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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". 

 

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.
           
 

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Susan Boyd

Here's a tale of two games. In game one, the kids begin with a serious sit down session with the coach who critiques the last game and voices the expectations for this game. Warm-ups consist of precision drills under the coach's watchful eye. Any mistakes and the drills stop abruptly to make corrections and point out failures. When the game begins, the parents prowl the sidelines barking instructions at the players. The coach likewise paces the opposite sideline always yelling out some direction or disfavor, and occasionally engaging the referee about a call. 

At half time the team gathers in the corner of the field for an intense coaching session. When the game restarts the team is scored against immediately and the floodgates of disapproval open with a vengeance. At the end of the game, having won by a goal, the players get reminded of their mental lapse early in the second half and how it nearly cost the team a win. The players cross the field to their parents with heads hung low. On the ride home, they get advice on how they could play better next week. 

In game two the kids arrive and immediately begin shooting balls into the net. After a few minutes the coach gathers them for a jumping jack exercise where they chant "Up, down, don't frown." Parents set up on the sidelines and unfurl a banner reading "Go Tigers!" Each parent has a pom pom and wears a ribbon with their player's name and number. During the game the parents only cheer and all have a good laugh when one team member takes a hearty swipe at the ball in front of the goal, only to miss the ball completely and end up bottom-down in the box. The coach stands and occasionally reminds the team of their positions, and of how they should be passing. When a player comes out of the game, the coach gives a high five and a pat on the back. When a foul is called on a player, the coach says; "That's okay. Just remember not to push."

At half time, the team meets briefly and then returns to the field for some shooting and passing. At the end of the game, having lost by a goal, the coach congratulates them on a game well played, has them shake hands with the opposing team and the referees, and then sends them across the field running to their parents who greet them with cheers and a parent tunnel. During the trip home talk turns to ice cream and what they'll do in the afternoon.
           
As you might have guessed, these were opposing teams in the same game. In one case, the coach and parents set the wrong tone. I'm sure they meant well, still they fell into the trap of believing that intensity equals improvement. But consider this, if you found out that your son's or daughter's teacher spent most of the day just yelling at the kids about their poor performance or poor behavior, you'd be mortified. If those same teachers invited parents into the classroom once a week to stand over the kids and criticize them as they worked, you'd consider the teacher unprofessional. Yet somehow we've been brainwashed to believe that's the way sports should go. Coaches should be gruff and unforgiving and parents should be critical.  Who learns like that? Imagine if Oscar the Grouch was the only character on Sesame Street. I doubt the show would have lasted 40 years. Kids need humor, fun, encouragement and support to learn, whether they're grasping the alphabet or dribbling.
           
Don't we all feel good when we can smile and laugh? These years of youth soccer should create some of your best memories. What you bring to the game dictates what you take from a game. If everything spills out negative you can't expect to have that warm fuzzy feeling later. You make a huge difference in how your child, and even how the team, views the sport. Encourage parents to find ways to make the practices and games fun. Kids should respect the work ethic of learning how to be better soccer players, but they can work and have fun. Even the seven dwarfs managed to whistle on their way down into the mine. Plan team surprises, nominate players to be the boy or girl of the match, reward good practices and attendance at practice, celebrate things together as a team such as birthdays, Columbus Day, first day of fall and spring, anniversary of the first college soccer game, and other events that will both entertain and educate. Organize a trip to a high school, college or professional game. Volunteer the team to be ball boys and girls for a local high school. Scrimmage parents vs. kids. Don't make it all about winning and losing. Let the kids know that you love soccer as much as they do and that your greatest joy is watching them play.
           
If soccer is life, remember that life is short.   Relish every moment. If some of that good humor and positive energy spills into high school and college soccer, that would be awesome. Let the kids develop their intensity for the game over time, but on the sidelines and in your heart, leave some room for joy. Statistically kids laugh 500 times a day, but adults only 15 times. How cool would it be if statisticians had to add an asterisk to that fact: *soccer parents laugh 40 times a day especially while watching practices and games. I'm challenging all of you to keep having fun, keep laughing and keep positive for as long as possible. Let's have people recognize soccer parents by their pronounced laugh lines!
 

Support Your Local Player

Susan Boyd

Conservatively there are over 900 men's college soccer programs taking into account NCAA's Divisions I, II and III and the NAIA. Women have over 650 college soccer programs in the same group. Add to this mix the Christian College Conference, Junior Colleges, and a host of independent college soccer programs and you'll end up with nearly double the numbers. Assuming that colleges need to fill around six spots on their teams each year, you end up with close to 10,000 male and 7,500 female soccer players needed each year to fill the college soccer ranks. Therefore, if your son or daughter wants to play college soccer, chances are he or she can. The trick is finding the right fit with the coach, the school, and the major. Plus you can't just leap into this search in the summer between sophomore and junior years in college and expect to come out at the end with a roster spot. You need a plan, and you need to initiate it in your child's freshman year. More importantly, you need your soccer club to help your player find the right program.

College searches usually begin just before or during the junior year, but to find a college where a student can also play soccer requires earlier planning. A great place to start is on the major amateur athletic Web sites: www.ncaa.org (National College Athletic Association), www.naia.org (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics), www.nccaa.org (National Christian College Athletic Association), and www.njcaa.org (National Junior College Athletic Association).   These Web sites list all the college soccer programs, links to these programs, and information on qualification requirements. As you look through these lists, consider issues of in-state vs. out of state, school size, academic rigor, and successful soccer programs. Create your own list of up to 50 schools with a variety of options. Research the schools' academic and athletic programs so that you can narrow down your search to a dozen. Then write to the soccer coaches and request an unofficial visit as soon as you can. These visits can help you narrow down your choices even further since the coaches can be very frank with your family about the possibility of joining the soccer team and your player can see if he or she feels comfortable with both the coach and the campus. Stay in contact with the coaches you meet because that's the way you let them know that you are truly interested in the program. Send emails after a game to congratulate the team on a strong victory or to commiserate with them over an unexpected defeat.

