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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". 

 

If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Chelsea

Susan Boyd

Throw a virtual stone on the internet and you'll hit a tour group ready to provide the international soccer experience for your child. Promoters of these one week to summer long tours made bold claims about what a summer overseas playing soccer can provide a player. Since November to February constitutes the biggest push to sell these tours to clubs, teams, and individuals, it's likely you'll receive a number of brochures slickly produced and definitely enticing. They will tell you that colleges now want players with international playing experience, they will imply that players who don't get the chance to play "real" soccer won't progress very far in the sport, and they will outline the drawbacks of other tours which don't provide proper competition. So wading through all the hype and the options can be difficult.

In reality reputable tour companies end up offering about the same experiences for about the same price. Tours will cost $2,500 to $3,000 a person for seven to ten days and should include at minimum airfare, two meals a day, land transport, a day of sightseeing, three friendlies, two training sessions with pro teams, and tickets to at least two professional matches. Most importantly any tour company should supply a 24/7 tour director to oversee the trip and insure the smooth operation of the tour. You should have a contract where everything is spelled out, and you should have trip insurance because you never know what might come up. 

If you can afford to provide an international soccer trip for your child then by all means do it. America is a soccer neophyte compared to the rest of the world, so there are traditions, attitudes, and style of play that only a foreign nation can provide. Anyone who has attended a professional match in Europe or South America knows how intense the passions run within a certain pageantry and tradition of the game. Players who have the opportunity to play overseas come back with a new found respect of the game and an enthusiasm for playing. Wrap soccer up in the packaging of spectacular scenery and significant historical venues and you have pretty much created the ultimate experience.

Soccer clubs might consider establishing a certain age group that takes a soccer trip every year to a specific location. Being able to promise this experience to players can make a club very attractive come tryouts. I would definitely consider having my kids join a club that saw the value in overseas play. Clubs who have the custom of taking teams abroad usually opt for the U-15 or U-16 age levels. Younger ages might not have the maturity or confidence to travel and older ages are focusing on summer jobs and college. Both of my sons had the opportunity to train with English Premier League teams and play friendlies with several English youth teams, and Robbie also traveled to Spain to play friendlies there. Both boys credit these trips as huge eye-openers for how to train and what is required to play at the top levels. Having the chance to see some of their soccer idols play in live matches only added to the experience.

A few tour companies are sanctioned by soccer organizations in America such as U.S. Soccer and National Soccer Coaches Association of America. Sanctioning may be construed as an endorsement, but actually means that the opportunities and the training fit with the objectives of these organizations. Nevertheless having some seal of approval certainly indicates the integrity and structure of these tour companies are sound. If an entire team is traveling, most tour companies will offer the 19th or 20th spot on the tour for free both as an inducement to fill up the tour and as a way for coaches to travel with their teams without charging the team for that expense.  Many tour companies offer fundraising opportunities so that players or teams can earn additional free trips. These opportunities usually involve selling raffle tickets to win trips with the tour operator or soccer gear provided by the operator. It's a fairly painless way to help offset the costs, and any savings can be passed on to an individual or spread across the entire team.

However, if you can't afford to go abroad, there are ways to gain international soccer playing experience here in the United States. Clubs can attend tournaments that have international team entries and request that they get at least one international opponent. They can also register with tour operators to be the clubs that international teams play in friendlies when they tour the U.S. on their soccer trips. Crossing our northern and southern borders to play in tournaments in Canada and Mexico can provide international experience within driving distance. There are a few more hoops to jump through in terms of getting your State Association's approval to attend and in making sure you have player insurance, but these aren't major roadblocks. Clubs can also consider finding a partner club in either Mexico or Canada and doing an exchange where you open your homes to one another. The expense would be limited to travel and gives everyone a chance to get a true flavor of living and playing in one another's countries. While Canada may not seem to be as exotic a destination as Brazil or England, it does offer some exciting sights and some interesting differences in playing styles. Robbie attended a tournament outside of Toronto one summer where we stayed in Niagara Falls and toured the many historic sites in the area. It's one of our most memorable trips.

