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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". 

 

The Soccer Train

Susan Boyd

Today I decided to clean my stove. I'm expecting several groups of visitors over the next few weeks, so I felt the pressure to give the top a good cleaning. I've had this stove for 19 years, and I will probably have it another 19 despite the fact that on HGTV people are enthusiastically remodeling kitchens that I would consider an upgrade just as they are. So I got out my scrubbing pad, cleanser, and lint-free cloth for what I thought would be a 15 minute job. 90 minutes later I was done, unless you count the fact that the self-cleaning oven still had two hours to go. 

The cleaning turned into a terrible virus infecting my behavior. As I scrubbed the burners I noticed that the entire unit lifted out. Underneath lurked an accumulation of scraps, grease, and dust not to mention baked on globs along the sides. As I dug into that pit, my feverish swirls of cleanser spilled over to the vent between the burners and the grill (yes, I have a grill, so you can imagine where this will lead). I lifted up the vent cover and discovered a filter that was surprisingly not too bad – I must have cleaned it within the year – but it hid a canyon smudged with more grease and crumbs. That carried me over to the grill, a tangle of charcoal plates, heating elements, drain pan, and grill covers. I also decided what the heck and started the self-cleaning oven. As I washed the charcoal plates in my white porcelain sink I left black streaks that I had to scrub up later, and then when I carried the filthy cloth over to the washer I noticed that the machine could do with a wipe down of its own.

I tell this story because while I was cleaning I had lots of time to ruminate on the world, my life, dreams of winning the lottery, and soccer. I came to a realization: Cleaning my stove parallels youth soccer involvement. You begin with your son or daughter in a group of four and five year olds who can barely kick the ball and are directionally challenged when it comes to which goal they should be charging. And you end up with your children on a traveling team so it comes down to a new stove or a trip to North Carolina.   With insidious cunning soccer draws us from burners to burner wells to filters to grills to sinks to washing machines while we still await the completion of the self-cleaning oven. 

I didn't need to so wholeheartedly clean my stove. But I wanted to see if I could get it looking nearly new again, and I did. So I had a goal that was driving me to continue. The same is true for those who move ever more steadily to the higher levels of soccer with its increased demands and costs. If it's something your child wants to do and shows the commitment to do it, then hop on board and enjoy the ride. If you like the way things are going and don't want more, then by all means don't get sucked into higher levels of soccer just for the prestige element of being on a select team.

While I don't mean to suggest that only the very best and most dedicated soccer players should play select, I do want to leave the door open for the possibility that not every player should get on the select train. Even very athletic and gifted children opt for recreational soccer because their real love is baseball or swimming. They want the experience of playing, love to play, but have another course in mind when it comes to pursuing advanced levels of sport. I succumbed to the pressure to polish up my stove, but I could have just as easily said I'd do it another day. Lord knows I've been good at that over the last 19 years. My visitors might have whispered a few comments about the dirty stove, or they might never have noticed. Either way, I would still be the same person.

Many of the fans of the game never seriously played the game. That's true of every sport. As parents we need to figure out why we have our kids on a team. If our sons and daughters have a real passion and talent for the game, then it makes sense to give in to that select journey. If they want to continue playing with their friends and can make the team, then by all means they should do it. When Bryce's team dissolved between U14 and U-15 the coach of the recreational team in our club offered Bryce a spot. We considered it for awhile. Robbie was still playing in the same club, it would let Bryce stay with some of his friends, and it would hardly cost anything. As we talked it over the next few days it became clear that Bryce was hesitant to join this team. He had his eye on college soccer and he felt that this would create a stumbling block to his goal. So we turned the coach down and spent the next four months searching for a select team. The decision was driven by Bryce and in the end it was the right decision.            

My analogy does break down in one aspect. Unless you are Martha Stewart or Mr. Clean the job I did this morning can be satisfying but hardly joyful and devoid of anything you would want to remember, unlike soccer which brings our family great joy and lots of good memories. However, like my cleaning, we started out thinking that soccer would be simple - something the boys could do with the neighborhood kids that would fill a few hours with exercise and activity. Then progressively it became one of the predominant pursuits in our family. We were lucky because we embraced the increased level of commitment. Not everyone does. Not everyone should because happily other options exist in youth soccer to satisfy varying levels of participation.

