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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". 

 

What may be lost

Susan Boyd

 Mike Barr wrote a compelling article for Youth Soccer Insider entitled "The Case for High School Soccer". The U.S. Soccer Federation Development Academy has decided to go to a 10-month schedule, which will directly interfere with high school soccer for boys. Additionally, the Academy is requesting that players forgo high school soccer even if there isn’t a conflict. Barr details the reasoning behind this decision including lackluster competition, lower quality team members and weaker coaching at the high school level. But he also argues that these worries are not always realized in the first place, and even if they are, there are advantages to participating in a high school sport which go beyond development and competition. Barr comes from the position of a coach. I’d like to make the case for high school soccer from the position of a parent.
 
When my boys were in high school I first heard of this idea to give up high school soccer not from other boys but from the girls teams. Apparently in preparation for the National Championships, several elite girls’ teams around the country were asking their players to give up high school soccer and train full time with their club team in preparation for this event. One of those teams was our local select team who had several members from our home town high school. Those select team members were telling their high school team members, "Sorry, we know this means you won’t make it in the State High School Championships, but we have to follow our dreams." That double-whammy, letting down their high school teammates by pulling out a major number of top players and doing it so they could succeed at the expense of their high school friends didn’t sit well with me. We expected our sons to fulfill the commitments they made. I actually couldn’t believe these players were doing this, having grown up with these families as neighbors and friends. But there it was nonetheless.
 
The Hollywood version of this scenario would be that the plucky remaining players on the high school team would rally, play their hearts out and win the State High School Championship while the club team would find itself defeated in the Regional Championship. Oh right, that is what happened! I remember watching the high school finals as the girls dug deep, rose to the level of champions and won the game. Their joy in achieving this milestone radiated around the stadium. Everyone knew the story about being abandoned by a half dozen of their teammates to pursue the brass ring, which only added to the wild celebration.
 
Arguments can be made about the club team wanting to have intensive training for a few extra months. That making a good showing in the championship run would afford the players more exposure to even more college coaches. That winning a National Championship trumps winning a State High School Championship. But there were other issues such as loyalty to their high school teammates and enjoying the social experience of playing a high school sport. Most high school seasons last just two and a half months. How could it hurt development to run 9.5 months instead of 10 months? How many of the Academy players will eventually play college soccer? How many will continue to play college soccer even if they are lucky enough to earn a scholarship? In the meantime they will have lost the opportunity to join together with a group of friends, boys and girls they have grown up with for more than a dozen years, and fight to win some games and perhaps even a championship.
 
Both my sons said outright that if they were told they couldn’t play high school soccer they would quit their club teams. They recognized the camaraderie and legacy that came from playing on their high school team. Those friendships and memories will be with them forever. This is not to say that they didn’t form friendships and memories with their club teams, but those were different. Those team members rotated in and out yearly or even semi-annually and they lived all over a large area. So the connections were more tenuous. Even club teams can disappear or change with mergers. So a club team’s heritage can’t compete with the legacy of a high school.
 
As a parent, I loved the years spent at high school games. I loved traveling just a few minutes to get to a home game, sitting in the stands with friends and neighbors, cheering on local boys as they competed, getting home at a decent hour, manning the snack shack, expressing my loyalty to the local school and sharing the ups and downs of the community team. After driving Robbie five hours every trip down and back to practice with this club team, those few months of staying close to home and enjoying the companionship of people I rarely saw the rest of year became a well-deserved respite. I know Robbie felt the same way. Both boys enjoyed those ten weeks as a time to strut the halls, practice close to home and be an important part of homecoming celebrations. Putting all your eggs in one basket may make sense in countries where there are scores of professional teams players can join and a development system which includes everyone worthy of participation. But for teenage players in the United States, high school has advantages that the development and club teams cannot yet match. I may be sentimental, but sometimes sentiment can be a good thing.
 
