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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". 

 

Hero Worship

Susan Boyd

With confessions, accusations and hoaxes, sports figures have been under fire and in the news the past two weeks. We saw Lance Armstrong tearfully confess to Oprah that the toughest thing he has done is tell his three children that he lied. The ongoing controversy over allowing Pete Rose to be eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame after years of betting on and against his own team cropped up again with the recent non-selection of any inductees. Of the four eligible candidates, three lived under the cloud of beefing up their accomplishments by using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). A Russian soccer team’s fans petitioned the owners to "cleanse" the team of homosexuals and players of color. We’ve seen any number of football players accused this season of crimes running the gamut from theft to sexual assault to murder. Manti Te’o, a Notre Dame football player who finished runner up for the Heisman Trophy, was either duped into believing his internet girl friend was real or willingly went along with the deception to boost his emotional stock in the Heisman voting — or perhaps a combination of both.
 
On ESPN’s SportsCenter, I saw a sidebar that asked the question, "Players: Heroes or Not?" The question struck me as interesting. We often call sports figures "heroes" because of their accomplishments on the field. Their feats of athleticism tickle our fancy with dreams of either achieving the same level of skill or having our own children follow in their footsteps. Merchandising of player jerseys, bobble heads, signed memorabilia and equipment heighten the hype for us all. We want to worship people we see achieving exalted goals because we sit in awe of what they can do that we normal humans can’t. In particular, our children, with some encouragement from us adults, select players that they place on pedestals. When my son Robbie was 4 until he was 6, he loved Edgar Bennett, a Packers running back. Edgar, an African-American, would change his haircut monthly and Robbie, who is also African-American, would follow suit wanting to copy Bennett’s style. I learned to get pretty skilled with the clippers! If you asked Robbie, he would quickly answer that Bennett was definitely a hero. 
 
What truly defines a hero? New York Times sportswriter William C. Rhoden wrote an article on Oct. 12, 2012 titled "Seeing Through the Illusion of the Sports Hero." Rhoden looks at four manifestations of heroism: emotional, propaganda, hypocrisy and tragedy. In the article, he eloquently talks about Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, who pre-date most of us in their accomplishments but were already seen as great heroes for the African-American community. Yet, each man also had great flaws. Joe Louis battled addiction and Jesse Owens became, as one writer called him, a trained seal, who put on exhibitions in baseball parks competing against players in odd competitions. We want to believe that because sport figures have exceptional athletic prowess they also possess exceptional virtue. Therefore, we are disappointed time and time again. Players cheat on their spouses, use drugs, commit crimes, lie, expound racist and sexist viewpoints and drive drunk. They perform their chosen athletic skills at an exceptional level, but off the field they may perform their lives at a subpar moral level.
 
Even real heroes, men and women who carry out extraordinary acts of valor, can be flawed human beings. We need to separate the "hero" from the "person." In fact, we need to start talking about acts of heroism rather than heroes. We can praise the accomplishment without elevating the achiever to the mythic level of hero. When Brett Favre left the Packers he had been a bona fide hero in Wisconsin and across the nation. After all, his wife had battled breast cancer, his father died the day before a big Monday Night game and 10 months later his brother was killed in an ATV accident. Even his addiction to pain killers and alcohol was framed in the propaganda of him just trying to be pain free long enough to create Packer wins. Poor Aaron Rodgers was seen as a weak substitute for the hero role. Then Favre started talking trash about the Packers and taking photos below the waist and his stock fell as Rodgers’ stock rose. Luckily, kids can be pretty fickle and switch allegiances as frequently as a particular jersey comes into vogue. But we should worry about how they react when someone they considered a hero falls from grace.
 
Certainly, finding sports stars to emulate helps young players develop a passion for their sport and establish goals for their development. But we need to teach them that they should focus their adoration narrowly on the player’s athletic accomplishments and not confuse him or her with Superman or Wonder Woman. While we can hope that superstar athletes recognize their responsibility to their young fans to conduct themselves morally and ethically off the field, in this day and age of camera phones, security cameras, Twitter and Facebook, any of us, and especially those in the public forum, can be caught with our metaphorical pants down. So it does get harder and harder to be the perfect role model that we expect from superior athletes. Then there are those who fly in the face of decorum with vulgar language and actions without regard to any moral compass. Someone like Ty Cobb survived as a "sports hero" because there wasn’t instant press. Reporters kept his boorish behavior on the quiet in order to promote the party line of Cobb as a great baseball hero. As long as his stats sold papers, no one was going to tarnish that image with the truth about his racial intolerance, violence and child abuse. Today, it’s exactly those later attributes that sell magazines and garner TV ratings.
 
