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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on every Monday.  A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom". 


Inherent Risks

Susan Boyd

Two weeks ago, a New Jersey high school quarterback, Evan Murray, got injured and died following a game. He took a hard hit, seemed in distress, but then got up and left the field on his own power. This was not a concussion, rather a body strike that lacerated his spleen leading to critical internal bleeding. The media picked up this story immediately and it appeared on the Today Show, CBS Evening News and CNN. Additionally, the press also covered this story, most notably USA Today’s Kristine Meldrum with her article, “Are abdominal injuries the next concussion story?” This was essentially a repeat of a story on NBC News that appeared in August, one month before the New Jersey quarterback’s death. The story followed an incident that happened in 2008 when Brian Haugen went up for a pass and got “sandwiched” between two players. He wobbled off the field and was rushed to the hospital, but his liver had been crushed and he died. In the wake of this tragedy, his parents began a foundation in his name that is one of dozens throughout the United States dedicated to addressing internal injuries for youth players.

As parents of preteen and teen players, we hear about the dangers in playing contact sports yet have a desire to put our heads in the sand. None of us want to be the parent who knowingly places our child in harm’s way, while we also intuitively understand that we have to weigh risks against benefits in everything we do. We regularly drive our kids to practices and games knowing full well that people die or are severely injured in car accidents. We fly to our vacations with the understanding that occasionally planes crash. Our kids bike ride (sometimes without helmets), run around with pointed sticks, climb trees, eat unusual foods, wrestle with friends, and play dodgeball. All these things have inherent risks that we accept and try not to think too much about. So how dangerous are youth sports?

The Center for Disease Control estimates that 30 million people under 20 years old play organized sports in the United States. Safe Kids Worldwide reports that in 2013, 1.24 million of these players were seen in emergency rooms with sports-related injuries; the largest percentage, 37 percent, are players in the 13-to-15 age range. That translates into nearly 460,000 kids – a rather staggering number. However, according to Youth Sports Safety Statistics, there were only 120 sports-related injury deaths of young players in 2008, 49 in 2010, and 39 in 2011, showing that education and preventive measures have been helping, creating a reassuringly miniscule .00013 percent of players dying due to sports in 2011. In comparison, the CDC reported that 895 children ages 5-to14 were killed in car accidents in 2010 and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recorded 2,524 deaths for teenagers. That means that a child is far more likely to be die on the trip to a game than in the game itself, though even those numbers aren’t scary. Somehow we don’t depend on statistics basing our fear of serious injury or death during a game on stories played out in the evening news. Everything – cars, planes, bikes and sports – can be made safer, but calamity can’t be eliminated. The question is how much risk we will tolerate in various activities.

Statistics should set our minds at ease. Although the results of catastrophic injury during sports activity are tragic, they are infrequent. We do need to keep in mind that youth players (those under age 19) have less developed musculature around their rib cage and abdomen to resist hard hits, and the younger the player, the more vulnerable his or her brain is to injury. Adults fare much better. Despite their larger size and power when making contact with one another, they have the advantage of natural body protection, longer training in avoiding serious injury, and access to protective wear that has been traditionally only been available to college and professional players. In fact, most high schools don’t offer any specialized protective gear, but many schools are now providing educational programs that give parents the option to learn about and purchase protective gear choices. In fact, Brian Haugen was given this option a day prior to his accident, but that information wasn’t passed on to his parents, who stated they would have bought the gear in a heartbeat. Now the Haugens have provided 1,500 EVO Shields, also known as “rib shirts,” which protect against internal torso injuries, to high school players and hope to double that amount this year. More importantly, they are funding research at the University of West Florida (UWF) into how often serious internal injuries occur in youth players, what those outcomes were, and whether the injuries could have been mitigated or decreased in severity through preventive measures. As John Todorovich, chair of the UWF health, leisure and exercise science department states, “We now have national…concussion data, but we just don’t have the same type of information around the torso area.” Safety gear is available in all sports, but making parents aware of what’s available and getting kids to wear it can be difficult to achieve. At Robbie’s soccer game last weekend, the opposing team’s goalkeeper wore a protective head gear, which is the first I had seen at a recreational game. These aren’t regularly sold at soccer stores, so parents may not know they are available or how they protect. Likewise, kids might feel shielding equipment makes them look dorky, which is why it’s difficult to get them to wear bicycle helmets and knee and elbow pads. However, the more kids do it, the more players there will be who find it cool to follow the trend.

