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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". 

 

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.
 

Life technology

Susan Boyd

The other night as I was fast-forwarding through the commercials while watching "The Good Wife" I got to thinking about how wonderful it would be if I could DVR my life as well as my favorite TV shows. Not only was I skipping the ads, I was also watching the Tuesday show on Wednesday giving me the luxury of watching when I wasn't rushed and could really savor the experience. Imagine doing that with life!

I know that philosophers and pundits tell us that going through the bad stuff helps us appreciate the good stuff. But Georg Hegel didn't have access to a DVR, so despite his genius, he had no way of envisioning a world in which there were hemorrhoid treatment commercials and a device designed to avoid watching them. I don't know if Hegel had children but if he did, he probably would have jumped at the chance to exercise his theory of "self-determination" by pushing "skip" on his DVR remote that would eliminate driving to practices or would bypass the Sharpie wall mural incident. Nietzsche wasn't completely right when he said, "That which does not kill me makes me stronger." I'm certain few of us feel empowered after dealing with the three hour laundry process following a mud bowl soccer match.

Having the power to DVR our lives would require some serious boundaries. When we record a TV program we can choose to not only skip past commercials but also skip any unpleasant scenes.  This means we risk losing an understanding of the plot or the show's themes. Being able to omit the outside distractions makes sense. Who needs to see the cops chasing a suspect down a dark alley only to segue to a woman trying to eliminate the smell of last night's fish from her kitchen? We'd rather continue the pursuit down the alley and see the outcome without interruption. So fast-forwarding makes sense in those circumstances. In life I'd want to fast-forward through the stuff that doesn't matter, like my commute to work, or waiting for the bread dough to rise. Anything more than that gets complicated. For example would I speed through soccer practices? They would be a distraction for me, but not for my kids. Or would I choose to avoid unpleasantness such as a game against an overwhelming opponent, sparing us all the embarrassment of a rout but denying my children the opportunity to try for a win? 

Having a child in youth sports, and specifically soccer, creates lots of those DVR possibilities. Tomorrow Bryce is playing three games in Chicago. The temperature might get up to 11 degrees with a -20 degrees wind chill. If I could, I'd like to eliminate the ride down and then save the games for a warmer day. So far that technology is just a pipe dream, so I'll be driving down and I'll be bundling up. When we sign on for children, we sign on symbolically for all the hemorrhoid commercials as well as the powerful dramas and side-splitting comedies. We don't have any choice but to take the bad with the good. That's life. But we also have to sell ourselves to the fact that we can't be fair-weather participants, doing our own editing by not taking our kids to practice when it's snowing or avoiding ruined floors by refusing to bring out the finger paint. We have to dive into it all.

I heard one parent tell another that she was only going to put her son in spring soccer because it would be easier. I had to resist the urge to correct her because I figured it would be better for her to learn on her own. I'm guessing the spring soccer schedule seemed less demanding than the fall or conflicted less with some other activity, but it still won't be easier. She'll have to learn about practices that move on a moment's notice because the fields are too muddy, or the games that are played in goo that makes finger painting look like the most pristine activity her kids will do that month or matches that keep getting rescheduled because of thunderstorms. We can plan, we can assume, and we can hope, but we can't avoid everything unpleasant. The messy stuff just shows up anyway. We have to see past it, savor the good parts, and accept that we have no remote control that can edit out the bad. While I don't believe that the bad necessarily makes us appreciate the good more, I do believe that the bad isn't the same for everyone, so we can't just erase it and assume we've done something universally good. That long rush hour trip to practice could also be an opportunity to talk with my son about how school is going or what's up with the new girlfriend. 

The advantage of a DVR for TV becomes pretty transparent – you zap the commercials and you store the show for a more convenient time. You don't have any messy philosophical issues because other than during the Super Bowl most of us agree that ads are pretty annoying and unnecessary to enjoying the program. However, the annoying stuff in life doesn't always translate into erasable moments.  And we don't really find that out until we experience them. A soccer tournament trip to Ohio when the freeway traffic was stopped for two hours turned into an impromptu soccer game on the shoulder. We may not have a DVR for our lives, but parents are pretty adept at making lemonade from lemons. We need to collect those lemons cheerfully and regularly because that's part of our job. In the meantime, I'll try to develop a DVR that can at least save and play back the best moments in our lives – wait I think we already have that.
 