Youth Soccer Month is coming up in September. As we approach the activities of the month we need to consider that despite the heavy emphasis on select soccer, youth soccer embraces all levels of competition and involvement. Every child who wants to play the game should be able to play. Every community should strive to provide soccer for everyone's interests and skills. I've been pleased to see that tournaments have been created just for recreational teams, giving them the experience of travel and regional competition without the same stresses and demands. Ultimately it comes down to making the best choices for our children and our families. We can hop on the soccer train but we need to figure out how far we'll go.
             
 

Keeping it Positive

Susan Boyd

Today I heard the song "Charlie Brown" while eating lunch and one line struck me. After the chorus, a baritone voice intones, "Why is everybody always picking on me?" I know soccer players feel that way more times than they care to admit. They get told what to do, what they did wrong, what they could have done, why they can't live up to expectations, and when they should just get lost – often all in the same sentence. Sometimes the criticism comes in the form of well-intentioned enthusiastic involvement from fans and teammates and sometimes it's just mean spirited bullying. The results are confusion, self-doubt, and frustration.

I've watched pint-sized players spin their heads around like they were auditioning for "The Exorcist." The coach on the sidelines barks an order, grandpa on the opposite sideline offers his take on the situation, dad behind the net suggests an alternative theory, and Penny running towards the goal issues her own request. By the time little Jenny filters everything through her brain and tries to do what she feels is the right move, the moment has passed and a whole new retinue of commands have been issued. How can six-year-old Derrick possibly know what to do when it is raining instruction? He ends up taking two steps forward, two steps back, and never doing anything other than look panicked. While we all mean well with our "encouraging words," we actually end up contributing to a bunch of white noise. 

Once we recognize how we are creating confusion we can censor ourselves and focus on more generalized support such as "great job" and "way to go." But unfortunately some of the sideline comments dissolve into belittling.   This denigration could be classified as bullying because it elicits the same response in those player recipients. We are so used to shouting at the TV or anonymously in a baseball stadium of 45,000 that we forget the things we bellow on the sidelines can be heard by the players who aren't seasoned professionals hardened to comments and financially compensated for their participation. These are young kids with developing egos who want to please and worry they are failures if they can't. Parents tearing down a kid can cause great harm. One of Robbie's friends left a team because a teammate's father tore into him so often and so vehemently that he just couldn't play any longer in those circumstances. His coach tried to help, but he couldn't be on both sides of the field. Despite numerous requests to tone it down, this dad seemed unable to. The best control can come from other parents who talk to offenders and get them to see the error of their ways. We all have a responsibility to protect the kids on the field especially those who aren't yet in high school.

It's not just adults who have a problem. A player can become a bully if he or she doesn't feel a teammate is fulfilling his or her responsibilities on the field. Someone may end up picking on a player on the field and then continue the abuse off the field as well. Such behavior needs to be dealt with. Coaches should clearly establish the boundaries for team banter and they need to adamantly oppose any sort of bullying. As parents we need to listen to our children to hear any evidence of being bullied or being a bully and then we need to address it.  Young players get influenced by the frenzy to win that they experience watching professional teams in the company of their parents. They want to find a scapegoat if the team isn't doing well, so a player could be targeted. While support from the fans creates a positive atmosphere for a team, it's probably more important that the players have a positive attitude with one another. For young players teammates are also friends, so the ramifications of being bullied extend beyond practices and games.

When a game goes badly it's natural for frustrations bubble to the surface. None of us are perfect, but we can all aspire to be better. As players get older and games count more for things like the US Youth Soccer National Championship Series and high school championships and tournament trophies the positive comments get peppered with criticism and "suggestions." With older teams, the players are more serious about the sport and often have aspirations beyond high school, so they will face more and more of the fan reactions pro players get.   But we do need to be respectful of our youngest players and keep it positive. Rather than a melancholy refrain, we should be hearing, "I'm glad everybody's always supporting me."
 