The unfortunate fall-out from the heavy media focus on anecdotal cases is that people see them as far more inclusive that they actually are. As a result, schools have begun to have discussions about ending football programs and other sports based on injury concerns. This alarmist approach isn’t responsible or reasonable. Certainly, if you are the parent of a child who suffers severe injury or god forbid death while playing, then the statistics just fly out the window. Nevertheless, we don’t all stop driving because we read about a fatal crash. We don’t even ban teen driving even though the clear statistics show that 15 and 16-year-olds have the highest percentage of driving accidents and fatalities. With far less disastrous outcomes in youth sports, it’s a bit surprising to see the reaction encouraging throwing the sport out. But it’s happening. Ohio football dipped from a high of 55,392 players in 2008 to 45,573 in 2013. Michigan football participation has dropped 10.5 percent since 2007, this year recording its lowest numbers since 1995. Nationally, high school football numbers have dropped 250,000 in the last five years. Individual high schools across the country have abandoned football for fears of injury and under pressure from parents who encourage their children to choose less “dangerous” sports. Soccer has substituted for these programs including being the center stage for homecoming celebrations. However, as football declines and soccer increases, so too will the concerns about injuries suffered by soccer players. In a decade, we may see the same arguments being put forth for the dissolution of soccer as has been forwarded for football. For example, concussion risk among female athletes is highest in soccer with 6.7 incidents per 10,000 athletes. Soccer is also where the highest incident of ACL injuries occur among females, which are not life-threatening, but can be career-ending.

Interestingly, another reason for abandoning some contact sports is a fear of lawsuits. Despite the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) being hit with a concussion lawsuit this year, only one high school football program has dropped out, but if the IHSA lose, it may be more inclined to reduce football state-wide. The lawsuit charges that the IHSA didn’t do enough to protect players from concussion, and the next court hearing is set for Oct. 16. Statistics on injuries will play a large part in how the case is decided. It will be interesting to see how the court rules concerning the IHSA’s responsibility, if any, in concussions suffered by players. As schools come under threat of lawsuits, they do a cost benefit analysis and decide to eliminate the things that lead to suits, primarily contact sports such as football, soccer, rugby and hockey. Naturally, there are risks to playing sports, and some of those risks are serious, though occur minimally. However, it may be more cost-effective to institute greater safety precautions and provide safety equipment which reduce injury. Schools may choose to require headgear for soccer players and rib shirts for football players. Coaches and trainers will need to be up to date on protocols not only for concussions but also for internal injuries, being able to detect the symptoms and severity of those damages. When a child is hit in the chest by a fast pitched ball and his heart is ruptured, he might have been saved by a “heart guard” which is a pad many leagues are now requiring baseball players to wear. However, the more protection that is available, the more parents may believe that their player can avoid injury. So when a child dies or gets a catastrophic body blow, the parents want to sue, believing the school or league could have done more to protect them.

The truth is that no magic solution exists. Injuries and fatalities will occur in cars, sports and household accidents. Unless we envelope our kids in bubble wrap, tie them to a feather bed, and keep them isolated from all germs and bacteria, we can’t protect them from everything. It’s good for them to get out and play, and parents can continue to educate ourselves on ways to make that play safer, though never free of risk.

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A Few Tips On Running Your Training Session

Sam Snow

A Few Tips on Running Your Training Session

Before you take the field for your next training session, check out some of these tips that could enhance your session.


