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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.


Playing Up

Susan Boyd

Every season, teams face the question of if they should allow kids to play up. When youth players show promise, parents and coaches put pressure on clubs to allow those kids to move up a year, or even two years, in the training ranks. Having been on both sides of this issue, I can clearly say there is no right answer. The problems with playing up can overshadow the advantages. In really small clubs, teams often don’t have a choice but to offer opportunities for better players to help fill out older teams. But most clubs have enough kids to fill teams at the appropriate age levels, so bumping players up would only be done under special circumstances. Naturally, all parents believe their child is worthy of those special conditions. Before you buy into playing up as an appropriate choice for your child, consider some of the significant factors that will impact that choice.
Some coaches argue that playing up for a strong player will only make that player stronger. Getting that tougher competition, being on a team whose players have an additional year of experience, and having a higher standard to meet can be the elements that improve your child’s play. However, competing at that level could also be overwhelming pressure for a young psyche. If your child is shy, cries easily, doesn’t deal with disappointment well and/or seems attached to friends on his/her present team, then your child is probably not mature enough to play up. Even though a player might exhibit excellent skills beyond his or her age level, the player may not be emotionally ready to handle that advancement. If the youngster holds back or begins to dread attending practice, then it won’t matter how advanced his or her skills are.
You also need to consider size. Younger players are often smaller than their year older counterparts. They may also not be as aggressive and risk injury, even if their size is appropriate for the older ages. Being smaller can make a move up intimidating, which would make a child hesitant to play, even fearful. When Robbie played up, size was an important factor because he is already on the lower end of the height chart. Luckily, his first experience playing up was with his entire U-10 team, so he was within the size margins of his fellow teammates even if he met much larger players during games. Nevertheless, I had plenty of heart in the throat moments as he got tackled to the ground. The entire team had to deal with lots of disappointment as it couldn’t always keep up, but the coach did it because he wanted the kids to play on a full field. This was the transition period to small-sided teams, and he didn’t want this particular team to be split up for a year and then get back together for a full team.
That’s another major consideration in playing up. Now the standard for teams is small-sided until U-12. For U-8, there are four players on the field and no goalkeeper. At U-9, there are five players on the field with one being the goalkeeper. U-10 has six players on the field with one being the goalkeeper. By U-11, you will find eight players on the field with one being the keeper. At each level the field size increases until, finally, at U-12 teams have a full complement of 10 players on a full field with the 11th player being a goalkeeper. Some recreational teams will continue to play with eight players, but if you are considering your child playing up you are probably looking at a select team. The advantages of playing on a larger field with more players would be growing the endurance for large field play, tactical understanding of full team formations and learning a position.  The downside would be the inability to keep up or learn complicated tactics and skills, as well as being locked into a position before exploring all the choices.
If your child showed a propensity for mathematics, he or she may not be ready to skip up to the next grade in the other subject matters. It might be better to just get accelerated math classes and stay at the same grade level. That’s also true with soccer. It might be best to get some private coaching to work on the abilities your child has without assuming that he or she is ready to move up to faster and bigger team play. If your child happens to be big for his or her age, it’s possible that size is becoming a far too significant part of the decision to play up. Bigger players often look very skilled because they can bulldoze their way through players to the goal. However, in truth they haven’t developed advanced skill levels and a strong understanding of advanced team tactics. Therefore, playing up is being driven by incorrect factors. The best choice for most players is to stay at their appropriate age level so they can learn the skills and tactics necessary to surge ahead. If they play up, they may actually end up getting left behind because coaches assume they already know how to do a step-over, shield the ball or perform a proper header. If they don’t get the training necessary for the skills they haven’t yet developed, they may never get it, leaving them ironically worse off.
Most importantly, be sure that your decision to have your child play up isn’t being driven by ego. Parents often feel that their children are being short-changed if a peer gets the nod to play up, but their child doesn’t. It’s natural for us to ask, "What’s wrong with my kid?" We don’t want our kids to miss out on any opportunity that might give them a better chance to move up the soccer ladder. That’s why we have to be ruthlessly realistic about our child’s abilities and whether or not playing up would augment those abilities. We absolutely resisted Robbie playing up at U-13 because he hadn’t grown very much and most of his peers were bigger and stronger. Add another year of growth with U-14 players, and Robbie would have been dwarfed. However, at U-14 he did try out for a U-15 team, and then decided on his own not to play up because his team was very strong and already playing at a top level. It was a great choice for him. He did have a player on his team who was playing up, played for the U-17 Men’s National team and now plays for the MLS. Robbie wasn’t up to that level at all.
In smaller communities, playing up can be a way for players to get the competition and training they might not get at their age level. Overall, I would caution parents to err on the side of temperance. Kids who play up need to have strong maturity and skill. Make sure you evaluate your child properly. Don’t be jealous of players who are playing up. Understand that they may well be struggling, losing playing time to older, stronger players and feeling overwhelmed. Players who advance to high school, college and even the pros aren’t necessarily players who spent their lives playing up an age level. Most played at their age level and made the choice to find the most competitive teams and leagues rather than playing with older teammates. Be sure to consider training like the Olympic Development Program or a Developmental Academy team to insure that your child plays at the top levels. Ask if your club participates in Regional League, National League, Kohl’s American Cup, President’s Cup and the National Championship Series. Look at the team’s tournament schedule to determine how competitive it hopes to be. Does it play in Premier League in your state? All of these choices can create a strong environment both for advancing individually in soccer and for getting noticed by college coaches.
Playing up ultimately doesn’t affect much in your child’s soccer future in terms of how college coaches view him or her. Coaches are far more interested in how skilled a player is, how well a player understands various team formations and can function within those formations, and how passionate he or she is about soccer. Therefore, the choice to play up should be based on factors that can’t be found in your community in other ways. If you do decide to have your child play up, keep a close watch on how that choice affects the child’s play and temperament. If your child seems to be faltering, then reconsider the decision. No matter what you decide, make sure the choice is equal parts your child’s and yours. Don’t dictate. Remember that once you sign on to a team, your child is committed for at least one season and possibly a year. So proceed with care.

