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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on every Monday. A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom." 
Opinions expressed on the US Youth Soccer Blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of US Youth Soccer.


It's All Politics

Susan Boyd

Debt ceiling debates, taxes, entitlement programs, and campaign promises can't hold a candle to the politics parents experience in youth sports. From tryouts to playing time, to position on the team, parents witness the power of politics. We all have our war stories – the time our son didn't make the all-star team, the year our daughter sat on the bench, the season our son's team got demoted a level. We know how painful it is to experience the sting of a political action against our child or our child's team. I hear it on the sidelines all the time, "I'm okay with Ben not making the 'A' team because his skills aren't good enough, but I'm not okay with him not making the team because of politics."
Where does this insidious cloud arise? How do we get from having fun learning a new sport, to cut-throat decisions that impact our families with frustration and sadness? More importantly, how do we eliminate as much of the politics as possible? We need to look at three factors: coaches, club policies, and league decisions. There are solutions out there to improve the situation, but we first have to understand what creates them.
Youth sports could not exist without volunteer coaches. They provide the opportunity for thousands of youngsters to participate in and learn about a wide variety of sports with minimal initial expense. Most youth players can be part of a team for an entire season for $100 to $200 and sometimes even less. Many of these volunteer coaches are former players, but just as many can be helpful parents with little experience in the sport but lots of enthusiasm. Both types bring much needed support, management, and dedication to the players. Volunteer coaches are the bedrock upon which youth sports are built. In the early years of most youth sports, and in particular in youth soccer, coaches don't make decisions about who makes a team, playing time, and assigned position. Teams are usually randomly formed or built from a group of friends who register together. Playing time is mandated to be equal for all players, and in most leagues coaches are directed to rotate players through all of the possible positions. So the elements that breed politics aren't there. But trouble brews once some of these restrictions are either lifted or loosened for coaches. Now, volunteer coaches have power to make decisions that will affect kids' futures. That power translates to families as political.

Volunteer coaches often coach their own children, so conflicts of interest crop up continually further aggravating the impression of political bias. Even more frustrating can be that these same coaches hold positions of power in the clubs or league organizations that govern their behavior. Therefore these coaches can wield a great deal of power when it comes to our children. No matter how much expertise a coach may have, it's hard to overcome an impression of bias in parents' eyes when they feel it's directed towards their children. Just as each of us wants the best for our children and their future, coaches have the same desires. But they have more latitude to make things happen. So, no matter what their motivation, parents will read political intentions in their decisions.
Once kids make the move from playing recreational sports to playing select sports, issues of politics will arise. Now decisions that outsiders make affect our children directly. Parents who enjoyed a friendly and significant relationship with their club may find themselves and their kids pushed out. They feel betrayed by a club that they supported through many volunteer efforts, and sometimes, ironically, as volunteer coaches. But clubs feel the need to nurture winning teams rather than relationships because clubs need money to survive. Players won't flock to losing clubs, especially high paying players, so clubs need a winning reputation to draw members in. Their decisions can seem ruthless for a family that has been with a club for years, part of that club family, and comfortable in their routine. There is definitely a loss of innocence, and parents see politics behind their pain.
Even leagues can make political decisions that negatively impact our children. Some leagues will firmly limit the number of teams that can play in each division so that teams that have the same records end up in different levels. Since the factors to separate those teams go beyond win-loss records and competitors, they may seem fickle and therefore politically motivated. When leagues have board members whose children play on teams that appear to receive favored treatment, accusations of politics are sure to follow. When all-star leagues have coaches from teams that field more than the average number of players, then parents will cry foul, and whispers of politics will flood the sidelines. 
