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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". 

 

Hurry up and get famous

Susan Boyd

Every time I think my kids have accomplished something noteworthy I get gob-smacked by another preteen prodigy who has achieved a perfect SAT score or invented a better way to microwave bacon. The latest is a 10-year-old opera singer, Jackie Evancho from Pittsburgh, who has an album coming out next week for the holidays. She was a contestant on "America's Got Talent" (AGT) but I saw her on the "Today" show. I don't watch AGT because their child superstars make clear that my kids are remarkably ordinary. I'm delighted my kids fit in so well with their peers, but I also like having my fantasy that they will make the cover of Time magazine before they can drive.

I don't think I'm any different than any other parent. We all want the best for our kids while also validating our excellent parenting and genes. At one point I only had to compete against friends and family, but now we have YouTube highlighting world-wide phenomena daily. It's like getting your cousin's holiday newsletter extolling her kids either saving the rainforests or winning a poetry award. But instead of getting it once a year, you now get it every time you log on to AOL.  It's hard not to be jealous and to believe that brilliance touches every family but mine.

When I sit on the sidelines of a youth game and see parents coaching, demanding, and even verbally assaulting their kids to meet unrealistic expectations, I see the dark side of all this adulation of young luminaries. We lose perspective on what constitutes normal, even exemplary, performance. We make the mistake that somehow we can create the child star through sheer force of will. I don't know what's completely behind the emergence of a Jackie Evancho. She may be a very regular 10 year old with an extraordinary talent. But I suspect that there's also a mom and/or dad in the wings coaching to the point of micro-managing. We can never know for sure, although we get a boat-load of tell-all tales from child stars like Patty Duke or Macaulay Caulkin revealing some pretty horrific histories. 

I remember when I first saw 3-year-old Tiger Woods on the "Tonight" show. He was making these great shots and putts, but hovering over him directing him every second was his dad. Andre Agassi just published his memoirs, "Open", in which he details tennis as a prison from which he tried to escape. His father expected all his four children to be tennis prodigies, but only Agassi survived the grueling daily training sessions that often pulled him out of school and left him with no friends.  Despite the agony, the success of these talents only reinforces a parent's belief that his or her child will be happiest by being the greatest through intense training and constant monitoring. Hopefully most of these parents do it to insure an amazing future for their children and not out of an egotistical need to be recognized as the parents of high achievers, although I suspect the latter plays into their behaviors too often.

Even after Agassi details his horrific journey to the highest levels of men's tennis, he also admits that he has come to appreciate what that success has meant for him. Obviously this makes the process problematic. On the one hand, we parents want our kids to go as far as possible on whatever career or interest path they choose, while we also want to insure they have a childhood that they can look back on with joy. We only get one chance to do it right, and naturally we make tons of mistakes. But we don't want to have any regrets that some major talent in our children went untapped because we didn't push enough. For many of those talents we have to make decisions before our kids are old enough to have any serious input. I remember on vacation to Florida when the boys were three and four we got them tennis lessons with the hotel pro mainly so we could relax for two hours poolside without having to watch out for the boys. When the pro returned he extolled their athletic abilities and naturally suggested they continue training with him, which at $40 an hour I fully expected him to do. But then he said, "Bryce is really too old to ever become a serious tennis champion, but Robbie definitely has a chance." In ten seconds he had opened a dangerous door. What had begun as time-killing lessons could now become a serious mission to mold a new tennis sensation. We passed.

When I tell this story most people laugh and agree that we probably would have spent thousands of dollars on a long shot. But there are always a few, especially those who know how athletic Robbie is, who ask, "Don't you wonder if he could have made it?" Sure I do. I have the same fantasies about all my kids that they achieve ultra success in their chosen passions. I know that child actors, models, tennis stars, gymnasts, and figure skaters among other "professions" can start before kids are toilet trained so parents have to make the choice to pursue these dreams. I respect their decisions since only they know their family dynamics and their child's ability to handle the pressures of such early professional demands. But luckily most of youth sports evolve slowly and don't begin seriously until a child is 9 or 10. That gives the player a bigger voice in what happens. As parents we need to listen.

