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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". 

 

Age of reckoning

Susan Boyd

Last week a Texas high school basketball player was busted for being 22 years old.  He was outed at a tournament where his former Florida high school coaches recognized him.  Ramifications of this discovery comprise his Texas team forfeiting all their games including the state championship and a renewed discussion on how we can insure that youth sports are played by youth.  Every couple of years a sports prodigy pops who challenges our ideas of what a youth player should be able to accomplish.  That challenge ultimately leads to endless forums questioning the player's age.  Once an overage player is discovered, everyone suffers from guilt by association.

Most of us remember the dust-up over Freddy Adu.  The soccer player from Ghana was just 14 years old when he was selected in the 2004 MLS draft by DC United.  Because he had immigrated to the United States at age 8 many sports writers questioned his actual birth date which is listed as June 2, 1989, making him just a week younger than my oldest son.  So the swirling arguments were not only fascinating but also relevant.  During many of Bryce's games we parents on the sidelines would comment on the "Adu situation."  Most of it was fueled by jealousy, but part of it was fueled by incredulity.  How could anyone be that good that young?  Issues which never came up in normal conversation were suddenly on the lips of most soccer parents:  bone length studies, DNA analysis, cranial evaluation.  In the end Freddy played in the MLS and on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, was picked up by overseas clubs, and then essentially faded into the broad spectrum of American soccer players abroad.  His brightly burning star cooled to the same temperature as any of his peers because once the age issue was no longer significant the only aspect of his career that mattered was his talent which has dipped in comparison recently.  He didn't even make the U.S. roster for the World Cup team.  

Scandals involving Little League players show up regularly because the age limits for the World Series teams are extremely tight.  In 2001 a pitching phenomenon led his team to a third place finish in the World Series only to have that finish wiped from the record books when it was revealed that he was overage by just a few months.  Danny Altimonte, now 23 years old, had baseball success in high school helping his team win the state championship, and is working towards developing a coaching career.  His unfortunate miss of the age deadline really shouldn't eclipse his ability to pitch at 90 miles an hour while waiting for his voice to change.  But for the purposes of rules and an even playing field, those few months became the story.  Controversy over players both on foreign teams and foreign players on U.S. teams has plagued the Little League.  Inaccurate birth certificates, easily doctored records, and missing documentation all contribute to serious questions about player eligibility.  Of course, if a player is average, no one bothers with questions about age or eligibility.

When Robbie was in preschool his best friend was a boy two months his junior and over a foot taller.  While Robbie was in the lower fifth percentile on the growth chart, his friend was off the scale.  When they played sports together no one believed that this boy was actually the younger of the two.  Many people seriously questioned his age and therefore called into question his athletic ability as being only an offshoot of his "true" age.  It certainly made things awkward at soccer games where opposing team coaches and parents would loudly protest his participation.  The poor kid, who absolutely was the age he said he was, felt dishonest and unworthy.  His parents grew weary of defending their six year old from ugly verbal attacks.  He eventually switched to football, which was better suited for his frame and once he got to middle school he had several teammates bigger than he was, so no one challenged his age any longer.

Robbie faced a different age challenge because he was born on Dec. 27, making him young for his US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program team.  He would often moan about not being born four days later so he could play on the next year up.  And he was right.  His very same skills would be more impressive against players six months younger than he was instead of six months older than he was.  But those were the rules.  The disparity in age got less and less significant as he grew older because the physical development of the boys evened out, and Robbie got more "looks" once he reached age 14.  On the other hand his teammate, Josh Lambo, was just a month older than Robbie and he joined FC Dallas when he was 17.  So birthdates aren't the only factor in a player's success or controversy.

The downside of players being overage exists more for the team than for the player.  Although the 22-year-old basketball player is under arrest for identity theft and other crimes related to his unfortunate choice, the real losers are his teammates who now will forfeit that all-important high school memory of a state championship.  The Little League pitcher has obviously gone on to forge his future in baseball, but his teammates will forever have the bitter taste of a significant accomplishment taken away.  Somewhere in this huge world of 6 billion people there are kids who develop early, possess talent beyond their years, and find their accomplishments called into question.  Right now the buzz in the soccer world is about a 9-year-old Brazilian and an 8-year-old Dutch boy who apparently have skills that beg the issue if they could really be that good and that young.  In 10 years they will either have risen to epic status or become just another good soccer player.  The real reckoning will depend on several factors:  talent, opportunity, drive, and development.  Amazingly those are the same factors that affect any young player, sensation or not.  While our children may not be awarded a million dollar Nike contract before getting their driver's licenses, they will be awarded the fun and memories of playing the sport they love and the chance to make something great out of their experience.  We'll even joke that once they hit the big time we'll get all those thousands of dollars invested in their play returned with interest.  Just one more thing, if your kids get there before mine do, toss a few crumbs my way.
 

