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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'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.
 

Irony isn't magnetic

Susan Boyd

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowing when to say when

Susan Boyd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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