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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". 

 

Settle Back

Susan Boyd

This Memorial Day weekend was spent in a quintessential Midwest setting – a small town park with oak and cottonwood trees, a water tower, pavilion, grills, and eleven baseball fields. It was my grandson's baseball tournament for his 9 and 10 year old travel team. I don't remember either Bryce or Robbie being that good at the game at that young of an age. It was impressive to watch these pint-size Jeters and Brauns school us all in the art of baseball. Other than a smaller field, these kids played with major league rules and occasionally major league expectations.
           
No matter the game, all youth sports share several negatives: the dynamics of parent-child interactions, conflicts with officials, uneven coaching, and reluctance to play on the part of the child. Happily with my grandson's team there seemed to be few negatives. Some parents got a bit intense, especially when the team came close to defeating the state champions, but for the most part parents were either supportive or silent. No one questioned the referees other than an occasional "ooh" when a close pitch wasn't called as we expected. The coaches stayed positive and instructive. Only one time did a player indicate a reluctance to enter the game. Other teams weren't so fortunate with parents making angry demands on the players both during and after the games, coaches who berated the players, and passive-aggressive remarks to the officials. Coming across the best and the worst of youth sports makes me wonder what we can do to smooth out the situation and improve the conditions.
           
The main difficulty is that those of us who have gone through years of youth sports have the wisdom of experience, but most families have just started the process.  Without that perspective of time, it's difficult for parents to realize what could be better. And since most of us have years of participating in and watching adult sports we can only model ourselves after those behaviors. I admit to seeing a fly ball sail past the glove of the left fielder this weekend and muttering, "Oh rats!" knowing that the guy on third was going to score. I'm used to watching Ryan Braun snag those with great confidence and tremendous athletic skill to pull in the impossible ball. Had Braun missed that fly ball, the crowd would have erupted in venomous disappointment. So it's difficult in a youth game to rein in the editorial comments that would spring naturally to a crowd in a professional game. Nevertheless, we parents have an obligation to make that distinction.
           
How do we keep youth sports not only civil but fun? We parents need to set the tone every step of the way.  We need to keep our coaching to a minimum. I know how hard it is to see your child commit the same mistake game after game and not say anything. So pick one big issue to address before each game and only address it once briefly. Keep the majority of remarks upbeat. I also have found that there is peace in numbers. The team parents who remind one another on the sidelines to stay positive do manage to fulfill that behavior. I've watched parents huddle before a game to repeat some variant of a mantra of "Stay positive, no coaching, and respect the referees." The most demonstrative parents know that they have a standard to maintain and that the other parents expect it. As parents we can also help to monitor during the game and issue gentle reminders as some parents get too vocal. I've seen the spectrum from complete decorum to sideline jousting matches between parents on opposing teams. I definitely prefer the former!
           
It's more difficult when it comes to the coaches. We all want the best coaching we can get for our children. No matter how much we may say we only want our kids to have fun playing sports, we can't help having an eye to the future. What if our son or daughter exhibits both skills and passion for their sport? What if they can excel at the sport? Then they'll need strong coaching and a strong team. So we may find ourselves excusing boorish behavior from coaches because we don't want to risk losing those coaches. Remedies aren't easy. I've attended club board meetings where parents turned in letters to complain about a coach's behavior and had their issues belittled and ultimately ignored. Clubs can get very touchy about their coaching staff since it constitutes a portion of the club's reputation. Parents may reasonably feel powerless to act. Often there's no good choice: stay with the coach or leave the team. I would follow my child's lead, although he or she may also feel that options are limited to unhappy choices. My sons had a great coach who conducted amazing practices and taught the players so much, but in game situations a switch went off and he became more concerned with winning not just the game but every call with the referees.  Parents had a hard time reconciling the training coach with the game coach. But we all stuck with him because we recognized that the training he provided our sons ultimately outweighed the sideline behavior during games. And our kids agreed which made the decision easier.
           
The toughest issue can be when our kids express reluctance to play. We can have a hard time determining why. For some kids the reluctance comes from transitory issues such as their cleats hurt or someone said something mean. For other kids the issues are far more serious such as not enjoying the sport or feeling uncomfortable with the coach. Kids usually have trouble expressing their real reasons because they can feel our expectations and our pride in their participation. They don't want to disappoint us. Letting our kids know that they do have the option, within certain guidelines, to quit a sport gives them the confidence that they have an out if they need or want it. Most parents expect their child to finish the season. That seems reasonable. It sets up a standard that insures kids don't just quit on a whim and doesn't harm the team to which they made a commitment. Often kids end up working through their concerns as they meet their commitment, and if they don't then we have confidence as a parent that those concerns are serious.
           
