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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". 

 

The Hook

Susan Boyd

Youth sports in general promote discipline, fitness, teamwork and most importantly, fun.  Soccer specifically has the added dimension of being a world-wide sport, which connects its players to a broad spectrum of cultures, languages and traditions.  Whether you’re lucky enough to travel overseas and play soccer or watch it on TV, you can connect immediately to a country through the experience of soccer.  The power of soccer has channeled into country, continent and world competitions, bringing together both players and fans to celebrate the game.  Soccer is being used in a more significant capacity.  Several organizations around the world are using soccer as a tool to empower the youth of countries where there has been political and economic upheaval.  Most of these groups run on a shoe-string budget and depend on the monetary and equipment donations from fellow soccer players around the world.

In Cambodia, the Salt Academy uses soccer to help eradicate human trafficking by bringing young girls into soccer leagues where they can be protected. The Salt Academy also helps them become strong, exceptional athletes with the self-esteem to resist the lure of recruiters.  This Mighty Girls program has expanded into three border provinces in Cambodia.  The girls play in leagues similar to those our own kids join with designations of U12 and up.  Recently their U15 girls’ team won the first Cambodian National Tournament, and their U14 team won an International Tournament.  In addition to the football training, the academy promotes high educational standards in hope of graduating many of the girls on to a university.

Project Congo takes girls from the dangerous and impoverished villages in the center of warfare and tribal traditions, which subjugate and terrorize women.  The project seeks to educate girls so they can graduate high school, something only a small percentage of females accomplish in the Congo.  It uses soccer to build self-esteem and will power, giving the girls tools to move ahead socially and educationally in an independent manner.  The project seeks sister teams in the US to help sponsor and support the teams in the Congo.  Soccer creates this connection between two cultures that normally have no connection.  Sponsoring a team can offer a US girls’ team a fantastic opportunity to learn their own lessons in altruism and social awareness.

The Give N Go Project provides soccer equipment to orphanages around the world.  According to their website, there are 143 million abandoned children in the world.  Since soccer is the most popular sport in the world, the organization can connect with these children through the sport.  They provide reconditioned used gear, new gear and clinics for orphanages and occasionally for foster children in the United States.  They use the clinics to impact these children’s lives to strive for excellence in all they do.  They encourage the kids to work as hard in the classroom as they do on the pitch.  They also want the children to develop pride through the ownership of their own soccer equipment and through success in soccer. 

Grassroots Soccer takes a different approach to using soccer.  The idea behind the program is to teach African kids about HIV/AIDS through various soccer drills.  The goal is to reduce the incidence of the disease in Africa by helping kids understand how it can be contracted and how to avoid it.  As Michelle Obama said about the program "The solution lies within us. . .and soccer is the hook." Presently it operates in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia, with satellite programs in Ethiopia, Kenya and even Guatemala to name just a few.  The program was founded by former soccer players, Dr. Tommy Clark and Ethan Zohn, who both played professionally in Zimbabwe.  When they saw the devastation of AIDS in that country, they decided that they could use soccer as the means to educate and stem the course of the disease.

Soccer Without Borders in Granada, Nicaragua works with girls ages 7 – 19 to develop recreational opportunities equal to those available to their male peers, and to offer strong support which the girls might not find in their community.  Recently the program expanded to Uganda (soccerwithoutborders.org/Uganda).  There it works with both refugee and national youth to train them in soccer.  Since Uganda has opened its borders to those displaced from the Horn of Africa and Sudan due to economic and political problems, the border villages have huge refugee populations, which face language and religious barriers, but most importantly have lost educational opportunities.  The SWB program attempts to provide these opportunities to both refugees and nationals as well as offer soccer training at least twice a week to give the kids some fun and some discipline that they can carry over into the classroom.  The main campus is in the capitol Kampala, from which teams go to the borders to conduct clinics and support schools in the area. The agency also works in Oakland, Calif. to provide the same type of support for recently arrived refugee and immigrant youth.  Since soccer carries great importance in the lives of these immigrants, it is a means to bring youth together in a safe environment and develop skills both on and off the field to help them assimilate into the US on the field, and in the classroom.

