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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". 

 

Who Needs It

Susan Boyd

I don't suppose most of us would pair up Sesame Street and The Rolling Stones in the same thought. But I did. This week is the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street. Our oldest daughter was born just weeks after Sesame Street began, so you could say we grew up there together. In 1981 they added a brief character called Mick Swagger and the Cobblestones who sang their hit, "I Can't Get No Co-Operation." While I enjoyed the rendition, I had always thought there was a more appropriate Stones tune that reflected the moral lessons of growing up.  And when the 40th anniversary was celebrated on the Today Show, I thought about it again.  The chorus spoke perfectly to what I thought then and what I still think – "No you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find that you get what you need."

All too often we confuse want and need especially when it comes to our children. We wish they can have everything, and we do our best to make it happen which often leads to overspending or unreal expectations. Saying "no" to requests becomes so infrequent that our children can't comprehend that "no" exists. You've all been there in the store and witnessed a child (your child) having a complete meltdown at the checkout counter because she didn't get what she wanted.  We have advertisers and peer pressure making things worse. When the boys turned sixteen, most of their friends got new cars that were fancier than mine. Of course, I guess anything is fancier than a car with 250,000 miles and a permanent check engine light. But the message was clear – what the boys wanted fell far outside of what they, even what I, needed.

For example we get told that what our kids wear can affect how they play. While that fancy pair of bright green or red cleats create flash on the pitch, they can't provide any assurance of skill. Most cleats are a case of want over need, otherwise why would manufacturers design and build new, outrageous options each year. At $200 a pair, cleats are an extravagance that can't be supported by outcome, although both our boys were adapt at making that argument. Lighter cleats, wider cleats, kangaroo leather cleats, side-tie, no tie, gel, and ad nausem became the rallying cry for needing a new pair every few months. If cleats provided as utilitarian a purpose as young players argue, then why aren't the boots all just black and functional? I think we all know the answer to that one. Function in a spanking new format is the name of the promotion game. You can't get a product out the door of a store before the new banner touting a faster, brighter, cleaner, streamlined version unfurls. Ask either of my boys how often I said, "the color doesn't matter," and they'll tell you how often they rolled their eyes. The same argument holds true for training devices, outerwear, bags, goalkeeper jerseys, and balls. "No" became very easy after I ordered with costs and duty a World Cup ball directly from Germany only to have it "disappear" less than four hours after arriving. 

When it comes to being in youth sports, parents try their best to manipulate outcomes often with disastrous results. Parents become bullies to coaches and club administrators in order to get their kids on the "right" team, which often doesn't mean the team which is right for their child's abilities and interests, but the team that is perceived as the standout team. When I was a club administrator and later a US Youth Soccer Association Olympic Development Program assistant I fielded a huge share of these threats and ultimatums. But parents couldn't accept "no" on behalf of their kids. In the end they got a reputation as being difficult and burned bridges. And need flew out the window with want.

Right now my oldest son is looking to transfer colleges. We have been paying a huge premium for him to attend the school he's at so he could play soccer there. But the cow has run dry. Without a major bump in scholarship money, we can't afford to continue sending him there. That's a huge "no" and hard to swallow. But he's been very understanding. I credit that understanding to having heard "no" other times in his life when he achingly hoped he'd hear "yes." What he needs is a good education; what he wants is a good education while he plays soccer. It may not be possible to give him what he wants. We hope it can still happen. We're working on that goal, but in life wanting it will never fully justify getting it. 

Sesame Street taught my kids and now my grandkids their numbers, the alphabet, and life lessons. But it also reminded me as a parent that an hour a day with some Muppets won't make a huge impact without the remaining twenty-three hours with me reinforcing the message. I know I was indulgent with my kids. I am definitely indulgent with my grandkids, but that's what grandparents were put on earth to do! But we all have to temper our desire to give our children everything they want because that's a bottomless pit of yearning. Soon it will be Hanukkah and Christmas, and we are already being inundated with the not so subtle message that love equals big gifts. I imagine Mick Jagger rarely denied himself or his children anything, but he still managed to get it right in a song. What we should be trying to do is to find what we need. What we want will always be around to tempt us, so there's no trouble finding that.
 

At Least There's Indoor Plumbing

Susan Boyd

Outdoor soccer is winding down in most of the country.  Even if the fields weren't turning into Elysian mud bowls and even if snow didn't obscure the lines, the dwindling daylight with the advent of standard time dictates that outdoor soccer isn't practical. Some facilities boast lights which makes them very special indeed, but in my soccer travels I've found that most of the lighted fields are in areas where the weather permits outdoor soccer year round and many overlook artificial turf.

