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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 Not Russian Roulette

Susan Boyd

Wednesday May 9, NBC’s Rock Center did a report on the increase in serious concussions among female soccer players. In a promo for an upcoming segment, an earnest reporter asked a father why he allowed his daughter to continue playing a game when he knew she faced serious injury. His chagrined and flustered reply, "Well she loves playing. I don’t want to stop her from doing something she loves." Buzz – wrong answer. This is exactly the type of sound bite with which news agencies make hay. It not only makes parents seem irresponsibly immune to the dangers surrounding sport, but creates the impression that whatever it takes to succeed, including a life-altering brain injury, we should go ahead and tolerate it in the name of sport. Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I have addressed the issue of concussions several times. I readily acknowledge that concussions, and particularly repeated concussions, can be a life-altering injury but we aren’t sending our children out to play Russian Roulette on the field.
 
The good news is that despite the rise in concussions among young female soccer players, the actual numbers are in the hundreds. With 3 million registered players, US Youth Soccer has the largest number of youth players in the United States. Roughly 48 percent of these are girls, or 1.4 million. Even if the number of girls with serious concussions reached 1000 a year that translates to only .0007 percent, hardly a number to consider wholesale changes to the game.
 
The players interviewed for the Rock Center report represented the extremes. All had suffered at least three concussions. Most were unable to concentrate for only three hours in school and one girl had to have her room bathed in blue light and eat dinner by candle light to avoid migraines. They also all admitted they didn’t leave games after suffering their first concussion because they either didn’t want to appear weak or the team needed them. I’ve read where experts tell us that recovering from a concussion takes at least a week of no rigorous activity and definitely no rough contact. But time and again players, parents, coaches and referees ignore this advice. According to the research cited in the Rock Center piece, girls are slightly more prone to being concussed due to longer, thinner necks and weaker neck muscles. Therefore, any head injury, no matter how slight it appears at the moment, needs to be considered serious enough to be removed from the game. If there is any black out at all, even for a few seconds, it requires immediate removal and a medical follow up.
 
The report did point out why injured girls play even with the threat of serious brain trauma. As one girl stated, "When I was forced to quit soccer I lost my identity, my social life, my friends and my joy." Parents will often experience the same loss on a different level. They develop friendships and a social life with the other parents of teammates, so the entire family can experience a loss.
 
Possible head injuries are a part of any sport, although soccer can have what is considered a higher than average incident rate due to both headers and other collisions during the game. Therefore, no one should take this report by NBC lightly. We just need to have some perspective. There exist safeguards to protect players from the first time they approach the ball to their waning adult competitive days. We need to be sure these safeguards are applied regularly and consistently. This job for making sure players stay safe falls primarily on referees and coaches, then on parents and finally on the players. First, referees need to control games carefully for the youngest players. Elbows to the head and neck need to be an immediate card and dismissal from the field. Excessively rough play needs to be stopped with a zero tolerance policy for any players. Any injury to the head means that the player must leave the game for the rest of the game–no exceptions. If a player blacks out, then immediate medical attention must be arranged. Coaches need to prepare their players for these policies and then support them. It’s difficult in a big game with the score tied and only three minutes left to pull your best striker for a possible head injury, but we all have to look long term, not at the immediate gains. Parents need to support coaches and referees in both controlling rough play and in removing players from the field either for rough play or for injury. These policies ensure that players think twice before that overly aggressive hit to the back of the head and players can have long and productive soccer careers.
 
One suggestion made by NBC was for headers to be banned under the age of 12. Brandi Chastain, the former Olympic and World Cup star of the U.S. Women’s National Team, disagreed strongly. She felt that headers were a beautiful and inherent part of the game which shouldn’t be eliminated from the younger players’ repertoire. Besides, players naturally go with their head for any ball above their chest. It would be a difficult ban to not only enforce, but justify.
 
If players choose to wear a head guard, it’s important that everyone support their decision. It is not a sign of weakness or a silly piece of equipment. Parents should encourage your players not to make fun of any player who elects to wear a head guard. Coaches support the decision even if you don’t see the point. Players also need to be honest about how they are feeling. If a hit makes you woozy, then let the coach know and take yourself out of the game. If the coach establishes prior to the season that he or she wants any player with a possible head injury to pull out, then it makes the decision easier for the player. Parents, let your player know that you will be proud of her if she realizes she’s not quite right and asks to sit out.
 
