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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". 

 

Just a Little Civility

Susan Boyd

            I took my grandsons to a nice pizza restaurant for dinner and got an unwelcomed serving of R-rated language from the table of high school boys next to us. The adverbs and adjectives of choice began with "S" and "F" and were as liberally sprinkled into their conversation as flakes of parmesan on a pizza slice. When I approached their table to ask them to tone it down, they were shocked and ultimately very polite about it. I don’t think they even thought about the venue and how their language was drifting unconstrained into the room. While this episode ended with everyone agreeing on what rules of decorum should be followed, too often in sports we witness atrocious and uncontrolled incivility, and I’m talking about youth sports!
 
            Whatever behavior the parents exhibit the kids will mimic. After all they want to be adults, and obviously adults belittle, swear, argue and fight. I’ve seen parents come to blows over the most trivial of reasons. There was a sideline battle when one parent told another parent that his team’s colors were stupid. Not sure why it had to be said and not sure why it couldn’t have been ignored, but I am really not sure why it required actual fisticuffs. I’ve heard parents call referees names that would make longshoremen blush. Even worse, it’s completely unacceptable to direct that type of verbal poison at a kid. We hear the stories of parents going onto the field, the court, or the ice and physically and verbally attacking a child for some perceived slight or play infraction. I witnessed a parent at a tournament approach a referee during a U8 game and slap him. The poor ref was only twelve and had no idea what to do. Police were called and the mother, yes it was a mother, was arrested right there in front of family and friends. There’s a warm, fuzzy memory for her child to cherish.
 
            Coaches can forget that their charges are not seasoned adults, but impressionable insecure kids who only want to please. After a particularly tough contest that the team lost, the coach pulled one kid aside and told him, "You’re the reason we lost!" In the first place that’s blatantly false – no one player is responsible for a loss or a win – second, if the kid was playing so badly as to warrant that comment, the coach had the option to substitute him, and third, what lesson was the coach trying to teach? A better approach would have been to first focus on what went well in the game – fighting through two overtimes comes to mind – then breaking down some of the tactics and skills the team could improve on. We all have or have had kids and we know their attention span rarely exceeds three minutes. A few quick notes will sink in but a detailed analysis of the entire game won’t. Sadly, those moments when we say something rude and demeaning seem to last forever.
 
            I’ve seen two instances of kids spitting on their hands before doing the obligatory handshakes at the end of the game. In one case the coach pulled those kids aside and told them that they needed to represent the team with pride, dignity, and courtesy. He warned them that the next time they would be benched for a full game. In the second case, the coach laughed, the parents egged the kids on, and the behavior became a constant until a referee stepped in and reported the team to the state association. It is unfortunate it had to come to a report. Kids, whose natural instinct is to stretch boundaries, will exhibit discourteous behavior when adults not only tolerate but encourage that type of behavior. For example, kids see their favorite soccer stars aggressively playing on the field, and they want to emulate that play. They don’t understand the evolution from controlled and civil field behavior to the tough, aggressive and often uncivil play of professionals. If they witness prejudicial behavior on the pitch against a race, gender, or religion, it’s up to us adults to immediately call that behavior into question. We have to encourage good manners and reject loutishness.
 
            Kids should be learning from sports that respect for others and rules of decorum need to be foremost in the experience. If kids hear foul language, witness reckless actions, become the brunt of belittling comments and see adults not showing proper respect to authority, they will slowly morph into players who don’t play with civility. Once a game is over what will we be doing? Usually, we have plans like going out for lunch or a movie, meeting friends for a play date, or going home to watch Tiger Woods putt. Those activities are on a par with any soccer game when it comes to creating fun memories and family togetherness. Would we stand up at a movie and start yelling that the director is an idiot? Would we take one of your child’s friends aside to tell her that she is lousy at Go Fish? We seem to understand within most situations what is proper behavior and what isn’t. So why at a youth sporting events do we suddenly become these demons of language and behavior that we would never accept in a store, at a restaurant or at school? What do we really accomplish by yelling at the referee, engaging the parents of the opposing team in battles over whose team is better, or cheering on a child who has just punched another kid because we felt the hit was justified?
 
