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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". 

 

Soccer is the key

Susan Boyd

Last week I spent Friday evening with a group of women friends for a "Happy Hour" of drinks and conversation. I met the woman hosting when our sons all went to the same preschool. Of the other women invited I knew one through American Field Service foreign exchanges, another because her son played baseball with Robbie one summer when they were 10, another because we attended a Passover Seder together, and one became a new acquaintance that evening. Yet all of us shared one thing in common – soccer.

I have begun to think that soccer is the new social networking media. While Facebook and Twitter have faster connection times, soccer has that steady, solid base that takes families through years of connection. Although none of our children ever played soccer together, we women all knew instantly the same stories, adventures, concerns, joys, and frustrations. We all had endured coaches who were mean or played favorites, we had stayed in flea bag hotels or paid way too much for a team dinner, we had washed uniforms in a tiny sink, pulled Band-Aids from our purses for an emergency blister, eaten junk food to the point that gourmet meant a burger with a tomato on it, driven thousands of miles, sat in the rain, and loved every minute of it. I had a band of sisters rising from the shared experiences of soccer.

I know that other sports could be as bonding, but for some reason, sitting in a group, when people talk about youth sports and find the common ground for discussion it seems to gravitate towards soccer. I'd like to think that's because first and foremost soccer is consistently and for the long term played equally by boys and girls, which you won't find with football, occasionally find with baseball (softball), and do find with basketball but with physical limitations, which cut down the pool of players as they grow older. Soccer can be played by anyone at any age in any physical shape or size. There are over-30, over-50, women, co-ed, youth, rec, select, and Major League teams. It's not surprising that when my husband talks about his patients he invariably mentions that they play soccer or have kids who play soccer. Even his nurse used to play college soccer.

Networking has become such an essential part of any business model, and soccer has one of the best networks around. I can't go long without bumping into something connected to youth soccer. The other night in a deli a father and son walked in and the son had soccer gear on. After dinner we went to the bookstore and three other soccer families were there. On the way home six of the cars on the two mile trip had soccer club stickers in the window. If I want to open a conversation with a stranger, I'll often start with some soccer question. I am rarely met with a blank, confused stare. If you want to instantly be part of group, soccer is your key.

Therefore I don't understand why businesses don't capitalize on that network more often. For example, most soccer tournaments are huge, covering acres of area with thousands of participants, spectators, and coaches. If businesses and soccer tournament organizers joined forces they could create a mutually beneficial arrangement. People attending a tournament come from all walks of life and have a huge variety of interests. It's a perfect place to test various demographics and gather pertinent data during those down times between games when everyone is looking for something to fill the gaps. I could see booths that offer cosmetics, electronics, shoes, restaurant samples, airlines, and other products people use regularly, not just cleats and head bands. Show soccer moms a booth demonstrating relaxation products and you'll have a line three fields long. Give soccer players a chance to test a new cereal, I can guarantee they'll use their electronic messaging to spread their approval to friends and family. The tentacles of the soccer community run far and wide. There aren't many consumer groups that have grown as dramatically as the players registered with US Youth Soccer Association growing from 100,000 in 1974 to more than 3 million today. Each of those 3 million players has parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, teachers, and neighbors. I can image if Apple demonstrated their iPad at soccer tournaments the word would spread as quickly as a 30 second spot during "Lost." I'd think that would be a marketer's dream and the key to some significant sales.
 
 

Oh, what big teeth you have

Susan Boyd

Lately I've been seeing a number of clubs advertising spring skill camps for U-9 and U-10 players. These camps have no fees attached, are open to any child in the correct age range, and don't require a reservation. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what's going on – these are camouflaged tryouts for kids too young for any select program. Clubs know that if they can snag potential players when they are still learning cursive writing they may be able to snag and retain the next Landon Donovan or Abby Wambach. Anxious for little Molly or Mikey to be discovered, parents have no problem bringing their children to these camps. It's either a win-win or win-lose situation with the clubs always winning.

Competition among clubs has become fiercer as more national developmental options open up. Clubs need talent to qualify for the top levels of competition and training and that talent can be gathered two ways. First clubs can plunder other clubs for their developed players, which is a common enough practice that strict rules have been laid down in US Youth Soccer State Associations. Every spring cries of "recruiting" bring cases before State Association mediation, and occasionally, clubs get sanctioned for being too aggressive in their hunt for talent. Second, clubs can find raw talent and develop that talent for themselves, hoping that no one poaches their finds after years of nurturing them. 

The positive for young players comes from the opportunities that these skill clinics, aka tryouts, bring. If a player shows some penchant for the sport, then the likelihood is that the parents will be approached following the clinic to be told what potential Molly has and how this is the club that can mold that potential. Parents and kids alike will be stroked with lots of compliments, promises, and pie in the sky dreams. The reality is that Molly will be one of dozens of kids approached; however, her development may or may not pan out as the club expects, and Molly may find herself at age 14 persona non grata. That's hard to take when just four or five years earlier Molly was being told she'd be a star, play in college, and make the club proud. Now she's cast off in favor of some other "star" recruited to take Molly's place.

