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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". 

 

We Know Drama

Susan Boyd

The Olympics are over, so I'll be in withdrawal for at least a week as I channel surf for weight-lifting at 2 a.m. The Olympics are a hard habit to break – a sports soap opera with melodrama, bad acting, gorgeous characters, and story lines that include every type of illness, tragedy, human failing, and bad luck. We have the French threatening the Americans with the phrase, "We will smash you," and then the U.S. prevailing by eight one hundredths of a second. We have a 200 meter sprinter doing his victory lap for winning the silver only to watch his face as he discovers he was disqualified for stepping on the lane line. We have a Chinese gymnast who clearly is still teething being passed off as sixteen and then being revealed for her true age. The fallout from that debacle may include a huge readjustment of gold medals in the favor of the U.S. team. Stay tuned.

The human interest stories attract me. I can't help it – truth is stranger than fiction. The soap opera elements explode with a swimmer who lost her leg, a diver competing with a torn tricep, a boxer who nearly went blind, and a family who mortgaged their house three times to keep their athlete in the sport (wait, I think that's my story). The dramatic stories of the Olympics rarely outweighs the excitement of the competition.   But the network can't just let the competitive drama unfold on its own. Back stories add some punch that keeps viewers hanging on long enough to catch that Coke or Budweiser commercial for the umpteenth time. But the unexpected drama of the competition remains steadfast.   Both the U.S. men's and women's 4 X 100 track relay teams dropped the baton in the first heat, leaving the U.S. track team sputtering and choking back tears at the post-heat interviews. What do you say when asked, "What happened and how does this affect you?" Years of training, sacrifice, and expense dashed in a split second. After dropping the baton, Lauryn Williams turned around barely avoiding several runners, picked up the baton and finished the race even though she knew the U.S. was disqualified. As she put it, "I had to finish the race. I couldn't go home without finishing." Now that's powerful drama!

Soccer drama came early with the elimination of the U.S. men's soccer team. They didn't make it out of their bracket losing to Nigeria in their last game. The pundits had lots to say about the reason for the lackluster team performance. Soccer message boards were overflowing with opinions, recriminations, support, and just plain babble. In the meantime the U.S. women trudged through their matches without the steady, experienced, but injured, Abby Wambach, pulling together as a team of equals and managing to overcome the Brazil women in the gold medal match with an appropriately named "golden" goal in the second overtime. The U.S. women were underdogs, but didn't play as if they were. The Brazilians had their superstar Marta but still couldn't manage to scoot a goal past Hope Solo who stepped up with new maturity and determination after her World Cup meltdown and banishment from the team. Reads like a Lifetime movie.

Apparently soccer wasn't dramatic enough as NBC didn't highlight it. The men's games were easier to find than the women's, but soccer wasn't really a priority on the NBC five network lineups. Executives did create two special channels just for soccer and basketball, but less than half the cable providers carried the feeds. However there was no shortage of beach volleyball. I enjoyed watching these games and got very excited by the double win of gold for both the American women and men.  In the meantime the women's soccer final game was difficult to find and NBC carried few highlights after winning the gold. I guess a two hour game with women in shorts isn't as easy to market to advertisers as a 45 minute game with women in bikinis, drama or no drama.

The opening ceremonies set the stage for emotion and awe and the closing ceremonies made us hunger for more. I'll be wishing for another tooth and nail finish, another heart-tugging tale, another controversy, another surprising triumph, and another chance to feel pride in my country and in the world. While the Olympics can reveal the ugly tears in the world's political fabric, it can also make us root for first Olympic medal for Uzbekistan and cheer for the female sprinter from Bahrain in traditional head scarf and covered neck to ankle in a running suit. We can respect the traditions, spirit, and dreams of all the athletes.   I really do love the Olympics.
 

