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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". 

 

Worth Watching

Susan Boyd

The most watched Super Bowl ever between the Pittsburg Steelers and that team from Wisconsin has entered the history books with 111 million television viewers plus those 450 dislocated ticket holders. With ostensibly one out of every three U.S. citizens tuned into the game, it shows not only the power of sports in our lives but also the power of excellent marketing, which makes the Super Bowl a must-see event, bordering on a national holiday. In contrast, 24 million U.S. viewers tuned in to see the World Cup final between Spain and Netherlands this past summer. That's well beneath Super Bowl numbers, but nonetheless a respectable audience. World-wide, the numbers were in the 28 billion (yes with a "B") range. Between the 2002 and 2006 World Cup U.S. viewership increased 38%. Still, the tradition of plopping down on the couch or bellying up to the bar on an autumn Sunday afternoon to watch an NFL match-up far overshadows any rush to see Liverpool vs. Arsenal.
           
Our kids may play soccer, but our heart still belongs to football, basketball, and baseball. It's difficult to rev up for a televised college soccer match the same way we get excited about watching Alabama take on Auburn in football. If we don't expect our kids to continue in soccer, then investing time to see a televised game seems unnecessary. So why watch soccer? Actually, good reasons abound.
           
If you are anything like most soccer parents, you don't have a lot of experience with soccer. Some parents, who themselves played youth soccer, have now become part of its exponential growth by encouraging their children to participate. But despite playing a few years as kids, most parents have little other soccer immersion. That's true with most sports. We got our expertise and passion for the sport, not by playing, but by watching. Therefore it makes sense that watching soccer games would give us all an education. Not only does it help us understand the rules, but it also gives us perspective on how much talent we should expect from our kids and how much talent they will need to develop to play at the higher levels. Watching soccer helps us parents with the context for the sport.  Just like we need to learn what the appropriate developmental mileposts are for our kids in life, we need to learn what those mileposts are for soccer. By becoming immersed in the sport, we learn the boundaries for our expectations. It might even help us relax when it comes to our kids. We can appreciate how good they really are without having unreal expectations of how good we think they should be.
           
Sharing a televised soccer game with our kids has the same effect that sharing any activity with our kids provides. They feel supported. When you validate soccer by watching games, you demonstrate your pride in their activity. You also set up that wonderful conspiratorial connection of having a special joint interest. Together you learn about players, teams, rivalries, and champions.  On May 28th the UEFA Champions League Final will be played at Wembley Stadium. Right now, teams are in the knock-out stage after enduring a long road through qualifying, play-offs and group stages which began last June. These games involve the top teams in Europe and the top players. The League itself carries almost as much prestige as the World Cup due to the caliber of the competition. Most cable and satellite carriers provide coverage of these games, which would be an interesting and educational couple of hours to share. Together you can develop team loyalties, make predictions on winners, and exercise your analytical skills while discussing the plays you see.
           
If your child wants to pursue soccer, it's important that he or she get immersed in the sport. There are cultural, athletic, and motivational aspects to the sport that have to be experienced. Not everyone has the financial resources to go watch an English Premier League or World Cup game live, but we can all watch a game on TV. Just as a kid who plays basketball benefits from watching skilled players compete on the court, a kid who loves soccer gains from watching as many matches as possible. Coaches often talk about kids needing to develop soccer brains, understanding the game well enough to see the field and anticipate positioning and plays. Most players around the world have the benefit of being immersed in soccer since it dominates the hearts, minds, and viewing schedules of fans. In the U.S. kids can go days without having any soccer exposure. Part of the U.S. becoming a force in international play will be the ability of our players to have that all-embracing soccer experience. For the moment, we need to depend on televised soccer to help fill the void.
           
I'm a soccer junkie now, although I didn't start out that way. As my kids continued their interest in the sport, I continued watching matches. I learned so much about the sport by watching games other than just those my kids played in. I learned how rough the sport becomes as they advanced in age and talent. I learned how passionate the fans can be. I learned to appreciate games that ended up 0-0 because I learned to understand the athleticism and team tactics behind holding onto that score. I learned to recognize Ronaldo from Cristiano Ronaldo. I learned to share conversations with my kids who talked trades, upsets, and championships in the world of soccer like some kids talk about cars. I learned that soccer can be a way for a family to bond. No matter what my kids do in the future when it comes to soccer, sharing some chips, guacamole, and an EPL match with my children creates some wonderful moments of family bonding.
 

Valentine's Year

Susan Boyd

Once a year we're expected to help our son ask his entire kindergarten class to please be his valentine.  I'm not sure how sincere a box of Transformer valentines can be with messages such as You're My Optimus Prime Valentine or Bumble Bee Mine scrawled across massive rough-hewn metallic creatures. But woe be to the boy or girl who doesn't bring a valentine for every member of the class. Likewise woe be to any half of a couple who forgets to get at the bare minimum a card. Declaring undying devotion once a year seems to be the least we can do!

