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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". 

 

Sticks and Stones

Susan Boyd

For some inexplicable reason I have been watching "American Idol" this season. Other than some of the preliminary rounds with all the awkward, tone deaf William Hungs believing they can actually win a recording contract, I've pretty much ignored the program. This year the nephew of one of my husband's patients, Danny Gokey, is on the show, so I guess that's the curiosity. What I've discovered is that the real point of the series isn't for the contestants to win. No, it's for the public to judge them and not just with a weekly vote. Idol bashing has risen to the status of a new public sport. Each contestant is run through the ridicule mill facing criticism about wardrobe, dance, tattoos, voice, facial hair, hair, hair color, and personality. Simon Cowell doesn't even figure in these slam downs. Normally thoughtful and rational people suddenly become nasty, back-biting fiends when they discuss the show.

Reality shows in general bring out the armchair critic in us. We have an opinion about every aspect of someone's else life just because we can. Having "The Bachelor" in our living rooms one hour a week for twelve weeks gives us the right to decide who his wife should be. We can get as upset about someone getting voted out of the tribe as we would if it were our own mother being sent to the gulags. So perhaps it is no surprise that we find ourselves offering up our critiques on an eight year old's ability to pass under pressure or a coach's choices for the starting line-up. We have been validated as experts. After all, the fate of America's Idol rests in our hands!

We live in a media world where people's fates can be decided with the beep of a buzzer or a cell phone call to the number on the screen. We zap our enemies instantly on the video screen. We can order anything (and I mean that literally) on Ebay with a few clicks of our mouse. So it's no wonder we think we have the right to offer running commentary on our child's soccer game.

Stand on the side lines of any soccer game and you will hear a chorus of opinions freely and loudly expressed. We criticize the opponents. We criticize our fellow players. We criticize the coaches. We criticize the referees. We even criticize the parents. You've heard the comments and, admit it, you've made the comments. "He can't pass." "She's a ball hog." "I swear I could coach better than he can." And those are the just the observations I can repeat on a family web site.  The more passionate we become, the more X-rated the vocalizations grow. We forget we aren't in our living room shouting at the screen, "He's an idiot for picking her." When we're at the soccer field we're in a crowd of people who actually love "the idiot" and think he's doing a bang up job.

Most players are too young and too innocent to be the object of our judgment. How often have you spent the ride home in the car critiquing the entire game and judging the individual player performances?  Such evaluations can model for our impressionable children undesirable behaviors. They are learning to aim the magnifying glass at others, rather than on themselves. And if you think those comments don't spread beyond the car, then you live in a fool's paradise. Of course sometimes we make our comments public. Sideline chatter regularly turns to assessments of the players, frequently focusing on the opposition. The problem is that in the close confines those comments might be overheard by the parent of our target. Those stinging remarks can affect relationships not to mention stirring up immediate conflict. I've seen my share of sideline battles brought on by an overheard observation. I came close to erupting when someone accused my eleven year old son of "flopping." I was surprised at how much I was personally offended by the remark. It showed me the power of words.

We grow up hearing "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," which is a noble concept and totally unrealistic. Words hurt us all the time. We have all been the object of some form of ridicule which you think would give us pause when dishing it out. But our culture and the sense that in this huge world we are somehow anonymous embolden us. We may express our views in hushed tones under our breath to the person next to us and believe it won't go any further, but the grape vine curls everywhere. Our words have tremendous power to harm. While we'll never be able to totally stop the urge to criticize, we can all try to be more mindful of where and when we exercise our expertise. So keep delivering those reality show verdicts. After all, Simon Cowell's balance sheet depends on your continued disparagement of the contestants.
 

Sports Complex

Susan Boyd

My three year old granddaughter plays shy around everyone, but put on some Little Richard and the girl goes wild. She bobs, weaves, claps, hops, twists, and twirls. Every inhibition she showed moments before melts away in the pounding piano chords and wails of the music. The girl can't help herself. This need to move about and use our bodies begins prenatal. Every mother and father knows about the kicks and rustles of their child in the womb. Some swear babies react to music and activity before birth. Once released into the world, babies definitely love to flail their limbs about.

