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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". 

 

No Standing

Susan Boyd

We’ve all done it — rushed to the league website or the tournament boards to see where our kids’ team stands. The all-important ranking determines any number of things: status, ability to advance, pride, future recruitment, and club affiliation. Under our developmental system we still depend on standings because so much else depends on it. The result is that clubs end up focusing on team strength often at the expense of individual player development. No one wants to admit it, because clubs sell their product on the basis of developing your child to his or her next level. However, clubs need to recruit players to pay the fees that keep the club running and that recruitment often depends on how well the team is doing. Organizations do tout their success stories — which players went on to play at college or even the professional level, but the real attraction is where the club stands in comparison to the records of other clubs.

It’s a system that used to exist in England. Kids were coached on either community or school teams until they were 15, mostly by volunteer coaches or teachers. Those teams competed for the best players by advertising their standings. There was supplementary training available to good young players at Centers of Excellence run by the various professional clubs of the English Premier League (EPL). Outside of the Centers, youth played a tremendous number of games, tournaments, and friendlies fueled by membership on both club and school teams. At age 15, players could be “owned” by professional teams meaning that they signed contracts with the youth programs of EPL clubs. They then were trained by the club’s staff at no cost to the player with an eye towards these players developing into viable professional players. This old system parallels to some extent the American system, where players register on both club and school teams playing up to four games a week. Some players can join United States Soccer Federation (USSF) Developmental Academy teams at U13/14, although the primary emphasis is on U15–U18. They are excluded from joining high school teams. The remaining majority of players are trained by clubs and schools.

In 1990, the youth program in England underwent a significant change. The professional coaches and national team sponsors felt that England was falling behind on the international level and needed a stronger development program. They also recognized that such a program needed a financial incentive for the EPL teams to agree. Additionally they understood that they needed to make as serious an effort in developing female players as they did male players. Although females were not yet attracting the crowds and therefore the payrolls of male professionals, they were becoming an important part of international soccer.

The Football Association (FA) mandated a Premiership Academy system for the EPL. The clubs had to abide by a strict set of guidelines closely monitored by the FA. Foremost, the Academies had to be fully funded by the clubs, meaning no costs to the player and his family. Unfortunately, no such provision was made for female players, so steps still need to improve there. A few professional clubs do run a fully funded development program for girls (led by Arsenal), but many still require the players to pay for kits, travel, and facility fees. In return for their financial support, clubs own the players they train. This means that on a smaller scale than with their professional players clubs can trade their youth players for a fee. The cost of running an Academy is around $3 million. If the Academies can produce one excellent player a year for the professional level, they can end up covering all their costs with a single “sale” since the average value of an EPL player is $5 million. This financial incentive means that clubs are motivated to focus on the individual player, rather than an entire team’s success. In fact, clubs are prohibited from playing more than 30 games a year, and these are all friendlies. There are no standings, instead the team’s position in the EPL is measured by the success of the professional team over which none of the youth players or coaches have control. Instead the focus is on individual development beginning as early as age 8. Clubs are mandated to not just teach techniques, skills, and tactics. They must also teach players how to be players off the pitch with lessons in nutrition, character, hygiene and social skills. The FA knows that not every child who enters the program will turn professional, but all will eventually be citizens.

Players are signed for a season, which runs September through August, and they cannot leave the team until the end of that season. Clubs are allowed to sign up to 30 players at each age level, but usually only sign half that number. Players U-9 through U-12 have one-year contracts and at the end of each year the club decides whether to retain or release the player. Another club can sign the player at this time but must agree to a transfer fee to be paid to the original club to help defray the costs the original club invested in the player. At U-13 the situation becomes more serious. Players are signed for two year or four year contracts giving both the player and the training club stability. At U17/18 players have to either make the transition to being on the professional team or leave. They sign an apprenticeship contract. Finally at U-19 they can become full-fledge professional players who may be sold to other clubs at the will of the clubs and approval of the FA. Since even a novice EPL player can be worth $3 - $5 million, clubs have a significant financial investment in creating top players.

