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



Susan Boyd

I recently saw an ESPN film about Todd Marinovich who was a quarterback for USC in 1989. His father, Marv, was strength and conditioning coach who believed he could create the perfect athlete. As he stated in an interview, "The question I asked myself was, 'How well could a kid develop if you provided him with the perfect environment?'" He set out to make Todd remarkable. Even as an infant Todd underwent training to stretch his hamstrings and develop balance. By age 10 he could easily run ten miles. He learned the mechanics of being a quarterback and in high school became a national phenomenon. By the time he entered USC he had achieved records that an NFL player would be proud to have. His freshman year he won the Rose Bowl against Michigan. In his junior year he was drafted by the Raiders.
But in Todd's own words he couldn't live "in the prison of achievement." In high school he began drinking and using drugs, and that behavior escalated as he grew older. By the time he got to college, he had graduated to cocaine, amphetamines and finally LSD because it didn't show up in drug tests. At one point he left school and told his mother, "I wish I could go somewhere else and be someone else. I don't want to be Todd Marinovich." Ironically, his athletic achievements became overshadowed by his off-field behavior which included more and more arrests for drugs.
While Todd's experience is extreme, it has important lessons for us parents. Marv constantly expressed his devotion to his children and only wanting the best for them. He believed he was giving Todd a gift that he could take both to the bank and to the Hall of Fame. He believed that if Todd achieved perfection on the field he would have a perfect life. He felt that the accolades his athleticism would engender could provide Todd with joy enough to mitigate all those years of dedication and sacrifice.
Anyone who has seen films of Todd playing in high school can witness his perfect mechanics and impressive abilities. But the films don't show Todd's state of mind. When his teammates left the field after practice to go home, Todd remained there for hours still training. When they gathered at a fast food restaurant for a burger and conversation, Todd was home lifting weights. Even as a youngster when he went to a friend's birthday party he brought his own cake and ice cream to avoid processed foods. He became painfully shy because he only had limited contact with his peers. Marv missed an important part of the equation in creating the "perfect person."
We parents all want the best for our kids. We see that spark of ability and we believe that fostering that ability needs to be an integral part of our child-rearing. Marv didn't even wait to find that spark. He created it. We watch with a bit of envy as mega-stars emerge from strong parental investments: Andre Agassi, Tiger Woods, the Williams sisters and Dominique Morceau, who famously got a restraining order against her parents. While these athletes often earn millions of dollars a year and live comfortable lives, they have also expressed regrets. Agassi wrote that he felt imprisoned by his father through both expectations and demands. He also turned to drugs to escape mentally since he couldn't escape physically.
As parents, we need to heed these cautionary tales. The stories we hear are from those athletes who achieved major success. While they lost their childhoods, they did earn money and respect for their athletics. We don't usually hear the stories of kids who were pushed but never achieved much success. We don't hear if they had regrets. But we need to be sensitive to where our kids want to be. In 1988, Omo Grupe completed a long-term study of children in elite sports. He concluded that these athletes were not permitted to be children, were victims of disruptive family life, were exposed to excessive psychological and physiological stress, were detached from larger society and, most significantly, faced a type of abandonment upon exiting their athletic careers. Most of us would argue that our kids don't have such an extreme experience and that is probably true. But we do need to be aware that the scales can tip quickly unless we are vigilant. We need to include our children in the discussion when advancing to more intense levels of competition and training. Kids need to know that they are open to decide, which means we parents need to suppress our own desires. If our children feel that they are restricted by our dreams, they may not express their real desires.
We want sports to be a liberating experience for our children. Sports should offer the opportunity to meet new friends, get some exercise, learn how to be humble in winning and losing and develop discipline. Sports should never be a prison from which kids feel they can't escape. Likewise, sports shouldn't be a prison for the family where its time and money are held hostage. Unfortunately, we're fed the propaganda that athletic success spells life success, when in reality sports for the vast majority has very little to do with success in life. Todd Marinovich became a phenomenon for a few years, but the price he paid for that renown was nearly 40 years of his life – 20 trapped by the sport and 20 trapped by the drugs he took to escape the trap of the sport. Now happily married with two kids and a thriving artistic career, he has a relationship with his father that took years to repair. We want our kids to experience that kind of peace much sooner in life, which may mean letting the sports take a back seat to other more significant aspects of growing up. Moderation can give way to the freedom to find lots of interests and lots of events outside of the prison of achievement.