 Ultimately the question becomes: how different will your child's life be if he or she becomes extraordinary at a young age or simply becomes successful but typical as an adult.   The temptation to try for the former outcome is powerful. Yet the reality remains that many have tried and few have succeeded.   With no "do-overs" we'll never know which path would have been the best. Sometimes the decision can be made for us if our child is plucked from obscurity by fate – like Lana Turner being discovered at Schraft's. However, for most of us we have to decide if at age 5 knowing how to slide tackle or score 10 goals a game indicates our child has exceptional skills worthy of intense development. While most of us will decide to take pride in whatever accomplishments our kids achieve, brag and share pictures until people run when they see us coming, and give our kids an occasional push, some of us will decide to pursue an accelerated course. If your child is successful I'll try not to be jealous, but I can't promise anything. 
 

Let me check my calendar

Susan Boyd

Last night I shopped online for calendars. I like to give them as gifts because everyone needs a calendar, because I can buy a calendar to suit someone's interests, and because calendars are fat-free (except for the chocolate filled Advent calendars). There's a website I use appropriately called calendars.com that probably has every calendar ever made for 2011 plus games and mugs.  I came across the website several years ago when I was desperate to find a calendar that could handle all the entries I had to make. Most calendars I found in stores had these anemic little squares that couldn't hold three entries much less the dozen or more I needed. As I filled in my new, super-sized calendar I realized that soccer had taken over my life.

I'm not really complaining because I love sharing this activity with my kids. At the same time, I also know the feeling of jolting awake in a cold sweat as I panic over forgetting a game or an after practice treat assignment. Now I just have two kids to worry about, but Robbie has a friend who has seven siblings, all in soccer. I can't imagine juggling eight soccer schedules. I talked to the mom at team registration and she seemed remarkably calm. She must have an incredible calendar. She also has her kids all in one club minimizing travel for practices. But what about games and tournaments that never seemed to mesh for our family. She just shrugged and said serenely, "It seems to work out." Maybe she has taxis on call. In any case her aromatherapy must be amazing.

Youth soccer does take on a life of its own. Before you know it, your time has been stolen, now channeled into driving for, watching, shopping for, and organizing soccer. You not only know the clerks in your local soccer store, you have them on speed dial. You can explain the offside rule to anyone. When you turn your television on it's already set on Fox Soccer Channel. Birthday parties have soccer themes, you haven't bought a shirt without a number on the back in years, and you have to unload 12 soccer balls in various states of inflation to reach your spare tire. What began as a fun way to spend Saturday morning has now become the dominant entry on your calendar.

Finding the necessary balance in life seems impossible with soccer dominating one side of the scales and the rest of life clinging to the other. The best way to push back the soccer encroachment is to do it early and put those non-soccer events on the calendar right away. In our family we made an agreement that soccer would never take precedence over certain family activities. Sticking to that commitment wasn't easy. Occasionally it wouldn't have been inconvenient or a sacrifice to change our plans, but doing so would have opened the door to a full-blown soccer take over. So school dances, a weekend for snowboarding, a field trip, and other life experiences got their spot on our calendar along with the soccer games and trips. We also limited the number of days the boys could miss school for soccer. That's really tough because spring travel tournaments never seem to fall during spring break. Setting those limits before soccer season starts makes all the jumble on the calendar easier to handle.

As much as my boys love soccer, they also got tired of the routine. Every once in a while they needed a break just to hang out in their rooms, play some video games, or have their non-soccer buddies over. That last thing is really important because friends can get left behinds when soccer takes over. So, I encourage you to find room on the calendar for those breaks. Have a Friday night pizza party, buy tickets to a basketball game, or go out for dinner that isn't a quick bite before or after practice. I love soccer with my kids because we interact a lot together traveling, sharing game stories, and finding common ground in the sport we all love. But we also need to recognize that talking about the last goal or analyzing a disappointing game isn't a substitute for talking with our kids about values, teenage issues, and their dreams. We need to find topics outside of soccer to occupy our discussions.

