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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." 
 
 
Opinions expressed on the US Youth Soccer Blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of US Youth Soccer.

 

Noshing

Susan Boyd

Quite a while ago I wrote about healthy snacks for kids, but it’s time to revisit the pantry because new options are showing up all the time. Most snack options fall in the empty calorie category — delicious but not nutritious. You throw in allergies and you find your selections even more limited. Manufacturers have cleverly made so many of these conveniently accessible and enticingly tasty. However, a quick look at the nutrition label shows them to be devoid of anything beneficial and chock full of salt, sugar, preservatives, and colorings. Exercise requires kids to stock up on or replenish those electrolytes and nutrients their body uses up. A bag of chips won’t help. I’ve learned to be nearly obsessive about reading labels due to my own dietary restrictions. The internet is my friend in these instances, letting me peruse labels in the comfort of my family room instead of in the crowded, hectic aisles of the local grocery. I’ve ended up categorizing snacks in three ways: Purely natural, meaning coming directly from the earth; naturally created with limited processing and additives; and manufactured, yet healthy nonetheless.

In the purely natural group, I include all fruits and vegetables with a limit on the amount of sugar even if those sugars are naturally occurring. A navel orange, that staple of after-game team snacks, packs 23 grams of sugar in one orange. Guidelines tell us we should try to limit our sugars to 50 grams per day. However, no more than 25-to-30 grams a day should come from “added sugars,” which as the name implies are sugars that don’t occur naturally in the food we’re eating such as those found in cakes, candy bars, flavored yogurt and cereals. That means one orange is equal to 50 percent of recommended daily allowances. Fruits with lower sugar contents are pineapple, strawberries and cantaloupe, which are all under 15 grams per serving. Even tomatoes are lower in sugar than oranges and apples. Vegetables are actually a better choice for natural snacks as they provide more fiber, less sugar, and several essential vitamins. Even sweet carrots have only around 6 grams of sugar, and celery, cucumbers, and green peppers have less than 4 grams of sugar per serving. Kids will often turn their noses up at vegetables, but adding a dip from the next group of snacks might heighten their interest and still not overdo the sugar. Nuts are excellent sources of fiber, essential oils, and energy, although many kids do have nut allergies. The best options are raw nuts that don’t have salt and oil added. Sunflower seeds are a great snack but messy with all the shells. Nevertheless, even kids with nut allergies can eat these. Supplying some bags of seeds for noshing on the bench is always welcome. Avoid the flavored seeds which pack on salts and sugars. Popcorn makes a great snack so long as we air pop it and don’t overdo the salt. You can make popcorn in the microwave with a covered heat-resistant glass container which can then be the serving bowl.

Foods that are naturally created can be both convenient and tasty. You can start with something as simple as unsweetened applesauce. These usefully come in snack size containers but be sure the list of ingredients reads simply apples and vitamin C (to keep sauce from browning). There are usually only 11 grams of sugar in each serving. Unsweetened peanut butter is generally ground with salt and perhaps a small amount of additional oil. Jif actually sells a natural peanut butter, which does contain a small amount of sugar along with nuts, and palm oil. You get 7 grams of protein per a two tablespoon serving, which is excellent. You can even grind your own peanut butter in a food processor. Create some “ants on a log” by filling celery with peanut butter and sprinkling on raisins. Dried fruit is very high in sugar, so use sparingly as an add-on rather than a main snack. Plain yogurt is low in sugars and is naturally produced using only milk and the fermenting bacteria. Once you move to flavors you begin to get the artificial ingredients and to greatly increase the sugar levels. Your best bet for flavored yogurt is vanilla, which has the least amount of added sugars. Those convenient yogurt smoothies have a whopping 23 grams of added sugar. Plain yogurt can be combined with various spices to create dips: garlic, pepper, shallots, chives, dill, and lemon. Condiments, such as olives and pickles, can make good snacks, but they have tons of salt so should be used in limited amounts. Chopping up some of these to put in the dip can give it substance and extra flavor. Hummus comes in several flavors and most brands are generally fairly free of additives. Just be sure to keep hummus chilled as it can collect bacteria if it sits warm too long. Any blocks of cultured cheese have limited processing. You can even get “snack packs” from Sabra and Boar’s Head that include hummus and pretzels (more about them later) which have around 7 grams of protein and less than 1 gram of sugar. These are an example of the best snacks - where there are more grams of protein than sugar. Rather than buying string cheese (high in salt) or cheese sticks (generally processed cheese rather than cultured cheese) create your own snack size treats by cutting up a block of cultured cheese. It’s cheaper, you have a greater variety of flavors, and it’s healthier. If I am going to serve them up within a few hours I just put what I want to distribute in some aluminum foil, seal it tightly, and store in a cool spot. There’s the extra advantage that the foil is recyclable. You can make the treats long like sticks or in bite-size chunks. They provide an excellent source of protein low in sugars (lactose from the milk).

