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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". 

 

Carpool Survival

Susan Boyd

Any of us who have children in sports knows that we can’t survive the schedules without participating in and depending on carpools. The more kids we add to the mix, the exponentially more we are tied to car pools. They are a boon when we aren’t driving and can be a bit of a nightmare when we are the drivers. On the other hand, carpools can be an interesting window into our kids’ lives as they chatter in the back and we can be a fly on the wall. Surviving the complicated social and logistical tangles of carpooling can make for some stressful and interesting experiences. There’s some tried and true methods for tackling the necessary evils, but first you have to understand the “Laws” of carpooling.

  1.  A truck filled with watermelons or chickens or used frying oil will lose its load three cars in front of you;
    1. Corollary A:  This will happen 200 yards after an exit and two miles before the next possible exit.
    2. Corollary B:  You will never have cell service when this happens.
    3. Corollary C:  One of your passengers will either need to pee or to vomit immediately.
  2. Your day to pick up from practice will be just three hours after a soaking thunderstorm when every kid is covered head to toe with mud.
    1. Corollary A:  You just had your car detailed.
    2. Corollary B:  The field is also covered in goose droppings.
  3. When it isn’t your carpool day, the assigned driver will cancel at the last minute.
  4. No matter how often you step in to help at the last minute, you will always be made to feel guilty when you can’t.
  5. Someone will forget something vital and realize it 20 miles down the road.
  6. The noise level in the car is directly proportional to the level of your headache.

Corollary A:The music choices will always metaphorically use more “cow bell.”

Corollary B:All kids will sing along and none have any musical talent.

  1. When you drive in temperatures above 80 degrees, the snack will be either Hershey Bars or popsicles.
    1. Corollary A:  You just had your car detailed.
    2. Corollary B:  No matter how many napkins or paper towels you have, they are never enough.
  2. If your car is due for a major breakdown it will happen when you have five kids late for a big game.
    1. Corollary A:  You will never have cell service when this happens.
    2. Corollary B:  All five kids will continually remind you that they are going to be late.
  3. Your turn to drive will invariably be for the event farthest away and the most difficult to reach.
    1. Corollary A:  As with most soccer fields, the address is never precise.
    2. Corollary B:  Your GPS will do a best guess on location which is often incorrect.
    3. Corollary C:  Even with accurate directions, there will be an unexpected detour.
  4. Kids will say thank you and all too often parents won’t.


When you join a carpool, and most of us belong to at least two, there is an implied contract that has some delicate social parameters. Kids will be brutally honest with one another, so their conversations will be not only revealing, but possibly embarrassing as well. You will hear about fights that parents had, things the coach said, gossip on dozens of friends, and scores of tasteless jokes that everyone will find hilarious. The policy of “What’s said in the car, stays in the car” should always be honored. It’s best to remember that when someone else is driving they will be hearing about your family secrets. Likewise, you need to be careful about your comments. If you criticize the coach, another player, or another parent it will get back to them even if the ties to your passengers is tenuous at best. Imagine my shock when one kid once informed his coach while I was in earshot, “Mrs. Boyd says you don’t really give everyone equal playing time.” So mum’s the word when in the car. Then there are the things you don’t expect would cause problems. I found out that a song we played, “All Star” was taboo for one of my passengers when confronted by his mother. It didn’t have bad words, it wasn’t rap, but apparently it conveyed the wrong attitude by stating “she had an L in the middle of her forehead” i.e. she was a loser. If I decide to stop to get the kids a treat on the ride home I need to be sure that I’ve covered all the allergy and dietary restrictions. I discovered the hard way that what I thought was the perfect healthy snack, sugar-free frozen yogurt, turned out to be unacceptable for my one (unknown) vegan. Therefore, as a carpool driver you should politely check with every parent before doing what you think is something nice. It can unfortunately backfire otherwise.

