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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". 

 

Out-Waiting Winter

Susan Boyd

Given the view out my window, it's difficult to believe that anyone will ever be loping across the courtyard dribbling a soccer ball. The temperature is -10° with a wind chill triple that. The snow banks tower over my head as I walk the dogs who scale the banks and disappear behind them only to emerge again at the crest looking like they invaded a powdered sugar factory. Somewhere beneath this winter liability lies green pastures, furrowed keeper zones, and shadows of field lines. Nothing but time will crack this mantle. And so I wait.

In the meantime my family is undergoing horrible withdrawal from televised soccer. While on vacation in Florida (where soccer was being played) our home got extensive damage from ruptured pipes (another winter atrocity). So we have been displaced to a rental home that lacks, for the moment, cable television. We won't have cable until Wednesday so we have had to forego nearly three weeks of Fox Soccer Channel. Since Bryce is home from college, it means nearly his entire visit will have been soccer depleted.

The one bright spot has been Robbie's choice to leave his Chicago soccer team and join a local team. Some prayers are answered! Given the state of our home and my need to oversee electricians, carpenters, welders, plumbers, and city inspectors, driving five hours three or four days a week nearly brought me to me knees. However Robbie began to realize what another year of driving to Chicago meant – long hours in the car, homework done on the fly, and a social life that becomes non-existent   Nevertheless, the move to Chicago soccer had been an excellent choice, the club was amazing, and the benefits for Robbie immeasurable. But now that he has committed to a college, he felt he didn't need to sacrifice quite so much. As proud as I was of him for sticking with the sacrifices and making the most of his opportunities I was even prouder that he recognized when he needed less pressure.

To quote Garrison Keillor, we all live in our own Lake Woebegone where all the children are above average. We need to see our children in the best possible light. Battles for the front-row seats at the kindergarten winter music concert equal battles over Springsteen tickets. The paparazzi can't equal the flash power of the legions of digital cameras recording every 1/60th of a second of the 2nd grade class play. We celebrate graduation from kindergarten. We gather with all the relatives for every U6 soccer game dutifully recorded on high def memory cards. So it's natural we want to encourage, support, and facilitate our children's ascension to the highest levels of their interests. Only hindsight can insure 100% perfection, so we have to muddle through the best we can.   There are a few guidelines to help us, but for the most part we move through the process blindly.

Lots of parents go looking for a better training and exposure experience for their children. For the extremely committed and gifted player, I recommend it. Those players will play soccer for life, so nurturing their talent is no different than nurturing the talent of musician, mathematician, or writer. However, parents need to have the proper perspective to make the decision for sacrifice.   Parents need to immerse themselves in the ""culture"" of soccer. They need to watch soccer every chance they get to see what talent exists and what level of ability their own child needs to aspire to. Everyone should attend college and professional games. Parents should watch foreign soccer on the TV. It's not enough that Suzy scores four goals a game, or that Billy has a string of twenty-four shut-outs. Instead parents need to figure out if the competition is strong enough to make such statistics meaningful. Arrange for your child to guest play with some of the stronger club teams in the state. Then honestly watch your child play. If after all the testing you're convinced they have that extra something to move up to the next level, be sure that's what your child wants to do too! Forcing him to give up social contacts and possibly even grades means that he has to be totally on board. Even then, I can tell you from experience you'll face the days when you want it more than they do. After all, these are kids with all the whims and short-term attention spans that implies. You only need to look at the graveyard of handheld computer games in your drawers to verify this truth.

For those of you in the land where green never gives way to white, then mushy brown, then finally back to green, enjoy your year-round soccer and your light jackets. For the rest of us, winter is a time to be creative and find ways to enjoy soccer even in the snow. If the Packers can play in an ice bowl, why can't the MLS? In the meantime, I'll enjoy my relatively travel-free winter and look forward to my relatively travel-free spring. Oh, and I'll wait in the house on Wednesday for the cable savior to show up and connect us to TV soccer once again.
 

Expectantly

Susan Boyd

With a new year come expectations. Some expectations stay constant: safety, health, happiness. Some are new to the season: lose weight, stop smoking, get a better job.   Soccer parents have expectations too. They expect their child's team to last, they expect some wins and some losses, they expect their child to be free of injury, and they expect to pay a lot for travel.   Occasionally destiny has a way of stepping in, grabbing our expectations, and giving them a good shake before disappearing. Amazingly what we rarely expect is the unexpected.