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Releasing the Pressure

Susan Boyd

I’m watching leaves scatter by the thousands and birds crowding my feeder as they stock up for either migration or a long winter’s nap. So I know fall is here even if I didn’t hear every weather prognosticator saying so. Fall soccer is my favorite time of the year, despite having to bundle up to enjoy the experience in Wisconsin. I love the crisp air, the bright colors and the sunlight with a glistening glow that seems to reflect off the leaves, grass and clouds to give an ambient soft light to everything. The kids are energized by the cool temperatures and brilliant beauty of the season. So they play with a stronger spirit and a bit more joy.
When I watch those 8, 9 and 10-year-olds cavorting on the field, it’s hard to believe that soccer would ever become a "business" for these kids. Often times that inclination comes from the parents. It’s natural to feel both pride in and hope for our children. We have watched professional sports long enough to believe that making it as an athlete is the answer to a lot of prayers. Multimillion dollar contracts, endorsement deals and fame look like a pretty enticing package for our kids to achieve. When a child makes three goals in one game or gets a particularly supportive report from the coach, it can set off the ambition to push for higher and higher achievement. The risks of pressuring our children are plenty.
First, there are the statistics that work against your child going on to college and professional soccer. There are currently 18 million soccer players in the U.S., of which 3.8 million are kids 6 to 18 years old. High school students represent 302,000 players. The United States Soccer Federation has 2,600 professional players listed. It takes only a calculator to figure out that of all the soccer players in the U.S., only .014 percent are professionals. Additionally, out of all the youth players, only .07 percent make it to the pro ranks. For boys, just 5.7 percent of high school seniors will end up playing for an NCAA team at any division level, and many will be gone after the first year (
If I told you those were the odds of your child becoming a doctor or a civil engineer, I suspect you would suggest they try for another career. Yet we continue to expect our child to beat the odds and move into those rarified ranks, based solely on a good showing in a tournament or being the best player on his or her team. Even players who do get the accolades during their youth career falter when they get to college. It’s a different level of competition, filled with players who have had success at the same or a higher level. Many players can’t keep up athletically or quit because they were used to being No. 1 and aren’t any longer. Add on the academic demands and players can find themselves ineligible due to grades or stressed out by juggling both soccer and studies.
Second, kids just want to have fun. Pressuring them to have goals that are either unrealistic or too far in the future to require immediate attention can completely suck the fun out of the experience. Once the fun leaves, the kids will often follow. Who wants a job at age 9 or even age 12? I have seen far too many youngsters slogging away on the pitch who would rather be playing piano or attending space camp, but because they showed an affinity for soccer, their parents insist on them striving for the top. Their athleticism might take them higher, but their spirit will be squelched. On the other hand, there are players who love the game but feel too much stress because of parental pressure. We parents need to remember our children’s achievements have to be based on their own passions. Both my sons play soccer with passion for the game. Bryce strives to be a professional player while Robbie is content to play college soccer and then hopefully go on to medical school. Robbie’s deeper passion is his interest in science and medicine; Bryce’s deeper passion is for soccer. Hopefully both boys will achieve their dreams. But it is important to recognize these are their dreams, not mine.
Finally, kids pushed to do anything can ultimately suffer psychological harm. There is a difference between pressing and encouraging. If players are the stars of their team, we must be careful of how we express our pride. When the player experiences triumph after triumph, an arrogance fed by the parent’s vanity ends up negatively affecting the player. When disappointment occurs, which it surely will, the player doesn’t have the tools to handle it. If we make our pride too overwhelming, those players can end up feeling like huge failures for what should be small dips in the road. Additionally, even the best player has to move up to compete against other strong players, and he or she may not be up to the competition. If parents push and show frustration with less stellar achievements, then kids can feel like disappointments. Instead, those players should recognize that, whatever the level, they have achieved significantly. How we handle the possible diminishing of our child’s abilities in the face of other accomplished players can make the difference between a child feeling confident and happy or insecure and miserable. We have to figure out what type of success we want our children to have. If success is to be measured in getting to the top of the soccer ladder, then most of our children will fail. But if success is to be measured by enjoying the sport — going as far as the kids’ passion takes them and creating great memories — that can truly be called the ultimate hat-trick.
So take in the beauty of a crisp autumn afternoon along with the beauty of your child romping with friends and call it a perfect day. These are the moments that will define a childhood. If pressure and high expectations intrude, their soccer life could be a series of moments they will resent. Let our players guide us rather than we managing them. If they really enjoy soccer and feel they can succeed, then they will choose to push themselves. We can let them take the lead and in the meantime just savor the experience.