Training focuses on a strict philosophy of development. The policy is extensive and clearly outlined for the clubs (www.premierleague.com/content/dam/premierleague/site-content/News/publications/other/youth-development-rules-2013-2014.pdf). Games are not the important center of training nor are wins. In fact, players younger than U-13 can only play one game a week (capped at 30 games) and those must be on the weekends. Players can only play for the Academy (so no school teams), and they are guaranteed at least 24 games a season. Matches are used for players to practice making their own decisions based on the training they received during the week. Coaches primarily focus on team tactics and positioning during games, but may even leave that to the players, choosing instead to offer instruction during game breaks or after the game. The idea is to help the player have confidence in his or her choices and to depend on teammates. During the week, practices focus on skills repetition. Players may spend an entire practice on first touch or dribbling techniques. Developing good habits in practices is the goal that is done in three phases: Foundation Phase, Youth Development Phase, and Professional Development Phase. There must be at least one coach at each level with a UEFA A level license, and the number of coaches at each level is strictly controlled. Players U-9 through U-11 are at the Foundation level and play 8v8, players U-12 – U-16 are at the Youth Phase and play 11v11, and all other players are Professional Phase.

The overall guiding force in these changes was to develop players who exhibit creativity and confidence. Therefore, players are encouraged to find their own style based on the strong, repetitive training they received before U-12 in skills, techniques, and tactics and their refinement in later years. The FA is hoping to gain strong, breakout players who take their training to a higher level with their own signature talents. By attaching a financial component to the development they are hoping to ensure that clubs will nurture that creativity, individuality, and talent to create world-class players. The club will only need one or two significant players a season to off-set the costs of their youth program. So far the EPL has been a happy supporter of the Academies having seen some robust results. On their website they promote their Youth Academy with stories and video highlights of training. Fans are delighted to see these budding players as they develop into the stars of tomorrow (www.premierleague.com/content/premierleague/en-gb/youth.html).

The girls program begins with training at the Centers of Excellence through U-15 and continuing to play with their clubs and schools, but they can be signed with club teams at U-16. There are no professional women’s teams in England, so most strong female soccer players aspire to play for U.S. colleges (yes, just like in “Bend It Like Beckham”). Therefore local school and club teams are heavily scouted by American recruiters since they recognize the strong coaching these players receive in England. Players at the Centers only train, and don’t play games. Once signed, the Academy teams only compete in friendlies and therefore don’t keep standings.

Unlike here in America where parents are heavily involved in their children’s training and games, Academy parents are often excluded from watching either. They have to sign a detailed code of conduct agreement and can jeopardize their child’s future if they break any aspect of the code. Parents receive regular progress reports on their players, but they cannot engage with the coaches. Clubs stress that a parent’s job is to keep their child focused on training and provide support so a child can accept being released by the club. Even those who are selected for the Academy have an infinitesimal chance to go professional. Coaches make that abundantly clear from day one to both parents and players. Since those chosen for the Academy are all strong players it will often be their mental approach to the game that will be the difference between being retained and being released. Therefore, it is the parents’ job to provide an environment that nurtures the proper mental approach to the game which includes being realistic about abilities and not over-inflating their egos.