All of which points out the obvious irony of celebrating such a day. There are 364 other days of the year that don't carry any duty to declare our love. We can't forget February 14, but we have a pass on the other days (anniversaries excepted). I would argue it's all the other days, the days we aren't obligated to profess our love, that we need to step up and show our appreciation, and very importantly show it to our kids.

We have lots of opportunities to express our love and pride to our children, but we don't always recognize or use those moments. We can do the note slipped into the lunch bag or the big hugs as they get off the bus. We can recognize the good things they do like saying thanks when they perform expected chores and even more especially when they do the unexpected. Spontaneously telling them we love them helps create good self images. Resisting the urge to make corrections and just accept the way things are with praise and thanks becomes one of the hardest things to do. When we ask our kids to clean their rooms, we need to not show disappointment, but say thank you even if it's not clean to our exacting standards.

As parents we take our role as educator and disciplinarian seriously, which often leads to life lessons and corrections. Youth sports only exacerbate these behaviors because it's just a short leap from parenting to coaching. So our immediate reaction to practices, games, and preparation can end up being negative even though we have good intentions. Keeping the idea of a daily valentine in mind can help us find the positives before we leap to the negatives. Give a verbal valentine by saying "You really did a great job of dribbling," or "The coach loved how well you listened" and then adding "I love you." When the team loses a game, resist offering suggestions on how they could have done better or commiserating over the loss right away. Instead point out a positive such as "I'm so proud of how well you passed." And don't forget the healing power of a hug even for the boys.

Several teams encourage their parents to form a human tunnel through which the kids run following a game. That's a positive way to show support win or lose. For older players parents can offer high fives to everyone. Finding opportunities to convey love and pride for our young players can go a long ways to insuring that they continue a positive interest in their sport. Some families have a chalkboard or dry erase board in their kitchen for lists and reminders. Use the board to also write a valentine message such as "Have a great game" or "You're a special kid." It seems so simple, but it makes a huge impact. 

Rewarding good behaviors with fun activities can be another valentine to give our kids. If the team has a huge loss, find and celebrate a positive in the event such as having good sportsmanship or not giving up and scoring a goal near the end of the game. Rather than making a trip to get ice cream a consolation prize for losing, make it a reward for some good deed. Give hugs before games since they are unconditional. Say "love you" as often as you say your child's name. When my kids were little we used to signal one another with the sign language for "I love you" which is thumb, first finger, and pinky extended with the middle two fingers folded down to the palm. We flashed the sign as they left on the bus, ran onto the field, and during games. Even today if we are up in the bleachers and the boys look up to find us, I'll raise the sign and they'll return it. Most importantly we need to use the unexpected times to pass out a verbal or written valentine. 

While Transformers, Harry Potter, or Barbie may not say "I love you" sincerely to a classroom, we can still find ways to be sincere to our kids. Whether we slip a note into our daughter's cleats or give a big hug just because our son entered the room, we have the power to keep the valentine spirit alive year round. Our kids may not remember the specific moments they got a non-valentine's day valentine, but they will feel the general spirit of love and pride that surrounds them every day of the year.
 
 

Riding out the storm

Susan Boyd

We've all seen it. You may even have been involved in it. I'm talking about those awkward, embarrassing moments when the apple of someone's eye decides to throw a tantrum about joining his or her teammates for practice or a game. This doesn't come with moderate reluctance. We can handle minor resistance. No this comes like a cyclone of wails, flailing limbs, and cataclysmic collapses to the ground. It has no understandable cause, doesn't appear until long after leaving the car for the walk across the field, and cannot be appeased by any kind of promise, bribe, or threat. The banshee screams pierce the air and all eyes are on parent and child because no one can stop gawking at a wreck. 
 
These episodes erupt without warning and apparent cause. Therefore they are difficult to handle. Occasionally kids will become intimidated by the number of boisterous and unknown players screaming and running to their various teams. Coming to practice with a buddy or just letting a child sit and absorb the scene for a few minutes will be enough to stem the outburst. Even if it takes a week or two to calm the situation, familiarity and routine should eventually do the trick. Sometimes kids don't like having a comfortable activity at home interrupted by this new soccer practice. So make sure they don't start a TV program or movie that will need to be stopped in order to go to practice. Have them get into their practice gear or uniform at least 30 minutes before it's time to leave, so that soccer doesn't get associated with any last minute stress. Once dressed kids should then do an activity that they can take with them in the car and that will be there when they return to the car – a book, a hand-held game, any favorite toy. Parents can then let children have a minute or two at the parking lot to wind down with their toys before hopping out for practice.
 