For those of us in the Midwest, northeast, northwest, and Atlantic coast winter means very little soccer. For some of us we have indoor leagues which provide a fast paced game enveloped in an old sweat sock stink. But for the most part soccer goes on hiatus until the rain, snow, ice, mud, and winds diminish. Here in Milwaukee, once we can see one blade of grass peeking through the black crusted snow soccer season is back on again. With unusual optimism, we expect to hold outdoor games in February. Therefore local teams prepare their schedules with February dates in mind and then reschedule at least twice before finally being able to play. We base our expectations on the one winter in 1966 when temperatures in February rose to 50° F. Never mind that in the ensuing forty years we have never had a February day above 32° F. We stick to our expectations.

For example, we expect that our children's team will stick together. At the younger ages it seems doable. Teams are usually formed by already created groups: neighborhood friends, schoolmates, carpool buddies, etc. So friendships already exist and parental connections have been solidified. Unfortunately, nothing can be done to insure that skill and interest levels will remain constant and similar over the course of those developmental ages. Suddenly one or two players have a break-out talent or some kids just lose interest and want to pursue other sports. Now the cohesiveness of the team gets challenged. Coaches, parents, and players may feel abandoned or even betrayed by someone leaving. The microcosmic society that the team has become begins to play out like a bad soap opera. We had a particularly nasty event when Robbie was U9. The coach decided that the team had unusual talent and wanted to skip over U10 and enter them directly into U11 for the next season. What we parents didn't realize until too late was that the coach felt almost everyone on the team was good enough for the move. I got a tearful phone call one evening from a mom who had been told that her son was no longer welcome on the team. These kids were nine years old and they were already pawns in a ploy to advance the status of the club. All the kids knew were the friendships and bonds they had made on the playing field. No one expected such a nasty shake-up for such a young group of players.

One the other hand, Robbie's first team, a group of neighborhood five year olds, proved to have an unexpected result.   One mom took the applications from all the kids in the neighborhood that were the same age, stapled them together, and presented them to the city recreation program as a complete team. We even had a soccer field in our subdivision, so the kids could walk or ride their bikes to practice. Bruce was their coach along with the father of Robbie's best friend, Andrew. Eventually the team broke up as the kids moved to other sports or other teams, but there wasn't any rancor. The amazing thing was that in the state high school semi-finals, four kids from that team of ten were in the game and all will most-likely be playing D-1 college soccer. No one would expect geographically that that many kids would come not just from the same city, but from the same 174 home subdivision!

We truly don't expect our children to get injured, and we absolutely hope and pray that they don't. This is the one expectation that we can actually control to some extent. Winter is a great time to take your child to the doctor for a ""tune-up."" She has had a fall season to play and put stress on various muscles and bones. In addition, any aggravating condition will certainly have been affected over the course of the season. Let your player talk to the doctor about any aches and pains and let your doctor ask questions which may reveal concerns. I always suggest you take their cleats in, so the doctor can see any pronation of the foot and any stress points that could cause bunions, blisters, or other foot problems. The doctor can help discover possible concerns and suggest ways to resolve or prevent them.

While we can't have every expectation come true, we need to establish expectations just to chart a course for our lives and to give us security. With the New Year I wish everyone's expectations will be surpassed with minimal disappointments.
 

The Symmetry of Good Fortune

Susan Boyd

Good fortune has a way of humbling us. It comes despite our weaknesses and sins (just ask the inmate who won the lottery), cannot be predicted, and departs as quickly as it came. So good fortune should be savored and never taken for granted. I had two bits of good fortune this week. First Robbie's high school team won the state high school soccer championship. Like a wonderful set of bookends, Robbie won in his freshman year and now in his senior year. I had missed the first win which he shared with his brother Bryce because I was at my grandchild's birth. So I definitely valued this experience. Three decisive games led to the championship and each had its moments reminding me of the significant traditions and connections soccer provides.

The quarterfinal game on Thursday afternoon featured our high school's soccer nemesis. Two years ago we lost to them in the quarterfinals and last year we lost to them in the finals in overtime when we were leading at half-time 2-0. So this game carried lots of baggage for our players and the fans. Everyone knew the history and everyone felt the pressure. In the tenth minute Robbie caught a rebound from a corner kick, settled it with his left, and shot it with his right before anyone had a chance to regroup. This was not the winning goal, but helped shake off the nerves. Nothing could be presumed. After all we had led last year for 70 minutes and ended up losing. Additionally, we had not been scored on by a state team this year, so it was poetic justice that this opponent who had plagued us for two years scored the first in-state goal against us. But that turned out to be just a minor blip. The final score was 4-1 in our favor. Despite the large, cheering crowds, you could still hear the collective sigh of relief. 

