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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". 

 

April showers

Susan Boyd

Getting that spring soccer schedule in your hand can be pretty exciting. First of all it indicates that the season is about to start, and after a winter, where for a whole bunch of soccer has been crammed into a turfed warehouse smelling of sweaty gym socks, we're like boarded horses ready to frolic across the fields. Second, it means we can finally put our soccer plans on the calendar. Third, we can look forward to watching our kids play. Last night my husband brought the boys' spring schedule home, which precipitated all kinds of preparations. Besides filling in the calendar, I had to begin thinking about the soccer box. Over the course of the winter I end up pulling things from it because I run out of paper towels and toilet paper, and or I need clean towels to dry off the dogs' muddy feet. So it's time to take an inventory. It's also a time for some anxiety. For those of you enjoying your first spring season, you're in for a roller coaster ride.
 
Let's start with that schedule. Use pencil on your calendar. Every date that you think you have a game, think again. One spring season the boys' teams only played one game on the date scheduled. First, second, and third there's the weather. First the weather affects the fields. You can wake up on game day with the temperature in the 50's, the sun shining, and the sky completely cloud free, only to get the phone call that the rainstorm the night before rendered the fields unplayable. Now the scramble to reschedule begins. It would be relatively easy if this was the only game that had to be rescheduled, but second, the weather affects the game. Spring brings showers. If it's raining badly, games will have to be canceled. It's not just the rain, but the temperature. Little bodies don't retain heat that well, so being drenched in 40 degrees creates health issues. Third, weather affects the length of games. Showers can turn into storms with the attendant lightning. Guidelines say that any thunder means that players need to take shelter until 30 minutes from the last clap of thunder. That means games can go well past their allotted time.   Therefore, games that stretched to later in the day, when the lightning and rain are finally gone, may be canceled because they encroach on previously scheduled games or because the referees couldn't hang around having other commitments on other fields.
 
So be prepared to be flexible. Chances are very good that no matter what part of the country you live in you'll be rescheduling those spring games. Even tournaments face the difficulties of weather related problems. We've traveled hundreds of miles to spend most of the tournament closed up in our hotel trying to prevent pick-up games in the hallways and forming a bond with the pizza delivery person. This rescheduling becomes a nightmare the older the kids get because you run into school dances, field trips, graduations, confirmations, bar and bat mitzvahs, varying spring breaks for team members, and ACT/SAT tests. So be kind to your team manager/administrator. I've been there, done that. I can attest to it being one of the most difficult jobs in the world. There's nothing more demoralizing than finally settling on a rescheduled date only to wake up that morning to claps of thunder and heavy precipitation.   The perception of an "unplayable" day quickly changes as kids grow older. A 45 degree day with some spritzing can trigger phone calls, "Are we playing?" when our kids are eight and a deluge with gale force winds finds everyone at the field on time when our kids are fourteen. We quickly adjust what we consider "bad" weather once we realize the consequences of being too fragile. 
           
So how do you prepare to face the elements? Get your "soccer box" in shape. Every box should contain: paper towels, toilet paper, plastic bags including gallon and 33 gallon sizes, extra soccer socks, extra shin guards, ball pump, extra underwear, hats, gloves, first aid kit (that includes scissors), rain gear, umbrellas, hand warmers, mylar "astronaut" blankets, terry towels, blankets, and water. Add a chair to ensure a place to sit. I have my heated Tempachair that I love and the same company makes a portable heated bleacher seat. But any chair will do. I even have a chair that has a "roof"" so I don't have to hold an umbrella. If the sidelines are ridiculously muddy, you can use one of those 33 gallon plastic bags to put on the ground and keep your feet dry. The soccer box ensures that anything I might need at the fields I have readily available. 
 
Finally, work out with the team how people will get contacted for cancellations. Be sure that you give the team manager any and all numbers where you can be reached. Before the season have each team member write down all his or her conflicts dates so that the team manager can reschedule without having to go back to the team every time to check on availability. There will never be a perfect reschedule – someone will have a conflict – but teams can only do the best they can in these circumstances. Be sure to have some empathy for the difficult task of rescheduling that your team manager has to go through. It's a no-win situation in every circumstance. Coaches hate it because they usually coach more than one team so have multiple disruptions. Referees are difficult to reschedule because remaining available dates get overfilled with games. Players have to sacrifice other activities. Parents have to adjust to new surprises weekend after weekend. Field schedulers have to squeeze games in around practices and limited daylight hours. Everyone has to work together because unfortunately the weather doesn't like to play nice. Be grateful for the spring flowers because showers are inevitable.
 

Time for March Madness!

Susan Boyd

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Dressed

Susan Boyd

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

Camp Roulette - Thinking about Summer Camps

Susan Boyd

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