Clubs are a business. There's no two ways around it. They succeed when they win because that draws parents to the club through reputation and prestige. Most parents don't care how the club gets a winning record, they only care that the club is perceived as the best. Coaches don't keep their jobs if they don't win, so they are always on the look-out for talent. Since there are strict guidelines on when they can approach players from another team, they often leave the job of recruiting to the parents of players or the players. Once after a State Championship game, in front of all the parents of Robbie's team, the manager of the opposing team, who had beaten us, came up to me and loudly announced that Robbie was too good to be on this, "rag tag collection of misfits" so he should consider coming to the other team's tryouts in June. Not only was I embarrassed both for Robbie and for the parents sitting there, but I had no idea how to respond. I sputtered out something like "Thanks, but everyone's great. Their talents complement one another." However, the damage had already been done. The team's parents had their faces rubbed in not only their loss but in Robbie being elevated over their hardworking and skilled children by this rogue parent. I could barely contain my anger.

Parents need to be cautious about seeking the top club in the area for the sake of prestige. Robbie played for years for the "second place" club in our part of Wisconsin because his coach was a superb developer of soccer talent. The coach was Hispanic with deep ties to the Hispanic community, so he brought in raw talent from a basically untapped source and created a team that did appear on the surface "rag tag" only because the kids were all different races, sizes, and ages. But those kids could play soccer. They didn't always win because many of the players were younger than the registered level of the team so they weren't always strong enough to beat bigger, more powerful teams, but they possessed skills beyond other players at their age level. Robbie knows that he owes his strong soccer abilities to that coach and to that team. Eventually he made the decision to move to another team because of competition and exposure to college recruiters, but he loved his original team.

I encourage parents to shop around for two things when their players are young and not to be enticed by that bright, shiny object of status. First look for a coach that you believe will be able to truly teach your child. Many coaches substitute yelling louder for actual education. Coaches who patiently explain tactics and skills and don't expect perfection in a few minutes of practice are better suited for young players. Second look for a good mix of kids that share your child's interests and personality. Winning is wonderful – there's no better high than winning a game – but winning at the cost of fun and education isn't really worth it. Remember that getting into that winning club and on that winning team means your child has to pull his or her weight. If not, your player won't remain on the team. That kind of pressure and rejection can be detrimental to a child's self-image. I have listened to scores of parents, many of them on the verge of tears, when their child didn't make the cut, especially after being on a team for a number of years. That moment when they don't get the phone call can be one of the most devastating in their lives. If your child isn't driven, then a driven team isn't for him or her.

If your child continues to improve and shows a keen passion for soccer, then by all means check out more competitive programs. Kids who want to play beyond high school should consider eventually playing on teams that have more national exposure so they can be seen by college coaches. But that can wait until later. If your child grew up in soccer with a great teacher-coach then he or she will have been well-developed even if the team doesn't have a strong winning record. Likewise they should consider joining the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program (US Youth Soccer ODP) in their state to augment their development. Here they can test their skills and abilities against the top players. If they are successful in US Youth Soccer ODP, they will likely be recruited by the top soccer clubs since many of the coaches from those clubs are coaches in the program.

Be wary of coaches courting your child at age eight or nine. They may well be a wolf looking to devour Red Riding Hood. Take their flattery with a grain of salt. Come watch some practices over the course of the next couple weeks to see if the coaches have a Mr. Hyde personality when the clinics are over or continue to be patient and nurturing with these young players. Talk to other parents, particularly parents of older players, to get their opinion of the club once players hit the select stage. And most importantly listen to your child. If he or she is unhappy, then prestige and winning are empty gifts. Soccer should never cease to be fun.
 

Development

Sam Snow

In 2005, an operations manual was developed for the state technical directors. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 2: Job Responsibilities and the section on player development.

Development - The act or process of developing; unfolding; a gradual growth or advancement through progressive changes…

The truth is the majority of young players become what they were always going to be largely by their own efforts and a lot of straightforward encouragement. Playing an extraordinary number of matches will not alter that fact. Playing in more tournaments and conducting more or longer training sessions will not change this reality either.

Approximately one tenth of one percent will make it onto a National Team be it Youth, Olympic or the full National Team. According to the NCAA, only half of one percent of all college athletes will make it onto a professional team in any sport. The NCAA also estimates that only two percent of all high school players in all sports will go on to play college sports. The majority of players will come to full blossom as a player once in their 20's. Soccer is a long term athletic development sport. Starting to play on "teams" when barely out of diapers will not amend the time needed to grow physically and psychologically to become an accomplished player.

Since it will take approximately 20 years for a soccer player to develop, then a gradual stair step approach to playing adult soccer must be taken. While the players are in primary and secondary school the adults caring for their soccer experience and controlling their soccer environment must be patient with an eye to long term goals as well as short term objectives.

Fostering a love for the game and allowing talent to develop in a sane environment means a reasonable number of matches and training sessions for the age group, not the level of competition. The idea that, the game is the great teacher, has been misunderstood and/or misapplied. Some think if the axiom is true then more games are better. In fact the opposite is true – fewer games are better for youngsters. The axiom means the game will show a player how they have progressed. The game teaches players, through exposure, their strengths and weaknesses. Teach them how to play the game before they are asked to compete for wins. Let them play matches to learn how to compete and how to play in their pre-adolescent years. Eliminate State, Regional and National championships prior to age 15.