It's important to set the ground rules at the beginning no matter how young your children are and be sure you articulate to them right from the onset of the activity. That way everyone knows what's going to happen. Then be firm with those expectations. In our house our kids were expected to complete whatever session they had signed up for. Even if one of our kids refused to attend practice, he or she had to go and either sit on the sidelines with me or, if they were being too wild, sit in the car. But they had to attend every practice/game of the session. Eventually they always ran happily out to participate.  They quickly realized any activity was more fun than sitting next to mom for 45 minutes. Robbie would perpetually refuse to attend practice clear up through U-17. Although he would say, "I don't want to go" he always got in the car, he always went to practice, and he always was the last one off the field. He's also the only kid I let quit one activity before the completion of the season because of significant mitigating circumstances, so I may have opened the door for that aggrevation. Most importantly don't let the spectacle of your child's displeasure dissuade you from your course. Almost everyone has had the meltdown experience, so trust that even though we're staring, we're not judging. We're actually commiserating and saying a silent thank you that at least for today our child isn't acting out too.
 
I remember one particularly demonstrative young lady at a peewee soccer clinic which met Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Thursdays the girl was brought by her mother and leapt cheerfully from the car and ran straight to her group and coach. But Tuesdays her dad brought her and she got out of the car already screaming and writhing. I knew this family and I suspected what was going on. The dad was a medical specialist who left home before the kids were up and came home after they were asleep. Tuesday was his half day off, so he took his daughter to soccer. She most likely didn't want to interrupt her "daddy" time with something as unimportant as joining her team. And poor dad, who was used to people doing what he asked, found himself completely helpless in the face of her typhoon of emotion. Luckily the coach recognized the Tuesday difference in the player's behavior and invited the dad to be an "assistant" coach. The tantrums stopped, father and daughter got time together, and the team got an extra coach – win-win all around.
 
As Robbie proves, resistance doesn't disappear just because a child grows older. The day of registering for a U-12 soccer team can be full of excited anticipation which dissolves suddenly when the first day of practice arrives. It's usually a bit easier to cajole a 4-year-old into and out of the car than it is an 11-year-old. The former may create a public scene, but the latter will test your negotiation skills. Again, having set the ground rules before we even register our son or daughter gives us a solid base from which to enforce our expectations. Remind them that they wanted this commitment and they need to honor it. Give them a chance to explain why the change in attitude, but you should stick to your standards unless the reason is compelling. Make it clear that you won't be signing them up for any new activities until this session of soccer is over, and make it really clear that they have used up their ""get out of jail free" card, so going forward they have to meet all their commitments or there will be no more activities. If a player still absolutely refuses to go to practice then give them a chore that takes up the practice time.
 
We don't want our children to be perceived as quitters or whiners, so we may get too insistent when a child refuses to participate. None of us should be ashamed if our kid puts on a show, and we shouldn't rush to shut it down at any cost. Otherwise, our kids learn that if they embarrass us enough they can get whatever they want. Similarly we shouldn't force our kids because that attaches negative vibes to the activity.   Instead we should stick to the rules we established and still be sympathetic. If we can discover why they are resistant, we can directly address that issue. But I suspect even the child can't explain. Therefore the best option is to calmly and regularly go to practice, give our children a chance to acclimate to the situation, and keep to a minimum our reaction to the tantrum. Given enough time and enough familiarity most children will calm down and join in. The less we acknowledge the storm, the better we can assure it blows over.
 

Inverted Pyramid

Susan Boyd

Recently I was reading the top ten youth soccer stories for 2010 from Goal.com and one article by youth editor J. R. Eskilson reminded me of the controversy stirred up during the World Cup by ESPN commentator and retired German player Jurgen Klinsmann.  I think the issues he brought up are worthy of another look.  Klinsmann took great issue with the development of youth players in the U.S.  It began with his comment that the top U.S. players "did not live up to their expectations…" and ended with a condemnation of the U.S. system.  Soccer message boards were inundated with discussion following this commentary, most of it in agreement with Klinsmann with personal stories of how the U.S. youth soccer system had failed writers or their children.
 
Why should any of us parents listen to Klinsmann?  He has had a long and productive career both on the pitch and in the head office.  After the World Cup he was in serious negotiations to become the next U.S. Men's National Team (MNT) coach but the organization stayed with Bob Bradley.  Klinsmann played on the German National Team which won the World Cup in 1990 and the UEFA Cup in 1996.  He coached the German Team to a third place finish in the 2006 World Cup and managed Bayern Munich and the Swiss National Team.  He has been a consultant for the MLS including working directly with the L.A. Galaxy and most recently with Toronto FC.  He is married to an American and has two children that he has raised in Southern California.  So he knows both international soccer and U.S. soccer, including youth soccer, intimately.
 