Bottom line remains that overseas play offers any soccer player a richer experience and deeper understanding of the game and its history. But no parents should feel pressured to spend money they don't have just because Jeff or Joan down the street are traveling. At the same time, you might explore with your club about establishing the tradition of traveling as a team every summer between U-15 and U-16 with an eye towards preparing for and financing the trip as a club effort. Families can then begin setting aside $50 a month for the two years preceding the event to help make the financial impact smaller and kids can add their babysitting or lawn mowing money to the mix. It would establish a savings goal for everyone and something exciting to look forward to.  If you do go, drink it all in because it will be an amazing trip.
 

Are we back yet?

Susan Boyd

When the boys were toddlers they used to squirm around in their car seats as we left the driveway, craning to catch a glimpse of our house as it disappeared around the corner. Then they would ask the same question: Are we coming back here again? Leaving in a car must have felt like leaving on a jet plane – don't know when I'll be back again. If they couldn't see the house, it must have ceased to exist. Once we made our way back into the neighborhood, the boys could barely contain their excitement as the house peeked out between the trees. "Oooh, there's our house!" they giggled with glee. And everything was set straight again until the next errand or trip to the library.

Soccer families might feel the same way about their soccer fields. Every time you leave them, you don't really know if you'll see them again. Weather related closures, use by competing groups like lacrosse or football teams, away games, and canceled practices can make those convenient fields just down the street seem like they wandered away to a foreign country.   One mother in our club bragged that she was just a two minute drive from the fields. Two months later she was bemoaning the fact her two minute drive was now thirty minutes as practices and games had shifted to another part of town. Clubs who have the privilege of owning their own fields become remarkably protective of them to the point of closing the fields most of the year lest they become damaged. It's like that living room you spent thousands decorating and furnishing, but no one ever sits in there. 

Even city and town parks are becoming more and more difficult to use as officials look to reduce maintenance. Every time a storm began to brew prior to a Wisconsin Youth Soccer Association Olympic Development Program practice, everyone in the office went into panic mode waiting for the news that the fields we planned to use were closed and scrambling to find alternate fields controlled by less protective overseers. When I managed my sons' teams, I would dread the "fields are closed" phone call because I had to find an alternative for that day, call the referees and direct them to the new site, do likewise with the opposing team, and finally inform my own team and coaches. If I couldn't get a field that day, then the dreaded "rescheduled game" inserted itself in my life like those mucous creatures in the TV ads.   Anyone who has tried to reschedule a game knows the hideous helplessness the task creates. To add insult to injury I often had to drive past the pristine but empty fields while headed to that rescheduled game because the opposing team could only reschedule on their fields.

One particularly waterlogged spring we practice twice on our home fields and played one game there. I'm not opposed to going to an alternate site; it's just that I based part of my decision about where the boys would play upon the convenience factor of the club's location. My only advice would be to ask where the club plays when it can't play on its own fields. This might seem a silly question, but in locations like Chicago and San Francisco, the alternate fields could be an hour away. Alternate fields could disrupt car pools, interconnected schedules, and time limits. Every parent needs to consider what contingencies the club uses and how the family will adapt to those.

The recent floods in the southeast and past flooding such as Katrina add an even uglier dimension to the soccer field saga. In those cases fields may have disappeared altogether. Even if families avoided flood damage of their own personal property, they undoubtedly experienced a complete disruption of their soccer schedules due to flooded fields and flooded routes to practices and games. In those extreme cases, families have far worse concerns than some extra travel on their schedule. As a national soccer community, we should find out what we can do to help those Atlanta and other southeast families get back on track. Dozens of soccer fields at schools, parks, and soccer clubs were submerged and may not be back for the rest of the season. The Georgia State Soccer Association can be reached at gssa@gasoccer.org.  While having to move to an alternate field can be aggravating, at least most of us have alternate fields available. And we are lucky enough to have fields to come back to when the weather clears.  
 

A Month We Can Enjoy All Year

Susan Boyd

I knew that I would eventually be rewarded for leaving my autumn foliage stickers on my patio doors. It only took a year but now the transparent gel leaves look stunning against the backdrop of the slowing evolving trees beyond my deck. Usually I change the stickers four times a year to reflect the changing seasons. But this winter we were out of town so I never got the holiday decorations out. We returned to a home destroyed by burst pipes, so we weren't even in the house over spring, and summer was spent getting settled back in. Now here we are back to autumn, and I finally feel in step once again.
           
