Monday, March 01, 2010
I was sitting at my auto mechanic's shop, as I do at least once a month, and two hockey moms were there as well. They discussed this weekend's schedule and the upcoming weekend, which they had discovered contained no games, only practice. One mom said, "Thank goodness. I'm so worn out from games and washing uniforms. I'm not going to send Andy to practice. It'll be nice to have a break." The other mom nodded agreement. "I think we all need a break. We just got Brian's progress reports. He was doing so well this fall and now . . . we just have to regroup."
Been there. Done that. Just hearing them talk put the same knot in my stomach, the hyperventilation, the panic at keeping up with practice, travel, school work, shopping, work . . . I have to stop thinking about it or I'll end up grinding my teeth. Finding the right equilibrium in a family's life seems to be as likely as locating the Holy Grail. Coaches make demands that can't be ignored. Playing time depends on attendance at practices. Traveling games become more and more common as players develop and improve. The season starts at six weeks, grows to six months and insidiously settles in to year round in tandem with increased costs. At the same time school gets more and more difficult with intensified homework. And that's just the demands on the player. Drop in an additional child or two or three and suddenly you have a spider web of scheduling with all the stress and frustrations it causes. That affects everyone in the family.
While no parent wants to put down roadblocks to a child's progress, there are only 24 hours in a day, and despite the Beatle's allegation, there are only 7 days a week. So on occasion something has to give. Deciding when, where, and what creates even more stress. So how do you know when to say when?
First everyone has to be considered. You may be totally burned out, but your child clamors for more. Your other children may express feeling ignored either directly or by acting out. Your spouse may start making comments like, "Well, hello stranger." Or you may be perfectly content to spend your time driving to practices, traveling to road games, and sleeping in cheap motels for tournaments, but no one else in the family finds that life alluring. You'll need to recognize what's working and what isn't. Then you'll need to prioritize what should come first to make things happier and more comfortable.
Next, check things out with your child. You can tell if he or she is having fun or feeling miserable. However, sometimes a protest is a reaction to an immediate change. Every day, Robbie would say, "Do I have to go to practice? I hate soccer." I'd tell him he had to complete his commitment for the season, and he'd finally begrudgingly throw himself into the car sulking the entire way to the field. Once the evening's practice ended, I couldn't get him off the pitch. He would hang out with the coach and a few other gung-ho players learning a new step or shooting on goal. So I quickly figured out that his burnout was acute not chronic and probably tied to the TV show he had to turn off before it was finished. Occasionally players need permission to choose something other than soccer. We always had the agreement, starting in middle school, that any significant social activities would take precedence over soccer if that's what they chose. We managed to balance out the birthday parties, school dances, and Brewers' games with the demands of soccer and school. The boys didn't miss much soccer, but it never became a drag because they knew soccer wasn't mandatory.
Since it's not always the player who's affected by a sport, listen to the rest of the family to find out what they want to do. I can't imagine that it's much fun to sit in the cold for several hours while your sibling plays a game. Make an arrangement with a non-soccer family for your other children to share play dates. They can be at a friend's house during the games and then have the friend over when you're not gone for a game. You don't need to attend every single game or tournament. Buddy up with families on the team and "child-share" for some of the events. I hated missing one of the boys' games, but with cell phones, video cameras, and vendors who sell game DVD's at tournaments, it really can be the next best thing to being there. In the meantime you've given the gift of your time and attention to another one of your children or your spouse, who can get pretty neglected if you have a strong athlete in the family.
It's clear that school should be the priority. Set a realistic minimum grade point your kids should maintain and make it clear that all activities are a privilege dependent upon maintaining that standard. If teachers suggest that your child is beginning to lag, make sure that soccer practice isn't the cause. Should things start to decline, don't be afraid to let the coach know that you're taking a break in order to address the issue and get things back on an even keel. Sports at the professional level may provide a great salary, but less than 1 percent of all youth players ever approach that status and even the best of the best can have a career ending injury. On the day she competed in the long program, figure skater Rachel Flatt had to complete a school report due the next day. Many of the Olympic athletes are still in high school and college and right in the middle of their spring semester. So they have to balance school and sport. Any youth player who hopes to play in college better be able to handle the pressures of practice and homework.
Finally, if soccer is putting your family in a financial bind, then you may need to take a short break. Check with the club to see if they offer any scholarships. Opportunities exist for financial support through a number of agencies, so don't be shy to browse the web for applications. Unfortunately the more elite the level of sport the more expensive it becomes. So it's a terrible quandary for a family to see their son or daughter achieving success that they can't financially support. Yet nothing is worth the stress of being behind in the bills or making huge sacrifices that affect not just the player, but everyone in the family. Don't let guilt dictate a less than wise course for your family. Lots of options exist for playing that don't break the bank. And if you can't find them, then be content with the choice to take a break while you replenish the coffers.
Taking off a season or even just a few practices or a tournament may slow down a player's development, but it won't destroy it. Think of all the athletes who are forced to stop playing while an injury heals. When the player gets burned out, it won't matter how much skill he or she has. Playing unhappy isn't worth it. When a family burns out, it affects the mental and physical health of all the members. Don't be afraid to take a breather if that's what is needed. Everyone will ultimately benefit. And soccer will certainly be around, ready to take you back.