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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". 

 

Bringing Down the House

Susan Boyd

Take one part political rally, another part Mardi Gras, another part pageant drama, and a good twist of sports fever, stir together and serve in an arena seating at least 55,000 people.  That's the rumble that rolled into Chicago last week.  The United States Men's National team faced off against the Honduran Men's National team in a World Cup qualifier at Soldier Field.  For over two hours the venue became the same powerhouse of soccer energy that plays out regularly in stadiums throughout the rest of the world, yet usually only shows its full force here during these infrequent U. S. major soccer events.  Nevertheless this opportunity to experience the electric passion that soccer generates gave American patrons a significant introduction to the reason soccer holds a commanding position in the sports world.   Soccer is more than just a game.

Two years ago, when Robbie spent two weeks in Spain playing soccer with the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program, he experienced firsthand the intensity of passion soccer generates.  After a beautiful day spent exploring a mountain top chapel and grotto, he entered the stadium at Barcelona.  He was immediately struck with how the stadium reflected many of the same details he had already witnessed that day.  In the chapel sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows and the flickering candlelight danced off the walls and faces of the worshippers.  In the stadium the setting sun glimmered through the frame of the roof, spilling rosy shafts of light across the seats and the faces of the fans.   Thousands of camera flashes glimmered around the arena while overhead stadium lamps filled the pitch with brilliant light.  Robbie had seen an old woman praying at the chapel, her gnarled hands clasp in supplication.  As he walked to his stadium seats, he saw a man on his knees in a Barcelona jersey fervently praying.  While there weren't crowds in the chapel leaping up and down and bellowing out team chants, the parishioners were joined together by a common bond of worship.  Likewise the fans shared an immediate bond that transcended gender, income, race, and even religion.  For those two hours of the game, every fan shared the same wish and the same loyalty.  No one would suggest that soccer takes the place of faith in anyone's life, but Robbie saw how fans treated soccer with the same serious reverence.

Saturday night a taste of that intensity visited Chicago.  A good percentage of the fans were Honduran.  With a total population of 7.5 million in Honduras I would estimate that .05% were in Chicago at the game.  The U.S. was severely underrepresented, but those who came got a great immersion in "true" soccer.  A kettle drum boomed throughout the game, fans never sat down, flags, scarves, and t-shirts swirled non-stop, and flashes lit up the stands.  Every move of the Honduran team from pre-game to post-game was greeted with a deafening roar.  When the trainers trotted over to the bench, the fans went wild!  The various elements of the experience fed off each other, so that the frenzy of the fans rolled like a wave around and over the arena.  The entire city of Chicago could probably have been lit by the energy generated by the fans.  When Honduras scored in the sixth minute it set off a crescendo of exhilaration that lasted nearly the entire game, even after Landon Donovan successfully scored a PK to tie.  It only waned a bit when a Bocanegra goal sent the U.S. into the lead.  The fact that the home team couldn't generate a larger crowd shows how far soccer stills need to grow here.  Other more marketable sports steal away fans and dollars.  But right now soccer is a great value, so hopefully American fans will recognize what an amazing experience they can have for their admission price.

As the four US Youth Soccer Regional Championships begin, hopefully our youth players will get a taste of the soccer fever that visited the U.S. last week.  In these smaller locations, the international level of fan intensity will seem not only out of place but excessive.  But we can still offer our kids enthusiasm.  As one soccer season winds down and another begins, we can also provide opportunities for our kids to watch matches that don't involve just youth players.  Part of what makes for great fans is that they are educated fans.  That happens by watching games at all levels as often as possible.  Few of us get the chance to go overseas to watch games or attend the World Cup, not to mention World Cup qualifiers, Gold Cup, or professional league games.  But college games are abundant and inexpensive.  Some of the best future players can be seen at these soccer games.  If a major youth tournament comes to your town, take time to go watch a few games.  Many of these tournaments have international youth teams attending where you can possibly catch the new David Beckham or Mia Hamm.  We've had the privilege of seeing many of the present soccer stars when they were just U19 players visiting for a tournament.  No matter the venue, immerse yourself in the games that are readily available throughout America.  Then, at the next international game in the U.S. we won't have to listen to the opposition fans.  We'll bring down the house all on our own.

