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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". 

 

Well Grounded

Susan Boyd

Kids and gravity have an affinity one for the other. A gaggle of five year olds dribbling towards the goal never fail to tangle feet and indelicately land in a pile. Then out of the spaghetti comes one foot pushing the ball into the goal. They all rise, wipe their hands and begin again. Their resilience is amazing. Maybe they don't get hurt because they are so close to the ground. Maybe they have extra padding, although I have plenty of padding and get hurt every time I fall. No matter the reason, kids run, fall, get up and run again as if they have super balls in their pants.
 
Most young players treat soccer as a contact sport. They love to jostle, push, wrestle, and tackle. This roughhousing becomes an important aspect of playing the game. While we would love for our children to glide effortlessly onto the pitch, weave their way spectacularly down the field, and fire a shot directly into the center of the net, the scene looks much different. They arrive on the turf, greeting one another with slaps and giggles or a friendly hug and tackle. Someone actually puts a foot on the ball, but not necessarily in the right direction. While the adults gesticulate wildly to get the team back on track, someone notices something interesting on the ground and bends over to examine it. Another player, watching the parents, trips over his teammate and lands face first in the grass. Most of the players run to see what the pile-up is all about, while one lone dribbler takes the ball and scores – in the wrong net. Everyone jumps up and down, cheering until they all tumble onto the earth.
 
Some players believe that landing on the ground is part of the process. Bryce used to kick the ball and then fall on his rear end. Every single kick ended with a flop. He wouldn't dribble because he couldn't do it from the ground. When we asked why he fell, he answered, ""Because it's fun."" I saw a game recently where one adventurous player had obviously seen a bicycle kick goal. He would take the ball, throw it in the air and then attempt to flip himself and kick it. When the coach tried to explain that he couldn't touch the ball with his hands, the player burst into tears. So everyone agreed that if the ball came close to him he could pick it up for his fancy play. I've watched kids slide across a muddy field after scoring a goal, which happens twenty times in a game for five and six year old strikers. Kids will fall down for no apparent reason perhaps because the earth's magnetic pull is too strong for them. Kids will fall down and discover hidden treasure among the blades of grass. And kids will definitely fall down if falling will insure a mess.
 
Parents would do well to stock up on stain remover, bleach, and band-aids, since, yes, occasionally a fall results in a boo-boo. Hitting the ground running has a far more literal translation for the youngest soccer players. Despite the mud, the grass stains, and the cuts and bruises, we can't ask the kids to stop. The helter-skelter nature of the game appeals to young fans. They can play an unbridled hour of running, jumping, and falling, all of which have an equal part in the fun. Chances for any major injury are minimal, so the opportunity to behave like wild horses has to be respected. This abandon has no gender and no limits. Girls love having permission to act rowdy and muck around in the goo just like the boys. Pretty pink shorts and socks can come home from practice looking as gritty and brown as any self-respecting mud pie can look. 
 
If you haven't experienced the falling of autumn, then you'll certainly enjoy it come spring. April showers will bring May flowers and weeks of laundry. But watching how much joy these tiny players have cavorting and falling, it's difficult to deny them the explosion of letting loose completely. While soccer eventually must become a game of finesse and skill, it also needs to be a game of fun. And apparently part of that fun comes from making contact with the ground in dozens of interesting ways. The next time you see your child or your child's friend hitting the ground and laughing, laugh with them. The day will come soon enough when kids won't want to be on the ground, especially in a soccer game. Right now, for many of them, it's the only place they want to be when on the field. While we can worry that they aren't getting the point of soccer, they are convinced they have it all figured out. You can't buy that kind of confidence even if it's being exercised on the ground level.
 

Survivor

Susan Boyd

I love "The Amazing Race." Other than Fox Soccer and a few other TV shows, this would have to be my companion on a desert island. So imagine my delight when the show premiered last Sunday and one of the contestants was a familiar face, Ethan Zohn. Some of you may know Ethan from "Survivor" where he was the winner of the third season, Survivor: Africa. I don't watch "Survivor" but I learned of Ethan through his soccer playing and his founding of "Grassroot Soccer." Ethan was a goalkeeper at Vassar and played for the United Soccer League and in Zimbabwe for their Highlanders F.C. He has done soccer commentating and hosting over the years, so you may have seen him on Fox Soccer or MSG.
 
I think of Ethan often when I see my own sons working on their soccer. While Ethan did live the dream of playing college and professional soccer, it was how he parlayed that interest and success into something more significant. We parents want our children to achieve, but we also want them to develop into adults with integrity and honor. Most kids won't play soccer much beyond their youth experience. Therefore, that time should be spent joyfully benefitting from the important essentials of youth soccer: exercise, learning to work with others, traveling, accepting defeat, winning with humility, and sharing time with family and friends. Additionally soccer can teach tolerance and introduce players to the world. It's these last lessons which Ethan has expanded and built upon. He's the ultimate soccer role model for my children.
 