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Figure 1 -  At the outset get eye level with the players – it helps to bond the group and to keep the attention of youngsters


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Figure 2 - Get into action quickly - less talk, more play


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Figure 3 - When you are explaining the rules of the activity or making a coaching point for the team, gather them in front of you for clear communication and undivided attention


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Figure 4 - Organize the equipment, the training space and the players before you start an activity during the training session


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Figure 5 - Sometimes you can adjust the training space [dimensions of the grid] on the fly


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Figure 6 - There's not always a need to stop an activity as you set up for the next activity


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Figure 7 - Occasionally have a fellow coach video tape your training session


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Figure 8 - Ask for feedback on that video from your club director of coaching or a more experienced and higher licensed coach in your club


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Figure 9 - ALWAYS maximize the kids playing time

For more tips on creating a training session check out our freshly updated document on "How to Write a Training Session Plan"

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Crazy Quilt

Susan Boyd

Every week, I come across some fascinating soccer stories that aren’t necessarily worth an entire blog, yet are entertaining. Therefore I’ve gathered a few of these here in a hodge-podge of reports that highlight the wide-ranging impact of soccer on our lives.

This past week, we played host to Pope Francis, who visited Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia. We witnessed the heart-warming incident of a daughter of immigrants appealing to the Holy Father to speak to President Obama about the status of undocumented, watched the Masses performed in the three cities he visited, and heard him address Congress. However, a small item that missed most media outlets appeared in the Washington Post. It seems that D.C. United provided the Pontiff with his own special jersey emblazoned with Pope Francis and the number 10. Francis is well-known to love soccer and is an avid follower of club San Lorenzo from Buenos Aires, Argentina — his boyhood home. He hosted the Argentine and Italian national soccer teams at the Vatican two years ago, and during a public Vatican appearance last year, he was given an Argentine National Team World Cup jersey.

When San Lorenzo won the Copa Libertadores last summer, Argentina’s most prestigious club soccer competition, the team brought the trophy to the Vatican to celebrate their first-ever cup win with their patient life-long supporter. Given this history, Paul Hill (the subject of the film “In the Name of the Father”) suggested to D.C. United’s general manager, Dave Kasper, that it might be a meaningful gesture from the Catholic citizens of D.C. to provide the Pope with a jersey from the city’s MLS team. Hill used to be married to Robert and Ethyl Kennedy’s daughter and D.C. United plays in the RFK stadium. Since Ethyl had VIP access to the Pope’s White House visit, the delivery of the jersey was easily arranged and assured. Well sort of. Apparently Hill’s daughter and RFK’s granddaughter had to ultimately entrust the jersey to a papal aide, who promised that the Pope would receive it. And the number 10? That was easy. It’s Argentine nation soccer hero Diego Maradona’s number, and it’s Lionel Messi’s number. In fact, every self-respecting Argentine soccer fan swears by the number 10. Although maybe I shouldn’t say “swears by” when the Pope is involved.

We’re in the meat of the fall soccer season when youth clubs, most high schools, all colleges and our professional and semi-professional North American teams competing. That means we’re shuttling between our children’s matches and practices, and fields are overscheduled. I drive to or by dozens of fields every weekend, and they are mobbed with players finishing one match as others mill around nearby waiting for their turn to play. Parking lots are chaotic and crowded. I’m sure it’s the same wherever you live. With less than 12 hours out of 24 with any daylight, clubs schedule fields tightly and the effect only gets worse should there be games canceled due to bad weather. Every free, clear day is used to the maximum. So imagine my surprise on a gorgeous, mild weekend day when I arrived for a match at a soccer park to see the place deserted with the exception of the two teams I had come to watch. Six fields were completely competition fallow. I couldn’t believe it. There had been no heavy rains to turn the pitch to mush or threats of electrical storms on the horizon to limit play. Nothing was amiss yet it was a soccer ghost town. With some investigation I found out the culprit was a lack of referees to monitor games because of a tournament elsewhere in town using the available pool. So non-tournament matches were actually canceled and had to be rescheduled. It got me wondering how often this happens nation-wide. In reading message boards, articles, and blogs, I’ve discovered that most states report a severe referee shortage. Utah has stopped sending three refs to high school games because there are only enough certified officials for two at each match. I read reports from North Dakota, Maryland, New York, Western Pennsylvania and California, among others.