Foods with more processing are also more convenient which is why they sell so well. Some are actually fairly healthy, but be sure once again to read labels. One fall back snack for me is Smucker’s Uncrustables – ready-made crustless PB&J sandwiches. If you buy the reduced sugar ones, which come in either grape or strawberry jelly, you don’t get the high fructose sugars that come in the regular product. There is a small amount of fructose in the bread, but overall they have only 6 grams of sugar and 7 grams of protein. The sandwiches come in packs of four or ten and are sold in the frozen food section. I pull them out about an hour before serving to thaw. You can make your own sandwiches, but the bread, jelly, and peanut butter will probably have all the same ingredients and you’ll spend a lot of time creating them. Pretzels make a great crunchy snack and can be pared with dips, hummus, and peanut butter. They are actually an excellent source of iron and manganese, have less than one gram of sugar per serving while providing 5 grams of protein. It’s one of the least processed snack foods and is naturally low in calories as well. Muffins can be a good source of fiber and protein, but not the usual blueberry ones you buy at the bakery. Quinoa muffins are amazing and you can create them with fruits to add some sweetness although no sugar is added. The recipe is easy to make and these freeze well so you can store them in small batches greatist.com/eat/recipes/quinoa-muffin-bites. Not all granola bars are created equally, but some along with protein bars can be a great snack option. Read those labels because many bars count on sugars and fats to add taste. Kashi has two granola and seed bars that have around 9 grams of sugar and 4 grams of protein which do not have any nuts but do have coconut which a few kids might be allergic to. I swear by Think Thin protein bars which have 0 grams of sugar and 20 grams of protein in full bars and 10 grams of protein in the bites. There are over a dozen varieties.

One way to limit sugars is to use sugar substitutes. There are positives and negatives to this idea. There are now several novel sugar substitutes which are far healthier than artificial sweeteners. Splenda was first on the market followed by Truvia, Stevia, and Monk Fruit. The taste is not exactly like sugar and there are some calories with the novel sweeteners, but far less than with sugar. For example I just bought some cups of Dole Mandarin Orange slices in syrup. The “no added sugar” option uses monk fruit and still had 5 grams of sugar per serving, but compare that to the 23 grams in the regular option you can see there is an advantage. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are cautions with these substitutes. Some manufacturers now use sugar alcohols as a sugar substitute (most common are xylitol and sorbitol). Unfortunately these can cause bloating and diarrhea. You might also look for natural sweeteners such as agave, honey, and molasses. These have calories but because they are less processed than sugar (sucrose) they also provide several essential minerals. Sugar alcohols, novel sweeteners, and natural sweeteners do affect blood sugar levels so aren’t good for diabetics but could be good for weight control and tooth decay.