Watching our children play sports on a beautiful spring day brings great pride and joy. We need to keep the innocence of youth in mind despite how adult they play. As one of Robbie's teammates told us parents on the sidelines we need to "settle down." And I'll add we need to just enjoy the ride. Whether they win or lose we'll love them just the same, so that should help take the anxiety out of the equation. As the mother of a goalkeeper, I can assure you the less anxiety you feel, the better.
 

Making the Right Choice

Susan Boyd

I like to read the numerous youth soccer forums available online. Several of them are geographic specific and some are general, but all seem to ask similar questions. During these months of tryouts, many of the queries focus on which travel team clubs would be the best choices. The transition from recreation to select has to be one of the most traumatic rites of passage for a child based on what these forums spin out with their threads. Parents see the choice they make as a do or die option that can affect the rest of their child's life, which isn't surprising given the propaganda. Trying to find answers that aren't self-serving for a club or a group of players can be difficult since you can't easily find impartial information out there. As someone who has been through it with two children and now several grandchildren, I can vouch for the brambles on the journey.

If you look on club websites you will read about the number of state, regional, and national championships they have achieved, the number of players who went on to college soccer, the level of the coaching staff, and the testimonials of previous players and parents. The credentials of a club are important to examine, but you need to do so with a critical eye. Clubs ebb and flow, so championships likewise ebb and flow. Achieving a national championship in 1990 isn't necessarily an endorsement of the club's quality in 2011. 

As a parent selecting a club, you need to do the same research you would do to find a good day care or school. You need to visit practices, talk to parents on the sideline, and watch how players interact with one another and the coach. Are practices well-organized and controlled? Do the drills seem to be busy work or have a purpose? Is there a good balance among fitness, individual skills, and team tactics? Does the issue of winning come up often? Is the coach respectful and firm? Does the club have a history of significantly changing the teams' rosters year after year? What are the coaching credentials of the staff? How many teams are they each responsible for? Do they have an assistant coach? How often do they miss coaching the team because of conflicts?
           
Remember that clubs are in the business of surviving. Survival depends on two things: money and reputation. For most clubs, reputation means lots of wins, lots of championships, connection to major programs such as US Youth Soccer's National League or USSF's Developmental Academy, and lots of players going on to play college soccer.   The better the reputation, the more money the club should be able to make, which can translate into attracting better coaches, creating better facilities, and receiving invitations to top tournaments and competitive leagues. 

Parents looking for a top soccer experience for their children should consider these factors as significant and beneficial. However, parents should also keep in mind that maintaining that reputation means that most clubs won't value their loyalty towards their players as more important than attracting even better players at their expense. Choosing a club at U-11 doesn't necessarily translate into a long-term, harmonious relationship with that club. And being rejected by a club at U-11 doesn't mean that three years later the club won't welcome your child in with open arms.
           
Teams also dissolve, so that, through no fault of you or your child, you may need to find a new club at U-15 or U-16 because your club no longer has a viable team at that age level. Therefore, your determination of a club team can take into consideration what the club will offer many years hence to your player, but shouldn't be the only consideration. Robbie was lucky enough to play on a team from U-9 through U-14 which stayed together as primarily the same group for those six years with the same coach for five of those years. I credit that team and coach with developing Robbie's strong team tactics and his abilities to play off the ball. Having the same group meant that they could develop both trust and strong interplay. Stability of a team creates wonderful opportunities for a child and I would encourage parents to put a strong emphasis on clubs which attempt to maintain a team's stable roster since they are placing importance on development of both individual and team skills.
           
Ultimately, the success of a soccer player won't be based directly on his or her team's success. Certainly winning teams attract the best players and the best competition which serves the development of a player well. But if the club constantly shifts the roster to "collect" the best players in the hopes of creating a mega-team, then the emphasis is on winning and not on development. As I've often mentioned, the future success of a player is in his or her ability to fit in with a team of players who understand the dynamics of playing on a team. As a player moves up the ladder of competition from club to high school to college to professional, the worth of a player isn't just his or her ability to score goals or run fast down the field. A player has to be able to be a cog in a well-oiled team machine and to understand his or her role as the coach instructs it.   So, finding a club that focuses on both individual and team development will be important for your child's future development.
           
