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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". 

 

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.
 

Turning Over a New Leaf

Susan Boyd

Outside my windows a mountain of leaves cascades down on our lawn and deck. Every year we face the same dilemma: How to get the ridiculous number of leaves raked out to the street for leaf pick-up while still participating in the state championship run. I don't exaggerate when I say that our house dwells in a maelstrom of leaves. We have fifteen deciduous trees directly on our property and live downwind from another fifty trees. While I celebrate the glory that autumn brings in brilliant golds, yellows, reds, and oranges, I am loathe to figure out how to manage them once they depart their limbs and descend in a mass to our lawn.   Raking and blowing takes up hours of time which we never seem to have because the boys, the worker bees, are still at practice or at games.

It's a nice to dilemma to have trying to balance a high school championship season with the leaf blowing season. But nice or not it still has to be resolved. We have resorted to raking at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night or trying to do a little each day for a week hoping that our smaller piles won't disintegrate in a wind storm before we can coerce them into larger piles. While people who know our home wax poetic about the beauty of living in the woods, we have grown to view fall colors as a curse. We would never pay to travel to Vermont to see what we regard as "the enemy." So as people drive by the house oohing and ahhing over our glorious ceiling and carpet of leaves, we are outside exercising our freedom of speech in colorful ways.

Now we are one leaf raker/blower short since Bryce is away at college. And Robbie, who even said he was looking forward to raking, has proven to be a no-show since his school keeps moving along in their journey to the state championship. With our deck now literally calf high in oak leaves, I have made a bold decision. I had a landscape service give me a quote on doing all the raking of the leaves this year. And shocker – they weren't really all that expensive. Now I wonder why I spent all those years with numb fingers from hours of maneuvering the blower around the lawn. Why did I attempt to rake swaths of leaves to the curbside only to find them back on my lawn the next morning due to a cruel northwest wind? Why did I ruin a perfectly good comforter collecting and dragging leaves from the back of the house because I couldn't find the plastic tarp we always used? I can't believe I probably could have had the entire lawn raked for the cost of a comforter! I won't make that mistake again.

So now I can concentrate on cheering for Robbie and his team. Tonight is the last game ever for Robbie at his home field, so it will be a bittersweet evening. Having sat on the bleachers for six years now, I am already starting to miss all that those games represented. Just like autumn moves from brilliant glory to winter's grey, so too does soccer in the Midwest. These wonderful, crisp evenings and afternoons sitting on the sidelines soaking up friendships and competition will now give way to smelly, claustrophobic indoor soccer. Of course those of you in the south or California are probably looking forward to winter soccer, so I admit I'm writing from a Midwest and Northeast bias.   For those of us in states with four distinct seasons, winter spells a dark, smaller game on surfaces that often only approximate grass because they are green. 

My goalkeeper son loved indoor soccer because he got a good workout. Instead of touching the ball two to six times in a game, he would have to make a save every few seconds. He also got to occasionally dribble the ball down and take a shot. So by his thinking indoor soccer rocked. But Robbie usually ends up with rug burns, stress injuries to his joints, and aggressive attacks. Since indoor soccer ends up being a mixed bag of competition level, Robbie's team ends up playing adult teams many of which have older players with too much testosterone and too little skill. Since the indoor game runs on speed with only a handful of players on the field, everyone but the goalkeeper rotates through every two minutes or so. With balls and players bouncing off the walls, the game has an entirely different sound. Robbie's indoor league has now switched to a straight forty minute game without a half-time so that the facility can fit in more games in an evening. Oh, I should also mention that many of the games are after 10 p.m. at night, which used to be my prime leaf-raking time.

I'll miss high school soccer. I'll miss the tradition that high school sports foster.  I'll miss the victories cheered on by scores of the team's peers. I'll miss the alumni who come to share the experience and relive their own pasts. I'll miss teachers and administrators who attend regularly to support the players. I'll miss the camaraderie that parents share. I'll miss witnessing the brotherhood (or sisterhood) the team develops over the course of the ten week season. I'll miss everything which created the memories I'll hold for years to come. High school sports provide a special experience for all involved. For most players, high school will be the final opportunity to be a player rather than a fan contributing to the school's history. Winning a state championship is the ultimate goal, but sharing in the experience of playing with friends from school for the pride of the school remains the real reason to play high school soccer.

So this year I'm savoring these final high school games. Since it is Robbie's final year, it makes the prospect of indoor soccer even less appealing. There are only two pluses I cling to: one – Robbie will play college soccer and two – someone else is raking my leaves from now on!