You Can't Prepare for Everything

Susan Boyd

Right now I am on an extended road trip which is ranging farther than any soccer trip we have made. On the plus side we are seeing parts of the country we have previously only flown over. On the down side we are trapped in a car for long stretches of time traveling through long empty expanses of landscape. All too often an exit sign will have as an auxiliary notice "no services for 106 miles." During a particularly desolate part of our journey in Utah the check engine light came on. Those of you who have followed my blog for awhile know that I had a Toyota van which I drove for three and a half years with the check engine light blazing. So with the hubris of experience, we continued on our journey on roads that rose from elevations of 2000 feet to 9000 feet and back down along long twists of no service. We assumed it was a faulty gas cap since we had just gotten gas when the light came on. According to the service book we had either put in the wrong type of gas (we didn't), or driven through a deep mud puddle shorting the electrical (it was 111 degrees out so that wasn't likely), or had a leaky gas cap.

Upon arriving in Las Vegas we took the car to a dealership where the mechanic also said, "Oh, it's just your gas cap. Give it a few cycles of readings to reset." And he was ready to send us on our way, but I asked if they had time to run the electronic diagnostic. An hour later we discovered that the clutch had burned out and by some act of mercy had not failed in the high plains desert. So after a day of repairs, we were ready to set out again.

Technically this qualifies as a soccer trip because I am delivering Robbie to college to play. So a lot of the same standards I have set for making soccer trips held true.  Since many of you will be departing soon for those late summer/early fall tournaments I'll just highlight some of the things you'll want to be sure to have in your car. I put these in a box that I can easily take out of the car if I want to leave it in the garage and which I can quickly pack into the car when the trips demand. Be sure you have toilet paper and paper towels. Believe me you'll thank me for this suggestion when you are faced with a row of portable toilets devoid of paper. Pack some wet ones preferably with alcohol for disinfecting. A good first aid kit can't be neglected which includes scissors, tape, a roll of gauze, and a finger splint besides band-aids, cortisone cream, pain relievers, anti-bacterial, rubber gloves, and cotton swabs. Include extra shin guards, shorts, underwear, and socks. Add a small pump and extra needles. Bring black and red electrical tape to change or add numbers on the back of shirts. Drop one or two small umbrellas in the corners of the box. Complete your kit with sunscreen and bug spray. I also throw in some brimmed hats to help when the parents' sideline faces directly into the sun. For later in the season and for the spring, you'll want to include a blanket and some plastic bags to line the car floor and to collect muddy uniforms. Bring lots and lots of water. I'm trying to wean myself from bottled water for the sake of the environment, so you might want to fill a few metal water bottles at home or bring a gallon jug of water to fill bottles at the fields. 

As some of you also know, I am always on the hunt for the perfect soccer chair. My last purchase was a chair that included a roof. During this past spring I kept very dry even during some rough downpours. But last week while leafing through a catalog I came across a chair where the seat was heated! It was a folding aluminum chair with a small side table for setting drinks and cell phones and on the opposite arm hung a bag with a multitude of pockets for books, programs, and odds and ends. Alas it lacked a roof, but a golf umbrella would fix that. All I would have to do is charge the chair up the night before and it would keep the charge for four hours. It also came with a car charger so I could refresh it while driving. I may order it once I get back home. That is if I survive this trip. I still have to make it three quarters of the way back across America and there are plenty of moving parts on the car that can break down.

This is my way of saying that no matter how much you prepare, the unexpected shoots down your preparations. I had a mechanic go over the car two nights before we left, but there was no way he could check the clutch. No matter how big your soccer box grows it will never cover every problem. So you have to latch on to the positives and forgive yourself for not having infallible foresight. Despite the crises of this trip, we have also made some special memories. Coming out of the Rockies we descended through Glenwood Canyon, where the space to place the freeway was so narrow, they had to construct a viaduct with the westbound traffic on top where the views were. So we lucked out on some spectacular sight-seeing. We also stopped in Utah at an off the road viewpoint to discover an amazing hidden canyon and huge red ripples of stone rising thousands of feet from the valley below us. Robbie ventured down to the edge of the canyon while I resisted the urge to say "that's far enough." He discovered a huge Utah Banded Gecko (we looked it up that night on the internet) that had bright orange and pink speckles. Outside of Denver we stopped at a restaurant for lunch and as we were leaving the restaurant a voice shouts, "Hey, Robbie Boyd!" A classmate from his high school in Milwaukee Wisconsin was eating lunch there with his parents. Now that's as serendipitous as you get - and a good conversation generator for several miles down the road.
 

