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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". 

 

Things that go bump on the field

Susan Boyd

Watching college or professional soccer you'd think the injury rate during a game nearly matches the number of players on the field. As Rooney or Drogba writhe on the grass after coming in near contact with an opponent parents might question the safety of the sport. Then, miraculously after a few minutes of agony the injured player leaps up with no residual pain. Even players removed from the pitch on a stretcher end up returning to the game within minutes of their near-death experience. In the absence of serious injury players depend on melodrama to catch their breath. Certainly soccer players aren't immune to serious injury. Just ask Abby Wambach who saw her Olympic hopes dashed by a leg fracture in 2008. However, most soccer injuries involve minimal recuperation without long-term consequences. In fact the rate and severity of injuries to soccer players compare to those of competitive and distance runners (www.soccerinjuries.net).

The two most common areas of the body to suffer soccer injuries are the knees and ankles. Because soccer requires quick turns and sudden bursts of speed followed by sudden stops, the knees and ankles take on a heavier burden of sustaining the player's activity. Ankle injuries are usually strains which can heal by rest, ice, and wraps. Knee injuries, unfortunately, can go beyond strains to include tearing of the meniscus and ligaments. These require surgery and a longer recuperation time, but with few exceptions result in the player being able to return full speed to the game after several months. Even Wambach's leg fracture didn't stop her from scoring her 100th goal a year later.

Although infrequent, head injuries are scary because they can result in concussions, so any head injury has to be taken seriously by players, coaches, and parents. Whenever there's an injury to the head, even if it doesn't seem to result in a concussion, the player should leave the field for a few minutes to get the injury assessed. Most professional players don't follow this advice, but all youth players should. Head injuries don't have to be tremendously traumatic to result in brain swelling and the symptoms which come with that condition. So letting players have a few minutes to see if they develop nausea, dizziness, incoherence, and/or blackouts means that treatment can begin quickly before major damage to the brain occurs. If a player has been knocked out, he or she should not continue to play at all that day, and the injury should be assessed by a physician.

Despite these traumas, soccer remains one of the safest sports around. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (www.aaos.org) there were 477,500 soccer injuries reported to doctors and hospitals last year in America most of which (325,000) were minor. In a 1997 study in Canada of youth players 0-19 years of age, researchers made some interesting discoveries about soccer injuries (http://www.injuryresearch.bc.ca). Of all injuries reported those requiring surgery made up 26 percent while concussions were only 1 percent. However they also discovered that girls were twice as likely to be injured as boys and that the lower extremities were affected 46 percent of the time. They joined the AAOS in making several suggestions for minimizing injury: year round fitness conditioning, warming up and cooling down sufficiently for practices and games, securing goal posts (players should never hang from a goal post), and steady increases in training and activity over the course of several weeks. A Swedish study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) stated that there was a 77 percent reduction in knee injuries in female players 13-19 after a soccer-specific exercise program intended to improve motion patterns to reduce stress on the knees (JAMA/Archives journals, news release, Jan. 11, 2010). Another study about pediatric sports injuries lists soccer injuries in practice at 2.3 per 1000 hours and in games at 14.8 per 1000 hours with the majority of injuries being contusions. They also concluded that head injuries from head to ball contact are rare and head injuries overall are low.

Soccer ranks fifth on the list of safest sports. So chances are your son or daughter will play year after year without any major injury. Nevertheless, soccer is a contact sport, and unexpected harsh contact between players or the ground can result in harm. Therefore, if your child complains about any pain especially in the joints, have him or her checked out before returning to practice or games. Even if it is just a sprain or strain, overuse can aggravate the injury and make the recuperation time longer. It can also lead to collateral injury because in protecting the primary injury the player puts unusual stress on other joints. None of us wants to see our kid rolling around on the field. We can hope it was for nothing more than the sake of dramatic effect. But if it is for real pain, we need to take the injury seriously, even if our child pops up and continues to play. US Youth Soccer has recommendations on their website which give guidelines both for prevention and treatment of common soccer injuries (www.usyouthsoccer.org/assets/1/1/SoccerInjuries.doc). With a bit of calm and good preventive conditioning, bumps on the field can result in nothing more than a bruised ego.
 

Irony isn't magnetic

Susan Boyd

Last weekend I saw the movie "The Tooth Fairy" starring Dwayne Johnson, formerly known as "The Rock." I wouldn't expect a kid's movie to drip with irony since irony isn't really a kid thing. But this film had both obvious and subtle irony, which is pretty sophisticated for a movie that throws Johnson into pink tights, a tutu, and wings within the first ten minutes. He plays a hockey defenseman on a farm team in Lansing, Mich., who had previously played in the NHL. He's known as the "Tooth Fairy" or "Tooth" for short, for his proclivity at knocking out opponents' teeth. So you catch on to the ironic set-up from the get go: a man known as the tooth fairy eventually becomes a real tooth fairy. Real is the operative word, since the character finds himself forced into tooth fairy duty because he dares to tell his girlfriend's daughter that the tooth fairy isn't real. Irony again – he says they aren't real, they turn out to be real, and he has to be one for two weeks.