I love September. September ranges from the heat and drought of summer through the cool grey and brilliant colors of autumn. Kids begin school, but still fill the waning evenings with play. Families return to the routines they followed for nine months of the year.  And youth soccer starts up. So it's fitting that September serves as Youth Soccer Month. Now that the month is winding down, the four features of the month – family, fun, friendship, and fitness – don't just fall away like the leaves.   While we celebrate youth soccer in September, we participate in youth soccer year round. Each of these features figure prominently in our lives even outside of soccer. So we should continue to focus on these as the seasons progress.
           
Soccer is one of many ways for families to share activities and goals (pun intended). Obviously I'm a huge proponent of soccer, but any activity that a family shares can help form strong ties and happy relationships. In fact, parents should bring some of the family experiences from other activities into soccer. I seriously doubt that most of you at a third grade recorder concert shout at the musicians about their tempo and publicly accuse the music teacher of faulty conducting. Instead we watch with great pride, oooh and aaaah over the cute moment when one child puts the recorder up his nose, and applaud loudly at the end. We probably don't discuss the individual players on the way home and suggest ways our son or daughter could be a better player.  We don't make such an emotional investment in a music concert, even though it's possible that three or four of those kids will end up with college scholarships in music. 
           
Fun is definitely not limited to soccer. But remembering that what our kids do in life should always have an element of fun means we can bring joy to every activity even school. Again making too big an emotional investment in our child's success can absolutely drain the fun out of anything. We don't need soccer to have fun, but we shouldn't forget fun in the rest of our lives. While we're rushing around trying to fit in soccer practice, homework, dentist appointments, jobs, meals, and sleep try to fit in a bit of fun – car games, sing-alongs on the way to events, a detour to get an ice cream, playing Frisbee before a game, green milk for St. Patrick's Day.
           
The friendships we develop through soccer should be just one collection of the many friends we make throughout life. Kids have so many interests and those interests change often over the years, so it's important to nurture friendships within those interests. Soccer may be replaced by another sport or activity, but the friendships developed with teammates can last beyond the change if they have more than soccer in common. Likewise friendships outside of soccer can give kids a wider perspective on life. Because soccer is a huge passion for our family, many of the boys' enduring friendships have come out of soccer, but they also have strong connections to kids who never had an interest in any sport.
           
Fitness can be both physical and mental. Physical fitness naturally comes from playing a sport, but can be part of a non-sport routine as well. Having children bike or walk to school and lessons will give them several hours a week of aerobic exercise. Even more importantly giving kids an hour a day just for random outdoor play can do more for both physical and mental fitness than any organized sport. That one hour a day of unstructured activity gives kids a chance to relax their minds and exercise their hearts and muscles. It also gives them a chance to be with friends, have some fun, and enjoy their families. Those three principles contribute to good mental fitness. Strong families who have fun and enjoy supportive friendships impact their child's mental health positively.
While autumn will dissolve into winter with shorter days and for many of us cold, grey months, we can use the cornerstones of Youth Soccer Month to bring substance to our lives. We love soccer in our family, so we have many of our activities and interests centered around soccer. But we don't need soccer in the same way we need our family, fun, friendships, and fitness. The true measure of our children's growth isn't being a soccer superstar. It's becoming a strong, capable, happy adult. These four soccer month principles contribute to their growth and can support them throughout their lives. Celebrating youth soccer serves as a conduit to both growing the sport and growing a strong generation of children. 
 

Vacation Depravation

Susan Boyd

Our eight year old neighbor informed me yesterday that it was only 29 school days until teacher convention break. There have only been seven days of school so far. This type of countdown to vacation preoccupies most students who attend any type of school. I had one of my college students, who can't seem to remember an assignment deadline, correct me about the dates of the mid-semester holiday without even referencing his calendar. Yet depressingly Americans don't take advantage of their time off. Every year Expedia does a vacation depravation survey which, depending on your point of view, Americans either ace or fail miserably. We get the fewest number of paid vacation days a year, thirteen, and even then we leave three of those days on the table.   Of the nations surveyed, America comes in the lowest, meaning that we are the best at depriving ourselves of vacations.