The compact you “sign” when you join a carpool can truly be complex and unfair. For example there are three types of carpool parents:  those who pull their weight; those who pull more than their weight; and those who vaporize when their turn comes up. I often wonder if these latter adults have some type of “Beam me up Scotty” device that transports them, sans children, to a destination far removed activated with just the word “carpool” being spoken. They are the parents who claim to be incredibly busy though busy often translates into attending spin class and having a pedicure. The rest of us, who really are busy juggling several children’s schedules, a job, and getting uniforms washed, manage to handle the duties. Don’t expect these ghosts to feel any guilt; that vaporizes as well. But they are experts at slathering on the guilt to everyone else. When you join a carpool the concept of fairness doesn’t apply. I know when I was offered the straws, they were all short. You’ll get the longest trips, the games that get cancelled as soon as you arrive, the kids who get car sick, the kids who hate each other yet sit next to each other, the last-minute emergencies, and the hysterical child who loses his homework at the field. The best way to handle this all is to take a lesson from “Frozen” and let it go. Carpools are necessary evils that, despite the rough roads, at least ensure that your child always gets to travel. You won’t be able to negotiate better terms, but you will get some really precious moments that ultimately outweigh all the troubles.

I’m talking about being an important part of the conversation and activity that goes on in the car. Making connections with their friends in this safe and confined environment means that you have links with them well into their teens. Your own children somehow feel freer to open up to you as if you are now one of the gang. Something magical happens when those doors close. I loved monitoring and occasionally joining in on the conversation. My repertoire of ridiculous jokes doubled:  Where does the Easter Bunny eat breakfast? IHOP. My repertoire of bodily function jokes quadrupled:  Why did Tigger stick his head in the toilet?  He was looking for Pooh. I also got the chance to nip bullying and disrespect right when they happened, the best way to teach object lessons. “You guys don’t need to resort to name-calling. You’re smarter than that.” Getting to know the teammates on a more personal level gave me a greater investment in the games. I got to cheer on Teddy who had the bright idea to try to open my sliding van door while we were moving. It didn’t open but it set off an alarm that dinged for the 10 minutes it took to reach the field. Teddy whose red face matched his red hair ran onto the pitch while everyone else was still laughing at his shocking (potentially dangerous) behavior. I learned how much Michael wanted his dad to like soccer and come to just one game, so I cheered extra hard for him. I found out what girls like my sons and which girls they liked, usually not the same. Clear into college when I’d run into kids from the various carpools they would remember some fun detail from our trips back and forth. So you can relish those moments that are solely yours, fleeting, and special. I could do without the number of jokes crowding my brain, although those jokes do make me a bit of hit with my grandkids.

If we have kids, we are almost assured of joining a carpool at least once in our youth sports experience. It’s a given that you’ll have a ton of frustrating incidents that usually stem from adults rather than the kids. Keeping a sense of humor helps; certainly the kids have a sense of humor albeit a bit warped. If you expect thanks from your peers, disavow yourself of that fantasy. In fact the thanks you receive from them is generally inversely proportional to the effort you expend to transport their kids. On the other hand kids almost always shouted “Thanks Mrs. Boyd” as they leapt from the car. No matter the trouble and the thanklessness, I loved the carpools I did, loved the kids I drove, and learned to love the quirks of the parents because I’m sure they felt I was also quirky. If you aren’t in the right mood when it’s your turn to drive, here’s a few jokes to perk you up.

  1. What sounds do porcupines make when they kiss?  Ouch!
  2. What do you get when cross a chicken and a pit bull?  Just the pit bull
  3. The teacher asks the class to use fascinate in a sentence. One boy eagerly raises his hand. “My coat is so small I can only fasten eight of the buttons.”


Those should give you a good head start in surviving any carpool.

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Some Light Reading

Susan Boyd

I hope all of you have been watching the FIFA Women’s World Cup. There’s been something for everyone’s sense of drama: upsets, bad calls, nail biters, extraordinary play, and stupendous feats of athleticism. By the time this is published, we’ll know if the U.S. Women’s National Team will be playing in the semifinals. The great news is that FWWC is pulling in record viewership. The U.S.-Columbia game had 4.1 million tuned in with a peak of 6.4 million. Only two other broadcasts had higher numbers on Fox Sports 1: Game 4 (5.1 million) and Game 5 (4.9 million) of the 2014 National League Championship Series between St. Louis and San Francisco. Likewise, Canada nearly drew more viewers for their opening game vs. China than the Stanley Cup game that evening. Quite a spectacular outcome given that hockey is the national sport. Even Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Benoit couldn’t put a damper on the upswing of interest in the event when he tweeted that “Women’s sports in general [are] not worth watching…Women are every bit as good as men in general, better in many aspects, their sports are just less entertaining. TV ratings agree, btw.” Apparently he missed the reports on the Women’s World Cup, as well as the ratings athletes like Serena Williams and Ronda Rousey pull in.

