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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on every Monday. A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom." 
Opinions expressed on the US Youth Soccer Blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of US Youth Soccer.


That’s Entertainment

Susan Boyd

My mother grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. Every December, we would be regaled with tales of her winters in the city of lake effect snow storms. I grew up in Seattle, where snow hardly ever falls and when it does the city shuts down. So we heard lots of stories that began, “You think this is bad…” and then morphed into narratives we knew by heart. There was the storm where the winds blew so hard that the snow drifts reached my mother’s second story bedroom window. Then there was the storm that lasted two weeks where the flurries were so blinding that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. We learned about power outages, burst pipes, iced sidewalks, snowball tournaments, and wonderful white Christmases. Whenever we watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the scene of Jimmy Stewart running through the town of Bedford Falls came on, mom would gleefully announce, “That’s exactly what it looks like in Buffalo.” Last week Buffalo suffered a century storm that I’m not sure even mom experienced, but the city was so snowbound that the NFL game between the Bills and Jets had to be postponed and moved to Detroit. That’s undoubtedly a winter story we would have heard had it happened while she lived there.

What could all those trapped citizens do when admonished not to travel? No school, no football, no shopping, and certainly no cinema or concerts. For my mother, she would gather around the radio with her siblings and parents to listen to all kinds of great programming. Today, we gather around the 65-inch HD TV for a wide variety of media choices. Likewise, considering that the upcoming holidays mean locating some good gift ideas along with the polar vortex, which threatens to trap some of us in our homes this winter, I thought about soccer movies that could entertain us during the long, cold nights even if we live in San Diego and don’t have to worry about being shut-in by snow. Some of my suggestions have soccer as the central narrative, some use soccer as a backdrop for other messages, and some simply have intriguing soccer moments.

For pre-school and elementary school kids or the kid in all of us, there are several great G-rated choices. “Rio” is an animated film about a macaw who finds himself chasing unrequited love from Minnesota to Brazil in the dead of winter. While Brazil’s equatorial sun is welcomed, it’s also Carnival season and as a rare macaw he piques the interest of exotic bird smugglers and is captured. However, the guards watch a soccer match on TV. Their distraction allows the hero and his amour to escape. Even while chasing their prey through the streets the guards stop to catch a moment of the match on a bar TV. As a nod to the World Cup in Brazil, “Rio 2” has a full-out soccer match between rival teams of macaws in the jungle Pit of Doom. A movie for really young players is Dora’s (the Explorer) Super Soccer Showdown, rated a very gentle G. With the same simple narrative and kind approach to a topic, Dora plays soccer with Boots, visits with her horse Sparky, and joins her friend Benny for the Rain Forest talent show. A wonderful family movie, “The Cup” is rated G, but don’t let that rating make you believe the film is simplistic. Viewers of all ages will love the story of World Cup fever invading the quiet calm of a Buddhist monastery in India. Young monks threaten the centuries old traditions when they clamor to watch the finals and do almost anything to achieve their goal. Based on a true account, the comedy was an official entry in several film festivals.