The 99 percent

Susan Boyd

When our family first got involved in youth soccer we were definitely unaware of what lay ahead. We weren't even aware that youth soccer existed in our town or that there were actually two options for youth soccer. Sitting around our community pool that first summer I got a quick education. I learned that one club was run by the city recreation department and the other club was private. I learned the rec club cost one fifth what the private club cost. I learned that kids in the rec club had more fun. But I also learned that the high school coaches only took kids who played in the private club so that if I ever wanted my children to get a soccer scholarship, I had to put my kids in the private club. I learned that the subdivision was forming its own team so they could practice at the subdivision's soccer fields. I learned that the private club had four youth teams at Bryce's age and the rec club had twenty. The discussion between the recreational parents and the private club parents got pretty intense as each side vied for my participation. I felt like the swing vote at the Iowa Republican caucus.
Looking back I realize how wrong everyone was. But it all sounded so convincing and life-affecting. How could I know what was was true when I had just learned that youth soccer existed? These myths get perpetuated year after year, and it isn't until after we've experienced youth soccer for ourselves that we can wean the truth from the stories. Unfortunately by the time we figure out what is best for our family and for our children, we may be a long ways down a path that doesn't work. The good news is that nothing is set in stone–despite the myth that whatever you pick, you're stuck with. While friends, relatives and neighbors are well-meaning with all their advice, each one is coming from their own bias. Bad experiences they had with particular clubs or coaches may just be a reflection of disappointment in their own child's lack of success. Likewise, glowing reports of a team's value may not translate to your own player's abilities or interests. When it comes to evaluating the youth soccer route you should be taking, only your own family and your own child can direct that journey.
The biggest myth out there is the recreation vs. travel club controversy. You will hear that if you really want your child to succeed in soccer you need to get them into a private club with professional coaching as soon as possible. This presupposes a lot of factors including your child will want to play soccer ten years in the future, your child will have the athletic abilities to play soccer ten years in the future and that all soccer clubs will remain exactly the same with staff and player abilities ten year in the future. I won't disagree with the fact that the more professional coaching a player can have the stronger he or she will grow. But spending the kind of money you need to spend to get that experience may not be appropriate until your child expresses a serious interest in the sport. This might not be until age 12 or 13 or it may be sooner. Only your family can determine when the best time would be to make that kind of financial and time commitment to soccer.
The next myth is that you have to play in a travel club to make the high school soccer team. Like any school team, soccer will have tryouts where the top players get selected. If a high school coach has a bias against players coming from a recreational background, then he or she could be overlooking some strong talent. I suspect more coaches want to put together a winning team than want to toe some hard line against recreational players. Gifted players are gifted players no matter where they train. Some high schools end up very short of players for their team, so they are grateful for any and all participants. The likelihood of a team made up primarily of select club players is high just because those are the players who wanted more intensive training and could afford it, but your son or daughter won't be precluded solely on a club pedigree if they have talent.
Parents will tell you that if you choose the recreational route, you won't be able to switch later on. This is the worst myth out there. It puts pressure on parents to choose select clubs earlier in their children's training than might be wise for the family. The financial and time commitment of moving to a select club becomes tremendous and only increases as the children get older. If your child is still trying out a number of youth sports, then sticking to recreational teams and leagues makes perfect sense. Making the commitment to a select team means that playing other sports in the same season will be difficult, so you need to be sure your child is ready to forgo other sports. Once a player is ready to move up to a select team, then attending tryouts at several clubs will give him or her plenty of options. In truth, select teams shouldn't be forming until older ages, but lots of clubs will create hand-picked teams as young as Under-8. That's an unfortunate trend, since players are still developing size, muscle and brain, making any prediction of future prowess unreliable. You don't want to get sucked in by a club's promises when your child is 8 and big, only to be rejected by that club when your child is 12 and normal size. So it's prudent to do what's best for your family and your child rather than be swayed by a sales pitch, which is usually self-serving for the club.
In soccer much of the scouting for colleges is done on the club level. This makes perfect sense since clubs will participate in big tournaments making it easier for college coaches to see large numbers of players in a weekend. Therefore if your child begins to show some promise as a player around ages 12 or 13 and expresses an interest in playing soccer in high school and college, then it's reasonable to look for a good select club with professional coaches. The player will benefit from the intensified training and from some exposure to scouts. There are lots of additional options for being scouted including the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program (US Youth Soccer ODP). People will promote the myth that to make it to college you have to be on one of the Developmental Academy teams sponsored by U.S. Soccer Federation, but those teams cover a limited geographical area of the United States. Colleges recognize that good soccer talent exists all over. Therefore, find a strong select club in your area and augment that training with programs like US Youth Soccer ODP. This will actually double the opportunity to be seen and increase a player's training regimen.
When I think about how much bad information I was bombarded with that summer, it's a wonder my sons ever got to play high school, not to mention college, soccer. Parents are well meaning, but they see the world through the narrow focus of their own children's experiences. What works best for one child may not be the best route for another. Basing your youth sports decisions on something which may or may not come true in a decade could create real problems in the present. Great players have come out of the recreational sports experiences. While playing in those early years they had the opportunity to share the experience with friends who later wouldn't be able to keep up athletically, but with whom deep and lasting friendships were formed. Limiting your child to just a pool of like-skilled participants takes away lots of options. Playing with a group of neighborhood or schoolyard buddies doesn't mean you've closed the door on playing in college or even playing pro. But for the 99 percent of players who will never move to that level, it seems silly to insist on a track that moves them in that direction. And for the 1 percent who will get there, it will be talent which determines that success, and talent will be recognized at the right time and place to be developed. No matter what our children succeed at, we all want to be sure they enjoyed the journey there.