Our kids aren’t asking to test their reflexes by hitting the springs on bear traps. They are playing a game that has been around for decades and will be around for decades more. Unlike the baited question of "Why let your daughter play a game that you know is dangerous for her?" leaving the poor parent to stutter and stumble around a response that just makes them look irresponsible and uncaring, the real question should be "What are you doing as a parent to make soccer even safer for your daughter?" That’s an answer that doesn’t yield the kind of fear-based reporting we see all too often, but does offer some real help to the viewers. We can’t eliminate concussions, but we can develop strategies that diminish the number of concussions and diminish the severity of those concussions. Most importantly we need to take any hit to the head, neck, or back seriously and err to the side of caution when we suspect some brain involvement. The idea is to watch our kids play in lots of games not just win one significant game. The idea is to have our kids enjoy their passion safely.
 
US Youth Soccer offers a number of free online concussion resources. Click the link to learn more http://www.usyouthsoccer.org/news/concussion_resources_from_cdc/
                              

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Soccer Mom’s Day

Susan Boyd

This will be the first Mother’s Day in twelve years that we haven’t been at the soccer fields. I never felt badly that we couldn’t attend yet another brunch because, to tell the truth, I preferred watching the boys play over lukewarm scrambled eggs and soggy hash browns. The real meaning of Mother’s Day for me was sharing the day with my family and doing what we loved – soccer.
 
I imagine many of you will be in the same situation come Sunday. Spring soccer season is usually abbreviated by seasonal showers and soggy fields, so dry weekend play dates become a precious commodity not to be wasted with some sentimental holiday. Thus you gather up the chairs, blankets and umbrellas and head out to the fields delighted to watch your son or daughter play a game they really love while you cheer them on. Even if the weather isn’t ideal, the experience can be.
 
For five years, the coach of Robbie’s team made sure that each boy handed his mother a carnation after the game win or lose. That’s a very special memory for me. Despite their obvious embarrassment for what they considered an intimate gesture (especially when they got older), they each trotted across the field and handed mom a flower and received a hug in return. I doubt I would have gotten either at a fancy brunch. But within the family of the soccer team and the openness of the soccer field, Robbie and his buddies felt uninhibited enough to show and receive love publicly.
 
Another Mother’s Day game Bryce’s team unfurled a sign at the end of the game that said "Thanks and Have a Happy Mother’s Day!" They had decorated the poster and signed their names. We all got our pictures taken behind the sheet with both the full team and all the moms as well as individual photos. It made for a very special and unexpected memory.
 
When the boys were really young we actually arranged for a special mom/son soccer game on Mother’s Day. We met at the local elementary school and played a game for more than an hour. Then we had donuts and coffee and visited while the kids continued to play. It was overcast and not very warm, but somehow we managed to extend the experience for nearly three hours. There were lots of siblings, grandparents and friends who joined us. So we decided to play a round robin tournament with the boys winning the whole competition (without us even trying to let them win). Normally it might have been demoralizing to lose to a bunch of 8 year olds, but that day it was just fun. Some families actually had the proverbial bunch reservations and blew them off because the day was going so well. It definitely was a special Mother’s Day.
 
I don’t even want to suggest that soccer families have to make lemonade out of lemons because the past Mother’s Days weren’t something to be pitied. Should your son’s or daughter’s team be scheduled to play on Mother’s Day then center your celebration around the game. Turn the brunch into a team outing by going to a pizza place or an all-you-can-eat buffet. Or go to a baseball field and share a family softball game. Play Frisbee golf. Build a bonfire, have a sing-a-long and make s’mores.
There are so many ways to celebrate that don’t require dressing up and reservations.
 
Like I said, this Mother’s Day will be the first in a long time without a soccer game, but I will actually be with my grandsons in Columbus, Ohio. So this Mother’s Day I’ll be at two youth baseball games. Same outcome, different sport. I wouldn’t have it any other way! 

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TOPSoccer Coaching

Sam Snow

In all ranks of coaching, the new coach often uses the training activities found in materials from US Youth Soccer, U.S. Soccer and State Associations completely as written.  That is, the coach often doesn’t make adjustments to the activity.  It may help the players in a training session activity for a grid to be larger or for there to be fewer opponents, for example.  Another concept for novice coaches to learn is the difference between drills and activities.  Essentially activities are game-like and require some problem solving by the players.  Drills do not make such demands upon the players, even though the game of soccer certainly does.
 