The premise of the film is that we all give up too quickly on our dreams. The "Tooth" argues kids are better off if told the hard truths of life without any sugar coating (which ironically causes tooth decay). Early in the film he has an encounter with a young fan who declares, "I'm the third best scorer on my team." The father beams proudly. "I see," says Tooth, "And I bet you want to play in the NHL." "Oh yeah." "Well you see kid, you're how old, 10, and you are the third best scorer on your team of 10 year olds. And there are hundreds of 10-year-old teams where there are kids who are the number one scorer on their team. But somewhere there's a 10-year-old playing with 12-year-olds who's the best scorer on his team. And even he probably won't make it to the NHL. So find yourself another dream."

Based on the level of irony in the film, I expected a quick flash forward where we see the kid all grown up in a Penguins uniform and pushing a puck towards the goal. But the movie doesn't always settle for the easy resolution. Well, actually it does have a bunch of easy resolutions but just not that one. Which is good, because of course the "Tooth" was right in one aspect. No matter what the sport and no matter how good our child is, there's always someone out there who's better. All of us need the proper perspective. Ironically, and after seeing the film I'm much more in tune with the ironic, I think most kids recognize that what they dream isn't necessarily what they'll achieve. The kids I've met through years of youth sports have a keen eye as to where they fit in the ability levels of their peers. But the dream of success in sports keeps them motivated through the tough times and gives them a connection with their sports' heroes. 

Parents, on the other hand, can have their own dreams, which they expect their kids to own. Johnny may just want to play soccer with his friends and have some fun, but Dad is pushing him to consider college soccer. Dad cringes at mistakes on the field because he sees them as roadblocks to achieving the dream, so he becomes hypercritical of everything Johnny and his teammates do. He may even drag Johnny from club to club trying to find the team that wins and has the prestige worthy of his dream. In the meantime, the reason Johnny plays has been completely forgotten. Does Johnny idolize Ronaldinho or Beckam? Probably. Does he fanaticize about playing at Wembley. No doubt. But it's too early to start nursing that dream into reality. Johnny will switch role model loyalties a dozen times and have scores of dreams before settling on the dream he wants to pursue with hopes of accomplishing.

As parents our job is to support the dreams our kids have and let them own the experience. We can have dreams for our kids, but we need to be careful not to ask our kids to substitute our dreams for theirs. The US Youth Soccer Coaching Education Department developed a Vision document to address the issues of how kids develop athletically and what the fundamental reasons for playing youth sports should be. Most parents understand childhood development as it relates to things such as toilet training, reading, and tying shoes. They don't expect their six-year-old to understand fractions or drive a car. Yet when it comes to sports, parents can have no understanding of sport development in children. All it takes is some 10-year-old phenomenon from Brazil to make parents anxiously push their own kids to be as good. Here's some more irony: most parents have limited or no youth sports experience themselves. So how are they supposed to know what realistic standards are for kids? This Vision document lays out six stages of youth sports development. Competition doesn't even enter the picture until stage four. Up to then kids need to learn the skills necessary to compete, develop the aerobic and muscular growth to execute sophisticated skills, and mature emotionally so they can handle the pressures and expectations of competitive play. In other words, they need to learn to walk before they learn to run. Dreams at this age should be a way to support an interest in the sport not ends to be ruthlessly and systematically pursued.

It turns out that "Tooth" has a dream of his own – to return to the NHL. So, a few minutes of the film are devoted to montages of "Tooth" doing his own off-hours training to achieve his dream. What sets his dream apart from the young fan he encounters is that he understands both the pitfalls and the difficulties of making the dream come true. The young fan measures his own dream of playing in the NHL by the way it makes him feel. So long as he remains excited and has fun with the dream, then he'll keep it. The Vision document highlights that the number one reason both boys and girls play sports is for fun. Dreams of playing like their heroes simply add to the fun. Making those dreams become work defeats the purpose both of dreaming and playing youth sports. That's ironic. 
 

Knowing when to say when

Susan Boyd

I was sitting at my auto mechanic's shop, as I do at least once a month, and two hockey moms were there as well. They discussed this weekend's schedule and the upcoming weekend, which they had discovered contained no games, only practice. One mom said, "Thank goodness. I'm so worn out from games and washing uniforms. I'm not going to send Andy to practice. It'll be nice to have a break." The other mom nodded agreement. "I think we all need a break. We just got Brian's progress reports. He was doing so well this fall and now . . . we just have to regroup."

