Monday, October 03, 2016
I love the ambiguity of this title. It could mean “farewell” or it could mean a reflection, as in “on my way, I saw a rainbow.” This will be my last blog. I have had the pleasure of observing, participating in, researching, and enjoying soccer for several decades, and I’ve had the opportunity to bring some of those experiences and discoveries to you for nearly 13 years. Along the way, I’ve interacted with amazing coaches (some who instructed my sons, but most who managed opposing teams), all of whom displayed a deep knowledge of the game, a passion for passing on that knowledge, and a desire to nurture every player they taught. I have met parents from around the world, on occasion needing to converse in pantomime and broken high school language skills, but we all shared a love of soccer that serves as the universal language. I remember meeting a group of parents at Dallas Cup several years ago from Trinidad-Tobago. It was their first time off the island, and they could not get over the expanse of mid-Texas, where one mother said she felt like she was flying she could see so far. Seeing the world through others’ eyes has given me fresh perspectives I would otherwise have missed. I have been continually impressed with officials at the games I attended, 99 percent of whom genuinely wanted to call a fair game and kept their cools despite cat-calls, threats and derision hurled at them on a regular basis. I have worked with a strong staff at US Youth Soccer, but I especially wanted to highlight Todd Roby, who discovered my articles posted on the Wisconsin Youth Soccer Association website and asked me to write nationally. He left US Youth Soccer this summer to take a new job. I count him more as a friend than as my boss. Before I say farewell, I also wanted to reflect on five things about youth soccer that I think are the most important lessons I have learned.
One) Soccer is a portal.
Beyond the obvious benefits of soccer in terms of fitness, developing friendships, learning how to work collaboratively, and acquiring leadership skills, soccer provides opportunities for families and players to share in a sport that is enjoyed around the world. If you take a ball to any open space in any country and begin to kick it around, you will soon attract a crowd. You may not be able to speak the language of the country, but all of you can speak the language of soccer. When Robbie went to do a study seminar in Kenya, he took along his soccer ball, and in every town and village he visited he played with kids as young as 4 and as old as 44. The pictures from this adventure are priceless. In many cases, the fields were overgrown and the ball was nearly invisible in the tall grasses, but it didn’t stop play. When we were in Israel sitting at an outdoor café, there was a soccer game being played in the town square in front of us. Suddenly, the call for prayers came out from a nearby mosque and play stopped. Several of the boys knelt down and prayed, while others stood patiently waiting. We only realized at that moment that the game was with a mixed group of Jewish and Moslem boys, a true moment of successful diplomacy in a world filled with suspicion and hate. Soccer is the language that bridges divides. Additionally, soccer can be the means to explore the world. Our children have the opportunities to play soccer internationally with trips organized by scores of tour groups. They don’t have to be expensive or exotic. My boys both played in an international Croatian tournament in Canada — only a 10 hour drive away — but with teams of Croatian players from around the world. The festive occasion included crafts, food and music from Croatia, giving us all a taste of country far across the earth. Using soccer as a means for learning about and experiencing more global contact makes it a sport that expands boundaries.
Two) Youth players do best when parents support them rather than direct them.
It begins with that first foray onto a field, when they are 5 or 6 and hesitate to participate. It’s intimidating for a child to see kids, many of them strangers, cavorting loudly around, with little understanding of what it all means. I’ve seen parents carry a screaming child out into the melee and dump them there in an attempt to get them to join in, and I’ve seen angry parents berating their child as they head to the car embarrassed that it was their kid who staged a tantrum. Then there are the parents who sit calmly on the sidelines with their children and let them watch and see what all this hubbub is about. They may end up doing it throughout an entire six-week session, but generally I’ve seen that most kids eventually can’t resist being part of the fun. That spirit of support should continue throughout the term of any child’s soccer life. One significant element of becoming a strong soccer player is the ability to develop a passion for the sport and then to be able to advocate for him or herself throughout the experience. Parents can’t force that on a child. In my family, we all hoped my grandchildren would become soccer players. I paid for lessons, took them to practices and attended games. Not a single grandchild is a soccer player. I provided the opportunity but if their uncles weren’t enough motivation to dive head first into the sport, there was little chance that my admonitions would have any impact. The greatest compliment my boys ever paid their father came after a particularly disappointing high school game. Many of the dads were walking with their sons expressing their frustrations and giving advice on how to be better next game. We passed one father who was bent over his son yelling and the boy was obviously upset and embarrassed. Robbie turned to his dad and said, “I’m glad you never tried to tell me how to play soccer.” And Bryce laughed and said, “Yeah I have enough trouble with my coach.” By the way, they never said that about me because, unfortunately, periodically I couldn’t help myself and gave advice, which was rarely welcomed!