These groups are just the tip of the iceberg of programs using soccer to connect with youth and to help them build a future.  As Give N Go states on its mission page, "the childhood you have determines the adult you will be."  Therefore using soccer as the hook to draw in young people these agencies can build on the skills, pride and love they have in soccer to translate into the same things for education, self-esteem and self-discipline.  Soccer is being used to protect young women from sexual abuse, to teach young people to avoid AIDS and to become stronger students.  The language of soccer translates into everyday life.  The same discipline you need to develop a particular soccer move can be used to learn the times table.  The joy you bring to the sport can be brought to appreciating literature.  Even more importantly, we can join with our fellow soccer brothers and sisters in making these dreams come true through our donations both in equipment and monetary or by adopting a team to support financially and vocally with letters and videos.  Soccer can be a bridge to the rest of the globe. 

 

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Pick Your Moment

Susan Boyd

 Last weekend I went to three baseball games for two of my grandsons. Once again I was able to witness the nasty side of parenting. I’m not sure what brings out the monster in parents when it comes to youth sports. I imagine it comes from their own unrealized dreams, the anxiety that their child won’t be a success as measured by rather arbitrary standards and their natural competitive instincts. As events unfold, some parents see themselves as the answer to problems or the augmenter of abilities. In each case, they usually end up overwhelming their own child and in many cases the entire team. The impulse to just tweak one thing the player is doing or help her understand a more complex play is considerable and difficult to resist. I have to admit, when I saw my grandson constantly leaping back from every pitch, I spoke up and told him to stand in there and swing. He did, and he got his first hit of the season. But I usurped the coach’s job (and one coach is my son-in-law, so a double blunder), and I didn’t let the natural course of events create the right atmosphere for Archer to learn. I was at that game; I may never be at another game. But his coaches will be there for all of them.

In addition to my own foible, I unfortunately saw parents going into the dugout and pulling their child out for a discussion. They would even walk a long distance away from the dugout, so the coach would occasionally pop out and ask, "Where’s Cory?" The disruption to the team was only surpassed by the confusing instruction the child received. Dad would say stand back in the batter’s box and the coach would say move up. During the team’s defensive time on the field, several parents were shouting directions to their individual sons pulling focus away from the game. For most of these kids, developing any focus on the game is a huge accomplishment. When the ball is hit to a player, he/she has a dozen options. So a coach is ecstatic when the fielder exercises even the worst one of the options because it shows that the kid was at least listening! But when a parent is looking for perfection, he or she will shout out the best option, take their kid out of the zone and end up causing more harm than good. Even if the kid knew what was best, having the distraction of the shouted instruction could create that significant moment of hesitation costing the team an out.

To make matters worse, parents often use a language that is unfamiliar to the players. I wrote a blog once about the confusing terms players hear from their coaches and their parents. As adults we understand what these terms mean, but for an eight year old they may as well be Greek. A dad shouting to his daughter "Check to!" knows it means move to the player with the ball. However, most young players only know the more common meanings of "check." Naturally, she can’t understand why her dad is asking her to check out the passer. Or in baseball, had I told my grandson to "stop bailing"; he would have looked at me with total bewilderment. We parents have to both learn a different form of communicating when kids are younger and less experienced, but more importantly we need to learn when to communicate.

Yelling at the referee creates another negative for our children and their teams. We need to maintain decorum at all times, no matter how frustrated we get at the officiating. In one grandson’s game, the umpire was calling anything a strike that crossed the plate. He didn’t care if it was 20 feet over the plate or bounced directly on the plate. At first the parents were dumbfounded, but by the second inning they were ferocious as pitch after pitch they witnessed each of their little darlings being struck out unfairly. But the umpire was consistent for both teams, and the game got its full six innings done before time was up. No coach suggested that his pitchers throw purposely high or low. So the pitchers were actually trying to hurl accurately. There were hits, and there were runs. Nevertheless some parents felt that derogatory comments to the umpire would somehow rectify the situation. Had their own children said those things . . . well you get it. The example being shown wasn’t shining.

Despite some negatives, I saw special moments. When a kid who obviously wasn’t used to being struck out heard "Strike three," he began to have a meltdown. The coach went out to him, brought him into the dugout and signaled his dad over. His dad simply gave him a hug and a kiss on the top of the head and then walked away. I’m sure the coach was prepared for an extended episode of tantrum, but with a calm, non-judgmental hug and kiss, the situation was diffused. After a hard loss, where the team was leading 7-0 and ended up losing in the last inning 8-7, there were parents giving advice and critiquing the game. There were many more parents giving a warm hug and handing out praise for well-executed plays, or simply offering their condolences. Most kids will forget a loss and even a major win in a matter of minutes. After all, there are snacks or lunch or some other activity on the horizon. So dwelling on extended post-game analysis will usually result in more boredom than learning. A wise parent keeps it short and sweet no matter the outcome.