So, coaches going through the US Youth Soccer TOPSoccer coaching course often have the same learning curve challenge.  Like some other coaches, they want to fall back on drills as they think that activities are too difficult for the players.  Well if a coach doesn’t extend the players, then those players stagnate in their development.
 
As a coaching educator, I think the problem with drills over activities is more with the coaches than the players.  In this regard, the TOPSoccer course is no different than teaching a Youth Module course and getting coaches away from drills.  As the state TOPSoccer course is being delivered more often by the State Associations we are educating a group of coaches who in many instances have coached in isolation and now are being asked to move out of their coaching comfort zone.  Again, no different than other coaching education.  The difference now is that we have TOPSoccer participants who are not accustomed to main stream soccer approaches being used in their world.  They are resistant to the mainstreaming of some of the approaches taken in coaching TOPSoccer players.  I want us to think of these kids as soccer players just like any other group of kids playing the game.
 
Auke Wiersma, chair for Region I TOPSoccer and a coaching course instructor for New Jersey Youth Soccer adds these thoughts:
 
This is a coaching ‘problem’ not a players ‘problem.’ It all comes down to how you present the activity to the TOPSoccer players.
 
Agreed, an activity (drill...) that the players are accustomed to initially will result in a better outcome, but should never prevent the coach from trying a new activity. YOU ARE CHEATING ON THE TOPSOCCER PLAYERS!
 
We should encourage coaches to keep on offering their drills on a regular basis for good flow of the training session. However, depending -somewhat- on the condition of the players, it is not bad to take the TOPSoccer players a bit out of their comfort zone. THIS ALSO HAPPENS IN REAL LIFE! It might not sound politically correct, but the special needs population is too protected in a sense of what they can, or worse cannot do! Challenging the special needs athlete at many different levels is healthy and should be encouraged!
 
Drills (..... bad word in the world of coaching) that the players feel comfortable with will become boring even for the TOPSoccer player, and I haven't mentioned the parents yet. They will also see that their son or daughter is going through the drills time and time again. They want their child to be challenged as well. When their child makes progress or overcomes a challenge (technically, tactically, physically or psycho-socially), can you imagine how proud they feel?! Boring = not learning and we want our TOPSoccer players to learn as much as possible.
 
In my experience as an Adapted Physical Education teacher for over 8 years and as a soccer coach, I can tell that players, as well as parents, will become frustrated when the same activities are offered over and over again, even in the world of special needs education. Frustration equals not learning, and we want our TOPSoccer players to learn as much as possible. I have heard many times: "Basketball, again? Rope skipping again?" The day that we started a rock climbing program in the school I worked at was the most exciting day of my tenure there! A new activity and an activity that definitely takes the special needs students out of their comfort zone.
 
We should keep on encouraging (like we do in the course) the novice, as well as the more experienced, TOPSoccer coach to offer activities that promote players decision making and creativity, just like we (should) do in mainstream soccer. Challenge the players like in mainstream soccer, this is what they want! Make a new activity exciting for the player! The thought that the TOPSoccer players can't handle change is a general statement and should be more specified per player. Some of them might indeed have more problems with it then others, but keep on trying to get the player involved regardless of ability.
 
The TOPSoccer player, let alone the TOPSoccer parent, doesn't want to be treated differently. This happens enough outside soccer already. The TOPSoccer parent can be a "normal" parent for an hour, so don't baby their child if you don't have to! The parents will see that and still feel that their child gets special treatment due to the child’s condition, many players feel the same.
 
This brings me back to the first point I made: It's a coaching problem. The question is how does, or should, the coach present a new activity so that the player becomes interested. Does the coach have enough patience and understanding to realize that the activity might not work out the first time (or two or three)? Is the coach able to analyze and adapt and make the activity more difficult or easier? Those are the first questions the coaches should ask before we make up an excuse for or about the players. Yes, the same questions a coach should ask in mainstream soccer.
 
In the TOPSoccer course the question is asked whether coaching TOPSoccer is different than coaching mainstream soccer. My answer is: "NO!" the only difference is patience and the ability of the coach to analyze the activity and adapt to the needs of the TOPSoccer player where needed and not disregard a new activity because it is easier (for the coach).
 
