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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". 

 

It's just not fair

Susan Boyd

Yesterday I picked up my 2006 VW Jetta GLI from my mechanic for the third time in six weeks. That's just the latest in a series of mechanic visits for this car which we've owned two years and for around 36,000 miles. Problems include(d) a burned out clutch (after 6000 miles), the evaporation system, the cam shaft, the fuel pump, the ignition coils, constant and unresolved electrical issues, a key that no longer locks or opens the doors remotely, dashboard illumination working only fleetingly, the right front parking light that has to be replaced every three months, and no AM radio in the car (meaning no Brewer's games). Naturally according to VW none of this is under warranty except the latest mechanical failure on the manual fuel pump – which reared its ugly head 206 miles after the warranty expired. Long discussions with VW customer care yielded nothing more than apologies and the offer of a $750 credit for me to buy or lease a new VW! That's like saying "I know the last batch of pizza sent you all to the hospital, but we'd like to offer you a $5 coupon to get more." After over $5000 spent in repairs in two years, we're ready to sell – anyone interested? I can offer no assurances and obviously no warranty, but I will knock off $750 from the sale price. That's got to be as good as buying it directly from VW.

While I can stomp my foot, hold my breath, and mutter "It's just not fair" the fact is I've run into The Rules. Rules exist for many reasons – to insure safety, to protect one party's interest, to provide a framework for conducting business and social responsibilities, to mitigate lawsuits, and to give referees something to do and fans something to shout about – but rules can't create fairness. This fact doesn't stop people from expecting fairness especially when it comes to youth sports. As one with lots of experience with rules, I can vouch for their inherent unfairness in many cases. For example, at the Under-14 US Youth Soccer State Championship Bryce's team was in the finals. Bryce had played a great game, stopping every potential goal. Unfortunately the opposing GK was equally adept. Near the end of the game, a blasting shot from the opponents deflected off the crossbar, sailed straight up into the air, and while everyone was doing pirouettes in the box trying to locate the ball, it descended onto the forearm of Bryce's teammate. The ref declared a hand ball in the box and awarded the team a PK. Despite Bryce going the right direction and actually getting his fingers on the ball, it crossed the line and proved to be the winning goal. Was that fair? No way. Did it follow the rules? Absolutely since calling a hand ball is at the discretion of the referee.

That kind of agony can be found at tryouts where dozens of rules won't help when your son or daughter is cut from the team of friends he or she has been on for three years. How often have we asked either ourselves or out loud "What does that kid have that my kid doesn't have?" Or "Why should that kid from outside of our town get to be on the team and my kid who has been loyal gets uninvited?" Anyone who actually reads a club's rules about tryouts will read a rule patterned along these lines: The coaches have the final say about who makes the team and who doesn't. That decision is made at the coaches' discretion and is based on which of the players coaches feel will make the best fit and provide the best chance at team success. That rule overrides loyalty, friendship, and potential hurt feelings. The ephemeral quality known as talent absolutely trumps every bit of quantifiable fairness. 

The "what ifs" of life guarantee that no rule is fair. When I'm not writing blogs I'm a college writing teacher. Every semester I design a syllabus which sets forth the guidelines for issues such as grades, absences, assignment deadlines, and extra credit. I can guarantee that my first hour of class is spent listening to the "what ifs" of the students because they have located a loophole in my "rules" which doesn't account for whatever event they feel challenges the fairness of the class. I think I could put down as my guidelines "everyone will get an A, you can miss all the class you want, assignments are due whenever, and extra credit points will be awarded for breathing" and I would still have hands raised, "what if I do all the work – can't I get a higher grade?" or "what if I die?" or "what if I have someone else do my work?"  We've all stood at a team meeting and either witnessed or been a part of the "what i" discussion. "What if my son has an ACT test during a scheduled game?" "What if I can't find white socks with red stripes? Can I just get white socks?" "What if my daughter can't come to Tuesday practices?"   "What if we can't afford to go to a tournament in Florida?" "What if piano lessons don't end in time to get to practice right at 5:30 p.m.?" Even Hammurabi couldn't write a set of rules to fairly cover all those circumstances.

