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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". 

 

Cuteness factor

Susan Boyd

Scientists have determined that we have a "cute" center in our brains. Whenever we see baby animals, adorable behaviors or silly actions we release an audible "aww" while our brains fire off their own "Aww." Apparently cuteness goes directly to our pleasure center creating the same contentment as eating a candy bar or getting a gift. It explains why kittens falling off a couch get more hits on the Internet than summaries of the Republican candidates' debates. We'd much rather feel good than think.
 
So it's not surprising that watching our little ones play soccer gives us so much delight. Who doesn't love their wild abandon and high energy? Kids have an earnest interest in their play that translates to cuteness. Whenever I watched my boys when they were little or my grandchildren now, my face hurts from smiling and laughing. I'm not sure when those smiles get replaced by our own intense investment in the game, but at some point they do. Scoring an own goal is adorable at age 6 and unforgiveable at age 10. While I understand that as kids progress in their sport they need to progress in their abilities, I wonder if we parents need to progress so quickly to hardened observers. When we cease to give in to the pure joy of watching our kids play, they pick up that soccer is no longer for fun – it's for business.
 
I want to encourage all of us to hang on to the "cute factor" as long as possible. Rather than feel stress as the game unfolds, we should all try to feel joy. It's not easy but the rewards are tremendous. If we can identify one cute moment a game and let our brain process it as cute, rather than frustrating, we will not only reduce our own stress, but we will reduce the stress of our kids. Here are a few moments that could go either way on the emotion scale. Find the cute humor in them, and you'll be well on your way to accessing the cute center of your brain.
 
In an indoor game, two girls' teams were battling it out. These 7-year-olds played with a serious intensity that showed each team wanted to win. Late in the game with the score close and emotions running high, a player kicked the ball towards the goal, only to have it saved by the keeper. She ran the ball out to the edge of the box, wound up, and punted it backwards over her head into the goal. Both teams stopped in disbelief and only the parent coach with his hands up in a football touchdown signal gave an indication as to what happened. No one cheered, but the coach did give the keeper a quick hug and a pat on the head to let her know it was okay. Luckily the parents found it amusing, laughed, and everyone ended up with smiles on their faces as the game restarted.
 
On a crisp fall day in the midst of a Under-10 boys' game, one of the spectators lost control of his dog that bounded on the field and quickly overtook the ball. Suddenly the field erupts into total chaos as the dog knocks the ball around the pitch, kids are chasing him down and adults are trying to rein in the event. In the midst of all this, the dog ran the ball down to the goal and put it in. Unbelievably this resulted in a major discussion of rules, whether or not the goal counted, and how many minutes needed to be put back on the clock. Rather than being a trigger for the "cute center" this became a source of major contention and stress. Had everyone just accepted this as a very cute moment and forgotten about the game, it could have been a really fun anecdote and memory for all involved.
 
Two U-6 coed teams played a game on a particularly rainy spring day. This mud bowl was made even messier by a girl who took the admonishment to "tackle" literally. With the grace and enthusiasm of Clay Matthews, she took after every player with the ball without regard to uniform color and laid them out flat. Even after being pulled to the sidelines and coached about soccer tackles, she returned to her effective techniques. All the players seemed cool with the antics and eventually several more players joined in on the action. By the end of the game pig piles were the norm and parents were shaking their heads knowing they had to transport these grubby players home and figure out how to clean their uniforms. Despite the melee, everyone was laughing and enjoying the spectacle of this demon in pigtails whose wild abandon was done with glee. She was having so much fun, and none of the tackled players were upset. They too were enjoying the chance to really get down and dirty. Everyone's "cute centers" were being fired off.
 