Players 9 to 12 years old and their families would enjoy several of these PG films, a rating they earn with some pre-teen hijinks and toilet humor. “The Big Green” relates the story of a ragtag group of students who are formed into a soccer team in a small Texas town. In this film, the female adult is the soccer expert, an English exchange teacher who convinces an out-of-shape sheriff to help her coach in hopes of motivating her students to respect themselves and set goals. It’s a fairly typical underdog sports movie, but the kids are engaging and the stereotypes aren’t nearly as overwhelming as in some films. I’m not sure why they made Soccer Dog the Movie and Soccer Dog: European Cup as PG entertainment since the premise is much more appropriate for younger viewers, but the PG parts are fairly tame and the dog is cute, cuddly, and fun to watch. So most kids should be fine with it. For older viewers, there are some PG flicks that speak to their burgeoning interest in the opposite gender and adventure. The great soccer film “Gregory’s Girl” is 32 years old, but still delightful. Gregory loses his spot on his winless soccer team to a GIRL! But he’s also 16 and can’t help but find himself intrigued by his feisty, talented and cute replacement. The film is Scottish, so the language can be a bit daunting to our American ears, but it’s worth the struggle. I never realized that cinema icon Michael Caine did a movie with Sylvester Stallone, but “Victory” benefits from the pairing to be an engaging WWII drama centering on a Nazi propaganda stunt allowing a group of POWs to play the German National team. The POWs plan to use the event as a means to escape. Dozens of plot twists and complications make this an engrossing adventure as well as a stand-out soccer film. Pele’s in the cast and John Huston directs, so it has a good cinematic pedigree. One of my recent favorites isn’t really a soccer movie, but has a wonderful soccer scene near the conclusion. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” from last year with Ben Stiller I consider to be an underappreciated family film. Walter is a dreamer who lives a quiet, uneventful existence and works ironically for Life magazine. Everything is turned upside down when he meets a woman he likes, his mother is being moved to assisted living, Life is closing, and he loses the photo for the final cover. The movie expresses wonderful values, has sharp comedic moments, and that breathtaking soccer scene at sunset on the foothills of the Himalayas.

Moving up the rating scale, these PG-13 movies combine soccer with significant interpersonal challenges. “Bend It Like Beckham” is a classic, both for girls who aspire to play soccer at the college and pro level, and for anyone interested in how cultures adjust and survive when submerged in a dominating foreign culture. Another film that features a girl is “Gracie” based on a true story of a family that loses a son and his sister who wants to take his place on the soccer team. She has to battle not only a system that won’t allow girls on the boys’ team, but also a family stuck in their own grief and hesitation. Although about the struggles of a young woman, Gracie speaks to the level of passion any player requires in order to succeed. “Bella” is the sweet story of a Mexican soccer superstar who ends up making some serious mistakes losing his place in the soccer stratosphere and a young waitress who is fired from her job just as she discovers she is pregnant. The film addresses issues such as who are we when we have to separate from our passion and how do we find a life that includes not only love but kindness. Combining kung-fu with soccer, “Shaolin Soccer” will appeal to any teenage boy who likes fast-paced action, great stunts and some wicked soccer moves. When an ex-soccer player down on his luck crosses paths with a kung-fu master, he is re-energized to play again. He reunites with his brothers, forms a soccer team, and then teaches the players some unusual moves that give them a winning edge. Unrated but appropriate for teens is “Pelada,” whose tag line is “two players, twenty-five countries, one game.” The documentary chronicles the journey of two soccer players and their two friends on a quest to play soccer all over the world. They come across some extremely unusual and occasionally dangerous circumstances, but soccer protects them in the slums of Rio de Janiero and Nairobi, and brings an interesting resolution to the conflicts between Arabs and Jews on the West Bank of Israel. An amazing, inspirational story. Likewise, “Streetball” is unrated. Again, I highly recommend for teen players and their families. This documentary details one competition of the Homeless World Cup held yearly for teams from up to 56 countries. The team members are homeless or disenfranchised players and this movie follows the South African team made up of ex-convicts, drug addicts, and orphans. As the players struggle to become adept at the sport they also learn how to pull themselves out of their circumstances. It’s an inspirational but difficult film to watch.