Of all the states responding to inquiries about referee shortages I only found one, North Carolina, reporting an actual surplus. Most referee administrators point to the increased verbal and even physical abuse referees endure as a reason for the dearth. The youngest officials have become disenchanted with minimal pay and maximum stress, so are leaving in record numbers which affects the future pool of experienced and older referees. Since most league rules require at least one certified official must be on the pitch before a game can be conducted, the shortage has begun to affect schedules evidenced by what I witnessed last weekend. In fact at that game a third referee did not show up until 20 minutes into the first half. As the number of referees becomes limited so does the professionalism of the game. Without certified assistant referees to assist the center ref, the burden of all decisions falls on one person who can’t possibly be watching for offside while also watching for field fouls. What happened this weekend may become more common and make completing the soccer seasons all the more difficult by adding no refs to the problems of weather and field availability.

USA News and World Report just detailed a study by the Soccer Price Index, which ranked MLS as the world’s worst soccer value among 25 countries considered. This index analyses the value a fan receives as measured by ticket price and quality of competition. England has the most expensive ticket prices, averaging $82.60, but ranks third in the world in terms of competition, so the EPL has an overall value ranking of fourth. Germany ranks 10th in ticket prices at $35.36, and a league ranking of second, which puts that country in first place.

Unfortunately, MLS has the fifth-highest ticket prices at $46.22 and ranks 25th in competition, which places it firmly in last place in the index. Those of us in the U.S. might consider traveling to Mexico, where average ticket prices are 24th at $11.72, beat only by South Africa at $9.55. Mexico is ranked 19th in quality of competition, which gave it a value ranking of 11th. I’m not sure what it all means in the end, since national leagues such as EPL, Bundesliga and MLS don’t really have any competition for fans of that level of soccer competition in their respective countries. We go to see the best we can and pay the price we are offered. Players from some of the top international teams have come to the MLS to finish their careers, but the league will take a big step up in competitive quality when they can start to attract young stars to play in the U.S. — and that requires money, so expect ticket prices to increase and our value to stay low as the MLS works to improve its place in the world.

Finally, ESPN’s 30 for 30 had a soccer series last spring that ran until the eve of the World Cup. I’m not sure how I missed it while it was airing, but I’m glad I caught up with it on the internet. I highly recommend the eight stories that touch upon all different aspects of soccer. First is Hillsborough, detailing a horrific soccer tragedy which has changed the way stadiums are built and fans are admitted. ‘Maradona ‘86’ examines the Argentinian’s masterful performance at the 1986 World Cup. Ceasefire Massacre highlights a tragic killing in Northern Ireland where a Protestant terror group murders six men watching in a bar the 1994 World Cup game between Ireland and Italy. The tragedy led eventually to a ceasefire a few weeks later in the beleaguered country. The Myth of Garrincha details the rise of a Brazilian soccer player who overcame deformed legs to lead his country to two World Cup wins. The Jules Rimet Trophy is the subject of the fifth in the series, Mysteries of the Rimet Trophy, which was awarded to World Cup winners from 1930 to 1970. The origins of the trophy are unknown, and it has been a part of some significant scandals. The agony of defeat shapes the film Barbosa: 

The Man Who Made All of Brazil Cry. Goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa was a national hero until Uruguay scored a winning goal on him in the 1950 World Cup championship. Rounding out the series is White, Blue and White, covering the unusual dilemma of Argentine soccer players Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa, who joined Tottenham Hotspurs of the EPL leading them to the 1981 FA Cup Final. They are lauded as English national heroes but that changed rapidly when Argentina invaded the British-held Falkland Islands. Ardiles quit the Spurs and returned to Buenos Aires while Villa remained in England. Their contrasting stories highlight an international conflict. All but the two-hour Hillsborough documentary are 30 minutes long, and each episode can be found on YouTube. ESPNGo has video clips of these shows but doesn’t offer an entire episode. Amazon has the DVD set for $18 although they don’t stream it on Amazon Prime.