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Heads Up

Sam Snow

Over the last fifteen years there have been studies conducted on the physical and mental impacts of heading. Nothing is conclusive at this time. Consider this from the U.S. Soccer Sports Medicine Committee:
"At Present, there are many gaps and inconsistencies within the medical literature regarding the safety of heading in soccer. The impact of purposeful heading is linear which is less severe than rotational impact. …Head injuries during soccer are more likely to be from accidental contacts such as head-ground, head-opponent, or the rare head-goalpost. …. At this point in time, it is premature to conclude that purposeful heading of a modern soccer ball is a dangerous activity."
So most head injuries in soccer are from the head impacting something other than the ball. The human skull is surprisingly tough. Head injuries from the ball occur when the technique is done incorrectly. Here lies the real problem. Many coaches teach heading incorrectly or not at all. So many players head the ball wrong and this could cause injuries or inaccurate or poorly paced headers.
When should players start? Introduce heading in the U-10 age group. Teach heading to score and to clear in the U-12 age group both standing and jumping. Teach heading to pass, backwards heading (flicks) and diving headers in the U-14 age group. These recommendations by age group are the average, middle of the bell-curve so to speak. A few players may start some of these techniques earlier, especially if they have older siblings playing. Others will start later, as their confidence grows.
Early experiences can be painful if a careful progression in building up confidence is not applied. When introducing the technique of heading the ball for the first time I suggest you start with a Nerf type soccer ball or an underinflated volleyball. Gradually work your way up to a fully inflated soccer ball. Begin with juggling with the head so that the player controls the pace, height, frequency of repetition, movement, etc.   Next go to head juggling with a partner. A good group game for heading is Toss-Head-Catch. In this practice activity the ball is being served from the hands, so the force is less than a crossed ball and is more accurate. The increased accuracy will allow for more repetitions of correct headers.
The whole body is used to head the ball. The movement begins with the legs, the movement of the core muscles throws the trunk and upper body forward and the head, from the neck upwards, follows through quickly. The position of the forehead to the ball determines its flight path.
The earliest and most elementary lesson about heading is never let the ball hit you. Go out and meet it, and make contact with the front part of the forehead where the skull is the thickest. You must attack the ball! You hit it, not the other way around. The main surface of contact is of course the forehead. The ball must be struck, not cushioned. The neck and back muscles should be rigid to generate power. The part played by the eyes is important! Although it is likely that the reflex blinking action causes the eyes to be closed at the moment when the ball is struck by the forehead, players should be encouraged to watch the ball right onto the forehead. Only by doing so can a player time the actual heading movement accurately. There need be no fear of danger to the eyes since they are well protected by the heavy bone structure immediately above them.
There is no better feeling in soccer than beating an opponent in the air to plant a header in the net. Once you have done it, there is a hunger to do it again. It is a spectacular way of scoring goals, or come to that of stopping them. Defensively it is a great thrill in consistently clearing the ball in the air, beating opposing forwards, and establishing control. The young player who adds heading to his or her armory of skills will go far in the game.

