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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". 

 

Creating the Perfect Athlete

Susan Boyd

A film maker and two doctors approached the subject of parents looking to create exceptional children through training, discipline and sheer force of desire. Beginning the discussion was Peter Berg, who directed the film "Friday Night Lights." His first topic on his sports-related documentary series "State of Play" on HBO was titled "Trophy Kids." He looked at four parents and five kids across the sports of football, basketball, golf and tennis. The one-hour program was difficult to watch, showcasing overbearing parents pressuring their kids to aspire to the highest pinnacle of their sports. What we have regarded as stereotypes of Type A parenting played out over that hour to a frightening level. A father swore unrelentingly at the referees and blamed many of his child’s basketball losses on the "95 percent of lousy officiating." The father of a 10-year-old golfer questioned officials on the legality of undue help he felt other parents were giving their children during a tournament and cursed at his daughter under his breath when she failed to make the green. She probably didn’t hear the word, but she certainly got the message through his vocalizations and body language. At one point he accused her of embarrassing him and threatened to "slap her across the face" if she didn’t do what he demanded. A football father berated his son after every game for all his failings and for not being in the coach’s face to find out why he was benched. He generated his own before-school practices for his son and then yanked him around by his gear to get him to do what he wanted. A mother felt her two tennis sons had a talent given to them by God that she had a covenant to develop. She believed they would be the best doubles players ever because they were ordained by God to prove His power.
               
What was most telling was the follow-up the filmmaker had four months after the primary filming. We learn the basketball player’s father readily admits that he could probably "have bought two Lamborghinis" based on what he spent on privately training his son. The goal was a Division I basketball scholarship, however, the offer he received was a five-year scholarship with a Division II school. The golfing daughter finally won a tournament where parents were not allowed on the course, but she still had not procured a sponsor even though players much younger already had. The football player left his father’s home in Los Angeles and moved in with his mother in Seattle because, as he said, "My dad wasn’t a dad; he was a coach." The tennis players entered high school, tried out for the team and were put on the J.V. squad. All of those footnotes highlighted that what the parents saw in their kids was rarely the reality of their talent. The basketball player was skilled at three point shots, but that alone couldn’t sustain him at the next level where defense, team work and speed on the court have equal importance. The football player was a tentative athlete at best and would probably never move beyond high school no matter how driven his father was. The young man just didn’t have the heart of an elite athlete and certainly lacked many of the necessary skills. The tennis players, despite tons of extra practice, hadn’t risen to the level of exceptional. As a golfer, the young woman in the film had determination and some apparent skills, but she was still overshadowed by players two or three years younger, which did not bode well for her future at the top level of the sport.
               
The saddest part of the documentary was the lack of evident love and pride from these parents towards their children. The golfer’s father admitted in a voice-over that he was tremendously proud of his daughter and what she had achieved thus far, but he couldn’t let her know – not until "they" had accomplished the goals necessary to put her on top – because it would undercut her development. Mom couldn’t praise her sons because their tennis skills came not from them but from God. They didn’t deserve the honor. All his father could muster toward the football player was screaming at his son that if he didn’t love him he wouldn’t care at all what he did and not demand excellence of him. Love was supposedly demonstrated through harsh, demeaning judgment because it was making his son a man. The last image of the basketball player shows his father hugging him right after his team won the state championship. In a voice over the father states how the win gave him a reason to love his son.
               
While most of us aren’t as crazed or unforgiving as these four parents who were obviously selected to make some strong points about sports direction, we all must admit that we have fallen prey to elements in the film. We may have questioned our child’s commitment to the sport, or drilled her about errors made on the field, or demanded that our sons speak up to coaches. Our desire for our kids to succeed creates blinders to how good our children really are. When we believe them to be exceptional then we find ourselves incredulous that coaches and scouts don’t see the same thing. We may compare our children to other players on the team, "You’re faster than Jody. Why don’t you show it?" or "How come you always let Sammy take the shot?" While we may profess that we are just happy that our kids are playing a sport they enjoy, we all secretly harbor the dream that our son or daughter will be on the next Olympic team. That dream can make us expect unrealistic play and outcomes. With those expectations will come criticism, as if we could mold our child into that perfect, elite prodigy that writes the next great symphony, stars on Broadway, signs a $24 million contract with the Boston Red Sox, or invents the next Apple computer. We will push, cajole, beg, demean, discipline and intervene in an attempt to insure that our child achieves at a level higher than he or she is capable of.
               