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Option Economics

Susan Boyd

Multiple sports and activities give kids the opportunity to explore different interests and to discover what most appeals to them. But these compound activities mean increasing costs for different uniforms, equipment and instruction. Since we parents have no idea what sport or extracurricular activity our youngsters will ultimately latch onto, we want to minimize these exploration expenses. Better to save the big investments for those interests that become part of your child’s regular schedule. So how do you offer your child an introduction to lots of options without breaking the bank?
Joining an organization that offers a variety of choices can make classes inexpensive, yet expansive. The YMCA or Jewish Community Center can provide introductory classes and teams for just about any sport, including soccer, basketball, swimming, judo and gymnastics. Your membership gives plenty of value if you sign your kids up for the courses. Add taking your own classes or using the facilities, such as exercise equipment and the pool, and you really stretch that membership to be a great value. Community recreation programs provide a great local option for so many different activities. In my town the recreation center sends out catalogs twice a year offering classes from drama to dance to science to languages. These classes can give kids a taste of what is out there to pursue. Most schools, even with cut-backs, have a school band and/or orchestra for the elementary and middle school years, which don’t expect students to have any knowledge of the musical instruments in which they have an interest. Instead, they ask the kids to come early to school or stay later for lessons. Since music lessons can run up to $50 or more for a half hour, this school option saves you money until you know that your child has a musical aptitude and the discipline to pursue instrument training. Finally, many churches sponsor basketball, soccer and baseball leagues with volunteer coaches. These leagues can be really fun for children as they learn how to play the sport. There’s no pressure for intensive training, winning or limiting playing time. All the kids participate with an eye toward enjoying the experience and learning rules and tactics of the game.
When joining teams, parents should consider recreational levels to start. These teams are generally very local, small, run with volunteers, and therefore inexpensive. If you’re a parent who played a particular sport in high school or even college, you may want to get your player started right away in the sport at a high level, if possible. However, keep in mind that whatever drove your passions may not be what drives your child’s. So dip the toes in slowly, giving your child a chance to experiment and either develop his or her own passion or and you have to be prepared for this reject it. It’s much better to know early on before investing a great deal of time and money. On the other hand, make sure your child completes his or her commitment before giving up on a sport. As I’ve mentioned before, the reason a child rejects a sport may have nothing to do with the sport. It may be a conflict with another player, teasing, or even a team parent who criticizes them. So, be sure to determine why your child wants to quit.
There’s no reason your child has to have brand new equipment in order to play a sport or participate in an activity, especially when starting out. Goodwill, St. Vincent de Paul and other charitable resale services can be a great place to get things like cleats, shin guards, helmets, catcher chest pads, etc. Likewise, there are sports resale stores that provide lots of great equipment. We got our first set of golf clubs for the boys from Play It Again Sports, and the boys used those for years. They never developed an interest in playing golf on a regular basis, but when friends asked them to complete a foursome, they were ready. Musical instruments can be rented, usually with a "rent to own" option. So if your child decides to continue playing, none of those rental payments were wasted. Another great option can be services such as Ebay or craigslist. You should always be able to find a good selection of equipment on these services, most at bargain prices. Once your child selects his or her primary activities, you can even use these services to find great, gently used equipment for a bargain. Obviously, as your child develops further, you’ll want to get the best equipment possible, but you can make that transition as the activities narrow and specialize.
Finally, whatever you do, don’t overload your child with options. Kids do need time just to run and scream with their friends. Try to create "seasons" for the activity choices. Your child could do drama, choir and basketball in the winter; soccer, pottery and trumpet in the spring; swimming, tennis and science in the summer; and football, cooking and gymnastics in the fall. By taking little nibbles of each experience, you don’t overwhelm the kids, and you allow them to yearn to return to some of their activities in place of others. As their friends develop their own interests, they will influence the choices our kids make. So eventually around ages 10 to 12, our kids will cultivate which extra-curriculars they want to pursue based on their passions, the chance to bond with friends and the fun they have.
As they specialize, they will minimize the options but, ironically, increase the expenses. You can serve as guide on this journey, but give them enough room to make their own choices. If any choice can’t fit in your family’s budget, then don’t be shy about saying it’s off the table. As disappointed as they might be, kids will eventually shift their interest elsewhere. Even to this day, both our sons become wistful about the sports they didn’t choose, but Bryce just got a professional contract in soccer and Robbie, who is short, has had great success in soccer — where size is less important than in football and basketball, his other sports interests. Since most kids won’t go beyond youth sports, it’s important that they enjoy what they are doing, feel an important part of the team and have pride in their accomplishment. And that goes for anything they decide to do, whether it be singing or taking astronomy classes. Let it be joyful and confidence building.

