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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". 

 

From Day One

Susan Boyd

Dick’s Sporting Goods has come out with a series of commercials under the umbrella catch phrase, "Be Untouchable." The ads focus on older youth sports, specifically high school-aged players, and have a strong emotional component showing the dedication and effort athletes must make to achieve success. One in this series really connected with me. It takes sports from boxing to wrestling to show young players with some type of weakness and how they work to overcome it. A female soccer player rubs the scar on her knee and then covers it with a brace. A young basketball player is practicing dribbling and shooting, startled when the lights all come on and his team arrives for the actual practice. The commercial runs for 90 seconds and tells dozens of stories in that time. Yet none of the stories end in some type of amazing victory. We see the soccer player pass the ball and later see her alone on the field practicing after removing her brace. The basketball player gets the chance to take the court where he dribbles and then passes to a teammate who goes up for a basket we don’t see made. It ends with text scrolling over the images: From day one, be untouchable — every tryout, every practice, every opportunity, every season.
 
The message is clear. This isn’t about winning but about taking charge of whatever talent and chances a player is given to improve. It’s an appropriate message for all levels of youth sports. We parents should be setting this tone for our children. No one disputes that victories make the effort worth it. But improving as a player should be as much of a child’s triumph as a league success. Teams can’t win every game (even the Miami Heat lose), but they can improve each game. Part of that improvement should be an emphasis on individual player development. Most kids won’t become elite athletes, but they do grow up to be citizens who need strong self-images and confidence. Pushing for improvement teaches young players to target goals and work toward them. Achieving any portion of that target gives young players self-worth. Using those improved skills to make a difference on a team gives young players confidence. Persevering through the various tests that tryouts, practices and games present teaches young players how to stay the course in any endeavor despite obstacles.
 
The phrase "be untouchable" can imply some sort of super human effort where a player becomes the best among peers. But I don’t think it’s just this type of monumental objective. I see being untouchable as rising above the slings, arrows, roadblocks and doubts of life. Players who have a passion for their sport need to also develop the ability to continue to exercise that passion despite detours created by injury, mental insecurities, competition and bad play. Some players will never develop a passion for sports, but they can still have fun. So the phrase "be untouchable" in those situations means insuring that the joy of playing isn’t tainted by overly competitive coaches, bad behavior by sideline parents and taunting by fellow players. We can help create the best environment for our kids to feel the exuberance of play by encouraging positive input which is so important in those years up through middle school. Statistics show 70 percent of youth players quit sports by age 13, and according to Michael Pfahl, executive director of the National Youth Sports Coaches Association, "The No. 1 reason (why they quit) is that it stopped being fun." The emphasis on winning begins to overtake the emphasis on enjoyment. It’s a logical step since the further up the sports ladder one climbs, the more competitive and demanding the sports become. Coaches, clubs and even schools can have a huge financial stake in winning games. But the activity of sports that offer the benefits of physical exercise, weight maintenance and developing interpersonal relationships shouldn’t suddenly end at age 13 for 70 percent of players. There needs to be an outlet for all players to be able to continue to have fun in sports. While being "untouchable" can seem contrary to this goal, placing undue pressure on average players, it can also mean that kids learn to overcome with our help those negatives that make sports no longer fun. Parents, who provide strong support in the form of driving to practice, attending games, and making sure that kids have the proper time to fit in all their demands including school, church, jobs, hobbies along with sports, allow their kids to feel empowered to handle life and retain joy.
 
In our family, we had a daughter who changed sports every season. She loved playing, but as her circle of friends expanded she would follow their sports selections. She did gymnastics, long distance swimming, basketball, softball and tennis. She had a blast all through high school and never developed anything close to a particular expertise in any of these sports. On the high school swim team, she wasn’t skilled or fast, so the coach asked if she would swim the 1000 meter free style which is 10 full laps of the pool or 20 half laps. She said sure. She came in last in every meet, yet never wavered from attending practices every day and leaping into the water at dozens of meets. She did it all because she enjoyed the social aspect of the team and because most team members didn’t criticize her efforts since if she didn’t do that event, someone else would have had to! 
 