So what's a player to do until spring and the return of daylight savings time?  The answer that immediately springs to mind – play indoor soccer.  But that's not always possible.  While some communities have indoor soccer parks, many indoor soccer practices and games occur in school gyms on less than ideal surfaces.  Obviously soccer clubs who want to both retain players and maintain training over the winter months end up reserving as much school and church gym time as they can.  In Milwaukee it's often a race to see who can get their applications into the recreation departments early enough.  That used to be my job – making sure our club procured sufficient indoor practice time.  I would stand outside the district office early on the first morning applications were accepted.  I even brought coffee for the staff as they arrived.  I'm no idiot – a happy government employee is a helpful government employee.  Every year we got our full complement of gym time minus the music concerts, election days, book fairs, and carnivals.  I wasn't just up against other soccer clubs; I was up against basketball, gymnastics, volleyball, and after-school club.  I was once greeted in the grocery with the phrase:  You're the lady who steals all the gym time.  There's a reason my phone number is unlisted!

Despite taking risks that might drive my neighbors to march on my home much like the villagers did against Frankenstein's monster, I was not beloved in my soccer club either.  No, I was chastised by parents and coaches for reserving such inadequate facilities at inconvenient times.  The gyms rented for $7 an hour while the indoor soccer park rented for $180 an hour/field.  No coach was willing to accept a smaller wage and no parent was willing to pay a larger club fee, yet they felt that they should still be practicing indoors on a "real" field; that is to say a field one-third the size of a standard soccer field with walls abutting all four sides, artificial turf laid on a concrete slab, and an odor that on a good day could be described as burying your face in your child's soccer socks after a game in the rain.  Because the indoor park sponsored dozens of leagues, reservation times were usually Saturday and Sunday mornings before 8 a.m. and after 11 p.m.  Not exactly what the displeased wanted to hear.

There is another option for families, especially for families with young players – do another sport over winter.  This probably sounds treasonous coming from a blogger on a youth soccer site, but truthfully even soccer coaches agree that taking a break from soccer in the early years can be both healthy and beneficial.  Certainly once a player graduates to a select team he or she may need to practice year round to continue the development of individual and team skills.  But for players under age 12 taking a break from the sport gives them the opportunity to try out other sports, decide if soccer is the sport they want to singularly pursue, and open up to a new group of friends.  Additionally there's the argument that repetitive muscle training isn't healthy and leads to injury.  I tend to sidestep the medical issues and look more significantly at the social side of the argument.  Life is too short to be so focused so young.  There are winter sports that keep kids outdoors and give them a world of great experiences.  Few of our kids will end up being the next Michael Essien or Abby Wambach, but they will all grow up to be adults who need to be happy, healthy, and fulfilled.

Our sons chose to stick to soccer.  They love the sport.  When they aren't playing, they are often talking about the sport, reading about it, or watching it.  Yet even in the midst of all that passion, they also enjoyed basketball, baseball, snowboarding, running, golf, volleyball, and gymnastics.  They aren't proficient in any of these, but enjoyed doing them and continue to play many of them for fun.  They have friends who golf who have no interest in soccer and friends who snowboard who couldn't tell you what PK stands for.  Taking a two or three month break from soccer but not from healthy activity can't be bad for our children especially when the soccer they are missing is some reconfiguration of the sport to fit the constraints of an odd facility and its availability. 

Hopefully your soccer club or sports organization allows you to take winter off by providing a fee structure split among the seasons.  They should definitely do this until select soccer.  If they don't, it never hurts to ask if you can be relieved of the winter assessment if your son or daughter wants to try something else over the winter.  Or you can follow one grandkid's route.  He did gymnastics in the fall and now wants to do soccer indoors for the winter.  Go figure!
 
 

Glory without Victory

Susan Boyd

This past weekend my grandson's undefeated team met the other undefeated team in his league. One team had to lose and that team was my grandson's. Although they scored right away, that would be it for them. Their opponents scored several times, including a score in the waning seconds of the game. It wasn't just a defeat; it was a rout. When you're nine, lessons on the value of defeat don't really penetrate and bring life altering enlightenment. On the other hand, the agony of defeat has a half-life equal to the time it takes to walk from the field over to the snack cooler. As Coach Darrell Royal said, "I learned this about coaching: You don't have to explain victory and you can't explain defeat." It's true whether you're a kid or a multi-million dollar pro. But the role of coach changes over the years. Cutthroat can work with adults, but is far too heavy-handed for youth. Kids are still developing a passion for the game which isn't served by a coach being overly passionate for success.

Being a youth coach ranks as one of the most difficult jobs around. You need to deal with short attention spans, behavior problems, delicate egos, tantrums, and unrealistic expectations – and that's just the parents! Coaches need to be teachers, counselors, arbitrators, prophets, handlers, healers, schedulers, and cheerleaders. Most youth coaches are also parents of players on the team, so they have to step in and out of their coach and parent roles. It used to be that youth coaches were just thrown into the soup without preparation. Some might have extensive playing experience or some may have had soccer in 8th grade gym. So it's no wonder that youth coaching can be uneven. However U.S. Youth Soccer Association and United States Soccer Federation have taken steps to make youth coaching more professional and standard. They require any youth coach in their programs to attend a course and receive a coaching certificate. The course is brief, but does help put every coach at an equal starting point. 

