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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on every Monday. A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom." 
Opinions expressed on the US Youth Soccer Blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of US Youth Soccer.


Grief is the Price We Pay for Love

Susan Boyd

Grief is the price we pay for love...
C.S. Lewis used this line to open a sermon. He could have been talking about any of us who are parents and understand that the joy of having children goes hand in hand with the occasional pain our children bring. Recently, a child psychologist, Susan Engel, wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times that drew sharp criticism from dozens of parents when she suggested that having adult children actually was more difficult than having kids. Most of the critics said, "Your job is done. Just enjoy them." However, her argument was that as children mature, you let them go, which means that you have lost that power to rush in and solve the problem or assuage their pain. I can speak from experience about adult children who, even while being a source of great pride, struggle to find their way. No matter how well we do raising our children, there comes a point when we can no longer "Serve and Protect." When that moment arrives, the powerlessness a parent feels merely intensifies the grief when our children suffer pain or go awry.
As parents, we want to smooth the path to adulthood as much as possible for our children. It begins with responding to the cries and coos of our babies and doing as much as we possibly can to keep the cries to a minimum while augmenting the coos. We feed them, change diapers, cuddle them when they are sick, encourage their smiles and laughs, swaddle them against the cold and cover them against the sun. We watch them like a hawk lest they fall, eat something they shouldn’t or touch anything hot or sharp. We are set up to be hyper-involved in keeping them safe and happy. So it’s not surprising that as they begin to take those steps away from us, it’s difficult to let them go without attaching a leash or holding their hands. 
In loving our children, we want only the best for them. We become fierce mother and father tigers at the slightest hint of injustice for our children. When I encourage parents not to get over-involved in a soccer game, I am advising against the natural instincts we all have to make the roads our children travel smooth and straight. While they eventually will have to navigate tangled, bumpy roadways, we try as long as we can to give them an easier journey. Finding the points at which we begin to back off becomes not only difficult but highly subjective. Yet our children’s confidence, problem solving, and ability to overcome obstacles depend on us giving them the latitude to work out things without our input. When our children are young we can back off, watch and then swoop in if we feel our assistance is needed. But as they grow older, we play less of the role of rescuer and more of the role of listener. Our ability to see clearly what solutions will work doesn’t diminish as our kids age, so our pain increases watching them make errors that cause them to stumble or endure heartaches. 
I wish I could simply shut away any emotional involvement in my adult children’s lives. How blissful it would be to simply treat them as distant friends from whom I get a yearly holiday card with a list of events and accomplishments I read and then file away. I could avoid tons of heartache. Yet, I know that until death separates us I will be completely in love with my children and therefore vulnerable to sharing the pain of their problems. In the movie "Parenthood," there’s a wonderful line from Jason Robards to his son, played by Steve Martin: "There is no end, you never cross the goal line, spike the ball and do your touchdown dance, never... I'm 64 and Larry is 27... and he's still my son,... you think I want him to get hurt?... he's my son." This certainly hits home. Even if I don’t offer protection or solution, I still feel acutely any pain my children feel.
As you guide your children through the maze that is childhood, keep in mind that while the smaller things get easier, the big issues never waver. Eventually, kids get toilet-trained, learn to tie their shoes, avoid putting things up their noses, ride bikes and understand that traffic is dangerous. At the same time, the real crises get more complex: being bullied at school, developing good study habits, getting cut from the soccer team, deciding on a college, having a car accident. It’s no wonder we have a tricky time cutting our children loose. We realize as they grow older the difficulties they face grow more complex and require heightened abilities of maturity, intelligence and resources to resolve. We know we possess these abilities, so we want to provide our children with the protection and solution they offer.
So when do we remove this bubble? I have no idea. I know it was different with each of my adult children. My daughter recently took a business trip to London for her company where she is an executive. Her flight was canceled in Chicago, so she caught a red-eye to San Diego and from there flew to London. When she arrived, her luggage had not followed. When my son-in-law told me, my immediate response was to go into solution mode — how could we get clothes to her quickly? Did she need money to pay for clothes? And so forth… Here’s a grown woman with two kids who found her way out of the travel dilemma, yet my natural mothering mode kicked in. I never even spoke to my son-in-law or daughter about my thoughts. I was able to just let things unfold, but I recognized how quickly that instinct to protect appears and how quickly the inability to act on the instinct created powerlessness, worry and pain on her behalf knowing how much she hates these situations.
As parents, we have to be able to not only endure the grief that love brings, but to suffer in silence. When asked, I am more than willing to give advice and help, but I also know that if I do it too quickly or too often I am doing my kids a disservice. The best thing I can do is gently encourage them to problem solve and find their own way out of a dilemma. I’ve learned that throwing money at a problem or over-protecting just leads to more grief because our children get too dependent upon the quick fix those solutions offer and end up getting tangled up again and again. I think that is what Susan Engel was hoping to tell parents. In her experience, we parents are hard-wired to wrap our wings around our children rather than being the ruthless mother birds that push the kids out of the nest. In recognizing that part of our nature we can better control it. Yet, it doesn’t diminish the grief we feel as we perch on the edge of the nest watching our "babies" cascade toward the earth until they finally figure out to open their wings. Find those teachable moments and use them to give your children more power to solve their own problems and to give yourself permission to feel grief without needing to minimize it by overprotecting.