Unfortunately here in the U.S. such a system will be difficult, as the nation is divided into four regions used for national competitions. The first difficulty comes with the size of our country and the limited number of MSL teams so that we can’t run the same type of Academy as the EPL does. While all MSL teams do have an Academy team, in order to geographically provide opportunities to more players, the Academy depends on club teams for numbers. A quick look at the map provided on the website indicates how much of the U.S. isn’t covered by any Academy program. In fact, other than Colorado and one team in Kansas, the plains states are totally devoid of Academy possibilities. Additionally, on the website there is a tab for “standings,” which I think is the second major problem for our Academy system. The local club teams associated with the Academy need to sell themselves to parents and kids considering teams they want to try for. The clubs’ financial well-being depends on recruiting large numbers of paying players, and the major selling point for families is being in a winning program. Academy teams compete for players in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver and the non-professional Academy teams need to attract players to all their teams, not just the Academy ones. With an emphasis on wins, there naturally comes an emphasis on games, which by definition means teams have to be successful. Clubs can’t afford matches to be solely a training opportunity because their standings advertise their status to potential players. The third major roadblock will always be college recruiting. Youth players want to play at that level, preferably at NCAA Division I, and to get there they must be seen by college coaches. That means attending the top-rated tournaments in the country which approve team applications based on their competitive resumes. Academy teams usually get selected, but even then their status can restrict the number of college coaches willing to spend their limited time watching a weak team’s matches. Finally the role of parents in the “development” of their players will always be an impediment. In the name of good intentions parents often over-manage their children’s soccer lives including making demands of clubs and coaches, holding their child out to the top “bidder” (i.e. getting club scholarships even though they afford the fees), putting them in multiple playing situations, and moving their child from club to club in pursuit of top billing. So players often are on winning teams, but miss out on real development. Just watch some of the top youth players now at the college level who still don’t have first touches.

The US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program is a good option for players in all states. Each state has an ODP team for which players can try out by contacting their state association. Players train a few times a month and play friendlies. There is then a selection process for the state team, which goes to regional ODP tournaments, and players are identified for possible selection to the national youth teams for both boys and girls. The primary limitation of ODP is the distance players must travel for training, which further limits the training opportunities. But players are exposed to top level coaching and to college coaches.

Until professional soccer expands further in the United States we will face an imperfect developmental system. Nevertheless, my hope is that the clubs will move to a model of training and games that mimics the EPL Academy, i.e. only play friendlies and limit the friendlies. Exposure to college coaches can be arranged by holding regional friendly events at U-15 and above that become showcases for the players without needing to have standings or declare tournament champions. Additionally clubs should do more to limit the “coaching” input of parents. West Ham is considered the top Academy in England and has the most restrictive parent contract (soccernation.com/tony-carr-west-ham-united-academys-director-on-youth-soccer-in-america--cms-3374). Coach Tony Carr is leaving the academy, but has built a strong model. Many Academies offer American youth players the opportunity to train in England over the summer and offer EPL Academy training at summer camps in the States. This might be the best solution right now for bringing U.S. youth players into a stronger development model.

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Let It Snow, Let It Snow?

Susan Boyd

It snowed again this week – AGAIN. We’re not Boston deep here, but deep enough to be chronically covered in a white blanket. In a phone conversation with my grandson in Columbus, Ohio, he told me his outdoor baseball tryouts had been pushed back a week, a timeline I found remarkably optimistic. Right now the only outdoor team sport we could play here would be if I formed a snowshoe Frisbee league. Home Depot has started advertising for spring planting. This requires three important factors: 1) The ability to actually see real earth; 2) The soil is thawed enough to dig for planting; and 3) You can trust that winter won’t suddenly return. I figure events should merge around June 1 for us here. Right now I’m watching on TV workers clearing snowy slush off the Rockefeller Ice Rink so Evan Lysacek can perform. This same slush led to a plane skidding on the runway at La Guardia Airport, luckily without serious consequences. Kentucky, a state one doesn’t normally associate with blizzard conditions, had hundreds of motorists stranded on snow-clogged freeways for the better part of 24 hours. I truly believe Punxsutawney Phil is a genius.