            While I’m not an advocate of the "everyone is winner" type of false praise, I do believe we can encourage even when a child is playing dismally. We can find a way to approach a game positively without being disingenuous. If we don’t like a referee’s call, keep it to ourselves. We should expect our children to respect the authority of their coach and the referees, so we shouldn’t do anything to undermine it. We should teach our children that in the face of rudeness express only civility. It’s difficult because the tradition of "kill the umpire" pervades sports and trickles down to youth sports. In reality there isn’t a game our kids play that justifies bad manners. In the grand scheme of their lives and activities these games are mere blips; except of course for the game where your mother gets arrested. That game attains immortality.

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Basic Skills

Susan Boyd

           A quote from Mickey Mantle’s opened the film "Moneyball." "It’s unbelievable what you don’t know about the game you’ve been playing all your life." While it referred to baseball it could just as easily apply to soccer. Even the greatest players continue to refine and develop new skills. Skills build on previous skills just like any learning process. All too often coaches don’t demand that basic skills become second nature for youth players. They opt instead for less repetitious and therefore less boring practice games. Retired U.S. Men’s National Team captain Claudio Reyna recognizes that "…you can’t teach skills to an old player. Youth coaches should keep in mind that individual skills need to be nurtured at an early age. Players who haven’t mastered the fundamental skills become frustrated because the game gets too difficult for them as they move into higher levels." All too often I see players on NCAA Division I teams unable to execute these basic skills. If players want to compete successfully they have to have a first touch, an ability to trap the ball, execution of a safe and proper header, an understanding how to play off the ball, play equally well with both feet, be at least 90 minutes fit, possess the instinct to come to the ball and have an accurate pass both on the ground and in the air. Simple, right?
 
           First touch is exactly what it says. Players need the deftness to gently accept the ball on a ground pass in such a way that the ball remains close to their feet. How often have you seen a player get a pass, have it hit the foot and bounce ten feet forward where an opposing player picks it up. I argue that when people say soccer is boring it is actually because of a series of lousy first touches creates a game of ping pong without the fluid dance of a team moving the ball down the field. That dance generates the electric possibilities that put a fan’s heart in the throat. Developing that nimble first touch requires hours of. If your child plays baseball, how many infield balls are hit to the shortstop with every possible permutation of the follow-up throw? How many fly balls are hit to the outfield? Drills are an important part of development. For youth soccer, drills should take up a significant part of every practice.
 
           Trapping the ball is the ability to receive a ball in the air on either the chest or by literally trapping it between the foot and the ground. Few players do it right. When trapped on the chest it shouldn’t bounce off like a racquetball hitting a wall. Instead of bouncing the ball should be cushioned and slide down to the player’s feet. If trapping is done with the foot, it needs to end with the ball under the foot and on the ground, not 20 feet in front of the player. Again, the only way to make this skill second nature is for the coach to drill the players in proper methods with the goal being near perfection.
 
           There has been debate concerning the use of head gear to prevent concussions in soccer players and to diminish the effects that heading a ball might have. However, most players and coaches agree that learning where on the head to receive the ball and how to rotate the head properly make a header safe. Yet often players are left to instinctively develop their header technique on their own leading to injury. There are header drills that coaches can conduct to help players develop the proper techniques. 
 
           Movement off the ball may be even more important than what a player does with the ball. Samuel Eto’o, the talented Cameroon soccer player, stated that, "The most important thing for a forward is speed of thought. Top players read the game." Playing off the ball requires a player to consider what options are present and how to maximize those options by placing himself in the most advantageous spot. That ability to read the game is somewhat innate but can be taught with both film and drills. Here is where practice games can pay off, because the coach can stop play to discuss placement and have players reason out where they could place themselves on the field. As Mia Hamm says, "Failure happens all the time. It happens every day in practice. What makes you better is how you react to it." Players can learn how to turn negatives into positives if they begin to understand that more soccer is played without the ball. Learning to be patient, not to be a ball chaser and see possibilities will make every youth player stronger.
 
           Learning to play with both feet not only develops a player beyond just serviceable, but actually catapults them into the highest levels. You’ve seen players miss an open goal because they had to shift the ball to their "proper" foot giving the defense time to intervene. Or you’ve watched a ball go wildly off course because it was hit with the "wrong" foot. Playing equally well with both feet doesn’t just double a player’s value, it can quadruple it. Defensively that player can steal a ball or slide tackle from any direction. Likewise, offensively the opposing team is vulnerable from all directions when a two-footed player begins the dribble. They can’t predict where she’ll turn or how she’ll turn. Coaches can conduct drills which require players to practice with their weaker foot until they develop the strength, skill, and intuition to use both feet.
 
