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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". 

 

Time for March Madness!

Susan Boyd

Do we all have our brackets filled out? Have our favorite teams made the bracket? Did we finally hook up cable just so we could get Tru TV and see every game? And in so doing, how many of us are actually intrigued by "Big Brian The Fortune $eller" now that we've seen the promos a hundred times? How much sleep (and/or work) are we missing to watch all the games? College basketball is the real Fortune $eller.

I wonder when we'll have that intensity for November/December Madness. See, right there is the first problem. The College Soccer Cup runs over two months so we can't create some promotional catch phrase like November Nuttiness (too many syllables anyway) or December Derangement that covers the entire event. There is a bracket with the familiar Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, and Final Four. So that part of the equation works. The part that works the least is interest. Sports fans haven't yet caught on to the love of soccer the way they have with basketball or football. At least, briefly, ESPN televised the bracket selection without the major hoopla (pun intended) of the basketball brackets. But there is no tier of cable stations showing "every game, every goal."

Such limited college exposure can make the sport seem forgettable, even useless. It's no wonder that many parents discourage their children from participating past the first few years of youth soccer. They see no future in it. With visions of televised games and possible endorsement deals dancing in their heads, parents can quickly forget why 99.9% of kids play a sport. For fun. That's a novel idea, I know. We are inundated with images of slow motion lay-ups and stadiums filled with over 100,000 fans. That's the college sports experience we want for our kids. Not some field buried on the fringes of campus with rickety wooden bleachers scantily covered by a few hundred fans. We are thinking bigger picture – like the wide screens at the sports bars during March Madness.

The reality, of course, is that only a very small percentage of youth players in any sport advance to playing college sports. My sons' high school this year won three state championships so they had a lot of talent. Out of 600 boys who played varsity sports about fifteen signed letters of intent in all sports. That's 2.5%. And as the NCAA ads declare, most college athletes will go pro in something other than sports. So picking a sport solely with an eye towards any advanced play, even high school sports, doesn't make much sense. I agree the difference between going to a high school soccer game and a high school football game can be depressing. But playing something they love gives kids a great sense of pride, a strong self-image, and satisfaction for succeeding at something they enjoy. Girls have always had the problem of getting the same attention for their sports' prowess as the boys. Therefore they recognize better how important playing for passion can be.

The great thing about soccer is how the sport fits so well with players who aren't on the fringes of the developmental bell curve. Basketball you need to be tall, fast, and big. Football you need to be big, fast, and tall. Baseball/Softball you need to be fast, big, and tall. Soccer you need to be fast, smart, and durable. The problem for all the other sports is that you often don't discover if your son or daughter fits the extreme physical demands of those sports until they hit puberty or even later. Therefore they either invest a lot of their youth training for a sport where they physically begin to fall behind, or they find out too late that they have the physical attributes for the sport. Soccer accepts anyone so long as they can develop a "soccer brain" and have the fitness to endure long stretches of running. It's a perfect sport for an athlete of average build.

Of course if we lived in Mexico, or England, or Ghana there'd be no question that our kids played the number one sport. We'd have no worries about their sport being respected, televised, and endorsed. On the downside, we would have to deal with more competition – every kid wants to be a soccer star in most of the rest of the world. So we should actually count ourselves lucky that our kids were smart enough to choose a sport that still has room to grow and can appreciate the dedication of its players to a sport that isn't rich with fans and money. We may not get a month dedicated to watching the best youth players compete, but we have an entire year to watch our kids enjoy themselves.
 

Best Dressed

Susan Boyd

Spring soccer begins soon if it hasn't already started in your neighborhood.  Even the MLS kicks off this week.  So, after the doldrums of winter, the time has come to pull out that soccer gear and discover what fits and what doesn't.  With kids you never know until you try.  Those expensive cleats that they wore four months ago may now be two sizes too small.   Those fancy practice shorts now fit them like something Larry Bird would have worn in 1981 when players didn't mind showing off their thighs.  And turning the house upside down still only reveals one shin guard.  So, it's time to go shopping.
 