Parents need to be aware of their players’ efforts and encourage them. One of the best ways is through praise. No matter the outcome of a game, by picking out a significant moment where a player showed skill, good sportsmanship, perseverance, sacrifice or team play, we parents can instill a sense of pride in effort. We can take this further. We can encourage our clubs to similarly focus on developing players’ athletic abilities and mental concentration. They should also be instilling the good values of a sport to players, such as fairness, humility, collaboration and sacrificing personal achievement in favor of the team’s success. How a coach handles a loss can speak volumes to what that coach and club value. A coach who ends up playing the blame game afterward won’t be the right person to keep your player from being touched by self-doubts, a miserable attitude about playing and reluctance to continue. Rather than being finger-pointers, coaches should be planners using the events of the game to teach how to be better next time.
 
Being able to not only rise to a stronger level of play but to also rise above the negatives players run into makes them untouchable. When I see a child playing with the wild abandon of joy and confidence, I see someone who has been supported to be, from day one, untouchable. Here’s to all the kids and parents who participate in youth sports because it is fun. Let’s hope more than 30 percent continue on the journey.
             

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A Study in Contrasts

Susan Boyd

Youth sports can be an uplifting and positive experience for most players. Kids learn leadership, compromise, humility, pride, perseverance, joy, how to make friends, how to set goals and healthy habits such as good nutrition and exercise. But every so often youth sports expose a dark underbelly of behaviors far removed from what we want our kids to learn. In June, such an event occurred in youth hockey. During the traditional handshake line following a game, the coach of the winning team stuck his leg out and purposely tripped a member of the opposing team, causing him to fall and, in the process, break his wrist. Yesterday, the coach was sentenced to fifteen days in jail, but he will probably also face a civil lawsuit from the parents of the boy he injured. The YouTube video of the event features the gasps and moans of the spectators who witnessed the action and total disbelief from the 12- and 13-year-old players on both teams.
 
Then, last week a redeeming story exposed the highest ideals of youth sports. During an end-of-the-season high school basketball game in El Paso, Texas between the Coronado Thunderbirds and Franklin High, the Coronado coach sent in his team manager to play the final two minutes of the game. The young man, Mitchell Marcus, is developmentally disabled and an avid basketball fan. The entire school cheered as Mitchell ran onto the court. Time after time the team fed Mitchell the ball in order for the young man to make a basket, and time after time Mitchell failed in his shots. In the waning seconds of the game, his team passed him the ball; it slipped through his hands and flew out of bounds, giving the opposing team possession. Then something remarkable happened. The opposing player who was to throw the ball inbounds called Mitchell’s name and sent the ball to him. While the crowd went silent in disbelief, Mitchell received the ball, turned and made a basket at last. The entire gym erupted in cheers. Mitchell’s team mobbed him and lifted him on their shoulders. This amazing act of sportsmanship left Mitchell’s mother in tears and overwhelmed the coach. The young player who passed him the ball, Jonathon Montanez, said, "I was raised to treat others how you want to be treated. I just thought Mitchell deserved his chance, deserved his opportunity."
 
These stories are a study in contrasts and ask the question: Which example would my children follow? I know I raised my children by the Golden Rule, but I have also been ravenously vocal during games applauding and encouraging a win. I would like to think that in the same situations my children would have never sabotaged a player and instead would have displayed sportsman-like sacrifice. The Thunderbirds had a 13-point lead at the time, so Franklin High really didn’t have a chance to snatch victory in the situation. But the action of Montanez certainly went against the philosophy of "it’s not over until it’s over." Risking both the loss, but more importantly the wrath of his fellow teammates and his coach, Jonathon ignored his own fate and focused on the positives of giving Mitchell his chance at a memory he will have forever. Have we taught our kids to be so selfless? Do they see examples of sacrifice often enough to be influenced by that behavior? As parents, what message do we send before, during and after games that might contradict being benevolent?
 