All in all, snacking is a huge portion of the food industry. In fact, it is estimated that 23 percent of our food budget is spent on processed foods and sweets with an additional 12 percent spent on beverages, which often include sodas. Therefore we spend over 1/3 of our food allowance on stuff that isn’t really food. We can improve on that just by reading the nutrition and ingredient labels and insisting on the purest foods we can find to feed our families. It’s not a question of going “cold turkey” on anything snacky or processed, but finding a better balance where we focus on healthier snack options while still leaving room for those guilty pleasures (mine are Oreos and Cadbury Eggs, both of which I bought yesterday). So I understand we won’t give up everything, but when it comes to providing our kids with the proper nutrients for pre- and post-activity snacking, we can find some really great alternatives. Since sugars are plentiful in sports drinks (up to 23 grams per 8 oz.) and milk (12 grams per 8 oz.), you could infuse water with fruit slices or cucumbers letting it sit in your refrigerator for a few hours before serving. The rinds can eventually make the water bitter, so remove the slices after six hours. We don’t have to be obsessive, but we can be better with just a small amount of diligence. Read the labels and check out nutrition websites, which can provide you with some great products, ideas for controlling sugar and salt, and creating your own healthy snacks. Look at all the options on the shelves as there can be a wide range of nutritional differences in the same item by different producers. The healthier we feed our kids the better they develop good habits when snacking.

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You Have to Have Heart

Susan Boyd

This weekend the movie Eddie the Eagle opened. It tells the story of the first British ski jumper to enter the Olympics. You may ask, what does ski jumping have to do with youth soccer? After all, it’s an individual sport with limited spectator interest requiring far different equipment conducted in the winter and primarily centered in Scandinavia. I’d agree in general, but the story of this particular ski jumper speaks directly to our young players. Michael “Eddie” Edwards was a skier who dreamed of entering the Olympics. Unfortunately, even growing up in a country where competitive skiing isn’t widely practiced or promoted, he still wasn’t proficient enough to qualify for the Olympic team in 1984 despite being ranked. Rather than accept his fate he began to consider an alternative. Britain had never entered a ski jumper in the Olympics, so Eddie saw an opportunity to transfer his winter sport of choice to a winter sport of possibility.

He wasn’t actually suited to be a ski jumper as he weighed more than the heaviest jumper currently competing. He was so far sighted that he had to wear glasses at all times which, at the extremes of winter outdoor competition, often fogged over and broke with every fall. There were no funds allocated for British ski jumping through their Olympic committee, so Eddie not only had to be self-funded, but he also had to find a coach who wouldn’t laugh off the then 22 year old just beginning to learn the sport yet expecting to make the Olympic team a mere two years later.  What he had cleverly discovered was that he had little or no competition for a slot no matter how good or bad he was. However, he still attempted to become a world-class jumper despite his late start. He trained in Lake Placid and then moved to Finland where he could practice and work in the same location. He jumped in the 1987 World Championship and was ranked 55th in the world (there were 66 competitors at the Olympics). In 1988, he made the trip to Calgary as the only competitor for Great Britain.  He finished last in the 70 m and 90 m jumps, but he also became something of a folk hero for his determination and his positive attitude.  He was never able to qualify again as the International Olympic Committee changed the rules to require all athletes to be in the top 30% or the top 55 in the world in their sport whichever number was fewer. Nevertheless he had soldiered through to achieve his dream, just not quite the way he expected when he first began athletic competition.

Millions of kids play youth soccer in the United States. Most of them develop dreams of playing like their professional idols. That’s the nature of youth sports. Once kids become deeply involved they latch on to role models who inspire them both to improve and to aim for higher achievement. Even we parents become seduced by possibilities, but in time reality settles in. For the majority of kids, soccer provides a way to stay active, to develop friendships, to learn cooperation, and most importantly to have fun. However, over time, other interests take soccer’s place at least in terms of lifelong goals. By age 14 the number of soccer players has winnowed down to just under 800,000 and the odds of playing college soccer at any level then becomes 11:1 (73:1 to play Division I) and going pro 835:1. That kind of reality means that kids with big dreams may not be able to achieve them.  Few of us accept disappointment well, but eventually we do and move on. What makes Eddie’s story so compelling is that he didn’t bow to the set-back. He kept his dream of competing in the Olympics by adjusting his pathway there.