           Every practice should begin with fitness training. The average distance a soccer player travels during a typical 90 minute game is seven miles. So players need to be able to run seven miles without lagging and without fatigue. Players without a strong center of gravity will be easily pushed off the ball. Youth players probably won’t benefit from weight training, in fact it could do harm, because they are still growing and developing their muscle mass. They can benefit from learning how to brace, how to use their bodies to protect the ball and what foods will best develop those fledgling muscles. Once players are in high school they can consider adding supervised weight training.
 
           Kyle Rote Jr. said, "If you're attacking, you don't get as tired as when you're chasing." Learning when to come to the ball can make the difference between an attack and a chase. A player sees his teammate is going to pass to him. He sets himself up to receive the ball. Suddenly the opposing defender steps in front, steals the ball and the chase is on. Players have to learn not to root themselves in a position especially when the ball is coming to them. Often they have the mistaken idea that they are five steps closer to the goal, so running away from the goal to meet the ball is unproductive. There are drills for learning how to shield the defender from stepping in front if the player wants to stay put and drills for developing the instinct of when to step to the ball. 
 
           The biggest and most frustrating bugaboo of soccer is passing. Players seem to settle for being able to send the ball away from themselves but don’t seem to be overly concerned about where those passes land. Voted European Player of the Century in 1999 Johan Cryuff manages the Catalan National Team. He observed that, "Football is simple but the hardest thing to do is play simple football." Nothing shows that more than bad passing. Players make lousy choices because they complicate the process. The center of the field leads to the center of the goal, prompting players to erroneously assume the best bet is to pass down the middle. In fact only 33% of goals are made in the middle of the net. That leaves 67% on the sides. Add to this that 67% of those goals are achieved by aiming low means that players who approach from the sides and shoot low have the greatest chance of scoring. Passing into the opponents in the center lane of the pitch isn’t as effective and often leads to an opponent picking up the pass. Learning which shoulder of a receiver to send a ball over requires an understanding of the direction the player is moving and which side of her the defender is on. There are excellent drills both for developing accurate open field passing and defended passing.
 
           Parents should look for clubs that will develop their players by developing these skills. While playing matches is fun, it won’t correct the bad habits players have or build skills that players need. Find a club that emphasizes drills, especially in those years leading up to high school. It’s important that players can take care of the basic skills if they want to move on to the more complex aspects of the game. While these skills don’t seem all that simple, they are attainable with the necessary practice and devotion. Coaches can do only so much to give a player these skills. Like anything we learn the quality depends as much on the student as on the teacher. Manfred Schellscheidt, the German-American coach and player, makes it clear, "I don’t believe skill was, or ever will be, the result of coaches. It is a result of a love affair between the child and the ball." A player who truly wants to get better will. While drills aren’t glamorous, they do offer players a chance to move up to a more glamorous role on their team. 

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Read, Think, Play

Susan Boyd

 
            Hope Solo’s autobiography came out last week, "Solo: A Memoir of Hope" (hardcover $15.58). There is no denying that Solo has had a tough life with abandonment, reuniting with her homeless father, being famously benched in the 2007 World Cup after posting four shut-outs, and speaking out on more than one occasion to defend herself and others. The book delivers with drama, soccer insights and family dysfunction. It probably isn’t appropriate for young soccer players, but that has been addressed with a young reader’s edition titled "Hope Solo: My Story" (hardcover $9.93). While Solo has gotten her fair share of press for her book fresh off a gold medal, there are many deserving soccer books out there for young and intermediate readers that families may not be aware of. I want to detail just a few of these that you might consider as gifts for your avid soccer player. All prices are quoted from Amazon.
 
            While most kids will recognize David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Lionel Messi, there are literally scores of significant soccer players that they may not know because they don’t get to see them play very often. "A Beautiful Game: The World's Greatest Players and How Soccer Changed Their Lives" (hardcover $19.79) presents 41 players from countries as diverse as Iceland, Tunisia, and New Zealand which are not exactly soccer powerhouses. However, the commonality of passion for the sport, the various impacts on the players’ lives, and the significance of the role soccer plays in the countries and families show how soccer can move beyond "just a sport." The book is divided into various sections addressing topics such as family, pride, hope and contains numerous brilliant photos.
 
