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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". 

 

Questions that Matter

Susan Boyd

I heard it again the other day, "That coach isn't giving my son enough playing time."   We've all been there with our sons and daughters, watching the team struggle while our child sits on the bench.   We're normal parents who see our kids through those rose-colored glasses of pride and anticipation, unable to believe that everyone else doesn't see the same abilities and potential. That pride can be a dangerous thing if it leads us to an angry confrontation with the coach. It's important to remember that a myriad of elements goes into any coach's decision about who to play, what position to use a player, how much to play someone, what tournaments to attend, what skills need to be worked on, and how best to convey those skills to the players.
           
Before it even gets to the point of wanting or needing to talk to a coach, parents can help eliminate some of the issues by understanding all the club policies as they relate to player concerns. Most clubs will soon begin registration for fall recreational teams and tryouts for their select programs, so this is a great opportunity to make sure that your child joins a club where the philosophies and policies are most in line with your expectations. For example, what are the playing time policies of your club? If your child is on a recreational team, then playing time should be evenly split among players no matter their skills or their years with the club. Make sure that policy is clearly stated in the club materials, so there won't be any confusion. If the team is a select team, there may still be some playing time minimums that the club will enforce. Also you should check with your league and your state association to determine if they have any policies that member clubs need to adhere to. That will give you a basis for discussion if you believe the coach is ignoring those policies.
           
However, I always encourage the player to talk to the coach first rather than have the parent do it, which can be intimidating for most youth players. Nevertheless, it's a good idea to start there and then if the coach appears to dismiss the concern it opens the door for parents to become involved. I know that coaches always respect the players who try to resolve their issues with the team or the coach, so encourage your child to approach the coach on his or her own. Some issues, however, do require the input of the parent, especially when they affect family concerns such as travel and expense.
           
Before you sign with a club, pin down the coach or the team manager on what the financial obligations will be. It's easy to put in the club literature that the team attends three tournaments a season, but if you're a team in Wisconsin, there's a big difference between tournaments in the state and tournaments in Florida or California or even Ohio. Once you're signed with the team, it's difficult to refuse to attend a tournament that requires airfare, especially when the parents around you are thrilled with the idea. So be sure you understand what ""travel tournament"" means before you place your child on a team. Make sure that all expenses are detailed up front; ask about uniform costs, travel, shared expenses such as lodging for coaches and bus drivers at tournaments, team dinners at tournaments and any mandatory team expenses such as soccer bags, warm-ups, and team dues. These questions should be asked of coaches and club by parents. As long as players need to pay for their training, their parents should have a detailed accounting of what it will cost them.
           
Other issues can be anticipated prior to signing for a club. Attend a few practices of the coach you expect to play under to see how sessions are conducted and if you have any problems with those practices. It's no secret that coaches can be salty in their language and occasionally downright menacing in their directions. Just like you shouldn't expect to change a spouse's behavior, you're not going to change a coach's behavior, so if you are uncomfortable with a coach, find another one. Once your child joins a team there will be very little you can do about how a coach conducts him or herself. You can also check out how many players at your son's or daughter's position are already on the team and what formation the coach uses. If there are four forwards on the team already and the coach uses a single forward, chances are pretty good that playing time for most of the forwards will be limited. And expect that if your son or daughter becomes the newest player on the team that there will be a probationary period resulting in limited playing time.
           
Finally, if you do need to talk to the coach about an issue, stay focused on the issue and don't get personal. Very few of us have as much experience coaching soccer as your child's soccer coach. So trust the coach to see the big picture of which your child is a part. If you truly question the coach's ability to coach then you need to find a new coach – again you're not going to change the coach to your liking. If you think your child is being treated unfairly as compared to others on the team, then again you're better off finding a different team and coach. Be sure that you are also not missing the forest for the trees. If players want to improve they need to possess the basic skills of soccer, the most basic of which is first touch. This means the player can receive the ball on any part of his or her body and move it quickly to their foot without sending it away for an opponent to snap up. Your coach may be working on your child to develop and retain an excellent first touch or some other significant skill before adding the element of competition which could result in developing bad habits. Not playing in a game doesn't necessarily translate to not being considered a good soccer player. Development means taking certain steps and taking them in order. So give the coach time to explain without needing to be defensive against your attack. Ask why rather than why not.
           
Shortly after Robbie switched teams, his new team was playing for the National Championship. We were behind 1-0. Robbie was a forward and had been on the sidelines the entire game. One of our forwards had hurt his hamstring earlier in the week and could barely run, but he remained in the game as the team struggled to overcome their deficit. The coach, who went on to coach in the MLS, made the difficult choice between injured experience and healthy unknown.   He decided that keeping someone in there who understood the team dynamics and tactics and was a known leader would be the best to lift the team even with an injury. In the tournament we had won two games with that injured player to bring us to the championship, so overall it appeared to be a wise decision despite the outcome. Still, Robbie's frustration at not being given a chance to contribute and the team's and parents' frustration at the loss did bring up immediate doubts of the coach's choice. Eventually everyone let the moment pass and no one talked to the coach. That kind of restraint is difficult but necessary. I definitely urge parents and players to remember that they will need lots of bridges so be careful which ones they risk burning.
 
 

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.