Your options for purchasing soccer gear now rival any other sports options.  Not too long ago, the big box sports stores had soccer sections that looked like an afterthought.  Now you can find just about anything you need, especially for the youth player.  Online options abound that offer everything from the basics to the most expensive international gear.  But I'm pretty loyal to my local independent soccer store, Stefan's, because the staff is knowledgeable both about gear and its customers.  I know I'll get the best advice on cleats and other gear.  They may not have the rock bottom bargains of the internet or the big boxes, but my boys were always fitted well which meant fewer blisters and better foot control.  Plus, if anything went amiss I knew they would help make it right.
 
Because soccer gear is such a big business internationally, the marketing by the manufacturers gets pretty intense, which is not lost on dedicated youth players.  No matter the occasion, these giants create launch dates for new cleats, uniforms, and outer wear.  Along with their tempting images of soccer heroes striking the ball with sweat flying and muscles rippling, these promotions come with hefty price tags. The ads promise "faster," "higher," "smarter," and "sharper."  Black cleats barely exist for these titans; they are orange, yellow, lime green, red.   You can easily spend over $200 for a pair of these "replica" youth cleats for your son or daughter.  Some of us have experienced that they will grow out of them in just months thanks to that unforeseen growth spurt.   It's difficult to fight the urge, especially when a kid or two shows up at practice streaking down the field in her neon blue cleats.   Make sure you set your budget and your limits before you begin looking for your gear so you can resist the doe-eyed pleas for the electric cleats.
 
Our family's biggest expense every year seemed to be shin guards.  The boys managed to leave one or both guards on the bench or on the field.  We orphaned dozens of shin guards until I hit on a plan to stem the madness.  Most players get pretty particular about their shin guards – they have to be the right size, shape, color, padding, and weight.  So once the boys located their perfect pair, they were told that was it for a year.  If the shin guards got separated, lost, destroyed, or wandered off, they had to use the cheap pairs I purchased at the same time.  I'd pick up two additional pairs that cost no more than $10 each and kept them in my soccer box in the back of the car.  Once the only options for shin protection became either their perfect pair or some cheap, embarrassing pair, they seemed to be able to collect their shin guards and store them away after every game!
 
I also learned quickly that I have no memory when it comes to soccer purchases and that my kids believe they have perfect memory.  So this weakness has been exploited on a regular basis. I have been told dozens of times that my kids have had the same pair of cleats or warm-ups for "at least a year" and short of digging through my credit card receipts I have no way of countering.   However, with the convenience of cell phones I now have the perfect response.  I just take a picture of every purchase.  Then with a quick scroll I can locate the exact date AND time that the item entered our home.  I've discovered that "at least a year" actually translates to "about three months."  This one technique has saved countless arguments while sitting in the soccer store clinging to a pair of must have cleats when a perfectly good pair sits at home.
 
Since kids outgrow gear so quickly, most of it remains gently used.  If you can hand it down, then bravo to you.  But usually that won't work.  So consider finding a spot to donate that gear.  U.S. Soccer Foundation has the Passback program (passback.org) which usually collects through local state soccer associations.  Sports Gift (sportsgift.org) collects gear from all sports for both local and international organizations.  Goodwill, Salvation Army, and St. Vincent DePaul are always grateful for good sports equipment since the demand is huge for those items.  If your team is willing, donating their uniforms as a unit will help provide for teams both in the states and abroad.
 
Once you have all the gear collected, you now have to maintain it.  That's not always easy.  Spring soccer means rain, mud, and even snow.  That gear takes a beating and then transfers the elements into your car on the trip home.  There's nothing like an errant sock pressed under the seat against the heat vent to provide fumes that even a Hazmat team fears.  I have long advocated the use of plastic bags to help keep mud and wet in their place.  I also believe in recycling, so you can collect those grocery fruit and vegetable bags and shopping bags to use in your efforts to control filth and odors.  I like to cover my car floors with the 33 gallon garbage bags to contain the dirt.  These can be removed, shaken out, and even hosed down to use again.  Use smaller bags to collect the cleats, uniforms, socks, and even shin guards before they have a chance to contaminate the car or the soccer bag.  In fact, I always keep everything in bags so even the clean is sealed. 
 