As youth players grow and improve, the distance between strong players and capable players will widen. As the rules and regulations on playing time and playing position relax, some players will benefit and some will suffer. Therefore, it's not always politics, but certain behaviors by authorities that can lend a political air to even the most innocent decision. One way to avoid personal involvement in important team decisions would be to hire professional coaches after a certain age level. But this diminishes the powerful and significant role volunteer coaches can play in a sport. Even volunteer coaches can be "professional" in terms of teaching the sport, behaving with integrity, and promoting good sportsmanship. Coaches should be licensed which will assure a minimum level of knowledge and skill. U.S. Youth Soccer Association offers a National Youth License and most state associations require that coaches be licensed through U.S. Youth Soccer, U.S. Soccer Federation, and the National Soccer Coaches Association. Additionally clubs may limit volunteer coaches from coaching their own children especially once rules that demand equality in play and position are relaxed.
Parents need to be aware that despite lectures about loyalty and willing acceptance of hours of volunteer work, clubs will drop a player if another one they perceive as a better player comes along. Clubs have restrictions on them for recruiting. So, you can watch and be diligent that your club is not violating those restrictions since that can negatively impact your child. Sometimes a player is recruited whose family has the means to pay the club dues and fees, but they get those waived by club in return for agreeing to play. That can really sting, especially if your family is struggling to pay the dues and if the "scholarship" player hops out of a late-model Cadillac when he comes to practice. There is little you can do to protect yourself from these situations except to understand that they happen and you have little recourse when they do. Additionally, when playing against clubs that play fast and loose with the rules, your team may be the victim. For example most youth teams up to age 12 are not to be "select" teams with handpicked players. But clubs looking to develop stronger teams at the older ages will begin that development early with younger players. Parents can quickly see the handwriting on the wall and gravitate towards those clubs with the hopes of giving their kids a jump-start on the process. It's a situation brewing with political overtones. Loopholes in the rules and passive enforcement allow these situations to continue, not to mention that many soccer authorities will argue; creating ""super"" teams allows the best development of top players. 
The best solution to keep politics at a minimum is to insure that those who have the power to make decisions don't have any conflicts of interest. Parents should not be deciding if their child, a relative's child, a child's friend, or a neighbor's child are worthy of being on a team. Parents and clubs should insist upon a clean process. So, even if a parent is coaching his or her child, another coach should be brought in to help with the try out process. If a parent serves on a board for a club or a league, that parent has to stay out of any decision that directly impacts his or her child, club, relative, neighbor or friend. As a parent you need to insist on this type of integrity in the try out process and in the coaching process. If you are sure that playing time issues and positions are decided in a political way, then you should probably look for another team for your child for the next season.
We will never wipe out the cloud of politics in youth sports. We get to enjoy a few years free of that stain and then we have to face the reality of how sports get promoted in America. But we can try to keep the innocence and joy of the sport alive for as long as possible. Don't make your opinions about political behavior known to your children. Talk to them about what they could improve upon to get on that all-important team, increase their playing time, or win the coveted position. After all, politics or not, each child must learn not to rely on sour grapes and the scapegoat of politics if they want to improve and get ahead in youth sports, school, jobs, or life. Use the opportunity to teach those life lessons and leave the politics to the politicians.