In fact, one might argue that the press creates sports heroes because their fall from grace has more punch than their actual on-field achievements. We ate up every tantalizing detail of Tiger Woods exploits and fall from grace for months, and even today he is a huge draw on the golf circuit because we cling to the story of him overcoming the adversity of his past to return to his days of glory — just as the mythic heroes of yore. Unfortunately, this very open reporting gives our kids instant access to the most salacious and terrifying details of players’ transgressions. Therefore, we parents need to have an honest discussion with our children about what constitutes a hero. We can pay tribute to on-field accomplishments while cautioning against making a player a life role model. We can also encourage our children to recognize what they would do faced with the same temptations and choices in their lives. 
 
Ironically, the very thing that creates a sports hero may be the very thing that makes them a flawed human — PEDs. Would Lance Armstrong have won seven Tour de France titles without the boost he got from PEDs? Would Barry Bonds have surpassed Hank Aaron’s home run record without PEDs? Would Roger Clemens have been able to pitch as long and effectively as he did absent his PEDs? These kinds of conundrums set up the real discussion we need to have. Can we tolerate some level of "cheating" in order to see sports’ statistics soar? We don’t allow corked bats, we check soccer balls for the proper inflation, we outlaw helmet to helmet hits, we even have limits on hockey fights, so why can’t we expect that players achieve on the basis of their God-given skills and body strength? So long as players have at their disposal enhancement and short-cut methods to success, they will take them because they also buy into the concept of heroism — and they want to be those heroes. Do heroes possess ego? I would say they do in the world of sports. Real heroes perform selflessly without regard to any post-event adulation or gain. We should let our kids know that there are heroes around us every day who don’t have mega-million dollar contracts and the opportunity to tearfully confess transgressions nationally to Oprah. Those are the heroes we need to recognize and emulate, but for their acts of heroism rather than expecting them to be heroes in every moment of their lives.

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Comedy Pitch

Susan Boyd

Sometimes we just have to laugh even if it is at the expense of someone’s unfortunate actions. That’s why "America’s Funniest Home Videos" continues to be a family favorite. We can’t seem to get enough of people falling off of skateboards, being hit in the groin with a baseball, having someone jump out of a closet or collapsing a table while dancing on it. At least the subjects of these videos made the choice to share them with millions of viewers. So they learned to laugh at themselves with the dangling carrot of a possible $100,000 prize for best video of the year justifying any remaining embarrassment.
 
I’ve seen enough soccer games to know that odd and hilarious actions often pop up. In youth soccer, that can be nearly every game as kids possess a natural sense of wild abandon when it comes to taking the ball down the field. Their unintended quirks create some entertaining moments. Luckily, kids carry immunity against humiliation. They get so focused on the task at hand that what we witness on the sidelines as comical becomes just a momentary interruption in their real quest — a goal.
 
The classic moment is the ardent dribble down the field, a goal, and high fives all around but, unfortunately, in the opponent’s net. Who cares? A goal was scored and a celebration was enjoyed. Twists abound on this scenario. When my youngest son was 9, he played a downtown team on a small field under a viaduct. Since the field was used by several different aged teams there were three different sized goals surrounding the pitch. My son received the ball and began a fervent run down the field, let loose a sharp kick and GOALLLLL! — in one of the nets not in play. During a grandson’s game when he was 4, his team was rushing toward the goal. The opposing team’s coach admonished his team to "Stop them from scoring any way you can." Like a tsunami, the four kids threw themselves en masse in front of the portable pug goal with legs and arms extending out as if they were two intertwined octopi and sending the goal toppling out of bounds. My grandson’s team ignored the loss of the goal and sent in a barrage of shots, none of which made it past the barricade of bodies. Everyone, including the coaches, was laughing too hard at the scene to end it. It was a classic case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.
 
Throw-ins look easy, but not in the hands of young players. During one game, players tried again and again to throw the ball over the side line. Kid after kid heaved the ball down the outside of the side line, lost it backwards over their head, stepped onto the field as they threw the ball, had the ball slapped out of bounds, and in one case, actually heaved the ball clear across the field. Each team alternated in the attempt to complete a legal throw-in. Whistles were frequent. But what started out as frustration eventually morphed into a truly funny scene. Even the kids began laughing as attempt after attempt failed. Eventually someone executed a proper throw-in, which resulted in an eruption of applause from everyone: players, coaches, parents and especially the one ref who probably had developed chapped lips as he whistled each infraction.
 