Follow the moments from the US Youth Soccer Regional and National Championships on http://championships.usyouthsoccer.org  

 

Gutter Balls

Susan Boyd

I saw a television commercial the other night which shows a mom helping her nine or 10 year old son try out a variety of sports albeit unsuccessfully. Football, baseball, tennis, and golf evade this youngster's capabilities. As these various frustrations fade in and out, a chorus provides an inspirational background song. Dissolve to the actual chorus on stage and the mom in the audience basking as the boy steps out of the group and sings his solo like an angel. 
               
I applaud the commercial for reinforcing that every child doesn't need to be a sports specialist. The world needs singers, actors, artists, even writers. I personally couldn't survive without mechanics.   But I think the ad also diminishes participation in sports by equating it with success. Kids need to break a few windows, tear up divots, throttle the ball over the side nets, or boot the ball into the woods before they can develop the finesse to be more accurate and controlled. Sports, like any activity, have a learning curve. No one, not Freddy Adu, not LeBron James, not Florence Joyner, who were sports prodigies, walks for the first time onto a field, a court, or a track fully formed as an athlete.   Letting a child give up on a sport because in the first hour he or she hasn't mastered it sends the message that sports can't be fun unless you're an expert. 
               
I remember our oldest daughter bowling for the first time. She was about seven. She threw the initial ball down the alley which wobbled and rolled into the gutter. She turned around, stomped her foot and declared, "I'm not playing anymore" as she stormed in a huff to the bench. It took us about 20 minutes to convince her to roll the second ball. Thankfully this one painfully sashayed down the lane and precariously hung on the edge of the alley before knocking down two pins. Otherwise, I doubt we would have ever gotten her to try a third time. However, over the next year, with lessons, she ended up requesting her own ball and shoes and had won a patch for beating Earl Anthony (who bowled with his opposite hand) in a three frame contest. She eventually went on to become a ballet dancer and then a fashion merchandiser. She bowls once or twice a year. But she learned to persevere through her novice stage which gave her the confidence to persevere through other frustrating experiences. For a perfectionist such as she is, it was good to learn that success doesn't come immediately nor does past success guarantee future success.
               
This was a lesson learned by Robbie's team last weekend. They lost in the finals of the US Youth Soccer Wisconsin State Championships. They had been doing quite well over the spring, but seemed to lose steam at the end. The game was a rematch of last year's final and the other team was hungrier for their vindication of last year's loss. Sadly, for about half his team, this game marked the end of their competitive soccer experience that began for most at ages five and six. Some are going on to play in college and some will play club in college. But no matter what the future holds, all of them continued with soccer up to this point because they found companionship with teammates and joy with the game.   No one considers himself an expert at the sport. But win or lose, soccer awarded each of them with advantages that aren't measured by success.
               
I admit to some bittersweet moments once the game was over. I'll miss not going to US Youth Soccer Regional Championships. I love the caliber of games, the spectacle of the event, and the fun of seeing kids Robbie and Bryce have known through their soccer networks. At the same time I'm a bit grateful for not having to drive ten hours and live in a hotel for six nights. I must be getting old!   I think about the first time the boys walked onto a soccer field and at first were overwhelmed by the game. But they loved being with their friends, loved being outdoors, loved attacking the ball, loved scoring, loved falling, and loved getting the snack after the game. Some of their friends who began soccer with them switched along the way to either other sports or other interests. Despite many of them not continuing with soccer, their friendship and their connection with our family did continue. Now as they are poised to graduate from high school we get to hear where these past teammates are going to school, what they will study, and what they plan to do. It's a rich collection of kids who provide new insights into the world and its opportunities every time they interact with us.
               
I do appreciate these kids for all they offer us, but I also appreciate soccer for being the gateway into their world. As we enter the season for tryouts, I know that anxieties run high.   The focus shifts heavily to success and the innocence of recreational soccer gives way to apprehension. So I know how important remembering the good times turns out to be. We need to remember that if our kids love to play soccer, then they should continue to play. US Youth Soccer supports teams at all age levels and at many different skill levels. So every kid who wants to play should be able to play. As parents we need to not feed into a sense of failure if our children don't make a particular team. Instead look upon it as an opportunity to both expand your network of friends and to experience a different style of coaching and playing. Most importantly, no child should give up. Teams come and go with varying degrees of success. The joy of playing a sport or singing a song or solving an equation should transcend set-backs. Even the world's best bowler throws a gutter ball or two every year.
 

Who is Zadok the Priest

Susan Boyd

Back in college when I majored in psychology in the hopes of making the same breath-taking salary as I now make writing, I studied this psychological assessment of a person's cognitive level. Given nine objects the person had to group them based on size, shape, color, and material. Each object could be part of several different groups, so their separation required some creative thinking. I reverted to the test's structure this week when I had the chance to see two very different and yet very similar soccer games. With soccer as the broad context, the comparisons and contrasts seemed limitless.