The take away for youth players is that they should keep their passions for as long as they want. The pathway to achieving them might not be the direct route they anticipate. Robbie’s club team goal keeper had a dream of going pro and he got his chance before graduating from high school being picked up by Dallas FC in 2008. He played on the Reserve team and never played in an MLS game. Eventually he was loaned out and finally released from Dallas in 2011. He quit professional soccer all together in 2012 and enrolled at Texas A&M. He was no longer eligible to play college soccer due to having played professionally but he still had eligibility to play any other college sport. He walked on to the football team despite never having played football and began as their place kicker, quickly advancing to their field goal kicker. In his senior year he made all 59 attempts. Despite that sterling performance he wasn’t drafted by the NFL, so he went in as a free agent signed by the San Diego Chargers in 2015 where he earned the starting kicker spot. He had readjusted his pathway to a full professional career.

Here in Wisconsin we tell the story of Jay DeMerit, who began as a forward but in college moved to defender. After his college career where his team played in the 2000 NCAA playoffs, he thought he would be drafted by the MLS, but no offers came in. He then moved to England (he had a Danish grandfather which allowed him to get a European Union work permit) and joined a seventh-tier English team. In a preseason game his team played Watford of the second tier Football Championship League where he got noticed and received an offer to sign with Watford. Two years later, Watford won promotion to the EPL. DeMerit eventually moved to the MLS and finished his career with the Vancouver Whitecaps. His dream had been to play in a World Cup and in 2010 he made the US Men’s National Team roster. This was not the path most players made to that honor, but he never wavered from his goal, achieving it by taking risks and seizing every opportunity no matter how insignificant each seemed at the time.

If a player has the passion and the willingness to sacrifice, he or she should tap into their creativity. Some kids have parents and grandparents who had citizenship outside the US. Bryce and Robbie’s birth mother is El Salvadoran, and they are both eligible to play for El Salvador if they wanted. Believe me, the idea was bantered around for several years in our household. Many teams, especially in smaller European soccer markets, do recruit American players, although they don’t necessarily pay very well. Nevertheless, it’s an opportunity to be seen in the European arena. Lower tier teams, like Jay DeMerit’s seventh tier club, play higher clubs in the preseason. This gives them a chance to get noticed by some significant coaches. Soccer has so many leagues beyond the MLS that kids can join well into adulthood.  Presently, there is the National American Soccer League (NASL), United Soccer Leagues (USL), Premier Development League (PDL), National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), and Pacific Coast Soccer League (PCSL) for men along with the National Women’s Soccer League and the Women’s Premier Soccer League for women. There are indoor leagues and futsal leagues. In fact one of the fastest growing soccer sports is now futsal which has international tournaments.  It’s possible for kids to find ways to achieve their long-term soccer dreams but not necessarily in the way they planned. Most players in the US move onto professional careers through college, but players can apply to attend combines for the MSL or other leagues. There are even businesses such as IASA-EuroPro Combine and AX Soccer Tours that hold combines for a price throughout the United States where professional coaches from Asia, Europe, and the US come to scout players. Although it’s small chance, players can be selected from these combines to sign contracts with teams throughout the world. Parents and players need to reasonably assess the possibility of being selected against the cost of participating. They should also look for reputable companies who have been in business for several years. Look carefully at the teams with which they are affiliated. Given all the hurdles, there are still viable ways for players to achieve their dreams.