One of the doctors joining in on this discussion is Drew Pinsky, an internist who is also an addiction specialist. He has coined the phrase, "narcissistic parenting" to encapsulate these behaviors demonstrated in "Trophy Kids." He argues that it isn’t just wanting to live vicariously through our children’s accomplishments which makes a narcissistic parent. That’s a component, but he explains that it actually stems from our unwillingness to be seen as anything less than perfect in our abilities to manufacture the ideal child. We want people to believe that we have some exceptional parenting talent which anoints us with children skilled beyond all others. This belief that as parents we are gifted in our parenting means that our children can also do no wrong, so parents make excuses for their kids and doing their work because any mistake reflects back badly on the parents. Narcissistic parents also don’t provide boundaries or consequences because perfect children don’t require these. What we end up with are parents who push their children to succeed, provide outside ancillary training to further that success, and have little tolerance for anything they perceive to be failures because that means they are failures. Worse, they don’t provide any support in the form of love and praise because they see those emotions muddying the goals.
               
Larry Lauer, PhD., is the mental skills specialist for the United States Tennis Association Player Development Program and the former Director of Coaching Education and Development in the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports (ISYS) at Michigan State University. In the latter capacity, he researched tennis parents, coaching, coach education, aggression in hockey and life skills development in youth. His conclusions showed that parents don’t understand the true developmental levels of children in sports and have unrealistic ideas of what children are capable of accomplishing at various age levels. In quizzing parents he learned that few understood how both physical and mental development occurs. For example, in a roundtable discussion following the airing of "Trophy Kids," he commented on the football father constantly berating his son, "Why don’t you get it?!" The father expected that his physically developed 15-year-old son would have the adult mental development to match and should fully understand the nuanced structure of football plays and how to anticipate those plays. However, Dr. Lauer explains that for many kids mental development in a sport lags behind the physical development. As parents we can’t expect our own children’s development to match or exceed that of other kids on the team. Yet we see a player with a fully developed "soccer brain" and believe that if our child would just try harder she could be as good or better. If she doesn’t achieve at that level we internalize that failure as our own. Dr. Lauer’s research also showed that kids who get demonstrated love and praise from their parents have stronger self-images, fewer addiction problems, and succeed as measured by normal standards of success — graduating from school, getting a job, having a happy marriage, and possessing good health. He has observed few cases of parents being able to will their children into elite athletes, although we are aware of such cases: Andre Agassi, Tiger Woods, Todd Marinovich. In such cases we have also seen the players suffer through horrible personal demons. In the drive to create "test-tube athletes" something significant in the child’s development is lost: childhood.
               
Marinovich, in particular, provides a strong cautionary tale for parental manipulation. His father, a former lineman for USC and a strength and conditioning coach for the Oakland Raiders, began molding his son before he was a month old taking over his diet, fitness, education, and all life decisions. Todd trained more hours than he hit the school books and stuck to a regimented diet and curfew. By his senior year in high school he had earned multiple honors such as Parade All-American and player of the year (1987) for both Dial and the Touchdown Club. Recruited by USC to be their quarterback, he was the first freshman starting quarterback since World War II. But when he went to college he was suddenly thrust into a world where his father no longer controlled his every move and decision. He imploded into drug and alcohol use, wild parties and missing classes. By the time he was recruited into the NFL, he was an addict and far behind in his emotional and decision-making maturity. Eventually he burned out in spectacular fashion. Drafted in 1991, he was out of the NFL by 1993 due to three failed drug tests. He made several come-back attempts both with the NFL and the Canadian Football League, but couldn’t shake his demons. He was part of the round-table discussion following "Trophy Kids." When asked what he would say to the football player who after a particularly nasty fight with his father ended up on the curb crying, Todd said, "I probably wouldn’t say anything. It would be more a hug." He admitted that the lack of evident oral and physical affection from his parents, especially his father, had everything to do with his poor choices later in life. Left without any self-confidence, a sense of being loved unconditionally, and a moral compass to handle decisions and adversity, he drifted into a world where drugs filled the void.
               