While watching the matches, I couldn’t help but notice the various scrawls on the message boards surrounding the pitch. While FIFA has suffered a tarnishing of their image, there were several reminders of their charitable programs and social platforms. I wondered if these millions of viewers in the U.S. (estimates are 1 billion world-wide) had: A. taken note of the advertisements, B. looked the programs up, C. acted on anything they had learned. After all, there was plenty to watch on the pitch, so people would be forgiven for not heeding the constant verbiage scrolling in the background. I decided to look the programs up, curious as to what FIFA was touting. There were four agendas:  Football for Hope, Football for the Planet, Say No to Racism, and Fair Play. Each of these has a particular purpose in promoting FIFA’s image which certainly needs some propping up. Adding to the quartet is adidas’ campaign #BetheDifference.

Football for Hope started in 2005 to promote the issues of children in impoverished areas. FIFA works through local private and community-based organizations supporting the resources used to foster the social development of youth. Much of FIFA’s support comes in the form of football-based programs. During the Men’s World Cup in Brazil in 2015, FIFA sponsored a festival with delegates from 32 of some of the 108 world-wide organizations involved in the Football for Hope initiative. The projects span a variety of social issues, from homelessness in the UK and landmines in Laos, to HIV/AIDS education in South Africa and responsible citizenship in Brazil. For the World Cup, Football for Hope focused its resources in Brazil, donating $1.05 million to programs in Brazil and an additional $2.05 million world-wide. FIFA encourages the communities receiving funding to hold matches where there are no referees. All conflicts are resolved through agreement either by admission or through dialog which FIFA believes promotes personal development and mutual understanding. Likewise, representatives from the communities being served meet regularly to discuss ways to use football to advance and improve social concerns. While the money FIFA contributes is substantial, it pales to what they made alone from the 2014 World Cup, which was $2.6 billion – that’s billion with a B.

Football for the Planet is the official environmental program for FIFA started in 2006 during the World Cup in Germany. The program has evolved over the past decade to embrace some fairly sophisticated efforts in off-setting the ecologic impact of the World Cup matches on the host country’s environment. For the 2014 competition in Brazil FIFA worked on three fronts to reduce the harm an influx of millions of fans would have on the environs. First FIFA worked to offset carbon emissions which have the largest effect on climate change. They estimated that the World Cup would produce 2.7 million tons of CO2 emissions of which FIFA had control over 250,000 tons. Using local emission programs, FIFA offset all of their CO2 emissions. Second FIFA required that new stadiums in Brazil be sustainable. For example they encouraged the installation of solar panels and expected the stadiums to earn the maximum points of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for green building which encourages sustainability and efficiency. To that end they sponsored training sessions in building green for the architects and contractors of each stadium. Third, FIFA developed waste management programs for the stadiums helping vendors to institute proper waste disposal to include strong recycling efforts. Additionally FIFA used its mascot to instruct spectators on responsible waste disposal.

