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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". 

 

Defying the Storm

Susan Boyd

I just got my son’s spring soccer schedule. The first game is March 9. If we lived in California, the Southwest or the Southeast, this date would probably be reasonable. But we live in Wisconsin. The average temperature in March is a high of 42 and a low of 23. In Milwaukee we get an average of 8.3 inches of snowfall in March. So the possibility of a snow-covered field with temperatures too low to melt the snow certainly exists. This scenario points out the difficulty of scheduling soccer games, especially in the spring for the vast majority of states. If it’s not snow, it’s cold, rain, lightning, high winds, tornadoes and for some of you: oppressive heat. Inclement weather comes in many forms during the spring.
 
Because clubs need to fit in a certain number of league games — along with tournaments, regional leagues and practices — in an abbreviated amount of time, they are forced to schedule dates which seem impractical. With some good fortune, some of those dates work, but all too often they are merely a precursor to difficult rescheduling efforts. Clubs are loathed to give one another any advantage when the gates of rescheduling are opened. State Youth Soccer Associations govern the original schedule, but once a date proves unplayable, their control over a new date gets weakened. All they can usually enforce is that the date be rescheduled within a certain time period and that the teams both agree to the date. Home field advantage, referee choice, times and days all become negotiable and pawns in trying to gain an upper hand. I used to manage my younger son’s team and had his coach tell me flat out, "We can’t let the other team have their way." Based on how my negotiations with the opposing teams’ managers went, I have to assume that those managers got a similar directive from their coaches. Coaches don’t like games rescheduled on week nights because the players are too tired from school, or if they live a distance away, may have trouble getting to the game on time. Weekends are completely booked with other games and tournaments, and even with daylight savings time, the dark comes quickly, making the window for scheduling later games very small.
 
Therefore, many clubs aren’t easily convinced to cancel a game for inclement weather. At one game in Ft. Wayne, Ind., the opposing team’s parents brought shovels and brooms and all of us hit the field to clear it off as best as possible despite the fact that snow was still falling at a rapid rate. We also spent the game brushing off sidelines and goal boxes whenever the opportunity afforded itself, like the guys who mop off the floor at basketball games. It’s a nearly five-hour drive to Ft. Wayne from Milwaukee, so we all agreed that despite the 28 degrees and snow, we’d get this game in! At a high school state final, lightning delayed the game twice for a total of more than two hours and the field was a complete mud pit, but the game went on. One league game got delayed because referees failed to show and we had to scramble to find officials. By the time we did, dark was approaching, so we moved our cars around the field and lit it with our headlights. 
 
I know that when I look outside and see snow, rain, low temperatures, extremely high temperatures, high winds and/or lightning, I am hopeful the game will be canceled. I don’t want to sit on the sidelines in lousy conditions, and I certainly don’t want to have my child enter my car after getting soaked, covered in mud, and grouchy from being cold and miserable. And if the team lost the game, God help us for the ride home! So I hope for that phone call, but I know I’ll pay for it later when a rescheduled game infringes on some other planned activity or causes us to rush to a distant field after school. So, I have natural approach/avoidance reactions to any possibility of cancellations and rescheduling. 
 
On the other hand, we want our players to be safe and healthy. We definitely need to insist that games stop when lightning approaches and not resume until there is no lightning for 20 minutes. If the field becomes so impassable as to risk injury, then the game has to be stopped. If the problem is high temperatures and/or humidity, we need to insist on water breaks during each half. We have to use good judgment which insures safety. 
 
When a game is going to be played in less-than-ideal conditions, parents must bring extra gear. All too often I see kids playing in below-freezing weather without any protective clothing. They need knit hats, gloves, warm-ups under their uniform and, if possible, some kind of body heat apparel like Under Armour. Bring extra socks, so players can change into dry, warm socks at half-time. There is usually one family that has one of those portable canopies or the team could purchase one together. It can be set up to create shade or rain cover or be leveraged to create a wind protector. Bring blankets that kids can cover up with when sitting on the bench. A tarp on the ground provides a dry surface to set soccer bags, jackets, and even their feet. Don’t forget plastic bags to put wet, muddy uniforms into and bags on your car floor to preserve them from damage. A thermos of hot cocoa would be appreciated by a wind-chapped, freezing player. Hand and foot warmers are cheap products that can help a player not feel quite so miserable. Finally, warm up the car as the game ends so your player can get toasty and dry as soon as possible.
 