Victories and defeats can end up defining the strength of a coach. Not because a coach oversees more victories than defeats, but because the coach has developed a way to be a strong role model and leader during either event. The old adage about being humble in victory and gracious in defeat has to be taught by example. Too many coaches want to be Vince Lombardi with his attitude that "if you can accept losing, you can't win." Losses result in long diatribes about failure and weakness and incompetence. Wins end up being an excuse to insult the opposing team and reward arrogance. Wise youth coaches opt for a positive appraisal without the agonizing dissection to ferret out the weaknesses leading to defeat.

There's definitely something to be said for having a winning outlook. But the truth is that even the Miami Dolphins eventually lost a game. Winning over and over can indicate that a team isn't being challenged. And most of us face challenges in our lives with varying degrees of success. We need to learn how to deal with the less successful outcomes – dare I say defeats – with character and perseverance, developing the ability to improve.   Malcolm Forbes, who could be the poster boy for success, said that "victory is sweetest when you've known defeat." So coaches need to infuse the playing experience with a joy that transcends the outcome. It's not about winning or losing at this age. It's about developing an interest in and a passion for the sport.

The glory of victory and the humiliation of defeat don't need to be taught. Over the years all of us innately learn that the former is far more desirable than the latter. But because kids are both resilient and short of memory, we can't feed them our anxieties and expectations for game outcomes. Keaton's team lost, but he didn't lose his love for playing. In fact he got to play a different position at the end of the game, which got him very excited about being on offense rather than defense. He's fired up for the next game, which is exactly the way it should all play out. His league has the last two games set up to be between teams with equal or near equal records. So it's very possible he'll meet this team again and maybe even lose again. But I applaud his coaches for making the game and the love of the game far more important than marks in a win or loss column. If he stays with it, he'll have plenty of time to get the speech about "defeat is not an option." Done right, it may even inspire him to give the extra bit needed to carve out a victory. But for now, it's enough to be able to get a granola bar and a juice box win or lose.
 

The Law

Susan Boyd

The expression "possession is nine tenths of the law" certainly applies to soccer. I saw a great example last night at a high school play-off game. The first ranked team in the bracket was playing the 16th ranked team. At half-time the score was 8-0.  When the score reached 16 to 0, the winning team stopped trying to score and simply possessed the ball for the last 12 minutes. They gained a great lesson in how to pass accurately, how to turn the ball away from the opponent, how to regain the ball when lost, and how to use the field to their advantage, but at what cost?

The opposing team had the unenviable task of selecting what aspect of the game demoralized them less: the 16 unanswered goals or the 12 minutes they were the victims of keep away. This huge disparity between teams in training and skill usually only happens in high school playoffs. Club tournament directors rate the applicants in order to create brackets containing some parity in skill levels. State leagues have divisions based on past records to insure teams are within a narrow band of proficiency at the sport. College playoffs have teams who earned their slots by winning conference tournaments or having exemplary records. But high school playoffs include every team in the state in that division regardless of experience or ability. So last night the previous year's state champion played a team where many of the members don't play soccer outside of high school. 
           
When the difference between two teams is so large it seems humiliating to even conduct the game, but under the state rules this is the way it has to happen. There have to be winners and there have to be losers, but, for certain teams, there's really no way that they will advance. While there were some upsets in the first games of the tournament run, these were between teams much more closely ranked. The particular game I saw had the greatest goal differential, but in looking at today's brackets I saw plenty of 11-0, 9-0 and 13-1 games. One high school team simply forfeited. It couldn't get a team together under those circumstances. Last year the teams from last night's game met, and at halftime with the score 10-0, the game was called, and they all went home. Not putting the score up on the board isn't the answer. It doesn't work for U-8 and U-10 teams, and it works even less for high school teams. Everyone can count.  Requiring that teams take all starters off the field once the goal differential hits a certain point gets into the messy situation of telling a coach how to run his or her team. So for several teams the first game of the state tournament competition becomes an exercise in self-control. The higher ranked team has to play restrained for at least a portion of the game and the lower ranked team has to resist the urge to walk off the field and say "forget it." 

On the upside the higher ranked team can usually afford to allow players who sat on the bench or subbed in for only a few minutes over the season to finally play some extended soccer. It was great when players scored their first goals during that game, giving families a chance to cheer for their sons. And it offers those players who will be stepping up next season to a greater team role the chance to gain experience in the state tournament. But there is little advantage for the lower ranked team. 
           
Giving all teams the opportunity to participate in the tournament run seems necessary. Yet it all comes with unpleasant consequences. As one spectator said to me during the game, "I wonder what that team gets out of playing this game." It really got me thinking about how in a victory obsessed culture we can give kids in no-win situations a reason to participate. 
Competitiveness aside, other factors fit into the big picture when it comes to high school sports. Outmatched teams need to define several achievable objectives to consider the game a success. Parents should reinforce that playing a game with dignity even in defeat shows character. For the winning teams good sportsmanship has to be at the center of these lopsided contests. Fans need to be supportive of all good play, players need to have confidence without being smug, and coaches have to be willing to accept a comfortable, rather than an overwhelming, lead and switch to less aggressive play. With possession comes responsibility. It's up to everyone not to abuse their strengths or surrender to their weaknesses.