Sports do not build character. They reveal it.
- Haywood Hale Brown
 

Hindsight is the best predictor

Susan Boyd

Predicting the future could be a gift or could be a curse. I'm a bit of a control freak, so I'm glad I can't predict the future because it would drive me crazy that I couldn't control what was going to happen. Then again, why couldn't I? I mean if I knew you were going to be hit by a bus crossing the street on Friday at 10:03 a.m., why wouldn't I send you an email or give you a call so you could avoid your fate? But then I wouldn't really be predicting the future because that particular future didn't happen. So I guess I'd be more like a manipulator of the future, but I couldn't do anything with the future if I couldn't predict it first. And if two future catastrophes intersected, how would I decide who to warn first? This whole future predicting and future manipulating might be too big a responsibility for me, especially since I tend to procrastinate. You can tell I think about this a lot. 

As parents we spend much of our time trying to predict our children's future. If they are going to be brilliant students then we need to prepare for college. If they are going to want to become a dancer or a pianist we have to spring for lessons. If they show signs of athleticism we need to decide which sport would be best and then pay for the training. For all those predictions, we probably only get about 2 percent right and the rest of life just intrudes on us unexpectantly.   Despite those odds we go to great lengths to get the future right. We listen to the advice of teachers, coaches, talk show hosts, and news pundits. We quiz our friends, maybe even our own parents, and we read a lot of "how to" books. But how are we ever going to know for sure?

Our oldest daughter pursued dance with a passion. When she was 13 she brought us four applications for performing arts high schools and asked for the application fees. She auditioned all over the country and selected a school in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois where she danced well enough to be looked at by three major ballet companies. And then in the spring of her first year she announced that she didn't want to dance any longer. Who would have predicted that? We went from dance being the left, right and center of her life to dance being an asterisk. She did dance team in high school and she still occasionally takes classes mostly for fitness, but that's about it. Any careful planning we did as parents to make sure there was money set aside for dance lessons, dance academy, and audition trips dissolved into the usual life of a teenager's parent – teaching her to drive a car, going to watch her dance team performances, buying a prom dress, and attending her graduation. 

Certainly the future can be disrupted by cataclysmic events, but mercifully most of us just have the usual mundane trek to the frontiers of life. No matter what we expect to happen, life has a way of throwing plenty of curve balls. Preparing for what might happen isn't the same thing as engineering what will happen. Yet I see plenty of parents concentrating on the latter. We all know, and we may well be, one of those parents always talking to the coach, advocating for his/her child, pushing the kid at every opportunity, and talking in the future tense too often: you will play Division 1 soccer; you will make three goals . . . as if the future were something negotiable. Our kids don't usually think in terms of the future except in an immediate and selfish way, hoping that Mike will ask her to the prom or planning to go to a concert. That's why admonishments about the effect certain behaviors will have on their futures just sail over their heads. How can anyone possibly think about what college to attend or what career to choose when there are more pressing issues such as watching "Lost" or going to the same party as the cool kids. So while we are carefully crafting our child's future, he or she is concentrating on what to wear Friday night. 

Kids naturally don't want to disappoint their parents. So when they see Dad or Mom so strenuously working an angle to make something happen for the future, like making the traveling team or starring in the school play, they may go along for the journey even though it's not where they want to go. We have the experience of regrets in our life which informs our vision of what we want for our kids. But that regret may have taught us the lesson of working harder or not being short-sighted. It's hard to stand by and watch our children take a path that can't lead to what we believe is the ideal future for them. But how do we really know? Robbie absolutely refused to take AP classes in high school even though he was recommended for several. His reasoning was that he wanted to insure two things: that he kept his grades up and that he didn't feel under too much pressure. I thought he was cutting off his chances of getting into the college he wanted and that he was selling himself short. I wanted to spare him the regret of missing a great opportunity because he closed a door too early. Amazingly, he understood what it meant but he said he could cope with not getting everything he wanted because that would be less stress than fighting against the top students in his class for grades.

We have children because we believe in the future and all the good it can provide. But we also have to accept that the future is a wide-open territory with lots of options that will be good. We can highlight some of the options, and we can push our kids towards those options, but we also need to give them the freedom to mold their own future free of our restrictions and manipulation.  Certainly we can provide opportunity, advice, and gentle nudges, but we shouldn't try to craft the future for them. Kids who fight for themselves usually end up stronger and more capable. Kids, whose parents engineer their successes for them, may end up being the starting forward on a team, but ultimately don't possess the temperament and skills to fight for that spot in college or for that big promotion at work. They grew dependent upon Mom and Dad to make things happen and now can only complain that nothing good ever happens anymore. Robbie is presently playing soccer at his top choice for college. His decision not to take AP classes didn't hurt him, although it might have. That's the thing about the future. We can't predict it; we can only analyze it in hindsight.