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Small Things Count

Susan Boyd

This week a Grinnell College sophomore basketball player, Jack Taylor, set the NCAA single-game scoring record with 138 points. Not only did Taylor set the NCAA mark for most points in a game, he also set records for most field goals made in a game (52), most field goal attempts in a game (108), most 3-point field goals made in a game (27) and most 3-point attempts in a game (71). When asked how he celebrated this achievement, he laughed and said, "Well I’ve mostly been doing interviews, so I haven’t had time to celebrate." Such is the nature of instant fame in our world of rapid media. So many professional basketball players were tweeting about him that he had to get his first Twitter account. This attention will wane and dissipate. In a week he’ll return to his normal life being a guard supporting his teammates as the college basketball season moves into conference play.
These kinds of accolades are the stuff of dreams. As we watch our tiny limbed pre-schoolers prance across the field — chasing down the ball, falling in pig piles as a dozen legs get entangled and scoring in the wrong goal — we hold out the image of that same child growing into a Landon Donovan or an Abby Wambach. If they don’t morph into a professional player, we hope they will at least have one amazing season or one amazing game. We cringe when they are on the bench, we have anxiety attacks when they are on the field, we second-guess coaching decisions and we have a love-hate relationship with the refs. Before our kids reach middle school, we envision their future soccer life with both hope and certitude.
Since Thanksgiving just finished, we all know the strength of gratefulness for even the small gifts of life. Breaking a single-game basketball scoring record won’t be an option for our children. It took nearly 50 years to break the previous record. Therefore, we need to rejoice in the small accomplishments that everyone makes every day. Although we may have dreams of big achievements in our kids’ lives, their achievements won’t be as spectacular as Jack Taylor’s. And even Taylor will return to his ordinary level of excellence moving forward. Instead of constantly striving for some future feat of success, we should be concentrating on what our kids are doing now. There’s plenty to be proud of, we just need to remember to take notice and deliver our praise. Some superb methods exist to insure that our kids hear our pride.
Post-a-notes come in sports designs. Keep a pack on hand to scribble out some encouraging and supportive words to your young player. You can stick these on the back of the front seats where they can find them on the way to a game or on their soccer bag, even on their soccer ball. The messages can be short and sweet: "Good luck!" "You are a star," "We love watching you play," "Your team rocks!" You can be fairly inventive in how you use the notes, including creating a soccer treasure hunt with encouraging words or doing sequential rhyming phrases ala Burma Shave on the route from bedroom to car prior to a game or practice: "You dribble the ball / with speed and skill / like a streak of lightning / that creates a thrill!"
Make yourself a promise that the first words out of your mouth after a game, no matter how horrible a defeat, will be praise. It’s not as easy as it seems. Those moments after a disastrous loss leave such a sour taste in our mouths that we often spew it out in tough talk. When our children are under age 12 these games come and go like the clouds. We need to find the fun in the game so our children can continue to have fun. For our really young kids, it’s usually easy to laugh at the funny mistakes they make on the field, but eventually we start taking it all way too seriously. Scoring in the wrong goal or falling down every time our kid kicks the ball is no longer funny or acceptable. But I would ask, why not? Sure, we want them to grow as players, but until they become teenagers they are still learning the perimeters of their bodies and their brains are only able to retain so much of the rules and expectations of the game. For example, how many of you really know what the offside rule is or the various substitution rules? Rather than criticize, identify that moment in the game that was actually fun and make it your opening remark when the game is over. Remember the good things your child and the team did so you can focus on those rather than the mistakes and/or the loss.
Of course, acknowledging achievement doesn’t need to be limited to soccer or sports in general. Create a "wall of fame" in your kitchen or family room to showcase anything that you or your child finds special: a perfect spelling test, an art project, a poem, an improved grade in math or an award. Rotate the exhibit monthly so that small things are noticed with the same interest that an incredible achievement would be acknowledged. 
This is, of course, the point — that our children need not operate at some extravagant level to gain our respect and approval. Certainly impressive accomplishments can get an added level of attention. But we can’t concentrate on those exclusively because they will come intermittently. We need to build a strong foundation of support grounded in all the ordinary but still noteworthy small events of their lives. We may never have a child who has to worry about delaying celebration because of media interviews, but we all have children who crave our validation. We have to pay attention to those small incidences that our children consider significant. They know the big things warrant praise, but when we honor the small stuff we give them the confidence to strive for greater achievements. After all, there is no small praise, only big omissions in what we notice and admire.