The weather affects so many of our sports. Due to a snow emergency in November, the NFL game at Buffalo against the Jets was moved to Detroit, not exactly a winter friendly location either. They said it was for the safety of fans. Nice sentiments, but there was also the problem of getting the Jets into Buffalo where no jets (aircrafts or players) were landing or taking off, and no guarantees that if they could get to Buffalo they’d be able to get back out. I’ve actually driven from Buffalo to Detroit, which takes about 4 hours going through Canada, not counting how long it takes to go through customs. So it was probably a good choice given the distance and that the arena has a roof. This week, FIFA is meeting to decide about the dates for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In some break from reality, the country selected for that event was Qatar. Since the World Cup plays in June and July, it’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere. That translates to an average temperature of 104 degrees in the DESERT nation of Qatar. So after several complaints, FIFA has agreed to consider shifting the games to November and December 2022 when the average temperature is a mere 80 degrees. Naturally, such a shift opens a whole other can of worms since countries set aside the dates in June and July. November and December are scheduled with league games, so professional teams risk losing their best players in the heart of the season. 

In 2006, the NCAA Division I Men’s Soccer College Cup finals were held outdoors in St. Louis. The event is always in December. So what’s wrong with this picture? The Midwest in winter seems to beg the question “what were they thinking?” just as Qatar in the summer. Naturally, there was a blizzard on Thursday with games to be played Friday and Sunday. There is always a youth tournament held in conjunction with the Cup called the Final Four Tournament. That had to be scrapped as teams were unable to get to St. Louis by air or road. Highways as far north as the Wisconsin-Illinois border and as far south as Arkansas were nearly impassable. I know this because I had started driving south with Bryce to get to the tournament. Two hours later, I was called back by the coach. The team was pulling out. By the time we arrived back home, the tournament had been canceled. Watching the Cup finals on TV between UCLA and UC Santa Barbara (yes two California schools) the snow contained by the four borders of the stadium had been plowed up to the edges of the bleachers in mounds that blocked the views from the first couple of rows. In order to do corner kicks players had to mount a pile of snow and run down it to the ball. There was merely a sliver of space along the sidelines for throw-ins.  Behind the goal a glacier had been built.  Spectators shivered on metal bleachers in 20-degree temperatures with winds lowering it even further. Ironically, the scene looked balmy and beautiful when camera focused on the center of the pitch.  The grass was green and the sun was bright.

Most clubs have an inclement weather policy. In general rain is not considered inclement weather. When kids start in youth soccer at age 6, parents assume that rain with its accompanying cold and mud would be the perfect reason to cancel a game or practice so their little precious bundles won’t be inconvenienced. Think again. Rescheduling is an enormous headache because you have to coordinate with field, referee and coach availability. Throw in holidays, school events, and other weather issues, and you can understand why teams will do anything to avoid rescheduling. I once had make over 50 phone calls before I could finally reschedule a U-8 game – that’s an age where I didn’t have to factor in things like prom, finals, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and confirmations. Whenever I thought I had everything set, there’d be another obstacle like the State Association refusing to approve the date for reasons such as the game being too close in time to the next game or failure to submit proper paperwork. That’s why even when there is lightning, teams will wait out the storm in an attempt to avoid rescheduling which occasionally isn’t even an option. When my sons played together on their high school team, the state final took over five hours due to constant lightning delays. But there was no choice. They had to complete the game that day. Luckily they were playing on a pitch with lights. Despite teams soldiering through bad weather, it never hurts to check with your club or school to make sure a game or practice will occur. There’s nothing worse than driving to an event to discover yours in the only car in the lot.

Weather should be taken seriously by all involved. Too hot and there are dangers of heat stroke and heat exhaustion; too wet or icy there are dangers of injuries due to poor footing; lightning can take out an entire team. Therefore, parents and players need to be prepared. In summer, keep a hydration and cooling kit in the trunk to include water, sport drinks, cooler with ice and cloths for putting on wrists and necks during breaks, and something for shade which is UV-rated. Sunscreen should be used on any day since the UV rays aren’t dependent on the sun being visible or the temperature being hot. Since your children will most likely be playing in the rain, you’ll need to protect against the mud and damp. Have dry clothing available, lots of plastic bags to contain the wet uniforms and muddy shoes, and towels. Be sure to have a winter kit as well (which could be useful even in May). This would include gloves, hats, warm-ups, a broom, and a shovel to help clear off those snow-covered lines. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to speak up during lightning to insure that games are halted for the duration of the strikes and for 20 minutes after. The standard is that at the first sound of thunder, the games are to stop. With all the weather apps available, we can easily see where strikes are occurring and when they are expected to pass, so there’s no excuse of ignorance. Safety is important.