My favorite story about fairness occurred with my husband and our youngest son when Bruce was the coach of Robbie's 10 year old baseball team. There were no umpires, so the coaches served as such, and on this particular occasion Bruce was the home plate ump. Robbie hit a long ball which was bobbled several times in the outfield. Robbie, who can lay claim to great speed, rounded the bases quickly, salivating over the possibility of an inside the park home run. As he neared home plate, the opposing team finally scooped up the ball and threw it into home. Robbie crossed the plate, the catcher caught the ball, tagged Robbie, and Bruce shouted, "Out!" Robbie was clearly safe. Both teams knew he was safe. The parents knew he was safe. There are satellite photos showing he was safe. But Bruce, not wanting to show favoritism, saw him out, so out he was. The rules in baseball state that the umpire is always right even if he is your dad. There is nothing like the stone cold silence of a 10 year old on a car ride home continuing through dinner into breakfast the next morning to make you question the very nature of fairness.

When we run into the immoveable force of The Rules, we quickly lose our innocence. We learn that rules can't insure fairness because they favor one point of view, and in many cases that's not ours. All we can do is take a deep breath and hope that the next time the scales will tip in our favor. It's also a lesson we need to teach our children. Things won't always go their way and no amount of rules can prevent disappointments. In the end, each unfair circumstance eventually fades in the face of successes which will probably elicit "It's just not fair" from someone else.  
 

One strike and you're out

Susan Boyd

Despite a century long history of limited professional soccer in America, the game remains a fledgling in the world of U.S. sports.   The latest incarnation, Major League Soccer, was founded in 1993 with the first competitions in 1996. Over the past five years the league has begun a rigorous expansion program growing from ten teams to eighteen by 2011. Following in the European tradition 10 of the teams have "shirt front" sponsorship with a floor of $500,000. In addition the league has gotten larger TV contracts, a sure sign that TV executives recognize the growing interest in the sport. Like any struggling franchise, the teams are still trying to boost their bottom line. This past year only two clubs saw their financial statements in the black: Toronto (a team from a supportive soccer community) and Seattle (who benefits from a partnership with the Seahawks and shameless promotion from minority owner Drew Carey). Overall, even for the successful clubs, revenues lag far behind those of other professional sports. This translates to very unglamorous salaries. The average MLS player's annual earnings sit at $80,000 to $90,000, but when I looked at the salary chart for all players in 2009, I saw a majority of players sitting below the $40,000 mark. David Beckham's $5 million salary definitely skewed the numbers along with a few other foreign players and some American stars who also earn seven figures. The league and soccer in general dodged a bullet last week when the players and owners came to an agreement and a players' strike was averted.

So what does a backroom deal have to do with youth soccer? Quite a bit actually. The U.S. has struggled to get a profitable, sustainable professional league going. The National American Soccer League (NASL) existed from 1968 to 1984 with its indoor soccer branch lasting another decade. US Youth Soccer was founded in 1974 in a World Cup year and the NASL expanded bringing soccer further into the media spotlight. The high point for the NASL came with the addition of Pele to the New York Cosmos' roster in 1976. One of his bicycle kick goals featured prominently in the opening credits of ABC's Wide World of Sports giving every American sports fan an exquisite albeit brief taste of soccer. It also brought young fans into the sport giving them a recognizable role model. Unfortunately over the course of the next 10 years, American professional soccer took a nosedive and so too did interest in the sport. Rescue came in the form of the 1994 World Cup being awarded to the United States. Everyone had a reason to be proud of America and proud of American soccer players whose names were now known by a greater percentage of the population. When the MLS began its first competitive season in 1996 it rode the coattails of that World Cup recognition. In 1996 the number of registered US Youth Soccer players had risen from 100,000 to over a million.