Survival skills

Susan Boyd

If I haven't already made it abundantly clear I hate winter. Yesterday I had to shovel the driveway, deck, and front walkway three times. When a fourth dusting came down, I threw in the shovel and let the snow sit white, powdery, and glazed on my traffic areas. After driving over it several times with tires holding road salt I now have gray, slushy tracks that look ugly and make walking the dogs a wicked adventure. As I type this a new dusting has begun. I don't believe it will ever end. The temperature refuses to get above 26 degrees, so there's no hope that the snow cover will disappear naturally. Anyone who asks why Christmas lights stay up until April hasn't lived in the Midwest. I can't put a ladder up safely and I can't maneuver tiny wires and hooks with gloves on. So my home is festive until the hyacinths come up.

The tough part about winter is the lack of "live" soccer. I can go to the indoor venues and catch some games, but those have all the ambience of putting my head in a basket of sweaty socks. I enter the soccer warehouse building with its glaring fluorescent glow, and sit on metal bleachers that place me on eye level with the field or stand on a catwalk over the action. Seeing old friends mitigates the institutional feel of the event, but we are all buried in our winter gear and not always so easily recognizable. Indoor soccer for the uninitiated races wildly with lots of banging on the walls, hard and sudden strikes, and corner pile-ups. If soccer is formula one racing, then indoor soccer is a stock car rally. When the boys were younger they used to go in the basement in the winter and play indoor soccer slamming one another against the concrete block walls. I'm not sure how either survived without losing teeth. Even though indoor soccer doesn't give me a true soccer fix, most kids love it. Girls and boys alike have the chance to let it all hang out with the rowdy abandon of feral children. Since most games are played at night, we parents have the benefit of totally drained youngsters to pour into bed.

I can also go watch our local professional indoor club, the Milwaukee Wave. They offer lots of specials to make going to a game an affordable family outing. The speed of the game takes your breath away. Since not all communities have professional teams, you can search out local clubs whose majors teams play in an indoor league. Those games are usually free and have the same speed of play. Just use your search engine to explore "adult indoor soccer leagues" or "professional indoor soccer" to discover what's available in your area.

For the youngest players many clubs sponsor indoor clinics at local school gyms. Despite the same closed in, fluorescent lit environment, kids love the chance to stretch their muscles when the ground outside is slick, slushy, and inhospitable. I love watching the kids slide into the Pugg nets to make a goal and dribble their balls through the cones as they try to control their motion on a slick wood floor. They also flail a few soccer balls into the basketball hoops just for good measure.   The phrase "controlled chaos" comes to mind during these clinics. Most coaches recognize that the kids need the run and screech time as much as they need the training. In winter kids can sled, snowboard, or ski but they have to put up with the restrictions of winter outerwear and bursts of activity followed by trudges back up the hill. Ice skating, especially indoors, can offer some of the same continuous freedom of movement, but can be expensive. Soccer mini-clinics cost less than $50 for around six sessions and, other than the ball, the gear is just what they would wear to go outside and play in the summer.

Winter offers another activity – looking up soccer camps for the summer. Between January and March clubs, academies, pro teams, and colleges begin announcing their camps. Selecting the right one from dozens of appealing possibilities can be daunting. So it's not a bad idea to spend part of that enforced indoor time to download brochures, talk to friends, and have your kids give you their wish lists. I'll do a blog later about camps but now would be a good time to get all the info together. Attending soccer camp requires some delicate scheduling in order to preserve your own family vacation, other camps, and, of course, summer soccer leagues. A fun soccer camp can go a long ways to keeping a player interested in soccer. Although he or she may not become a select player their interest translates into continued play meaning continued exercise and fun, which remain the main benefits for the majority of youth players. That's why winter's such a bummer – it interrupts that activity. We just need to be persistent and creative to find soccer buried in the snow and ice. If anglers can drag sheds out on a frozen lake, drill a hole, and fish, then I think soccer players can be just as inventive to insure they survive the winter.
 