Soccer extends beyond the field, touching various aspects of our lives and those of others. We can see ads with soccer as the context for things as diverse as cereal and life insurance. Human interest stories appear in the media regularly highlighting how soccer has empowered someone, provided a springboard for humanitarian efforts, or gave a player a new lease on life. We use soccer fields as landmarks when giving directions. The media pays much more attention to soccer matches and players, which translates into more Americans knowing about international leagues and following players from around the world. We have a soccer-loving pope, the First Daughters play soccer, and Obama supported a U.S. bid for the World Cup.

Therefore, we come in contact with soccer on a daily basis beyond watching our own kids play. It’s that variety of experiences that not only gives the sport validity for our kids’ choice of sports but also opens it up to become a part of our daily lives. I encourage you to take note of soccer stories and bring them to your children’s attention. These stories make great dinner table or driving to practice conversation. We don’t need to just discuss the results from league games or the injury reports of players. We can also talk about whether or not soccer was portrayed properly in last night’s episode of Modern Family or about the news report of soccer playing dogs. Soccer is everywhere, so we should celebrate that.

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Roughing the Ref

Susan Boyd

We love them. We hate them. Officials, referees, umpires. Since “referee” is actually defined as the arbitrator of disputes, controversy is a central part of their job description. So it’s no wonder that we view with suspicion and occasional derision these men and women with whistles and loud voices who have the power to affect the outcome of a game by disallowing a goal, awarding a PK, issuing yellow and, worse, red cards, or calling back a play. Our emotions run high during a game, and officiating only further inflames our ire or our joy. We cheer them or jeer them depending on how they rule, but we don’t interfere. Fans and players are traditionally restrained when it comes to physically accosting the official. In professional sports, games have been remarkably free of conflict between player and referee other than verbal scoffs, some dirt kicking, and an occasional finger in the chest. Perhaps the threat of a loss of income or even their job keep players in line. However there has been a recent disturbing trend in youth sports of actual physical attacks on the referees which may be indicative of growing open disrespect that young people express toward adults.

This growth has been documented in statistics, but we all have witnessed the increase in media reports. Reflecting this trend, The National Association of Sports Officials (NASO), now has a choice on its phone answering system for a caller to report an assault. The increase in reports prompted NASO to add assault coverage to its liability insurance that every member has a chance to purchase. There are 450,000 sports officials in the United States and 22,000 avail themselves of this insurance with the number increasing each year. The president of NASO, Barry Mano, stated to USA Today that the biggest need for the insurance has come from rec and youth leagues covering officials for all games no matter who sanctions the event.

Two recent incidents highlighted the dangerous situations in which referees have found themselves. In San Antonio early in this season, two high school players assaulted an official, Robert Watts, at a game. First, one player came from behind and tackled the ref, then the second player dove at him helmet first. Luckily, Watts was shaken but not seriously injured, although the results could have been worse. The attack was filmed and made YouTube, getting thousands of views and national attention. But Mano points out that in 2011 and 2013 two soccer officials were killed in separate incidents within 17 months of one another, but because there was no social media response, the cases were virtually unreported. One was at a youth game and the other was at an adult recreation game, and both attacks were by players. Mano used to counsel his umpires to avoid the parents who have a huge emotional investment in their kids’ games, but since 2011 more and more injuries to referees have come from players, many of them younger than 19. NASO now keeps track of assaults on its members, beginning in 1996, and there are have been dozens, many of them resulting in convictions for assault. In 2014 alone, reported player attacks on officials in amateur youth competitions occurred in sports as varied as boxing, soccer, basketball, softball and football. We have no idea how many other attacks there were against officials without affiliation with NASO or that never generated a police report. Presently, 20 states have legislated criminal laws addressing assault of sports officials by either identifying a new specific crime or adding penalties to existing criminal legislation. Two states have dealt with the problems by instituting new civil statues.