Soccer is the key

Susan Boyd

Last week I spent Friday evening with a group of women friends for a "Happy Hour" of drinks and conversation. I met the woman hosting when our sons all went to the same preschool. Of the other women invited I knew one through American Field Service foreign exchanges, another because her son played baseball with Robbie one summer when they were 10, another because we attended a Passover Seder together, and one became a new acquaintance that evening. Yet all of us shared one thing in common – soccer.

I have begun to think that soccer is the new social networking media. While Facebook and Twitter have faster connection times, soccer has that steady, solid base that takes families through years of connection. Although none of our children ever played soccer together, we women all knew instantly the same stories, adventures, concerns, joys, and frustrations. We all had endured coaches who were mean or played favorites, we had stayed in flea bag hotels or paid way too much for a team dinner, we had washed uniforms in a tiny sink, pulled Band-Aids from our purses for an emergency blister, eaten junk food to the point that gourmet meant a burger with a tomato on it, driven thousands of miles, sat in the rain, and loved every minute of it. I had a band of sisters rising from the shared experiences of soccer.

I know that other sports could be as bonding, but for some reason, sitting in a group, when people talk about youth sports and find the common ground for discussion it seems to gravitate towards soccer. I'd like to think that's because first and foremost soccer is consistently and for the long term played equally by boys and girls, which you won't find with football, occasionally find with baseball (softball), and do find with basketball but with physical limitations, which cut down the pool of players as they grow older. Soccer can be played by anyone at any age in any physical shape or size. There are over-30, over-50, women, co-ed, youth, rec, select, and Major League teams. It's not surprising that when my husband talks about his patients he invariably mentions that they play soccer or have kids who play soccer. Even his nurse used to play college soccer.

Networking has become such an essential part of any business model, and soccer has one of the best networks around. I can't go long without bumping into something connected to youth soccer. The other night in a deli a father and son walked in and the son had soccer gear on. After dinner we went to the bookstore and three other soccer families were there. On the way home six of the cars on the two mile trip had soccer club stickers in the window. If I want to open a conversation with a stranger, I'll often start with some soccer question. I am rarely met with a blank, confused stare. If you want to instantly be part of group, soccer is your key.

Therefore I don't understand why businesses don't capitalize on that network more often. For example, most soccer tournaments are huge, covering acres of area with thousands of participants, spectators, and coaches. If businesses and soccer tournament organizers joined forces they could create a mutually beneficial arrangement. People attending a tournament come from all walks of life and have a huge variety of interests. It's a perfect place to test various demographics and gather pertinent data during those down times between games when everyone is looking for something to fill the gaps. I could see booths that offer cosmetics, electronics, shoes, restaurant samples, airlines, and other products people use regularly, not just cleats and head bands. Show soccer moms a booth demonstrating relaxation products and you'll have a line three fields long. Give soccer players a chance to test a new cereal, I can guarantee they'll use their electronic messaging to spread their approval to friends and family. The tentacles of the soccer community run far and wide. There aren't many consumer groups that have grown as dramatically as the players registered with US Youth Soccer Association growing from 100,000 in 1974 to more than 3 million today. Each of those 3 million players has parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, teachers, and neighbors. I can image if Apple demonstrated their iPad at soccer tournaments the word would spread as quickly as a 30 second spot during "Lost." I'd think that would be a marketer's dream and the key to some significant sales.
 
 

Oh, what big teeth you have

Susan Boyd

Lately I've been seeing a number of clubs advertising spring skill camps for U-9 and U-10 players. These camps have no fees attached, are open to any child in the correct age range, and don't require a reservation. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what's going on – these are camouflaged tryouts for kids too young for any select program. Clubs know that if they can snag potential players when they are still learning cursive writing they may be able to snag and retain the next Landon Donovan or Abby Wambach. Anxious for little Molly or Mikey to be discovered, parents have no problem bringing their children to these camps. It's either a win-win or win-lose situation with the clubs always winning.

Competition among clubs has become fiercer as more national developmental options open up. Clubs need talent to qualify for the top levels of competition and training and that talent can be gathered two ways. First clubs can plunder other clubs for their developed players, which is a common enough practice that strict rules have been laid down in US Youth Soccer State Associations. Every spring cries of "recruiting" bring cases before State Association mediation, and occasionally, clubs get sanctioned for being too aggressive in their hunt for talent. Second, clubs can find raw talent and develop that talent for themselves, hoping that no one poaches their finds after years of nurturing them. 

