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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". 

 

Pass the Ball and the Pampers

Susan Boyd

Last month, Dutch soccer club V.V.V. Venlo signed a new player to their roster for a 10-year contract. Such signings in the Netherlands usually go unnoticed in the United States, but this one was different. The new player was Baerke van der Meij an up and comer who dazzled with a hat trick in less than 20 seconds and thereby gained the notice and ultimately the roster slot on the team. Baerke has an impressive resume including learning to speak Dutch and how to use a spoon. Once he is toilet trained, he should fit right into the locker room. Baerke is 18 months old.
           
I don't know about the rest of you, but when my kids were 18 months old, they had not yet committed to soccer as their primary sport. In fact, one or two hadn't fully committed to walking. Yet in this age of "get 'em while they're hot," Baerke has become the only soccer player who has to have games scheduled around his naptime. He was "discovered" because he hammered three balls into his toy chest while his parents digitally captured the moment and posted it on the internet. 

Had YouTube existed when my kids were in their single digits, and had I owned a video camera, I might have coached them do something spectacular to gain the notice of a major sports organization. I'm sure I could have drilled them enough to sink three putts from different spots on the green or make 10 free throws in a row into their Fisher Price hoop. Given that this story gained the attention of magazines as prestigious as Time, I assume that there will be a slew of videos hitting YouTube in the coming weeks in an attempt to cash in on the media attention.
           
As Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VVV-Venlo) admitted in their blurb on this event, this was a symbolic contract signing. But it still bothers me. First of all, news outlets didn't report that this was a publicity stunt, preferring instead to give the story more wow factor by omitting that tidbit. Second, it speaks once again to the emphasis on identifying "stars" before they ever have a chance to develop any of their adult characteristics. This only heightens that parental panic that somehow our children will miss the boat when it comes to being tapped for a professional contract. While our kids still need help tying their cleats, we are busy fretting about their athletic choices. If Aesop had written his fables today, it wouldn't have been a dog looking in the river to see another dog with a bigger bone clamped in his jaws. It would have been a soccer parent with a club registration form in his/her hands. 
           
One comment on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYG-E4kbfqk) stated that it would really be awful for this kid if he grew up to be a fan of Barcelona or Man U and was stuck wearing the Venlo jersey. Likewise, how terrible would it be if he had no interest in soccer and instead wanted to speed skate, another national sport of the Netherlands? Or perhaps he won't be sports minded at all, preferring art, music or reading. I doubt the club would hold him to the contract, after all he merely scribbled his signature. As my heroine, Judge Judy, continually points out, minors can't enter into contracts. But he will always be known as the kid in jersey number 1.5 playing forward. That's a legacy difficult to shake off.
           
When the boys were just starting to play there was a club in town who won every U-8 to U-12 game. They formed teams primarily by having each age group stand in a row and picking the biggest players for the first team, then the next biggest kids for the next team, and so on. Their size stood them in good stead until puberty hit and then all of that strength got equalized and even surpassed. Parents who had pushed their kids on this club because it had a winning record became disillusioned when the winning record dissolved. What happened was the kids on other clubs, whose coaching staffs couldn't rely on size, learned skills and tactics which eventually led to some wins, but more importantly gave them a good base from which to develop further. I still watch this pattern of engineering domination with clubs and parents who equate winning with success. 

What kids need is development based on learning the most primary of skills early on.   Every significant soccer player possesses a great first touch, solid passing and the ability to play off the ball. I watch college level players lose the ball time and again because their first touch sends the ball 20 feet in front of them for an opponent to pick up. Players may be praised for understanding what to do when they have the ball, but those same players often kick the ball and then stand to see what develops before making their next move, rather than knowing right where to be when they don't have the ball. Eventually players who want to play at the top level have to fit into a team where all the players get it. Being the top scorer won't be enough to succeed because the entire team has to be able to function as a unit where every player knows what to do every second of the game. No one can accurately predict at age 10, and definitely not at age 1.5, who will be able to develop those team tactics that create the power and success for a club. But every player has a chance to develop even if they don't have a viral video juggling with their ears.
           