Two of my favorite movies fit into the soccer category.  Both are rated R and I do suggest they be viewed just by parents and older players, especially my first film, “Babel.” This difficult movie explores not only the human condition but the sharp cultural contrasts that breed fear and prejudice. When an American tourist, Susan Jones, is shot on a tour bus on a remote Moroccan road, the U.S. government immediately declares the event a terrorist attack when in fact it was two boys who had been given a rifle by their father to shoot jackals eating their goats. The manufacturer of the gun is Japanese and has a deaf teenage daughter who is barely clinging to sanity and acts out in sexually provocative ways.  Meanwhile, the Jones’ nanny, a Mexican illegally working in the U.S. faces a dilemma. Since the Joneses are detained in Morocco, Amelia must stay to watch the children, but her son is getting married in Mexico. So she decides to go to the wedding with the children in tow. Unfortunately, on trying to return to the U.S. they are detained and then try to flee through the desert into America. Although Amelia has been in the United States for 16 years, she is deported. The stories are intertwined and shift in time and location. Some stories are unresolved. When Susan is taken to the home of a veterinarian to treat her wound, there are soccer posters on the walls of this isolated location, a symbol I believe of an activity that provides a common thread across nations, cultures, religions and politics. The second film might be okay for younger teens as its R rating is based on language, not violence or sexual situations. It tells the story of Brian Clough, an eager English coach who gets the opportunity to take his rival coach’s spot at the head of Leeds United, at the time England’s top club. However, his ego and his brash style get him in trouble quickly with fans, management and players. His long-time assistant coach and best friend eventually leaves for another job. Clough suffers a dramatic fall from grace before finally discovering his bearings. He has been labeled the greatest coach never to helm the National Team. The movie details how significant the word “team” is in this team sport.  When everyone is working together, success is possible, but conflict leads only to disaster. It’s a good film for older players with aspirations of college and pro careers to witness the flaw of arrogance and the power of partnership.

We may not all need to spend long evenings in a white, freezing wintery shroud, but we can all appreciate an evening of good entertainment. If it happens to include soccer than it gives legitimacy to the passion our kids decided to pursue.  As the popularity of soccer grows in the U.S., we will certainly see more films using the sport to bring out a point of view and tell an absorbing story. There are hundreds of films that focus on soccer. Most, however, are not really quality products just like so many other sports films that don’t really demonstrate the reality of play.  Some of the movies I highlighted are silly and unrealistic, but nonetheless entertaining, so I’ve excused their shortcomings.  All of these films are available on Amazon both to purchase and to stream and others are available on Netflix. I challenge you to make your own discoveries based on your family interests and tastes. Put “soccer” in the search box of any site that streams or sells movies.  Comedy, drama, even musicals have all centered on soccer giving lots of options for viewing long past winter.

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Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Susan Boyd

This is ridiculous. Wasn’t it just 70 degrees out a few weeks ago? And now we are faced with this polar vortex affecting pretty much all of the United States. Just 80 miles north of me there is snowfall of up to 14 inches. Denver woke up this morning to negative-3 degrees with wind chills of negative-35 degrees. Yet, we are still two weeks away from Thanksgiving and almost three weeks away from December. A local window company arrogantly advertised that new windows would be free if we have measurable snow before Thanksgiving. After all, they have a hundred years of weather history backing them up. Now they must be fretting up at night watching The Weather Channel as if it’s the doomsday report.

Other than the obvious yuck factor for those of us who hadn’t pulled winter wear out of mothballs yet, there’s the added problem of a few more weeks of fall soccer season. Sunday, we sat through a frigid game for Robbie while two other youth games were being played on adjacent fields. The sidelines and bleachers looked like the Donner Party had taken up residence. The assistant referees in their shorts standing on the sidelines looked like waifs trapped on ice floes in a silent film. It was a miserable scene, but not as bad as the games that will be played this weekend. How do we protect our tiny players against the freezing elements, not to mention ourselves as we cheer them on?

I recently wrote about how we bundle up against the rains, thinking I had two months before I even had to consider bundling up against the frigid cold. Then we got ambushed by the jet stream. Hand warmers and rain slickers aren’t going to be sufficient to battle these elements. It’s time for heavy-duty protection. Let’s start with before the game. Kids need to be warm before they even start playing or practicing. Give them some hearty comfort food that includes good carbohydrates and proteins. Lots of kids don’t like oatmeal, but it’s a nearly perfect food if you can find a variety they’ll eat. Some soup, pasta dishes like spaghetti or macaroni and cheese, and sloppy Joes all provide good energy and some tummy warming nutrition. I’m a big fan of pizza, which can have carbs, protein, dairy and vegetables all wrapped up in an easy to cook and transport food source. Kids like cocoa, which you can put in a travel mug for the trip to the field. Even some granola bars along with cocoa or hot apple cider can provide the warm comfort that will stay with them for the first 20 minutes after they hit the cold.