Three) No matter who plays soccer, it can still be an entire family activity.
I don’t mean simply bringing the family to sit on the sidelines and cheer, although that’s always nice. I’m talking about involving everyone in the fun of soccer. When you go to games, let non-players select where to go for lunch or dinner afterward or where to grab a treat. On soccer trips, everyone should be involved in the planning. Checking out activities in the tournament city that the family can do in between games will add an extra special dimension to the event. Having each child select a movie or a game to play on the road trip gives them an investment in the experience. If you can afford it, offer to take friends of the non-players along so the kids can have company while the game is going on. At my grandson’s baseball game, his younger brother rotates wheels on a small board that keeps track of strikes, balls, outs and runs. He loves being an important part of the game his brother is playing. The parents ask him what the count or the score is, and he is delighted to tell them. Finding similar engagements creates an atmosphere where children don’t feel left out and siblings who play don’t become the sole center of attention. Make up a team roster and let a child keep track of substitutions and the score or let them create posters to encourage the team and show them off. Siblings can hand out snacks. Participating in soccer doesn’t have to be on the pitch.
Four) Soccer isn’t just learned during practice.
Kids need an immersion in a sport to develop not only a passion, but also a sense of validation for the sport they chose. Youth players often look up to the stars in their sport, take pride in wearing their jerseys, and cheer them on during televised games. For years, soccer in the United States languished in this area because there were so few media opportunities to watch matches. Now, however, kids can sit with the family and enjoy a game featuring their favorite player or team. Being able to watch top-level soccer players and matches will give youth players a boost in understanding the complexities of tactics and team formations. Likewise, kids can follow a particular player in order to scrutinize how he or she responds to a pass, moves off the ball, or creates space for him/herself or another player. Coaches can talk about how to do it, but watching it unfold at the highest level provides a significant tool for any soccer player. When a youth player can share a televised match with a parent, it gives strong validation for the choice of sport. Increasing passion for soccer comes from both feeling confident in a decision and in how one plays — confidence that can come from watching matches. As parents we can also foster the passion by taking our kids to see live soccer at the high school, college and professional level. Attending a game has an atmosphere of excitement and intimacy that kids participate in. And it ties into No. 3 above by involving as many or all of the family members in attending. Kids can get extra coaching, read books on the topic, and watch videos, but truly the time spent with their parents and their siblings sharing the sport will give them a special reason to focus on learning and improving.
Five) Enjoy the journey.
My sons played peewee, recreational, select, US Youth Soccer ODP, college and professional soccer. They had incredible opportunities, most of which they created and pursued on their own. Still, my greatest regret is that all too often I focused exclusively on the next step and didn’t just take the time to appreciate the moment. We parents can often find ourselves worrying more about whether a team is right for our kids or will be the best step up in their “career.” All of which underscores how important it is to relish the days as they unfold. Frequently, we parents find ourselves anxious when it comes to our children’s play, worrying about playing time, wins, ability to move up, and even things like procuring a college scholarship — all of which intrude on just gleefully concentrating on a match and wholeheartedly supporting our child. I will absolutely confirm that the times I let loose of expectations and just gave into the game were the best periods in my boys’ soccer lives, awarding me with far more lasting memories than any of any “plans” ever did. When I knew that Robbie had chosen going to medical school over playing professionally, I understood that once college was over, so too would be the time I could share in his activity. Having that knowledge released me from all my anxiety about “what happens next.” Instead, I dove into what I could do to make those four years special. I and a few other mothers provided dinner after every home game for the players, which gave us an extraordinary invitation after matches just to get to know the boys, laugh, and enjoy the community of players, parents and coaches. I realized those times when I let go of expectations and just immersed myself in the moment were things the boys and I remembered fondly. Ultimately, all my concerns about the boys “future” distracted from what I really should have been doing — being happy to share the journey with my sons. They controlled their destiny, and it was simply my job to support their decisions as best I could emotionally, financially and logistically (see No. 2). So I pass that epiphany on to you readers. Don’t be so concerned about getting your child moving along the trajectory to higher play that you fail to take time to savor what they are already doing.
I have so enjoyed this time writing the blogs, hearing from readers and keeping my finger on the pulse of soccer. I have been a soccer fan since I lived in Germany in the late 1960s, so I imagine it will always be a part of my life. However, now it’s time to pass the “pen” and for a new parent who is beginning the journey to carry on this conversation. Soccer is amazing. See you on the pitch.