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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". 

 

It's Never Too Late

Susan Boyd

I hate to be late. I go crazy when I'm late, which makes my family crazy. I admit I probably have an unhealthy addiction to time, but at least I let my window panes stay dirty and the dust bunnies peacefully multiply under the furniture. So I have a few good qualities.

But here we are with just two days left in National Youth Soccer Month, and I haven't even mentioned it. The website has had some good articles, games, profiles, and promotions for the month, but not one blog from me. I'm going to say that I planned this; that I wanted to create a bridge from National Youth Soccer Month into the rest of soccer playing months ahead. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Soccer can be found in nearly every country of the world, even tiny Caribbean islands and South Pacific atolls. Celebrating September as National Youth Soccer Month barely scratches the surface of the widespread appeal of and attention to soccer. For most countries in the world, national pride is closely aligned with success or failure on the soccer pitch. While we should observe a month that focuses on all the benefits and enjoyment soccer provides, we should also use the month as a springboard to discovering and participating in the many ways soccer infuses our lives. After all, we spend most weekends watching our kids play, so we have already committed to a nearly year-round soccer attention.

There's a great book, "How Soccer Explains the World," by Franklin Foer, that offers an enticing theory that most of the world's social, economic, and political events can be connected to soccer. While some of the arguments require a suspension of basic geopolitical tenets, the book nevertheless tantalizes the reader with thought-provoking examples of the parallels between soccer and the development of the planet's history. However, since my life has been overtaken by soccer, I'd like to think I've astutely selected the main moving force of the world's advancement rather than just an obsession. That way, every time I attend a game I can claim lofty social and historical motives. Somewhere in the great circle of life, your child's Under-8 game is affecting social change: the proverbial fluttering wings of a butterfly affecting the climate.

Even without these elevated standards, soccer can positively affect lives. Soccer teaches parents and children alike to accept defeat with graciousness and to win with humility. Soccer provides an avenue to interact with our children lovingly and candidly. Soccer offers physical and mental benefits. Soccer crosses all cultural, social, and economic strata without regard to any of them as limiting factors. Soccer can be played by both genders, old and young, and players with physical challenges. Soccer doesn't require any equipment; players can manage with an open area and a cantaloupe if necessary. Soccer brings people together and it can separate them. As the t-shirt says: "Soccer is Life."

So despite National Youth Soccer Month approaching its final days, I'm hoping that the spirit which infused the celebration will continue throughout the year. Make it your goal (don't groan) every month to do something special as it relates to soccer. Try to catch a national team game, any age both men and women, either live or on TV. Go to your local college to see a game. Spend a few hours in the backyard practicing juggling with your player. Hold a soccer birthday party. Make it a point to congratulate every player on your child's team with a positive comment about his or her play. Donate time to TOPSoccer to help kids with physical challenges play the game. Collect your neighborhood's old soccer gear and give to a local charity or to the U.S. Soccer Federation Passback Program. Pick something each month to make soccer special. In that way you guarantee that soccer will influence the world, and more importantly will influence your life.  
 

Lost and Found

Susan Boyd

The home team scored two own goals, three players had to be carried off the field, one player lost his jersey, there were no referees, fans crowded the sidelines, and the coaches spent the entire game micro-managing the action. Sounds like a soccer nightmare! But welcome to the world of U6 soccer where mayhem ensues, pig piles rule, sidelines are meaningless, and fun is had by all. Where else would a player circle the field getting high-fives from all for scoring a goal against his team? Where else would a player stop in front of the goal box mid-dribble to adjust his shin guards before shooting the goal? Where else would a player frustrated by not being able to kick the ball out of a scrum of participants pick up the ball and place it in a more advantageous spot then kick it? Where else would a player run off the field in the middle of a play because he had to go to the bathroom?

I had the pleasure of watching my four year old grandson, Archer, and his team of four, five, and six year olds. Archer's team was the Orange Magic – a name Archer suggested undoubtedly based on the color of the jerseys and his uncle Robbie's club team. Teams played on a field so small it couldn't accommodate the spectators along its short sideline. But parents politely accommodated one another. Rather than team benches, each team spread a blanket out where the kids lounged. Because of the range of ages, there were definitely varying levels of ability. Yet every kid played an equal amount without regard to skill or outcome. The Orange Magic's top scorer had four goals: two for the Magic and two for the opposing team. After the first own goal, the coach asked the team which net they should score in, and in unison the team stretched out their arms, pointed their fingers and indicated the goal ahead of them. Ten seconds later they received the ball, turned around, and fired into the opponent's goal. Then dutifully pointed the right direction when the coach again inquired which net was theirs.

Sometimes when they dribbled out of bounds, the coaches stopped the play and had them throw the ball in. But usually the spectators crowding on the sides kept the play from going too wide, so play just continued regardless of lines. Each team had two coaches on the field trying to maintain some sense of order, but for the most part they were reduced to shouting, "No hands" and "Turn around."  Despite all the chaos, everyone was having fun, except for the occasional tears for losing the ball, or falling down, or being kick accidentally. No one understood when the coaches asked, "Do you want to come in or stay out," since "in" and "out" were cloudy concepts based on understanding what sidelines meant. So it took some time to figure out whether or not a player would sub. In the meantime action would continue with a varying number of players on the field.