Getting them cocooned for the weather requires some careful planning. Most league rules require that the uniform be completely visible during a game, which is difficult when you are trying to cover every single inch of bare skin. So be sure to save the jersey and shorts for last. Layers are best for many reasons. Those layers trap air which serves as further insulation and you can strip off the layers if the player gets too hot. Start with a protective thermal layer like Under Armour, Hanes, Nike Hyperwarm or Cold Pruf. They wick away the sweat, hold in the warmth, and provide that first layer of warmth. Put on socks. Then cover up with warm up pants and a fleece or Lycra top. Often warm-ups are an optional part of a team’s kit so if you purchased them you’ll be in team colors with a team logo visible – nice, but not necessary. Then put the uniform over all of that. Add some one-size fits all gloves and hats that I keep by the bucketful in the car. They’ll look like a Thanksgiving Day parade balloon, but they’ll be warm.

On the team bench it’s difficult to keep warm when a player is just sitting and not moving. Most truly cold days are also very windy, making the polar blast worst. If anyone on the team has a portable canopy, it can be set up as a wind screen behind the bench. There are thermal reflective “space” blankets that cost less than $5 each that you can keep on hand and give to the kids to help insulate them. Make sure your player has a coat handy to wear when not playing, even before the game and between quarters or halves. A thick blanket to cover the bench provides some more protection against the elements so the kids don’t need to sit on anything cold drawing away their body heat. Although it isn’t about being warm, it’s important to stay hydrated when it is cold. So be sure there’s plenty of water and/or sports drink available. 

Spectators need to stay warm too. Besides wearing layers, gloves and a hat, you may want some other ways to fight the weather effects. There are heated seats you can set in your chair. For less than $20, you can get Lava Buns, which has two packets you heat in the microwave and insert in a cover provided in either red or blue. It advertises it will stay warm for up to five hours, but a few customers complain that they got two or less. For a more reliable source there’s battery powered stadium cushions from Venture Heat for $69 with four hours of heat and GameWarmer’s three hours for $49 that can also charge your cell phone. Those disposable hand and foot warmers are wonderful if you are spectating. I do keep these in the car as well. You can pick them up at any sports store that sells hunting and fishing gear. Several outlets sell boot liners that are like extra plush and insulated socks. These can be calf or knee length and sell for around $20 from companies like Jileon, Capelli, L.L. Bean and Nomad. They provide great warmth for rain boots and extra warmth in boots that already have linings. 

Warming up after a match or practice can be as important as staying warm during the activity. I love my heated car seats but many people don’t have these, and they are usually only in the front seats.  So you can buy separate seat warmers that plug into the car.  These are both seat and back warmers and some provide extra lumbar support. They run around $20 to $30 each. You can also use the heated stadium seat cushions listed above if you want to do dual functions but they don’t provide heat to the back. Swaddling in some warm covers can make our kids feel toasty. There are electric blankets which plug into the car either through 12V or AC outlets. These can be placed over, under, and around the kids to give them a nice warm core after they leave the field. There are dozens of options in the $22 to $40 range on Amazon. Finally keeping a thermos of hot beverage handy for a post-event warming will provide that river of heat to thaw them from the inside out. Some lively music that kids can bounce to will also fire up those chilled bones and make the trip home enjoyable no matter the outcome of the match.

As I watch the snow flurries outside my window and scoot closer to the fire I built, I think about the pleasant days when I only had to worry about sunscreen, rain ponchos and which sweater to bring just in case. Now I have to prepare for an Arctic adventure like a penguin mother scooching her fledglings into the center of a crèche of birds to keep them warm. I’ve been to tournaments where the snow had to be shoveled off the green or swept clear of the side, end, and goal lines so the game could proceed. I’ve parked behind the bench and built a blanket warming tent extending out my van’s sliding door with the car heaters going full blast.  But this will be the first time I have to consider all of that before November is even half-way over. It actually makes me long for the old sock and sweat stench of indoor soccer. It may be putrid but at least I can take my coat off to watch.