Soccer is still soccer, whether you are talking TOPSoccer or Champions League socce;, a ball, opponents, teammates, parents, coaches, goals etc. Once on the field we are all the same, people that love to coach or play the beautiful game!
 
"I can do that (myself)! Let me try! Look Coach, I'm doing it!" is what we want to hear and see on the TOPSoccer field.

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Reaction time

Susan Boyd

As your time in youth soccer develops, many of you may face one of two scenarios: One – your child asks to pursue a higher level of soccer; Two – your child asks to quit soccer altogether. Each case has very different responses and outcomes but they are both interconnected. The attitude you exhibit can both overshadow your response and change outcomes. Because we parents always have an investment in our children’s activities and their successes, we often interject our hesitations and expectations into their choices. This can translate into an impulsive reaction to their desires.
 
Take for example a child’s request to play a higher level of soccer. You have all heard how expensive it can be to move to a travel team. Then you hear the discussions of extended practices, lots of out-of-state travel and, oh yes, the travel team has fields 30 minutes from home. You enjoy watching your child play, but you’ve been happy with the local team filled with friends from school that you can carpool with and familiar parents that can make the sidelines fun. In addition, your child is one of the top, if not the top, players. Why mess with success? You don’t envision your child as a college or even a high school player, so you don’t see the need for any advanced training especially adding more money and driving into the equation. Therefore, your reaction might have either overtones of anger or frustration which could stop any discussion dead. Or your reaction could convey disappoint that your child would even ask.
 
I have always said that no family should overextend themselves to provide soccer training for their children. You need to conserve resources and use them equally among family members. But you also need to recognize when a child exhibits a passion or shows a talent that should be nurtured. That needs to be a conversation which begins positively. "Wow, I’m really pleased that you’re enjoying soccer so much." It’s certainly fair for you to discuss with your son or daughter what this commitment means both for your child and for your family. Lay out what the expectations will be – for example, earning part of the expenses, attending every practice, finding a carpool among your new teammates. You can remind your child that with the intensified schedule you may not be able to attend every game or every tournament because of commitments to other family members, but that you’ll still be committed to his or her success and always interested in it. If you can have an open discussion then there will be no surprises or frustrations.
 
Likewise, if your expectation was that your son or daughter would play at a higher level, you need to be sure not to scare them off with over enthusiasm which could imply pressure. In fact, your child may have hesitated to ask to play on a travel team because he or she knew you wanted it. Your player may have felt that he or she couldn’t live up to the expectations. So if you jump on the request with over-the-top emotion, your player won’t hear what you say, only what you "meant." Take it slow. Calmly respond for example, "I’ve seen your improvement. This could be a really good next step for you." Again it opens the door for discussion. Don’t over praise your son’s or daughter’s abilities since that adds pressure with hidden expectations. But at the same time, give them support and reinforcement that they are moving in the right direction.
 
In the second scenario mentioned above, it can be difficult not to react with severe shock and disappointment when your child decides it’s time to quit soccer. It’s hard if you saw your child moving on to high school or college soccer. We want to immediately respond with the equivalent in our voices of "What are you talking about!!" Again being calm will go a long ways to opening a dialog. Sometimes you’ll find out that the reason for quitting has nothing to do with soccer, so it would be a good idea to let your child talk before you come down with your response. There may be teammate problems, a coach who tells inappropriate jokes, a parent on the sideline always picking on your child or even a health issue that is preventing your child from performing at peak. So be sure to find out what is going on. Additionally, it is okay to require that your child finish his or her commitment with the team. However, if he or she has a strong emotional reaction to that expectation, I can almost guarantee that something is amiss on the team that needs to be explored. Finally, remember that your dreams aren’t your child’s. My son Robbie is an excellent soccer player, but he is going to finish his college soccer career and then hopefully move on to medical school. I would love to watch him play professional soccer, but that’s not his choice. In fact, for a semester it wasn’t his choice to play college soccer. We have to accept those choices, as painful as they are to us. Overreacting to your child’s decision to quit, especially with anger, may get them to continue, but will overshadow their experience with resentment and sadness. Soccer should always be played with joy. In fact anything your child chooses to do should be done with joy. And in the end, we parents will share in that joy no matter what.

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