All of this research and all of these visits will do you no good if the coaches don't have an opportunity to see players in action. Here's where your club is of utmost importance. If your son or daughter is playing in a select club, you should expect the following from your club. First, they should be taking the team to the best soccer showcases they can enter beginning with U-14 for girls and with U-15 for boys. You should attend one or two showcases the first year and then at least three in the following years. Second, your club should have a Web site with player profiles that coaches can access through a password, and your club should be printing off a booklet of profiles to hand out to college coaches at the tournaments. Third, your club should hold college recruiting seminars every spring and fall and provide an excel spreadsheet to every player of regional colleges with coaches' email addresses set up as links. Fourth, prior to every tournament, the club will receive a list of college coaches who have registered to be in attendance. They should pass that list on to the players in the form of another spreadsheet with linked email addresses so players can invite coaches to come to their games.   Fifth, when asked, your coach should be able to provide for you a letter of recommendation. Sixth, your team manager or a designated parent should be keeping statistics of every game so that you will have an easily accessed record of both the team's accomplishments and individual player accomplishments. Finally your club should have strong contacts with local college coaches facilitating conversations about potential recruits from the club. Your club should be "selling" your son or daughter every opportunity it has.

Too many clubs neglect the next step that a player can take in soccer. They fail to realize that part of development is helping the player move forward beyond the club. On the other hand, most clubs recognize the marketing value of a player who moves on to college soccer as evidenced by such listings on their Web sites. Some clubs just aren't willing to make the investment necessary to assist all interested players in getting to the next level. It's a shame because so many good players end up abandoning their soccer careers at high school graduation or praying that a walk-on tryout will result in a roster spot.

Given the numbers, playing college soccer can be a very real possibility for many kids. Division I soccer could be difficult to attain, but terrific opportunities exist at Division II and III as well as through other college and junior college athletic associations. However, you'll need good planning, perseverance, and strong support from your club. Don't be shy about asking what the club is willing to do for your player and don't be shy about encouraging the club to do more. They are the conduit through which your player may or may not pass into college soccer. A club's neglect of this conduit shouldn't be acceptable. If they want to list the players who move on to college soccer, then they need to be willing to provide the support to make it happen.
 

Snack time

Susan Boyd

Happy soccer gremlins will soon be clamoring for those after practice and after game snacks that parents agree to supply. Snacks once consisted of a bag of orange quarters and a jug of water.   I don't know about any of you, but I'm the mom who realizes on the way to practice that she signed up for snacks that day. I really think that's why oranges and water became so popular. I, and others like me, could leave the engine running in the grocery parking lot, grab the bag of Clementines and the gallon of water, and be back on the way to the fields before the boys had finished tying their cleats. But slowly the tide turned and oranges and water simply screamed, "This woman doesn't plan ahead."

Here's the deal. Snacks need to be nutritional, cost effective, delicious, and avoid common childhood allergies like nuts. Oranges and water fit those criteria, but they didn't fit the final and possibly most important criterion – snacks need to have a "wow" factor. Somewhere along the line responsible, thoughtful, prepared moms and dads started baking muffins, packing Gogurts in coolers, distributing full granola bars, providing individual boxes of natural cereal, and otherwise making snack time into a Top Chef competition. My bag of oranges opened on the hood of my car being sliced with a 1" pocket knife attached to my nail clippers didn't fit into the epicurean banquet other parents provided.

Navigating this snack track can be tricky for those of us who don't visit the gourmet snack aisle and who have to use the circuit breaker to turn our ovens on and off. I would bake. I really would.  But every time I turn the oven on the timer beeper screeches continually. So obviously I can't leave the oven on for the length of time it takes to heat up and then to bake. Our dogs can't take the high-pitched agony. So I moved from oranges to fruit snacks and from water to juice boxes. They aren't fancy, but at least they have their own packaging, which seems to be a part of the current snack requirements.

The only advice I can give any new soccer parent is let your own kids guide you. I'm amazed at how acutely even four and five year old kids have their fingers on the pulse of coolness. While I thought animal cracker boxes would be an ideal snack, my boys nixed that misconception. "What? Do you think we're three?" I have learned that the more bizarre the snack, the better, especially for boys. In other words regular fruit roll ups won't cut it, but fluorescent green alien roll ups pass the test. Square juice boxes send out nerd vibes, but wax bottles or foil packs get the thumbs up. Grapes seem to muster approval, as do bananas on occasion. I do get confused as to when bananas are an appropriate offering. I've been known to bring home bunches of bananas only to be told, "You can't bring those to practice!" When I ask why not I merely get the eye roll that says, "You'll never understand."   It appears to be a generational thing. 

I once brought a box of popcorn balls to an indoor tournament which got lots of positive feedback except from the mother who was a dentist. Undeterred I have gone the popcorn ball route a few other times. I don't make the popcorn balls. That would require far too much planning and creating. But I was fortunate enough to get in on a "20 popcorn balls for $5" special at my grocery store right after Halloween. I have learned that popcorn balls never expire. In the future we are guaranteed that cockroaches, Twinkies, and popcorn balls will survive, although only one can be considered an appropriate soccer snack.