Coming from Packers country, we play games in any weather. If it snows, the Packers hire fans to shovel and remove the snow from the stadium seats and aisles. It’s a slick operation, honed by years of practice, with conveyor belts that volunteers throw the snow up on rolling down to the trucks that will remove it. The field is heated, so snow on the field isn’t usually a problem. Unfortunately, youth soccer isn’t so well funded and equipped, but it faces the same weather problems. The main factor for parents is to be flexible and to understand that most climate issues must be overcome to be sure to fit in all the games in the season. So get the gear you need to weather the storms, deck yourself and your player out and try to enjoy to game because as Amelia Barr wrote, "…in joy we face the storm and defy it."

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Who Needs an Oscar?

Susan Boyd

The genre of sports films has been around for decades, in fact nearly a century. The first film was a silent comedy made in 1925 called "The Freshman" about a college student trying to gain popularity by joining his school’s football team. Soccer entered the movie scene in 1930 with a comedy about the fictional Manningford F.C. Since then, sports films have grown with some sophistication, using actors with real athletic abilities and strong cinematography to show the complexity and beauty of the sport. Some films succeed on many levels, some fail and some just fade away. But there is nothing like a rousing sports film to get the blood boiling, renew the passion and provide an evening of great entertainment.
 
For young players, the options cover the gamut from stupid to inspiring. I think some studio heads believe that kids won’t sit still for a soccer movie unless it has a dog, toilet humor and thinly drawn characters who either are villains or heroes. Nevertheless, a few good films have been produced that don’t insult kids’ and their parents’ intelligence. "Shaolin Soccer" (PG) takes traditional soccer and adds some martial arts to the mix. The movie focuses on the reuniting of five estranged brothers through the teamwork of their soccer training. It has a warmhearted approach to family, a great message about teamwork and some surprising humor. "Gregory’s Girl" (PG) puts a twist on losing your position to a better player. In this case, the better player is a girl replacing center forward Gregory, who is moved to goal — replacing his best friend, who is benched. The film explores the themes of adjusting to being demoted along with burgeoning attraction. This movie is actually ranked No. 50 on Britain’s 100 all-time favorite films. "The Big Green" (PG) tells the tale of a scruffy group of misfits in a backwater Texas town who get an English female coach to build them into a real soccer team. An improbable story (because we all know how difficult it is to be good after years of training not months), but the triumph of good sportsmanship and pluck over dirty play make for an inspiring film.
 
If you like a good silly film, then by all means watch "Soccer Dog: The Movie" (PG) and its sequel "Soccer Dog: European Cup" (PG). There are important family values and a tug at your heartstrings ending to both films, but the soccer isn’t much to be admired! "Kicking and Screaming" (PG) has Will Farrell as the coach of his son’s 3rd-grade soccer team. Having decided years ago that he would not be the same zealous, competitive parent his father was, Farrell finds himself drawn into the seduction of winning and achieving. The film is silly (it has Will Farrell after all) but does address the issue of how to be a good soccer parent.
 
For girls, there are two good films — "Gracie" (PG-13) and "Dare to Dream." Both films chronicle the experiences of pioneers in women’s soccer. "Gracie" is a fictionalize account based loosely on the true story of a girl in New Jersey in 1978 who longs to join her brothers on the soccer pitch. After a family tragedy, she gets her chance to compete and has more to prove than her male peers. "Dare to Dream" is an HBO documentary about the U.S. Women’s National Team when they established themselves as the force to be reckoned with on the international stage. The players, such as Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain, tell their stories of training, perseverance and sacrifice to make soccer a sport that women can take pride in. A third, not nearly as good film "Her Best Move" (G) is about a young girl who has a chance to make the national team. Coping with a fanatical sports dad and a group of friends who find her passion for soccer distracting, the protagonist has to eventually decide her own fate. This is not really a great soccer film and has some dramatic weaknesses, but the story line should intrigue young female players who have dreams of being the next Mia Hamm or Hope Solo.
 