I suggest keeping all soccer related clothing and gear in one spot.  I bought a cheap five drawer dresser at Target and set it in the garage.  One drawer holds uniforms and warm-ups, one holds gloves, hats, socks and undergarments, one holds peripheral gear like shin guards, goalie gloves and head bands, and two hold cleats.  I hung a rack with hooks over the door to hold jackets.  They set their soccer bags on top of the dresser and so it's really easy to load up the bags before a game.  The added bonus of being already in the garage helps insure we don't forget much before a game.  When I wash the uniforms I put them in the drawer.  The boys clean off their cleats and put them in the drawer.  It becomes an easy and helpful set of routines that prevent most, but not all last minute panics.  It also helps at the end of one season to insure that several months later at the beginning of the next season we know where to locate everything.  Once the boys expanded to club, high school, and indoor soccer teams we expanded to two dressers to accommodate all the additional uniforms.
 
Getting new soccer clothes and gear can help boost enthusiasm for the game.  Even just adding a new pair of socks can bring enough pizzazz to a new season to give it extra fun.   Keep all the purchases at a reasonable cost.  Consider one special item each season if you have the money – a jacket, a backpack, or a professional jersey.  But these aren't necessary to playing the game, so don't feel obligated to spend more than you can afford just to keep up with the soccer Joneses.  Once they get out onto the field and score a goal or make a great pass or defend successfully against a rush, they'll be so happy to be playing it won't matter what you did or didn't spend.   
 

Camp Roulette - Thinking about Summer Camps

Susan Boyd

While I am celebrating the thermometer's rise to 41 degrees, I have to do so amidst snow and ice covering the major portion of the landscape. So it's difficult to think about filling out the summer camp applications. But they are already arriving. I have had three come via email and another two come in snail mail, so the floodgates should be opening soon. Even if you are experienced in sorting through the possibilities, they seem to multiply exponentially. Suddenly that simple decision that you based on cost and dates now explodes into manifold factors from skill levels to friends attending to coaching levels. We don't want our kids to miss out on that "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity that might mean being scouted by an English Premier League coach or recruited by a top college program.
         
The first thing anyone should do is decide on a budget then rule out any camp that exceeds that budget. It's so easy to be seduced by a glossy brochure with pictures of happy players against a rich green pitch gazing fondly at a silver-haired coach who looks like he comes from central casting. It makes us wish we could go to camp and let the kids stay home. Declaring a budget also makes it clear to your children that they can't ask for pipe dreams – camps in Argentina or becoming a youth soccer ambassador to New Zealand. If an international camp appeals to your family but you can't afford it now, those options are available every year, so make a plan about how to save for this goal. Decide how much your child will be responsible for. You could do a matching fund where every dollar your kid saves you'll match. You also could involve grandparents to pledge some money towards this opportunity. However you choose to finance the expensive camps, it's not a bad idea to ask your child to invest in the expense as well.
         
Once you have the budget, then you can start deciding on the type of camp you want to attend. The options are overwhelming. Besides the opportunity to play soccer out of the country, there are camps dedicated to specific field positions, camps for boys only, camps for girls only, camps directed by famous coaches, camps sponsored by local clubs, camps sponsored by colleges, high schools, and civic organizations, overnight camps, day camps, camps offered by professional teams, camps that provide the opportunity to be looked at by overseas coaches, camps run by former National Team players, camps promising college scholarships, nutrition camps, camps sponsored by sportswear manufacturers, camps sponsored by sports drinks and camps that focus on fitness. You and your child need to decide what you want from a camp in order to narrow down where you apply. Make a list of what your ideal camp experience would be, and then pour through the options to find the best matches.
         
For those in elementary and middle school the local camps usually offer the best matches. You can use summer camps as a way to check out other clubs in the area or keep a strong tie to your present club. Most US Youth Soccer Association state association websites will provide a list of camps offered by member clubs. This is a great resource to begin your search. You can also use a search engine to locate local camps by searching your city and the phrase "summer soccer camps." If you are lucky enough to have a professional soccer club in your area then check out their camps. These camps are usually staffed by high school and college age soccer players, but include one or two professional players. It's great fun for a young player to have an idol teaching her how to dribble a ball! These camps can provide a T-shirt, ball, and water bottle emblazoned with the team logo, so there's some long term bragging rights attached to the experience. Both my boys grew up spending summers at the Milwaukee WAVE camps, and now my grandkids have continued the tradition.
         