This isn’t to say that all kids with controlling, demanding parents will end up on drugs or homeless like Marinovich. But it does point out how damaging parental expectations can be. It is one thing to set the bar high and quite another to berate a child for not reaching the bar.  A positive example can be found in a recent viral video which shows a father in England reacting to his son finally passing math. The son had lifted his course grade from an F to a C, and the father was uncontrollably delirious, hugging his son, laughing with joy, and giving him a shower of verbal praise. The joy on the son’s face was also stunning as both enjoyed the moment of achieving "averageness." It’s a strong lesson in how we should be parenting, proud of accomplishments no matter how small without any strings attached. The father didn’t push the achievement by adding, "Now maybe you can earn a B." He let the moment be just as it was. I would love to see where that kid lands in ten years, but I’m imagining he’ll be happy and successful. Rather than demanding an A, the father simply wanted his son to pass.   As parents we should want our kids to find their own level of success without the pressure to excel. We can provide nurture as passion and talent dictate, but we need to check ourselves to be sure we aren’t misinterpreting or forcing passion and talent to serve our preconceived notions of where our children should place. Nurturing is a warm, gentle approach, not a typhoon of demands. We should educate ourselves in the milestones of athletic physical and mental development so we don’t have unrealistic expectations, and we should partner with our children, guiding them where we can and letting them lead where they should. It’s particularly important that we learn to listen. We may not end up with exceptional athletes, but we will end up with exceptionally happy children. 

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Statistically Speaking

Susan Boyd

The other day in a restaurant, I saw a man with a T-shirt that read, "Statistics mean never having to say you’re certain." Since I was a math minor in undergrad and a research assistant on a statistics textbook, the saying hit me where I used to operate. We depend on statistics to direct how we live, invest, travel, vote, buy merchandise, render a jury verdict, speed yet avoid a ticket, and so many other daily tasks and decisions. We follow polls and political predictions that always have a + or – percentage points of accuracy, then quote what we heard as gospel. As mathematically powerful as statistics sound, researchers can often develop statistical data using a very small sample, sometimes as little as 10 to 20 data points, to arrive at an earth-shattering conclusion that is supposed to be broadly interpreted across a multitude of products or people. This of course doesn’t take into account what I call "dueling statistics," which become anecdotal despite being scientifically-based. One statistician will declare that a certain public policy has an 80 percent approval rating, while another statistician will declare it only has a 46 percent approval rating. The disparity comes from how the data is gathered. Depending on the questions, participants can provide widely different results. Inquiring if you want a big box store two blocks from your house will likely result in a resounding "no" while asking do you want convenient shopping possibilities in your town is more likely to elicit a "yes." Of course, those statistics which can avoid the taint of bias and depend solely on mathematically- or scientifically-generated data, like baseball statistics or double-blind drug studies, are far more trustworthy and significant. Yet, in the end we all pick and choose the statistics we feel best suit our preconceived notions about what is actually true.
               
During Thanksgiving dinner, our conversation turned to soccer, which pretty much takes up a majority of our conversation at any time. With a goalkeeper son and a striker son, we have the field of play and opinion covered. For some reason, we started talking about penalty kicks, and I mentioned a study that said nearly 80 percent of all penalty kick shots made to the low post on the non-dominate side of the keeper succeed in scoring. This wasn’t opinion; it was factually based on a long-term and definitive collection of PK results at all levels of soccer. Nevertheless, both sons immediately disagreed with the statistical outcome. The striker said he prefers upper 90’s because he thinks keepers commit early to low kicks. The goalie said that he felt pushing off on his dominate leg to go to his non-dominate side was actually more likely to give him the strength and the distance to stop a PK attempt on that low post. In other words, they believe instinct overrides the numbers.
               