Raising Funds

Susan Boyd

Every non-profit has been feeling the pinch in this economy. Trying to just break even gets trickier, so groups depend heavily on fundraisers to supplement fees. This past summer I have had neighborhood kids at my door selling something for their team, church, and/or school. I've bought frozen cookie dough, geraniums, smell-n-write pencils, wrapping paper, chocolates, cookies, and seeds, none of which I need. But I'll buy because my own children were once out there trying to raise money for their soccer team, and I was grateful for neighbors, friends, and family who bought what they didn't need. 
Most fund raisers require the kids to go door to door, collect orders, return weeks later to deliver the orders, and collect the money. The items are usually overpriced with a huge amount of the money collected going to the manufacturer. But I've also found some good fundraisers meaning they fulfill three important criteria. First, whatever is being traded for money gives something of useful value or fun to the purchaser. Second, the non-profit gets 90 – 100% from what they sell. Third, the fundraising requires minimal/easy effort on the part of the non-profit. I really like the type of product that can be distributed immediately upon payment. Even better, I like the type of fundraiser that doesn't require any product. So here are my suggestions in no particular order.
1.      Concession Stand – Professional and college sports venues offer non-profit organizations the opportunity to man the concession stands taking home a percentage of the stand's proceeds. You have to get on their lists and usually only adults can work since many of the stands serve alcohol. But if your club does a great job and shows up consistently with responsible workers then the club can count on several regular working dates.
-        Pros – minimal investment by your organization other than gathering workers and putting in a strong effort when on duty.
-        Cons – could be difficult to get enough dates and usually only adults can work.
2.     Gift Wrapping – During the holidays many malls, department stores, bookstores, and boutiques offer free gift wrapping for their patrons. They contract with non-profit organizations to provide the actual gift wrapping and allow them to solicit donations for the service.
-        Pros – no investment by your organizations other than perhaps printing flyers to encourage people to shop and wrap when you're on duty.
-        Cons – seasonal work and you have to arrange your dates well in advance.
3.      Penny (coin) collection – Select a day for your volunteers to set up tables outside of various locations such as groceries, big box stores, and malls. Have large containers available for people to drop in pennies. Anyone making a paper bill donation could receive some inexpensive item such as a lollipop, penny candy, or sticker. Advertise that your organization will be collecting pennies ahead of time so that hopefully people who have penny stashes at home will bring them to drop off.
-        Pros – minimal cost for the organization for flyers and penny candy.
-        Cons – need some good coordination with stores so that you can have permission for multiple sites. This is a hit or miss fundraising event. If you advertise the week before and have flyers up at the participating stores you could collect hundreds of dollars.
4.     Discount card – This you coordinate with a service which provides the cards. They will canvas local businesses, get them to agree to discounts and freebies, and print off the cards. They will usually give a discount to your organization for upfront payment for the cards or they will accept payment later at a higher rate. Overall the cost is usually reasonable, and most aggressive organizations can sell enough cards to keep the cost in the 10% of profit range. 
-        Pros – you can give your contributors their card immediately and profits can be fairly high. A strong seller since the product is like a credit card, it fits in people's wallets, and the discounts last for a year.
-        Cons – there is a cost risk and you do have to do door-to-door sales.
5.      50/50 Raffle – This is an easy to sell fundraiser that you can do at tournaments, games, or along with another fundraiser such as a car wash or bake sale. All you need is a roll or rolls of raffle tickets which you can buy at most office supply stores. Sell the tickets for a set price such as one for 50 cents, three for a dollar, or an arm's length for five dollars. Your organization keeps 50% of the money and awards 50% to the raffle winner. Occasionally the winner will donate his or her winnings back to your organization.
-        Pros – a quick, easy way to make some money.
-        Cons – not a huge fundraiser, but if you do it several times during a season could be a big winner for your club.
6.      Windshield Wash – Here's an easy variation on the car wash. Arrange with a fast food restaurant in your area to set up a windshield wash service during a busy time at the restaurant drive-through line. Have a group of volunteers stand at the beginning of the drive-through and offer to wash the customer's windshields for free, giving them the option of making a donation. Then mark the cars that want their windshields washed with a post-a-note and have several crews working to wash them after they order their food and before they pay for their food. You can have two washers per vehicle, one on each side, working quickly to wet down, squeegee, and dry off the windshields. Crews should practice before coming on line so they can work efficiently and not slow down the drive through.  
-        Pros – less difficult and time-consuming than a full car wash, minimal expense, and you don't have to coax anyone off the street to agree to your service.
-        Cons – could end up with everyone accepting the service and not making a donation.
7.      Dollar Dive – Set up a table outside of businesses which have constant foot traffic. For a dollar donation, people can "dive" into a fish bowl and select a ticket or ping-pong ball whose number relates directly to prizes. Most prizes will be penny candy, but some will be money ($1, $5, $10, and grand prize $20), and perhaps things related to your club (t-shirts, scarves, etc.). Check for any local ordinances which prevent you from offering money as a prize. In a variation you could have a box filled with small prizes that you can buy at a party supply store and let kids "dive" in the box to get a prize.
-        Pros – minimal cost for the tickets and prizes. You could even ask people who can't work the tables to donate $10 to purchases the prizes. You can have dozens of tables set up at multiple locations on a single day, improving your fundraising possibility.
-        Cons – need to coordinate with the businesses to set up your tables outside of their doors and you will need to do some preparation work to create your prize number sheet. Need a number of volunteers.
Each of these fundraising ideas can be combined with one another or with a tournament you are holding to add extra money. Other than the gift-wrapping, these fundraising opportunities can be done any time of the year in just about any circumstance. With some creativity, you can probably tweak these ideas to make them work even better for your group. Most of these fundraisers will produce in the hundreds of dollars, and since they don't rely on Uncle Charlie needing more magazines, you can do them multiple times with the same clientele. In fact, some of these might actually get people excited about donating and looking forward to being separated from their money, since these possibilities are fun and painless.