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Never Too Early

Susan Boyd

Last night on the news, I heard it announced that Amazon is now going to hire taxi drivers in New York and Chicago to deliver their packages so they can get them to customers sooner. This is the same company that is experimenting with drone delivery, which they say will get an order to us in an hour. I’m not sure I want a mechanical gnat mistakenly dropping my Limoges vase on the roof because Google GPS hadn’t yet programmed in the porch extension I added last summer, but getting new underwear in the same time it takes a double pepperoni with extra cheese to arrive on my doorstep is pretty amazing. Not to be outdone by Amazon, many outlets are offering free shipping or $2 shipping for items, including couches and TVs. I’d like to see the drone that would deliver those. All this cheap, speedy delivery got me thinking: why do we even start holiday shopping anytime sooner than a week before? Why am I penciling in holiday fairs in October, watching my local PBS station’s holiday auction in the two weeks before Halloween, and storing gifts all over the house so early that I forget I already bought something for my youngest niece? Instead of setting our alarms so we can sit out in sub-freezing temperatures on Black Friday, we should set our alarms for Dec. 10 giving us plenty of time to order things for delivery by Hanukkah or Christmas. However, if you have to start shopping soon because that’s the tradition, I have some suggestions for the soccer players and fans in the family.

Every soccer fanatic has a team he or she loves and naturally wants their jersey to wear. But you know what those jerseys cost, averaging over $150. However there are replica jerseys that you can order for under $40 that look like a regulation jersey but lack that sewn on “official” label. For youth players who grow out of both the jersey and their love for a team, spending so much money on a clothing item seems unnecessary. Several websites cater to replicas and have amazing selections for both adult and youth fans. Brazil World Cup Shirts ( has an easy-to-navigate website with a huge selection of jerseys and other football gear. Although a British site, the prices are in dollars and they ship to the U.S. You even have the option of putting any player’s name and number on the jersey, so you can personalize with a favorite player who might not be popular enough to have an official jersey. Most replica MLS jerseys cost nearly as much as authentic jerseys even from discount websites. offers jerseys for around 40 percent off, so youth jerseys run in the $40 range and adult jerseys for $50. Use the tabs at the top of the home page to get to soccer then MLS. The team links are listed on the left hand margin. I’ve not used either website but both get a secure website rating and take Pay Pal, a good sign of their trustworthiness.

There are lots of soccer themed gifts available that can be great stocking-stuffers. Zazzle ( gifts) offers gifts that can be personalized. There are key chains, pillows, watches, mugs, t-shirts, and posters to name just a few of the thousands of items. My favorite option is a variety of soccer birthday invitations available for a reasonable price. I’ve shopped on Zazzle and on Café Press ( soccer-themed gifts). The latter has a pair of Flip Flops for $17 that show cows playing soccer on a pea green pitch. They are very cute and unusual. Kids Soccer World ( offers just about anything you might want for the youth player, including toys, specialty items and clothing. I love the lip balm in a soccer ball case for $4.25. The balm is SPF 20 and vanilla flavored. You can also get it as a key chain for a dollar more. The website has a link to gifts under $10, which is a great option to quickly find stocking stuffers, Hanukkah gifts, or St. Nicholas swag. A final site, Find Gifts ( has some unusual ideas such as collage picture frames, lollipop bouquets and magazine subscriptions.

Considering that last item, magazines are the gift that keeps on giving. They are a way for soccer players to read up on the latest contests, key players’ feats, and standings. My boys love FourFourTwo, which focuses on the English Premier League. Titled for the favorite team formation (four in the back, four in the middle, and two up front), it is big, glossy, and packed with great information.  A six-month subscription is $34.50 and a year is $69 ( If the MLS is your player’s or fan’s motivation, there’s an app called Overlap that features stories and stats on MLS teams and players for the amazing price of free. FourFourTwo also has a free app which gives you the essence but not the full power of the magazine. Soccer America ( covers North American and international soccer. It’s published quarterly and costs $39 a year on the website. There’s also Soccer 360 that publishes six times a year for $55 ( and also offers a free app.