The emphasis on winning in youth sports can taint the positive lessons kids should be learning. The hockey coach’s team had won the game, but that wasn’t enough for him. He needed to humiliate one of the opposing players he felt had played with particular arrogance. After he tripped the young man, he turns and points at him with an air of "you got what you deserved." Emotions run high during a game and winning can be the most powerful of elixirs. So it’s important that coaches and parents teach players to celebrate victory with humility. Even if my children might not have passed a ball to a deserving opposing player for a score, I definitely hope that they would all delight in a win without animosity towards their opposition. Even if they lost, they should rise above any petty retribution or anger. Once the final seconds have ticked away, what should remain are friendships, pride in effort and the joy of playing. No matter the stakes in youth sports, games should just be games since most players will not advance further than the youth teams they play on. One could argue that players need to learn the intensity of pushing for a win if they are to become top competitors. I would agree for the top percentage of players that the later stages of youth development up the ante. But becoming competitive doesn’t have to mean leaving compassion and good sportsmanship in the dust. And for most youth players the need to develop a "killer" instinct just isn’t necessary. That’s not the point of youth sports and certainly not one of the benefits.
 
I’m sure most players wouldn’t do what Jonathon Montanez did. I’m also sure that most players wouldn’t do what that hockey coach did. The actions of our players fall somewhere in the middle of those extremes. Altruism in sports does go against most of the objectives of competition, but sports should be a small piece of what constitutes our children’s moral upbringing. So as parents we can try to instill in our kids the ability to discern moments when they should be unselfish. In truth that’s the actual definition of good sportsmanship — recognizing that good competition requires acts of humanity. When we learn that football players were paid for administering injurious hits or athletes used drugs to improve their performance, we need to discuss those issues with our children so they can learn to apply reason to the tough moral choices they will face in life. Likewise, when there are cases of good sportsmanship, we need to present those to our kids so we can discuss why those are significant decisions. Recently in a cross country race, the lead runner thought he had crossed the finish line so he slowed down and threw his arms up in victory, but the line was actually a dozen yards further down. The runner behind him could have easily caught him and won the race, but realizing the mistake slowed down and urged his challenger to keep running so he could win. What is even more amazing is that the race was being held in Spain and the second-place runner was Spanish. He would have gotten extra glory for winning this contest for his homeland. But as he said, "…because today, with the way things are in all circles, in soccer, in society, in politics, where it seems anything goes, a gesture of honesty goes down well." What an outstanding statement. We would all do well to remember that we are capable of a "gesture of honesty" when the times call for it in sports or in life. 

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Soccer at Any Cost?

Susan Boyd

President’s Day weekend offers dozens of soccer tournaments around the country, even in Wisconsin — albeit indoors here. Returning from Las Vegas on President’s Day, I flew with members of two clubs out of Wisconsin who had attended a tournament there. It brought back memories of holidays spent on planes, trains and automobiles traveling to tournaments, league games and friendlies. As winter gives way to spring, clubs begin their annual push to retain their best players and find new players to try out for their teams. Every club knows it can’t actively recruit, but the ways around this rule are numerous and well-known: parents contacting parents directly, advertising on public bulletin boards and websites, high school coaches with connections to certain clubs, and blast emails advertising tryouts hoping to snare just a few select players out of the mass of players they contact. Selecting a club to try out for means considering lots of factors, such as playing time, competition, league rankings, national rankings, coaching and costs. It is the latter that I think most families ignore too often in the decision-making process. In the rush to get their child on the best team in the hopes of getting scouted by colleges, they sacrifice family vacations, extras, time with other kids and money.
 
I know what my ticket to Las Vegas cost, and I got the cheap web fare. Round trip was more than $400 and add to that three nights’ hotel, a rental car to get to and from the fields, food and incidentals. Even if you share those last costs with two or three other players, you still need an adult to drive the rental car, so at least one additional airfare. Conservatively, you might spend $650. Multiply that by four to six such tournaments a year, and you can see how rapidly the costs add up. If you have more than one player in a select youth sport, costs go through the roof.
 