I know you all have equally cute anecdotes from your wide soccer experience. It's important to try to keep that factor alive as long as possible when it comes to our kids. When we shift over to being concerned because somehow the rules aren't being followed or we're disappointed by a silly mistake, we bring a seriousness to the game. Once that line is crossed, it will be difficult to recapture the ability to find the cute in an incident. Hopefully we can encourage ourselves and those around us to continue to see the cuteness for as long as possible, at least until U-12 when soccer starts to get serious with games mattering and kids looking to join select teams. To help out, families could locate videos featuring baby ducks, baby monkeys, kittens, even chameleons and watch them just before going to a game in order to stimulate that "cute center." In fact, it wouldn't be a bad idea to do this daily. Feeling good can't hurt.
 

Soccer in print

Susan Boyd

We're in the midst of college football bowls, NFL playoffs and an abbreviated NBA season. We grew up with these sports. Even without serious interest, we understand the rules and follow the stars. Soccer has grown over the last twenty years in the United States, but we don't have the same internalized understanding of the game. Once our sons and daughters embrace soccer, we do our best to grasp the rules, make our acquaintance with the main players and immerse ourselves in the soccer community. Now that the holidays are over, we may have some gift certificates to bookstores that we can cash in. Here are some suggestions for reading that the entire family can enjoy and can help make soccer a more understandable sport.
 
For soccer news there are several great magazines out there which will give your family a contemporaneous understanding of the game. My favorite is "Soccer America" which you can receive in an email option called "Soccer America Daily". This option includes "Youth Soccer Insider" which offers both news about youth, high schoo, and college soccer, and also information on training, coaches, and recruiting (socceramerica.com). For more experienced players, my sons love "Four Four Two" out of England. This magazine focuses on British professional soccer, but also provides great articles on health, training and player profiles. A year's subscription comes in around $69 but the magazine is substantial (fourfourtwo.magazine.co.uk). For a more global view of the sport, I recommend "World Soccer." Bylines in this magazine come from some of the top reporters and experts in the sport (worldsoccer.com). The websites for these publications offer up some great articles without even subscribing. Finally there's "Fuel" magazine from US Youth Soccer. This annual publication offers up the best from the website and articles from top youth soccer experts. You can read it online at usyouthsoccer.org or order from the website.
 
For in-depth soccer education, there are a number of excellent books available. If you want to understand the rules of soccer better, you can go right to the source "Kwik Goal FIFA Rules of the Game" ($14 on Amazon). This book is updated yearly for referees and fans alike. The NCAA and most youth soccer games operate under slightly different rules, but this book covers enough common ground for fans to learn and understand how soccer games are governed. For less detail and more understandable rules, you can pick up a copy of "Official Soccer Rules Illustrated" ($11 on Amazon). The website Soccer for Parents has downloadable rule books for each youth level (soccer-for-parents.com/soccer-rule.html). Understanding the difference between what creates a goal kick and what creates a corner kick, or what the offsides rule really means can help make the game more enjoyable and help you cheer appropriately.
 
Most youth coaches are volunteers who have minimal soccer experience. We need these coaches because their dedication and investment can't be created, but the knowledge can be taught. If some of you signed up to coach this spring, you may be looking for some information. I do suggest that everyone get their USSF "G" License through U.S. Soccer, which most clubs and state organizations require. But the course can only cover so much information about actual coaching methods, so turning to some outside help is natural. How could you doubt a book with the reassuring title "The Complete Book of Coaching Youth Soccer" by Simon Whitehead? The book is endorsed by the National Youth Soccer Coaches Association and is available on Amazon for $12. The book provides a ten-week training program for various age levels along with illustrations. For the youngest group of players "The Baffled Parents Guide to Coaching 6-and-Under Soccer" by David Williams and Scott Graham has gotten rave reviews. While most readers stated that they knew soccer, they quickly realized that knowing the game and transferring that knowledge to a wild group of young soccer players are two very different skill sets. In addition there is "The Baffled Parents Guide to Coaching Youth Soccer" by Bobby Clark for older teams. The books use photos, lesson plans, and detailed explanations to help youth coaches convey the game to younger players. David Williams and Scott Graham have been youth coaches for years and bring their expertise to the book. Bobby Clark is the coach of the men's program at Notre Dame. Both books sell for $12 each at Amazon.
 