The positive for young players comes from the opportunities that these skill clinics, aka tryouts, bring. If a player shows some penchant for the sport, then the likelihood is that the parents will be approached following the clinic to be told what potential Molly has and how this is the club that can mold that potential. Parents and kids alike will be stroked with lots of compliments, promises, and pie in the sky dreams. The reality is that Molly will be one of dozens of kids approached; however, her development may or may not pan out as the club expects, and Molly may find herself at age 14 persona non grata. That's hard to take when just four or five years earlier Molly was being told she'd be a star, play in college, and make the club proud. Now she's cast off in favor of some other "star" recruited to take Molly's place.

Clubs are a business. There's no two ways around it. They succeed when they win because that draws parents to the club through reputation and prestige. Most parents don't care how the club gets a winning record, they only care that the club is perceived as the best. Coaches don't keep their jobs if they don't win, so they are always on the look-out for talent. Since there are strict guidelines on when they can approach players from another team, they often leave the job of recruiting to the parents of players or the players. Once after a State Championship game, in front of all the parents of Robbie's team, the manager of the opposing team, who had beaten us, came up to me and loudly announced that Robbie was too good to be on this, "rag tag collection of misfits" so he should consider coming to the other team's tryouts in June. Not only was I embarrassed both for Robbie and for the parents sitting there, but I had no idea how to respond. I sputtered out something like "Thanks, but everyone's great. Their talents complement one another." However, the damage had already been done. The team's parents had their faces rubbed in not only their loss but in Robbie being elevated over their hardworking and skilled children by this rogue parent. I could barely contain my anger.

Parents need to be cautious about seeking the top club in the area for the sake of prestige. Robbie played for years for the "second place" club in our part of Wisconsin because his coach was a superb developer of soccer talent. The coach was Hispanic with deep ties to the Hispanic community, so he brought in raw talent from a basically untapped source and created a team that did appear on the surface "rag tag" only because the kids were all different races, sizes, and ages. But those kids could play soccer. They didn't always win because many of the players were younger than the registered level of the team so they weren't always strong enough to beat bigger, more powerful teams, but they possessed skills beyond other players at their age level. Robbie knows that he owes his strong soccer abilities to that coach and to that team. Eventually he made the decision to move to another team because of competition and exposure to college recruiters, but he loved his original team.

I encourage parents to shop around for two things when their players are young and not to be enticed by that bright, shiny object of status. First look for a coach that you believe will be able to truly teach your child. Many coaches substitute yelling louder for actual education. Coaches who patiently explain tactics and skills and don't expect perfection in a few minutes of practice are better suited for young players. Second look for a good mix of kids that share your child's interests and personality. Winning is wonderful – there's no better high than winning a game – but winning at the cost of fun and education isn't really worth it. Remember that getting into that winning club and on that winning team means your child has to pull his or her weight. If not, your player won't remain on the team. That kind of pressure and rejection can be detrimental to a child's self-image. I have listened to scores of parents, many of them on the verge of tears, when their child didn't make the cut, especially after being on a team for a number of years. That moment when they don't get the phone call can be one of the most devastating in their lives. If your child isn't driven, then a driven team isn't for him or her.

If your child continues to improve and shows a keen passion for soccer, then by all means check out more competitive programs. Kids who want to play beyond high school should consider eventually playing on teams that have more national exposure so they can be seen by college coaches. But that can wait until later. If your child grew up in soccer with a great teacher-coach then he or she will have been well-developed even if the team doesn't have a strong winning record. Likewise they should consider joining the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program (US Youth Soccer ODP) in their state to augment their development. Here they can test their skills and abilities against the top players. If they are successful in US Youth Soccer ODP, they will likely be recruited by the top soccer clubs since many of the coaches from those clubs are coaches in the program.

Be wary of coaches courting your child at age eight or nine. They may well be a wolf looking to devour Red Riding Hood. Take their flattery with a grain of salt. Come watch some practices over the course of the next couple weeks to see if the coaches have a Mr. Hyde personality when the clinics are over or continue to be patient and nurturing with these young players. Talk to other parents, particularly parents of older players, to get their opinion of the club once players hit the select stage. And most importantly listen to your child. If he or she is unhappy, then prestige and winning are empty gifts. Soccer should never cease to be fun.
 