I will always argue that we need a better development system in the United States. But throwing out high school soccer for the sake of an extra month of training hardly seems the right answer. Where are the studies? Is high school really a time of weakening player’s abilities? Before we do another significant shift in how we train our youth players, let’s do the research and discover the strengths and weaknesses of the two systems. Without properly creating the right processes for developing our players, we’re just implementing plans that can’t succeed. What works elsewhere in the world may not work here because we don’t have sufficient professional clubs to provide support and we have an expanse of land that makes scouting and training difficult. We need to figure out how to make those advantages. Getting rid of high school soccer now doesn’t seem to address either of those problems. It just seems to be something we can do, so we’re doing it. 

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Simple to Complex

Susan Boyd

Take some open space, something to kick and a few kids and you can have a soccer game. For most of the world, that's how soccer is played. While players do possess balls, there's no problem substituting a tin can, melon, or box if a ball can't be found. Few kids possess shin guards and fields with crisp white lines aren't found in most towns and villages. That soccer can be played without anything we regard as soccer essentials probably explains its popularity.
 
In our own house we had a firm rule that no balls were to be in the house, and should one roll its way in, no balls were to be kicked in the house. So the boys quickly found lots of substitutes such as bundled socks, towels wrapped in a rubber band, pillows, shoes, even a round candle. Once they fell in love with soccer, there was no stopping soccer play no matter where we were and no matter how many restrictions I imposed. They found a way around it. Eventually, we cleared out the basement, put taped goals up on the opposing walls and let the boys go. One wall was paneling that set off an office space behind and in just a week's time we were able to see through to the office without any problem.
 
Birthdays and Christmas brought more and more soccer paraphernalia to add to already overflowing drawers and closets of soccer stuff. This simple game resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars of equipment, clothing and accessories. A ball wasn't enough; it had to be the official World Cup ball. Team uniforms wouldn't suffice; we had to add warm-ups, kit bag and "spirit" gear. Of course, as they grew older, they weren't on just one team. There was the club team, the summer league team, the indoor team, high school team and ODP. Then we bought the dresser to go in the garage with a drawer for each team so we could keep track of all the uniform items. Naturally there were jerseys for their soccer idols and flags for their teams. We subscribed to magazines, many of which came from overseas so cost twice as much. Coaches recommended instructional tapes and books. We bought portable goals. Then there were the peripheral soccer items like ornaments, computer skins, movies, picture frames, bedding and rugs.
 
You probably have your own list that grows every month. It's difficult not to reward your child's passion with items that further fuel the commitment. It's great for our kids to love something and feel empowered by that enthusiasm. So we rarely begrudge them their wants. Eventually we find ourselves buried in soccer stuff. When it comes to soccer gear such as uniforms, cleats, and balls, we can donate those items to any number of agencies happy to pass on the equipment to less fortunate players in the U.S. and around the world. Despite soccer not requiring any gear, it's always nice to have some as it not only enriches the game, but helps players develop the proper skills. We usually gathered together our unused gear once a year and donated it by bringing it to our state association offices for the Passback program or to our local soccer shop that collected for the Armed Forces. Finding someplace to donate is easy and much appreciated.
 
I'm not suggesting we shouldn't supplement the uniform and basic equipment needs of our children with extras. Every family has to decide what they can afford and what seems to be appropriate for their child's needs and wants. But I do suggest that you don't get sucked into a "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality. Even with unlimited funds, there is a limit to what a child needs to fuel his or her passion. So as you sort through the catalogs or visit the soccer store, you don't need to possess every scarf, blanket, and head band that exists. We quickly and painfully discovered that buying $120 official World Cup ball was money wasted. Within ten minutes of hitting the field that ball had sailed over the fence and into the Milwaukee River canal to make its journey east back to Germany. After that we never spent more than $25 on a ball. Likewise, team affiliations change rapidly as does idol worship, so we limited the purchase of jerseys to special occasions. In time you realize how much you have spent in essentially impulse buying and you learn to curb that. My admonition before we entered the soccer shop soon became "Don't Ask!" Still there was usually one shiny object that ended up attracting all of us. You know what I'm talking about.
 