Those Who Can't Do Teach

Susan Boyd

I'd forgotten how much fun it is to watch a soccer game through the eyes of a novice viewer. Over the years, most of us have had this experience as we indoctrinate grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, friends and any other person willing to share a weekend game or two with us. Soccer takes on a whole new meaning when explaining "off side" or "penalty kick" to the uninitiated. The boys have played long enough that we've managed to introduce nearly everyone we know and love to the game. Most of our family and friends knew that eventually they would have to participate in a sideline visit no matter how much their preconceived notions about soccer warned them away. Eventually, as the boys traveled more, the soccer came to their town so that they could no longer politely refuse to come to watch. I admit I behaved something like an itinerant preacher for soccer, praising the sport with a zeal they couldn't refuse. I managed a few converts over the years, but I didn't win them all. Nevertheless, I loved the thrill of giving someone the informational tools to begin to enjoy the sport.
So imagine my delight a few weeks ago when the bus driver who brought our team to Huntsville, Ala. for a tournament sat down next to me and said, "This is my first soccer game." Now I had double the reason to enjoy the game: I could watch my sons play while opening the door to the world of soccer for my new student. I quickly established our starting point. She had children, but they had never played. She truly had never seen a soccer game, not even snippets of the World Cup. She had heard of Pele, but no one else. She knew players couldn't use their hands except for the goal keeper, and she knew they tried to score in the opponent's net. She didn't know how many players were on the field, nothing about their positions or responsibilities (except for the goal keeper), and she didn't know how long a game ran. This was going to be fun!
I need to stop for a moment in my story to point out two very significant benefits of teaching someone about the game. First, you need to really understand the rules and the nuances of soccer in order to explain them to someone else. I thank youth soccer for providing me with a strong base upon which to build my knowledge. Although I had lived in Europe and had been initially introduced to soccer in my teens, I didn't really care much about rules until my own children started playing. I was blind to the intricacies of soccer until I had the chance to slowly develop an understanding by watching youth games. Just as my kids grew up learning soccer, so did I. Second, you get the opportunity to invest yourself in the game beyond hassling the referees or pushing your child. Taking the time to see the game through the eyes of a neophyte affords you the chance to step back from deep involvement in the game and re-experience your own first introduction to soccer.
With an apprentice sitting next to me anxious to absorb all my nuggets of wisdom, the ball skittered over the goal line and the keeper set up for a goal kick. "Why's he doing that?" So I got to explain the two actions that can happen depending on which team sends it over the end line. She caught on pretty quick to the difference between a goal kick and a corner kick. Throw-ins were a cinch. Fouls were trickier because, well because they are occasionally subjective and therefore obviously wrong, so explaining them required some restraint not to editorialize. I left that to my fellow fans. I did get to explain about cards when she couldn't understand why some fouls were just fouls and some were carded. Again, I did my best to explain why one offense was treated more egregiously than others. Some were easier, especially when they were called against our opponents. When a player received a red card, she wondered why his foul was worse than any other foul. Since the card was given to one of our players, I actually had the same question. But I had to find the reason and make it plausible. "Our player took down the opposing player from behind without going for the ball. That was considered dangerous play and in the eyes of the referee warranted a red card. It was also an attempt to prevent the player from scoring a goal which is considered a tactical foul. Thank goodness it happened outside the box." I had to explain then about fouls in the box and PKs which was actually a good teachable moment and took my mind off of being upset about the red card.
Suddenly an opposing player went down while we were making a run to the goal. He crumpled, rolling on the field in agony, yet play continued. My student rose to her feet in deep concern and wondered aloud why no one was doing anything. I had to explain the tactic of injury. I assured her that the player was just fine, and collapsed in the hopes of slowing down or stopping our team's rush to the goal. Sure enough, when this fallen comrade was completely ignored, he leapt to his feet and rejoined his team's defense. Welcome to soccer! "How does the referee know when an injury is real or fake?" I felt like Master Po with my "Grasshopper" or Yoda with Luke Skywalker ("much to learn you still have. . . .") "Years of experience,"" I responded. The words were barely out of my lips when Robbie went down, and I jumped up. "What happened?" I had forgotten to add that mothers also know when it's real or fake. Robbie's injury let me explain the substitution rule because he went out and no one came in for him. "If they sub for him then he is out for the rest of the game. So they are going to see if he can come back in." She looked confused, "But if he's injured, then wouldn't an uninjured player be better?" That did sound reasonable. How to explain without sounding vain about my child? I opted for the "it's early in the game and the coach doesn't want to start subbing too soon." I don't think she bought it since again having nine players on the field while waiting for a possibly injured player to step back in didn't seem logical. She was learning, as we all have, that soccer often defies logical explanation.
My pupil also noticed in the waning minutes of the game that our team seemed to have more players up top. So I got to explain about 4-4-2, 3-4-3, and other formations that coaches choose. We had been using a 4-5-1 formation, so when we went to 3-4-3 the bus driver noticed the difference. And for once my reasoning seemed logical. We were behind and needed to score, so we put in three forwards and four midfielders to push for some goals. We lost the game, but the driver announced that she'd had a good time. So had I.
Parents should take every opportunity to educate themselves about soccer, which includes helping one another out. If your child stays with the game, you'll need to be able to keep up with the complexity that grows at each level. Roughness of play increases, so we have to temper our upset when our little ones get knocked down. Defenses improve, so we have to accept that we won't be seeing those long runs down the field by our darling player. Speed of play increases, so we have to adjust how we watch play unfold. The field gets larger, the goals do too, the substitutions get tighter, the travel increases, things are always in flux, and so we have to get smarter and adjust. Youth soccer gives us the opportunity to all be neophytes and to all become experts. While I would never discount the joy of watching our children play, I also would encourage parents to talk to one another in order to learn the game. The more I understand the more I love the sport. I partially exercise that enthusiasm by sharing what I know with others and engaging in conversation about the game whenever I can. I'm certain my sons would cringe hearing some of what comes out of my mouth, but I'm also certain they'd be pleasantly impressed with how much their mom knows. I can't coach the game, I certainly can't play the game, but I can engage a fellow traveler so we can educate one another about our journeys.  How else do you get those insights that make the trip special?