Hindsight is the best predictor

Susan Boyd

Predicting the future could be a gift or could be a curse. I'm a bit of a control freak, so I'm glad I can't predict the future because it would drive me crazy that I couldn't control what was going to happen. Then again, why couldn't I? I mean if I knew you were going to be hit by a bus crossing the street on Friday at 10:03 a.m., why wouldn't I send you an email or give you a call so you could avoid your fate? But then I wouldn't really be predicting the future because that particular future didn't happen. So I guess I'd be more like a manipulator of the future, but I couldn't do anything with the future if I couldn't predict it first. And if two future catastrophes intersected, how would I decide who to warn first? This whole future predicting and future manipulating might be too big a responsibility for me, especially since I tend to procrastinate. You can tell I think about this a lot. 

As parents we spend much of our time trying to predict our children's future. If they are going to be brilliant students then we need to prepare for college. If they are going to want to become a dancer or a pianist we have to spring for lessons. If they show signs of athleticism we need to decide which sport would be best and then pay for the training. For all those predictions, we probably only get about 2 percent right and the rest of life just intrudes on us unexpectantly.   Despite those odds we go to great lengths to get the future right. We listen to the advice of teachers, coaches, talk show hosts, and news pundits. We quiz our friends, maybe even our own parents, and we read a lot of "how to" books. But how are we ever going to know for sure?

Our oldest daughter pursued dance with a passion. When she was 13 she brought us four applications for performing arts high schools and asked for the application fees. She auditioned all over the country and selected a school in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois where she danced well enough to be looked at by three major ballet companies. And then in the spring of her first year she announced that she didn't want to dance any longer. Who would have predicted that? We went from dance being the left, right and center of her life to dance being an asterisk. She did dance team in high school and she still occasionally takes classes mostly for fitness, but that's about it. Any careful planning we did as parents to make sure there was money set aside for dance lessons, dance academy, and audition trips dissolved into the usual life of a teenager's parent – teaching her to drive a car, going to watch her dance team performances, buying a prom dress, and attending her graduation. 

Certainly the future can be disrupted by cataclysmic events, but mercifully most of us just have the usual mundane trek to the frontiers of life. No matter what we expect to happen, life has a way of throwing plenty of curve balls. Preparing for what might happen isn't the same thing as engineering what will happen. Yet I see plenty of parents concentrating on the latter. We all know, and we may well be, one of those parents always talking to the coach, advocating for his/her child, pushing the kid at every opportunity, and talking in the future tense too often: you will play Division 1 soccer; you will make three goals . . . as if the future were something negotiable. Our kids don't usually think in terms of the future except in an immediate and selfish way, hoping that Mike will ask her to the prom or planning to go to a concert. That's why admonishments about the effect certain behaviors will have on their futures just sail over their heads. How can anyone possibly think about what college to attend or what career to choose when there are more pressing issues such as watching "Lost" or going to the same party as the cool kids. So while we are carefully crafting our child's future, he or she is concentrating on what to wear Friday night. 

Kids naturally don't want to disappoint their parents. So when they see Dad or Mom so strenuously working an angle to make something happen for the future, like making the traveling team or starring in the school play, they may go along for the journey even though it's not where they want to go. We have the experience of regrets in our life which informs our vision of what we want for our kids. But that regret may have taught us the lesson of working harder or not being short-sighted. It's hard to stand by and watch our children take a path that can't lead to what we believe is the ideal future for them. But how do we really know? Robbie absolutely refused to take AP classes in high school even though he was recommended for several. His reasoning was that he wanted to insure two things: that he kept his grades up and that he didn't feel under too much pressure. I thought he was cutting off his chances of getting into the college he wanted and that he was selling himself short. I wanted to spare him the regret of missing a great opportunity because he closed a door too early. Amazingly, he understood what it meant but he said he could cope with not getting everything he wanted because that would be less stress than fighting against the top students in his class for grades.

We have children because we believe in the future and all the good it can provide. But we also have to accept that the future is a wide-open territory with lots of options that will be good. We can highlight some of the options, and we can push our kids towards those options, but we also need to give them the freedom to mold their own future free of our restrictions and manipulation.  Certainly we can provide opportunity, advice, and gentle nudges, but we shouldn't try to craft the future for them. Kids who fight for themselves usually end up stronger and more capable. Kids, whose parents engineer their successes for them, may end up being the starting forward on a team, but ultimately don't possess the temperament and skills to fight for that spot in college or for that big promotion at work. They grew dependent upon Mom and Dad to make things happen and now can only complain that nothing good ever happens anymore. Robbie is presently playing soccer at his top choice for college. His decision not to take AP classes didn't hurt him, although it might have. That's the thing about the future. We can't predict it; we can only analyze it in hindsight.