Parents need to understand that players can advance without being on the "it" team. And even more importantly, that being on the "it" team doesn't insure that the player will advance or want to advance. Robbie played for four years on a team that was ranked in the top three in the country. Out of that roster only 1/3 of the players now play college soccer. Some players didn't want to play past high school, some tried college soccer and found it wasn't to their liking, and some were cut from their college team. 

We can't predict if our children will find college sports to their liking and we certainly can't predict if injury or other limitations will affect their opportunity. Therefore, choose your team with some eye to the future, but primarily with an eye to the present. Let the team be a comfortable and happy fit for your child. Make sure you don't overextend yourself financially and time-wise. Keep all your family members and commitments in perspective. Most importantly, remember that it really isn't an irreversible decision. If things aren't working out, make a change come next year's tryouts. Your child's own determination to succeed will ultimately be the biggest factor in any future accomplishments along with your support.
 

Double Drama

Susan Boyd

I'm pretty sure most of us have had this experience. We're ready to leave the house for soccer practice, or we may have just arrived at the fields, and suddenly there is a complete and inexplicable meltdown on the part of our child. One second we were laughing about the way the dog begged and the next second our child is screaming and flailing uncontrollably. Our queries go unanswered except for a rise in the pitch of the screams. Whatever is the matter will have to wait for discovery until things calm down.

Last summer the big meltdown was because my granddaughter didn't like her pink socks. When I figured it out, I got a pair of adult white socks for her. They extended up to her waist and the heel flopped several inches out the back of her cleat, but her fashion concern wasn't with fit; it was with hue. Robbie went crazy once because he became acutely aware of the label on his shorts rubbing on the small of his back. He rolled on the ground clutching his back and howling in a perfect imitation of Linda Blair in "The Exorcist". I have seen kids lose it over seeing a bee, bringing the wrong water bottle, dropping a cracker on the ground, or believing a goose on the far side of the field was going to attack.

Psychologists could read a lot into these monumental collapses generated by such little worries, citing extreme anxiety over competition or insecurity over separating from parents. Anxiety may play a role, but in my many years of observations and personal experiences, most kids seem to have one or two of these meltdowns during the course of their adolescence that spring from minor issues and resolve into complete peace. Parents shouldn't be too quick to react in a way that feeds into the behavior lending it more importance than it deserves. In other words, don't connect it to the activity by asking loaded questions such as "are you scared to go?" or "do you hate soccer?" Certainly, weekly reluctance to run out to teammates could be a signal that the child isn't ready for that much independent play or that something is amiss in the dynamics with teammates and coaches. You can judge that best by watching practices. But the occasional meltdown seems to be a rite of passage for most young players fed by exhaustion, sugar crashes, and growth spurts.

Once I put white socks on Siobhan and clipped the waistband tag from Robbie's shorts, peace and joy quickly followed, and they trotted gleefully out to the soccer field. Making the proper diagnosis necessary to resolve the situation involved several minutes of listening to syllables exhaled during hysteria and connecting the dots. But once I said, "Do you want different socks?" the siren shut off instantly, there was a relieved nod of the head, and tears gave way to a smile. In most cases the reason for the chaos is innocuous but nearly impossible to ascertain. It requires deciphering that foreign language of sobs which have variable pronunciations. But once discovered, the answer assures tranquility without drama.
Speaking of drama, FC Barcelona and Manchester United will play out an old rivalry in a new venue. On May 28, the teams will meet at Wembley stadium in London for the UEFA Championship. They have met twice before for a UEFA championship, 1991 with Man U triumphing in Sir Alex Ferguson's first European championship with the squad, and again in 2009 with Barcelona taking the cup. They have played one another outside of the championship ten times sharing three wins apiece and taking draws on the remaining four. Obviously the teams are well-matched and should offer a spectacular competition on May 28.

I encourage you to watch the match with your children. Use the experience to both enjoy a great soccer contest and to understand more about the game. Have each viewer pick a player to watch exclusively during the game to see how the player moves off the ball and how that player creates plays. Also study the referees, especially when it comes to offside calls and out of bound balls since these situations cause the most confusion. Take note too of the physicality of the play. Watching the best of the best play gives viewers the opportunity to really get to know the game. Students of the game are usually better players of the game. The match can be seen on FOX television at 2:00 p.m. ET (match begins approximately 2:45 p.m.). You don't need any special sports package or even cable package to see the game, so it's a perfect opportunity for everyone to be able to watch. The pageantry prior to the game rivals the Super Bowl hype and Wembley offers a dramatic venue with its giant arch. Make this drama your Memorial Day weekend tradition!
 

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.