The semi-final game on Friday night proved to be the true test of our mettle. It was also against the high school Robbie and two other Marquette players would have attended had they not opted for a Jesuit education. Homestead was made up of players Robbie had known for years and had played soccer with. Just before the game, some Homestead parents parked next to us. Their son Stephen had played soccer four years with Robbie, and we were good friends. Now we were on opposite sides of a contest whose prize could never be captured again by these seniors. We joked that after the game we probably would never speak to one another again. Then as the opening whistle blew what do you know? There was Stephen assigned to defend Robbie. What cruel irony! Two other players on Homestead had been on Robbie's first soccer team that Bruce coached. They and Stephen proved to be most formidable as we struggled to find the back of the net. Andrew was their strong and steady center midfielder and Kevin was their unbelievably mighty goalkeeper. In the end we had twenty-three shots on goal including a point-blank shot by Robbie that Kevin somehow managed to deflect. 

Our inability to finish had never been more frustrating and more significant. It was win or go home. As the shots flew and either caromed off the posts and crossbar or arched just wide or high or found Kevin's sure hands, the tension in the stands increased to the point where the concentrated energy might have been affecting the earth's rotation. Time certainly did seem to stand still except on the scoreboard where it ticked relentlessly to 80:00. By the end of regulation we were tied 0-0, so we entered an overtime of two 10-minute halves cursing the déjà vu of this moment (different school, same scenario). In Wisconsin overtime ends with a golden goal, which is how we lost in the finals last year. Remarkably in the ninth minute we got a corner kick and scored on a header by Brian that squeaked past Kevin his club teammate. The eruption from all that released tension certainly helped warm our spirits despite the 32 degrees and brief snow (yes I said snow) showers. The victory still felt bittersweet as I looked out over the field of dejected Homestead players – boys I had known since they were five or six.   Their dreams of victory were no less ardent than ours. I saw Stephen's parents right after the game and we gave one another hugs. Stephen had done an excellent job of defending Robbie. He should be commended.  I also saw Andrew's dad the next day at the finals, and although he was disappointed, he recognized what an amazing game both teams had played. We both knew that Robbie and Andrew, whose soccer friendship began when they were five, would meet on the playing field again either as opponents, teammates, or fans.

The championship turned out to be against the team we had beaten in Robbie's freshman year. They were not as formidable as Homestead, and to some extent the outcome was rarely in question. It didn't change the fact that no one could exhale until the final whistle. In the championship game in 2005 Robbie had scored the last goal and this year he also scored the last goal. We won 5-0 and all five goals were scored by seniors, a fitting end to a fabulous season. Bryce had designed some scarves two years ago, and I had just enough left to give every player. Although I feared jinxing the outcome, I brought them to the game. After the whistle the boys shook hands with the opposing team and then ran across the field and slid on the grass to the student section. Then they collected their scarves, their medals, and the coveted state trophy. Across the scarves is the motto "We are Marquette" which the boys proudly displayed during their various photo ops. This was an amazing and joyful accomplishment, but as these players and fans move forward in life such overwhelming success will come rarely and should be treated with respect without any sense of entitlement. The game against Homestead showed that "grit and will" have to be part of any success, but they don't insure victory. Anyone seeing that semi-final game would agree that both teams exhibited the kind of mental and physical strength necessary for champions.

And as to my second bit of good fortune, I found at my local Pick 'n Save grocery store knit gloves at ten pair for $10. Robbie has his first league game next weekend and the weather report is for freezing rain.  My soccer emergency box was down to three pair of gloves, so I was delighted to replenish for such a bargain price. I took every pair in navy blue, black, and forest green. I suspect the seventeen pair I collected won't last until spring since they evaporate into the same alternate universe that missing socks inhabit. But I can't think about that now. I just wear a satisfied Cheshire Cat grin for finding cheap gloves and whenever I think about those boys sliding across the turf.
 

Flattery Will Get You Nowhere

Susan Boyd

If I didn't know it already, I know it now. Coaches notice kids early. Recently I was talking to two college coaches about the state of soccer and one of the coaches started to talk about the youth teams of a club just over the Illinois border. He thought their Under-10 team was phenomenal and had his eye on a few kids. Here's a guy who doesn't even know if he'll have his job next year or in ten years, but he's already getting his 9 year old recruits lined up.