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"Weather" or Not

Susan Boyd

The Men’s NCAA Division I Championship will be Dec. 9 in Hoover, Ala. In 2006 the championship was in St. Louis, which had a blizzard and the game had to be played with 3-foot high snow piles around the perimeter of the field. A year later, the championship was played in Cary, N.C., which I attended in 35-degree weather. Then came Frisco, Texas, outside Dallas; back to Cary; Santa Barbara, Calif., and finally Hoover, Ala. for the past two years. Finding a suitable venue for the finals while still honoring the various regions of the United States and avoiding the white-out of St. Louis proves difficult in December. Next year the finals will be held in Chester, Pa., which leaves open the possibility for snow. Since the finals are always in December on the edges of winter, we have to be prepared for anything as far as weather goes.
Soccer is generally played year round. This means that soccer has to be played in all kinds of inclement weather. I think of weather as the 12th player on the pitch. But this player has no conscience and cannot be controlled by benching or bargaining with. We can be promised one kind of weather and get the complete opposite. We roll the dice when we see storm clouds overhead or hear that a blizzard blows nearby and try our best to get the game in. On the flipside, when the heat is so overpowering, we change the rules of the game and have water and shade breaks in the middle of each half. We sit in our cars to outlast lightning or avoid a deluge. Around the world weather creates the backdrop for our soccer games, affects outcomes and even controls the audiences. As we approach Thanksgiving and that unofficial kick-off to winter, Black Friday, it’s not surprising that soccer families begin to think about what winter will bring to the fields.
Here in the United States, those of us north of the Mason-Dixon Line have to content ourselves with indoor soccer for most of the winter and early spring months. Even our neighboring states to the south can’t count on decent weather for outdoor soccer once December arrives. There’s rain, low temperatures and even freezing weather to contend with. Yet we persevere, carving out time on the pitch whenever possible. I’ve been to youth games where parents had to shovel off the fields and then sweep off the lines during half-time. Of course Packer fans are used to pitching in on that duty, so I guess it’s not so surprising that in the Midwest we would power through, even in snow. Nevertheless, nothing is sure when it comes to winter weather. I’ve sat freezing in the rain at games in October and sat outside in balmy sunshine in December. So winter can be fickle when it comes to creating a window of opportunity to get in a two-hour game.
In Europe, the soccer season extends from summer into the following spring for most teams, so many of the games are played in the dead of winter, which is cold, rainy, snowy, or all three. Even Italy, Spain and Portugal can suffer from the cold. But think about Scandinavia, where the sun disappears with the winter and the weather guarantees deep snow. So, their season, which once followed the model of the rest of Europe, went from an autumn to spring schedule to a spring to autumn schedule. Of course, that plays havoc with their teams training for regional competitions, such as Champions League, Europa League, European Championship, UEFA Cup and World Cup Qualifying, since those leagues and preliminary games run well into winter. Canada and northern U.S. states suffer the same fate. Coming up against teams in the spring who have been practicing outdoors for six weeks can be problematic when your players haven’t touched the pitch yet. 