Accepting Success

Susan Boyd

Eight one hundredths of a second – that was the difference between the U.S. men's 4 X 100 freestyle relay team winning and the French taking second. Both broke the world record, but only one team will be remembered for accomplishing the feat. On the podium twelve men stood, four each for first, second, and third. All most likely trained with the same intensity, the same sacrifice, the same goals, and the same history. On another day, at another time, the fortunes may have been reversed. Such is the nature of competition at that level. Think of the number of swim clubs in the United States. Think of the number of young swimmers at those clubs. Think of the number of swimmers who are close to but not close enough to world class speed. Think of the number of parents who wake up at 3 a.m. to drive to practices and meets. Think of the number of parents who write check after check for coaching, membership and tournament fees, gas money, hotels, equipment, and food. Four young men from all those thousands got to have gold strung around their necks.  Now think of all the other sports where only one or two get to succeed at the international level – tennis, gymnastics, beach volleyball, track, ice skating, golf, weightlifting, boxing, skiing – the list goes on. And only a handful of these sports offer any real money either in college or professionally. Players do them for the love of the sport.

Michael Phelps trains seven days a week about six hours a day. That's beyond dedication. Interviewers talk about his Olympic dream, but a dream is something to muse upon. This is an Olympic goal – something attainable through planning, training, and execution of skills. To achieve his goal he needs the personal drive. No parent, no coach, no fan can provide him with the hunger. I love watching the Olympics because I am humbled by the level of intensity these athletes need to muster even to get to the arena, much less to win. Every heat showcases incredible talent, most who will never get to Olympic medals, or even to Olympic finals. And behind them extends a comet's tail of hopefuls who were hundredths or tenths of a second off the mark or a point or two short or injury inhibited or a skill shy. And behind those athletes extends a universe of other athletes who simply have to play the sport for joy and exercise.

We watch the races and the matches and the competitions and we think that could be my son or daughter. But preceding those few seconds or minutes have come years, even decades of training. The 41 year old swimmer Dana Torres trains every day for six hours and she has been doing that regimen for 35 years. I marvel at that dedication in the face of a regular life when I have cleaned toilets for 35 years, but never for Olympic gold! I admit that I hate cleaning, but even if I loved it I know I could never sustain the dedication of daily long-term training with little more than Olympic medals at the end. I like sleeping in occasionally, slacking off on the beach, and eating at Cheesecake Factory too much. To give oneself over to the training necessary to even hope for Olympic medals without any guarantee of success requires a far more focused individual than most of us will ever be.

Watching the men's gymnastics team finals was truly awe-inspiring. For a short time, the American men held the point lead, but ultimately they fell behind the Chinese and the Japanese teams to capture the bronze. While the Chinese had not only been touted to win the gold, but had also been told by their government to win the gold, the pressure had to have been intense. The head coach was quoted as saying that if his team didn't win gold he would go to the tallest building in Beijing and jump off. The drive to succeed had both internal and external dynamics. The American men on the other hand were not expected to medal especially after losing to injury the only two members with Olympic experience, the Hamm brothers. When the Germans, who threatened the Americans for the bronze faltered on the pommel and the points showed the Americans had won bronze, the celebration by the Americans erupted with the same joy and intensity as if they had won gold. On the opposite side of the gym, the Chinese sobbed and looked completely relieved to win gold – not really joyful. They had had metaphorical rifles pointed at them and finally with the gold they were out of the gun sights. Their celebration had that bittersweet component of having dodged the bullet. I'm sure they couldn't understand the level of exuberance the Americans released, because success could only be measured by winning gold. Anything less would have been both demeaning and failure. But the American's attitude was that any point total that took them to the podium was a success no matter what the level.

Hopefully all athletes can find that same inner peace with the successes they achieve. Olympic medals will only go to a small percentage of players in the world.   But the joy of scoring a goal, blocking a shot, scaling a wall, achieving a personal best, attempting a new skill, and all the other individual moments of success exists for every player. As parents we need to remember that every pat on the back, every ""good job,"" every hug, and every sideline cheer are the gold medals our kids want to achieve. While the French team of four swimmers didn't win gold by only eight hundredths of a second, they did get the opportunity to stand on an Olympic podium. While such a tiny fraction of time kept them from gold, all the years of practice, sacrifice, and dedication brought them to the podium. The disbelief and frustration on their faces at the end of the race were replaced by smiles and joking when the medals were handed out. I have to think they realized that despite the loss, they really didn't lose at all.
 