Been there. Done that. Just hearing them talk put the same knot in my stomach, the hyperventilation, the panic at keeping up with practice, travel, school work, shopping, work . . . I have to stop thinking about it or I'll end up grinding my teeth. Finding the right equilibrium in a family's life seems to be as likely as locating the Holy Grail. Coaches make demands that can't be ignored. Playing time depends on attendance at practices. Traveling games become more and more common as players develop and improve. The season starts at six weeks, grows to six months and insidiously settles in to year round in tandem with increased costs. At the same time school gets more and more difficult with intensified homework. And that's just the demands on the player. Drop in an additional child or two or three and suddenly you have a spider web of scheduling with all the stress and frustrations it causes. That affects everyone in the family.

While no parent wants to put down roadblocks to a child's progress, there are only 24 hours in a day, and despite the Beatle's allegation, there are only 7 days a week. So on occasion something has to give. Deciding when, where, and what creates even more stress. So how do you know when to say when?   

First everyone has to be considered. You may be totally burned out, but your child clamors for more. Your other children may express feeling ignored either directly or by acting out.  Your spouse may start making comments like, "Well, hello stranger."   Or you may be perfectly content to spend your time driving to practices, traveling to road games, and sleeping in cheap motels for tournaments, but no one else in the family finds that life alluring. You'll need to recognize what's working and what isn't. Then you'll need to prioritize what should come first to make things happier and more comfortable. 

Next, check things out with your child. You can tell if he or she is having fun or feeling miserable. However, sometimes a protest is a reaction to an immediate change. Every day, Robbie would say, "Do I have to go to practice? I hate soccer." I'd tell him he had to complete his commitment for the season, and he'd finally begrudgingly throw himself into the car sulking the entire way to the field. Once the evening's practice ended, I couldn't get him off the pitch.  He would hang out with the coach and a few other gung-ho players learning a new step or shooting on goal. So I quickly figured out that his burnout was acute not chronic and probably tied to the TV show he had to turn off before it was finished. Occasionally players need permission to choose something other than soccer. We always had the agreement, starting in middle school, that any significant social activities would take precedence over soccer if that's what they chose. We managed to balance out the birthday parties, school dances, and Brewers' games with the demands of soccer and school. The boys didn't miss much soccer, but it never became a drag because they knew soccer wasn't mandatory.

Since it's not always the player who's affected by a sport, listen to the rest of the family to find out what they want to do. I can't imagine that it's much fun to sit in the cold for several hours while your sibling plays a game. Make an arrangement with a non-soccer family for your other children to share play dates. They can be at a friend's house during the games and then have the friend over when you're not gone for a game. You don't need to attend every single game or tournament. Buddy up with families on the team and "child-share" for some of the events. I hated missing one of the boys' games, but with cell phones, video cameras, and vendors who sell game DVD's at tournaments, it really can be the next best thing to being there. In the meantime you've given the gift of your time and attention to another one of your children or your spouse, who can get pretty neglected if you have a strong athlete in the family.

It's clear that school should be the priority. Set a realistic minimum grade point your kids should maintain and make it clear that all activities are a privilege dependent upon maintaining that standard. If teachers suggest that your child is beginning to lag, make sure that soccer practice isn't the cause. Should things start to decline, don't be afraid to let the coach know that you're taking a break in order to address the issue and get things back on an even keel. Sports at the professional level may provide a great salary, but less than 1 percent of all youth players ever approach that status and even the best of the best can have a career ending injury. On the day she competed in the long program, figure skater Rachel Flatt had to complete a school report due the next day. Many of the Olympic athletes are still in high school and college and right in the middle of their spring semester. So they have to balance school and sport. Any youth player who hopes to play in college better be able to handle the pressures of practice and homework.

Finally, if soccer is putting your family in a financial bind, then you may need to take a short break. Check with the club to see if they offer any scholarships.  Opportunities exist for financial support through a number of agencies, so don't be shy to browse the web for applications. Unfortunately the more elite the level of sport the more expensive it becomes. So it's a terrible quandary for a family to see their son or daughter achieving success that they can't financially support. Yet nothing is worth the stress of being behind in the bills or making huge sacrifices that affect not just the player, but everyone in the family. Don't let guilt dictate a less than wise course for your family. Lots of options exist for playing that don't break the bank. And if you can't find them, then be content with the choice to take a break while you replenish the coffers.

Taking off a season or even just a few practices or a tournament may slow down a player's development, but it won't destroy it. Think of all the athletes who are forced to stop playing while an injury heals. When the player gets burned out, it won't matter how much skill he or she has. Playing unhappy isn't worth it. When a family burns out, it affects the mental and physical health of all the members. Don't be afraid to take a breather if that's what is needed. Everyone will ultimately benefit. And soccer will certainly be around, ready to take you back.
 