The other factor for the youngest campers will be friends. Check out with other families where they are considering sending their kids. It's always the most fun to share a camp with good buddies, plus it helps with carpooling! Some parents also may have some good advice on camps based on experiences with their older kids. Use the sideline time this spring to find out what camps they liked or didn't like and why. Personal testimony beats the marketing blurbs in the brochures. 
         
Check out some of the intangibles with camps as well. For example do the camps have contingency plans for bad weather, especially thunderstorms?   What process do they use to contact parents in case of emergency? What is the ratio of staff to campers? What insurance do they carry for both liability and injury? How long has the camp been running? What is their policy on weather-related cancellations? Do they address the issue of differing skill levels at the same ages? Is the camp a member of any recreational organization or licensed by any organization? How is their staff screened?   What safety does the camp provide at its site (i.e. fences separating fields from busy roads or water features)? Do they offer any credits or reimbursement for unforeseen reasons to miss the camp (death in the family, extended illness)? Can they deal with medical conditions such as asthma attacks and allergic reactions?
         
For older campers the situation becomes less about finding a camp that offers fun with friends and more about finding a camp that can advance a player's abilities. The big question for most high school players is whether or not they should attend a college camp in the hopes of being recruited. College camps can be very expensive and are filled with hundreds of campers hoping for the same brass ring. My experience has been that few if any kids are "discovered" at a college camp. Most coaches rely on watching players at tournaments in the context of their teams to make decisions on players they want to recruit. Often players who have contacted a school receive an invitation to their camp.   Don't read too much into this. Every player who has ever emailed a coach has had his or her email placed in a mailing list for camp. On the other hand, if a player has been in serious discussions directly with a coach, initiated by the coach, who asks the player to attend the camp, it might be worth attending. You'll have to judge how serious the coach's interest is and how the expense fits into your family's budget. On the other hand, I do encourage good players to consider attending college sponsored camps because they can give you exposure to the level of play necessary to succeed at college and if the camp includes more than one college, then you'll get a bigger bang for your buck.
         
Older players should also consider camps that focus on fitness training. While developing skills and improving on team tactics remains the primary reason for going to a summer camp, players can benefit from training that isn't soccer centered. Most coaches will agree that teams that have the best fitness have the best chance to get that late game goal or prevent one. It's the players who falter over time due to lack of conditioning who hurt a team's ability to be a winner. Therefore, a fitness or conditioning camp may be a good idea. These should be reserved for older players since younger players don't have the muscle development to endure and benefit from intense fitness training. But supplementing a skills camp with a fitness camp could be a great way to prepare for an upcoming high school or club soccer season.
         
No matter what you decide to do about camps, just be sure that you select a camp that fits the needs of your child. Don't pick a camp that demands too much from your player. The younger the child, the more the camp should focus on fun and spending some carefree time with friends, new and old.  Older players will want to use camps to advance both their skills and their chances to play soccer at a higher level. So decide what benefits the camps offer and how those benefits justify the costs. Most importantly make sure that your child is comfortable with the camp choice. If kids have fears of being away from home, you might not want to leap into an overnight camp right away or if they do better with shorter bursts of instruction consider half-day camps. Use the internet, the parent's network, and brochures at your local soccer store to discover the variety of camps available in your area. Investigate the college, club, and professional club camps that number in the thousands. After all your considerations the most important one will be is the camp enjoyable for your child. The rest will all fall in place.
 

Anything You Can Do My Kid Can Do Better

Susan Boyd

Trust Hollywood to not only pick up on but also glorify parents' desperate belief that their children are destined for superstardom.  Two years ago there was a show hosted by former child star Danny Bonaduce (not exactly a poster boy for mental health) called "I Know My Kid Is a Star" and an even more recent incarnation titled, "My Kid Is Gonna Be Famous."  I tripped over these eccentricities while watching "The Soup" which satirizes talk and reality shows.  It showed a clip of a mom nagging her daughter to point her toe while bounding across the floor in some sort of dance move.  The mother was distressed that she couldn't get her daughter to point that toe, no matter what she said, as if pointing her toe would be the difference between obscurity and fame.  Unfortunately, the mom apparently missed the important big picture – her daughter couldn't dance, pointed toe or not.
 