Despite winter, the MLS season began March 6. Plenty of games will be played in the next week at outdoor arenas in wintery territory. Luckily, most arenas have equipment to clear the field, although they may not clear the seating area. Not so for the Green Bay Packers, who have to empty out their stands two or three times a year. They hire locals at $10 an hour to shovel out the stands onto conveyor belts that run down the aisles carrying the snow to the field where it is plowed away. That system exists because they can be guaranteed of the need. I grew up in Seattle and I can tell you the Seahawks, and by extension the Sounders, don’t have any such system. If it snows the entire area shuts down. So technically those venues in the “snow zone” may actually be safer for conducting games during the next two months than those venues who don’t expect snow. So far, MLS has been able to conduct games without problem. It will be interesting to see how long the upcoming warming and snowless break will last. Between November and April, Montreal gets on average 75 inches of snow, over six feet, most of which doesn’t melt at all during that time. New England presently has over 100 inches of snow.

The good news is that none of that snow will last. Eventually I’ll be able to see my lawn, the window boxes will revert from blocks of frozen tundra to soft, pliant soil, and at some point I’ll complain about the heat. Such are the season cycles. Crazily I’m planning a trip to Florida in July with my grandkids, so I’ll need to prepare for heat, humidity, afternoon deluges and crowds. Unless you are a snowbird we are all prisoners of our climate. We would do well to just appreciate what we have and enjoy the playing opportunities the seasons allow. Optimism isn’t bad – although scheduling outdoor baseball tryouts in the last week of February in the Midwest seems unreasonable – so long as we are flexible. I’ve been to tournaments in March in Fort Wayne where we had to sweep off the lines constantly during the game, my kids played a game during a monsoon with puddles six inches deep at the goal mouths and in the center of the field, we traveled to a tournament in Las Vegas in July that was played on artificial turf so hot that the AR’s soles were melting, and I’ve spent many hours in my car waiting out lightning storms. That’s all part of the game. We are in an uneasy partnership with the weather, and we can’t get a divorce.

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Throwing the Game

Susan Boyd

While fun should be the overriding factor in any youth sport, moral dilemmas seem to sneak their way in. Take the case of two Tennessee girls’ high school basketball teams. Their game last week was meant to determine where they would be ranked for the Regional bracket. The loser of the game would ironically get the easier slot while the winner would have to face the regional powerhouse team. Therefore, with no subtlety whatsoever, Riverdale and Smyrna did whatever they could to throw the game. They purposely missed free throws, refused to cross the center line begging for a penalty, stood in the lane and even taunted the refs that they had violated the 3 second rule, refrained from throwing the ball inbounds within the allotted time, and even, finally, resorted to trying to score in the opponent’s basket. The referees had enough, reprimanded the coaches, and the two teams got more than they bargained for. Both were eliminated from postseason competition, put on probation for next year’s season, and fined $1,500 each. Incidentally, Smyrna eventually won showing they were more inept in losing on purpose.

I wrote about a soccer team AS Adema (ASA) defeating Stade Olympique L’Emyme (SOE) 149 – 0 without ever scoring a goal. SOE sent a ball into their own goal every 40 seconds for the entire 90 minutes in protest of a referee call in their previous game. Now that’s a team that knows how to lose! I can attest to my own children being part of a conspiracy to throw a game. If the team we were playing won with enough goals, it would eliminate a team we didn’t want to meet in the playoffs. We were assured of getting into the finals win or lose, so the coaches decided to create the best situation for us by losing the game and ensuring that our opponents scored at least three goals more than we did. I wasn’t aware of the duplicity but did note our team seemed off their game, not clearing the ball, making poor passes, and missing shots. As I bemoaned their lapses, a parent leaned over and whispered, “They’re doing it on purpose.” I was shocked. First, I never thought that losing could be a positive, but more importantly I never thought my child would be complicit in such a conspiracy. I wondered what went through his mind as the coach encouraged them to lose, but “lose skillfully.” Playing on the other side of the looking glass, was he confused, angry, happy, conflicted? He was 14 at the time, right on that cusp of being an adult but still having the insecurity of a child. Had he been convinced that this wasn’t cheating? Was he comfortable participating? Was he craving guidance he couldn’t get? I felt totally helpless as I watched the spectacle unfold in front of me.

