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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". 

 

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. 
 

I Swear

Susan Boyd

The other day my grandsons were whispering in the kitchen, which all parents know is an immediate red flag. "I didn't know you knew that word!" followed by an eruption of giggles. There they were, holding my iPhone and staring at the screen. This couldn't be good. In place of their names, someone had typed a profanity in the "high score" section of six different Disney games on my iPhone. Needless to say, it was four letters long, began with the sixth letter of the alphabet, and had absolutely no relation to anyone's name. I spent about twenty hours playing "Tigger Bounce," "Cars Pinball" and four other games in order to earn 10 high scores in each and eliminate the offensive entry. I could feel Walt turning over in his grave.
           
How does it happen that those two boys, ages five and nine at the time, not only know such a word, but feel comfortable enough using it? They have grown up in a protected environment. Their parents don't swear and carefully monitor their TV, movie, and internet interactions. They send them to Catholic schools. But this insidious blight still managed to stain my phone. Naturally many of their school mates have older siblings who love showing off their language bravado which trickles down and gets translated as "cool".  It's also hard to avoid that table of college kids next to you at the restaurant who despite the expense of their education apparently don't have any idea that English is a language rich in adjectives other than the one they use endlessly. 

I'm sure that explains a great deal of it, but I've also seen a troubling acceptance of swearing in youth sports.  Fans, coaches, referees, and players forget that the language they use doesn't just exist in a bubble surrounding their field. It travels to ears that shouldn't be assaulted. A few years ago I was at a planning commission meeting to support our soccer club's request to extend its operating hours, and I listened to neighbors complaining about coaches' language drifting across the fields to assail their ears as they sat outside with their families for a barbeque. I've parked at a practice only to exit my car to a barrage of expletives directed at players barely twelve years old standing just a few steps away from players ten and under. Everyone has a story about the explosion of language during a coach and referee confrontation. And we can't forget the fans who often forget themselves and use inappropriate language.

We had an incident at State Cup where our goal keeper, mad at himself for some bad play, shouted in frustration a profanity. The referee ran up and showed him the yellow at which point he exploded. The referee gave him a few seconds to vent during which time players, coaches and parents were shouting to the keeper to "Shut the ____ up!" and other pithy admonishments. If the swear words had been paper plates thrown on the field we would have required a bull dozer to clean up. Finally everyone calmed down, the referee warned him that another outburst would lead to a second yellow, and the teams returned to play. The next punt by our keeper went out of bounds, he screamed at the top of his lungs the very word that would insure he would be kicked out, and the crowd again went wild with their vulgarities. The players were thirteen.   As the keeper trudged off the field to the sidelines the coach shouted, "If you ever ____ do that again, I'll ____ kick you off the team," showing once again why the adage "do as I say" was invented.

As an English professor, I really hate hearing this descent into crudity. I know it has always been around, and I also know that at the right moment, in the right context, it can be used to great effect. But generally swearing only proves how limited we are in our imaginations when it comes to voicing an opinion. Dipping into the well of profanity at the first spike of anger means that we've already gone to the extreme and now have no further verbal punctuation to underscore our point. So we tend to use the same word over and over just getting louder and louder in hopes it will intensify the worth of our stance with vociferous repetition. We really should demand more of ourselves and also demand more of those to whom we entrust our children. We'd never tolerate a teacher talking to students the way a number of coaches talk to our players. Nor would we tolerate parents or pupils using rough language. Why do we accept it on the pitch?

Experienced professional coaches have played in adult leagues and coached adult players meaning they are used to adult language. We all tend to turn a deaf ear to their saltier expletives because we feel grateful to have such strong coaching for our children. But we shouldn't. There's a level of decorum and civility that must exist in youth sports for as long as possible. If coaches get away with swearing during practice then it's no wonder their players get yellow cards for swearing at the referees during a game. If referees sprinkle their remarks to a coach with a few bombs, then how can they turn around and issue those yellow cards to the players for language? Swearing has become the knee-jerk reaction to nearly any situation, even positive ones. We express ourselves without any restriction because we don't think about what we're saying or the company in which we're saying it. We've become immune to how sharp, insulting, and ugly swearing can be.

