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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". 

 

Soccer cycle

Susan Boyd

This past weekend I ran into the president of my boys' first soccer club whom I hadn't seen for about four years. He was with his granddaughter and her friend both dressed in a variant of the same red and white stripped club uniform the boys had worn years before. I had always considered this club the bread and butter training for the boys. The coaches were knowledgeable and dedicated and they had high expectations for their players and their teams. But the club suffered from the same problem many good clubs do – not being able to attract enough strong players to be competitive across the board. As a result, once players grew old enough to know that they wanted to make soccer their sport, they left for clubs they perceived as stronger and more able to provide them with a pathway to college.

Bryce's team completely dissolved at tryouts for U-15. The first night five players showed up and the second night only Bryce showed up. These are the hard knocks of the business of youth soccer. Parents want to engineer the best path for their kids to that holy grail of a college scholarship and panic easily if they suspect players are jumping ship. This musical chair mentality means some very good players are left out in the cold without a team to play on. It happened to Bryce and it took us from July to November to find a team for him – although I admit that it's tougher when you're a keeper.

I liked this club. First of all it was convenient to our home, which any parent who drives kids to practices will tell you is a major factor in selecting a team. Second, as I said, the coaches were good. One coach in particular had a huge influence on Robbie's development. And so long as we played in the premier level of state league, we were assured of strong competition. Most tournaments were within a five hour radius – another plus because it cut down on travel expenses. And the fees were reasonable. An ancillary plus was that many of the boys' friends played on their teams facilitating car pooling.

Although some kids have the wonderful experience of staying with the same club for their entire youth soccer experience, most kids either switch clubs or have so many of their teammates switch to other clubs that their team doesn't even vaguely resemble the team they had just a year earlier. Most of us parents don't have much to go on in deciding where our kids will play. We really can only look at superficial factors such as wins or how many kids went on to play college soccer. But those factors can be deceiving. If a club cherry-picks the best players from other clubs, the wins come from having a stronger team and not necessarily from good development. And it stands to reason that if you loot the best players in the area, you'll be able to boast of the most college scholarship winners. On the other hand, if you want your child to continue to have strong competition between teams and among the players on his or her own team, then going with a club's reputation for having the best players isn't necessarily a bad decision.

Ideally a team can develop as a unit and stick together as a unit, but that rarely happens. Kids at age 6 will have different limits to their development. Some kids won't have speed, others will lose interest, others yet will excel in coordination. There's very little chance of predicting where a kid will be in ten years time. So gathering a group of kids together doesn't mean they will be together for any length of time.   As parents we have to be prepared for change because it will inevitably come. That preparation should include watching some practices of other clubs to see how the coaches work with the kids and whether or not you feel comfortable with them coaching your kids. Talk to parents whose kids are in the club and talk to parents whose kids have left the club. It's important to hear what the strengths and weaknesses are, but equally important to read between the lines of sour grape testimonials.

There's no perfect formula for the path your son or daughter should take in youth soccer. Each family needs to decide what factors are most important to them. Clubs are social centers, training grounds, conduits to college scout exposure, exercise centers, places to relax, and sources of pride. Families need to rank the aspects of a club along with things such as expense, travel commitment, ease of getting to and from practices, competition, and coaching staff. Parents and their kids need to continually examine how important going to the next level in soccer is. They need to figure out if they want to press forward because of a passion for the sport or the need to succeed or both. And all families need to be prepared for disappointment. Not getting into the club of your dreams can be devastating emotionally, but doesn't need to be devastating athletically.   Lots of good options exist beyond the "top" club in your area.

When I saw those girls in their uniforms, it created a bit of a lump in my throat. I remembered the good friends we made at the club, the great coaches, and the confidence of belonging. It was a painful separation, first when Bryce's team dissolved and then when Robbie switched clubs. But new talent moves in, teams rise and succeed, and the club continues with the same mission and energy. It's all part of the youth soccer cycle.
 