Say No to Racism is an education program that grew out of FIFA’s article 3:  Discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of ethnic origin, gender, language, religion, politics or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion. For many years this article was not clearly and consistently enforced, but over the last decade more incidents of discrimination and hate speech appeared at FIFA-sponsored events. Black players regularly face abuse which includes bananas tossed at them from the stands, racist chants from fans, and racist taunts from other players. Anti-Semitism comes in the form of fans openly waving Nazi flags at matches and taunting Jewish fans and players. For many years, FIFA simply turned a deaf ear and blind eye to these overt acts, choosing to let “boys be boys.” However, with riots at Egyptian matches based on deep religious divides, dangerous anti-black sentiments in Europe, and hooliganism based on racial biases, FIFA realized it needed to act. More dangerous to the organization is the threat by several African nations and individual black players to boycott the 2018 World Cup in Russia if racism isn’t addressed. To that end, in May 2013 the FIFA Congress adopted a resolution on the fight against racism and discrimination which highlighted the need for strong punishments to support the position that racism has no place in football. FIFA has joined with the continental soccer governing organizations such as UEFA and CONCACAF to sanction teams, players, and administrators who practice or condone racist actions. Sanctions based on prejudicial behaviors have now come regularly and without mercy for the offenders. Unfortunately the idea of solving such a complicated issue as bigotry by just “saying no” is about as effective as Nancy Regan’s campaign to just say no to drugs. Nevertheless, it is heartening to see that FIFA is taking the issue seriously and encouraging fans to recognize the harmful effects of bigoted behaviors on the sport.

Fair Play has ironic implications considering the level at which FIFA’s integrity has come under attack. The program uses the slogan “My game is fair play” to promote respect on and off the pitch among all players, officials, coaches and fans. The purpose is to play the game peacefully with integrity, fairness, dignity and respect. FIFA might want to take a page from its own promotions to find ways to conduct their activities with the same four cornerstones of behavior. Once a year they dedicate a week to highlight the people who best exemplify the principles of fair play. One person or group is recognized for special acts with the annual Fair Play Award. At every FIFA tournament teams are judged on their behavior and one team is selected for the tournament Fair Play Award. FIFA also encourages individual clubs all the way down to youth soccer to promote fair play both on and off the pitch, asking clubs to be sure to highlight those who exemplify honorable behavior.

Although not directly a FIFA program, adidas sponsors the “Be the Difference” platform. Obviously created to sell more shoes, it highlights the energy required to be a top soccer player. As adidas states, “Soccer is changing. In the style and way it is played and in the types of players who grace the game. For a team to be successful, you need two types of players – Playmakers who orchestrate and control everything, and Game changers who smash the defense and cause chaos. Pick your side and be the difference.”  While an advertising ploy, the statement is powerful for young soccer players who may feel that they are marginalize if they play any position other than striker. The commercial purposely doesn’t identify impact by a particular position, rather by performance which supports the idea that every child makes a significant contribution to the success of a team. I think besides getting kids salivating about a particular boot, the campaign elevates the importance of every player by exposing the ability to make a difference comes through passion for and investment in the sport.

If you remember while cheering on your particular team or player at any FIFA event, check out the boards around the pitch. There are mostly advertisements displayed there, but occasionally there are some interesting statements being made about soccer beyond the competition. I will agree with FIFA on the point that we need our kids to see how we behave in our soccer lives needs to mirror how we behave off the pitch. We can be part of the solution of many of the world’s problems by simply applying some of the principles we learn while playing:  cooperation, respect for authority, charity, fairness, integrity, tolerance, and accepting success with humility and defeat with dignity. Sometimes what appears in the background can be a good read to remind us of these values.

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Nothing to Sneeze At

Susan Boyd

It may seem a bit hyperbolic to say, given all the scandal coming out of FIFA in the last month, but the biggest FIFA outrage surrounding the Women’s World Cup has been the use of synthetic turf fields for the competition. This is the first Cup, both men’s and women’s, to be played on artificial surfaces, and the women have complained mightily filing a lawsuit against FIFA to force them to switch to natural grass. The suit was eventually withdrawn and the event went forward using engineered turf. Sadly, two beautiful grass fields were dug up and replaced with artificial turf because FIFA rules require that every pitch be exactly the same. Ironically, if Canada wants to bid to sponsor the men’s Gold Cup or World Cup those two fields will need to be returned to natural grass. Others outside of soccer joined the protest, including Tom Hanks and Kobe Bryant who tweeted a photo of USWNT player Sydney Leroux’s torn up legs after a game. A boycott was considered, but many teams were unwilling because the World Cup is the top stage for players, and many nations get very few chances to compete on such a revered international platform. Other than a successful legal challenge, the women athletes felt they had no choice but to play on the surface dictated by FIFA.