So sports are a natural outlet for children. Tumbling tops the charts for the really young, but several team sports are now available for children as young as three. Parents, fearing they might miss a window of opportunity for their budding athletes, rush to get them into as many sports as possible. Adding to the pressure to do it all are TV programs which highlight precocious youngsters who golf with pros at age five or play junior national tennis at eight. However, the majority of kids are playing sports for which they have no idea of the rules or even that games are governed by rules. Either they or their parents or both just like the activity.

Youth sports are a booming business increasing every year as more and more kids and parents clamor for a wide variety of options. Over 41 million kids are involved in youth sports with many of those playing multiple sports. Lacrosse has increased from 82,000 players in 2001 to 204,000 players in 2005.  USA Hockey has 350,000 members.  Little League has close to 2.2 million players. US Youth Soccer registers 3.2 million players a year and CNN reports that the total number of youth soccer players may be as high as 17 million! Add the kids participating in recreational sports such as skateboarding, skiing, and bicycling and the numbers explode.

There was a time when play meant "Go outside until dinner." This unstructured play allows kids room for imagination and for taking pride in their own undirected accomplishments. After building a deck onto our house we had a huge collection of odds and ends of wood, nails, chicken wire, brackets, and metal. We became the hardware store for the neighborhood.   Kids would come into our garage and pull out materials for building skateboard ramps, hideouts, and boxes to capture insects and frogs. Projects in various states of completion filled our courtyard and provided hours of intense involvement. Then there was the day we got a huge box with some delicate china pieces wrapped in literally miles of bubble wrap. The kids ended up laying the wrap out on the road and riding their bikes over it making the most amazing music out of snap, crackle, and pop. Those experiences have their place building memories and developing reasoning and discovery skills.

However more and more we are shifting to organized sports as parents feel the peer pressure to ride the youth sports wave. We fear our kids will miss out on popularity or being part of the group if they aren't in every conceivable sport available. We need to be careful not to transfer that pressure to our kids by over scheduling. Kids end up facing conflicting practices and games and the rush to do it all. The best lesson we can give our children is that of fully completing a commitment. Letting kids miss a practice for one sport so they can play in a game of another sport teaches them that they are above the team and their needs come first. That's the exact opposite of the principles kids should be learning from sports. And let's face it, most of our tiny athletes won't turn out to be sports celebrities, but we do want them to grow up to be honorable human beings. We need to be reinforcing the idea of teamwork, commitment, making choices, and respecting rules and leaders while giving kids the room to have down time.

Balancing multiple spots is possible if you use the seasons to subdivide and conquer. Kids can play soccer in the spring and football in the fall. Or do soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring. It's our job to keep track of what conflicts exist and guide them to decide which sport they will choose for the season, but make it clear they can't do them all at once. Indulging them sends the wrong message and leads to huge headaches later when the conflicts can't be resolved. Sports for kids under 12 should be primarily for exercise, giving them a taste of possibilities, and for learning the life lessons that sports offer.

Most doctors and physical therapists will support keeping a variety of sports in a child's life for as long as possible. The argument is that specialization too early will result in repetition injuries and uneven body development during the growing years. While I agree with the physical reasons not to specialize, I really think the best argument is that kids need experiences to enrich their lives and lay a strong foundation for future decisions.  Every sport opens the door to new friends and new ideas. I'm a soccer junkie, and I wish all my grandkids would eventually select soccer as a sport they wish to continue into adolescence, but I'm also a realist.   Not every kid is an athlete and not every athlete has the same strengths and interests. Even multi-sport athletes, who are few and far between, have one sport in which they excel even if they have strong abilities in other sports. No child can discover what part of her body responds best athletically and how her body will grow until she's much older. Tennis has a different skill set and body type than football, so kids need to complete their development before being able to wisely select a personal sport. Until then, they should try out as many sports as scheduling and finances allow.

Parents need to also accept that sports may not be the arena where their child's talents shine. Not doing well at sports doesn't mean the child is a failure. Unfortunately we have a "jock" culture which places athletes on a more visible if not higher pedestal than those who achieve in the arts or the sciences. Not many kids want to wear an "Einstein" endorsed button-down shirt, while every third child sports a Bret Favre jersey. Yet we have to keep in mind that lack of public adulation doesn't diminish the accomplishments and contributions non-athletes make to our lives. There's an art culture out there and a math culture and any number of other cultures which our children can join. We would do well to challenge our players with those opportunities also.   Pick a season to do pottery classes or go to science camp. 