Wednesday I watched the UEFA Champions League Championship game between Barcelona and Manchester United. Spoiler alert! I'll be revealing who won. An American equivalent to the match might be the Super Bowl except the pageantry for UEFA has a sparse swagger rather than an over-produced excess. Nevertheless a comely lass dressed in the Championship Cup did do her best Victoria's Secret runway walk towards the camera as confetti fluttered around her and a huge chorus belted out  the Champion League Anthem based on Handel's "Zadok the Priest" from the Coronation Anthems. It wasn't Bruce Springsteen, but it did get the emotions boiling. Then the teams marched out along the center line and spread out across the field flanking the officials.  Every team member showed his anxiety in jittery limbs and tense expressions.

Likewise I got to see several US Youth Soccer Association State Championship games in Wisconsin this weekend and last. The players weren't as seasoned or physically mature, but the same stakes existed: win or go home. While the only confetti bits were errant napkins and wrappers, the celebratory mood did exist on those fields. The teams marched out to the center line, fanned out beside the officials, and basked in the applause of parents, siblings, and fans. I really delight in watching the entrance of the teams on the field. For the younger players it may be the first time they have ever participated in a tradition they have seen preceding World Cup and Gold Cup games. The nerves they felt had to be as intense as any of the nerves Thierry Henry or Cristiano Ronaldo felt on Wednesday. It's their taste of the world-wide rituals of the game. And it was their chance to relish it.

For the first few minutes of the UEFA game Man U dominated. As a team they seemed confident and motivated, but when Samuel Eto'o suddenly used a brilliant pass by André Iniesta at the ten minute mark to power a goal behind Edwin Van der Sar they just as suddenly dissolved into confusion and reticence. How often have we watched our own children be psychologically taken out of a game after an unexpected goal? Team dynamics really aren't much different for 12 year olds and 28 year olds. That intangible network that holds team members together and drives them collectively towards success can dissolve in an instant and never be regained. Such was the case with Manchester United. Many a state championship game turned on the inability of a team to create or maintain that group dynamic.

Even someone as skilled and seasoned as Ronaldo managed to received a pass in the six yard box and then boot it over or wide of the goal. Remember that the next time you groan when your daughter's teammate does the same. The complex and delicate mix of skill, temperament, nerves, and placement may not be mastered by Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United or Sara Smith of Hometown FC. The problem is that Ronaldo is being paid to have mastered it and our sons and daughters do it for the joy of the game. So we need to cut them some slack.

All this brings me to the fans. While I heard occasional jabs at the officials or angry shout outs to players, for the most part state championship fans have been well-mannered and supportive. Not so for the fans at UEFA. Fan intensity in soccer comes with the territory especially at the professional level. Fans don't accept any sort of error. So cat calls, whistles, boos, and even unprintable chants echo regularly throughout soccer stadiums of the world. But at the youth level in the United States we have managed to maintain an atmosphere of near civility. A few members of Robbie's team got yellow cards during the game for having garbage mouths, which comes with being a teenager and knowing everything about everything. The frustration with perceived bad calls erupts in verbal harangues. In that regard they are no different than any of the players at the UEFA game, but in the professional ranks such outbursts are more regularly tolerated and ignored. 

Although it probably seems like an inconsequential element to the game, uniforms can play a very important role for the players. My sons will often express the hope that they will be playing in a certain uniform combination for reasons of superstition, pride, or comfort. When that combination can't be worn, it can have a trickle down affect on team spirit and motivation. As a mom I only hope they won't wear the white shorts on a muddy day. I wonder if Man U felt less strong in their all white uniforms. They did seem to melt into the background compared to Barcelona in their bright blue and red stripes. There's no way of knowing if uniforms had anything to do with the team's demeanor, but as a former psychology student I have to read something into everything.

I look forward to the US Youth Soccer Association Championship Series. I love seeing other teams and watching players whose jerseys I'll be buying someday for my grandchildren. It's a grand gathering of talent, hope, and enthusiasm. Again I'll encourage families to try to attend their Regional Championships and, if they are in the Northeast, the National Championship. While it isn't the World Cup or the FA Cup or UEFA, it is a spectacle in its own right and a show of earnest, passionate soccer. While a ticket to UEFA probably set a fan back several hundred if not thousands of dollars, the Championship Series is free of charge (except possibly for parking) and offers dozens of games to watch and enjoy. The one good thing about soccer being a growing sport in the US is that it is still a relatively inexpensive spectator sport.  Bring along a recording of "Zadok the Priest" and you'll nearly have the complete UEFA experience.
 