The popularity of a sport depends greatly upon the name recognition of the players and the accessibility of competition for the general public. Kids want to emulate their sports' heroes and to dream about one day following in their footsteps. Their interest in playing a sport grows from their interest in who plays the sport. Had the MLS players struck, it would have been a terrible blow for the growing U.S. interest in our own home teams. Coming in a World Cup year, it would have further ramifications by curtailing some of the crescendo wave rolling into June and carrying fans into World Cup fever. Obviously the diehard fans wouldn't be affected, but those novice fans upon which the growth of professional soccer in America depends would have had their interest disrupted. We finally have a generation of soccer players who have grown up not only knowing American professional soccer, but having the international experience through television channels like Fox Soccer Channel and Gol TV. Interrupting their burgeoning interest in American teams and American players could result in years of having to re-establish that interest. All but one of the teams, Real Salt Lake, exist within an hour of other major sports teams, especially baseball whose season parallels that of the MLS. A family looking for a summer sports experience may turn their discretionary income to baseball if soccer didn't exist due to a strike. 

Another serious factor affecting youth soccer is the close relationship between the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and MLS teams. While the Academy doesn't include but a handful of the more than 3 million youth players in America, it is presently one of two conduits to the highest levels of soccer in America. The possibility of playing at the top level keeps youth players motivated and hungry. The Academy attempts to follow the European model of having youth teams for each of the MLS teams where the players are supported by the professional team with facilities, access to coaches, financial support, and name recognition. With the MLS players on strike, the affect on the Academy could be serious. While the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program functions outside of the professional system, it could also suffer residual effects from fan defection and a depletion of interest.

I have great sympathy for the MLS players. The league can't attract the best players because they can go to Europe where salaries in even the fourth tier of competition can exceed what they earn in the MLS. A semi-professional player in the Conference National, the fifth tier and primarily amateur league, makes around $800 a week which just about equals what the meat and potato MLS players make. For many American players the choice to sit on the bench in Europe or play in the United States comes down to what they can make over the course of a contract. So, American players have a legitimate beef with the league about pay and about their ability to move to other more lucrative contracts without league approval. But now is not the time for a strike. The league has at least another five years to go before it can claim the fan loyalty and revenues strong enough to weather a season disruption.   This interdependent circle of fans and games needs to be nurtured a while longer, particularly as it relates to youth fans. If the league hopes to be as successful in the longterm as the NFL, the NBA, or the MLB, it has to bring more and more youth fans into the circle. Those who play the game now, follow the MLS, and hold American soccer players as their heroes are those who will become the season ticket holders of the future and the parents who sign their kids up for soccer perpetuating a larger fan base.

The MLS and youth soccer need one another for the sport to grow in America. While I loved attending Columbus Crew games for under $80 for my family when my daughter lived there and driving the two hours to Chicago to see the Fire, my interest would wane should there have been a strike. Who wants to put that much effort into going to games when you can't count on the games occurring? That means my kids and my grandkids wouldn't be going to games as well. With so many sports competing for their interest and soccer still considered not as "cool" as the other sports, it's hard to convince kids to play if there isn't a professional component that lends the game some validity in their eyes. Someday I foresee a time I'll complain about the ridiculously inflated MLS player salaries and the high cost of tickets, but that's the price we'll pay for soccer earning its legitimate permanent place in the professional sport ranks. I just hope one or both my sons will be playing for the MLS so I can get in for free! 
 

Who's the child?

Susan Boyd

We all have moments we wish we could do over. I once spilled grape juice all over myself during a Joe Biden fundraiser. I was four seats away from the senator and was there with my grandmother who nearly disowned me. This happened in 1979, and I still relive the embarrassment. Those types of moments are not only easy to recall, but easy to recognize as blunders. Unfortunately we also have moments that we should know fall outside the boundaries of acceptable social behavior, yet we seem to be totally blind to the fact. Just attend any youth soccer game and you'll understand what I mean.