For more mature players, I have to say my favorite film is "The Damn United" (R) about "the best English soccer coach never to have coached the national team," Brian Clough and his tenure with Leeds United. Intense on many levels, it shows how talent coupled with hubris can be the downfall of any great player or coach. A detailed picture of the competition that exists in the English Premier League, both in the front office and on the pitch, plus the terrible strain the sport can place on friendships and family, make this one of the best all-round soccer movies. "Goal!" (PG-13) and its sequels "Goal II" and "Goal III" follow a young Mexican in America illegally who gets the opportunity to play for a team in England. Using soccer and soccer skill as the main plot devices, the film explores issues of family, immigration and overcoming bad health (asthma) to achieve a dream most young players have — to play for a European pro team. "Cup Final" (not rated but would probably be R) is an Israeli film set during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the World Cup that year. An Israeli soldier is kidnapped and held by Palestinian soldiers for ransom. They find they not only share an interest in soccer, but actually share a love for the Italian National Team. As their favorite team marches through the playoffs and into the quarter- and semifinals, the soldier and his captors find a level of connection through their mutual fondness for the team. However, this is against the backdrop of centuries of anger, distrust and hatred fueled by an invasion, so the film does not have a happy ending. Yet, it does show why a sport, specifically a world-recognized sport like soccer, can briefly unite even the most hardened enemies and teach them lessons in tolerance. Israeli title is "Gmar Gavi’a." My son highly recommends "Looking for Eric" (not rated but would probably be R) about a middle-aged postman in Manchester, England whose life is rapidly spinning out of control. At his wit’s end, he decides to voice his despair to his poster of Eric Cantona, and with a sudden turn of the mystical, Cantona appears in his bedroom to guide Eric through the muddle of his life. Known as both a philosopher and a brute on the Manchester United squad, he seems to be the perfect footballer to lend Eric support.
 
Most, if not all of these films, are available on Netflix, HBO and/or Amazon. There are literally scores of good soccer movies and documentaries. I would also recommend "Kicking It" about the Homeless World Cup; "A Time for Champions," about the domination of St. Louis University in men’s college soccer in the 60s and 70s; "The Game of Their Lives," about the United States upset of the English team in the 1950 World Cup; and "Will," about a young boy who loses his parents but struggles to fulfill his father’s wish that they cheer on their beloved Liverpool in the 2005 UEFA Champion’s League Final. Soccer films, like any sports film, will push the envelope of credulity (witness the recent release "Playing for Keeps" that expected us to accept that Gerard Butler was the greatest soccer player of all time!). But despite some flaws, including having actors who obviously know little about how to play the game, there are still some good lessons to be learned and some exciting conflicts to be resolved. Children will enjoying seeing other kids playing the sport they love and possibly even criticizing or learning from their skill. Some of these films have been nominated for and even won some major awards, although Oscar seems to elude soccer movies. Who knows, maybe one of the bright, young soccer players developing today will put their talents into creating the penultimate and Oscar-winning soccer movie. I just hope he or she invites me to the presentation!

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Mr. Mom

Susan Boyd

A recent study by a marketing group revealed that the perception of dads has shifted from the inept portrayal of a father left in charge of house and children in the film "Mr. Mom" to one of competence. Instead of grilling cheese sandwiches by ironing them or putting on a diaper that falls off immediately or being sprayed while changing said diaper, dads now confidently step in and handle the day-to-day of domestic life with cheerfulness and aplomb. The marketers wanted to know if commercials that focused on the overwhelmed dad thrust into sudden household situations, confused and unprepared, still resonated with consumers. What the study discovered was that very few men and women saw dads as incapable of doing day-to-day chores. Further support came from dozens of government studies showing that the division of home labor has evened out between husbands and wives. We still get the ads of a mom coming home to her husband cleaning a disgusting fish on her pristine kitchen counter or a new father putting in the car seat backwards. But we are seeing fewer and fewer. There are commercials with only a dad feeding his two sons breakfast or a dad teaching his son how to throw a baseball on the front lawn.
 
It’s this last ad that got me thinking about the reputation of dads when it comes to youth sports. While the image of a domesticated dad may have sprung up in the last decade, the image of a hard-driving sports dad has been around for longer than that. Plenty of news stories report the extremes where dads have attacked, injured and even killed coaches, referees and other parents. We’ve witnessed the dad who goes to every practice and game, conferences with the coach constantly, berates his child after a game, yells at the referees with vulgarities and even takes on parents from both the opposition and his own child’s team. When I oversaw Wisconsin Soccer Olympic Development Program, I had dozens of fathers calling me to complain that their child wasn’t being fairly considered by the coaches. Each dad informed me that his child was capable of playing NCAA Division I soccer. Of course, not a single dad, when confronted, could establish that his child actually wanted to play college soccer, much less Division I. Kids believe early on that doing well in activities their parents value equates with acceptance by their parents. No child wants to disappoint, so a player will continue to strive toward a goal he or she may not want. The problem with the "intense sports dad" tends to be that the dad’s wishes overshadow his child’s. In case after case, I’ve seen kids achieve at the level the dads believe they can, but not have the passion to sustain that achievement. 
 