I'm happy that soccer gets any mention in the American press and even happier when it relates to youth soccer. But I also don't want to feed the youth frenzy that comes with any sport – the idea that kids have to be noticed before they can ride a tricycle. I remember watching Tiger Woods on the Tonight Show when he was just four. He would do all the tricks including putting, driving, and escaping sand traps with cute abbreviated clubs and his ever-present father overseeing the exhibition. I felt for the kid because it seemed unnatural.   I'm sure, based on many comments he's made about his father, that Tiger doesn't regret beginning his life that way. But I wonder if he could have become as good a golfer as he has without the strict early training and the circus life that came from that training. We can't know because there's no way to do a control study and find out. Still, I'd rather err on the side of giving my kids a childhood with soccer memories that include free time and other sports. Given the tiny percentage of the nearly 14 million youth players in America who will go on to professional careers, parents would do well to let their kids, as a referee would say, play on without the penalty of added pressure and expectation.
 

Lord of the Flies

Susan Boyd

"After all, we're not savages. We're English, and the English are best at everything."
           
Today I read an article that made me shiver. In England, at a Division Four game between Bury and Chesterfield, when goalkeeper Cameron Belford of Chesterfield allowed an equalizer goal by Bury, young Bury fans rushed the box to not only taunt the keeper, but also physically accost him. The pictures from this event show how completely overwhelming this attack became for the 6' 2" keeper trapped within the net surrounded by at least 10 tweens including one girl. 

Belford had recently had a titanium plate put in his right cheekbone due to a crushing contact from an opposing striker's foot last year. And it was this cheekbone that a young teenager openly punched during the melee. The girl in a ponytail who appeared to be eleven or twelve was forming obscene hand gestures in the face of the keeper while other boys heckled him or joined in the gestures.
           
I have so many questions. Why did these youngsters think they had the right to invade the field and the personal space of the keeper?    Where were the adult supervisors of these delinquents? What lessons have they learned from home or from the media that provided justification for their actions? 

We might expect this behavior from an errant fan impaired by alcohol and bolstered by his equally drunk compatriots egging him on. We've seen the bottles flung at outfielders, the beers dumped on the heads of NBA players heading down the causeway to the locker rooms, the wild abandon of someone running across the field during a game. But we really haven't seen a swarm of fans singling out a player for abuse during a match, much less having that swarm be on the minus side of puberty. 

Of the top ten fan/player confrontations, only one involves a child. This was in Comiskey Park when Kansas City coach Tom Gamboa was attacked by a father and his 15-year-old son. And most of the altercations involve one fan and one player. Only two were brawls – in 1979 between the Boston Bruins and Ranger fans and in 2004 between the Detroit Pistons, the Indiana Pacers, and Detroit fans. Of the latter episode, League Commissioner David Stern called it "shocking, repulsive and inexcusable – a humiliation for everyone associated with the NBA." I think the same comment could be made about this incident on the soccer pitch.
           
So how did we arrive at this state of affairs? The press called them hooligans, but I don't think that word is strong enough. Hooligan brings to mind those cheeky lads who throw eggs on Halloween or pants a teammate after a game. These English kids were brutes bent on intimidation and doing violence. Whatever possessed them to think they could enter the field during a game and attack the keeper can only be guessed at. But we can all agree that parents need to offer a strong role model for sideline and bleacher behavior when it comes to our children. 

Kids have a tremendous urge to emulate grown-up conduct in their rush to be adults. Watching dad swear at the referees or mom yell at an opposing team member provides some measure of approval for kids to partake in that behavior. Watching similar sideline actions as portrayed in the media only reinforces that that's what adults do. Somewhere there are parents for these louts who I hope step up to the proverbial plate and make the right statement. Rather than making excuses for their behavior or dismissing their actions, I hope they make these thugs apologize and then give them house arrest for a month or two. These parents will be setting the standard going forward, and I hope it's that this behavior will not be tolerated from kids or adults.

This incident hits home hard for me. I have a 6' 2" goalkeeper son who has been the object of constant ridicule and harassment during several recent games. He has kept his cool and not acknowledged the catcalls, but I often wonder if the fans became even more enflamed or emboldened how quickly they could reach and overpower him. Here was clear evidence of what fans were capable of attempting. But instead of adults who should know better, it was kids who should have been taught better and controlled better. I don't want to see us move to the unhappy world of Lord of the Flies where children develop into savages because they have no outside adult guidance. There are plenty of us adults around who need to reinforce the best of good sportsmanship whether it be at a U-8 game or the World Cup or on a deserted island.
 