The parents and coaches spent most of the game laughing and cheering. I only observed one parent intent on making his little player rise to a higher level by discussing his play with him and coaching from the sidelines. But after the kid left the field to turn somersaults, the parent backed off. The game ended when the coaches said, "One more goal." We got to watch five or six runs up and down the field before a goal was finally scored. I have never laughed so hard with joy at a soccer game. Everyone declared his team the winner which was perfect because we were having too much fun to keep track. The one thing the players did manage to do with perfection was form the line to shake hands after the game and then head to the right spot to get their after game treat.

Last night I attended Robbie's high school game. All the players ran the right direction, didn't accidentally or on-purpose pick up the ball, dribbled inbounds, substituted without reminder or question, and no one ran off the field to the Port-A-John. All that perfection made for an exciting game, but we lost the joy of seeing kids having pure fun without any pressure to win. After the game I didn't have the same ache on my face from smiling so broadly at Archer and his buddies. Of course I cheered with pride when Robbie went "coast to coast" for a goal, out-maneuvering three defenders. Naturally I was delighted when the team was up 2-0 in the first two minutes. Without question I celebrated when his team won. But I realized something was lost in achieving the victory. Not everyone got to play, the coaches were dead-serious barking out instruction, and winning mattered – a lot.  No one had the luxury of just enjoying the moment without considering the consequences of the play.

That's the price paid for evolving from "youth" youth soccer into "competitive" youth soccer. Many players want to evolve and many parents want their players to evolve. But we have to accept that we lose our innocence. I'm so glad I had the opportunity to experience and remember what soccer used to be like on a Saturday morning. I didn't need to have any more investment in the outcome of the game than cheering on all the players and enjoying the moment. Everyone should go experience again where all soccer players came from so we can recapture the unabashed freedom of enjoying the game without any agenda. It's a feel-good warmth that lasts a long time.  
 

They Just Say No

Susan Boyd

A crisp fall day with clear blue skies, a mild wind, leaves just beginning to flutter to the ground, and the awesome screams of a four year old who absolutely, positively doesn't want to play soccer today. Out on the emerald green field scores of other four year olds are having the times of their lives kicking, giggling, running, and generally making mayhem.   But one kid stands on the fringe beyond reasoning. "AHHHH."   And it's your kid!

As parents we want to offer our kids every opportunity possible. We know the importance of the socialization and to some extent the networking sports offer, not to mention the obvious health benefits. But kids will resist our best intentions sometimes for reasons we can't comprehend. We cajole, "See? There's your friend Billy. Why don't you go play with him?" And we're met with a sobbing, "NO!" We bargain, "If you just go play for 10 minutes we can go home." With a look of confusion our child responds with "I want to go home now." We may even threaten, "If you don't go out and play now, we won't come back to soccer again." And our child looks up with total relief in her eyes and says, "Okay." Sometimes you can get your child to sit and watch, but usually once she enters the panic mode, there's no calming her except by leaving.

Besides the obvious embarrassment of having it be your son or daughter creating the scene on the sidelines, there's the additional concerns about shyness, missing out, and being labeled as a quitter.  Experts tell us that children have natural separation anxiety clear up to age seven. Many kids overcome it around age four, but others need additional time to feel secure in leaving their comfort zone. Kindergarten teachers will tell you that certain children have anxiety for weeks before settling into the routine of school. So although it can be disconcerting to pull up to the fields for the first soccer experience, so proud to begin "big kid" activities, and have your child have a total meltdown, some kids just are ready yet.

Nevertheless there are some ways that might help ease the transition for any child. First, make preparing for soccer an adventure. Go pick out some cleats, socks and a ball. Balls come in a dozen colorful and inexpensive options, so let your child make his own choice of ball. Then have him help you label these items so he can take full possession and responsibility for them. If possible designate a special place to keep the gear, so your child knows how important this experience will be.

To help minimize the sudden introduction of a new location and dozens of new kids, you can introduce your player to the field ahead of time. Take her there and play some soccer with her. If you know a child or two who will also be doing soccer invite them along so your own child will feel part of the group even before coming to the first session. While playing let her know that soccer will be just like this but there will be even more kids to play with. Sometimes this little bit of familiarity can overcome initial hesitation.

If you know your child has ambivalence when faced with large groups, new situations, and/or separation, a good idea is to arrive early. Take your son or daughter out to the field and begin some play. As time goes on more and more kids will arrive. Having your child be the center of activity rather than having to break through a barrier of kids to get to the activity can help ease them into group play. As friends arrive bring them into your circle and slowly ease yourself to the sidelines. Taking the time to introduce them to the coaches/teachers when they arrive can also help. Usually the coaches are incredibly enthusiastic and understand young children, so they can help you get your child included in the group.

If all else fails, see if you can get your child to sit and watch. Sometimes seeing his friends having fun will help a kid get over trepidation.   At the very least your child will have the satisfaction of participating in his own quiet way. The next week he may dip his toe in deeper. All you can do is continue to encourage his participation and make the experience as positive as possible.

