most of which use crumb rubber. In addition, many playgrounds employ crumb rubber around swings and slides to cushion falls. Even environmentalists are reluctant to give up on the pellets because they are seen as a win-win solution. Landfills are no longer clogged with tires that can’t biodegrade and millions of kids experience fewer injuries on playing surfaces. There are alternatives fillers such as coconut fiber and cork, but these are products which are more expensive and scarce. Nevertheless, New York City no longer builds turf fields in its parks and Los Angeles is approaching a similar ban. The issue becomes does the injury buffering of crumb rubber outweigh the possible cancers? All this concern may actually be moot, as several organizations and studies suggest. A 2006 analysis in Norway concluded that inhalation would not cause “acute harmful effects” and that oral exposure would not increase health risks. Still, the study also suggested that more investigation was appropriate. Short-term studies aren’t nearly as strong as long-term studies, which can explore effects on the developing neurological and physical conditions of young players. Unfortunately by the time such studies are complete most youth players today will be married with kids of their own.

 

According to St. Jude’s Hospital, nine kids out of a million under age 15 develop NHL each year. There are 81 million kids under 18 in the United States, so that translates to approximately 730 new cases per year. That’s a really small percentage. Of course if your child develops the disease, it’s 100 percent, which is why anecdotal evidence is so powerfully alarming. National five-year survival rates are over 66 percent and increasing every year. To put this all in perspective, 650 children 12 and under were killed in car accidents in 2011, and we still drive to those soccer games on turf fields. All the same we should push for more study. It’s important to discover what correlations might exist between crumb rubber and cancer, not only so we can prevent particular cancers, but so we can also develop ideas on how to unlock other cancer-environmental connections. The names Amy Griffin is collecting make an interesting and significant data base to begin the investigation. Scientists need to broaden that list with names from football (boys are three times more likely to develop NHL than girls), track and other turf field sports. They need to collect data on familial histories, diet, lifestyles and other factors. They will need to compare with the general population to see if there are statistically significant differences. All in all, it will be a long process, but any inquiry will definitely promote research’s goal of early detection and prevention of all cancers.

Childhood cancer strikes terror in any parent’s heart, so hearing a national news organization report that soccer players may be at greater risk due to their playing surface can give us pause. However, given all the data, we need to avoid an alarmist approach. While a risk may exist, consider these facts. The number of general sports injuries far outpace any NHL cases. So taking the overall incidence of sports harm to youth players, NHL has a small, albeit emotional, impact. As a parent, and a parent of a goalkeeper at that, I wouldn’t hesitate to have my kids, grandkids, neighbors, and friends play on a turf field, but I would also ask for more research, while calmly paying attention to possible warning signs of trends or symptoms. Since any cancer can appear in any child at any time, it’s not a bad idea to look out for signs of fatigue, easy bruising, swollen lymph nodes, coughing or trouble breathing, fever, night sweats, and/or weight loss. While these symptoms can indicate cancer, they can also indicate any other number of serious health issues, so following up with a physician would never be a bad idea. Childhood has lots of intrinsic dangers, and as parents we need to measure how much we will restrict our kids’ activities based on risks. In this case, I would recommend “Play on!”

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Hard Hitting

Susan Boyd

The tackle made national news. Michigan quarterback Shane Morris caught a Minnesota defender’s helmet under his chin and went down flat. He didn’t move for several seconds, and when he got up he was wobbly and unable to hold himself up. Yet he stayed on the field one more play before he was pulled. Even more troubling, a few plays later there he was taking the snap. The question on every news report: How did this happen? The coach said he doesn’t wear a headset, saw Morris wave him off, and thought his stumbling was due to an earlier ankle sprain. Michigan’s athletic director blamed it on poor communication and confusion on the sidelines. Yet, everyone saw the hit, saw the aftermath, and saw Morris stagger. It was broadcast on the jumbo screen more than once, and more importantly Morris’ teammates knew how the hit had affected him. So it’s natural that many viewers and sportscasters express cynicism towards the excuses offered by staff and administrators.

In the aftermath of the national hue and cry, Michigan instituted a new policy. Instead of having a neurologist just on the sidelines, they will now have one up in the command booth. I’m not sure how a doctor two hundred feet above the field will be able to do the nuanced assessment necessary to determine if a player should be examined or not. Nevertheless it’s an acknowledgement of how serious playing an injured athlete can be. It also brings home the point that has eluded too many NCAA Division I football programs: this is only a game and the emphasis should be on the “student” part of student-athlete.