French workers get 38 paid days of vacation a year. Germans get 27 while Britain has 26. Austria, Spain, Italy, and New Zealand average in the 20s, while Australia and Canada get nineteen days.   Japan gets fifteen days a year, but 92% leave an average of seven days on the table. The only reason they aren't the worst vacationers is that they power vacation, meaning when they travel, they go for a week or more and travel outside the country. What I have noticed is that those countries with twenty or more vacation days also have intense soccer fever.  Laugh if you want, but I'm thinking they have grown to depend on those extended vacation days so they can follow their beloved teams or attend UEFA Cup or even the World Cup without making a huge dent in their vacation time.

Given our nation's woeful vacation history and our burgeoning, but not yet fully realize, interest in soccer, perhaps there's a way to make soccer work for family vacation time in America. While those families with players on traveling teams obviously have an immediate and necessary vacation excuse, any soccer family should be able to combine vacation time with their soccer schedule.   Use the sport as your vacation portal.

This Saturday, for example, my grandson has a game in Poynette, Wisconsin (pop. 2,300) about thirty miles north of Madison. At first blush the possibility of doing anything vaguely family vacation oriented seems unreasonable in a small town. But with the power of the internet you'd be amazed what a family can find. If you're going to drive to play a game, you might as well find somewhere fun to eat and visit. Check the Chamber of Commerce, your state's recreation department and tourism bureau, or just put the town's name in your search engine and see what appears. Poynette it seems is home to the MacKenzie Environmental Center, a 250 acre nature preserve with trails, a fire tower, three museums, maple sugaring demonstrations in the spring, and a large picnic grounds. There are herds of buffalo, packs of wolves, flocks of birds including bald eagles, and abundant smaller wildlife all visible from trails. So after the game we'll head over and spend the afternoon having a walk amongst nature and if the weather holds out a picnic as well. This is free of charge, although donations are always welcome.

Rather than rush up to a game and then rush home, families can extend their time together with some creative planning and limited expense. Not every vacation has to include a cartoon mouse and twenty story thrill rides. More importantly, every vacation doesn't need to be longer than a few hours of family togetherness in order to recharge the batteries. Look upon soccer as an opportunity to create an adventure. While you might not independently travel to see the chicken who always wins at Tic-Tac-Toe, you might take a five minute side trip on the way home from a game. The books "Off the Beaten Path" written for a number of states offer some great surprises. They emphasize the finds on the back roads nearby many of the small towns and fields you'll be visiting as you play league games or even tournaments. Taking time out to do a corn maze or see a Hopi Indian Village can take some of the stress out of preparing for a game or having to travel for a while. It doesn't have to be long – it can be as short as a stop to get some homemade ice cream from an old time soda fountain. But having the family discover it and plan it jointly adds even more family time together. 

For really young players you might consider doing planning together as a team. Sometimes large families have to be three places at once so you can't plan something for every game, but the team could plan things to do together. Given the internet savvy of kids, teams could even assign a town to each player to research and find something fun for everyone to do when in town. It could be something they do for fun or a place to eat or picnic. On one trip to Iowa, we were introduced to Maid-Rite by a team member's mother who grew up in Iowa.   Maid-Rite is ground beef cooked in boiling water that is dished out onto a bun and garnished with whatever you want. It's kind of like a dry Sloppy Joe. But it's good, and we would have never thought to eat there because in truth it sounds like a cleaning service. 

If we can't get 38 vacation days like the French, we can use American ingenuity to carve more days out for ourselves by crafting mini-vacations. Rather than dissecting the game on the trip home, you can hop out at a fruit stand and dissect a few apples. Rather than dwelling on a tough loss, you can relax at a trout farm catching dinner. Instead of dreading the drive back, you can break it up with a stop to see the world's largest rubber band ball. They aren't things you'd ask Expedia to reserve for you, but given the next Expedia survey you might be boosting America's score.