In the final analysis, people like Eddie the Eagle, Josh Lambo, and Jay DeMerit are rare, but all players can take a lesson in perseverance from each of them and others like them. Parents should help their children assess their skills rationally and without the natural desire to see only the best. Good research, the willingness to be flexible, and the spirit to keep going no matter what the obstacles can go a long ways to realizing any player’s ultimate dream. On the other hand, there is no shame in readjusting the dream. So few can be on a World Cup team or even make the squad of any level of professional teams, but the world has a huge capacity for scientists, plumbers, entrepreneurs, teachers, artists, farmers, truckers, and any number of professions that benefit from people who have passion and energy. Some sports allow for easy transference to another similar sport, giving kids lots of options if they want to pursue that aspect of their lives. No matter what happens, it all comes from the heart. Everyone should be joyfully giving their all to whatever they eventually do. The fun our kids had when playing soccer at age 10 should never dissipate. We need to relish what we do without regret.

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Losing Attitude

Susan Boyd

After every televised sporting competition, there’s the ritual of a Q&A. That consists of either a 6-foot-3 athlete bending over a 5-foot-2 reporter while awkwardly responding to a query amidst a jumble of noise and celebration, or the same athlete behind a bank of microphones in a more civilized atmosphere of a press conference. In either case, the questions are general, rhetorical and expected, with only a small variation between those aimed at victors and those aimed at the defeated. “How did you feel when the last second shot (fell or didn’t fall)? What do you attribute the (win or loss) to? How do you plan to (celebrate or regroup)? What was the turning point of the game? When did you know you were going to (win or lose)? Who do you feel most contributed to the (win or loss)? What would you have done differently? Why did you go with that (amazing or disastrous) play?” You know the drill. You could ask the questions and answer them as well. So why do networks insist on these post-mortems? I’d argue they want to sustain the euphoria of a win for the fans and to extend the humiliation of a loss, which adds drama to the proceedings. That was clearly evident in Cam Newton’s press conference after the Panthers lost to the Broncos in last weekend’s Super Bowl.

On display was a 26-year-old who had won nearly every contest he ever entered. He had just earned the NFL MVP award. He had been a No. 1 draft pick. This season he was responsible for 45 touchdowns and more rushing yards than every teammate except Jonathan Stewart. He led the Panthers to a 15-1 regular season. He relished the winning with boyish enthusiasm, well-known for his sideline antics. With all this success, he had seen the peak of Everest only to have a sudden storm out of Denver cut his ascent short. Now he had to slump in a chair, a hoodie obscuring much of his head, and answer the ridiculous questions of reporters who already knew the answers. “Can you put a finger on why Carolina didn’t play the way it normally plays?” “Got outplayed.” “Is there a reason why?” “Got outplayed, bro.” “Can you put into words the disappointment you feel right now?” “We lost.” When disappointment was brought up yet again, it was too much. Cam shook his head, said “I’m done, man,” and walked out. Watching Cam squirm, visibly upset, looking every bit like the kid called into the principal’s office to explain why he pulled the fire alarm during the school assembly, I couldn’t help but see my own sons in him.

Frequently as parents, we attempt to analyze a loss right after a match, usually on the car ride home. The conversation is filled with “if onlys,” and we ask our young player to explain the setbacks, unwittingly rubbing salt in the wounds. We’ve all seen that dejected hang-dog look on our child’s face when he or she just wants to melt into the upholstery and try to escape the bad feelings. Yet all too often we become that hungry press corps demanding answers to questions better left unspoken. We’re disappointed and we’re trying to make sense of what just happened. Unfortunately, we end up expecting our kids to do it for us.

What can make the situation worse is when the questions carry the sting of accusation. “Why didn’t you pass the ball when you got trapped?” “Didn’t you see Heather was open to take a shot?” “Did the coach tell you to hang back instead of staying with your opponent?” “Why didn’t you make a four-man wall?”  We don’t mean the questions to be critical, but the tone is clear as they ring in the kids’ ears. The last thing they want to do is try to defend a mistake or revisit a missed opportunity. Yet we do ask the worst possible questions at the worst possible time. Robbie used to come off the field, brush past us, and announce “I don’t want to talk about it.” We learned we ignored that admonishment at our peril!