Sign on the dotted line

Susan Boyd

Most kids who play youth sports and many of their parents have the aspiration of getting recruited by a college and even turning pro. An NCAA athletic scholarship glimmers in our dreams as the ultimate validation of all those years scraping mud out of our floor mats and putting up with hours and hours of practice. Youth sports can rapidly switch from being something fun to do into a business. Which of us, the first time Jack or Jill dribbled the ball across the field, didn't at least fleetingly think ka-ching? 

So last month when a 13-year-old boy from Delaware, David Sills, made a verbal commitment with University of Southern California (USC) to play quarterback for the school beginning in 2015, parents everywhere perked up. Apparently David already stands six feet tall, has a tremendous throwing arm, and possesses a good eye for the field. It certainly got me thinking. It's too late for my kids, but I have a nine year old grandson who plays football, forced three fumbles this year and had two sacks. He's already the tallest player on his team and has played football for four years. Perhaps I should tout him as a prospect. I have game film if anyone is interested.

At first glance there's a lot wrong with this situation, but put in a larger context it is pretty normal outside of the U.S. First of all, a verbal commitment is only as good as the paper it's written on. Essentially neither party has to adhere to the commitment, and certainly USC will drop this kid faster than Warren Moon making one of his 161 fumbles if David falters in any way during the next five years. Plus David still has to meet USC's admission policies and he hasn't even started high school. So while he does all the normal growing up of a teenager - plays, gets into trouble, faces puberty, suffers injuries, and attempts to do well in school - he's also got this strange duality of promise to mess with his head. At thirteen he's won the lottery – only problem is that it doesn't pay out for sure. So while he is thrust into the spotlight and the pressure that creates for him, he really has no guarantees. Imagine the devastation to his ego if all the hype simply leads to the same outcome most youth sports participants face: cheering on the team from the bleachers.

On the flip side, around the world thousands of soccer players join professional organizations for development when they are David's age. They are commodities that are owned, sold, or traded by the clubs. They give up on a normal education and childhood in order to train daily for hours. While the American Academy of Pediatrics warns that children should participate in a wide variety of sports because "young athletes who specialize in just one sport may be denied the benefits of varied activity while facing additional demands from intense training and competition," you won't read a report like that in England, Argentina, or Ghana. Youth athletes clamor to be picked up by the clubs knowing full well that there are no assurances that they will become part of a professional team when they reach 18. 

Likewise the Winter Olympics showcase athletes who committed long before age 13 to their sport. In many countries athletes are scouted and recruited when they are still of single digit age, and then they are moved to a training facility and give up a normal childhood for the good of the sport. After years of sacrifice, separation from family, limited education, and hours and hours of training, they may see it culminate in a medal, but more likely they will end up in 26th place or even have great promise disappear completely in a blown triple axel. 

Nevertheless what parent hasn't secretly thought about his or her child standing on the podium, or throwing the winning touchdown pass in the Rose Bowl, or making the World Cup team? We all have to admit that given the opportunity for our children to achieve at that level, we would consider it. And naturally a youngster, inundated with the sparkling images of hero athletes, would want to grab the brass ring when offered a chance to participate in that experience. But for anyone considering such a move, one has to ask who really wants it – the child or the parents? The answer to that question makes all the difference. While the parent may finance and support the dream, the player is the one who has to get up at 5 a.m. for training, finish homework in the team bus, suffer aches and pains most of us won't feel until we're 80, and come back from injury time and time again. If it's not the player's dream, then there's no motivation to get through it all. 

I'm not appalled by David Sills' decision. If David played soccer in England this story wouldn't merit more than a single line in his hometown newspaper – "Local Lad Signs with Liverpool." So we need to put away our indignation that his parents would allow this, and look instead at how this media event will affect David going forward. Whether or not he eventually plays for USC isn't really the issue. Rather it's the pressure he'll feel to live up to the promise, and failing on a national stage if he doesn't. That's a heavy load for anyone, but even heavier for a 13 year old. Hopefully his parents will understand that he has a long journey ahead of him and help him navigate the ups and downs and possible curtailment of that journey. If they don't consider anything less than playing for USC a failure, if they accept that David may change his mind, if they can help him through a career-ending injury, and if they can put achieving the goal in proper perspective, then he'll probably come out of this just fine.

Before we parents get jealous that our child isn't being pursued in middle school we need to remember that elite athletics come with a very heavy price. Psychologically, physically, and socially athletes end up sacrificing most of what we would call a normal childhood with absolutely no assurance of succeeding. That road isn't for the faint of heart or most kids. While we revere athletic prowess to the point of sainthood, we should remember that someone has to build the stadiums they play in, run the cameras that record their achievements, design their uniforms, engineer their transportation, heal their injuries, and write the articles making them heroes or goats. Those careers don't get the same adulation, but they come with a steady pay check, pride in a job well done, and free time to enjoy life. We all just want our children to be happy, and happiness comes in many forms.