The opponents won, our chief rivals were eliminated, and we went on to win the tournament, an outcome that might have happened without the duplicity. The results were overshadowed by my discomfort. There was no way I could cheer the victory because I couldn’t support the means which justified the ends. When I talked to Robbie, he was confused. As he put it, “I had to do what the coaches said,” which I think perfectly encapsulates the problem. How does a child question an authority figure he trusts to be his best advocate as a moral protector? Surprisingly, the parents were divided. While some were as disturbed as I was, there were those who felt all’s fair. They didn’t see the coaches’ plan as unethical, after all the guidelines didn’t forbid the throwing of a game and actually allowed for it. When we tried to make the argument about the integrity and spirit of the game, it fell on deaf ears. Those qualities didn’t seem to outweigh winning.

My concern was and is the message we are sending our children in scenarios like this. I really worry about asking kids to do something they have been taught is immoral – cheating – when those asking wield tremendous power. How can a child stand up to an authority figure in those circumstances? I’m concerned that the coaches took it upon themselves to throw the game without asking the parents.  That type of decision goes beyond the normal purview of any coach. It encroaches on a parent’s role in their children’s upbringing. A discussion of what the coaches wanted to do would have been preferable to a unilateral decision without my input. I hated that Robbie was left to deal with this quandary on his own without the ability to get some moral guidance and to understand my opinion on the circumstances. If the team decided it was the best choice, I might have gone along, but at least Robbie would have heard my voice and understood how I viewed the situation. He would have had a context for the decision and an anchor for discussion. Instead he had to flail under the coaching edicts, be loyal to his team, and go against what he had been taught throughout his life. Tough spot for a kid.

While many players might not face such a looming moral dilemma, small ones crop up all the time. A recreation team doctors registration materials to get better kids on the squad, an accusation leveled at and proven for the team that won the Little League World Series this year. Altering birth certificates to have older, more skilled kids on a team seems to be a common offense. Teaching and encouraging kids to “dive” constitutes an ethical quandary for everyone involved. Coaches who make criticism personal rather than constructive cross an ethical boundary. Rather than saying, “Your bad dribbling cost us the game” coaches should say, “Since our dribbling hurt us this game let’s concentrate on it next practice.” We get faced with ethical questions at nearly every game. Do we stand by as people, whether they be coaches, parents, players, or officials, use profane language? Should a player admit to a hand ball in the box? Would we be silent if a coach used an ineligible player because the officials didn’t know? How would we react to our team being encourage to play roughly? Where is the ethical line we draw on the pitch?

These not easy questions. There are pressures from all sides that determine our responses. Our child plays in a community of parents and friends. Taking a moral stand could jeopardize their position, not to mention ours. On the other hand, not stepping up sends a message of approval for behaviors which we, our teachers, our religious guides, and our civic leaders have been telling our children aren’t acceptable. I wonder how the parents of those basketball players felt. I wonder if any were conflicted about what was happening or if were they all in agreement. Clearly the athletic governing body thought their performance was not in the spirit of the competition. They cited the teams under the rule which states: “An unsporting foul is a noncontact technical foul which consists of unfair, unethical, dishonorable conduct or any other behavior not in accordance with the spirit of play.” What a wonderful, all-encompassing rule. Unfortunately, no one had read the rules prior to proceeding with their plan or they would have seen immediately how outside of the boundaries of ethical play they were travelling. I worry that those involved, especially the girls, will focus too much on the sanctions and not enough on their culpability in tarnishing the good name of youth sports. I hope the parents can see the wrong-headed-ness of the actions and use this as a significant teachable moment. Interestingly, the coaches argued that only they should receive punishment and that the girls should continue to compete in the playoffs without the coaches’ assistance. The athletic association refused, stating that the girls were old enough to understand the ethics of their actions.