If sports teach us anything, it’s that facts can only take players and teams so far. Ask any coach who spends years cultivating a certain dribbling or batting style with players only to have some wild kid capable of streaking down the field with a sureness not born of rigid training but of instinct. How many major league hitters have settled into the batter’s box with their weight on the front leg, the bat resting on the shoulder, and/or their heads down, all the positions that statistics say won’t result in consistent hits. Yet they do it. Talk to the Boston Red Sox after the Yankees won the first three games in the 2004 American League Championship Series. Fans, sports reporters, coaches and players all knew that only twice in history had any team come back in a best of seven series down 0-3 to win the series, once in 1942 and once in 1975 — both by NHL teams. But once again, statistics didn’t dictate the outcome and Boston went on to not only win the ALCS, but the World Series. Ask Jay DeMerit about statistics. He never made any state, regional or national teams. He didn’t get any college offers, so he walked on to the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay soccer team and became a starter. Then he moved to England, painted houses and played for a local ninth tier soccer team for essentially no money. When he got noticed by Watford of the English Premier League, his soccer life took a dramatic turn. He played defense for them, made the U.S. National Team, played in a World Cup and now plays professionally for the MLS’s Vancouver Whitecaps. The statistics on any player with his youth soccer history eventually achieving his adult soccer history are literally one in a 100 million. But he wasn’t interested in accepting the statistics, only pursuing his personal instinct that he could overcome the odds.
               
Obviously statistics do hold for most cases, but that little fraction that leads to the "never having to say you’re certain" gives everyone the right to defy the statistics or ignore them. We all know the statistics that tell us flying is safer than driving, but because we drive every day without incident we come to regard driving as safer. After all, driving is grounded and flying is suspended. We may distrust the statistics to the point of never flying and only using ground transportation. John Madden, the former football coach and announcer, famously refuses to fly opting for buses, trains and cars to get him from one NFL game gig to another. He can afford the luxury of distaining statistics because he can afford drivers to transport him and has bosses who will accommodate his schedule so he can avoid flying. The rest of us have to blindly hope the statistics are true as we board the plane for that business trip to Houston.
 
We know that victories on the field can easily have nothing to do with statistics. In the NCAA College Cup this year, Virginia defeated Marquette in the third round, not necessarily remarkable until you learn that one minute into the game Virginia got a red card and played the remaining 89 minutes with a man down. Statistically, Virginia should have lost or at the very least merely been able to hold a 0-0 tie. The teams were ranked evenly — Virginia at No. 8 and Marquette at No. 9 — so, statistically, it should have been a close match when the teams were both at full complement. With a man down, any slip on the part of the defense could easily allow Marquette to score, or Virginia could opt to "pack it in" to prevent a score, but not push forward in an attempt to score itself. Virginia ignored all of that, played aggressively and won, 3-1. It played against the statistics. Consider the recent game between Auburn and Alabama. Who would think that a missed Alabama field goal in the last second of regulation would result in a return touchdown for Auburn? That victory exists in the tiniest sliver of statistical uncertainty.
               
Using our instincts, personal beliefs and natural stubbornness we’ll scoff in the face of statistics. Our own experiences create the context in which statistics play out. If we know of someone who beat certain odds, we choose to accept that experience as the guiding factor in our lives rather than cold, unforgiving data that promises an opposite result. Without our willingness to challenge statistics we might abandon hope in the face of a medical diagnosis, or capitulate when victory seems impossible, or give up on a dream despite nearly insurmountable obstacles. We take risks when statistics tell us we should play it safe. Most entrepreneurs bucked the traditionally acceptable pathway. We call it "thinking outside the box," and in many cases the "box" is statistical opposition to an idea. Since statistics are built on past data, they are always evolving as new data comes available, so even with strict scientific methods the window for an unexpected outcome may open wider.
               
Of course, some statistics are just smart to accept. We clear off soccer fields during lightning storms because there is a risk, albeit statistically small, of getting hit. The consequence of playing Russian roulette with those statistics could result in injury, death and lawsuits, so we don’t mess around with that. People with a family history of breast and colon cancer can statistically diminish their threat by discovering these cancers quickly enough for treatment through early detection. Girls who do special warm-ups focusing on their knees have fewer ACL injuries, which doesn’t mean everyone avoids them but the statistical risk drops. When a player gets a head knock, concussion protocols reduce the risk of long-term effects from the injury. We wear seatbelts, don’t light cigarettes while waiting for our gas to pump, buy life and home insurance, avoid certain foods, choose the safest neighborhoods we can afford and exercise all based on statistical evidence. Still, there is room for faith beyond statistics when we need reassurance that not all is lost. That faith makes a come-from-behind victory possible. That faith allows for a future against all odds imaginable. That faith creates hope when hope is statistically unrealistic. While we can’t discount all statistics, we can cling to that bit of truth that statistics mean never having to say we are certain of any outcome.
 