When those countries in the Southern Hemisphere are moving into winter they come up against teams that are deep into the heart of their season. It then turns vice versa as the year evolves. This throws a bit of a monkey wrench into global competitions. While the top half of the planet is sweltering in summer heat, the bottom half can find itself restricted by the colder weather. Most of Australia may enjoy balmy weather throughout the year, but it still experiences down time come winter or in the high temperatures of summer. New Zealand’s South Island can get slick with ice and drenched with rain in winter. Parts of Chile and Argentina get buried in snow and suffer from freezing rains. This is happening while participating in qualifying games for the World Cup.
We complain about heat and humidity in the summer for our soccer games. States in the Southwest and Southeast know how difficult it is to play when it’s 110 degrees out or 88 percent humidity. Many fields can be so dried out that players are kicking up dust and stressing out ankles and knees. The United States Youth Soccer Region IV Championships a few years ago in Nevada had to change the schedule due to the heat. The shoe soles of the sideline refs were literally melting on the hot artificial turf. Even in the Pacific Northwest, known for its comfortable summers, there can be a sudden heat wave that takes soccer by surprise.
The weather can affect the health of players, so despite the inconvenience we attach to weather, we need to also treat it with respect. We tend to worry more about heat. We protect against hyperthermia, dehydration and cramping in the heat by taking breaks, drinking plenty of fluids and using shade. However, we often don’t take the cold as seriously. While true hypothermia would be rare for soccer players to experience since it requires longer term exposure to the extreme cold, there are milder effects which can harm a player. In the cold, players need to protect extremities, especially fingers and toes. The body core may not drop much in temperature, but fingers, toes, ears and nose can get really cold, really quickly, causing tingling and circulation problems. Players should wear gloves to help hold the heat in around their fingers, and a thin sock under the soccer socks creates an air pocket to hold in heat on the toes. Heat is lost through the top of the head so a knit cap is a great idea to hold that heat in. Even a head band to protect the ears would be beneficial. Having Chap Stick in the soccer bag can be a life saver after a particularly windy cold game. Lotion takes care of chafing on the hands and knees. The players on the bench may suffer more than the players on the field because they are stationary and not generating heat, so having a few thermal reflective blankets to cover up with will help avoid cold injuries.
We may love the beauty of a fresh snow and appreciate the chance for winter sports like skiing and snowboarding. But as soccer parents, we know that we are just as likely to have to snowshoe into a game because winter came early or left late. We can often curse the weather and just as often delight in it. We have no control over it except to be prepared for anything and, therefore, laugh in its face. Whatever this winter brings, I know it will infringe upon soccer. Yet, I also know I’m ready for it with my heated chair, hand warmers, foot warmers, down jacket, hat, scarf and down gloves. It’s just too bad our kids can’t be similarly decked out.

