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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". 


Fun doesn't come in sizes - Bart Simpson

Susan Boyd

It's not often I get to quote a cartoon character, much less a perennial 10 year old cartoon character. But Bart makes a very good point. Fun doesn't need to be huge like a trip to Disney World, and fun shouldn't be dismissed because it might be tiny and fleeting. Fun is just fun. And since September is Youth Soccer Month and the first week is devoted to the topic of fun, it seems appropriate to think about how to keep the fun in youth soccer. I've discovered that Bart is not only a philosopher of fun, but he also unwittingly introduced the vuvuzela to us in March of 1997, has a "Soccer Bart" fleece blanket and poster, and joined Ronaldo on the April 22, 2007 episode to teach Homer about soccer. So fun, soccer, and Bart Simpson are not such odd bedfellows.

Besides shamelessly using the Simpsons to add Google search keywords that might bring more readers to my blog, I also wanted to make the point that we often get way too serious about soccer and forget the fun of it all. At the adult professional level soccer can have all the fun of a runaway train – that is to say none. In Europe they have to put demilitarized zones in the stands to separate the opposing fans lest a fist fight breaks out. At the Community Shield game a few years ago, one of Robbie's friends applauded a good play by someone not wearing the jersey of his seating section. The poor kid was nearly muffled by a dozen burly men before security swiftly escorted him out to safety and out of the game. That's serious soccer! Unfortunately I've seen the same serious attitudes at games for kids as young as six. People need to get their Bart on and discover the fun of youth soccer. Here's a few ways to do just that.

One: Practice saying only encouraging things and only cheering for good play. You'll discover it's not that easy because as parents we are naturally inclined to "teach" which often translates into criticizing. So we find ourselves saying encouraging things like, "you can beat that kid," or "next time look before you pass." That's not the kind of encouragement I mean. Try starting every shout out with the word "good" or "great." It's amazing how hard it is to change your habits, but it's also amazing how wonderful your shout-outs will become. Do I practice what I preach – are you kidding? I'm about as fallible as it comes when being a soccer parent. But when I remember, usually after an evil eye look from one of my kids, I find out I am having a lot more fun watching them play. I can laugh at a lot of stuff and it relieves me of having to intently "coach" the game.

Two: Find something fun to do during the game. I hated the vuvuzelas during the Confederation games and the World Cup. But at least those tooting their horns looked to be having a great time even in the face of defeat. The horns hopefully deflected anger and frustration and offered the participants some celebratory joy no matter what the results on the field. While I'm not advocating bringing a bee buzzing plastic instrument to a U8 game, I am saying you might want to have pom poms for everyone on the sidelines or dress in the team colors. I went to a game for a group of 9 year olds where the parents had brought signs like you might for a pro game where they had written "Billy Bends it Better than Beckham" and "Josh Knows Soccer". They jumped around on the sidelines cheering and shaking the signs the entire game. I had fun just watching the parents.

Three: Remember why they play. We spectators have been conditioned to believe that if you lose, it wasn't fun. We're so used to turning off our TVs in disgust when the Brewers are down five runs in the bottom of the ninth. We feel the bitter taste in our mouths from disappointment. Kids on the other hand still find fun just in playing. The more we make games like the adult version, the less fun the kids will have. How many games have you gone to where they don't keep score, yet everyone seems to know what the score is, including the players. The idea is to not have winners or losers. I've come to the conclusion we have this "deception" for the sake of the adults not the kids. Because kids like to know who won and kids forget about it moments after knowing.   It's just a fact they want to know, but it doesn't affect how they feel about themselves, the game, or their participation. To be honest I think they just want to know because that means the game is over and they can go get snacks. At my grandson's last baseball game he won (no one was keeping score of course) and his delight at winning was a mere blip, but his disappointment in not getting a snack lasted all the way to the car and all the way home. "The other team got snacks," he pouted. So they play for fun AND food.

Four: Discover what makes it fun for your child and promote that. When the boys were really young they liked to get pumped up by Smash Mouth's "All Star." We would crank up the volume in the car and rock out as we pulled into the parking lot of the fields. It became an essential ritual. If they won the game, it was due to the song, and if they lost it was due to the volume not being loud enough. Rewards can bring some added zest to a game, although be careful because you may end up paying out a lot. My daughter and her husband promised their 6 year old an ice cream if he got an unassisted double play. The first game he got two! I also saw a girl trot over to her gramma in the middle of a game to claim her dime for not crying when she got knocked down. But of course everyone had a good laugh, which means everyone had a moment of fun.

