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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". 

 

Competitive Summer

Susan Boyd

Every summer offers some exciting soccer competition. Occasionally that competition only comes along every four years, so don't miss the Women's World Cup which began yesterday in Germany.

The US Women are playing in Group C with North Korea, Sweden, and Colombia. Their first game is Tuesday, June 28, at 12:15 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN3.com/Galavision. The quarterfinals will be July 9 and 10 with Group C playing the latter date at either 7 a.m. ET (1st place team in group) or 11:30 a.m. ET (2nd place team in group) on ESPN. Semi-finals will be July 13 and finals will be July 17. In fact every single game of the World Cup will be broadcast on ESPN or ESPN2 with several games also broadcast in Spanish on Galavision. These weeks offer the opportunity for young soccer players, both girls and boys, to watch some top level competition.

Although I would normally encourage young soccer players to be outdoors in the summer practicing and playing the game, I make an exception here and suggest players pick a few games to watch during the week. Students of the game improve their play significantly by understanding the overall dynamics that teams develop and use. Watching how teams both attack and defend, how individual players move with and off the ball, and how plays develop absolutely augment a young person's soccer education. Print off the schedule at ESPN.com and highlight some games to enjoy.
 
Speaking of competition, this year's U.S. Youth Soccer National Championship will be held in Phoenix, Arizona at Reach II Sports Complex July 26 through July 31. The top boys and girls teams in age groups U-14 through U-19 will compete for national honors. Regions III and IV have already selected their participants, Region II does so this week in the Fox Cities area of Wisconsin, and Region I will wrap things up next week in Lancaster, Pa. These competitions showcase some of the future talent in soccer, so if you live nearby you should try to see some games especially those in your own player's age group.

We don't get the complete picture of what our players can aspire to until we step outside of our own leagues and our usual competitors to see the next level of play. Because America doesn't have the same immersion in soccer that most of the rest of the world experiences, we can miss out on how physical, intelligent, and fast soccer can be. One thing I remember from the first Region II Championship I attended was the speed of play and the fitness of the players. Each time I watch the best youth teams compete I gain a greater appreciation of how athletic and smart soccer players need to be to play at the top levels.
 
Weekly competitions in Major League Soccer can be seen either live or in delayed broadcasts on a large number of television outlets. Fans can now watch just about every single MLS game on channels such as ESPN, Fox Soccer Channel, GolTV, and Direct Kick. Additionally several of the games of the Women's Professional Soccer league can be seen on Fox and Time-Warner Cable Sports. This expansion of TV markets shows the increased interest in and influence of soccer in America. Soccer families should get in the habit of watching both U.S. and International soccer since those matches provide a great road map through the world of soccer skills and tactics. Watching soccer together as a family validates your child's choice of the sport and provides a topic for discussion that everyone can share in.

Even though most youth soccer players have a break from the sport for some of the summer, it doesn't mean that players can't be developing in other ways. Take some time this season to enjoy soccer matches on TV. You'll find yourself getting excited about certain teams and players. That enthusiasm can be a driving force to get you and your kids more invested in the sport and to help your kids improve their game through example. Use some of the best competition this summer to raise the bar both on playing and enjoying the game.
 

Honorable Position

Susan Boyd

Hold me back!  Every time I hear about youth teams, coaches, players, and/or parents putting winning ahead of development and ethics I get crazy.  Mike Woitalla in his blog last week in Soccer America told the story of a Nebraska team who facilitated the victory of its opponent, another team from his club, so that they could go on to the state championship competition.  The coach directed his team to allow the opponents to score a goal at the end of 0-0 tie giving the opponent the win which propelled them through to the state championship games.  He knew his team couldn't advance regardless of the outcome, but he also knew that the opposing team from his club would advance with a win.   These machinations came to light when the coach told the opponent's coach of his actions.  I'm sure he expected a big thank you, but to the coach's credit she reported the incident.
               
Now the entire process has been thrown into a tizzy requiring a replay of the games among the three teams contending for a spot in the finals.  Worse several dozen girls were thrown into an ugly situation.  The girls on the team who allowed the goal were put in the position of being asked to do something unethical by their coach, the girls on the "winning" team were put in the position of moving on to the finals knowing that it wasn't directly their skill that advanced them, and the girls on the other teams in contention to advance to the finals were denied the honest opportunity to advance.  Peripherally there are parents, officials, club board members, and state association staff who have been tainted by this action.  We can talk about other factors which have affected the outcomes of games such as bad refereeing or weather delays, but these factors come from within the agreed upon parameters of the game.   We need to accept, begrudgingly sometimes, that soccer games have variants which we can't control but can ultimately affect the outcome of a game.
               
We all know the heartbreak of having a goal called back because of a questionable offside call or a player receiving a second yellow card for flimsy reasons leaving her team a player short.  But these are part and parcel of a human game where subjectivity can be carefully managed but still affect the results of a game.  We tolerate mistakes of human nature because we recognize those mistakes can harm our results sometimes and then boost our results other times.  We don't like it when we lose because of a bad call or a small field, but we know that the next game may have factors that benefit our team.
               
Given the limitations of perfection in any game, at least we all know that the rules attempt to insure fairness.  Maximum ages of players are established and enforced rigorously with birth certificates and player passes, referees have to achieve a certain level of expertise to officiate, coaches must be licensed appropriately for the age level of their team, rules have been written and approved for play, equipment must adhere to standards, and all players must be registered with their club or have appropriate guest player certification.  State associations and governing agencies such as U.S. Youth Soccer Association carefully set forth rules and guidelines for play in youth soccer.  But beyond those official guidelines are the societal ethical guidelines we all understand exist.
               
We can recognize fairly easily when we are operating outside of the boundaries of ethics.  As much as the coach wanted to help his fellow club team, he absolutely knew that doing anything proactively would not be proper.  Asking his players to participate in this behavior put them in a terrible quandary:  Do they support their coach (and club) or do they stick by their own moral compass?  I observed a game once where the coach realized that his team would go through to the finals win or lose, but that the club's archrival team would not advance if his team's opponent won.  So he directed his players to score two own goals to assure the victory of his opponent and thereby seal the doom of his archrival.  I observed attempts to falsify age documents, to play kids who were not on the roster by having them use a rostered player's pass, and to engineer goal differentials.  Most of you have probably observed some improprieties in play, and some of you and/or your children may have been involved in some improprieties.  It's not a great position to be in.
               
As parents we need to reinforce that our kids shouldn't participate in an activity, even one directed by a respected adult, which is outside of the rules of the game.  We also need to reinforce that winning at any cost isn't the goal of soccer.  It's difficult when you can get so close you can taste victory and yet see it slip away.  And it's tempting to help that victory along with questionable assistance.  But we have to resist that urge as parents, coaches, and players.  You can't be truly triumphant when you know that a win was achieved outside of the rules everyone agrees to follow.  Our children need to learn that integrity is the real victory in life.  As a society we are programmed to be winners.  We want the best grades, the biggest house, to beat the car at the light, to get the best deal on a TV, and to send our kids to the top university.  We find it difficult to be content with our normal success and to accept losses along the way.  We attach our self-worth to winning, forgetting that wins don't insure satisfaction.  Living our lives with honor and enjoyment brings the real triumphs of contentment and pride.
 

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.