When we get those blank calendars in December, it's the best time to pencil in some non-soccer activities. Even though soccer isn't some evil swarm of insects seeping under our doors to invade our lives, it can be a bit like a dog barking incessantly. We love the cute dog, but we also wish it would just quit yapping for a while. We can use the calendar as a way to control how out of control soccer can become. Don't get me wrong – we're still crazy for soccer in our family. After buying calendars online I sat through a soccer game that we lost 5-1 in 41 degree weather with 30 mph wind gusts and rain and hail. That's when you know you've won some battles in keeping soccer at bay, but you have definitely lost the war.
 

99% Perspiration 1% Inspiration

Susan Boyd

The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) recently sponsored a public service announcement (PSA) contest. The WIAA oversees all high school athletics in the state of Wisconsin, but it's not well known and, when it is known, it isn't always respected.The problem for any oversight organization is that it can't please all of the people all of the time. The WIAA is charged with making determinations on athlete eligibility, transfers, recruiting violations, and other not so pleasant tasks. Their decisions can have far-reaching implications for student athletes who seek college opportunities and high schools which are looking for a state championship. So it's not surprising that they enlisted the creative efforts of their clientele to design a PSA promoting a more positive image of the association.

The contest rules were fairly simple with most of them covering format and eligibility. The overriding factor was that "The video public service announcement must convey the importance of education and athletics, sportsmanship and the role of the WIAA in the high school sports experience. The best videos will be selected based on their creativity, originality of content and ability to inspire." Those last three words speak volumes. In polishing up its image the WIAA wants to be seen much like the NCAA has advertised in the last two years as the organization that shapes and builds future adults. Forget about sanctions, forget about expulsions, forget about returning trophies, forget about policing the sports, and definitely forget about enforcing rules on eligibility, violations, and conduct. We want to be the organization which inspires!

Certainly youth sports couldn't exist without clear boundaries, expectations, and arbitration. Because sports embody competition, that competition can extend off the field to disputes concerning perceived unfair practices from bad referee calls to stealing players. So I am grateful to have oversight associations to regulate and arbitrate. Without their supervision, infractions would skyrocket and increase in severity. And as players grow older the boundaries, expectations, and arbitration grow ever murkier, cut-throat, and significant. The older the player, the more the sport takes on a gravity with far-reaching consequences. So any decision, much like a referee's calls, makes enemies of one side and momentary comrades of the other. No wonder they want a new cloak that hides all their warts. They don't want to be Ferris Bueller's vice principal; they want to be Robin Williams in "Dead Poets' Society."

The contest yielded two co-winners with different approaches. The first from Luther High School in Onalaska used stirring music, flames, and dissolves from high school athletes to their adult counterparts to send the following message in banners over the images: Fueling future athletes, fueling future competition, fueling future battles, fueling future leadership, the WIAA fueling the future. The second from Wauwatosa West High School in Wauwatosa focused on a tennis match with the natural sounds of the match as a backdrop to its message in banners: A game need not be won, an opponent need not be crushed, ethics do not need to be compromised to learn and grow while enjoying a sport – It's the journey.   I'm including the link here so you can see these winning videos http://www.wiaawi.org/index.php?id=504. They did inspire. High school athletes and their parents watching these videos should be inspired to stretch further and dream higher. But I'm not sure that's the result or the function of the WIAA.

I'd actually like to see someone tackle the job of selling the duties the WIAA or other governing associations that are charged with fulfilling as a worthwhile and honorable role in youth sports. Putting a wolf in sheep's clothing doesn't make the wolf a sheep, but selling the wolf as majestic and important in the ecosystem lets people admire the wolf even as they fear him. Don't get me started on changes that governing committees need to make to the rules. There are too many rules in most sports' organizations and many of these rules are contradictory or punitive. But we need these associations just like our kids need parents – we need them to set the boundaries and the rules. And like parents, these groups aren't infallible but they do have the best interest of the sport, the players, and the competition in mind. They exist to be sure that the sport can exist civilly and fairly. They exist to create the brackets, to oversee the officiating, to arbitrate disputes and violations, and to monitor changes in the sport in order to incorporate them into the organization. That's a worthy profession. Leave the inspiration to the parents, coaches, and professional sports heroes. I'm happy to have the WIAA create a safe, level, and controlled playing field. 
 