Balls often fly from one field to another. Occasionally, players have to wait patiently to retrieve their ball because the field it escaped to hosts activity that can’t be stopped. But those extra balls can add extra entertainment. In one game two players picked up the two balls rolling across their pitch and scored goals in opposite nets at the same moment. The confusion was further complicated by the fact it was a tournament and all the balls were the same. Of course the ref solved the problem by discounting both goals which resulted in a battle by the coaches arguing that their team’s goal was the one that should remain in force. Parents bitterly argued what the rules should be in this case. In the meantime, the kids oblivious to the conflict continued to play with both balls, scoring goal after unchecked goal. The team that had lost its ball pleaded to get one of the balls back since its play had completely stopped. This French farce continued for at least five minutes until the adults realized that the chaos was continuing, got the ref to blow a whistle and agreed to just start over. Oh, and they returned one ball to the team on the adjoining field. In some cases, players don’t wait patiently and streak onto the field to get the ball. Parents under the guise of being helpful will hop into the fray to rescue a ball, even if in one case it was the wrong ball. This parent "helpfully" took the ball being dribbled down the field by his child’s opponent to heave it over to the neighboring field without regard to the real orphaned ball sitting forlornly untouched near the sideline. Pleading ignorance, he defended his move while the kids kept playing the ref shook his head unable to figure out what rule applied in this case.
           
Following any game, kids are encouraged to line up and do the "handshake snake" in the spirit of good sportsmanship. This tradition has led to several comical moments. In one game, a young lady refused to shake the hands of any of the players. Her coach was visibly upset with her and began to reproach her for her improper behavior. The poor girl burst into tears, which we all assumed was her realization that she had been rude. Instead, she wailed at the top of her lungs, "My mom told me not to touch people’s hands. They have flu germs!" After a gasp of recognition that we had all made similar seemingly innocent comments to our kids, we burst into laughter. The coach gave the girl a hug and sent her over to her protective mom. At another post-game ceremony where the kids got trophies, the players triumphantly held their awards over their heads ala an FA Cup victory, kissed the trophies and otherwise mugged for the camera. It was an exuberant and silly celebration. Once the pictures were over, the entire team headed to the nearest trash can and threw their trophies away. We parents were shocked. What was that all about? As one young man revealed, "Coach told us it doesn’t get any better than this." We retrieved the trophies, laughing the entire time, realizing that a comment meant to praise the kids was understood to mean something completely different.
           
All this shows that without the proper context, kids can clearly misinterpret what we are saying to them, which also leads to some comical moments. I’ve told the story of the young boy who was instructed by his coach during a corner kick to "move goal side." The poor player looked panicked — which goal? Which side? How far to the side? As the coach pleaded over and over with the kid, he finally ran as fast as he could to the opposite goal and bravely stood on the left side, obviously hoping he had made the right choice. There was the coach who told a player to "pick up the ball" as it passed her, so she did. Phrases such as "tackle the player," "shield the ball," "clear the ball," "cross the ball" and "mark your man" make sense to us adults, but they are a foreign language to our kids. As they struggle to do what they are told, they can do some pretty funny things. Tackle the player has led to several Clay Matthews-worthy sacks. Shield the ball ended up with a player throwing his body over the ball. Clear the ball resulted in girl picking up the ball and wiping it "clear" with her jersey. You can imagine what a child might infer "cross the ball" to mean, especially a child preparing for her Catholic Confirmation, and that’s exactly what she did. With deep conviction she made the sign of the cross over the ball, which certainly couldn’t hurt except that an opponent kicked the ball out from under her devotion. Mark your man can lead to double confusion. Players may wonder if they are supposed to keep a Sharpie close at hand, and if so, where should they make their mark? Female teams end up confused because the only men around them are referees, coaches and dads. Why should they mark them up?
           
When approaching any game, we need to maintain a sense of humor. Our youngest players offer us the opportunity to never take a contest too seriously. After all, it is just a game that should first and foremost be fun. We should also try to carry that good spirit into the later years of soccer. Even in the most tension-filled and significant games, there are moments of great humor. Seek out those moments and relish them. Laugh with your children. When all is said and done, those humorous events make such better memories than the bitterness of an unfair foul or a stinging loss. It is reported that children laugh 150 times a day while adults laugh as few as five times a day. Of course, if you choose to watch any recent Adam Sandler movie you cut your laughter in half immediately. I hope we can all rediscover that wild abandon we had as children and spend more time laughing even if we end up laughing at our own foibles.