From his experiences in Africa, he recognized the horrible toll HIV/AIDS has taken throughout the continent. In an effort to stem the spread of the disease, education was essential. So Ethan used soccer as a tool to bring young people together and then teach them how to prevent infection in their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. Called "Grassroot Soccer," it combines education through their "Skillz" curriculum with developing soccer skills. As their web site (grassrootsoccer.org) explains:
 
Skillz is a culture, mindset, and toolkit for educators to use when teaching young people 12-18 about HIV and AIDS and life skills. Skillz creates simple but powerful connections between soccer (sport) and life skills.
 
The program has graduated 340,000 young people and the goal is to graduate one million kids by the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
 
In April 2009, Ethan was diagnosed with a rare form of Hodgkin's lymphoma and after intensive chemotherapy and additional aggressive treatment, the cancer is now in remission. Building on this personal experience, Ethan added cancer causes to his extensive charity work. His determination to use his "Survivor" prize money to help African children survive and then use his own cancer survival to help others overcome the disease has always been coupled with his love for soccer.
 
His great example demonstrates that youth soccer can stretch beyond just being a competitive sport and help players participate in the world arena by doing community service. For example, kids could raise money for organizations by running a dribble-thon where teams sign up contributors who pledge an amount for every field length completed by a player. Or they can have a cone contest where teams compete against one another in dribbling a ball through cones in a tag-team manner. Youth soccer can also build character by offering players service opportunities that will hopefully become a part of their life skills. Some clubs have had food drives where players have to donate a can or box of food each time a goal is scored.  Other clubs run soccer clinics for kids who don't have the means to participate regularly in soccer and provide each player with a ball.
 
There are also dozens of soccer-oriented organizations that youth teams can support by donating gently used gear. U.S. Soccer Foundation's "Pass Back" program usually has donation centers at local soccer stores and at state association offices. "Peace Passers" asks you to contact their web site and they will tell you how to get the gear to them. "Operation Give" collects gear that U.S. military troops distribute in Iraq. Fedex provides free shipping to their warehouse (address on the website) so there is no cost to your team to ship the items.

Augmenting the sports aspect of youth soccer with community service and charitable work promises a richer development of our children's character. The amazing part is that you can add these with little extra effort and tons of rewards. While Ethan Zohn is a survivor on several levels, I suspect that's not proactive enough for the life he's created. Surviving wasn't a terminus; it was a point from which to launch even more success. Likewise soccer shouldn't be a terminus experience. We want our kids to celebrate, grow, and build good memories. As a global sport, soccer should give youth players a sense of being part of the global community. That means stretching beyond drills and games to embrace the experiences of other cultures both abroad and in our own cities. Connecting through service can lead to even greater relationships. As Ethan states in the introduction to his series of youth soccer books, Soccer World, "Soccer is played in almost every nation, so this game is like a common language that brings people together. I can just show up at a field with a ball and instantly make 20 cool new friends." Hopefully youth soccer can be the springboard for compassion, altruism, and tolerance in adulthood. Whatever our children aspire to be, they won't all be professional soccer players, but hopefully they will all be good citizens. 
 

Week 4 - FITNESS

Susan Boyd

Certainly youth soccer affords great opportunities for our kids to get fit. That fitness extends to mind, body, and spirit. Players exercise by running, leaping, stretching, juggling, dribbling and occasionally sliding. Most soccer practices consist of a warm up, a constantly active training session and a cool down. Soccer coaches will add life lessons about being supportive, sportsmanship and integrity. Most kids will willingly extend their soccer activity past the end of practice or a game because they are so enthusiastic about playing. And the wonderful thing about soccer is that children of any athletic level or fitness condition can enter the sport and improve their skills. Every child can benefit from the fitness that soccer offers.

But what about us parents? How does youth soccer affect our fitness? I can tell you honestly, and I'm sure many of you will agree, that my fitness improved beginning the day my boys started playing soccer. While I don't make a practice of playing the game and although I'm left-footed I have nothing beyond that to offer to soccer, the game has nonetheless made me healthier.

Here's my parent fitness report:
            Equipment Aerobics – I have done every kind of crunch, press, and lift while retrieving and servicing soccer equipment. There's the "My Cleat's Untied Squat" that most parents practice at least twice during any practice or game, not to mention at home, leaping out of the car and just before kick-off. The "Soccer Bag Jerk" where you lift bags into and out of the trunk, carry them to and from the field and bend and lift the dirty clothes out of the bag and into the washer. The "I'm Missing a Shin Guard Push-up" where you look under every couch, chair, table, bed and bookcase or commando crawl through a pile at the bottom of a closet.
            Tournament Track - The fittest of us owe our muscle tone to field location during a tournament. "Distance Event"– If the parking lot is located by Fields 3 through 5, your child's team is due to play on Field 32. "Relays"– If the finals are set for Field 3, they will be changed to Field 29. This is of course after you have found the perfect parking place steps away from the sideline and you have already set up your chairs. "Sprints"– Port-a-Johns will always be located ten fields from any place your five year old is standing when the urge arrives. "Steeplechase"– No matter what the weather, the trip to your team's fields will travel across a creek without a bridge, a bog or inexplicable mud zones.
           Gym Equipment Rotation – Until our kids began playing soccer, few of us realized that our lives revolved around some pretty sophisticated home exercise equipment without ordering a Nordic Track or Bowflex. "The Step Climber" – Before every practice we will make at least four trips up and down the stairs in order to hurry along and change into uniform or find the missing shin guard (see above). "Treadmill" – The continual cycle of running we all do in order to get through the calendar of events. I run in my dreams. "Punching Bag" – We stuff clothes into our washers, force that extra pair of socks into a crammed bag, break through the brambles behind the goal to find that $125 ball we bought earlier in the day and shove five suitcases into a trunk that holds four. While you may not strike an actual blow, you definitely are punching.
           