There were lots of questions after the Super Bowl that I’m sure many viewers wanted answers. News organizations survive by “breaking the story first.” No one is willing to wait for explanations. In a family, though, there’s no such pressure. We can let the analysis evolve when our player is ready to talk. Usually Robbie or Bryce would be silent for about half the trip the home, but eventually they would spout something that let us know they wanted to vent. “I can’t believe I missed that shot,” or “I knew he was going left why did I fade right?” Even when the door is opened, parents don’t have to rush through. Kids need the chance to process what happened, to create their own story, and to be comfortable with their vision. Losing is an important part of the learning process. It’s not fun, and can be very painful, but when kids learn their own best coping techniques, every subsequent loss is better handled. Constant queries and post-game analyses don’t give our kids the space they need to absorb and deal with loss. If they continuously feel solely responsible for or accused of creating a defeat, they become personally defeated and may want to quit. After a loss during the State Championship, Bryce’s coach read the team such a litany of blame that the kids exited the field looking shell-shocked. Three kids quit the team that day, which left us vulnerable for another loss in the next game. Bryce still talks about that dressing down he got (and as goalkeeper, he was particularly singled out). I give him a lot of credit for sticking with both the team and with soccer because those players were doubly humiliated – first by the actual loss and then by their coach pointing out all their short-comings just minutes after leaving the pitch.

Losses can become watershed moments for players in either a positive or negative way. It’s important that losses be seen not as irreparable events but as building blocks. Even Cam Newton acknowledged to the press and the fans that Carolina would be “back.” Kids need to put losses in perspective. In every contest there is a winner and loser, that’s the very essence of sport. The point is not to blame losses on particular people or decisions, rather it’s to find those instances where changes can happen. Coaches should approach losses with the attitude of “let’s see how we can avoid the pitfalls of this match again” by presenting a plan for attacking the next contest through training and development. Parents need to avoid pinning kids down to addressing particular mistakes so that they become defensive and unsure. Instead we can be the cheerleaders we should be and leave the training and any criticism to the coaches. Stick to positives: “Your team wasn’t afraid to keep shooting. We were so proud of how the team kept fighting. Those forwards were fast but you kept up with them really well. The midfield is definitely learning how to work together; I see so much improvement.” Let our kids decide when they want to talk about concerns and let them ask the questions, revealing to us how much or how little advice they want. It’s okay to be disappointed about a loss, that’s only natural, but to use a loss to express criticism isn’t what our kids need. If we can lose the negative attitude towards losing we’ll have a positive impact our own child’s attitude.

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Skipping Ahead

Susan Boyd

Few of us can be faulted for seeing our pint-sized soccer dynamos as the next Abby Wambach or Landon Donovan. They look so fierce and dedicated as they scoot up and down the pitch mastering the moves they watch their much older idols executing. We naturally see all kinds of promise in their skills and passion. Since youth soccer has a focus on development, the players advance slowly within a prescribed series of team and field size increases in tandem with incremental skills training. It’s likely that as our kids progress we may become impatient with the developmental program. We decide that they are ready for a bigger challenge. So the issue of our children playing up a year or two surfaces regularly. US Youth Soccer Director of Coaching Sam Snow addressed this topic in a 2010 blog. He came at it from a coaching perspective and had several good points, which I’ll summarize here. However, I can also speak to the subject from a parent’s point of view. What’s important to remember is that moving a player or a team ahead has to offer significant improvements over the system in place and has to have the full agreement of club, coaches, parents, and in particular the player.

As Snow detailed, challenging players and teams will always be a goal of state associations, the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program and clubs. Associations should not be so dogmatic as to restrict a player’s “option to play at the appropriate competitive level.” He argues rightly that development requires players “be exposed to levels of competition commensurate with their skills…in order to aspire to higher levels of play and maintain their interest in and passion for the game.” However, the process of development created and approved by the United States Soccer Federation came from long and careful study of how to best develop soccer players and teams. Parents need to appreciate the value of these development programs and not always be in a rush to bypass the process since it could be detrimental to the child’s progress. Likewise organizations should not insist on a “one size fits all” system which limits the strongest players from advancing to the proper level of competition and training. Playing up should be an option, exercised with proper evaluation by coaches and parents.