When people ask how much soccer costs I have to answer "0 to 10,000 dollars." And I'm not being flippant. Soccer can be as inexpensive or as expensive as we want to make it. Some costs are unavoidable as our players get stronger and more skilled. They will naturally gravitate to the more expensive select clubs where training costs are higher. But especially at the younger ages, soccer doesn't need to be much above the basic level of a ball, a uniform, cleats, and shin guards. Lots of soccer stores offer a great package deal for the $25 to $30 range that will see your young one through at least six months of training. If you want to supplement that with a warm-up or a bag that's your choice, but don't ever think it's necessary. If they love soccer and decide to pursue it further, there will be plenty of time to pull out that wallet. Plenty of time.

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It Can be Messy

Susan Boyd

Right now I'm waiting for a pipe to thaw. No matter how many precautions we take, we always seem to have one frozen pipe a year. We added insulation, we put a in a vent to allow warm air to circulate behind the shower wall, and we keep the heat on constantly. Still, one morning we wake up to turn on the shower and are rewarded with just a dribble of water.
 
This is just one example of how we prepare for everything in life and still end up being surprised. We do it in soccer all the time. Many of you probably have an emergency box in your trunk, and still arrive at a game missing some essential like a uniform shirt or the left cleat. We can try to prepare, we can try to anticipate, but we can't win. That's because kids are so resourceful. They are great at preparing for disaster.
 
The best thing we can do is go with the flow. When we can't have things perfect, we need to enjoy the imperfection. It makes us resourceful, which can't be bad. I've run through a crowd of parents looking for a red shirt, any red shirt, when Bryce forgot his uniform. I used electrical tape to create numbers on undershirts for three kids who forgot their US Youth Soccer ODP shirts. I've make shin guards out of cardboard and made band-aids out of tape and tissues. I occasionally wear the title of not just Mom, but also Mother of Invention.
 
The problem with messes is that they frustrate us. And because in soccer they usually relate to our children, they can be the brunt of our frustration. We need to remember that even when they reach their teens, kids are still kids, who can't always be organized. We have to do our best to eliminate the disorganization. Keeping soccer bags where they can be easily accessed is important. Our rule was that once a uniform was washed it had to be put in the bag immediately, which meant that about 90 percent of the time it got in there. The other 10 percent ended up causing the problems. We keep a chest of drawers in the garage for all things soccer including gloves, hats, underclothes, socks, etc. that the boys can access quickly and easily before a game. Yet we'll still arrive at a game in 20 degrees with nothing to protect them from the cold. Once Bryce brought his shoes to the car, noticed they had grass and mud in the cleats, knocked them off outside and then set them beside the car, where they sat as we drove to a game twenty-five miles away.
 
Life is messy, and that is especially true when it comes to soccer. So, how to handle those messy moments? Try not to blow up. I know how hard that is. Your child will be as upset about the problem as you, but she has no way to solve it. Recriminations will just multiple the anxieties before a game or practice. You can't go back in time to make it all okay, so you have to adapt. Let your player know that you'll find a solution. Focus on positives. I guarantee there will be a solution. It may be rough, but it will exist. You also should include your child in the process of problem solving. Children can benefit from thinking outside the box and from the control that finding a solution creates. There are times the solution will be repugnant to your son or daughter, which is when you remind them that you promised a solution not perfection. Bryce didn't want to wear a plain red polo, but I made it clear it was red polo and playing or no red polo and no playing.
 
In the world of soccer we can get lots of problems. But we can also get plenty of solutions. Some of the solutions can come from our own prevention by carrying basics with us in our car but some solutions have to come on the fly. Despite the frustrations, it's these moments that often bring the best memories – those "we'll laugh about it later" moments. I remember with delight the game that Robbie played in two different cleats because that's all we could find. One was white and one was blue, but thank goodness they were left and right as well. Before GPS was a regular thing, I had to find a field in the farmlands of Indiana using my compass and a vague memory of the directions I had carefully printed out and left on the kitchen counter. We've forgotten entire soccer bags and had to hustle mightily once we reached the field and made the discovery. On the flipside, we've been the family who helped out a family in a mess whether they were on our team or the opponent's. The soccer world is highly interconnected. The team you play against this week will be the team you join next year. The coach you think is boorish will end up being the one who recommends your kid to the coaching staff at his first choice college. So spread the wealth when you can. You will definitely need to dip into the well at some point.

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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.