Going along with magazines are books. For youth players, there are lots of great fiction and non-fiction options. All of the following choices are available from Amazon ( and can be located by typing in the title in the search box. For non-fiction, I really like “The Everything Kid’s Soccer Book” by Deborah Crisfield for $8.99. This is a pictorial guide to rules, team tactics and techniques. This book is definitely for the beginning player so although the base age is listed as 7, I would say that reading with parents at age 5 or as soon as a kid starts playing soccer would be appropriate. Older players won’t find it challenging. For those players I recommend “44 Secrets for Playing Great Soccer” by Mirsad Hasic for $7.49. Many Under-12 and older players found the “secrets” helpful, but even younger players can learn from these ideas. Biographies of players can be inspirational for any soccer enthusiast. DK Publishing, well-known for its dazzling photography-supported texts has a biography of Pele by James Buckley for around $6 paperback. Although intended for younger readers, the photos are so engaging that older readers may find this worthy of their time. From The Amazing Athlete series, there’s “Abby Wambach” by Jon Fishman that retails for $7. Published this past January, it’s an up-to-date look at the top female American (possibly even international) player. Older readers will be challenged and entertained by “Outcasts United: The Story of a Refuge Team that Changed a Town” by Warren St. John ($8), which details the efforts of refuge children from Africa, the Middle East and Central Europe who escaped war, death and torture to find relief in the joy of soccer. This is a young adult adaptation of the book “Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refuge Team, and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference,” which some readers might prefer. For fiction, there’s the “Wild Bunch Soccer” series, which is up to five books now for 3rd/4th graders and up. The series by Joachim Masannek runs around $11 for hardback and $7 for paperback. Matt Christopher has several soccer volumes such as “Soccer Hero” and “Soccer Duel,” which run around $5 for paperback and are appropriate for pre-teens. Mal Peet’s book “Keeper” is a fictional interview with the goalie “El Gato” that reveals the dark history and triumphant victory of a South American urchin. Combining mysticism and ghost story with the provocative realism of soccer, it’s a haunting tale. 

No soccer match is complete without snacks after the game or snacks during a televised game. Giving soccer “food” for the holidays can brighten any event. Olive Garden (one of US Youth Soccer’s sponsors) has a full catering menu to help carbo load before a game. Every year before the boys’ first high school game, we had pasta and salad from Olive Garden, which provided all the necessary items such as plates, napkins and utensils, as well as the food. There was always more than the boys could eat for a very reasonable price.  You could stuff a few restaurant gift cards in a stocking for a meal later. Protein bars make a healthy gift with several brands out there to choose from. Bryce really likes Think Thin bars, which have no sugar, are gluten free, and have 20 grams of protein per bar. They come in a large variety of flavors and cost around $1.75 a bar. Fruit baskets are always welcome, especially in the dead of winter when fruits aren’t as plentiful. Hale Groves ( has an extensive selection of primarily citrus fruits starting at around $26 for a small variety box and around $36 for a basket. Harry and David ( concentrates on apples, pears and cherries and has dozens of gift boxes for under $30. This may seem a bit strange, but smoked salmon sits well with many soccer players. It’s full of protein, keeps well without refrigeration until opened, and goes with all kinds of menus – salmon eggs benedict, bagels, salmon salad, salmon pasta, and salmon loaded baked potato. I know the holidays leap upon us suddenly despite the early warnings with store decorations, tons of catalogs and people who insist on sending cards before Thanksgiving. We plan, procrastinate, rush and worry all at the same time and still manage to find ourselves panicking at the last minute. Hopefully a few of these suggestions will help ease the pressures and result in some holiday hugs and thank yous. When it comes to the holidays, it’s never too early to make your list and check it twice.

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Spirit of the Game

Susan Boyd

Barclay’s Bank, which sponsors the English Premier League, has an ad on the field boards that reads, “To those who champion the true spirit of the game – thank you.” I assumed the statement reflected some high-minded, lofty ideals which addressed good sportsmanship and fan behavior but actually it touts their contest rewarding winners with home game tickets and trips to away games. Avid fans, top vendors, or support staff such as grounds crew enter by answering team trivia or convincing the judges of their commitment to a team. Considering the persistent overt racism voiced by fans and players, the violent hooliganism, and the dangerous physical confrontations among players and between players and fans on the pitch, I’m disappointed that the contest focuses on devotion and team details rather than rewarding integrity. 