Besmirching the Game

Susan Boyd

Ugly, ugly, ugly – the only way to describe what I witnessed last Sunday at an indoor tournament. At every step of the way, responsible people could have seen that behaviors didn't escalate and that the kids understood how awful the incident was. Instead, parents and coaches inflamed the situation, police were called and no one learned a valuable lesson.
Two teams were playing a hotly contested game. The score remained 0-0 for much of the first half, and for those of you who know the speed of indoor soccer you also know how unusual that is. The teams were not the same age. I would imagine one team was Under-13 and the other was either U-14 or U-15. The older team was obviously flustered and not used to encountering such stiff competition and the younger team had an air of arrogance that showed they were also used to winning. It was a powder keg just waiting for a fuse and a spark. That came in the second half. I should also mention that these were girls teams.
The score was 4–2 with the older team behind and five minutes left on the clock. During a fierce battle to the goal, a player from the blue older team checked a player from the pink younger team into the boards. The play was too aggressive and the ref blew his whistle. But before he could do anymore than that, the pink player sucker punched the blue player. And the battle was on. Everyone got involved. Parents from the blue team were screaming that the girl should be ejected (which the ref was in the process of doing) and saying that the entire team should be disqualified. The coaches were engaged in a war of words that threatened to come to blows if not for the impediment of the center scoring table, girls from the pink team were standing in front of the box for the blue team taunting both the team and the coach, and the girl who had been hit was backing up on the field with her arms outspread and gesturing for the girl who had hit her to come and get her so they could finish the battle. I don't excuse the punch, but that's an event which should have remained isolated to the attacker. Instead it became the catalyst to release all the pent up frustrations, bravado and brutishness festering in the players, coaches and parents. And in the meantime, the clock was ticking away.
After two and a half minutes of a melee filled with expletives, threats and the blue coach screaming at the girls in pink to ""get the f--- away,"" the referee managed to get the teams back on the field and play continued. The pink team was now a player down, but managed to score a goal first due to the confusion. The blue team valiantly tried to score but the pink team keeper held her own and in the end the score was 5-3.
Now the sour grapes began. The manager of the indoor facility was called to the box and with two coaches literally screaming in her ears, she attempted to listen to the referee to ascertain what had happened. The teams refused to leave the area, and in fact, having them in the boxes probably saved a major fist fight from breaking out. In the meantime, parents joined the situation, ostensibly to protect their daughters, but based on the posturing and language I would say they wanted to avenge their daughters. With so many emotions running high, the manager called the police and one sheriff's squad and three city police squads showed up. Eventually everyone was ushered from the facility into their cars and off the property.
This all happened on the field next to Bryce's game, which I ended up not watching because of the fracas at the girls game. The boys' game had its share of rough play, but it was missing one element to fuel the fire of an actual fight – outside adults. The boys had no coaches and only a handful of parents. The boys' game also had two referees because it was boys and they were over U-15. So much for stereotypes.
This tournament is sponsored by the local indoor facility every Thanksgiving Sunday. It attracts mostly local teams, but a few come up from Chicago or over from Madison. I doubt the tournament is listed anywhere but on the Wisconsin State Youth Soccer Association website. It holds no reputation for being a significant tournament, nor does it carry any weight for team rankings. It doesn't attract college scouts. It is simply an opportunity for teams to play three games for minimal cost in a short period of time. Many of the teams are formed just for the purpose of playing in the tournament. In other words, this tournament is for FUN. But apparently someone forgot to tell these girls, their coaches and their parents. Bryce's team won their bracket and got orange t-shirts with a turkey on the front and the word ""Champions"" on the back that all the boys found funny, since champion is a word that should be used for noble combat, not a few pick-up games on a Sunday afternoon.