            Most soccer is played away from the stadiums and the spotlight of notoriety. Millions play every day in the streets, alleys and fields of their respective countries without regard to mega-salaries or adulation. At 16, Gwen Oxenham was the youngest NCAA Division I athlete, serving as goal keeper for Duke University. By the time she was 23, her options for playing soccer beyond college had dried up. Looking for an adventure she set out to travel the world with her boyfriend and two other friends to find soccer where it is regularly played. The result is her book "Finding the Game: Three Years, Twenty-five Countries, and the Search for Pickup Soccer" (hardcover $17.50). Her adventures show how soccer can bridge cultures, languages and religions. She played with women dressed in traditional hijab in Tehran, in an Arab against Jew game in Jerusalem, and with a group of bootleggers in Nairobi. Over the course of her travels she learned the universality of soccer etiquette (don’t talk if no one has ever seen you play) and the universality of soccer receptiveness to strangers and friends alike. There is a companion documentary she made called "[Pelada]" (which is the Brazilian word for pickup game and literally means "naked") and it is available on Netflix.
 
            Many players hear from their coaches that they need to get stronger and faster if they want to advance. It’s a tough journey from knowing that change is needed and actually creating that change. Donald T. Kirkendall holds a PhD. in exercise physiology and is a member of the FIFA Medical Assessment and Research Center in Zurich. He played soccer through college and has been an assistant coach at Ball State in Indiana. His book, "Soccer Anatomy" (paperback $15.05) details dozens of excellent exercises to improve a player’s strength, stamina and speed. Each exercise is accompanied by illustrations to show which muscles are affected as well as showing how those muscles operate in playing conditions. This is the type of book a player can refer to many times over the course of his or her soccer career to continue to develop.
 
            I have seen thousands of youth soccer games and twenty times that in hopeful players who want to move on to higher levels including playing pro. The one factor that truly separates the most significant players from the rest isn’t athleticism. Most players who achieve success in youth soccer have great athletic abilities, but without a soccer brain they begin to find themselves falling behind. Knowing where to move off the ball, knowing your options before you even receive the ball and knowing how to create space for yourself all have more to do with brain than brawn. Part of developing a soccer brain is to be a student of the game. Studying matches on TV, going to live games and reading about soccer from top coaches will give players an edge others may not have. "Developing Game Intelligence in Soccer" (paperback $16.47) by Horst Wein, a top youth coach who has been hired to revitalize or improve the national youth soccer programs of thirty-four countries, shows through both discussion and diagrams how players can be smarter on the field. he book divides into different age and skill levels so players can progress and won’t bite off more than their developmental level permits. Youth players should open a chapter, turn on a game and follow the techniques the pros use that come from the book. Every player can benefit from a rigorous physical regimen, but he or she can also benefit from training the brain. Coaches say that if you want to win at soccer play with your brain.
 
            Soccer bodies need fuel to operate at top form. Often parents have no idea what is appropriate to feed our young players to give them the best edge. There are all types of advice – carbo loading, vegan, protein shakes – and we have to become our kids’ dieticians with little or no guidance except for the fad of the day. With short breaks between tournament games or a rushed dinner schedule due to practices, fast food all too often takes the place of a good meal. Without the proper fuel all the exercise in the world won’t help a player develop enough muscle and sculpting to be the best. Sports writer Gloria Averbuch and registered dietician Nancy Clark have interviewed top  professional female players and examined their food choices. They have come up with some fantastic recipes and advice for young players in their book "Food Guide for Soccer: Tips and Recipes from the Pros" (paperback $12.47). The book contains charts showing how quantities of food can be determined and equivalencies of food types. The book also shows what is optimal for soccer players as opposed to less active people and divides by age ranges. Before even getting to the recipes, the book lays out important information such as how to hydrate, what to eat before and after practices and games and how to maintain the right body weight. The recipes are fantastic and will appeal to any player’s tastes and diet. 
 
            These books are only a sampling of what is available out there for young soccer players who have a passion for the game. I also suggest you use these as a starting point. If you look each book up on Amazon and Barnes & Noble the websites will list other books in the same genre with the "customers who bought this also bought…" heading. Therefore, you can find dozens of books just from one of these. I didn’t include any books for kids under 10, but some titles to consider would be Matt Christopher’s "Soccer Hero," Gail Gibbons’ "My Soccer Book," Mike Lupica’ "Shoot Out," Mia Hamm’ "Winners Never Quit" and "DK Reader’s: Let’s Play Soccer" by Patricia J. Murphy. All these books are under $7. You can’t go wrong encouraging your child to read, and if they read about soccer they will be improving two important parts of their lives.