Furthermore, kids may not need to play up in order to achieve the benefits of advanced training. Clubs can do more open training that shifts players around during practice giving kids a chance to test their abilities in a safer environment than in games against older, more skilled players. It also gives coaches an opportunity to evaluate a player’s readiness to play up. Snow places the responsibility for the “development of players and advancement of the overall quality in the United States” on the youth coaches, administrators and policymakers. It is their “obligation to provide an environment where every player is given the opportunity to improve and to gain the maximum enjoyment from their soccer experience and ultimately, what is best for the player.” On the flip side, parents can be advocates for their children’s talents, but should also defer to the judgment of those long trained in the recognition, development, and promotion of youth players.

One solution that Coach Snow offers is for “club (playing) passes” rather than team rosters. This allows coaches to slowly introduce players to higher levels of competition without overtaxing them or risking injury when they go up against bigger, more aggressive opponents. As he puts it, it “allow(s) for a more realistic and fluid movement of players between teams and levels of play.” It’s also a system that helps reduce the overall resentment of a player being singled out to play for an older team or a player having to permanently leave his or her circle of friends to play up. In general, the discussion of whether or not a child plays up should be initiated by the coach, not by the parent. Most coaches are actually motivated to move players to the highest levels they can play. However, Coach Snow also cautions coaches not to “exploit or hold players back in the misplaced quest for team building and winning championships.” He asks parents not push their child. Playing up may not preclude returning to an age-appropriate team, which “should not be interpreted as a demotion, but as an opportunity to gain or regain confidence.”  This entire situation is best handled by the “club pass” option since it does make playing up a flexible process that doesn’t imply a “final” placement. Instead, players are given opportunities to stretch their soccer abilities with less risk and more support leading to stronger skills and mental focus.

Playing up has long been a tradition in soccer. Many of the most famous professional players began playing on adult teams while still in high school. On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of players achieving at the highest levels of the sport but doing so on the regular developmental track. Climbing to the top of the “soccer pyramid” doesn’t have to happen right away for a player to achieve long-term success. There are a huge number of factors to consider before playing up. Kids develop physically at far different rates at the same age. Therefore, a player may be quite skilled, but coaches are reluctant to move her up because she is small for her age. Playing against much larger opponents could result in injuries that have career-shortening effects. Likewise, that player may become so overwhelmed that he or she loses confidence, a mental state that directly affects play. Coaches will also consider how much support the player will get from other team members, which will influence team dynamics and the player’s adjustment. If the team has weak tactics, they may not be the best place for a player to develop. Finally, players do become attached to their teammates, so playing up with kids who have a different maturity level could be isolating for a player, affecting both mental and physical development. Coaches can best evaluate this during practices and with players filling an occasional “guest player” slot.

As a parent with sons who played up, I can attest to both the advantages and disadvantages of the opportunity. I primarily caution parents against rushing the process. We always have the option of having our children try out for older teams, especially if we feel our club is holding our child back. However, be sure it’s for the right reasons and most importantly that the player is fully on board. Kids can easily get overwhelmed by the bigger, more mature, more skilled teammates of an older team, even if they are perfectly capable of playing at that level. The first time Robbie played up was when his entire team registered in a U-12 league while only U-10 so that they could play 11v11 on a full field. The experience was generally positive. The kids didn’t win many games, but they definitely learned how to trust one another, refine their team tactics, and enjoy just playing because wins were basically off the table. By the time the team grew into being a true U-12 team, it was so strong that the players found success as a team — eventually winning state. They learned to delay gratification, so the experience went beyond just soccer. Even today, Robbie is really good about being patient for things to come his way, and I chalk that up to two years of slogging away towards a team goal of eventually being one of the strongest in the league. However, as a freshman in high school, Robbie was the first starting freshman on the varsity soccer team in 20 years. It was a tremendous honor but came with some difficulties. Most of the players were all driving and Robbie was two years away from getting a license. It also meant most of the players were partaking in far more “adult” get-togethers, which included alcohol. Finally, there was strong jealousy from players and parents that Robbie has “stolen” a slot from deserving upperclassmen. Luckily, his older brother was the goalkeeper on the team, so Robbie had support. Also, he’s just a likable guy, so eventually he won over the team. But it was isolating and frustrating for him on many occasions. All of his friends either played for the freshman or JV team. Their games were during the afternoons when Robbie was practicing with the varsity team so he couldn’t even attend to support his buddies.