This points out why I love the ball throwing commercial. The ad is for a car, with father and son on the front lawn and the car in the background. It opens with the son coming out of the bushes. "Did you find it?" the dad asks. "Okay another one just like that. Right into the old bucket." The son heaves the ball awkwardly stepping forward on the wrong foot and sending the ball right past his dad to the car. "That’s was better. A good toss. You kept your shoulders square and your eye on the target. Let’s try it again. Now watch me." And with that the father throws even more awkwardly than his son right into the ground. I like the ad because it points out that the dreams of parents are often based on ridiculous expectations. If dad can’t throw, how can he hope that his kid will be the next Curt Schilling? It also plays against type because during the entire ad the dad only has encouragement. This dad doesn’t channel the hard-bitten behavior of Bobby Knight. So perhaps he recognizes that he doesn’t really have the baseball genes to pass onto his son to make him a star, but he can give him the self-confidence to try. I suspect if we could fast-forward to the bleachers behind the backstop we’d hear the same encouraging words despite his son striking out or throwing the ball past the first baseman.
 
I am hopeful that the media image of the intense dad can give way to a more moderate image. Certainly dads continue to worry about their children’s sports "careers." We revere sports to such a high degree that we forget there are literally hundreds of outlets for our children’s talents, none of which have anything to do with sports. On the first day of the Teen Jeopardy Tournament, one female contestant told Alex Trebek that she had lettered in high school academics and soccer. Alex remarked, "Wow, those are two very dissimilar achievements." I wanted to leap through the TV and set him straight. Sports and academics are very symbiotic. NCAA Division I athletes have higher grade point averages and entrance test scores than their non-athlete peers. But the fact that they are dissimilar activities is exactly the point. Kids should have lots of interests. They should want to emulate their parents’ career choices. They should take part in family activities that don’t center around sports, even if that is a significant family interest. I’d love to see an ad where we zoom in on a college football stadium packed with fans. Along the sidelines a dad paces obviously nervous about the events that will soon unfold. A voiceover begins while the football team leaps and grunts before taking the field, "You can prepare years for this moment. You train, you sweat, and you sacrifice all in the hopes of coming to this championship, all in hopes of giving the performance of your life." Then suddenly the marching band struts out, we cut to the dad on the sidelines going crazy, cut back to the band with a close up of a kid with cymbals. With a flourish he crashes them together. We cut to the dad grabbing whoever he can to announce "That’s my son. Way to go son!!!" 
 
When it comes to youth sports, dads, and by extension, moms, need to remember that the journey is just a beginning. Most of what happens before age 12 can be affected by so many factors: size, speed, interest, opportunity, friendships, competition and knowledge of the game. Like any developmental ability, learning how to play a sport and be somewhat successful at it takes years of growth. Some authors don’t publish their first novel until well into their sixth decade. Right now, there is a rookie golfer on the PGA circuit, Brad Fritsch, who is 35 years old. R.A. Dickey retrained himself to be a knuckleball pitcher so he could extend his career at age 38, and we all remember Grandma Moses who had to wait until she was well into her 80s to gain notoriety for her artwork. So if our children aren’t being tagged as the next youth superstar at age 10 or fail to make the traveling team at age 8, that doesn’t mean we parents have to become more aggressive in our involvement. We don’t need to turn into that shrill, argumentative, intrusive stereotype of the sports dad. We need to find a different role model. Playing catch with our son or daughter, even if we can’t provide any level of competence in our own play, can do more to get them happy and involved in the sport than pressuring them and acting out on the sidelines. We need more ads that show sports dads in a positive light. Ads tend to follow trends, which is why we are seeing more and more commercials of a competent and loving Mr. Mom. Therefore, I’m heartened to see the ad of a dad struggling to be a mentor in sports rather than a task master. No one has ever said women were the perfect caretakers of the home; they just were expected to fill that role. So now that men share those duties, perfection also isn’t required. The same can be said for men who decide to take on a more nurturing role with their youth sport players. All they have to do is throw the ball the best they can — both parent and child. 

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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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