Here in Wisconsin, most of the college pitches and many of the high school fields have switched to artificial grass. It is less difficult to maintain in our weather extremes and extends the outdoor playing season from February into December. Grass would be far too fragile during approximately six months of the year. Some institutions that can afford it have artificial practice fields installing grass on their competition pitch. Clubs conduct fund raisers to be able to construct at least one synthetic surface field and use that fact to tout themselves as a great choice for young players. For many people artificial grass has been seen as a tremendous advance which reduces field maintenance, although not necessarily costs, provides for a longer season, and gives players a consistent pitch. It could be the panacea for a dozen woes, yet professional players are increasingly adamant about refusing to compete on artificial surfaces. David Beckham refused as early as 2007 when the LA Galaxy played the Toronto FC on their engineered field. Which brings us to the Women’s World Cup and FIFA’s decision to require artificial turf in all stadiums and the women protesting that decision.

Artificial turf began in 1965 with the installation of ChemGrass at the Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. ChemGrass became known as AstroTurf in 1966 when it was laid in Houston’s Astro Dome to much fanfare and great expectations. Artificial grass has undergone several generations and its newest best form, the one used for the World Cup, is called 3G pitch system which has been approved by FIFA. Artificial turf opened the floodgates of indoor facilities which obviously couldn’t support grass so depended on wood and concrete surfaces. Some places used what could only be described as a “carpet” stretched over concrete. It was cheap, and like a carpet it would stretch leaving gaps between seams and ridges where it bunched up. It was unsafe to play on and unsafe to fall on since it rarely had under padding. So having a grass substitute seemed like Nirvana. And for many of the indoor arenas and sports parks it has been created a huge advantage providing year round opportunities for all athletes. Batting cages, lacrosse fields, and soccer all depend upon these engineered products to provide an indoor experience as close to grass as possible.

However, as more and more artificial turf facilities cropped up, the criticism of the surface increased. Players complained of increased injuries, especially ligament damage, joint stress, and turf toe. On top of that, the bristles that substitute for grass tear up the skin with rug burns, cuts, and bruises. Athletes felt that the surface shortened their playing lives, endangering the years of careful training they went through to ensure the safety of their bodies. Football had led the way with artificial turf but now the 21 teams who don’t have full grass fields use a mixture of grass and synthetics called FieldTurf. The surface is fairly close to real grass and requires the same maintenance as regards to watering, mowing, fertilizing and sunlight. New types of turf had to be developed because NFL players had the same complaints that the women soccer players are expressing for this World Cup. FieldTurf eliminates many of the concerns as far as injuries and discomfort. However, FIFA has not approved this product and instead has only endorsed the full 3G turf, which is what is being used in Canada.

Artificial turf also has the problem of absorbing and holding heat especially under direct sunlight. At one of the recent World Cup games the field temperature was 130 degrees Fahrenheit, when the ambient temperature was only in the 80s. It’s ridiculous to play under those conditions. At a tournament Bryce attended in Las Vegas in August, the turf got so hot that the soles of the ARs melted if they stood in one place too long. Eventually, the sponsors had no choice but to change the schedule to play games only in the early morning and after 7 p.m. It’s hot in Vegas in August, but grass fields would have never been unplayable in the heat. They may have withered, but they would not have retained and bounced back heat at intense levels.

Any artificial surface, even FieldTurf, uses granules and sand to give the surface buoyancy and depth. Many of the granules are made from recycled ground tires which contain heavy metals which are recognized carcinogenics. Players get these bits ground into their open cuts and sores, breathe them in, and even “eat” them. Lately, census studies done on athletes who compete primarily with fields holding these pellets has shown a strong link to blood cancers, especially in goalkeepers. No scientific study has been done yet, but the numbers are staggering. Ethan Zohn, a goalkeeper and winner of the third season of Survivor who founded Grassroots Soccer with his winnings, discovered he had Hodgkin’s disease. He didn’t make any connection between his cancer and goalkeeping until he met other keepers with cancer. Goalkeepers are most susceptible to contact with the rubber beads since they spend more time on the ground and have them kicked up into their faces and mouths. He began to keep a list which has grown to over 50 players in five years. He then met Amy Griffen, the assistant coach at the University of Washington, who had discovered on her own the same connection. While visiting a goalkeeper in the hospital getting treatment the nurse stated, “You’re the fourth goalkeeper I’ve hooked up to chemo this week.” Together Zohn and Griffen have been pushing the scientific community to look into these cases and do a controlled study. Additionally under constant sun the fields exude a strong chemical scent which critics say isn’t natural and could be toxic to everyone, fans included.