P.S. As I wrote this blog, I learned of Nelson Mandela’s death at age 95. While his death was not unanticipated, it still came as a shock knowing the world had lost a tremendous role model for forgiveness, seeking peace and the politics of inclusion. His legacy is for people of all races, religions, sexual orientation and gender because he saw people as humans not defined by superficial traits but by their character. As he wisely pointed out, "No one is born hating another person… people must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, then can learn to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite." He even had advice for the young soccer players out there who struggle and want to give up. "The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall." His wisdom and generosity of spirit will be missed. 

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Inspector Gadget

Susan Boyd

We’ve digested our Thanksgiving meal and survived Black Friday. Hanukkah is nearly over and Christmas and Kwanza are yet to come. Over the course of each year I catalog items I run across that can improve our soccer experience. Some of these products might make a great holiday or birthday gift idea and some you may find you just can’t live without once you learn of them. In any case, I make them available for you to consider adding to your soccer accoutrements. A small disclaimer needs to be made as well. These selections are my suggestions so no endorsement by the US Youth Soccer Association should be implied or expected.
 
Let’s start with apparel. Gloves are a must have for those cold, windy games. I like the $1 one-size-fits-all gloves I can purchase at Walgreens or CVS pharmacies. On the other hand, sometimes a really nice warm pair of gloves is worth the extra expense.  I found an amazing pair of thermal wool gloves with finger grips that run about $15 a pair. These are actually biking gloves made by DeFeet and are called Handskins Glove LG. They come in six sizes and a huge variety of shades so you can match any team colors. "Runners World" picked Nike’s Thermal Fleece Running Gloves as the coziest, and according to their report, these gloves feel like you’re "pulling on a fleece sweatshirt for [y]our hands." They come in a variety of sizes for both men and women. Nike offers the gloves along with a polar fleece hat for $20 in either Royal Blue or Black. You can also warm up with a soccer scarf. While you might purchase a popular professional team’s scarf, you could consider a generic scarf which could even be personalized. Zazzle.com has hundreds of scarves available in the range of $20 to $30. My favorite is the scarf which says "Yes, I’m American. Yes, I Love Soccer." Kids naturally want the warm-ups which have their team colors and logos, but these can get really expensive only to be grown out of or becoming obsolete when a player switches clubs. East Bay offers generic warm-up jackets and pants in a variety of colors for $16 each which works out to about 50% off the price of Nike or adidas warm up sets. Once on the website, use the sort function to set up the price from low to high to find the inexpensive warm ups. Finally socks can end up costing a ridiculous amount of money. Epic Sports offers an alternative to $15 adidas socks with their Twin City Euro Trio socks. These come in a large variety of colors and stripe color combinations, which should closely mirror whatever socks the club expects and at the bargain price of $4-$7. For socks similar to Nike with all the colors but without the telltale swoosh, you could opt for Augusta socks at $3.50 a pair, which come in a variety of 14 colors.
 
If you and/or your player like to take early dawn or dusk runs, there are great gadgets to keep the jog safe by easily identifying you to drivers. Roadrunner Sports offers Nathan Lightspur, which attaches to the heel of your running shoes and costs around $20 for a pair. Headlamps are great for runners, guiding you around when the power goes out, or playing hide and seek outdoors with the kids. However most headlamps are very expensive. Eastern Mountain Sports sells the Petzl Tikka2 Headlamp for $24, making it inexpensive enough to outfit the entire family. Pelican sells a great clip on mini-flasher (Unit 2130C) which can be seen up to ½ mile away on a clear night. Its batteries provide 130 hours of illumination. The price varies but the best deal I found was from Westside Wholesale for $8.50. Pricier but rating high on the gadget creativity scale are Knuckle Lights. These devices can be best described as peaceful, life-saving, illuminated brass knuckles. They come in silver, blue, pink, or yellow for $40.
 