Fitness doesn't always come from a membership and gleaming equipment under fluorescent lights. When we're busy, we have to find our health where we can. Even if the above exercise routine can't completely fulfill your daily quota, some of it can be tailored to work to your benefit. Do a few laps around the soccer field before the kick-off, take a bike ride during practices, find a buddy and walk while the kids train or even jog in place while watching a game. Clubs might even be willing to offer a fitness session for parents while the kids practice. Bringing in an instructor and charging a nominal fee could kick off a fitness opportunity to match what the kids are getting. But with or without a club's assistance, parents can use their kids' fitness time as their own. Youth soccer can bring out the best in us all, even if we have to be a bit creative to discover it.
 

Week 3--FRIENDS

Susan Boyd

When the boys were young our family was oblivious to the existence of youth soccer teams in our town. But we soon discovered that soccer played a key role in the social networking of both children and adults. I got a phone call asking me to put in an application for Bryce to play soccer. The parents were collecting these applications to submit together for a team of friends. And thus began our soccer journey.
 
I'm sure many of you have similar stories that include a group of childhood friends. Around our house are team pictures from those years with the sweet faces of young boys who are now young men. Because these teammates went to local schools, belonged to the same Cub Scout dens, swam at the same city parks, and attended local houses of worship, we managed to stay in contact over the years. While some teammates continued with soccer, others opted to switch to football in the summer before 5th grade. As the boys grew and developed, some showed more athletic skills than others and tried out for select soccer teams. Eventually over the years that core group of friends splintered choosing different activities. The boys kept some of the connections they had created in those early soccer years and lost others.
 
When I was administrator of the soccer club and it came time for tryouts, the real nervousness for the girls' parents wasn't if their daughters would make a team, but if they would make the team of their friends. Friendship, rather than athletic skills or team strength, became the overriding factor. Girls would be devastated if their friends moved on to a different team, and some girls would opt for a less competitive team just to stay together with a group of girls. I would get phone calls from parents hoping I could intercede and get their daughter on a particular team that all her friends had made. I would hear the real anguish in their voices because they saw this exclusion as extending to their daughter's entire social experience. These parents understood that friendships may bend or break when one friend has a different schedule than another friend.
 
But with every new experience come new people. As our lives expand and shift, we lose contact with some friends and come in contact with new friends. Playing soccer offers both kids and parents the opportunity to meet new people and form bonds. While the boys began playing soccer with friends they saw every day in all kinds of social settings, they grew to play soccer with kids who came from outside the community. Their connection became solely soccer. Nevertheless some friendships transcended that single bond. Bryce had a friend from his Under-14 soccer team, who due to illness had to quit the team. Bryce moved to several different teams over the next few years, and then went to San Francisco for college. But he and his friend kept in contact. When Bryce transferred to our local state university his friend was already there, and they reconnected. Robbie has many teammates playing in colleges all over the United States and remains in contact with all of them even though they haven't played soccer together for several years. While soccer drew them together, true friendship kept them involved.
 
And what happened with those players from that first packet of applications?  Bryce remains in contact with several of those boys, and one has been a good friend all these years despite having only played soccer with Bryce that first year and then at U-18. While soccer formed the friendship, the endurance of that friendship came from sharing other interests. Throughout my own soccer journey I have made the acquaintance of people that I consider friends even if we don't converse regularly. I have also had the privilege of watching dozens of boys grow up into young men who continue to play soccer both at the college level and professionally. Sharing in their careers makes soccer more personal and exciting.
 
Friendships can spring out of any organized activity or even the most mundane experience. But we all cherish those first friends our children have. My favorite picture is one of Robbie's third grade class sprawling across the new colorful playground equipment at the school. I know each child by name and many of them I still run into today. We can't always maintain the purity of those early friendships, but we can be sure to memorialize them. When you get the team pictures ask each player to sign his or her name under their face and write out full names on the back of the picture. Take pictures with small groups of players so you can have memories of specific friends. When Robbie graduated from high school a friend's mother put in the year book a picture of four twelve year old soccer players smiling with arms across one another's shoulders. Next to this photo was a picture of the same four boys celebrating their senior year state championship in soccer. Side by side these pictures showed four boys enjoying their sport together over the span of six years. What an amazing tribute to friendship!