We have to resist fulfilling our idea of what a game should be, and leave the game to the ones playing and the ones coaching. I know how hard that is. As soon as I impulsively shouted out to my grandson, I wished I could swallow the words. I may have solved an immediate problem, but what other ones did I create? What will happen when he gets hit by a pitch, and Gramma’s admonition to "Stand in there" sounds like she wants him to get hurt? Who should he be trusting to give him baseball advice? It certainly shouldn’t be a woman who hasn’t swung a bat in a decade. I encouraged the players, but otherwise held my tongue the rest of the weekend. It’s not easy. We see a problem, we want to solve it. We see struggles, we want to alleviate them. We see mistakes, we want to rectify them. But a game or a practice is not the appropriate venue. So take some notes mentally or actually, and then broach the subject when it is just you and your child. We can be the parent that makes life less stressful for everyone, especially our children.

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It’s Not Russian Roulette

Susan Boyd

Wednesday May 9, NBC’s Rock Center did a report on the increase in serious concussions among female soccer players. In a promo for an upcoming segment, an earnest reporter asked a father why he allowed his daughter to continue playing a game when he knew she faced serious injury. His chagrined and flustered reply, "Well she loves playing. I don’t want to stop her from doing something she loves." Buzz – wrong answer. This is exactly the type of sound bite with which news agencies make hay. It not only makes parents seem irresponsibly immune to the dangers surrounding sport, but creates the impression that whatever it takes to succeed, including a life-altering brain injury, we should go ahead and tolerate it in the name of sport. Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I have addressed the issue of concussions several times. I readily acknowledge that concussions, and particularly repeated concussions, can be a life-altering injury but we aren’t sending our children out to play Russian Roulette on the field.
 
The good news is that despite the rise in concussions among young female soccer players, the actual numbers are in the hundreds. With 3 million registered players, US Youth Soccer has the largest number of youth players in the United States. Roughly 48 percent of these are girls, or 1.4 million. Even if the number of girls with serious concussions reached 1000 a year that translates to only .0007 percent, hardly a number to consider wholesale changes to the game.
 
The players interviewed for the Rock Center report represented the extremes. All had suffered at least three concussions. Most were unable to concentrate for only three hours in school and one girl had to have her room bathed in blue light and eat dinner by candle light to avoid migraines. They also all admitted they didn’t leave games after suffering their first concussion because they either didn’t want to appear weak or the team needed them. I’ve read where experts tell us that recovering from a concussion takes at least a week of no rigorous activity and definitely no rough contact. But time and again players, parents, coaches and referees ignore this advice. According to the research cited in the Rock Center piece, girls are slightly more prone to being concussed due to longer, thinner necks and weaker neck muscles. Therefore, any head injury, no matter how slight it appears at the moment, needs to be considered serious enough to be removed from the game. If there is any black out at all, even for a few seconds, it requires immediate removal and a medical follow up.
 
The report did point out why injured girls play even with the threat of serious brain trauma. As one girl stated, "When I was forced to quit soccer I lost my identity, my social life, my friends and my joy." Parents will often experience the same loss on a different level. They develop friendships and a social life with the other parents of teammates, so the entire family can experience a loss.
 
Possible head injuries are a part of any sport, although soccer can have what is considered a higher than average incident rate due to both headers and other collisions during the game. Therefore, no one should take this report by NBC lightly. We just need to have some perspective. There exist safeguards to protect players from the first time they approach the ball to their waning adult competitive days. We need to be sure these safeguards are applied regularly and consistently. This job for making sure players stay safe falls primarily on referees and coaches, then on parents and finally on the players. First, referees need to control games carefully for the youngest players. Elbows to the head and neck need to be an immediate card and dismissal from the field. Excessively rough play needs to be stopped with a zero tolerance policy for any players. Any injury to the head means that the player must leave the game for the rest of the game–no exceptions. If a player blacks out, then immediate medical attention must be arranged. Coaches need to prepare their players for these policies and then support them. It’s difficult in a big game with the score tied and only three minutes left to pull your best striker for a possible head injury, but we all have to look long term, not at the immediate gains. Parents need to support coaches and referees in both controlling rough play and in removing players from the field either for rough play or for injury. These policies ensure that players think twice before that overly aggressive hit to the back of the head and players can have long and productive soccer careers.
 
One suggestion made by NBC was for headers to be banned under the age of 12. Brandi Chastain, the former Olympic and World Cup star of the U.S. Women’s National Team, disagreed strongly. She felt that headers were a beautiful and inherent part of the game which shouldn’t be eliminated from the younger players’ repertoire. Besides, players naturally go with their head for any ball above their chest. It would be a difficult ban to not only enforce, but justify.
 