Save the Date

Susan Boyd

Spring finds most states are in the midst of their US Youth Soccer State Championships. Winners earn the opportunity to compete in their US Youth Soccer Regional Championships with an eye towards advancing to the National Championships. Unfortunately spring also brings unpredictable weather that disrupts carefully crafted championships schedules. Add to that all the activities that fill April, May and June, prom, finals, graduations, service projects, field trips, bat and bar mitzvahs and confirmations, and you end up with a tangle of frustratingly impossible scheduling.

So far Robbie hasn't played a single State Championship game either as scheduled or completely. Rain storms devastated fields and lightning brought one game to a halt before the 90 minute mark. His team is due to play their final round robin game on Monday, but the weather reports are for rain and lightning, so we hoping for the best and expecting the worst.   That's because once the schedule has to change, team administrators find themselves in an alternate universe called "no way." Any of you who have been team administrators know this land well. 

First you have to send out the email that cancels the game and await the emails that border on accusing you of personally ordering the inclement weather just to mess up everyone's calendar. I liken it to the pilot of a plane announcing that the wings don't seem to be attached properly so the flight to Orlando will be delayed and the majority of people nearly storm the cockpit demanding the plane take off any way. This is the same group who undoubtedly complain that planes should be safer.   The usual reason for cancellation is weather. Sometimes game day is beautiful, but the rain the night before made the fields unplayable, which only makes the howls more strident. 

Once it all calms down it's time for the reschedule emails. These usually involve first figuring out three or four possible dates for the rematch and then emailing both your team members and the opponents. Trust me, President Carter negotiating the Camp David Accord between Sadat and Begin didn't have as complicated a time as any team administrator trying to reschedule a game. The older the team, the harder it becomes. By high school you are bucking proms, senior trips, graduations, final papers, and finals in general. Since team members attend a variety of schools nothing is parallel so nothing is easy. Plus there are always those teammates who never respond and then, once a date is agreed upon, announce that they can't possibly play that day. When the flurry of emails has settled and a date declared, everyone holds their breath that the weather will cooperate.

Despite these roadblocks, all games manage to be played with minimal input from the State Association level. This speaks to both the flexibility and amiability of soccer managers, coaches, parents and players. People do bend, do compromise, and do facilitate, so that even the most complex, backs-up-against-the-wall deadline gets completed. Soccer can be civil off the field, at least at the youth level.

I have to say I love the State Championship. Last year Bryce's team won and went to the US Youth Soccer Region II Championship which was in our backyard down in Rockford, Illinois. This year it's in Sioux Falls, S.D., which would be a wonderful road trip. However, I'm not sure Robbie's team can win this year. They are primarily graduating seniors and as such have little interest in anything that doesn't involve a game console and sleeping late. So motivating them to practice and play isn't always easy. I think Robbie's coach has the patience of Mr. Rogers and the implacability of Ryan Seacrest. Maybe he goes home and throws darts at squirrels to take out his pent up frustration, but on the field he never shows it.

In Wisconsin Memorial Day weekend is the main date for State Championship with central locations for the games. Because Robbie's team has graduating seniors they couldn't play most of their games this weekend because at least a third of them are graduating. So they'll just play the Monday games. But that means we'll still get to experience some of the celebration that surrounds the event. I definitely encourage players and families to take some extra time to watch other games, visit any of the vendors on site, and enjoy the chance to compete at a top level. Likewise, if the Regional or National Championship is within easy driving distance you should plan to spend a day or two at the venue. These competitions provide families with the opportunity to see a variety of teams and discover what talent can be found outside of their own neighborhoods. It's also a chance to reconnect with teammates from the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program. Win or lose these championship events bring out the best players, the best soccer, and the best games, so long as they can all get scheduled.
 
2009 US Youth Soccer National Championship Series Dates
Region I
Village of Barboursville, W.Va.
July 2-7, 2009

Region II
Sioux Falls, S.D.
June 20-24, 2009

Region III
Frisco and Plano, Texas
June 18-24, 2009

Region IV
Lancaster, Calif.
June 15-21, 2009

US Youth Soccer National Championships
Lancaster, Mass.
July 21-26, 2009