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The Business of Experience

Susan Boyd

            I’m not a huge football fan, but when the Green Bay Packers played the Seattle Seahawks on Monday Night Football, I had a couple reasons to watch: I grew up in Seattle and I live in Wisconsin. So I watched the debacle, which could only loosely be called a contest, get worse as the minutes slipped away. Aaron Rodgers was sacked eight times in the first half. The replacement referees got call after call wrong, resulting in both Seattle and Green Bay getting second chances they didn’t deserve. Fights broke out over unrecognized penalties. Lackluster Green Bay marched into the red zone and twice came away with only field goals. Then there was the interception/reception heard ‘round the world. That play will probably be watched more often than Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon. Two days later the referee lockout settled, which allowed the impending Thursday Night Football game the steady hand of experienced officiating. In the meantime, cheap shots by players knowing they could push the boundaries resulted in concussions and Texans quarterback Matt Schaub even lost part of his ear when his helmet was ripped off. Away from the weak eyes of the replacement refs, players, one after another, shove, slap or actually punch opponents who retaliated and got tagged with the penalty.
            Make no mistake: sport is business. That includes all sports, not just professional sports. We don’t think of our tiny youth club as being a business, but it is. That’s why referees figure so prominently in the business plan. It’s no coincidence after a major blown call on a national stage that the NFL got it together and placated its experienced referees. Another week like the one that just happened or another national game on Thursday night grinding through sloppy refereeing would have meant fans abandoning the game in droves. When the bottom-line profits were threatened then the bottom line dropped a bit further to accommodate the demands of the referees.
            How does this relate to youth soccer? Similar principles and pressures are at play. Clubs live and die by their reputation in the eyes of parents and players. If a club can maintain a winning record; visits to state, regional and even national championships; and send a fair number of players to the college ranks, it can brag on its prestige. Therefore, even youth clubs depend on both excellent officiating and quality players. Unfortunately, quality referees are becoming less and less available. Referees have to come up through the ranks and many young referees get burned out because of the abuse they encounter from coaches and parents. At $15 or $20 a game, it doesn’t become worth it to put up with catcalls, arguments or even physical abuse. But without serving long term as a referee, learning by experience how to make appropriate calls and developing the confidence to make calls, referees can’t evolve into the refs clubs need for games and tournaments at the older ages. The drive to put more games in the win column, even at the U-6 level, makes coaches confrontational when it comes to calls as they try to save every game. It’s incredible to consider, but paid coaches at many clubs have to worry about their jobs if their "success" rate, as measured in games won, drops.
            That’s the problem youth clubs have. In order to attract the best players, the most paying players and the best coaches, they have put up numbers. The actual focus for youth clubs should be player development, but that often falls by the wayside because developing players doesn’t necessarily create the glamorous statistics that parents seem increasingly enamored by. If clubs don’t attract enough paying players they can’t support their budgets. But attracting those players becomes a numbers game of wins, which means recruiting strong players who either can’t pay or won’t pay but can help insure wins. Likewise, clubs want coaches who have as high a license rating as possible. But the higher the rating, the higher the salary demands. So clubs continue to advertise their success in terms that really don’t serve the average soccer player.
            This drive for "success" extends to parents, who want their children to be on a winning team. We live in a success-driven society. I was apoplectic after Monday night’s call — yes I cheered for Green Bay over my old home town. The agitation I felt was actually odd because I’m not on the team, I have a real life, and win or lose, what Green Bay accomplishes doesn’t really affect my life. Yet, that’s what fans do — they internalize the ups and downs of their team. Add having your child on the team, and things become even more personal. So it’s not surprising that parents will get emotional, verbally attack referees and coaches, and even come down hard on their child or other players. It’s also not surprising that parents switch clubs seeking the most successful one they can find that will take their child.