Parents need sideline gear almost as much as kids need soccer gear. Getting all the snacks, dry clothes, blankets, and sun screen to the fields can be done in style with a soccer-specific bag. Zazzle recommends thousands of bags, some of which can be personalized. These included backpacks, canvas totes, messenger bags, and cosmetic bags. Some of the options cost in the hundreds of dollars, but you can sort by price and type using the options on the left hand margin. Fathers might want to sport a sharp soccer tie either to work on game day or to the game itself. Amazon has a good mix of ties, but you’ll have to scroll past the college team ties as you search. Zazzle has over 7,000 neckties, so you’ll need to do some search refining to make it doable. The majority of the ties are under $50. If you want a great soccer blanket you can spend up to $70, but The Find has gathered hundreds of fleece throws from a variety of vendors that run under $30. Use the price bar on the right hand margin to set your limits from $0 to $50. Where will you sit to cover yourself with the blanket? It depends on if you need a chair or a bleacher seat. For chairs you have dozens of choices: heated chairs, covered chairs, lounge chairs, double chairs, benches, and the stand-by regular folding chair. Checking out "The Find" will bring you plenty of options. Again, use the price bar and any of the refining search options to find what you want at a price you can afford. My favorite bleacher seat is a $20 option which only weighs one pound, has insulated padding on the seat, and adjustable straps. 
 
As you travel to far-flung games and tournaments, how do you keep everyone entertained and find your way there? Here’s where some wonderful gadgets come to save the day. In this age of DS Nintendo and PSP, not to mention DVD players and cell phones, it’s difficult to get everyone to interact. But there are options that get noses out of screens, let the driver participate as well, and take some time and miles off the journey, if only symbolically. Rand McNally, who doesn’t sell nearly as many paper maps as it once did, had turned to tech to create a CD called Story Starters. Using prompts on the CD, travelers must fill in the blanks, use their own experience to create a story, and use memory to repeat some of the stories. I hate the travel variety of popular games since they usually have lots of parts and leave the driver out of the fun, so I like to bring along games that have few parts to be lost and let everyone participate. You just don’t want anything too childish or too difficult depending on your passengers. University Games has a card deck for a scavenger hunt. You can purchase it at Are You Game for $9. Keeping things neat and clean in the backseat while providing an area to do art work, homework, enjoy a meal, or set a portable DVD can be solved with Kurgo’s Auto Tray Table for $20. It hangs over the back of the front seats and folds out of the way when not in use. It has a cup holder, but it is very shallow and drinks may tip and spill on a bumpy or twisty ride, so I would stick to the in-car cup holders. Navigation devices can get very expensive with lots of bells and whistles, which don’t necessarily help you get from point A to point B.   Trusting the GPS on your phone can be problematic and eat up your phone battery life. Amazon provides the option to select used equipment for close to 2/3 off the new price. Look up the GPS device you want – the left hand margin lets you select screen size and brand name. Magellan has a website where they sell refurbished units many for under $60. The stock changes daily, so if you don’t find what you want, just wait 24 hours. One hint: Check that your unit comes with free lifetime maps downloads, otherwise the cost of getting updates may make the unit very expensive over the course of its life (and updates are so necessary given the amount of road construction across the US). Finally charging all those electronic gadgets you collect and seem to need on every trip such as phones, DVD players, game consoles, and things like warmers, you need access and ways to charge and run these items in your car. Some cars come with more than one cigarette lighter and some even come with plugs, but most of us have a lighter in the front seats and one in the back seats. Radio Shack sells an adaptor that takes one lighter socket to three. You can also find converters that turn your cigarette lighter into an actual plug.   For a DC to AC adaptor with two USB ports (one 1A and one 2.1A) you can purchase Bestek’s 75 watt power converter for $17 from Amazon. 
 