Once a coach approached me after a tournament when Robbie was Under-11 and inquired if Robbie would come play for his club. This was all very flattering except that the tournament was in SW Chicago, we lived north of Milwaukee, and the coach's team was from St. Louis. Geography didn't faze him in the least. He thought I should hand over my 10 year old son to some family in St. Louis to raise so that Robbie could improve this coach's team. Because there were about 8 million things wrong with this plan, I just gave my best Scarlett O'Hara laugh with a toss of my head, said thank you very much, and moved quickly away. 

When we read about the trades and cuts of professional sports players we understand they're commodities. We also realize that college players are to some extent commodities, but at least have the protection of the NCAA to insure that they don't have to risk their education by being pawns in trades. But increasingly, players in high school and on youth teams find themselves the targets of coaches and scouts for one purpose only – to improve the fortunes of a team and increase the reputation of a club. Under the guise of providing a better playing and training environment they encourage parents to make what could be serious life-altering decisions. Without a touch of cynicism, parents can make very poor choices.

It's important to remember that most offers are never altruistic. Any coach who sees something wonderful in your child is thinking (with apologies to JFK), "Ask not what you can do for this player; ask what this player can do for you." This goes for coaches recruiting for their club team, their school, or for their pro team. They will regale you first with flattery and then all that they can do for your child. But all too often they will use your child until he or she doesn't provide any benefit for the organization and the team. I once heard a coach say, "It's club first, then team, then the player." He also touted the need for players to remain loyal to the club while in the next breath cutting six players who had been with the club for five or more years.

Players are approached often. Recruiting can begin when they are eight years old. Figuring out how to navigate this brambled path is difficult.   Having a coach tell you that your son or daughter could be one of the best players in the country is a mind-blower. The trouble is that if your child's promise doesn't pan out the way the coach expects or if another child comes along with more talent or more promise, your child will be sacrificed. No matter what wonderful pastoral tale the coach weaves, the underlying fact is that winning trumps everything. 

It's not that coaches are inherently evil. In fact most coaches do care about their players. But every club depends on revenue to keep the staff of coaches paid, and losing clubs don't attract enough players to offer coaches better pay. So the vicious cycle drives the process. Coaches often don't have the luxury to foster players who can't contribute to a winning team. I have personally been on the receiving end of both the benefits and the drawbacks of such a system. It's difficult to set aside the flattery and make choices based on what is really best for your own child. It's even more difficult to suddenly find your child left on the sidelines without a team.

The dream of national team membership, championships, and college play makes all parents vulnerable to the sales pitch. But players do succeed even if they don't succumb to the come-ons. It's up to parents to weigh more than the flash when considering whether or not to go with a particular coach. What will the choice mean to other members of the family? What are the financial obligations? How will the team's schedule affect school? How committed is the player to the sport and to the upward demands of the new team? (Here's where parents have to take themselves out of the equation – their dreams for their kids can't factor in.) How realistic is the coach's assessment of the player? (Here's where honestly watching other players in the same position from other teams helps keep things in perspective.) 

Since my own son made the decision to play for a team hours from our home, I understand the lure of strong coaching, strong competition, and strong opportunities. For him it has proven to be the best choice. Even this year when he could have played locally, he decided he wanted to remain with his teammates in Chicago. Have there been regrets? Definitely! He does his homework in the car, his weekends are eaten up by travel to practices or games hundreds of miles from home, and he has given up the normal after school life of a high school student. But he has made the choice, which is the most important factor in taking the risk. Robbie understood the possibility of being cut and spent his fair share of time riding the bench. But he was committed to the team and the opportunity it offered.

The primary driving force in moving up to more competitive teams should be the player's own hunger for the experience.   Ambition can't come from the parents, otherwise the player won't have the mental, physical, and emotional stamina to deal with the ups and downs of taking those risks, no matter how flattering the invitation may be. If a player has no aspirations beyond high school, then he or she doesn't need to be on an expensive and demanding traveling team. Strong skills and joy can be acquired from most soccer teams. While flattery doesn't grow old, it has to be tempered with realistic ideas about what a player wants out of his or her soccer experience. Flattery can be treasured even if it is never acted upon. After all every player has something to be proud of, so we should flatter them all.