It all comes down to providing the widest possible range of experiences we can for our kids. Sports should be a portion of that range but not overtake it. In reality most kids will not pursue sports into high school and even fewer will continue beyond high school. But sports will provide the foundation for good health and strong bodies. Sports can offer an outlet for the rest of our lives. So we should give kids several options in their early years. We should temper it all with free time and other pursuits. We don't want to give any kid a complex from sports; instead we want to give them the intellectual and motivational skills to someday design and build a sports complex. 
 

Be Careful

Susan Boyd

My wise grandmother used to say, "Be careful what you wish for." I had plenty of examples where the adage proved appropriate throughout my life. When I grew to 5' 8" in the third grade, my wish to be tall seemed ill-considered. My desire to have long hair had a tragic outcome when I fell asleep chewing a wad of bubble gum. Begging my dad to bring home the cat who had wandered into our campsite on Vashon Island looked like a major victory until she insisted on giving birth to a litter of kittens twice a year in my bed. So when our soccer club had a meeting about traveling tournaments, I thought it would be a fun family activity and enthusiastically voted to let the Under-10 teams be part of the planning without considering the consequences.

I still say that my initial support of the plan had a reasoned argument and plenty of support from other parents. But few of us had the benefit of hindsight and those who did were considered wet blankets for dissenting. Ah, what a difference five years makes. If I had it all to do over again, I would have socked away the cost of those traveling events until Bryce and Robbie reached Under-15. I would have had a great start on a college fund or the opportunity to pay for a flight on Richard Branson's out of the atmosphere rocket ship in 2011. In their place I do have some great memories, lots of miles on the van, and a detailed personal knowledge of most Midwest cities over 50,000 in population.

The temptation to rush into traveling for soccer locks on to our sensibilities early. We watch the older teams planning so eagerly for those traveling tournaments and we want our kids to have the same opportunity. The argument could be made that tournaments provide increased competition. But there are tournaments close enough to home that will fit the bill and don't require hotel rooms and plane tickets. That exotic allure of spending a three day weekend in Evansville or Dayton quickly fizzles under the logistics of making those trips. Family togetherness flies out the window when the daughter is playing in Collinsville and the son has a band concert at home.   While most families are willing to take on a foster kid or two on these trips, it still means a weekend without sharing the experience.

Sometimes the strain of missing local activities can make a child decide to quit soccer. Kids might miss the 7th grade dance or Easter with the cousins in order to attend tournaments. Not many 12 year olds enjoy making tough life decisions before they reach full puberty. While all commitments do require some sacrifice, there really isn't a reason for kids to sacrifice their social life and parents to sacrifice their money before the player reaches age 15.

For the sake of sanity, I encourage most soccer teams to forego the long-distance tournaments for local events (less than a three hour drive). That allows families to drive back and forth and save the cost of hotels. Kids can still enjoy their social life, families can still spend time together even with multiple commitments, and everyone can ease into the constraints of travel. Slowing down allows players to find out if they want to give up entire weekends just for soccer. Once a team reaches Under-15, then players have usually decided to take the challenge of select soccer seriously. Therefore players need to start being noticed by college coaches. The time has then come to take off the floaters, abandon the shallow end, and immerse fully. Now the travel makes full sense.

I have seen tournaments with divisions down to Under-8. While I applaud the diversity, I also encourage moderation. If the Under-8 tournament is close enough to home, why not give it a try. Players can embrace the one shining positive we have taken from all our tournaments and that is enlarging our circle of soccer friends. Over the years we've had the chance to watch players grow alongside our sons and enjoyed catching up on the sidelines with the parents. But traveling for traveling sake doesn't up the ante for skill development, player growth, or competition. Teams training daily for two to three hours would have more impact on player development than attending three or four traveling tournaments in a year.

One of the arguments about soccer has been that it has become too expensive. Yet the real expense of soccer ends up being the long trips teams make. No one needs classy expensive uniforms, they can train on community fields, and league fees are usually insignificant when split among all members. Coaching makes up the remaining and biggest expense, but players do get the biggest bang for their buck. For whatever it costs to attend a distant tournament players could get ten or fifteen hours of private coaching. Split that among a team and it translates to fifteen to eighteen times as much coaching. So the true advantage of a tournament is the opportunity to be exposed to college coaches and to the highest levels of competition. Those two goals are both admirable and necessary, but not until a player is older.