On Holiday

Susan Boyd

We have two soccer games to watch tonight, the night before Good Friday. I'm guessing the powers that be decided to squeeze in as much soccer before families begin to celebrate the holiday. Here in the Midwest, we have to use our weekends frugally since so few of them are soccer friendly. We actually had three inches of ice on the ground just two days ago. It looked like a giant slushy scene from "Glee," all gooey and slurpy across the landscape. And last weekend the boys played a game in the rain which turned to snow just as the game ended. It's hard to believe that we are just eight days from May.
           
Playing games during holidays isn't unusual in youth soccer. Last May was the first Mother's Day I didn't have a game to attend. We never make plans over Labor Day weekend because I know there will be plenty of games scheduled. We have been to tournaments over Easter, Memorial Day weekend and July 4th, missed trick or treating, spent Father's Day on the road and, of course, Mother's Day on the sidelines. 
           
Youth soccer isn't meant to overtake your life, although sometimes that's exactly what it does. As youth soccer has grown in America, so have the opportunities for kids to compete. Traveling to tournaments, playing in summer leagues, indoor soccer, and multiple recreational leagues can be a benefit or a curse depending on how it all affects family dynamics. We can quickly get caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment, not considering how this will impact our lives going forward. Everything comes with a cost both in time and money, so families have to take a breath and decide how deep they want to dive. It's not unusual now for clubs to send their youngest teams to tournaments in the area, and I know from experience that many families, wanting to engage in the "full" soccer package, clamor for traveling tournaments as well. 
           
It's important to keep things in perspective. While traveling to some exotic city like Rockford, Illinois or Evansville, Indiana and staying at a Motel 6 sounds enticing, it's not always as glamorous as one might believe. And giving up other family adventures for a traveling tournament needs to take into regard everyone in the family. Once you agree to a more complicated team schedule it's rare to have it simplify. Be sure you really want and are able to handle the extra time and money costs that leaping into a traveling team entails. Adult peer pressure can be very tough to resist, especially when you've been given the opportunity to participate with the "in" crowd.
           
That adult peer pressure can also be fairly insensitive when it comes to families wanting to share significant holidays alone and not with their soccer friends. Many families take their religious celebrations very seriously and consider them an important and significant part of their children's upbringing. So teams need to be sensitive to those priorities when it comes to events like Easter and Yom Kippur. No one should make a family feel unreasonable for insisting on forgoing a soccer game for a family commemoration, nor should a family feel shy about declining to participate in a game for whatever reasons they deem fit.   Youth soccer will give way to Select soccer soon enough, so no one needs to rush the transition if they don't feel ready to do so.
           
We have always enjoyed the routine that soccer brought to our family, but we were lucky that we had two kids close in age who enjoyed the same sport. Had they had different interests, or been further apart in age, or hadn't been our last two kids, then we would probably have had very different priorities.   For the first five years of their soccer playing they were in the same club with the same tournament schedule, so our calendar was full but had a natural pairing of events that made it easy to do things as a family. For others the management of family time wasn't as easy. We all need to be accepting of the limitations that each family places on soccer playing, especially when it comes to holidays since those are the times when memories are built. Clubs can be sensitive to scheduling by avoiding religious holidays when possible.
           
Most of us want our kids to develop not only a passion for activities but a talent for them as well. When it comes to soccer, this usually means a strong year-round dedication to the sport. However, there is definitely time for families to resist the full-time commitment until they are sure it's the best decision for everyone involved. Youth soccer should be fun for everyone in the family.   The experiences of youth can only be had once, so families need to make the important decisions on what those experiences will be. Making memories whether on the soccer field or in church or at the family table should be individually directed and accepted. While being a good team member is an important part of learning commitment and responsibility, so is sharing family traditions. We each need to decide how we'll celebrate the holidays and respect the decisions those around us make. I guaranteed soccer will survive no matter what we decide.
 

What's in name?

Susan Boyd

I had forgotten how much fun the names of youth sports teams can be. Once the boys moved up to U-11 and began playing for select teams they had these sophisticated names that mirrored professional teams in England or South America. The sudden shift to "adult" names also meant a shift to "adult" uniforms, "adult" cleats, and "adult" schedules with an accompanying "adult" price tag. Gone were the days when I could write a check in the two or low three digit range. However, I just got an email with the spring soccer schedule for a grandson. His team is the Vipers, and all the happy memories of those wild team names came flooding back.
 