Getting your gadget fix can also feed your soccer fix. These are just a few of the products out there to improve your soccer experience and provide some good gift ideas at the same time. Remember to buy from reputable dealers, who may be a bit more expensive, but will be easier to deal with should you have a problem with a product or find you want to return the item for any reason. This is also a great time of the year for some good deals and free shipping. Be sure you consider shipping costs in comparing prices. Use some of the retailer search engines like Find It, Shopzilla, and Price Grabber to find multiple vendors for the products you want to purchase. And definitely use customer reviews as much as possible to help you figure out if a product is right for you and your family. Getting a new gadget or two can be fun, almost as fun as watching your child’s team win a game.

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Surviving Indoor Soccer or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Smell of Stale Sweat

Susan Boyd

Indoor soccer has become a necessary evil especially for those of us in hostile winter climates. Too rainy, too cold, too windy, and/or too snowy, we can’t continue to play outdoors for at least one third of the year yet we need to keep training in order to keep up with teams from more welcoming weather areas. We try to stay outdoors for as long as possible. I’m going to a game tonight where the temperature will be below freezing, it will be sleeting, and the winds will be around 25 m.p.h. We are hardy folk in Wisconsin. After all we think ice fishing is fun. But those conditions are more in line with ice fishers than soccer players. So reluctantly youth soccer understands that eventually we need to move the game indoors where the fields are smaller and where the game uses walls to make plays. Moving indoors means confined and windowless spaces where noise, odors, and tempers get magnified. It’s not ideal and it’s not pleasant.
 
In our hubris we think we can play outdoors a lot longer and a lot sooner than the weather permits. We watch the English Premier League play all winter long, but England enjoys the warming influences of the Atlantic and the North Sea (yes even the North Sea brings some warmth), so frigid temperatures and snow are infrequent. Rain is not, but that comes no matter what the season.   In the Plains states, the Midwest, and the Northeast, we face that ugly phenomenon called "The Canadian Clipper" roaring down from the Arctic Circle to bring sub-freezing temperatures, high winds, and blizzards. Weather reporters say the same thing, "We will experience colder than usual temperatures." My question is "what is usual?" Last year this week the temperature averaged 45° and this year it will average 30°. Next week we’ll average 40° and last year this time we averaged 25°. I can’t figure it out, but the reporters seem to know "normal." When we try to extend our outdoor season we usually end up sorry. In 2006, the NCAA College Cup was in St. Louis during the first weekend in December. Shockingly there was a huge blizzard closing the airport, most freeways, and the outdoor fields where the games were to be played. Ironically the two teams in the finals were UCLA and UC Santa Barbara whose players rarely saw snow, much less played in it. After plowing off the fields, sight-lines from the seats were obstructed by the huge piles, and players had to run up and then down snow piles to execute corner kicks. This year the College Cup will be held in Philadelphia in an outdoor facility during the second weekend in December. Good luck with that! One year the Wisconsin State Soccer Association rented the Marquette University turf practice field in mid-February to hold Olympic Development try-outs. There was a huge snow storm two days before we used the field, so it was covered in about four inches of snow, which we promptly trampled into a skating rink leaving players skittering across its surface unable to showcase any talent other than figure eights. Therefore, indoor becomes our best option from November through March.
 
The first problem with indoor is the limited number of fields available. In my sons’ club we negotiated with the city school district to rent as many of the local school gyms as possible. It meant we were competing with band concerts, polling locations, basketball leagues, and the other soccer club in town. My job was to schmooze the director of recreation and apply for space the second we were allowed to do so. I filled out applications in July for space in November and stood outside the recreation office at 6 a.m. in order to be first in line to procure the necessary space. This scenario plays out across the country as clubs vie for limited and inexpensive indoor practice locations. For the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program, I called indoor golf shooting ranges, soccer and lacrosse indoor facilities as far as 100 miles away, and colleges and universities for their gym space. The process is cut-throat and necessary. The number of indoor spots is only a fraction of what’s available outdoors, so to accommodate all the soccer players becomes an impossible task. Clubs search for any area that is covered, flat, and as inexpensive as possible. We even accepted covered picnic areas in city parks with tables stacked up at one end and open to the elements except for the roof. Clubs accept any port in the storm.
 