Random observations

Susan Boyd

At a soccer game this week the opposing coach took exception with the center referee's calls.   Shocker! But what I loved was how he handled getting his yellow card for his dissension. "Good," he shouted, "At least I finally got my point across. You've got both benches yelling at you." Oops, he must be new to the game. Everyone knows referees are 100% wrong – it just depends on whom the call affects.  I doubt many refs leave the field at the final whistle saying, "Wow I didn't ruffle anyone's feathers," or even, "Wow I didn't ruffle one team's feathers." Referees know they have a virtual "Kick me" sign on their backs. Oh, sure they hear the occasional "Thank you" which is usually followed by "Finally!" But even as the thank you floats over the field it's surrounded by "Get some glasses," "Are you crazy," and "You've got to be kidding." I would support a Referee's Day – like Mother's Day – where all players, coaches, and fans in every sport send a card to at least one official letting him or her know how much their officiating is appreciated. Without referees games would be even more out of control than we already think they are.

I saw an ad for an insurance company where a mother humpback whale cavorts in the ocean with her calf. The voiceover tells how protective the whales are to their young even, "guiding the calf to the surface for its first breath." Humpback whales don't buy insurance – they just leave their kids with whatever wisdom about survival they can impart. When it comes to youth sports, parents see survival training as pushing their kids. I often hear parents exhorting their children with, "You've got to get on the select team" and "You need to be a starter."   There's a line between encouragement and expectation which is often slippery and vague. Knowing when to push and knowing when to let them swim on their own ends up being relatively simple for whales and terribly complicated for humans. But then humpbacks only have to worry about blubber hunters and orcas. Humans have to worry about getting on the right team, into the right college, and finding a home in a good school district. We parents have already been through these rites of passage and want our kids to do better, even if we did great. That leads to lots of pushing in every area when we probably should pick our battles better. I wonder if they sell insurance for high pressure parenting?

This week I traveled from Milwaukee to Detroit and back home in one day in order to see a soccer game. It was an 800 mile journey and well worth it. This is what we do for our kids when it comes to supporting them.   Or it's lunacy. I haven't quite figured it all out. But as long as I have the time, the money, and the working vehicle I'll continue to go to as many games as possible. Of course I'm eating up their inheritance, but that's the little secret we'll keep among us. Luckily I have grandkids too, so I foresee lots of long trips to see all kinds of games continuing far into the future. I chalk this all up to the first trip I ever made right after moving to Milwaukee from Eugene, Oregon. The Ducks were playing Nebraska in Lincoln, and I and Bruce drove there, watched the game, and drove home. We didn't even have very good seats but we did have fun. Once you drive 1200 miles round trip in one loop to see a college football team with no one you know on the roster, then driving 800 miles round trip to see two of your kids play doesn't seem quite as crazy. Right?

The push is on to find indoor practice space for many soccer teams. School gyms, indoor soccer fields, indoor driving ranges, and even roller skating rinks get calls begging for times for practice sessions. Coming from a state that usually has a blanket of snow on the ground from mid-December to mid-March, I know the panic that sets in when indoor space can't be found. So imagine my envy when I found out that the team we played in Detroit has an indoor full field facility of their own with bleachers that can accommodate up to 5,000 fans. I wondered whose deep pockets paid for that. But then I also thought why don't teams join forces and build an indoor facility that they can share. Club teams are so competitive and want their facilities to be a selling point for drawing in good players, so they usually focus just on themselves.  But I don't see a lot of clubs with indoor practice spaces of their own. So it might be an excellent business move for clubs to share in constructing, maintaining, and renting out indoor facilities to allow for consistent, affordable, and controlled practice space. Just a thought.