Kids tend to stick with sports when they have role models in the game that encourage them with their own stories of both success and loss. For some fictional soccer heroes there's the series "The Wild Soccer Bunch" by Joachim Masannek which has become a world-wide sensation. (Free book has been claimed). The series began in Germany and has been translated into dozens of languages. The books are appropriate for most elementary aged players and come recommended by Landon Donovan. Each book costs $10.50 on Amazon. "A Beautiful Game: The World's Greatest Players and How Soccer Changed Their Lives" by Tom Watt looks at players the world over including from Nigeria, Italy, and the United States to discover why soccer became so important to them. Unfortunately he only interviews male players, but the book is beautiful and 5 percent of the sales are donated to UNICEF ($19 on Amazon). For girls there's "The U.S. Women's Soccer Team: An American Success Story" by Clemente A. Lisi. The book examines the women's national team from their amazing success in 1999 to the present. Many of the top stars are interviewed (Hardcover $32 on Amazon).
 
If you put "soccer" in the Amazon search engine, you'll be faced with 19,000 choices. So there's no doubt that soccer has grown in the U.S. enough to make publishers confident that they can make money off of our interest. That also means that the few books I have mentioned above can lead to others. You can easily find any number of books that would interest your kids and yourself. Bringing a few soccer magazines and books into your home can help enrich your family's interest in the sport while providing some education. For a relatively minor investment you can create a fun and permanent soccer library that will augment and enlighten the sport.
 

Imprisoned

Susan Boyd

I recently saw an ESPN film about Todd Marinovich who was a quarterback for USC in 1989. His father, Marv, was strength and conditioning coach who believed he could create the perfect athlete. As he stated in an interview, "The question I asked myself was, 'How well could a kid develop if you provided him with the perfect environment?'" He set out to make Todd remarkable. Even as an infant Todd underwent training to stretch his hamstrings and develop balance. By age 10 he could easily run ten miles. He learned the mechanics of being a quarterback and in high school became a national phenomenon. By the time he entered USC he had achieved records that an NFL player would be proud to have. His freshman year he won the Rose Bowl against Michigan. In his junior year he was drafted by the Raiders.
 
But in Todd's own words he couldn't live "in the prison of achievement." In high school he began drinking and using drugs, and that behavior escalated as he grew older. By the time he got to college, he had graduated to cocaine, amphetamines and finally LSD because it didn't show up in drug tests. At one point he left school and told his mother, "I wish I could go somewhere else and be someone else. I don't want to be Todd Marinovich." Ironically, his athletic achievements became overshadowed by his off-field behavior which included more and more arrests for drugs.
 
While Todd's experience is extreme, it has important lessons for us parents. Marv constantly expressed his devotion to his children and only wanting the best for them. He believed he was giving Todd a gift that he could take both to the bank and to the Hall of Fame. He believed that if Todd achieved perfection on the field he would have a perfect life. He felt that the accolades his athleticism would engender could provide Todd with joy enough to mitigate all those years of dedication and sacrifice.
 
Anyone who has seen films of Todd playing in high school can witness his perfect mechanics and impressive abilities. But the films don't show Todd's state of mind. When his teammates left the field after practice to go home, Todd remained there for hours still training. When they gathered at a fast food restaurant for a burger and conversation, Todd was home lifting weights. Even as a youngster when he went to a friend's birthday party he brought his own cake and ice cream to avoid processed foods. He became painfully shy because he only had limited contact with his peers. Marv missed an important part of the equation in creating the "perfect person."
 
We parents all want the best for our kids. We see that spark of ability and we believe that fostering that ability needs to be an integral part of our child-rearing. Marv didn't even wait to find that spark. He created it. We watch with a bit of envy as mega-stars emerge from strong parental investments: Andre Agassi, Tiger Woods, the Williams sisters and Dominique Morceau, who famously got a restraining order against her parents. While these athletes often earn millions of dollars a year and live comfortable lives, they have also expressed regrets. Agassi wrote that he felt imprisoned by his father through both expectations and demands. He also turned to drugs to escape mentally since he couldn't escape physically.
 