Most importantly don't consider your child a quitter if he or she absolutely insists on leaving. Try to reintroduce the experience the next week. But if your child can't be persuaded, most reputable organizations will allow you to apply the fees from one session to another later one. That way you can give your child the time to grow more secure. Most kids hear about soccer from their friends and get their enthusiasm tweaked through those discussions. So over time most kids become secure enough to participate.

So if it is your child having the meltdown, don't despair and don't force him or her to participate. Just chalk it up to childhood development that each child travels at his or her own speed. Believe me when I say from experience that I have had both kids and grandkids who initially balked at playing soccer and now play regularly – even in college. I also know kids who never warm to it, which means they may not want to play sports or may want to play a singular sport. When they say no, we need to listen and not let ourselves be swayed by our expectations or by our concern for what the neighbors might think. Let no be no for a time and then try again. Kids are notoriously fickle, so yes will probably be the answer soon.
 
 

Tone Deaf?

Susan Boyd

We've all experienced it: the boorish fan who knows nothing about the game, but insists on educating referees, players, coaches, and spectators on the finer points of the competition as he or she sees it.   I am constantly amazed at how these lessons come wrapped in expletives and personal attacks. They assault my ears with their off-key utterances. I wonder if these "professors" conduct themselves the same way when running a meeting or grocery shopping – "Hey you idiot stock boy. Vegetables should be displayed alphabetically by scientific classification."   You might expect, however, that parents of college soccer players who have played the sport for upwards of 15 years would have both better knowledge and restraint.

Not so I discovered last weekend when I went to watch Bryce's college team play. A cadre of fathers from the opposing team kept up a barrage of expletive laden "advice" for anyone in earshot. Unfortunately their advice was ill-informed or in many cases ridiculous. And worse, the intimate seating meant their advice was heard by all. To add insult to insult, the opposing team won the game. I believe in karma, but I will have to wait for its realization at a later date.

I'm not immune to my own outbursts. It's difficult not to get caught up in the frenzy of the game, especially if I feel my own child is being unfairly targeted. But I've learned to let him take the bumps and bruises on the pitch and handle it himself. Sometimes he'll get a call in his favor when he shouldn't, just as he'll get a call against him when he shouldn't. Referees' skills vary just as much as players' and coaches' skills do. I know a referee must be terrible if both teams are complaining, but that doesn't help mitigate the frustration that a bad call brings. Undisciplined and outmatched teams may resort to hacking in order to regain some control of the action, which can make many a parent see red as their child is mauled on the field. Coaches may unwittingly or purposely feed chaos on the field by their own sideline admonishments. I had to sit and listen to a coach encourage his players to "take out number three by the ankles," meaning Robbie. Natural protective instincts urged me to leap across the field and ring the coach's neck. But the very skills Robbie possessed that prompted such an order would always exist, so Robbie had to learn to handle the pressure on his own.

This past weekend was a study in contrasts. Robbie played in a high school tournament. His team played three teams, two of which are significant rivals of his high school. The crowds were huge since students came out to support their players along with parents. Yet the overall tone was civil and encouraging. There were occasional jeers at a call or groans when a play didn't succeed. But there wasn't swearing or non-stop criticism. At Bryce's college game the foul language was constant and the condemnation never-ending.   The parents verbally assaulted their own players for perceived lapses, blasted Bryce's teammates for their play, and name-called the referees with every possible put-down.   The entire experience was not only uncomfortable but unsettling. I wasn't sure where this outpouring of vitriol would lead. Luckily in the waning minutes the team scored and some of the tension deflated.

The difference could have been the standards put in place prior to the games. In Robbie's case, the high school rules and state amateur athletic association promise swift and binding consequences for bad behavior. Parents and students are well-aware of the expectations and for the most part adhere to them. There's also plenty of peer pressure to keep the behaviors under control. When a parent shouted out, there were ten parents "shushing" the outburst. For the college game no warning about good sportsmanship was given prior to the game and by logical extension no consequences applied. Parents had no standard they were told to adhere to, so they didn't.

It would be comforting to think that we could all be self-editing, understanding that cursing and criticizing don't add to the game's enjoyment by others in the stands or on the field. Yet all too often I attend games that rival the FA Cup finals in fierceness of fan vocals. While I am excited about growing a more enthusiastic fan base for soccer in America, I would like to see it happen with more courteousness and self-control than are found in our fellow fans in Europe and South America. We have the opportunity to show that a devoted fan doesn't need to be rabid. While "fan" starts fanatical, we do have the opportunity to chart a different course in team support. Enthusiasm doesn't need to go to the dark side and become ugly and attacking. Perhaps there should be swift and certain retribution for being a loud-mouthed oaf no matter the level of the game.

Next weekend I'll be watching my four year old grandson play soccer. I trust the game will be free of cussing and name-calling. If we can do it with our pre-school players, we should be able to do it with our college, amateur, and pro players. It just requires a little self-restraint and a positive outlook. I know, I know … Little Orphan Annie should break into "Tomorrow" at this point. But I'm just naïve enough to hope we can find the right tone for all soccer games.