Protective Order

Susan Boyd

They sit there, the behemoths of the soccer field, tempting anyone who has energy and imagination to take a few chin-ups from the cross bar. They look as solid and stable as Stonehenge. What could go wrong? Plenty actually. Movable goals are responsible for over 120 emergency room visits a year, thousands of minor injuries, and, sadly, since 1979, 36 deaths. Very few soccer clubs use permanently anchored goals since these do not allow for resizing and reconfiguring fields to get the maximum use from the minimum area. Moving goals allows the overworked areas in the goal mouth to rest and rejuvenate. But with the ease and convenience of movable goals comes some neglect. Anchoring the goals makes them less flexible since pulling up the anchors can be a chore. Some clubs opt for sand bagging the back base of the goal, but this doesn't offer as much stability as the auger and stake anchors that manufacturers recommend and more and more states are requiring by law or by commerce act.

This last week, "Zach's Law" was signed by Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois requiring proper anchoring of all movable goals. Presently there are close to half a million movable goals in use in the United States. Although the ratio of deaths to goals is small, most of the deaths involve children between 9 and 11, a tragedy that can be easily prevented. Illinois' Law joins California, Arkansas (Jonathan's Law), New York, and Wisconsin in implementing acts that enforce proper anchoring and have the power to levy fines when not. Movable goals weigh between 150 and 500 lbs. and fall for a variety of reasons. Some tip because they are placed on uneven or too soft a surface, some tip because of the temptation of performing a chin-up on the cross bar, some tip because of wind gusts, and some tip from being knocked during a game. No matter the cause, the bones and skulls of children are no match for that amount of weight toppling from that height.
In 1995 the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission adopted and published guidelines for movable goals. ( The guidelines are comprehensive and the same guidelines incorporated by states into their laws. They are also the same guidelines endorsed by U.S. Youth Soccer Association. Unfortunately the USCPSC has no enforcement capabilities, so these guidelines must be adopted and followed by the organizations they affect in order to be effective. Since so few states have given these guidelines legal teeth, I encourage you to print off the guidelines and provide them to your soccer club, school district, church, and youth organizations, anywhere there might be goals. Educate both parents and children about goal safety including not to use goals as a climbing wall or a chin bar. The guidelines include a warning sign that organizations can print off, duplicate, laminate and attach to the goals. When goals are to be moved only adults should do the job. Kids naturally want to pitch in, but the danger of a tip over makes this a task best left to grown-ups. 
In addition you can lobby your state legislature to adopt a law that gives power to the safety guidelines. In this age of partisan squabbling, this is an issue that all politicians should be able to get behind. There is minimal financial impact on the organizations affected other than to purchase sufficient and proper anchoring, unless they violate the law, in which case fines can go from $1,000 to $10,000 depending on the type of offense. Truth be told, we shouldn't need a law or fines to make sure that the equipment our kids use is safe for them. In most cases, educating organizations about the dangers of movable goals and the ways to prevent these dangers should be sufficient. But a law does get the attention of anyone affected by the law, so in the end it can speed along the process of making products safer and stronger. And for the few stubborn souls who don't think anchoring is necessary, it provides the means to compel compliance.
The best thing you can do as a parent is to make sure your kids understand the power that goals possess. Make sure they don't use the goals as gym equipment. Don't be shy about telling children you see hanging or climbing on goals to get down. Even when anchored, the laws of physics still apply.   If enough weight is exerted on the top of the goal, it can tip on the fulcrum of the front posts. So educate your kids to respect goals, to use them as directed, and to let their friends know about the dangers. If we work on proper anchoring, proper respect for the equipment, and proper movement of the goals, we should be able to prevent not only deaths, but injuries as well. Zero goal accident deaths should be our target. It's an achievable objective we should all aspire to. It won't bring back 10 year old Zach Tran, Jonathan Nelson, or Hayden Ellias, but it honors their lives by protecting the futures of other 10 year olds, one of whom might be your own.