On the other hand, artificial turf has proponents. Players who suffer from allergies are grateful for the artificial surface which doesn’t aggravate their hay fever and skin reactions from grass. Kids with asthma have far fewer attacks when they play nearly exclusively on artificial surfaces. Despite the rough surface, fake grass does offer a consistently flat surface for play allowing kids to develop dribbling, passing, and running skills with reliable repetition. For the youngest player these plastic turf fields also eliminate the divots and rocks that plague grass fields. For those young kickers the toughest impediment isn’t rug burn, it’s those little bumps and holes that trip kids up and make soccer less fun. The best reason to support the use of artificial turf is that it does extend the playing season either by making outdoor fields playable in most weather or by offering superior indoor facilities with a cushioned playing surface rather than a hard surface. These increased opportunities offer our young players better and more consistent training.

We parents have to read the literature and make the decision on how safe we think the artificial surfaces are for our kids. There are definitely some serious concerns, but there are also advantages. The real issue for the World Cup players is the basic unfairness of the FIFA decision. While no men’s competitions are dictated to be played on artificial turf because the men have the same concerns as the women, FIFA ignored these concerns when it came to the women. Although the ball rolls faster, the surface allows for a quicker pace, and the synthetic fibers can withstand heavy rains, adult players still prefer the natural surface. They like the quirks that different pitches offer because it makes the game not just against the opponent but also against the elements. However for younger players they need the even and all-weather practice surfaces that allow for development of skills which can then be extended with indoor facilities. My sons heartily favor natural over artificial surfaces, but they also appreciated the synthetic pitches. In college they played on artificial turf, and in fact their college field was only the sixth one in the US officially approved by FIFA for FIFA-sanctioned games. So they had the experience of playing on some of the best of the fake. But they also both agreed that the burns, slashes, and cuts they got on those surfaces left scars they carry today, and their ankle stresses were certainly due to the less forgiving underlayment of artificial turf. Robbie suffers from hay fever, so he does agree that he had better breathing when on synthetic surfaces. I’d say the pros and cons are fairly even – it’s a draw for most players but unfortunately a defeat for the World Cup women.

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Overuse and Commitment

Susan Boyd

Here’s a conundrum. Your youth player shows strong talent in and passion for soccer. He or she wants to play this sport to the exclusion of all others. However, we hear the criticism of such a choice. Physicians and trainers talk about the dangers of repetitive motion injuries. Psychologists caution that the pressures of intense, continual competition can adversely affect the mental development of youth players. Sociologists warn that the isolation from focusing on a single activity with a finite group of friends can complicate a child’s social interactions. Many experts will recommend that children don’t concentrate on a single sport until high school. On the flip side, and here comes the puzzling part, most successful world-wide soccer athletes began intensive training early in their careers. In fact, they will argue that the earlier a player begins to train exclusively in their sport, soccer in our case, the better chance they have to create and sustain a career in that sport. How do we as parents assess whether the choice to specifically select soccer or to open up our children’s sports experience to a variety of options will be the right one for their future? Barring the expertise of a true psychic or a keenly accurate Magic Eight Ball, we don’t have much to base our decisions on other than our own limited intuitive knowledge of our child’s abilities and stamina. It’s hard to say after only observing six to 10 years of our son’s or daughter’s lifetime what assessments we can make about their play, their strengths, and their adaptability. There are some significant studies and professional outlooks on this topic which may help guide our decisions.