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Tough Times Don’t Last, Tough People Do

Susan Boyd

This has been my mantra for 2012. I have had some on-going medical and family problems that promise to continue into at least the first quarter of 2013. Every time I begin to feel sorry for myself I repeat this statement. My parents raised tough kids; I come from ancestors who took Conestoga wagons from Ohio to Wisconsin and then ultimately to North Dakota. My family, for generations, was made of farmers battling drought and pests. They survived the Great Depression, loss of children, living in tents, and suffered through influenza epidemics and being gassed fighting in WWI. So in this day and age of flu vaccines, nuclear medicine, air travel, moving companies that pack up, transport cross-country, and unpack everything in our 3,000 square foot homes within a week, two cars in the driveway, online shopping and instant movies, we really have it pretty good. Nevertheless, when things go wrong, it can seem not only bleak, but unfair.
 
Youth soccer is filled with tough times. As parents, we can get discouraged if our kids don’t make the top travel team, lose an important game, suffer a major injury, lose their starting spot, watch best friends move on to other clubs, don’t make the state Olympic Development pool and a dozen other scenarios we’ve all experienced. Our kids likewise feel the frustration of soccer not going as well as they had hoped. It’s tough! Yet, even the toughest situation will eventually pass into oblivion. What has to last is the family, our children’s joy and the will to improve enough to not give tough times a foothold.
 
How can we let our kids know that tough times will disappear while also giving them the tools to be tough enough to face any situation? We can’t confuse toughness with boorishness or confrontation. Toughness is an internal state of mind that allows us to handle adversity with a positive and effective solution. There are several important techniques we can use. Each one plays a significant role in helping our kids not wallow in self-pity while still being sympathetic to their right to feel bad for a while. 
 
First, don’t be overly solicitous. Giving your players a good hug, agreeing that the situation stinks and giving them the space to feel bad will indicate your support. But don’t try to bribe them into happiness; pout with them; denigrate the team, the coach or the other players; and definitely don’t talk about it being unfair. Fairness is subjective, and if children think every time something bad happens to them it’s because they were victims of injustice they won’t learn to accept responsibility for their role in tough outcomes or for their ability to overcome the situations. 
 
The next step is to become solution oriented. Discuss with your children what the next step should be. Modulate their anger by gently encouraging them to come up with reasonable and well-tempered ideas. If they lose their starting spot, they might react by wanting to quit the team. After all, they lost face. Who wants to return to the field to watch another player in their spot? But that’s an extreme and emotional response to a common tough situation. So, you can agree that quitting is a solution, but point out where that leaves the player – no team. Show them how a tough-minded individual would handle it. Sticking with the team, finding out from the coach how to win the starting spot back and working extra hard to make that happen. Find solutions in which your children have to make an investment. Encourage them to give the problem time to smooth out so that any solution has the space to evolve.
 
Finally, give your children lots of praise for hanging tough. It’s not easy for your son to know he didn’t stop the winning goal in the state championship or your daughter to know her foul in the box gave the opposing team a PK. But that’s soccer. What happens in soccer happens in life too. Our children will fail important tests, have fender benders, lose a love and break their favorite toy. How they respond to those tough moments depends on their willingness to accept that those moments happen. Let them know how proud you are that they worked through sorrow, frustration and embarrassment. If they need help accomplishing that, then give it to them, but do your best to make them take the reins. Eventually our children will learn that they can overcome the bumps in the road because they have the confidence and tools to do so.
 
I certainly don’t wish anything more substantial than disappointment as the trouble life throws them, but if your children can handle the small stuff, they can also handle the big stuff. I’ve been pretty lucky in my long life to avoid really tough times, but I was given the skills and self-reliance to handle troubles. Like I said, my parents raised tough kids. I don’t know what more the fates have in store for me, but I take the problems as they come, repeat my mantra and know that every situation has a solution. Kids possess a natural resiliency that slowly dissipates as they become more invested in success and self-image. Our job is to translate that resiliency into the tools to stand tough in the face of adversity. We can do it if we also can do it for ourselves. When we become tough people we show our kids how effective being tough can be in getting through life. Truthfully, tough times may extend for a while, but they don’t last. Eventually something good will come along. We just have to develop the feistiness to get through to the good stuff.

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Grounding the Helicopter

Susan Boyd

Last week I heard a news report about a woman at the University of Cincinnati filing a restraining order against her parents. The 21-year-old complained that her parents were overly involved in her life, visiting her unannounced on campus, reading her emails, checking her cell phone through some type of tracking software, and overall micromanaging her life. She is a music and performance major looking to take her talents to Broadway. She won her case requiring that her parents stop invading her private accounts and stay at least 500 feet away from her. Therefore, if they want to watch her perform I’m assuming they have to sit in the third balcony last row. Even though she lost her parents’ financial support for college, the sympathetic university awarded her a full scholarship for her final year. Meanwhile, in a rather childish retaliation, her parents filed a lawsuit against her to collect the tuition they had paid on her behalf the previous three years. That case is still pending.
 
