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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". 

 

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.
 

Speed Bumps

Susan Boyd

Do you ever have one of those weeks?  I'm having one.  First the transmission went on my car.  I know – shocker – just shy of 200,000 miles.  The nerve of Toyota to build such a flimsy system!  Then my dryer motor went.  Since you all have soccer players and its summer and they sweat, you know how terrible it is to lose your dryer.  And I don't even own a clothes line or clothes pins, but I will have to go get those things because my dryer is so old that it will be a week before they can locate a new motor.  Then the TV refused to turn on.  I have a service plan, so I thought, "Lucky me, at least this won't cost."  But costs come in other forms than money.  I didn't realize that a service plan wasn't a guarantee of service.  The TV broke July 16th and the first service appointment was July 30th.  I think the dispatcher on the phone sensed that he was dealing with a fragile spirit when I said, "You’re kidding me!" with that crazed, hysterical voice my kids know means trouble.  He quickly searched for a better appointment, and so as I write this I am waiting for the service rep to show up.  As straws and camels' backs go, I got a doozy.  Bryce called last night.  Nothing good comes after this conversation opener:  "Mom, you're not going to like this . . . !"  Bryce's car was stranded 20 miles west of our house on a freeway off-ramp.  By the way, Bryce's second sentence was, "I didn't do anything!" because I am sure he heard that crazed, hysterical voice beginning to rise.  He got the car towed to a garage and spent the night at his girlfriend's parents' home since I didn't have transportation to go get him, and called this morning to say it is probably the clutch cable and still under warranty.  I expect the toilets to back up at any moment.

Before the TV broke I got to watch Abby Wambach have one of those weeks too.  The U.S. Women’s National Team was playing the Brazilian Women's National Team in a pre-Olympic "friendly."  I use the term loosely since both teams approached the game with the same intense competitive spirit as if it were the Olympic finals.  In one aggressive play Wambach ran for the ball and met a Brazilian player going full speed with the same purpose.  Wambach ended up on the ground, raised her head and signaled for help.  She had snapped both her leg bones below the knee.  She was remarkably calm as they applied an inflatable splint and then lifted her unto a gurney and drove her off the field.  She even managed a thumb’s up.  But the Olympics were no longer her future.  At that moment I am quite sure she would have gladly traded her broken leg for my broken appliances and vehicles.   She will be repaired, and according to my husband, the expert on TV viewed injuries, she should be as good as new in about two months.  So while she has plenty of soccer in front of her, she may never again have the Olympics, something she trained for and dreamed about most of her life. 

Her injury shows how tenuous a sport’s career can be.  Robbie is getting ready to go to a soccer camp, and I have been bemoaning the lack of communication from the camp about things like what to bring and medical release forms.  I made the joke that if they didn't want a signed medical release then we could just sue them for anything.  Immediately Robbie "I Want To Get Rich Quick" Boyd asked, "What do you think I'm worth – I mean ballpark."  I told him that right now he was merely potential as a soccer player, so if he had a career ending injury, he unfortunately would also not yet have a career that could be valued.  But then I thought a bit more about it and realized that his potential college scholarships would be affected resulting in a financial effect on his future.  This also got me thinking again about the frenzy to train kids in order to get a sport’s scholarship to college and how a Roth IRA or a college fund are much better bets for paying for college than banking on athletic skills.  You only have to realize that when Abby began her chase for the ball she was going to the Olympics; three seconds later she was not. 

While most soccer injuries heal within six months, they can have other lasting effects.  One of Bryce's teammates broke his wrist during the chaos in the box after a corner kick.  He’d been a good player with potential and returned to playing soccer a few months later.  But he wasn’t the same.  He had become timid, avoided contact, and hung back during aggressive plays.  Within six months he had quit soccer.  Another of Bryce's teammates, a goalkeeper, had been on the regional team for three years, colleges were showing great interest, and he had affectively bumped Bryce off his starting sport.  But in his senior year he quit high school soccer and ultimately all soccer.  He just didn’t like the pressure.  Robbie went to camp this summer with a player who had gotten a full ride from a college, hesitated in committing, and ended up without a scholarship and without a place to play college soccer.  He decided to do a fifth year of high school so he could start the process all over again in the hopes of still securing a scholarship. 

So long as we have our health and our family, life is good.  All the bumps along the way prove Nietzsche's axiom, "That which does not kill me makes me stronger."  But some bumps end up being seismic in their impact.  Abby Wambach will go on to play in the Women's World Cup and perhaps in the 2012 Olympics.  She will definitely play in the new professional women’s soccer league.  But I’m sure that she is also distraught over missing these Olympics.   We each need to measure the relative impact of the calamities in our lives and deal with them appropriately.    If your child is set on playing college soccer, the opportunities definitely exist for most competent and driven players.  But if you are set on your child getting a scholarship to play college soccer, you may need to adjust those expectations.  And if you are banking on a sport's scholarship and for any reason your child ends up not playing that sport, you will need to accept it is one of those bumps in life.   I think Abby's thumb's up was her way of showing she accepted her fate and was looking beyond the disappointment.  Now if my neighbors can just look beyond the string of boxer shorts drying in the sun this weekend, we’ll all be ahead of the game.