By way of open disclosure, both my sons gave up all their other sports and arts interests by age 11. We certainly agonized over that decision, especially because each had good talent in other areas which we didn’t want them to later regret not pursuing. However, we were primarily motivated to their request because each showed tremendous passion for soccer and seemed genuinely unhappy playing other sports. For example, Robbie left every baseball game dejected and frustrated, which seemed confusing since he always got at least one hit during every game, his team won every game, and once he had an unassisted triple play. But he just couldn’t handle the down time waiting for his turn to bat, waiting for a hit to activate field play, and waiting for half an inning to get back out on the diamond. He liked the constant action of soccer where he was lucky enough to play most minutes. After several car rides of him pouting in the back seat and exhaling in loud, angry sighs, I gave in and let him drop the last additional sport he was playing. It may not have been an informed decision, but it luckily proved to be a good decision for both boys who continue to play and watch soccer with the same gleeful passion they had in elementary school. It could have ended differently, even disastrously, so I do wish I had paid more attention to the literature before we made the choice. There are the three areas to consider:  physical, psychological, and social. The opinions vary, but the examples exist to help us chart a course.

On the physical end, physicians and trainers want parents and coaches to carefully consider the effects of long-term repetitive movements on the physical development of players’ muscles, joints, and actual growth. The concern is that young players who don’t have the bone strength and long bone growth to maintain the rigorous training that year-round soccer demands without injury and/or physical damage. The American Academy of Orthopedics defines these overuse injuries as “continually us[ing] the same muscle groups and appl[ying] unchanging stress to specific areas of the body. This can lead to muscle imbalances that, when combined with overtraining and inadequate periods of rest, put children at serious risk…” They recommend limiting the number of teams a child plays on and not playing a sport year-round, taking a season to play a different sport. Likewise Alexandra Fenwick in Sports Illustrated found that "Counter to the prevailing notion that early specialization is key to a pro career, studies show that future elites actually practice less on average in their eventual sports than near-elites and that most U.S.-born big leaguers play multiple sports through high school.”  On the other hand, soccer players in around the world begin in the sport at age five or six and play it exclusively throughout their youth. What all medical experts do agree upon is that children exhibiting the symptoms of overuse injury should take a break. Those symptoms include pain that doesn’t subside with time, swelling along with redness that doesn’t improve with treatment, and visible motion problems such as limping or not running as well. Experts also agree that players who don’t develop physical stamina through proper training will suffer more injuries. Therefore it’s important that if a child chooses to pursue soccer exclusively and at a high level, he or she gets the appropriate training and medical supervision.

We never should make our decision on the dream of our child playing high school, college, or professional soccer. The numbers just don’t justify it. There are well over 13 million youth soccer players in the U.S., split nearly 50/50 between male and female players, but only 410,000 in men’s high school soccer. Around 6% or 24,000 go on to college and less than 2% of those go pro. Those aren’t the kinds of numbers to justify the risk of early injury through specialization. So the physical argument of the puzzle is significant when urging your child not to focus entirely on soccer. We need to also look at other factors as they regard what to do with our children’s desire to be a soccer player exclusively.

Youth players drop out of sports in huge numbers when they reach middle school. A big reason for that loss is burn out. When kids have numerous practices with a difficult regimen of games and tournaments, they can feel overwhelmed or in a rut. Dr. Alan Goldberg of Competitive Advantage, an organization to help develop and support top youth athletes, addresses the issue of burnout as a result of pressure to perform, having one’s self-worth attached to success, feelings of isolation from non-soccer peers, and bad relationships with coaches and teammates. Ironically, considering the impact of overuse injuries, one of the main symptoms of burnout according to Dr. Goldberg is complaining of constant injury or illness. These are sure excuses to get a child guilt-free out of the rut without much question from parents and coaches. Excessive complaints can be a sharp indicator that a child is feeling stressed. If kids are getting far more negative comments from a coach than positive it can adversely affect their self-image, especially in tween and early teen years. Having a broader base of activities allows kids to experience a range of successes and coaching which has important psychological benefits. Players can go through phases where they may want to quit, but if the reason is transitory, they get past it and return to their love of the game. This mental factor could be the most important in deciding if a youth should specialize in soccer to the exclusion of other sports. Does your child show strong passion for the sport?  How do they handle defeat?  Do they take criticism well?  How do they handle pressure?  I often think about gymnasts who rarely have any type of career after age 21. If they want to be gymnasts they need to focus on the sport at a very early age. The level of commitment to move to the next level of training and skill requires maturity and strength. Since few kids will move to the stratosphere of abilities, what we parents want is to keep them engaged enough in the sport to continue to enjoy the advantages of playing:  physical conditioning, team work and collaboration, handling wins and losses with dignity, and most importantly having fun. So burnout should be avoided. The best way to ensure that for most kids is to give them breaks from soccer and reducing the work load (i.e. not playing on multiple teams or staying an extra year on a rec team). Sports should not be a source of stress, anger, or helplessness.