I do agree with the association, but I also know how powerful the authority of a coach can be. If a coach tells a player to do something that is against her nature, it’s difficult to refuse when she has the coach, her teammates, and her school’s status to be considered. I don’t know if the strategy of the play was discussed in the locker room completely, if the coaches asked the girls’ opinions on doing what they did, if the teams colluded in any way, and if the parents were consulted beforehand. It’s difficult to know how any teenager might have reacted in those circumstances without support. If everyone was in agreement, how could one or two stand against them? As we run up against these dilemmas, all we can do is deal with each one separately. In my case, I asked Robbie what he thought about the decision his coaches made. He expressed how uncomfortable he was and how uncomfortable his teammates were, but that they all felt powerless to refuse to go along. I wish they could have contacted us parents somehow in order to get perspective and support. I felt badly that he was left to wage his inner battle alone. On the other hand, I know that it gave him strength in later battles, including facing up to a racist coach. So every dilemma may not be resolved on the right side of the line, but it can give us the ability to push for the right next time.

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Nickel and Dime

Susan Boyd

Don’t kid yourself. When you bring your sweet 6-year-old into the soccer store to get her first kit, you’re starting down a long road of financial obligation. Sure, that uniform bundle with its tiny, cute black cleats, mini shin guards, and crisp jersey and shorts only costs $30. The store may even throw in a ball. You and your child are hooked. Like the wicked queen offering Snow White the apple, the sales clerk practically cackles. He knows you’ll be back, and next time won’t be such a bargain. This is the tale for all youth activities. If your son gets good at the trumpet, that used instrument you rent monthly won’t do any longer. Piggy-back that expense with the private lessons beyond what he learns in school band.  Actors, artists, musicians, athletes and scholars manage to drain the wallet as they grow, improve, and narrow their passions. Soccer is no exception. Sure, one reason soccer is so popular world-wide is because it really only requires something round to kick. But as players grow, improve and focus, they can’t develop with a cantaloupe. They need money.

The uniform is just the beginning. Kids outgrow cleats quickly, and the bigger their feet, the higher the cost. Those tiny size 3 cleats may come in a package deal, but eventually kids morph into the “real” cleats with real price tags. Junior cleats can be under $100, but all too soon they become $150 to $250. Trust me, your children won’t want the utilitarian cleats, they want the ones Messi wears or the electric orange ones or the super lightweight ones, which ironically use the least materials and cost the most. Instead of a single jersey and pair of shorts, kids will need a home and an away jersey, warm-ups, a bag, and Nike Hyperwarm gear for those cold days. It won’t stop at what they need; it piles on with what they want. They’ll want their idol’s uniform, and while you’ll try to steer them to the practice jersey, they’ll want the game shirt at double the cost. Balls can be inexpensive, but I guarantee that eventually you’ll need to spring for the pricier version even the budget-busting commemorative ones.  

Kids will play on recreation teams for a minimal cost as they start out. Those are the salad days, when the check you write doesn’t equal the mortgage payment. Enjoy it while it lasts. Later, when making the decision to move up to a select club, you want to verify that your player is ready for that commitment and that you are willing to foot the financial obligation. While not really bait and switch, you need to keep in mind that whatever fees the club charges for being on a team are just a starting point of expenses. Even if you and your family don’t travel with the player to tournaments and away games, there will still be substantial costs for those events. Beyond transportation costs there will be lodging, meals, and support such as sports drinks and snacks. You’ll need to multiply these costs by the number of family members who attend. You might think it’s silly to mention, but we spent quite a bit on tournament T-shirts, programs, photos, and DVDs – a hidden cost that adds up over the years. Since these costs can be prohibitive for some families, it’s a good idea to buddy up with other families to share the expenses. Players sharing a room and transportation can really help out. Some clubs will rent a bus for tournaments in driving range. That can significantly reduce expenses.  