Great expectations

Susan Boyd

The only thing consistent about my mail carrier is that he is inconsistent. Mail can be delivered any time between noon and 4:55 p.m. I've tried to figure out if he has a consistent schedule for the day of the week, but that hasn't proven to be the case. When I need to get to the bank with a check I know will be delivered that day, he shows up at 4:55 p.m. when the bank closes at 5 p.m. That much I can count on.

So you may be asking, "What does your mail delivery have to do with soccer or youth sports in general?" Well, as I was waiting yesterday for the mail I got to thinking that we have expectations about how things should go in our lives and those expectations surround a level of consistency. We expect our pay checks to be automatically deposited when we're told they'll be, we expect schools to only close for emergencies, we expect people to show up on time for appointments, we expect gas prices to rise but we also expect to be pleasantly surprised sometimes, and we expect Brett Favre to ascend from the ashes of retirement another year. There's nothing wrong with expectations in our adult world, but when they start to spill over into youth sports they become a problem.

Like my mail carrier the only thing consistent about youth soccer is its inconsistency.   For example, just consider the elements that change for every game and affect not only whether a game will be played or not but how that game is played. Bryce's U-13 team played in the semi-finals of the State Championships following a torrential storm that left lakes on the playing field and especially at the lower end of the field in front of the goal. Bryce was scored on three times in 10 minutes because balls shot towards him stopped suddenly in the moat surrounding the goal mouth and out of reach or skittered in an odd direction. The opponents only had to kick the ball out of the water past him into the net showering him with a muddy spray for extra demoralization. By the time we reversed ends of the field at half time, our team had given up. We expected to win the game since we had beaten this team handily three times during the season, but so much for expectations.

Or consider how kids change in just a few months. As they grow they can become awkward as they learn their boundaries. The kid who scored three goals a game might now be the kid who couldn't hit the ocean with his spit if he was floating in the middle of it. Or the big, strong athletic kid returns for spring season and finds out that over the winter everyone became big, strong athletic players. And if you expect a new pair of $200 soccer cleats to last a year, then you'll be disappointed when after two months those barely used cleats are a size too small. Your daughter might have Abby Wambach and Casey Nogueira posters all over her room. You buy her the best ball, cleats, and shin guards available. She talks soccer non-stop and you expect her to make the national team. Then one day, Justin Bieber takes over her room and soccer is passé. 

When we parents bring our expectations to the soccer field we can often create uncomfortable and bullying situations. We may find ourselves yelling at the kid who isn't scoring because we expected him to maintain his consistent level of scoring. We may have a far too strong reaction to losing a game which our kids see as having failed us. We may be too hard on our child who is struggling with the clumsiness of a growth spurt. We certainly don't have any patience with referees who don't meet our expected standard of perfection in calls. We may expect the parents of an opposing team to be snooty or pompous because their team is highly ranked, which means we might leap on the only moment of snootiness one parent exhibits. 

Part of our expectations is based on what we see adults do. When Rickie Weeks bobbles the ball at second base we Brewers' fans start booing because we expect someone who makes a yearly salary equal to our lifetime salary to do his job consistently with perfection. And though it seems obvious that we can't have those same expectations with our kids, it's difficult not to. We're conditioned to expect perfection from our sports' stars and that expectation transfers very easily to our own little sports' stars. We also expect the same level of muscle development, motor skills, and eye-hand coordination that adults possess. But of course that won't come for years for our kids. A sport like soccer has so many nuances that someone can spend a lifetime just trying to acquire half of the soccer abilities possible. Yet we often tell our kids what they should be doing when they haven't yet developed the physical abilities to do it. When the kids are young many parents have adult expectations which lead to tears and resentment, even a wish not to play anymore.