Normally we might accuse the behavior of professional athletes for influencing youth players to behave badly, but for the most part professionals confine their officiating objections to bad language and side line tantrums without directly confronting any referees. The real culprits seem to be a combination of overly zealous parents and a notable decrease in respect and civility toward referees. Kids understand how huge an investment their parents have in the outcome of a game and how significant their expectations are in the child’s play. When things don’t go as desired, a player will project his or her disappointment on the referees, whose calls might have set their success back. The intensity of their feelings and their need for the achievement they feel is necessary for approval, added to their immaturity, leads to impulsive and wrong-headed decisions. If parents continually don’t regard officials with respect, that behavior is often mimicked by the youth who lack the natural restraint to avoid resorting to a violent response. They often don’t understand the consequences of their actions, concentrating only the perceived injustice and avenging it. Both of the officials who died were felled with a single punch, nothing more than that, with the right power and placement to cause irrevocable damage.

Spectators, who are generally parents, have been implicated in several attacks on referees, however the largest group of adult offenders are the coaches. Again, here’s a group who should be modeling character and good sportsmanship to youth players, who have instead added to the melee. In one case a coach in Cyprus actually bombed the car of a youth soccer referee. We might say, that’s not America, but we have our fair share of ugly incidents. A 34-year-old coach attacked a 16-year-old referee officiating a U-11 game, then attacked the 20-year-old assistant referee who came to the referee’s defense. A coach in Pennsylvania attempted to bribe referees in the Catholic Youth Organization (yes, a church group), and when that was uncovered he began to harass and threaten the coaches to get them to refrain from testifying against him. A coach’s attack on a New Jersey youth baseball umpire led to the state enacting Sports Rage legislation.

While nearly every incident recorded in the last 20 years has involved male attackers, female players, coaches and parents have also been guilty of boorish behavior. A youth female goalkeeper upset with a call attacked a male referee last year with a Kung Fu chop, and a female Chinese fan stormed the pitch attacking a soccer referee during a youth match. A woman in Iowa attacked a referee over a call during a youth basketball game. Behaving lady-like may garner an entirely new mixed martial arts connotation if the trend continues.

Besides offering assault insurance, requiring expulsion, and pursuing prosecution, which are all after-the-fact solutions, what can we do about this violence? Most obviously, we can demand as parents that our children behave with decorum. We need to make it clear that no matter what the school rules may be, the law, or the coach’s instructions, we expect that our players will refrain from any physical contact with officials. However, if we don’t model the proper behaviors, then we’re sending mixed messages which will only lead kids to respond with whatever immediate knee-jerk reaction seems most appropriate. We need to keep our anxiety about their success on the field from dictating our angry responses if we feel they are “failing” due to an official’s calls. We should redefine success to include the ability to behave coolly and rationally under the pressure and adverse conditions of any game. Even if we perceive a loss was due to bad officiating, or if we feel our child was unduly singled out, we need to focus on the positives and not place blame. It’s possible a bad decision by a referee could affect the outcome of a match, but in general the give and take of officiating simply spreads out the frustration to both sides. Call it tough luck when a ruling goes against your team or your child rather than calling out the person rendering the decision. We need to remember that our amateur players are being officiated by amateur referees. They may get a small stipend for their efforts, but the reality is that they do it for the love of the game, just as our kids play for their own love. Teach our children to respect the referees, even if they believe they are incompetent. Without them, the game could degenerate into a free-for-all, with a lot more brawls and injuries. If you must, call them a necessary evil, but one that should be valued for maintaining order. Next time you feel the urge to yell out at an umpire or a referee, think about who’s around listening and how your comments will affect the way they regard the authority of an official.

We won’t prevent all violent contact with referees. The nature of the job means that half the people will love them and half will hate them at every competition, and occasionally that hate will boil over into physicality. However, we can hopefully reduce some of the acting out by practicing restraint and teaching our kids to have it as well. When pro players know that if they attack a ref they will most likely lose their place on any team for life, they have learned to control their rage. If kids know the adults won’t tolerate any physical, even aggressive verbal, retaliation, they may also learn to curb their impulsive behaviors. Before more children become YouTube sensations for the wrong reasons we need to step in and give them both guidance and firm limits on which they can base their responses.

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