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Someone Has to Lose

Susan Boyd

Tuesday night, election night, we drove 3.5 hours through evening rush hour in Chicago to sit on cold, wet steel bleachers in 39-degree rainy weather to watch Robbie play in the first game of the Horizon League tournament. It certainly puts life in perspective. While the nation listened to pundits making "game day" predictions on which states would be blue and which red, we were watching two soccer teams battle it out for the privilege of playing again in the cold and rain later in the week. Sadly, Robbie’s team lost, 1-0, and he was devastated. That night lots of teams and individuals had the sweet experience of winning while an equal number had to face the dark demons of loss.
We parents know how difficult a loss can be, especially in a particularly significant game. A loss hurts as much at age 6 as it does at age 66. The only difference is that at age 6 the after-game snack usually wipes away all disappointment. Knowing what to say and when nothing should be said is really difficult. When Robbie came off that field Tuesday night we could see how hard he took this loss. He is the team captain and they had just beaten this team Saturday night to qualify for the tournament, so hopes were incredibly high that they could pull off another win. This tournament was the qualifier for a spot in the NCAA Division I bracket, and last year the team didn’t make it into the tournament. So, a great deal was riding on this win.
We told Robbie how well he played, which was true, but it was small consolation. What else could we say except, "You’ll get them next year." But those are empty words in a moment like that. For the three seniors, one of whom spent the last half of the season with a bad ankle injury and limited playing time, there won’t be a next year. This was the moment, and it was gone. On that election night, a bunch of candidates would lose and there wouldn’t be a next year for them either. I keep thinking there should be a club for those who lose big contests where they can commiserate.
So how do you approach your child after a loss? Gingerly! The swirl of emotions can make your child turn into Regan from The Exorcist, head spins and growl included. There is very little they can hear through the pulsing rage in their heads. They may reject any attempt on your part to be conciliatory and supportive, including hugs and kind words. Or they may show a deep need to be surrounded by your warmth. Only you can read their cues, and even then they could turn suddenly since this is an emotional occasion. The main thing about loss is that the feelings do dissipate over time, but that time could be long or short. You’ll never know. 
Hopefully the coach sets the right tone by being upbeat and not accusatory. No amount of blame will change the outcome. Later in practice, the coach can address what he or she saw as the weaknesses of play. By that time, players will be ready to hear suggestions and absorb criticism without being so raw. If the coach has been rough on the team following the loss, it would be a good idea for you to counter those comments in the things you say to your child. Let your player know that despite the coach’s assessment, you did see good things happening on the field. Be sure to come prepared to list those positives when you greet your child coming off the pitch. Hopefully he or she hasn’t been the brunt of direct blame from the coach, but if that does happen, you have to mitigate the sting. Even if the remarks have some truth to them, this isn’t the time to lay such a burden on your child’s shoulders. So talk about how the coach is as disappointed as the team, and sometimes when people are upset they say things out of frustration that aren’t appropriate. Let your son or daughter know how proud you are that he or she kept playing and worked through the setbacks that occurred during the game. Here’s when mentioning a positive such as, "you shielded the ball better than you ever have" goes a long ways to helping your player find some comfort.
Another obstacle might be the opposing team’s reaction to its win. If this is an intense rivalry, the winning team might be overly celebratory at the end. There may even be taunting or a show of dominance that rubs salt in the wounds. Therefore, I want to speak to the art of winning here. While the natural inclination when the win matters so much is to go wild with joy, having joy in the win is different from rubbing the opposing team’s noses in the loss. Remind your player that win or lose, their after-game behavior should be courteous, not snide, and non-confrontational. Coaches should prepare their teams for both a win and a loss, so the team’s behavior doesn’t skew into boorish or even cruelty.
Finally, as a parent you may be helpless to give immediate comfort in the face of a loss, but your constant support and positive outlook will smooth the path to "recovery." Don’t spend the ride home talking about the other team as if it came from the depths of hell or laying blame on some of your child’s teammates. That creates an unproductive atmosphere for moving past the loss. Sympathize without blame and let your child vent if that’s what he or she needs. You can agree if they express some frustration with the play of others, but let them know that no matter what play occurred, the game outcome can’t be changed. Therefore, they need to let the coach handle that aspect to help the team improve. For youth players, a distraction such as ice cream or a movie can usually wipe away all frustrations. For older players, they just need to work it out on their own over time. Either way, your role is to provide the steady, devoted support. During the course of their soccer careers, our children will face dozens of devastating losses and an equal number of surprising and satisfying wins. And none of them will mean as much as having their parents’ unconditional love. 

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