We had Tigers, Leopards, Eagles, Rattlers, Lightning and Jaguars. Uniform colors were hit or miss since teams got assigned the uniforms without regard to their names. Robbie's Leopard team had orange uniforms so I kept cheering them on as the Tigers, which was Bryce's team at the time and he had green uniforms. As an alternate they would use a white t-shirt with an iron-on number. The shorts were glossy satin, the socks the same color as their jerseys, and the cleats black. Life was definitely less complicated. 
 
The tradition of animal names comes from pro baseball and football. We connect to those names from both experience and comfort. Kids know about the Chicago Bears, the Florida Marlins, and the Seattle Seahawks. So it's not surprising that they naturally latch unto those labels. Without the strong tradition of soccer found in other countries in the world, they either aren't aware of or comfortable with names like Manchester United or Boca Juniors. Our tradition of team signatures usually means a trip to the zoo or the Weather Channel. Occasionally we borrow a group name such as Mariners, Oilers, or Patriots. On the limited end there's a pair of Sox, one color (Reds), a land mass (Rockies) and an aircraft (Jets).
 
Hockey teams provide some of the more innovative and fun names. These owners apparently never wanted to give up those trendy kid team names since we have Penguins, Thrashers, Predators, Flames, Avalanche, and Sabres. There are some dull names like Maple Leafs and Senators. And being a Duck doesn't really seem ferocious enough. But I think having all the standard creature names snapped up by the baseball and football contingent forced some wonderful creativity that kids could definitely appreciate. How cool would it be to hear the sidelines chanting "Go Sharks!"? If I were ten years old I'd want to be the Devils and I'd want my uniforms to be red!
 
Basketball teams follow the animal tradition, but overall their monikers tend to be more subdued: Cavaliers, Jazz, Magic. It's as if the owners felt that the arenas confined any outlandish identification outbursts. Most NBA teams don't have titles that kids would quickly appreciate. In fact most wouldn't even know what the names signify: Knicks, Celtics, Nuggets, 76ers, and Spurs. I think kids would agree that being the Nets or the Clippers doesn't strike the proper image of a terrifying opponent, although Toronto Raptors might find their name appropriated most often. Even the feverish temperature-based names like Blazers, Heat, Suns, and Rockets lack the pizzazz that a kid's sports team should carry.
 
Over the years I have found myself on the sidelines cheering "Go White" or "Go Blue" depending on the color of uniform the team wore that day. It all seems so lackluster compared to being able to cheer on lions, and tigers, and bears. Once the kids move up to those more sophisticated soccer teams, the names take on a very dignified status. They come from the traditions of grand soccer teams around the world. United, Arsenal, FC, Sporting, and Real. About half of the MLS teams adopted names that honor those long lines of soccer team identification. Most families, especially those of kids new to soccer, don't understand these traditions, so they consider the names bland. When the boys' soccer club Mequon United FC merged with the recreational club Mequon Power the new board insisted on getting rid of the United name, not understanding the cache it held in the soccer world. The merged club became Mequon Soccer Club. For many parents the name change held little concern, but for parents who understood the tradition of soccer and coaches who had come up against the team, the name change had the effect of diminishing the quality of the program in their eyes. 
 
Names shouldn't mean that much, but we have seen the battles over team name changes which can sharply divide fans, alumni and players. When Marquette University decided to abandon the name "Warriors" in favor of a more p.c. name "Golden Eagles," the battle was fierce. That's why the Minnesota Lakers became the L.A. Lakers even though Minnesota has 10,000 lakes and L.A. calls ponds "lakes". No one wanted to change the name of the franchise. We become attached to the name and invest our loyalty in the team and its title. Animal and weather related names insure that we won't offend anyone and that we can imbue the team with some ferocious qualities even as the young players prefer watching the clouds drift by. I miss those days and can't wait to cheer on the Vipers this spring and summer. I also love cheering on my sons, who incidentally now play for a team called the Panthers. They even have a "snarl" sound effect for announcements. It's almost like being on the sidelines of their first teams. Almost.