Hopefully we can all agree to police our own language and refuse to tolerate bad language from those to whom we entrust our children. We should be capable enough to control our verbal outbursts. While some people may not see a problem with swearing, dismissing it as "that's the way it is," most parents don't want their kids introduced to that language so young and then viewing it as normal and acceptable discourse. And as parents, coaches, and referees we have a responsibility to respect that expectation. It's really a pretty simple thing to stop swearing if we're willing to be accountable for what comes out of our mouths. We just need to swear to do it!
 

Money for nothing

Susan Boyd

Imagine receiving an e-mail that announces you can "Run your own soccer business!" Suddenly all those years of buying new cleats on a Monday and having them be too small by a Friday or learning that the World Cup ball you had imported from Germany has been kicked into the Menomonee River canal and is now drifting to Lake Michigan or being told that all soccer fees would be covered by the club meant a few soccer fees would be covered by the club now would no longer stress you out because you could be running a soccer business generating an income rather than sucking out a life's savings. Like all get-rich-quick schemes, this one has a few hiccups, but it was certainly enticing enough for me to not only read the e-mail clear through, but to actually click on a few links to learn more.

Here's the deal. A national soccer organization sponsors a toddler soccer training program, and my job, if I decided to seize the opportunity, would be to sell the program to existing establishments in my district to incorporate into their curricula. It could be schools, churches, day care centers, or soccer clubs. The various groups provide the facilities, while I provide the coaches, and the kids register and pay through the national sponsor. All of this sounds wonderful except for the money part. The kids pay $10 per hour of training and there's a coach to player ratio of 1:10. This means, if my math is right, that per hour I am collecting a maximum of $100. Out of that a coach has to be paid, marketing costs must be deducted, I'm certain that there are insurance fees, and the national organization will collect a percentage. If your profit is even $50, you'll need a minimum of 10 full classes every week of the year to scrape by at $24,000 a year.  You'll also need to be aggressive since you are competing with soccer clubs each having their own Mighty Mites, Micro Soccer, Kiddie Kixx, and Goal Gang toddler programs, so finding an open market might be difficult. A long time ago clubs figured out that attracting kids in the two to five-year-old range meant keeping them for their recreational soccer programs and possibly for their select programs, so they'll guard those recruits tenaciously.

The truth is that youth soccer isn't a money-making venture in the United States. Despite what you may believe after writing that check for spring soccer fees, no one in youth soccer is getting rich. I worked as a club administrator for four years and was paid for three of those years with enough to qualify me for food stamps if that was my only income. Then I moved up to the state association where I made the same salary only now I had to pay for a commute.   In effect what I earned being an administrator I paid back to a club as a soccer mom. I'm all for soccer being promoted at all ages, so I like the idea of a national organization trying to market a program for toddlers. They make no bones that their opportunity is more about being a salesperson than being a soccer person. A real go-getter in a virgin market might actually be able to sell the program to enough groups to nail down a living for awhile. But eventually you'll have to find something else.

I wish I could figure out a way to make money off of soccer. I certainly have invested enough time, attention, emotion, and money to hope for some kind of payoff. But I'm no different than any other soccer parent out there struggling to pay for uniforms, equipment, travel, fees, more travel, and all the "just because" monetary requests that come our way. I wrote a blog a few years back where I tallied all I had spent on soccer. I figured out that if I had put that money in treasury bonds I would have been able to easily pay for an Ivy League education for my sons. So we have to accept that the money we spend on soccer we spend because of the intangibles such as family togetherness, good health, fun, pride, and staying out of trouble (although that one doesn't always pan out). I am most definitely not a salesperson, so this income producer would never work out for me, but hopefully there are some bright, aggressive young people out there who can recognize an emerging market and make hay for a few years.   As for me, I'll just have to keep looking for that pot at the end of the rainbow which won't be filled with gold soccer balls.