He argues that American soccer players lack even the most basic of soccer skills because they are not trained in a serious, competent manner.  Further he contends that the American development system "… is the only country in the world who has the pyramid upside down. That means you pay for having your kid play soccer …"   Therefore, he says, the best players aren't playing in the clubs, only the players who can afford it.   Although U.S. Soccer Federation has tried to address this with the Development Academy, where more players are being developed and are supposed to play for free, the reality is that this varies from club to club, that clubs still don't recruit from diverse groups and neighborhoods, and the Academy program covers just a small portion of the U.S.  He bluntly accuses the U.S. of ignoring huge pools of talented players.  "…You need to find ways, whatever they may be to connect … with everyone and get the kids that are really hungry." In particular he believes that America needs to approach soccer in the same way it approaches basketball.  "…Soccer is very similar to basketball; you need it out of the lower class environment. Soccer worldwide is a lower environment sport. We all got up from moderate families and fought our way through."  For years the development plan in America was to identify the best 40 or 50 players and then train them together in a national academy.  Most of the world's programs train tens of thousands of players, who claw and fight for the privilege of becoming a member of one of the professional clubs and, for the very best, the national teams.  Klinsmann argues that this hunger is missing in American soccer because parents pay to get their kids in a club.  Kids aren't vying to get a spot on the MNT.  Instead they are vying for college scholarships with no plans to go pro after school.   Speaking of those who direct the development of players he says, "I think it's really important that they lay out a philosophy for U.S. Soccer and say 'where do we want to go?'"
 
What does this all mean for parents of youth players?  I think they could ask the same question for their family.  "Where do we want to go?"  Our kids have so many options in youth sports that it's difficult to figure out how to balance variety with development.  Soccer has always been a sport that has demanded complete devotion from an early age.  That's easy in countries where soccer is not only the most respected team sport but the only team sport of any substance.  Here soccer competes for attention and respect against a dozen other significant team sports which offer even more lucrative college scholarships.  Add to that soccer's escalating expenses as players advance to more competitive teams, and you have a recipe for desertion.  We had two caveats with our boys when it came to soccer:  One:  Seek out unconventional opportunities and Two:  play for the best team where they would be starters.  The first caveat brought the boys to play in a predominantly Hispanic league where the coaches weren't paid but had a wealth of expertise from their amateur and pro experiences in Mexico, Central America, and South America.  The boys learned a completely different style of play, which has proved valuable both as experience and in being flexible.  The second caveat brought Bryce to a Serbian team that he probably would have never considered given our suburban club experience.  He learned about the European system, how to play when generations of old-time soccer players came to the games to shout and criticize, and how to handle far more physical games than were played in the usual leagues.  Oh, and did I mention that the year cost us $150 compared to $1500 + with his previous club team?  We parents need to assess our child's interest in the sport, look for opportunities to advance that interest and our child's skills, and fight for reasonable costs when dealing with traveling teams.  We have a system of youth coaching licensing in the United States which should be one of the standards parents look for in a club.  Having an English coach only tells you the coach played in England but doesn't say anything about his coaching credentials.  Look for at minimum a C level national license which shows that the coach and the club take seriously their education responsibilities.
 
In the bigger picture, the powers that be need to find a way to connect with all youth players and make soccer affordable for any child who wants to play.  U.S. Youth Soccer Association addresses this with their Soccer Across America program (/programs/SoccerAcrossAmerica/).  The goal of the program is to provide soccer to areas not yet served by existing soccer clubs and leagues and to families who can't afford the costs of soccer participation.  Inexpensive soccer programs are available through community organizations that serve at risk youth and several non-profits such as Soccer Without Borders (http://www.soccerwithoutborders.org/) which operates in the U.S. and five other countries around the world.  What we are missing is an umbrella organization that merges all the youth programs into a way to identify players to become part of a national development system.  Kids in many of the free programs don't get looked at by national coaches and don't play for high school programs with enough visibility to be noticed by college coaches.  These kids are often the hungriest and many come from a tradition of soccer being well-respected in their homes and communities.  This is the pool of players that Klinsmann argues isn't being identified, developed, and given opportunities to play for top clubs, national teams, colleges, and/or pros.  We have a rich pool of talent that has gone untapped.  Soccer is one of the fastest growing sports in America, but we still have a long way to go before we have completely righted the pyramid to its proper position and work from the broad base of youth players here.  Rather than have competing clubs who literally sell their superiority for getting players identified, we need to have a network of identification that doesn't depend on parents' ability to afford the opportunity and does address every potential youth player in America.