Five: Fun doesn't come in sizes, so don't discount the smidgens of fun that peek out even in the most serious of games. Last night we went to a college game where Bryce's former teammate was on the opposition. I knew his parents well and told everyone they were in for a treat. Mom is a petite soccer parent with lungs a lion would envy. Her shouts to the team come from deep and are propelled forth with what must be the tautest diaphragm in history. Heads snap round when she belts out her encouragement. And it is always encouragement, never criticism or anger. But there are those who try to shush her, I suppose out of embarrassment. She always laughs and brushes it off. I remarked that her vocalizations were her way of bringing joy to the game. She said I was right. So even though her team lost, she had fun.   And I think she had it super-sized.

Not just business

Susan Boyd

In the midst of the World Cup in the early morning hours of June 23, the soccer store in our town burned down, the victim of a lightning strike. I heard about it just a few hours after it happened because its joint tenant was a Starbuck's, and a Starbuck's burning down on a work week morning is big news. Stefan's was the town square of soccer here. It's where I learned all the soccer gossip, connected with fellow soccer moms and dads, caught up with my son's friends, and took a few moments to discover the new gear.  

The manager was a young man from Ghana who, at one time or another, had coached both my boys. I could always count on a smile from Abdul. I had the honor of being a witness to his evolving life from soccer player and coach to student to boyfriend to husband to father. I attended his wedding, cheered him on as he returned to college, prayed for him and his wife when she got breast cancer, and beamed when their daughter was born. Other employees included players we had competed with and against over the years. Buying a pair of soccer socks wasn't a five minute trip. Like in the country stores with their pot belly stoves, we all congregated on the benches in the shoe section and chewed the fat. Stefan's was not just a store; it was a refuge.

Once, Robbie was headed to a national tryout in Florida and when he put his bag together late the night before he realized that he couldn't find his shin guards. We tore the house apart and finally admitted to ourselves that he probably left them at the last game. Stefan's didn't open until 10 the next morning, the same time Robbie had to be at the airport. Robbie was frantic, but I told him all was not lost. So at 9:30 a.m. we zoomed into Stefan's parking lot trusting that Abdul or someone would be at the store already. We knocked on the glass door and openly cheered as we saw Abdul's head pop up from the office in the back. He was laughing as he opened the door. "What'd you forget?" As he grabbed the right shin guards I could see the anxiety wash away from Robbie. Because the cash registers weren't open yet, I promised to return to pay after dropping Robbie off. I couldn't have done that at any big box store or mega-sports outlet. And Robbie wouldn't have gotten a cheerful pat on the back and a sincere "Good Luck" from one of their clerks who had no idea what a big deal this tryout was.

Every August team managers descended on Stefan's to pick up their uniform orders for their teams. This was a stressful experience that Stefan's managed to make less so. Each player's order was bagged up with the order form in the bag and then all the bags in a box. All a manager had to do was pick up the box, take it to a practice, and hand out the bags. Stefan's rarely made a mistake, and if they did it was corrected quickly and uncomplainingly. Of course there was a deadline for orders and of course many of the managers were late with the orders, but somehow everything got done in time for the first game or tournament. And when a manager came in with a new player the coach had added on Aug, 28, Stefan's still somehow managed to get the order done. It was a personal touch that a family owned and run store could offer.

So when the store burned down it took away family. I sent an e-mail immediately to the owner to offer any help I could, but she said that because the damage was so extensive they would just be closing. I don't think it completely hit me until two weeks later when my grandkids came to visit and I couldn't take them to Stephan's to get their gear for soccer camp. Now whenever I am out and drive by the shell that was the store I get depressed. I counted on my visits to the store to bring some delight into my life and to bring me up to speed on what was happening in soccer in S.E. Wisconsin. My last time in the store was buying two World Cup T-shirts for the boys. I even went back to the store a couple hours later to exchange one T-shirt for another size. It was that convenient.

There are other Stefan's stores in Wisconsin, but none are just minutes from my house and filled with old and dear friends. I will truly miss it. I'm sure many of you have a similar haven where you get your soccer necessities and catch up on your soccer news. Be sure you let them know how much you appreciate their service and their attention. The staff at Stefan's used to joke when I came through the door that they could finally make payroll this month. Based on the amount I spent there, it might not have been entirely a joke. But it shows how much the store and its customers were intertwined. It wasn't just a business – it was a family.   And I will miss doing business with them.