Such is the plight of parenting.  We want success for our children.   So we look for glimmers of that success in everything they do, as soon as they do it.  If six year old Molly figures out how to dribble to the goal our pride opens up a vista where Molly scores the winning goal in the 2024 Olympics.  No matter that Molly also "excels" at blowing bubbles and climbing trees.  Once we focus on the future we begin to orchestrate that future supplanting fun with work.  Slowly, insidiously we become that mom harping over our own "pointed toe" situation.  Our anxiety that somehow our child will fall behind in the competitive scenario overrides our common sense.   In a world that offers up Justin Bieber, Brazilian soccer prodigies, and ten year old opera singers, it's difficult not to see the same potential in our own darlings.  And there are plenty of vultures willing to encourage that dream.

This fall a Colorado company released a kit that parents can purchase to test their child's DNA specifically for the ACTN3 gene that apparently affects speed and endurance.  When studying elite athletes a group of scientists in Australia noticed that those with great speed had the R variant of the gene and those with great endurance had the X variant.  In 2004 this test was made available in Australia and has now come to America.  For $149 a parent can buy the test, take a swab of their child's mouth, and in a few weeks discover which type of sport the child should pursue.  But a study by a team at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse of the predictability of such a test determined that many elite athletes are actually missing both variants of the gene.  And no longitudinal study has yet to be done to see if what the test predicted proved to be true for those kids who took the test.  As one researcher at UW-LC suggested, a better test would be "Just line them up with their classmates for a race and see which ones are the fastest."  That's the common sense approach.

Expensive sport's development camps make tremendous claims about their ability to take your child from hum drum to spectacular all for a price requiring a second mortgage.  Their brochures sizzle with testimonials from past attendees who went on to win the World Series or Olympic Gold.  Every parent needs to approach those claims with a skeptical eye.  While many sport's development camps can certainly improve your child's strength, endurance, and skills, they can't sell different genes.  So much of success in any venture depends on variables over which few of us have control.  If your child appears on scale to top out at 5' 4" he or she will probably not be a basketball star.  Consider the camps for what they are, not for what you hope they will be.  They are places to improve as a player; they are not places to ensure your child's place in history.  For every camper who went on to have a Super Bowl ring, 1000 went on to settle for a class ring, and that exemplary participant probably would have achieved what he or she achieved with or without the camp.

The website Wiki-How has an article titled "How to Turn Your Child into a Soccer Star" (http://www.wikihow.com/Turn-Your-Child-Into-a-Soccer-Star).  The article is actually pretty good and really has nothing to do with turning your child into a star.  But the title certainly is provocative.  Gomestic.com had a great article (http://gomestic.com/family/does-your-child-have-an-athletes-mindset/) on your child's athletic mindset which the author, T. Edward, feels is the best predictor of a child's athletic future than anything else.  He argues that if a child isn't mentally involved in the sport both on and off the field, he or she probably isn't going to excel in that sport or possibly any sport.  He argues that parents ignore their child's mindset because they are caught up in the Pro Athlete Dream State (PADS), over assessing their child's athletic ability, blinded by their own ambition.  PADS parents confront coaches about playing time, criticize their children for the most minor of mistakes, and are easily disappointed by even good results.  PADS parents exist everywhere.  We see them on the sidelines coaching every move of their kids, taking on the referees when calls aren't going their way, and greeting their child after the game with an immediate assessment of what went wrong.  If we are honest, we would admit that we have all fallen prey to the PADS label at some point in our children's lives.  We need to be able to put that behind us and become supportive, accepting parents who don't need to validate our worth by our kids' achievements.

In "The Soup" clip, I found it delightful that the child, despite the constant carping, appeared to be enjoying her leaps, twists, and frolics.  She happily continued her dance moves without regard to form and embraced the wildness of her actions.  While mom wanted perfection, daughter achieved joy.  Fame, whatever that translates to, will be on her own terms. With that yardstick, all our kids will be famous.