Although my grandmother never saw a soccer game in her life, her sage advice rings true for any soccer family. Measure your wishes by the true benefit. Don't be afraid to proceed slowly when it comes to upping the ante for your child's participation. You can't go wrong wishing the best for your child, just be sure that what you wish for is the best for them.
 

A Safe Bet

Susan Boyd

A Safe Bet
 
I don't usually tempt fate. I change my oil every 3,000 miles, I buy travel insurance, I never step on cracks. But sometimes fate doesn't require tempting; it just appears. Robbie had a tournament this past weekend in Las Vegas so we had to travel on Friday the 13th. When we checked into the hotel we were given rooms on the 13th floor. If I was a gambling person I probably should have bet big, but I'm not. Like I said, I don't tempt fate.

Las Vegas didn't cooperate on the weather. Even a contingent of Wisconsinites resorted to hats, gloves, and winter coats. Nevertheless it was a pleasure to finally watch the boys play outdoors for the first time in three months. Watching the players laugh, run, and jostle reminded me of young colts let out of the stable for the first time. Their energy is boundless.

Despite the fact that the tournament included only Under-15 through Under-19 boys and girls, young players crowded the sidelines and empty green spaces with impromptu play. Some of those dribbling the ball had just learned to walk, yet they showed great finesse streaking between the fields. Three of my grandchildren live in Vegas, so they came to watch. Even though they have had limited exposure to soccer, within minutes of me pulling out a size 3 ball from my bag, they were dribbling and passing like the three, five, and eight year old pros they had suddenly become. The generosity of inclusion quickly follows as other kids in the area join in. 

I don't know if my Vegas grandchildren will end up playing soccer like their uncles. But I like the fact that they find the same joy and exercise in the sport for the time being. I'm resigned that my oldest grandson in Ohio will probably be a baseball player, though there's still hope for his younger sibling who seems to love soccer.  What I do want to see happen is that all of them participate in some sport. It's unlikely that they will all end up playing through high school. Despite some natural athleticism, they also need the passion for the sport. Their passions may end up being music, or art, or science. Nevertheless, I hope they all participate in sports in their youngest years.

Watching what I call "run and screech" time with the kids, I recognize the benefits that organized sports offer. While kids can benefit from unstructured activities on occasion, they gain other significant benefits from structured exercise. Playing on a team or even doing an individual sport teaches kids the discipline of commitment, the humility of defeat, and the pride of victory. Kids learn to listen to instruction, to watch themselves improve, and to set goals for future successes. Sports provide good health. Sports also provide one outlet for parental support and praise. 

I also saw how kids' enthusiasm can be quashed quickly. Two boys about five and six were kicking around the soccer ball behind me before one of the games. The boys were inventing games to play such as "stand on the ball and pop it out" and "dribble backwards." They were definitely enjoying their unstructured "run and screech" time, when Dad intervened by insisting they play by the rules. He spent a great deal of time organizing the two of them to face one another in combat with goals laid out on the grass between chairs and coats. Like a leak in a balloon, the enthusiasm seeped out leaving two deflated young players suddenly laboring rather than cavorting. With the best of intentions parents hope for the perfection of greatness, but it's the imperfect moments that often provide the most fun and the greatest growth.  While sports can demand refinement of skills, sports for youngsters should emphasize participation, joy, and broader rewards such as good health and sportsmanship. Parents can relax knowing that their responsibility isn't to teach. They just need to provide the opportunity and cheer from the sidelines. If a sport becomes a passion, that passion grows in the child internally and can be nurtured later.

If I were a betting woman, I'd bet that most of the kids, both young and old, on those fields will never end up playing soccer past high school if even that long. I would also bet that most of the kids, if left to their own devices, will remember their soccer days fondly. The absolute benefit of youth soccer unfolds in the unbridled moments on the field when the players just enjoy one another and the play. Remembering that in any pursuit only a very few will arrive at the pinnacle of success means recognizing that for most the pursuit should be fun, low in pressure, and contribute to a player's sense of self-worth. If we melt away all the elite programs and just focus on the majority of players in youth soccer who participate because they want to be part of a team, want to taste some victory, want to have some exercise, and want to enjoy a family experience, then I bet we can all appreciate the true value of youth sports. It's a winning bet. Remember, I don't like to tempt fate.