As parents, we need to heed these cautionary tales. The stories we hear are from those athletes who achieved major success. While they lost their childhoods, they did earn money and respect for their athletics. We don't usually hear the stories of kids who were pushed but never achieved much success. We don't hear if they had regrets. But we need to be sensitive to where our kids want to be. In 1988, Omo Grupe completed a long-term study of children in elite sports. He concluded that these athletes were not permitted to be children, were victims of disruptive family life, were exposed to excessive psychological and physiological stress, were detached from larger society and, most significantly, faced a type of abandonment upon exiting their athletic careers. Most of us would argue that our kids don't have such an extreme experience and that is probably true. But we do need to be aware that the scales can tip quickly unless we are vigilant. We need to include our children in the discussion when advancing to more intense levels of competition and training. Kids need to know that they are open to decide, which means we parents need to suppress our own desires. If our children feel that they are restricted by our dreams, they may not express their real desires.
 
We want sports to be a liberating experience for our children. Sports should offer the opportunity to meet new friends, get some exercise, learn how to be humble in winning and losing and develop discipline. Sports should never be a prison from which kids feel they can't escape. Likewise, sports shouldn't be a prison for the family where its time and money are held hostage. Unfortunately, we're fed the propaganda that athletic success spells life success, when in reality sports for the vast majority has very little to do with success in life. Todd Marinovich became a phenomenon for a few years, but the price he paid for that renown was nearly 40 years of his life – 20 trapped by the sport and 20 trapped by the drugs he took to escape the trap of the sport. Now happily married with two kids and a thriving artistic career, he has a relationship with his father that took years to repair. We want our kids to experience that kind of peace much sooner in life, which may mean letting the sports take a back seat to other more significant aspects of growing up. Moderation can give way to the freedom to find lots of interests and lots of events outside of the prison of achievement.
 

The 99 percent

Susan Boyd

When our family first got involved in youth soccer we were definitely unaware of what lay ahead. We weren't even aware that youth soccer existed in our town or that there were actually two options for youth soccer. Sitting around our community pool that first summer I got a quick education. I learned that one club was run by the city recreation department and the other club was private. I learned the rec club cost one fifth what the private club cost. I learned that kids in the rec club had more fun. But I also learned that the high school coaches only took kids who played in the private club so that if I ever wanted my children to get a soccer scholarship, I had to put my kids in the private club. I learned that the subdivision was forming its own team so they could practice at the subdivision's soccer fields. I learned that the private club had four youth teams at Bryce's age and the rec club had twenty. The discussion between the recreational parents and the private club parents got pretty intense as each side vied for my participation. I felt like the swing vote at the Iowa Republican caucus.
 
Looking back I realize how wrong everyone was. But it all sounded so convincing and life-affecting. How could I know what was was true when I had just learned that youth soccer existed? These myths get perpetuated year after year, and it isn't until after we've experienced youth soccer for ourselves that we can wean the truth from the stories. Unfortunately by the time we figure out what is best for our family and for our children, we may be a long ways down a path that doesn't work. The good news is that nothing is set in stone–despite the myth that whatever you pick, you're stuck with. While friends, relatives and neighbors are well-meaning with all their advice, each one is coming from their own bias. Bad experiences they had with particular clubs or coaches may just be a reflection of disappointment in their own child's lack of success. Likewise, glowing reports of a team's value may not translate to your own player's abilities or interests. When it comes to evaluating the youth soccer route you should be taking, only your own family and your own child can direct that journey.
 