When college players began demanding to be paid a salary based on the huge profits NCAA and the colleges were making, they were reacting to an evolution in amateur sports that has gone from absolutely no endorsements, no profits, no big budgets to exactly the opposite. They felt they deserved a piece of that financial pie since it was rolled out on their backs. The unfortunate fact is that we are witnessing the reason coaches are less willing to protect their players when they feel the injury isn’t severe enough. They are under pressure to win because winning creates a deeper revenue stream and winning insures their job. It’s probably no coincidence that Michigan is at the bottom of the Big Ten conference with an 0-2 conference record and an overall 2-4 record, so the coach’s job is in jeopardy along with the program’s prestige. So sticking with a quarterback who may not be great or healthy but is better than the alternatives becomes the coach’s best option to secure a win. The players, seeing this push to preserve and grow profits, understand that they may end up with a career-ending injury in the drive for money. So they want to share in the windfalls because it may be their only chance. It becomes a vicious cycle. Schools want to protect their financial bounty, in doing so they ask young players to take risks that could eliminate them from the pros, so players want money up front and leave themselves vulnerable to serious injury, which could endanger a winning season. We see the same scenario in the pros where bonuses are based on things like consecutive games played and tough hits placing those athletes in at risk situations. The big difference is that pro players are usually over 21 and have signed monetary contracts while college players are usually still in their teens and may or may not even have a scholarship.

When Shane Morris waved off the coaches, indicating that he felt he was fine to play, he was probably motivated by two things: first, he felt he was the one who needed to lead his team even though they were down 30-7 when he got his bell rung and second, players are taught to tough it out if they want to remain starters. Coaches make it clear that mental toughness is as important as physical toughness. So injured players tend to override pain with mental fortitude and fight through the damage. The Monday following the Morris incident, Today Show viewers were asked to weigh in on the question “Who should decide if a player can continue in a game?” The results showed 64 percent said “the coach” but surprisingly 36 percent said “the player.” Letting an injured player decide if he or she is able to return to the game is like asking a drunk driver if he or she can operate a motor vehicle. Judgment is impaired by a number of factors. Finding out how much pain a player is in or whether or not they have limited movement is part of the assessment. But the decision should be solely up to a trainer or doctor, not a coach and not a player. If the medical personnel clear a player then it becomes the coach’s along with the player’s decision.

Luckily on this point, soccer and other less attended sports at NCAA schools have an advantage. There aren’t huge sums of money riding on wins. Certainly prestige is important to play for, and water polo, soccer, and lacrosse teams to name just a few of the scores of underrepresented college sports regularly play for honor and glory. However, the coaches can err to the side of safety without sacrificing any monetary benefit a win would have for the school. The plain facts are that the big business of college football and men’s basketball have laid the ground for ignoring the overall safety of those players. Several plays before his concussion, Morris got clipped on his ankle, suffering a high sprain. He spent the entire rest of the game hobbling, wincing every time he was hit. In fact, several commentators argued that he got his head battered because he could not get out of the way fast enough due to his ankle injury, and watching the play I could see a case for that. That he was still in the game after injuring his ankle so severely begs the question — how bad does an injury need to be to sideline a youth player (and I consider college players still youth)? Fans have a role in this process because we stand by our alma maters and our local colleges with a fierceness of competitive spirit that encourages athletic programs to get wins at any cost just to preserve their honor. My graduate alma mater is the University of Oregon, which has a national football reputation. My husband is a bigger fan than I am even though he never attended the school. I know how much a loss devastates him. Multiply that disfavor by a million, and you have the makings of serious pressure on the school to succeed. I really admired Chip Kelly for pulling key players off the field due to either injury or discipline even in significant games. Of course, it’s easier to do that if you keep winning, which he did due to a deep bench. Other schools aren’t so fortunate and really rely on the starters to get them through the four quarters.

Within the culture of toughing it out and winning at any price, we have to attend to the youth players and their safety. You’re not an over-protective parent when it comes to injuries that can ultimately limited an athlete’s playing life, not to mention their off-field life. It’s our job as parents to be vigilant over our kids’ health. Michigan has lots of good football in its future and hopefully Shane Morris will be a part of that success, but he can’t be if he is too beat up to continue. Despite battles for ranking, conference or league dominance, and championship contests in the end it’s got to be about the players and their safety. They can possess drive, pride, and skills that make them want to over-stretch, so it’s the job of parents, coaches, and administrators to protect their bodies and minds while giving them the wisdom to make the proper decisions once they evolve into adults. 
 

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