Loyalty

Susan Boyd

As belts tightened across the nation, soccer clubs are no more immune to budget concerns than any family or organization. Most clubs operated on a thin margin of financial viability even in boom times, so they acutely feel the pinch now.   You'll hear the mantra of "loyalty" more incessantly than ever as clubs try to maintain membership and to attract more members. Unfortunately loyalty from the club's perspective is a one-way obligation and families who have given years of service to a club can find their sons and daughters cut from their teams when select tryouts are complete.  Ironically loyalty is a fickle concept.

Coaching directors brush off any criticism with "that's the way it is in the world of soccer." They are correct as far as professional clubs go. But this is youth soccer without paid contracts, sports agents, and back room negotiations. Soccer teams provide more than just a place to train and hopefully win. They provide a social center where parents feel strongly connected. Being cut from a team can be like being ostracized from a community. Youth clubs need to both expect and honor loyalty by being loyal themselves or they need to accept they can't offer loyalty in return so stop demanding it from their players and families. All too often youth clubs only want the pendulum to swing one direction. Loyal, but unskilled players rarely get consideration for their loyalty. On the swing side we all know the "star" player who misses practices, whose family rarely volunteers, and who bad-mouths the players and the coach, yet starts every game. Under the umbrella of loyalty, families expect fairness, they expect that the rules will apply to every player, and they expect some consideration for their loyalty. But youth clubs continue to apply the professional standard to their choices exposing loyal members to dismissal, while expecting members to accept the risk they may be cut, blindly stay true in the name of loyalty until then and not pursue better opportunities when they come up.

If clubs want to operate like professional teams bumping off players without consideration to their loyalty, then they have to accept the converse: that every day professional players defect from the club that nurtured them, gave them the biggest salary, and put up with their shenanigans. When another club dangles a more lucrative contract, loyalty flies out the window. Kids read and hear about this all the time, so they know how the real world works. It should be no surprise to youth clubs when a player leaves for his or her own reasons since these same clubs are willing to cut a kid when it serves their purposes. 

US Youth Soccer and local State Associations have attempted to put in rules that will temper this cut-throat atmosphere. But every rule has a thousand loopholes that clubs have expertly learned to maneuver. For example there's the rule that coaches can't recruit players in the weeks preceding tryouts. The reality is that recruiting happens all the time, just not directly by the coaches. Robbie got hand-written personal invitations from parents of players in other clubs asking him to consider trying out and touting the club's accomplishments. While the notes were clearly following a template created by someone in the club no one could fault the club for a recruiting violation. After all this was just a proud parent exercising his or her right to free speech! Even players will approach other players after a game in an attempt to get them to consider joining their team, a tactic that works much better if the recruiting team beats the player's team. And players on their own decide to make a switch without any recruiting happening at all. One family on Robbie's first select team was subjected to threats of a lawsuit because they "defected" and were made to endure dozens of phone calls asking them to admit that the player was recruited illegally when the kid actually left because he couldn't get along with one player. All this anger and politics seem unfitting for youth soccer.

In Wisconsin players have three days to consider an offer from a team, but most coaches will demand an answer the minute they call the player. Coaches will play the loyalty card stating that if the player "really wanted to play for this club" there would be no hesitation. Anxious players, faced with the possibility of not having a team, usually succumb to the pressure and agree immediately even if they are waiting on another team's offer. Coaches will attempt to limit where a player tries out by threatening that if a player doesn't show up for all days of try outs she forfeits the opportunity to play for the club. Players are supposed to be free to try out for any and all teams they want, but the reality is that they put their eggs in one basket because of intimidation. Naturally, most top players don't face intimidation because clubs recognize those players have the power to pick and choose.   So the equity that the rules attempt to create doesn't exist.

Loyalty to a club can be a noble concept, but turns out to be impractical as players make different decisions about their soccer future. Robbie's first club team still contains a few players from the original group, while Bryce's first club team completely dissolved at Under-15. Anything can happen with a team, so ultimately families need to decide what's best for them and for their children. There should be no rancor over making a change because change happens naturally in the course of life. In the case of soccer, players seek different opportunities such as less travel or tougher competition. Players may move because of the "grass is greener" belief or they may move because they want to be with friends. Clubs have no compunction about cutting a player, so families should have no guilt about leaving. Be true to your own ideals and family. Life is too short to sacrifice your own future to the questionable promises and demands of loyalty.