Soccer cycle

Susan Boyd

This past weekend I ran into the president of my boys' first soccer club whom I hadn't seen for about four years. He was with his granddaughter and her friend both dressed in a variant of the same red and white stripped club uniform the boys had worn years before. I had always considered this club the bread and butter training for the boys. The coaches were knowledgeable and dedicated and they had high expectations for their players and their teams. But the club suffered from the same problem many good clubs do – not being able to attract enough strong players to be competitive across the board. As a result, once players grew old enough to know that they wanted to make soccer their sport, they left for clubs they perceived as stronger and more able to provide them with a pathway to college.

Bryce's team completely dissolved at tryouts for U-15. The first night five players showed up and the second night only Bryce showed up. These are the hard knocks of the business of youth soccer. Parents want to engineer the best path for their kids to that holy grail of a college scholarship and panic easily if they suspect players are jumping ship. This musical chair mentality means some very good players are left out in the cold without a team to play on. It happened to Bryce and it took us from July to November to find a team for him – although I admit that it's tougher when you're a keeper.

I liked this club. First of all it was convenient to our home, which any parent who drives kids to practices will tell you is a major factor in selecting a team. Second, as I said, the coaches were good. One coach in particular had a huge influence on Robbie's development. And so long as we played in the premier level of state league, we were assured of strong competition. Most tournaments were within a five hour radius – another plus because it cut down on travel expenses. And the fees were reasonable. An ancillary plus was that many of the boys' friends played on their teams facilitating car pooling.

Although some kids have the wonderful experience of staying with the same club for their entire youth soccer experience, most kids either switch clubs or have so many of their teammates switch to other clubs that their team doesn't even vaguely resemble the team they had just a year earlier. Most of us parents don't have much to go on in deciding where our kids will play. We really can only look at superficial factors such as wins or how many kids went on to play college soccer. But those factors can be deceiving. If a club cherry-picks the best players from other clubs, the wins come from having a stronger team and not necessarily from good development. And it stands to reason that if you loot the best players in the area, you'll be able to boast of the most college scholarship winners. On the other hand, if you want your child to continue to have strong competition between teams and among the players on his or her own team, then going with a club's reputation for having the best players isn't necessarily a bad decision.

Ideally a team can develop as a unit and stick together as a unit, but that rarely happens. Kids at age 6 will have different limits to their development. Some kids won't have speed, others will lose interest, others yet will excel in coordination. There's very little chance of predicting where a kid will be in ten years time. So gathering a group of kids together doesn't mean they will be together for any length of time.   As parents we have to be prepared for change because it will inevitably come. That preparation should include watching some practices of other clubs to see how the coaches work with the kids and whether or not you feel comfortable with them coaching your kids. Talk to parents whose kids are in the club and talk to parents whose kids have left the club. It's important to hear what the strengths and weaknesses are, but equally important to read between the lines of sour grape testimonials.

There's no perfect formula for the path your son or daughter should take in youth soccer. Each family needs to decide what factors are most important to them. Clubs are social centers, training grounds, conduits to college scout exposure, exercise centers, places to relax, and sources of pride. Families need to rank the aspects of a club along with things such as expense, travel commitment, ease of getting to and from practices, competition, and coaching staff. Parents and their kids need to continually examine how important going to the next level in soccer is. They need to figure out if they want to press forward because of a passion for the sport or the need to succeed or both. And all families need to be prepared for disappointment. Not getting into the club of your dreams can be devastating emotionally, but doesn't need to be devastating athletically.   Lots of good options exist beyond the "top" club in your area.

When I saw those girls in their uniforms, it created a bit of a lump in my throat. I remembered the good friends we made at the club, the great coaches, and the confidence of belonging. It was a painful separation, first when Bryce's team dissolved and then when Robbie switched clubs. But new talent moves in, teams rise and succeed, and the club continues with the same mission and energy. It's all part of the youth soccer cycle.

Great expectations

Susan Boyd

The only thing consistent about my mail carrier is that he is inconsistent. Mail can be delivered any time between noon and 4:55 p.m. I've tried to figure out if he has a consistent schedule for the day of the week, but that hasn't proven to be the case. When I need to get to the bank with a check I know will be delivered that day, he shows up at 4:55 p.m. when the bank closes at 5 p.m. That much I can count on.