Here in America the NFL has its “Together We Make Football” campaign that has a similar framework. Initially, fans were encouraged to write short essays, submit photos, or make short videos in which they detail how the NFL has affected their lives. That contest closed October 19, but people can still participate online with further submissions that can’t win the grand prize, but can be considered for inclusion in an NFL film to be shown during the Super Bowl. One individual and one group entry will win tickets to the big game where they can witness live the blatant self-important plug for the NFL. The intent is to show that football has had a life-changing impact on people whose stories will splash across the Jumbotron, which of course makes football larger than life both figuratively and literally.

NBC’s Today Show in tandem with Sunday Night Football airs a segment every Friday under the umbrella of “Together We Make Football.” Reporter Josh Elliott details a human interest story inspired by the home team. So far we have seen a woman recovering from breast cancer, a Special Olympics flag football team that won the national championship, a football teen with cerebral palsy and two sisters from a football family who also play the game. These weekly inspirational stories weave a mystical emotional shroud that provides gallant attributes to the power of football in people’s lives. At the end of each segment the team’s owner and/or coach plus some of the more popular players greet the subjects of the story and their families providing tickets to Sunday’s game and sideline passes. There’s definitely no denying how meaningful the gesture is for the participants. I don’t really like football, but if I got tickets and sideline passes to a Packers game, I would have a big smile on my face. That’s the power of casting the light of notoriety on one’s life. However, I notice that there’s no real sacrifice from this billion dollar producing business. It takes little effort to toss some tickets around. I would prefer to see the NFL stop using this project for just self-promotion of game broadcasts. Where’s the large donation checks to the most appropriate weekly charity such as cancer research or Special Olympics? Where’s the commitment for long-term volunteerism to organizations that support these charities? Given recent melt-downs over domestic violence, child abuse, and drug and alcohol problems, I’d think the NFL would want to take the extra step toward showing a more honorable, selfless face. If it needs hooks in its media campaigns, why not one that also contributes something that promotes decency and philanthropy?

Then again, perhaps contests aren’t supposed to be about ideals. It is certainly easier to quantify a level of enthusiasm or a detailed knowledge of team minutiae than to measure someone’s moral essence. Nevertheless, the language of the Barclay statement bothers me. Touting someone being the “champion of the true spirit of the game” infers something far nobler that being loyal or even rabid about the sport. The dilemma lies in the phrase “spirit of the game,” which got me thinking what that should be, especially as it relates to youth sports. What should be our job as parents to model that spirit and instill it in our children? Do we even have an obligation to discover and impart a broader aspect of play that includes moral, altruistic and idealistic elements?

I argue that the spirit of the game has to mean more than self-aggrandizement through a contest. Very few youth players will participate in soccer after middle-school. The drop-off rate in youth sports is around 70 percent at age 14. The reasons vary, but for most kids they find something else that interests them more, usually because they know they aren’t advancing enough in skills to continue to compete successfully. They also will quit from undue pressure on winning, overbearing coaches and parents (both their own and those of fellow teammates), and demands they aren’t willing to fulfill. These issues all lead to a lack of fun. No matter how short or long players participate sports, and soccer in particular, can help invest kids with ideals that translate to other areas of their lives and their futures. Children can learn through soccer the value of cooperation, unselfish play, humbleness in victory, grace in defeat, unconditional support for teammates, a strong work ethic, promptness, and respecting authority. These traits serve us throughout our lives and I believe exemplify the spirit of the game. Yet we often don’t demonstrate them in our own behaviors, berating our children and the team for a bad play or a loss, encouraging our kids to hang on to the ball and score, overly celebrating a win, screaming at the referees, coming late to events, and letting our kids miss practices for insignificant conflicts. When Robbie was playing in a U-11 tournament game, the opposing coach kept exhorting his players to “take him out.” He even suggested they “break his leg if you have to.” No one called him on his boorish behavior including the referees. In fact, several of the team parents took up the call. The clear message was that violence in the pursuit of a win was appropriate and the authorities can and will ignore it. Certainly I was upset that they were talking about my little 10-year-old, but I was also upset that this was the “spirit of the game” the kids were learning.