For these two girls teams this was all about saving face. If the coach of the blue team hadn't spent so much time berating the referee for not stopping the attack and then trying to convince him to make the other team forfeit, his team very well might have had enough time to win the game. Five minutes in indoor soccer is an eternity, and with the other team a player down, eventually the blue team would have had clear opportunities to score. Instead he put his team back on the field with less than two minutes. The pink team coach should have pulled all his girls into their box rather than let them go fight his battle in front of the blue team's box. The referee should have stopped the clock. And the parents should have shut their mouths and let the referee do his job. More importantly, the coaches should have diffused the situation by reminding their players that this was just a game – nothing more, nothing less. Losing to a younger team seemed to devastate the blue team and beating an older team seemed to embolden the pink team. All for total ridiculousness. Everyone loses at some point in their lives. The pink team has probably lost before and they will lose again. The blue team will go on to win the important games and this game for an orange t-shirt that I suspect none of these girls would be caught dead in would have been long forgotten had it not resulted in a near riot.
I actually witnessed a similar event with Robbie's Chicago Magic team. It was an indoor adult game, although Robbie's team was U-17 and the team they were playing was in their 20's. Robbie's team was winning and ultimately the older team had their egos bruised enough that one player knocked out one of Robbie's teammates. In that case things were handled properly. The game was stopped while the coach of the older team came on the field and took the offending player off. Our coach pulled all the players off the field and calmly waited for the referee to do his job. The father of the boy who was hit stayed off the field and instead went to the manager's office to report the incident and ask that police be called since it was an assault. Despite the potential for a complete meltdown, the responsible adults behaved reasonably and trouble was avoided.
The problem with what happened Sunday was that everyone behaved badly. These girls witnessed despicable behavior from most of the adults involved. The amount of foul language flying from coaches, parents, and players would have made Eddie Murphy blush. No one took the high road, no one attempted to diffuse the situation and no one realized how truly insignificant this game was. The punch was unforgiveable and needed to be handled. If the coach of the pink team had been a true adult, he would have pulled his player off, reprimanded her, and he and she would have apologized. Instead he attempted to excuse what she did as being a reasonable response to the foul. The swagger of the player who got hit told me that she had probably been nipping at the pink player all through the game, getting in her head and enflaming her on purpose. If so, this would not be the first time she had done it, so the blue coach should have seen trouble brewing and told her to knock it off. The parents expressed their feelings loudly, profanely and unnecessarily. They made an uncomfortable situation worse by converging on the boxes and the tiny area at the end of the field. I'm surprised that some parents didn't come to blows in such a confined space, but luckily that didn't happen.
Now, a tournament that didn't matter and would normally hold little space in the memories of these players will become a very big deal. It will be replayed for days, even weeks, tainting the joy these players should feel for soccer. Players from the pink team will argue that they won the tournament but were unjustly denied the victory and players from the blue team will argue that they were cheated out of a win. Everyone will feel justified in whatever behaviors they exhibited. Furthermore, because none of the adults behaved properly, no adult reinforced the proper reactions this event should elicit. Instead of a teachable moment where the adults let the players know that being passionate and driven to win should never override temperance and good sportsmanship, the girls witnessed and exercised boorish behavior. The adults could have modeled the proper response to an explosive situation by remaining calm, encouraging their players to not stoop to foul language, taunting and threats. They could have put the event into perspective and promoted winning with humility and losing with dignity. Instead these girls witnessed the worst of behaviors for an insignificant game. Ugly, ugly, ugly.

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