So you may be asking, "What does your mail delivery have to do with soccer or youth sports in general?" Well, as I was waiting yesterday for the mail I got to thinking that we have expectations about how things should go in our lives and those expectations surround a level of consistency. We expect our pay checks to be automatically deposited when we're told they'll be, we expect schools to only close for emergencies, we expect people to show up on time for appointments, we expect gas prices to rise but we also expect to be pleasantly surprised sometimes, and we expect Brett Favre to ascend from the ashes of retirement another year. There's nothing wrong with expectations in our adult world, but when they start to spill over into youth sports they become a problem.

Like my mail carrier the only thing consistent about youth soccer is its inconsistency.   For example, just consider the elements that change for every game and affect not only whether a game will be played or not but how that game is played. Bryce's U-13 team played in the semi-finals of the State Championships following a torrential storm that left lakes on the playing field and especially at the lower end of the field in front of the goal. Bryce was scored on three times in 10 minutes because balls shot towards him stopped suddenly in the moat surrounding the goal mouth and out of reach or skittered in an odd direction. The opponents only had to kick the ball out of the water past him into the net showering him with a muddy spray for extra demoralization. By the time we reversed ends of the field at half time, our team had given up. We expected to win the game since we had beaten this team handily three times during the season, but so much for expectations.

Or consider how kids change in just a few months. As they grow they can become awkward as they learn their boundaries. The kid who scored three goals a game might now be the kid who couldn't hit the ocean with his spit if he was floating in the middle of it. Or the big, strong athletic kid returns for spring season and finds out that over the winter everyone became big, strong athletic players. And if you expect a new pair of $200 soccer cleats to last a year, then you'll be disappointed when after two months those barely used cleats are a size too small. Your daughter might have Abby Wambach and Casey Nogueira posters all over her room. You buy her the best ball, cleats, and shin guards available. She talks soccer non-stop and you expect her to make the national team. Then one day, Justin Bieber takes over her room and soccer is passé. 

When we parents bring our expectations to the soccer field we can often create uncomfortable and bullying situations. We may find ourselves yelling at the kid who isn't scoring because we expected him to maintain his consistent level of scoring. We may have a far too strong reaction to losing a game which our kids see as having failed us. We may be too hard on our child who is struggling with the clumsiness of a growth spurt. We certainly don't have any patience with referees who don't meet our expected standard of perfection in calls. We may expect the parents of an opposing team to be snooty or pompous because their team is highly ranked, which means we might leap on the only moment of snootiness one parent exhibits. 

Part of our expectations is based on what we see adults do. When Rickie Weeks bobbles the ball at second base we Brewers' fans start booing because we expect someone who makes a yearly salary equal to our lifetime salary to do his job consistently with perfection. And though it seems obvious that we can't have those same expectations with our kids, it's difficult not to. We're conditioned to expect perfection from our sports' stars and that expectation transfers very easily to our own little sports' stars. We also expect the same level of muscle development, motor skills, and eye-hand coordination that adults possess. But of course that won't come for years for our kids. A sport like soccer has so many nuances that someone can spend a lifetime just trying to acquire half of the soccer abilities possible. Yet we often tell our kids what they should be doing when they haven't yet developed the physical abilities to do it. When the kids are young many parents have adult expectations which lead to tears and resentment, even a wish not to play anymore.

Kids absolutely won't be consistent in their soccer play. There are too many variables that interrupt the expected behaviors and outcomes. Adult players develop more consistency, but even they have to deal with injuries, field conditions, fatigue, and mental lapses that can result in unexpected play. I can be frustrated with my mail carrier because he obviously runs his route differently every day. This helps him not get bored, but leaves me with delays and no ability to predict his arrival. I pay him, so I expect him to work more responsibly for me. I can get mad. But when it comes to my kids, I have to just let things flow whatever way the field tips that week. I may want to expect better play from them, but I have no idea what the coaches have told them, what their mindset is that day, and how they are feeling. So I need to relax and just enjoy the game. I'll let the coaches deal with their expectations which may be unrealistic or may be spot on, but that's their issue, not mine. I expect only one thing from my kids which is that they complete their commitment. I've only waivered on that expectation once. But meeting commitments is one expectation that the kids can live up to and achieve and is something that will serve them well as they grow older. I just wish my mail carrier understood his commitment to me.