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Golden Opportunities

Susan Boyd

           After winning the gold at the Olympics the US Women’s National Soccer Team will have a short rest and then embark on a victory tour of the United States beginning September 1st in Rochester, N.Y. Tickets are on sale now for the match against Costa Rica and the match against Australia September 16th in Carson, CA at the Home Depot Center (ussoccer.com then click schedules/tickets). Both games will be broadcast on NBC. While most readers won’t be in the vicinity of these games, for those who can attend they provide an opportunity for young female players to see their idols live. There is nothing like watching a game live where girls can key in on one player to see how she positions herself before receiving and after delivering the ball or to watch how the team ebbs and flows. While there is any number of men’s games players can attend, the women’s side of soccer is still growing to those levels. Nevertheless, with some creativity and determination, parents can find live games that their soccer-minded daughters can enjoy. 
 
           By the age of twelve, soccer players who aspire to play in high school should begin attending local high school games. This is an opportunity to watch what formations the coach uses, what the talent level is, and how much fun the girls are having. Going to the local high school games also creates a loyalty and passion for the program. This can translate into a sustaining goal for any young player facing the ups and downs that come with soccer. With an eye on the prize she can be motivated to develop. Going to the games also gives her a leg up on the entire high school experience of a shared community. 
 
           Along with the high school games, most local colleges and universities will have a women’s soccer team. The schedules are easy to download on the internet and the ticket prices are usually under $10. Many states have their girls’ high school season in the spring, so college games in the fall are a great counterpart. If the high school season is in the spring, then high school age players will be with their club teams in the fall. Therefore, college games offer an opportunity for the entire team to attend and then critique the game afterwards. These games can be a significant teaching moment. Likewise, a crisp fall day can be a great backdrop for a family outing. All too often those family sports outings are to watch boys and men play football, soccer, basketball, and baseball. So why not attend an event devoted to women and give your daughters a chance to fully identify with the players on the field? 
 
           Professional women’s soccer has not yet proven to be successful. The Women’s Professional Soccer League (WPS) folded this year and will not return with a season in 2013. The USL W-league, a professional/amateur program, continues to operate and has plans for 2013 season (wleague.uslsoccer.com). The W-league has 30 teams from the US and Canada in three conferences and has a May – July schedule. Another pro-am league, the largest in the world, the WPSL-Elite (wpsl.info), has 50 teams and also offers a May through July schedule. Several excellent college and professional players make up these teams. Additionally with the bronze for the Canadian Women and the gold for the U.S. Women, talks have begun about forming a new professional league. Leading this is the Chicago Red Stars of the WPSL-Elite who are joining up with former WPS teams from Boston and New Jersey with the hope of creating a six to eight team league that can weather the economic woes of a start-up. With a big schedule in the summer for the USL-W League and the WPSL-Elite, the WNT Victory Tour which will have several more games than the two already announced, and the possibility of new women’s professional league, there should be plenty of opportunities for young female players to watch their Olympic heroines and up and coming WNT players live. Keep an eye on the US Soccer Federation’s website to see when new Victory Tour games are announced (ussoccer.com) and occasionally Google "Women’s Professional Soccer" to see what developments there are on that front. If a team happens to be formed in your hometown, season tickets will be a bargain. Consider purchasing them as a gift not only for your daughter but for the entire family. Even if you don’t get season tickets, be sure to attend at least one professional game this year. At the professional level soccer offers more speed, better skills, and the possibility of watching an Olympic player strut her stuff.
 
           Naturally these same principles hold true for boys. I think all too often girls don’t have as many options for watching soccer live or families are reluctant to attend a women’s game over a men’s game. Think about the message it sends your daughters – their efforts and those of other females aren’t as valued as those of their male counterparts. Hopefully the strength and excitement of the games the women played at the Olympics removed any doubt that women’s soccer can be as dynamic, perhaps even more so, than men’s. With the euphoria of the Olympic Gold this is the time to carry our enthusiasm forward with our daughters to feed their soccer passion and celebrate their participation.

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