The second problem involves the scheduling of games. The older the player, the later the games. In order to maximize the use of the space, indoor leagues run games non-stop from 6 p.m. to midnight or even 1 a.m.   For those of us who think 10 p.m. is late, driving 30 minutes to a facility to watch our child play a midnight game and then getting up at 5 a.m. takes a toll. Luckily most kids only play in one league, so this becomes a concern just one night a week. But as kids get older and focus more intently on soccer, they can be entered in multiple leagues. This also begs the question of all the ancillary personnel such as referees, concession stand workers, facility administrators, and coaches, all of whom have the same impossible schedule and other jobs or school classes with normal hours to get to every day. It’s a tough employment choice. Adult leagues and older student leagues are often played after 10 p.m.   Older players can drive themselves, but that’s little help when you want to be supportive and cheer on your 10th grader’s team. And don’t get me started on homework issues. Playing so late means less sleep before big tests, and less focus to devote to papers and assignments. At least with outdoor soccer daylight brings natural restrictions to how late players have to commit to training or games. Eventually more and more fields will have artificial lights, but for now the sun suffices to create training parameters.
 
Given the season for indoor soccer the third problem is actually getting to the facilities. All too often games and training are paradoxically interrupted by the weather. We can play indoors, but we can’t drive through snowstorms safely to get to our indoor havens. We find ourselves nearly as limited by the weather with indoor as we would be with outdoor. When we can get to our destinations we might find limited parking because the lots, while plowed, have dozens of spots occupied with the plowed snow mounds. Time to get to and from facilities can get extended as much as double when the weather is bad, worsening the already late hours. Often you can go to a game without problem and exit from the facility into a raging snow storm. I also know of a few soccer players who suffered season disrupting injuries walking to or from the indoor facility by slipping on the ice. There’s no "injury pride" when your torn ACL happens in the parking lot instead of on the pitch rushing to defend against a counter-attack. 
 
My personal problem with indoor has always been the sounds, sights, and smells of the experience for the fans.   Indoor can be problematic for young players whose teams are competing on the pitch next to an adult team. Every sound is magnified both by the acoustics of roof and walls and by the proximity of teams to one another. Any child you have been protecting from PG language is suddenly thrust into a world of R-rated words. I remember cringing as the four letter and longer words flew back and forth invading the playing space of my pre-teen sons. Every bit of language crystalized clearly without any filter. My only bit of consolation was that my kids were busy playing their game, so many of these outbursts were white noise to them. But that wasn’t the case before and after the game as they sat on the ground between fields putting on their gear. They were also witnesses to some pretty intense physical conflicts between older players. There’s something about being in what is essentially a cage to bring out the animal in even the most docile of players. It wasn’t unusual for three or four physical conflicts to break out during any hour game complete with punching, hair pulling, slapping, and kicking. The only thing missing to equate it to hockey was the use of sticks and I’m sure a few battles had those at the ready in the player box. I think there’s a concentration of ill will trapped in the pressure cooker of indoor which can’t be released by the wide open spaces of outdoor soccer.   Finally, most offensive to me, are the smells of hundreds of sweaty soccer socks, shorts, shirts, shoes, and bodies. You enter the moist warm air of any indoor park and you’re blasted by the fetid scent of all those body odors. There is not enough ventilation in the world to waft that odor up and out of the building. It just regenerates without regard to anyone’s olfactory sensibilities. When I speak of the sounds, sights, and smells, I’m not just talking about the males. These problems cross gender boundaries. The women have some pretty unpleasant language, fights, and scents too. Plus young girls face the same problems of overhearing language even as we all wish we could maintain their "innocence" for just another year or two.
 
So I had to make my peace with the indoor season. It’s as inevitable as death and taxes. Somehow we have to find a way to navigate through the indoor sessions by begrudgingly accepting that there is a lot to despise about the experience. Nevertheless, in the end our kids love the speed of indoor, the opportunity to play during what would have to be a dormant season, and the increase in playing time for even the weakest players since no one can last on the field longer than a few minutes. I learned to deal with what I hate about indoor by focusing on the few tidbits I love: speed, skill development, and the joy of my kids when they play. In the end, all the distastefulness and hardship fade away, and the game emerges as the primary emphasis. Despite this blog’s title, maybe I don’t really love the smell of sweat, but I do love that I have the opportunity to smell it.

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