This behavior is called "the helicopter syndrome," where parents hover over their children hoping to swoop in and handle both positive and negative situations their children face. The young lady experienced an extreme form of the behavior, but we all know how to fly those helicopters. When our kids are little, helicoptering serves an important function. We make sure we protect them against the cause and effect behaviors that could harm them — like touching a hot iron, running into traffic or drinking Drano — until they can understand for themselves all the dangerous consequences. But we also need to helicopter as our kids start out in activities. We need to attend parent-teacher conferences, support them at their soccer games, monitor their eating habits and protect them as much as possible from unsavory outside influences. Likewise, good discipline goes hand in hand with active helicopter surveillance. We hover and guide and occasionally strike to insure our children develop a strong internal moral compass. We get so used to being good pilots that we can’t always recognize when we need to ground our flights and let our kids go solo. Some abort their flight schedule too early and some, like the Cincinnati parents, add flights well into adulthood.
 
We’ve all experienced the parents who abort too early. Their kids are the ones who ride around on their bikes without helmets even though they just dropped the training wheels last week. Or the ones who come into your home and exhibit a lack of boundaries for your property and rules. Or those who teach your children that if they type "sex" in the search box, some very interesting websites pop up. I went caroling a couple weeks ago. Having just gotten out of the hospital, I wasn’t up to walking, so one neighbor offered to drive me around since he was also taking a trailer for all the kids. About half-way through, only his kids were left still caroling, so they joined us in the car. Screeching and screaming at decibel levels even rock bands can’t duplicate, these three kids leapt all over the car, crawling into the back storage area, diving into the front seat, kicking me in the head, shaking the back of my seat, and sucking on candy pop rings the entire time fueling their excitable behavior. Dad was oblivious, stopping to chat with neighbors he spotted on the way while his kids popped in and out of the car on the street in the dark with cars everywhere. The temperature sat at 20 degrees, yet these kids wore only sweaters or hoodies and complained of their fingers being cold. I was ready to take my helicopter out of the hangar! However, I have enough trouble flying over my own children’s lives, so I don’t need to add destinations. Luckily, heavenly angels in helicopters fill in occasionally.
 
Finding the moments to ground ourselves isn’t easy. But we have to be sure to develop the ability to recognize those instances. You can let your children take on more responsibility in situations where you have pretty strong control. During a visit to a restaurant, encourage them to order for themselves, ask for refills if they need them and pay the bill at the cash register. At school, if your child begins to struggle with a subject, urge them to talk to the teacher after school or during recess. You can grease the wheel with a note to the teacher asking him or her to indicate a willingness to talk to your child, but leave the details to the youngster. When I worked for the Wisconsin Soccer Olympic Development Program, we had a strict policy that coaches’ emails and phone numbers weren’t released to the parents. Instead, we told parents that their players needed to talk to their coach on their own. Sometimes that’s difficult for a 10- or 11-year-old to do, even for an 18-year-old. But without taking the first steps we found that players were at the mercy of their parents’ helicopter maneuvers, which weren’t always the direction the kids wanted to go. Every day I fielded plenty of phone calls from concerned and often irate parents who demanded to talk to the ODP coach about why their child didn’t make the state pool or was put in the weaker training group. Coaches would walk the other way when a parent approached. It was a struggle, but eventually the parents learned they had to hover a distance away and let their child go in alone. Find ways for your children to practice talking to their club coach whenever a problem or concern arises. You can walk them to the coach, but have your player do the talking. Have the kids practice asking questions rather than accusing, even have them write the questions down and then tell them to listen without defensiveness as the coach explains his or her answer. That’s good hovering!
 
Over time our kids will accept our helicopter flights as welcoming rather than smothering when they feel they have most of the control. Letting go piece by piece, moment by moment, makes the transition smoother and still makes us parents feel useful. Having the helicopter fueled and ready to take off isn’t a bad idea. We just need to recognize what are 911 emergencies and what is normal childhood struggle. Failing is part of life, so we need to give our children the secure space to try, either succeeding or failing on their own. Helping them to understand that losing the battle doesn’t mean losing the war is a great use of our helicopter skills. There’s no perfect time for grounding, but over time we should be tapering off on the flights. Don’t quit too soon or you’ll be dealing with kids that are missing their rudder, and don’t quit too late or you’ll be sitting in the third balcony last row watching your kids from a court-ordered distance.

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