If players choose to wear a head guard, it’s important that everyone support their decision. It is not a sign of weakness or a silly piece of equipment. Parents should encourage your players not to make fun of any player who elects to wear a head guard. Coaches support the decision even if you don’t see the point. Players also need to be honest about how they are feeling. If a hit makes you woozy, then let the coach know and take yourself out of the game. If the coach establishes prior to the season that he or she wants any player with a possible head injury to pull out, then it makes the decision easier for the player. Parents, let your player know that you will be proud of her if she realizes she’s not quite right and asks to sit out.
 
Our kids aren’t asking to test their reflexes by hitting the springs on bear traps. They are playing a game that has been around for decades and will be around for decades more. Unlike the baited question of "Why let your daughter play a game that you know is dangerous for her?" leaving the poor parent to stutter and stumble around a response that just makes them look irresponsible and uncaring, the real question should be "What are you doing as a parent to make soccer even safer for your daughter?" That’s an answer that doesn’t yield the kind of fear-based reporting we see all too often, but does offer some real help to the viewers. We can’t eliminate concussions, but we can develop strategies that diminish the number of concussions and diminish the severity of those concussions. Most importantly we need to take any hit to the head, neck, or back seriously and err to the side of caution when we suspect some brain involvement. The idea is to watch our kids play in lots of games not just win one significant game. The idea is to have our kids enjoy their passion safely.
 
US Youth Soccer offers a number of free online concussion resources. Click the link to learn more http://www.usyouthsoccer.org/news/concussion_resources_from_cdc/
                              

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Soccer Mom’s Day

Susan Boyd

This will be the first Mother’s Day in twelve years that we haven’t been at the soccer fields. I never felt badly that we couldn’t attend yet another brunch because, to tell the truth, I preferred watching the boys play over lukewarm scrambled eggs and soggy hash browns. The real meaning of Mother’s Day for me was sharing the day with my family and doing what we loved – soccer.
 
I imagine many of you will be in the same situation come Sunday. Spring soccer season is usually abbreviated by seasonal showers and soggy fields, so dry weekend play dates become a precious commodity not to be wasted with some sentimental holiday. Thus you gather up the chairs, blankets and umbrellas and head out to the fields delighted to watch your son or daughter play a game they really love while you cheer them on. Even if the weather isn’t ideal, the experience can be.
 
For five years, the coach of Robbie’s team made sure that each boy handed his mother a carnation after the game win or lose. That’s a very special memory for me. Despite their obvious embarrassment for what they considered an intimate gesture (especially when they got older), they each trotted across the field and handed mom a flower and received a hug in return. I doubt I would have gotten either at a fancy brunch. But within the family of the soccer team and the openness of the soccer field, Robbie and his buddies felt uninhibited enough to show and receive love publicly.
 
Another Mother’s Day game Bryce’s team unfurled a sign at the end of the game that said "Thanks and Have a Happy Mother’s Day!" They had decorated the poster and signed their names. We all got our pictures taken behind the sheet with both the full team and all the moms as well as individual photos. It made for a very special and unexpected memory.
 
When the boys were really young we actually arranged for a special mom/son soccer game on Mother’s Day. We met at the local elementary school and played a game for more than an hour. Then we had donuts and coffee and visited while the kids continued to play. It was overcast and not very warm, but somehow we managed to extend the experience for nearly three hours. There were lots of siblings, grandparents and friends who joined us. So we decided to play a round robin tournament with the boys winning the whole competition (without us even trying to let them win). Normally it might have been demoralizing to lose to a bunch of 8 year olds, but that day it was just fun. Some families actually had the proverbial bunch reservations and blew them off because the day was going so well. It definitely was a special Mother’s Day.
 
I don’t even want to suggest that soccer families have to make lemonade out of lemons because the past Mother’s Days weren’t something to be pitied. Should your son’s or daughter’s team be scheduled to play on Mother’s Day then center your celebration around the game. Turn the brunch into a team outing by going to a pizza place or an all-you-can-eat buffet. Or go to a baseball field and share a family softball game. Play Frisbee golf. Build a bonfire, have a sing-a-long and make s’mores.
There are so many ways to celebrate that don’t require dressing up and reservations.
 
Like I said, this Mother’s Day will be the first in a long time without a soccer game, but I will actually be with my grandsons in Columbus, Ohio. So this Mother’s Day I’ll be at two youth baseball games. Same outcome, different sport. I wouldn’t have it any other way! 

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