Finally we need to consider the social costs of concentrating solely on soccer. Kids might find themselves isolated from non-soccer-playing peers due to the demands the sport makes on them year-round. This becomes more acute as kids get older. Soccer can intrude on school dances, Bat and Bar Mitzvahs, Homecoming, class trips, and service projects, not to mention trips to the mall or going to movies with a group of friends. Since most weekends, nights, and summer days are dedicated to soccer practices and competitions, it can be hard to carve out time for non-soccer activities with peers outside of the sport. All the focus on soccer can also affect the entire family’s social life. If younger siblings have to accompany parents to watch games, they can feel just as isolated, and they can feel short-changed if family vacations are centered on soccer tournaments. We parents need to figure out how a decision to play just soccer (which usually means playing at a higher level) will affect everyone. Our job is to create balance so that no child experiences unfair demands on his or her time. We also need to keep our kids’ egos in checks so that the success of a team doesn’t translate into the single factor establishing a child’s self-worth. It can’t be said too often – playing a sport should be fun which adds to a child’s positive development. Also to be considered are the external pressures a child feels to continue playing a sport. The pressures can come from teammates, coaches, and especially parents. Kids may express a desire to pursue a sport based on these external cues from those children want to please. It’s important that parents continually reinforce with their players that the choice to play or not to play won’t affect how we view our children’s value.

The question of commitment brackets all of these matters. The Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology published a study by Tara Scalan and others examining how commitment is affected by various behaviors during sports and how it affects the overall well-being of a youth athlete. The study defined commitment as “a psychological state representing the desire or resolve to continue sport participation.”  We might call it passion, especially as it relates to making the decision to focus on soccer as a young player. What the researchers discovered, which may seem intuitive, is that players who had sport enjoyment and experienced a personal investment in the sport were the most committed. As enjoyment and investment declined so did commitment. Likewise the more committed a player was, the more their investment grew. The authors stated that “because these investments cannot be retrieved upon termination of involvement, people become more psychologically attached as they allocate increasing amounts of resources to their participation.”  I view it somewhat differently. The investment isn’t tangible but does pay out eventually if managed properly. The return for athletes comes from physical conditioning, pride in accomplishment, learning to collaborate, respect for authority, and emotional flexibility. However, their assessment that players become attached to the sport the more they invest in it becomes a valuable aspect in making a decision. Kids may feel that they can’t quit if they have put all their energies into one sport, therefore putting a psychological pressure on them that we may falsely interpret as passion when it is actually desperation and a fear of failure. Again, talking to our children and especially reassuring them that our love and respect for them isn’t based on their success as a soccer player will help our kids embrace the proper balance in their sports life.

Anecdotally, my sons never suffered any injuries even though they played on as many as four teams at the same time. I attribute that to good training, rest when aches and pains presented themselves, and regular medical evaluation. There were periods when each considered giving up on soccer, but those feelings were usually based on some transient concern so when it evaporated, so did their consideration of quitting. Personally I would have preferred they chose to continue playing other sports because it was fun to watch them in different situations plus I liked the parents of the kids on those teams and enjoyed their company. We were also lucky that the boys were only two years apart and we had no other children at home. They usually played in the same tournaments, so travel was easy and no one really had to sacrifice. However, we usually took one or two other players with us because their families had other commitments with their other children, so I recognize that we were very lucky in that regard. Everyone has to make their own best decision based on the concerns that are inherent in focusing on a single sport which usually means a sport played at the highest levels. The answer isn’t easy, and it isn’t one-size fits all.

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