At one youth tournament, I was on the sidelines of a U6 game. At that age winners and losers don't factor into the experience. Every team plays three games and every player gets a participation trophy. The fields are so small that they can't even accommodate all the spectators along the sidelines. We had to sit two rows deep. The idea is for kids to get the experience of a tournament without the expectations and pressures of a tournament. In other words, this is for fun. Most of the kids are still clueless about the rules and strategies of the game. They understand they need to kick the ball into a net. Which net is usually unimportant. However, the outcome of this particular game became very important to some parents. It began with arguments about referee calls – which were usually about balls going out of bounds – and escalated to screaming at the kids whenever they scored in the wrong goal. Finally one parent had had enough of her child's coach not correcting the kids and she strode across the field in the middle of the game to give her expert advice to the parent volunteer. When the referee met her on the field to turn her back, the mother began poking the ref in the chest with her finger. The poor referee, who was about twelve, didn't want to be disrespectful to a mother, so he kept asking her to stop, at which point she began to curse at him and poke him harder. Mercifully another parent, perhaps her husband, came onto the field and attempted to persuade her to return to the spectator's side of the field. She responded by slapping him. In the end, it became a police matter, the kids witnessed an extremely unpleasant encounter, and one child in particular had to take home the memory of his mother's behavior as his participation trophy.

That's one of the most ridiculous and extreme situations I have witnessed, but it does highlight the problem of overzealous parents. We watch sports at home where we can freely yell at referees, coaches, and players without fear of someone climbing over the bleachers to punch our lights out. Then we go to a live professional sporting event and get caught up in the frenzy of screaming and criticizing. So it is little wonder that parents can forget where they are when they go to their child's game. These aren't professionals used to the slings and arrows of fan criticism. These are impressionable youngsters who really don't understand what all the fuss is about.

When Robbie played on a coed team we had a game in early spring that even challenged the concept of Refrigerator Soccer. The day was freezing, damp, and windy. Naturally we bundled our kids up in warm-up suits, gloves, hats, parkas, and if they had been invented yet we would have added Snuggies. The referee showed up, a nervous and earnest girl who was refereeing her first game. She had obviously read and memorized the rule book. She made the kids take off their pants and jackets because their uniforms weren't visible. When we asked if we could put their uniforms on outside of the outerwear, she answered no. So we parents were already not predisposed to liking this referee. She further aggravated our good natures by constantly calling back throw-ins for being illegally performed. Her whistle blew so many times I began to think she was a frustrated musician. We all tried to be patient and understanding, but with the cold and the constant calls we parents lost our collective calm and began to say things like "Oh come on" and "You've got to be kidding" To which the young referee responded by threatening to kick some of us parents out. That was the final straw and several parents began to have even choicer and bawdier comments for the young lady. As the exchanges began, one young player streaked by the parents, put her finger to her lips and said, "Settle down!" If she could handle the cold, the calls, the frustrations, then it really wasn't our place to fight her non-existent battle. It was a humbling and significant lesson for us not so grown-ups.

Over the course of years of youth soccer I have seen fights between parents of opposing teams, coaches and parents mix it up, parents and coaches attack referees verbally and physically, coaches attack players verbally and, regrettably, physically. I have passed by parents standing over their children and berating them for a poorly played game, even threatening them with the loss of soccer if they didn't start playing better. I have heard cursing and name-calling which if our kids used even 1 percent of that filth they would be grounded for a week. In many cases these outbursts occurred at games for kids under age 12. Even worse I know I'm not alone in these observations. I'd like to think that we parents could be better role models and gentler spirits, particularly when our kids aren't yet old enough to drive. Being supportive of our children doesn't mean embarrassing them in the process. We don't have to channel Bobby Knight because ultimately at these ages no game outcome is more important than having fun and building positive self-images. I understand giving up criticism is harder than giving up chocolate for me. But we can work towards the goal of focusing on what's going well rather than on what's going wrong. I'm not sure what our kids really think of us when we act out, but I know what I think of my kids when they act out. It's got to be pretty disheartening for them to see us incapable of the adult behavior implied in our admonishments to "grow up."
 

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.