One Size Fits All

Susan Boyd

Bryce returned to college on Tuesday to begin captain's practices and discover how much out of shape he really is. Just prior to departure he decided he needed new cleats, so Monday we went to the local soccer store, Stefan's, to see if he could get a pair. Stefan's earns about 25% of its gross income off of our family. If we don't come into the store for two or three weeks, the manager sends police to our home to check if we haven't all perished in a freak soccer accident. We know all the salespeople so well that we are in their family Christmas card photos. Naturally I exaggerate, but not by much.

So we popped into Stefan's for what I assumed would be about a fifteen minute visit. I had forgotten who I was with. Bryce brings indecision to an entirely new plane that surpasses even Brett Favre's inability to decide if he is retired or not. So I had plenty of time in the store to observe while Bryce pondered his cleat options. I enjoyed watching families come and go purchasing soccer gear for kids from five to fifteen. In all cases certain factors remained constant, bringing me full circle in my soccer experiences.

First factor is style. No matter the level of skill or dedication, players opt for style first when picking any article of soccer gear that the public can see. In addition I have discovered that shin guards have a coolness factor that has to be addressed. So even though shin guards are hidden beneath cool socks, they nonetheless need to be the necessary style since they will be seen by teammates before being inserted in the socks. An eight year old player whined at this mother that the cleats she wanted to buy were ""totally gross"" even though they were kangaroo leather and a great fit. Cleat manufacturers have picked up on this and have added gimmicks to boots in the hopes of snaring players who are looking for that style factor. Most of these gimmicks boost the price of cleats by a hefty percentage that parents pay as part of the kid surcharge assessed to us upon our offspring's birth.

Second factor is conformity. Style is okay so long as it is the right kind of style. Kids will be the first to buy the bright orange cleats, but only if their favorite soccer player wears them as well. Once one pair of orange cleats debuts at a game, the next game will host a half dozen pairs. That is until the dark green pair makes its appearance. And so it goes. Cutting edge works only as long as there are several making the cut.

Third factor is perceived advantage.   Kids will purchase a certain ball or shorts or cleats based on some advantage that the gear offers them. The perceived advantages are also part of the gimmicks manufacturers use (see first factor). Right now one cleat has a compartment in the sole filled with sand. Supposedly the sand shifts when a player kicks the ball, giving the kick extra power. I think it looks like a Salvador Dali hour glass – aesthetically pleasing, but not really practical. One young lady nearly gagged when the salesperson suggested a good, solid, inexpensive soccer ball. "That one doesn't have the extended sweet spot," she huffed, pointing to a $150 ball with an actual bull's eye printed on it. Her mother said the same thing I did when the boys wanted official UEFA or World Cup balls topping $180, "You can lose a cheap ball just as easily as an expensive ball." This is why Stefan's only keeps one of every style of expensive ball in stock. Too many moms with common sense make for poor sales.

Fourth and final factor is need.   When a player is faced with the immovable common sense of a parent, they will play the "need" card. "But I need a green shirt for practice." It just happens to be a $75 official Mexican National team jersey. "I need flat shoes for indoor practice." They just happen to be cool enough to also wear to school.   Need is the trump card of player shopping. What parent can argue against need? While awaiting Bryce's decision on his cleats I heard the word need over a dozen times, and in every case the kids got what she or he "needed." Come to think of it, my trip to Stefan's began with Bryce telling me he "needed" new game cleats.

Did he finally decide between the Vapors or the Total 90s? He did. And I am proud to say that although style nearly won out, he ultimately decided based on the fit and the advantage the particular cleats offered him in his punting. But college or mini-soccer, players aren't really too different in how they select their gear…it's just that some take longer at it than others.
 

