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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". 

 

Glory without Victory

Susan Boyd

This past weekend my grandson's undefeated team met the other undefeated team in his league. One team had to lose and that team was my grandson's. Although they scored right away, that would be it for them. Their opponents scored several times, including a score in the waning seconds of the game. It wasn't just a defeat; it was a rout. When you're nine, lessons on the value of defeat don't really penetrate and bring life altering enlightenment. On the other hand, the agony of defeat has a half-life equal to the time it takes to walk from the field over to the snack cooler. As Coach Darrell Royal said, "I learned this about coaching: You don't have to explain victory and you can't explain defeat." It's true whether you're a kid or a multi-million dollar pro. But the role of coach changes over the years. Cutthroat can work with adults, but is far too heavy-handed for youth. Kids are still developing a passion for the game which isn't served by a coach being overly passionate for success.

Being a youth coach ranks as one of the most difficult jobs around. You need to deal with short attention spans, behavior problems, delicate egos, tantrums, and unrealistic expectations – and that's just the parents! Coaches need to be teachers, counselors, arbitrators, prophets, handlers, healers, schedulers, and cheerleaders. Most youth coaches are also parents of players on the team, so they have to step in and out of their coach and parent roles. It used to be that youth coaches were just thrown into the soup without preparation. Some might have extensive playing experience or some may have had soccer in 8th grade gym. So it's no wonder that youth coaching can be uneven. However U.S. Youth Soccer Association and United States Soccer Federation have taken steps to make youth coaching more professional and standard. They require any youth coach in their programs to attend a course and receive a coaching certificate. The course is brief, but does help put every coach at an equal starting point. 

Victories and defeats can end up defining the strength of a coach. Not because a coach oversees more victories than defeats, but because the coach has developed a way to be a strong role model and leader during either event. The old adage about being humble in victory and gracious in defeat has to be taught by example. Too many coaches want to be Vince Lombardi with his attitude that "if you can accept losing, you can't win." Losses result in long diatribes about failure and weakness and incompetence. Wins end up being an excuse to insult the opposing team and reward arrogance. Wise youth coaches opt for a positive appraisal without the agonizing dissection to ferret out the weaknesses leading to defeat.

There's definitely something to be said for having a winning outlook. But the truth is that even the Miami Dolphins eventually lost a game. Winning over and over can indicate that a team isn't being challenged. And most of us face challenges in our lives with varying degrees of success. We need to learn how to deal with the less successful outcomes – dare I say defeats – with character and perseverance, developing the ability to improve.   Malcolm Forbes, who could be the poster boy for success, said that "victory is sweetest when you've known defeat." So coaches need to infuse the playing experience with a joy that transcends the outcome. It's not about winning or losing at this age. It's about developing an interest in and a passion for the sport.

The glory of victory and the humiliation of defeat don't need to be taught. Over the years all of us innately learn that the former is far more desirable than the latter. But because kids are both resilient and short of memory, we can't feed them our anxieties and expectations for game outcomes. Keaton's team lost, but he didn't lose his love for playing. In fact he got to play a different position at the end of the game, which got him very excited about being on offense rather than defense. He's fired up for the next game, which is exactly the way it should all play out. His league has the last two games set up to be between teams with equal or near equal records. So it's very possible he'll meet this team again and maybe even lose again. But I applaud his coaches for making the game and the love of the game far more important than marks in a win or loss column. If he stays with it, he'll have plenty of time to get the speech about "defeat is not an option." Done right, it may even inspire him to give the extra bit needed to carve out a victory. But for now, it's enough to be able to get a granola bar and a juice box win or lose.
 

The Law

Susan Boyd

The expression "possession is nine tenths of the law" certainly applies to soccer. I saw a great example last night at a high school play-off game. The first ranked team in the bracket was playing the 16th ranked team. At half-time the score was 8-0.  When the score reached 16 to 0, the winning team stopped trying to score and simply possessed the ball for the last 12 minutes. They gained a great lesson in how to pass accurately, how to turn the ball away from the opponent, how to regain the ball when lost, and how to use the field to their advantage, but at what cost?

The opposing team had the unenviable task of selecting what aspect of the game demoralized them less: the 16 unanswered goals or the 12 minutes they were the victims of keep away. This huge disparity between teams in training and skill usually only happens in high school playoffs. Club tournament directors rate the applicants in order to create brackets containing some parity in skill levels. State leagues have divisions based on past records to insure teams are within a narrow band of proficiency at the sport. College playoffs have teams who earned their slots by winning conference tournaments or having exemplary records. But high school playoffs include every team in the state in that division regardless of experience or ability. So last night the previous year's state champion played a team where many of the members don't play soccer outside of high school. 
           
When the difference between two teams is so large it seems humiliating to even conduct the game, but under the state rules this is the way it has to happen. There have to be winners and there have to be losers, but, for certain teams, there's really no way that they will advance. While there were some upsets in the first games of the tournament run, these were between teams much more closely ranked. The particular game I saw had the greatest goal differential, but in looking at today's brackets I saw plenty of 11-0, 9-0 and 13-1 games. One high school team simply forfeited. It couldn't get a team together under those circumstances. Last year the teams from last night's game met, and at halftime with the score 10-0, the game was called, and they all went home. Not putting the score up on the board isn't the answer. It doesn't work for U-8 and U-10 teams, and it works even less for high school teams. Everyone can count.  Requiring that teams take all starters off the field once the goal differential hits a certain point gets into the messy situation of telling a coach how to run his or her team. So for several teams the first game of the state tournament competition becomes an exercise in self-control. The higher ranked team has to play restrained for at least a portion of the game and the lower ranked team has to resist the urge to walk off the field and say "forget it." 

On the upside the higher ranked team can usually afford to allow players who sat on the bench or subbed in for only a few minutes over the season to finally play some extended soccer. It was great when players scored their first goals during that game, giving families a chance to cheer for their sons. And it offers those players who will be stepping up next season to a greater team role the chance to gain experience in the state tournament. But there is little advantage for the lower ranked team. 
           
Giving all teams the opportunity to participate in the tournament run seems necessary. Yet it all comes with unpleasant consequences. As one spectator said to me during the game, "I wonder what that team gets out of playing this game." It really got me thinking about how in a victory obsessed culture we can give kids in no-win situations a reason to participate. 
Competitiveness aside, other factors fit into the big picture when it comes to high school sports. Outmatched teams need to define several achievable objectives to consider the game a success. Parents should reinforce that playing a game with dignity even in defeat shows character. For the winning teams good sportsmanship has to be at the center of these lopsided contests. Fans need to be supportive of all good play, players need to have confidence without being smug, and coaches have to be willing to accept a comfortable, rather than an overwhelming, lead and switch to less aggressive play. With possession comes responsibility. It's up to everyone not to abuse their strengths or surrender to their weaknesses.
 

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.