Kids absolutely won't be consistent in their soccer play. There are too many variables that interrupt the expected behaviors and outcomes. Adult players develop more consistency, but even they have to deal with injuries, field conditions, fatigue, and mental lapses that can result in unexpected play. I can be frustrated with my mail carrier because he obviously runs his route differently every day. This helps him not get bored, but leaves me with delays and no ability to predict his arrival. I pay him, so I expect him to work more responsibly for me. I can get mad. But when it comes to my kids, I have to just let things flow whatever way the field tips that week. I may want to expect better play from them, but I have no idea what the coaches have told them, what their mindset is that day, and how they are feeling. So I need to relax and just enjoy the game. I'll let the coaches deal with their expectations which may be unrealistic or may be spot on, but that's their issue, not mine. I expect only one thing from my kids which is that they complete their commitment. I've only waivered on that expectation once. But meeting commitments is one expectation that the kids can live up to and achieve and is something that will serve them well as they grow older. I just wish my mail carrier understood his commitment to me.
 

Sportsland

Susan Boyd

I just got home from my 6-year-old grandson's baseball game. Once again the disconnect between what the adults do and say and what the kids are hearing was obvious. I've done a blog about those funny moments as they relate to soccer, so I don't want to repeat myself. But I also think it's important that parents remember that we have to try to get into the kid frame of mind when coaching or mentoring our children, because in their world things are very different.

The field was really muddy, so the coaches wanted the children to bat in from of home plate. Every child marched up to the plate and took his or her stance as taught, lifted the elbows and then saw a coach approaching signaling for the player to move in front of the plate. The coach would point to a spot on the ground and tell the child to stand there. The batter would take a swing and then return to the "proper" place beside home plate. The coach would stride out again, move the batter again, and the cycle continued. The confusion on the child's faces was clearly evident, because for weeks of practice aqnd play they had been told to straddle home plate. Now today, out of nowhere, these parents changed the rules. The parents understood why, but not once did the coaches gather the children together and announce, "Hey, it's so muddy today that we're going to move home plate to a different spot," and then physically place something on the ground to represent home plate. Instead, every child strode to home plate, got told that was wrong, got physically moved to an invisible home plate, and then stood looking bewildered at these coaches who seemed to have no concept of consistency. 

I hate criticizing volunteer coaches because it's a tough job dealing with all the children, their parents, and other well-meaning fans. However year after year, volunteer coaches are sent out to the playing fields with nothing more than a key to the equipment box, a copy of the schedule, and occasionally a slap on the back. While some parents may rail at the US Youth Soccer requirement for all youth coaches have a license, it does raise the level of preparation and information for those coaches. Playing a sport doesn't insure you know how to coach the sport, especially for children under age 10. You can tell a child to throw to second, but if he thinks second base is the second one on the field, then he'll be throwing to first base. You have to have the patience to laugh at that logic and the patience to explain why Abner Doubleday's logic has to prevail. Dealing with a group of children each having their own logical perception of the rules of baseball means dealing with anarchy.

Today a child spent his fielding time between first and second base digging a booby trap for the base runners. He etched out a square on the base path and then methodically dug a trench in the square. When his activities were punctuated by the sound of a hit, he would check to see if the ball was coming in his direction. If it did, he ran after it, but once it got 10 feet beyond him, he returned to his trench. After all if he couldn't throw them out, he could ensnare them. His dad was one of the coaches, so he had to deal with some frustration as ball after ball flew by his inattentive child. Eventually a ball actually rolled into the pit he had created and was stopped.  He was able to pick it up, dust it off, and throw it to first just as the hitter streaked by him towards second leaping over the trap. 

Youth coaches need to be able to deal with kids not "getting" it. So many variables have to line up before any child finally understands how a game is played. It's for a reason that Candy Land uses colors and pictures to travel a singular pathway to its conclusion. Some children who watch a lot of sports or have older siblings catch on faster because they have some experience. Other children approach their sports' experiences as if they are going through the looking glass. It's a new language, new muscles to stretch, and a new skill set. Everything seems strange, wondrous, and intimidating. Soccer coaches know that dribbling means kicking the ball ahead of you as you run, but new soccer players may only know dribbling from idolizing LeBron James. If a coach says "Dribble the ball across the field" he may not always get what he expects. 