The biggest myth out there is the recreation vs. travel club controversy. You will hear that if you really want your child to succeed in soccer you need to get them into a private club with professional coaching as soon as possible. This presupposes a lot of factors including your child will want to play soccer ten years in the future, your child will have the athletic abilities to play soccer ten years in the future and that all soccer clubs will remain exactly the same with staff and player abilities ten year in the future. I won't disagree with the fact that the more professional coaching a player can have the stronger he or she will grow. But spending the kind of money you need to spend to get that experience may not be appropriate until your child expresses a serious interest in the sport. This might not be until age 12 or 13 or it may be sooner. Only your family can determine when the best time would be to make that kind of financial and time commitment to soccer.
 
The next myth is that you have to play in a travel club to make the high school soccer team. Like any school team, soccer will have tryouts where the top players get selected. If a high school coach has a bias against players coming from a recreational background, then he or she could be overlooking some strong talent. I suspect more coaches want to put together a winning team than want to toe some hard line against recreational players. Gifted players are gifted players no matter where they train. Some high schools end up very short of players for their team, so they are grateful for any and all participants. The likelihood of a team made up primarily of select club players is high just because those are the players who wanted more intensive training and could afford it, but your son or daughter won't be precluded solely on a club pedigree if they have talent.
 
Parents will tell you that if you choose the recreational route, you won't be able to switch later on. This is the worst myth out there. It puts pressure on parents to choose select clubs earlier in their children's training than might be wise for the family. The financial and time commitment of moving to a select club becomes tremendous and only increases as the children get older. If your child is still trying out a number of youth sports, then sticking to recreational teams and leagues makes perfect sense. Making the commitment to a select team means that playing other sports in the same season will be difficult, so you need to be sure your child is ready to forgo other sports. Once a player is ready to move up to a select team, then attending tryouts at several clubs will give him or her plenty of options. In truth, select teams shouldn't be forming until older ages, but lots of clubs will create hand-picked teams as young as Under-8. That's an unfortunate trend, since players are still developing size, muscle and brain, making any prediction of future prowess unreliable. You don't want to get sucked in by a club's promises when your child is 8 and big, only to be rejected by that club when your child is 12 and normal size. So it's prudent to do what's best for your family and your child rather than be swayed by a sales pitch, which is usually self-serving for the club.
 
In soccer much of the scouting for colleges is done on the club level. This makes perfect sense since clubs will participate in big tournaments making it easier for college coaches to see large numbers of players in a weekend. Therefore if your child begins to show some promise as a player around ages 12 or 13 and expresses an interest in playing soccer in high school and college, then it's reasonable to look for a good select club with professional coaches. The player will benefit from the intensified training and from some exposure to scouts. There are lots of additional options for being scouted including the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program (US Youth Soccer ODP). People will promote the myth that to make it to college you have to be on one of the Developmental Academy teams sponsored by U.S. Soccer Federation, but those teams cover a limited geographical area of the United States. Colleges recognize that good soccer talent exists all over. Therefore, find a strong select club in your area and augment that training with programs like US Youth Soccer ODP. This will actually double the opportunity to be seen and increase a player's training regimen.
 
When I think about how much bad information I was bombarded with that summer, it's a wonder my sons ever got to play high school, not to mention college, soccer. Parents are well meaning, but they see the world through the narrow focus of their own children's experiences. What works best for one child may not be the best route for another. Basing your youth sports decisions on something which may or may not come true in a decade could create real problems in the present. Great players have come out of the recreational sports experiences. While playing in those early years they had the opportunity to share the experience with friends who later wouldn't be able to keep up athletically, but with whom deep and lasting friendships were formed. Limiting your child to just a pool of like-skilled participants takes away lots of options. Playing with a group of neighborhood or schoolyard buddies doesn't mean you've closed the door on playing in college or even playing pro. But for the 99 percent of players who will never move to that level, it seems silly to insist on a track that moves them in that direction. And for the 1 percent who will get there, it will be talent which determines that success, and talent will be recognized at the right time and place to be developed. No matter what our children succeed at, we all want to be sure they enjoyed the journey there.

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