Soccer Creed

Susan Boyd

While the U.S. Postal Service promises "neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, nor the winds of change, nor a nation challenged, will stay us from the swift completion of our appointed rounds. Ever," we all know it applies only to mail already sitting in local post offices. The recent blizzard along the East Coast illustrates that any mail delivery involving planes, trains or buses from destinations outside of the blizzard won't be possible. Once mail delivery became dependent on more than horses and walking, it could only be as reliable as Mother Nature and the Federal Aviation Administration allows.

Simple slogans can't address the domino effect that weather has on our lives. We experience it all the time with our kids – will there be school closures, will we get to our vacation, will they cancel soccer practice? In 2006 Bryce and I were due to drive down to St. Louis for the Final Four tournament. Mother Nature once again didn't cooperate, pounding the middle section of America with a blizzard that shut down everything from Milwaukee to Denver. I was fully prepared to make the seven hour drive knowing it would probably be twice that with the snow, but as the blizzard became more and more intrusive, fewer and fewer teams could find their way to St. Louis so that eventually the tournament was canceled and only the NCAA College Cup was held. While I was disappointed Bryce couldn't be scouted that weekend, I was relieved to miss out on "slip-sliding away."

When the Final Four tournament was canceled in 2006, the organizers scrambled to find indoor space where any teams that had made it to the tournament could play in "pick up" games where any college coaches who did manage to get to St. Louis could still see players for recruiting purposes. Which goes to show if they come it will run. I was just in Orlando during the Disney Soccer Showcase Tournament. The tournament for the boys was due to begin the day after the snows in the northeast began. Luckily the stories I heard were of teams that got out of New York City or Boston or Philadelphia on the last flights before the airports shut down, so Disney only had two teams not make it. Had the snow fallen 12 hours sooner, the organizers would have faced a huge rescheduling mess. But there would have been a tournament.

That tenacity to play no matter what gives soccer a bulldog image. I've attended games where the fans had to sweep the lines free of snow, where sand bags held back flood waters just feet away from where I was sitting, where the artificial turf was so hot that the ARs' soles melted, and where we had so many lightning delays that the game took four hours to play. Now I know a few other sports carry the same postal service "can do" attitude and play in any weather, but American football players have the advantage of more clothing and rugby players are generally even crazier than soccer players. 

Like the postal service, soccer will play in snow, rain, heat, gloom of night, and winds. We can't always guarantee that the weather will let us get to the game, but once there, the show will go on. During one lightning delayed game we parents had to surround the field as best we could with our cars and illuminate the field for the last 15 minutes in order to get the game completed. A quick trip to a local store yielded enough hats, gloves, and blankets to keep the team warm during a sudden snow storm in Fort Wayne. Mother Nature can prove to also be the Mother of Invention when it comes to getting a soccer game in. Parents new to soccer quickly learn that they shouldn't ask if there will be practice no matter what they see outside their windows. If the fields are too muddy, the play will move to the parking lot or a different field, but it will go on.  Seasoned parents know to keep a broom, shovel, tarp, gloves, hats, and blankets in the car. Hand and foot warmers only complement the preparations. 

While the weather doesn't always cooperate, the soccer creed says that practices and games will go on.  It's a grand tradition that dates back to the original postal motto written by Herodotus in the 5th century B.C. In describing the ancient Persian courier service he writes that nothing will stop them from accomplishing their "appointed course with all speed." Watch any excited 6- year-old soccer player leap onto the pitch under blustery grey skies, and you'll realize that the weather is merely an afterthought. What matters is playing and playing means having fun. So bundle up, grab an umbrella, and enjoy the ride, if you can out of the driveway.