Many parents, in the hopes of their child getting a college athletic scholarship, will pay for private lessons and fitness training. It can get really pricey, really fast. Playing soccer at a college level is an honor, which I think is worthy of striving towards. But if parents think that a scholarship is going to cover all the costs, they are mistaken. Even the best players rarely get a full ride. If an out-of-state student plays at a state-funded university, he will pay the out-of-state tuition. Players who attend a private school may end up with a bigger bill than if they paid full tuition at one of their own state schools. If you took all the money you spent on soccer over the years, invested it in a conservative college fund, you’d probably have more money for your child’s education than any athletic scholarship they might earn. Therefore, before writing lots of checks, be sure you’re doing it for the right reasons: your child loves soccer and loves playing at a top level. Everything else will just be icing on the cake. Don’t go into debt if you can help it, and definitely don’t short-change other kids in order to support one.

Beware of the camps, which many colleges and universities offer with the promise that your child will be scouted by their coaches. Any player who contacted a college coach or plays on a high school team or plays on a competitive select team will receive the email invitations. These are phrased by the same people who tell you you’ve won a Caribbean cruise. When you read them, you believe you’re one of a very select group. Remember that these camps are huge money-makers for the schools and area coaches. Yes, the player will be seen by a variety of coaches, but these camps may not be the most efficient and powerful way to get noticed. They are certainly not the most cost-effective unless the camp is run by a number of institutions, rather than just one. They run around $300-$800 not counting transportation to and from. If your child is looking at just five (although most look at around 10) programs, you’re looking at a first year’s tuition just to attend camps – probably not the wisest use of your money. Schools will also imply that if your player doesn’t attend the camp, he or she will not be considered by the program. Hogwash! No recruitment program is going to pass on a great player just because she didn’t attend their summer camp. I’m not suggesting players shouldn’t attend a camp or two, but be smart. Consider camps at institutions your child has a chance of entering. Stanford and Notre Dame may not be realistic if grades and test scores aren’t sterling. Top 20 programs probably won’t consider a player who isn’t already being heavily recruited. On the other hand, some schools will join forces, so for the same amount of money as an individual camp a player can be seen by up to 10 schools. Another category of camps are those run by famous coaches who promise to improve a player’s skill and fitness. Check the reputation of these programs before submitting your credit card. Some are better than others, and since these can be the most expensive because they focus on training, you want to be sure they address the strengths and weaknesses of your child. Finally, there are the overseas opportunities. Players won’t necessarily be scouted or trained, but they will get a much broader view of soccer and how it is played outside of America. There are some significant benefits to these camps, which have little to do with getting a scholarship or improving skills. Getting an expanded world view in this increasingly global economic, political and social atmosphere can be invaluable for students. Plus, having the experience of playing with and against teams outside of the U.S. does look good on the resume. 

I’ve stored away each son’s first kit. They will be a good reminder of where the passion began. They are also a good reminder of where all our retirement savings went. Bronzing the shoes would be a small investment compared to the tens of thousands we spent over the years. However, I don’t regret a dime of those expenditures. We shared some amazing adventures as a family, our sons had the opportunity to commit to and succeed at their passion, and we all had a full lives. Soccer is a language we can speak even when we might be uncomfortable with other discussions, and it will always be an enthusiasm we shared. Each family needs to decide how much they are willing to do financially. No one needs to feel guilty should they have to say no to any opportunity because of financial reasons. There is plenty of soccer available that can be played and enjoyed for less money. Our sons played on their college teams with players who had far more training and scouting than they had and those who had far less. Good soccer players will be noticed even if they are wearing used cleats and last year’s jersey.

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