            Presently, the United States Soccer Federation sponsors a Developmental Academy for male players U-15 to U-18. This too is a business, which relies on clubs wanting the status of being Academy members and paying the price of participating in the program. There are corporate sponsorships both on the USSF level and the club level. The success of the Academy is closely tied to the success of the Men’s National Teams. The Academy has promised to improve the pool of male players for the USMNT, which theoretically should improve its success. Unfortunately, the first test failed as the men’s team failed to qualify for the Olympics this year. The team has also had some stunning losses, including to Mexico last year in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final. The question for parents is if they should try to get their players onto Academy teams. The pluses are competition and exposure, as the best Academy teams do get more college attention at tournaments. However, there are multitudes of Academy teams that have such woeful records they don’t garner college coaches’ attention, and the competition is too far above their ability level, so that it is simply demoralizing. The development portion of the Academy is completely dependent upon the individual clubs, as the teams are far too spread apart to create a strong central coaching center. Many of the best Academy teams are associated with MLS clubs, so if you are lucky enough to live within driving distance of an MLS Academy team, you will have the opportunity to experience the top level. This is not the case for most players, and even if they are just a few hours away, the stress of driving to and from these team practices can take a huge toll on academics and temperament. The Academy also requires that players don’t play high school soccer, which should be a major consideration for you and your child.
            How do we diminish the effects of business on youth soccer? I’m not sure we can as a whole, but as parents we can demand that we get our money’s worth in development and not demand winning as a part of our pay back. The players who want to will ultimately get seen by college coaches. They can guest play on teams going to college recruiting tournaments, and they can be seen at their high school games. But they have to have the skills, such as first touch, screening the ball, playing off the ball and passing.  Those come through development. The business of youth soccer should be to develop top players through its system. The better the players, the more wins the team will have. Yet we have to be patient. Through U-12, we parents need to ask clubs to focus on development, and we need to wait for that development to pay off rather than jumping club to club to club looking for wins.
            Finally, if this replacement referee era taught us anything, it should have taught us that top referees need to be respected and appreciated. I liken the replacement referee situation to putting a first year neurosurgery resident in the operating room in charge of a case. He bungles the operation, the patient dies and the hospital says, "Well, even the experienced neurosurgeon with 25 years experience has had patients die on the table." That’s true, but experience allows the surgeon to handle a crisis and to probably pull success from disaster. Likewise, referees make mistakes, but experienced referees make fewer of them and can find a way to balance out a mistake during a game. The youngest referees need our forbearance to move from unsure to confident. We parents and coaches need to use opportunities to teach the referees rather than chastise them. If our child makes a mistake doing homework, berating them for the mistake rarely gives them the self-confidence to continue to try. They now fear failure because they fear the anger. However, if we use the mistake as a learning opportunity, then we build from the mistake. The same holds true for our young referees. We need to let them know they are appreciated for stepping into the lion’s den and doing the best they can to keep order in a game. We need to respect the experience they bring to the game, as they develop along with our own players.
            I’m sure the pundits will be watching with eagle-eyed criticism of the returning referees. Every time they make a mistake, it will be over-analyzed and over-discussed. Hopefully, that will only last a week and hopefully they will be able to point out how better controlled the games have become and how less egregious the mistakes are. As the NFL moved toward its most profitable year ever, it recognized that it needed the experience of its referees to insure the money kept rolling in. Youth clubs need to recognize the same thing and understand that developing players and respecting budding referees will ultimately build their clubs to the profitable and successful levels they seek. Once they set the standard it will help maintain them going forward. As parents, we need to look for a quality product to buy, which means looking past wins to find the real core advantage of a good youth club.

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