Therefore, attending classes to earn an entry level coaching license can give volunteers the opportunity to share with one another how to handle the frustrations of miscommunication and a slow learning curve. Having a professional give some pointers on how to conduct practices and how to approach the entire experience with humor and patience can give new coaches that extra bit of self-confidence to get through the rough spots. 

There's one other important reason to have coaches licensed and that's safety. Volunteer coaches for the most part are fabulous, dedicated, selfless moms and dads who just want to give their children and their children's friends the opportunity to play recreational sports. But unfortunately the occasional bad apple pops up who has a hidden agenda or an uncontrolled temper, and having background checks on all the coaches insures that the bad apples get weeded out before coming into contact with our kids. 

I'm thinking that the coaches in today's game could have used a few hours of training to help them see the need for straightforward instructions, making all decisions clear to the children, and learning how to cope with some of the issues when faced with making baseball clear to 12 6-year-olds. For starters, label all the bases so there are no variables, only certainties. And a line with arrows from home plate around 1st, 2nd, and 3rd back to home might not be a bad idea either. It works for Candy Land.
 

First Impressions

Susan Boyd

Two of my grandkids are in soccer camp this week. I nearly forgot how long it takes to dress them in their soccer gear. One is a girl, and she's very particular about things like how her shin guard strap bulges out her sock. We have to undo and redo the Velcro closing at least a dozen times until it lies flat enough not to make the top of her sock look "fat." Soccer clothes need to make a fashion statement. Her cleats have pink inserts so her socks had to be pink. We had to settle for red shorts since the pink shorts didn't come in her size. The red shorts have a tie string waistband which must be cinched within a millimeter of cutting off all blood supply to her lower extremities. The first day we discovered that tying the string with a knot made it nearly impossible to untie and this was during a major bathroom emergency. So I discovered a way I could tie it up without a knot. I'm going to patent the method and make millions.

My grandson, on the other hand, likes to dress himself. Normally I would applaud, but he requires at least 45 minutes to pull his socks on over the shin guards. I watch him bunch up the socks, stick his toes in the end, and then try to pull them using the top of the socks only. This leaves a wad of sock around his ankles and an extremely thin stretch of sock for the remainder of his leg. So in frustration he rips it all off and begins again. My offers to help or to teach him are totally rebuffed. This is his battle to win every morning. Eventually he works the sock up and over his ankle, although it is twisted at least 720 degrees around the axis of his leg, and maneuvers it up to his knee. Then the real work begins as he pulls at the sock, moves it around his leg, and then grabs the next level to untwist and so on. And that's just the first sock. When he's finally done and he goes to put his cleats on, I hear him say, "Why doesn't this work?"   Before I can stop him, he has pulled the sock off again because it felt too bunched up in his cleat. The process begins again as the clock moves unrelentingly to the time we have to load up and go.

Andrew loves his soccer outfit so much that he has worn it all day, every day, for the past week. Yesterday it was really stormy here and the kids got drenched, so I was able to coerce him out of the clothes and finally wash them. He plans to wear the outfit home on the plane. So does Siobhan, which means a flight attendant will get a first-hand look at my clever tie job. But that's a risk I'll have to take. I'm just happy they love their soccer clothes because I have discovered that's the first step to loving soccer. If the outfit isn't cool, neither is the sport.

The other thing I've rediscovered is how magical a new sport can be. The soccer balls have become trophies that they even take to bed with them. The cleats have super powers to make them run faster as in "Gramma watch how fast I can run." At the end of the first day of camp I was informed by Siobhan that she had made "lots of points." Andrew says he's the best passer in his group. Every day they have stories to tell of their adventures and soccer prowess. Soccer is new, special, and for the moment achievable. I make it a point to reinforce all their beliefs both in soccer and in themselves. They may never end up playing soccer, but I don't want them to dismiss it because their first experience wasn't exciting and fulfilling. For the moment, soccer rules. Now if I could just figure out a way to speed up the preparation process, soccer would rule for me too.