My hope is that we embrace the best “spirit” and then demonstrate it in our words and actions. All too soon soccer, in fact any sport, becomes more about competition and winning and less about fun, but that doesn’t mean we have to abandon our ideals in the transition. Soccer would be much more fun if this spirit was evident at games and practices. It would take the burden of competitive stresses for perfection and winning off the table and it would open the door to more positive interactions with teammates and opponents and would temper the increasing competition for older youth. I wonder if the fan who has attended every one of his Premier League team’s matches for 40 years has done so while practicing decorum and integrity. Rewarding someone for dogged loyalty doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is a pillar of honor. In the Barclay contest, spirit of the game implies commitment rather than principle. A grounds man who mowed and lined the pitch for three decades has obviously done so because he does a good job, has been compensated well enough to stick with it, and probably loves the team for whom he works, but that doesn’t mean he has a spirit that translates to laudable behaviors. Should his devotion be enough to qualify to win?

I’m also bothered by the use of the verb “champion.” To champion a cause comes from a more chivalrous age of knights who exhibited courage, honor, and service. Yet while the Barclay contest clearly borrows the British medieval term, it fails to address its historical intent. I can guarantee that the weekly winners aren’t being measured by their courage, honor and service. In fact to enter most fans just have to answer a question about their team and then submit that answer along with the entrant’s name and address. No one needs to make any more of a sacrifice than springing for a postage stamp or taking the time to fill out an on line form. Those who truly champion do so without regard to personal cost and in the pursuit of attaining something positive and powerful to benefit others. 

Finally, I’m troubled by the addition of “true” to “spirit of the game” and then having that spirit be merely the strong support of a team and the game. “True spirit” equates with something essential at the highest level, which is defined in the contest as commitment to team and sport. Championing that true spirit means nothing more than maintaining and promoting fan loyalty, without tackling a more significant spirit of charity, honorable behavior, the pursuit of goals loftier than wins, improving one’s community, and speaking out against intolerance and violence both on and off the pitch.

When I first saw the statement on the stadium scrawl I thought Barclay’s was looking to lift fan involvement beyond racism, hooliganism, and loutish behavior with a message to fans, players, and management that the game needed to find a moral center that people could stand behind. Since the English Premier League is now known at Barclay’s Premier League, it seemed appropriate for the sponsor to open a dialog about the responsibilities of fans, players, officials, owners, and organizations to be more attuned to the higher ground the sport could achieve.  That wasn’t their intent unfortunately, but I’m hoping we can open that dialog anyway with our youth players in America.

The values that soccer encourages provide some of the strongest reasons kids should participate in youth sports. A percentage of players will have the skills, determination, and opportunities to move on to high school, college, and professional sports, but the vast majority of players will only participate as kids then move on to other pursuits. Therefore, beyond the obvious benefits of fitness and social interactions, soccer can also provide our children with life lessons that will impact their development well into their adult and professional lives. Learning behaviors of integrity can be a meaningful and lasting benefit from playing sports. We should: encourage our teams to participate in community projects that help others such as delivering Thanksgiving boxes, cleaning up neighborhood lots to provide areas for play, collecting for UNICEF, reading to kids on the oncology ward at hospitals, and any other of dozens of charitable undertakings; model good behavior on the sidelines; expect kids to show respect for one another, opponents, and authorities; look at losses as learning opportunities not devastating disasters; accept wins as something earned not entitled and not to be flaunted; and teach unselfish play, reward it, and demonstrate how it can lead to great outcomes. To champion the true spirit of the game means that adults need to practice admirable ideals and help our kids achieve and embody them. When they leave the sport, the spirit of the game should go with them.

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