Likewise, Robbie was not allowed to even try out for the older team on the two main clubs in our area because their teams at Robbie’s age level were not strong. They wanted Robbie to play age appropriately to strengthen those teams, something Snow counsels against. That was frustrating for him because his high school teammates were on the older teams, and he wanted to continue those connections. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop these teams from asking Robbie to guest play with them when they were short-handed for tournaments. Playing up has political elements, which can’t be ignored. Parents need to recognize how that will impact their family and especially their player. That’s why I’m so in favor of the “club pass” system. It removes much of the “gifted” aura attached to playing up and puts it in the right perspective – an opportunity for any player to test his or her abilities.

In Bryce’s case, playing up was completely positive. His U-14 club team dissolved just before U15 tryouts. As a goalkeeper he had very few options where he could play. Luckily, a U-16 Serbian team desperately needed a keeper, so Bryce found a wonderful home. He knew several of the players from his high school team and he loved the chance to test his keeper abilities against bigger and faster players because the entire U-16 team was actually playing up in a U-17 league. He got early exposure to college scouts, stepped up his game significantly, and made a whole new set of friends. Luckily, Bryce was fully grown at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds. so he had no problem keeping up with the players on his team and in the league. For him, the opportunity had huge benefits, and were every players’ case like his, I’d be on board for widespread playing up. However, he never faced any of the resentment from parents for gaining a place on a more elite team because no one was left to care. His size afforded him the safety to play up. And finally, he was psychologically ready for the challenge.

The younger a player is, the more difficult it is to play up. We parents need to remember that our big kid at U-8 may end up a comparatively small kid the next year due to the uneven physical development of young players. Therefore, playing up may seem like a good idea that quickly dissolves. Again, we parents shouldn’t be in a rush to have our kids scaling the pyramid too quickly. Small-sided games at the youngest ages allows kids more playing time and an opportunity to try out a variety of positions. Moving through the well-studied and approved levels of development serves the majority of kids to keep them growing their skills and their passion while still challenging them. There is such a thing as a “soccer brain” and kids with a well-developed one are the best equipped to play up, but they have to be supported by their physical size, the ability to take coaching, their compatibility with teammates, and their maturity to handle the increased pressures. Parents aren’t always the best and most unbiased judges of these factors. We need to depend on coaches to make decisions on a child’s readiness to play up. If a coach opens the conversation, we should feel free to jump in, but on the whole we should not be aggressive advocates for our child playing up. Rather we should talk with coaches at the end of a season to discuss our kids’ progress and possible proficiency to play up in the future. The discussion should dissolve into an argument to persuade a coach, rather it should be the time to listen and learn how our children are seen in a coach’s eyes. Once we have that information we can decide how to proceed going forward. Should our child tryout for an older team? Does our child want to play up? How will playing up impact our family (loss of friends, jealousies, car pool disruptions, and unknown territory)? What are we expecting playing up to achieve for our kids (improved skills, praise, future success, and/or bragging rights)?  Is our child prepared to play up in every aspect (size, temperament, maturity, and skills)? Once we assess these factors and fold in coaches’ recommendations, we can best decide if playing up is right for our sons and daughters.

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