Classic Soccer

Susan Boyd

Last night I watched "Music of the Heart," a Meryl Streep movie about a woman who teaches children at a school in Harlem to play the violin, and in the big finish the kids get to play in Carnegie Hall. For the most part it's a slight and clichéd movie with the expected scenes of kids with problems and resistant parents and the uncaring music director, ya da, ya da, ya da. But that isn't what caught my attention. I use headphones so I don't disturb anyone and from these poured the most glorious classical music. Then it struck me: when this music was created, very few had the privilege of hearing it.

Unlike me, in my pajamas, under my covers, watching a movie, the contemporaries of Mozart and Bach and Beethoven had to get dressed up, arrange to go out, enter a concert hall, and then wait in the expectant air for the first notes to float out to them. They had to make an effort in order to hear this music. The experience couldn't be trivial in any way. The composers demanded the best of themselves in order to present something of substance to their patrons. These masterpieces required translation from the score by the musicians and the conductor; an orchestra of individuals all committed to creating the artist's vision and with the talent to do so. The audience had but this one opportunity to hear the composite creation. There was no "hitting the charts with a bullet" for Hayden. Subsequent performances would each have a different energy and outcome based on audience reaction, conductor interpretation, and musicians' subtleties. Everyone involved understood the interplay necessary to bring each musical moment to fullness.

While it may seem a stretch to move from film to concert to soccer, it really isn't. Classical concert music was a collaboration just as soccer can be. Around the world fans understand that soccer requires their participation as part of that game's creation. Fans can manipulate a game's outcome at the very best and at the very least enrich the game with their energy. There are fans who watch games on television, but out of necessity, not out of laziness or comfort. Games are regularly sold out and rivalries fuel the attendance even further. So, watching on TV means watching from the cheap seats. You can tape a game and replay it, but it will always be exactly the same game with the same outcome, just as a taped live musical performance will be. You may notice a particular play better, but not a single nuance fluctuates or disappears. Each game, each concert stands as its own special moment. 

Here in the U.S., we are slowly warming to the game as more and more youth take up the sport and increase the fan base with their parents, siblings, and grandparents. Watching a game live adds that dimension of audience to the "composition" the coaches, players, and referees create on the field. We have to get dressed up, arrange to go out, enter a stadium, and then wait for the first expectant play to explode on the pitch. Youth games offer some of that partnership between fans and actors, but they are so intimate that ironically the fans take on too big a role. The real energy and balance come as the size of the fan contingent grows.

Sunday I watched the LA Galaxy play Red Bull in front of 45,000 fans. The game was thrilling on so many levels, and in the stands a form of theatre was taking place that complemented the theatre on the field. At home I could cheer or moan or gasp, but I couldn't avail myself completely of the energy that the fans exuded. I couldn't be a full participant. The last five official minutes of the game and the four minutes of stoppage time proved to be as thrilling as any nine minutes of soccer have been. LA tied the game in the first two minutes of stoppage and then had three near goals in the next two minutes. Each wave of movement towards the goal gave off that dangerous electricity of anticipation which gets multiplied if you are so lucky as to be in the stands. I wanted to be transported to the stadium and fling myself into a seat with the same ferocity that those fans enjoyed. I'm neither an LA Galaxy nor Red Bull supporter, but I am a supporter of great, exciting, full-blooded soccer!

My rally now is to get anyone reading this blog out of his or her living room and into a stadium. With the phenomenal growth of soccer come the varied opportunities to become part of the composition. Most states have multitudes of opportunities to watch soccer as a part of a crowd. Go watch a college game, see amateur games which now include several national leagues for both men and women, see professional games, and should any overseas teams come within 200 miles of your home for a friendly, take the time to see them. While the chance to see increasingly exciting levels of soccer should be enough to get you out, I still say experiencing a game with tens of thousands of fans roaring and gesticulating around you makes the event both powerful and memorable. You have the ability to become part of the immediate and singular creation. There's nothing like it. Just remember that if you do attend a classical music concert, please don't use your air horn to show your appreciation for a great prelude. The comparison stops there.