Top clubs can begin at $1,500 a year for fees that don’t include the cost of travel, tournaments, uniforms or coaching expenses for tournaments. Those fees can be worth it if a family can afford them without a big sacrifice and their child shows promise. However, remember young players develop at different tempos, some achieving height and speed sooner or later than their peers, therefore judgments as to ability and future passion for the sport shouldn’t be made prematurely. Families might consider starting off slowly and not let ambition, vicarious dreams and unrealistic financial investments influence them until they know if their children truly want to take the next step in their soccer lives. It’s tempting to believe that the cost and prestige of a club should be the sole measure of its talent in producing top players. But if your child sits on the bench at a top club, what difference does it make? And assuming that a club has the power to make great things happen for your child can be a costly error. Strong players can be developed by less expensive and esteemed clubs. Families should not be asked to go above their financial limits or to go into debt for what can end up being a joyful hobby.
 
It’s also important that parents keep their child’s talents in perspective. All too often we end up with blinders on because we only watch youth soccer and often only in our home areas. The United States covers a lot of territory and talent. If we don’t get out there and see what talent exists outside of our immediate realm, we may have the false image of our child as a star. College games now appear regularly on the TV, or you can actually go to some local college games. When at tournaments, go watch other teams, especially those teams that have a high national ranking. Watch the players at your child’s position and be brutally honest in your assessment of how their talents compare. More importantly, watch as much soccer as you can. Remember what coaches will look for. Your child may score 56 goals in a season against weak competition. Coaches will want to see how your children play off the ball, if they’re ball hogs, if they understand how to develop plays, if they can play other positions if called upon to do so, if they have speed and technique, and if they are leaders or thugs on the field. We parents have to be cautious as to how highly we consider our children’s abilities. We can heap praise on them, but doesn’t attribute amazing talent if it isn’t completely there.
 
As your child gets older and better that may be the time to consider a more intensive club. If your player shows talent for college soccer and wants to be scouted, be sure that your club attends one or two college scouting tournaments a year. Some tournaments require a pedigree of the club, so it may also be the time to switch clubs. But in my experience even the tournaments with the toughest entry requirements end up a team or three short to make up the brackets, so clubs that want to enter can if they have an aggressive coach and/or manager who calls the tournament coordinator weekly to see if spots have opened up. Players can increase their personal odds by emailing the coaches of colleges in which they have an interest. They should be sure not to discount Division II, Division III, NAIA, and junior colleges. Building up a name for themselves in smaller markets with less competition can lead to the ability to transfer to the college of their choice in their sophomore or junior year. The pathway to success doesn’t always need to be paved in money.
 
The non-monetary costs settle out with less family time, neglected siblings, missed school, and sacrificing other activities and lessons. These factors make sense if your child is in the top 5 percent of players in the country since they most likely will be the ones who move on up the food chain. But most players do their sports because they love them and these sports offer an opportunity for friendship, collaboration, exercise and pride. Sports should be a family activity that adds to the entire family’s enjoyment and togetherness. But that’s hard to accomplish if the attention becomes overly focused on one child. Therefore, we parents have to carefully weigh the pros and cons of investing heavily in our children’s youth sports "career" against any and all sacrifices the entire family must make to facilitate their advancement. Everyone should share equally in attention, money and time. So you may want to find a way to throttle down on the intensity. Invite other family members to weigh in on how they feel about travel to tournaments to watch Lisa or Richard play without any other benefit to them. Consider finding events where the entire family can share in the fun such as Disney, Las Vegas, water locations, and resorts with tons of amenities. That also begs the question of expense, but perhaps families can combine a planned and budgeted vacation with a soccer event.
 
If your family has limited resources, don’t feel pressure to provide top-of-the-line soccer experiences. You might be better off, even if you can afford a more expensive club and club demands, to invest money in a college fund rather than in costly soccer expenses. Don’t be swayed by the pressure clubs will try to exert in these months leading up to try-outs. First, nothing is sure, even if they seem to be courting your child. The clubs will take the best players available, which they may not see as your offspring, or next year they could cut their relationship with your player. You need to do what is best for your family, both financially and emotionally. And you don’t need to feel guilty if you select the Chevrolet club that is more in keeping with your monetary and family goals rather than the Rolls-Royce club. After all, both cars get you from point A to point B.

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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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