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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". 

 

Hero Worship

Susan Boyd

With confessions, accusations and hoaxes, sports figures have been under fire and in the news the past two weeks. We saw Lance Armstrong tearfully confess to Oprah that the toughest thing he has done is tell his three children that he lied. The ongoing controversy over allowing Pete Rose to be eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame after years of betting on and against his own team cropped up again with the recent non-selection of any inductees. Of the four eligible candidates, three lived under the cloud of beefing up their accomplishments by using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). A Russian soccer team’s fans petitioned the owners to "cleanse" the team of homosexuals and players of color. We’ve seen any number of football players accused this season of crimes running the gamut from theft to sexual assault to murder. Manti Te’o, a Notre Dame football player who finished runner up for the Heisman Trophy, was either duped into believing his internet girl friend was real or willingly went along with the deception to boost his emotional stock in the Heisman voting — or perhaps a combination of both.
 
On ESPN’s SportsCenter, I saw a sidebar that asked the question, "Players: Heroes or Not?" The question struck me as interesting. We often call sports figures "heroes" because of their accomplishments on the field. Their feats of athleticism tickle our fancy with dreams of either achieving the same level of skill or having our own children follow in their footsteps. Merchandising of player jerseys, bobble heads, signed memorabilia and equipment heighten the hype for us all. We want to worship people we see achieving exalted goals because we sit in awe of what they can do that we normal humans can’t. In particular, our children, with some encouragement from us adults, select players that they place on pedestals. When my son Robbie was 4 until he was 6, he loved Edgar Bennett, a Packers running back. Edgar, an African-American, would change his haircut monthly and Robbie, who is also African-American, would follow suit wanting to copy Bennett’s style. I learned to get pretty skilled with the clippers! If you asked Robbie, he would quickly answer that Bennett was definitely a hero. 
 
What truly defines a hero? New York Times sportswriter William C. Rhoden wrote an article on Oct. 12, 2012 titled "Seeing Through the Illusion of the Sports Hero." Rhoden looks at four manifestations of heroism: emotional, propaganda, hypocrisy and tragedy. In the article, he eloquently talks about Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, who pre-date most of us in their accomplishments but were already seen as great heroes for the African-American community. Yet, each man also had great flaws. Joe Louis battled addiction and Jesse Owens became, as one writer called him, a trained seal, who put on exhibitions in baseball parks competing against players in odd competitions. We want to believe that because sport figures have exceptional athletic prowess they also possess exceptional virtue. Therefore, we are disappointed time and time again. Players cheat on their spouses, use drugs, commit crimes, lie, expound racist and sexist viewpoints and drive drunk. They perform their chosen athletic skills at an exceptional level, but off the field they may perform their lives at a subpar moral level.
 
Even real heroes, men and women who carry out extraordinary acts of valor, can be flawed human beings. We need to separate the "hero" from the "person." In fact, we need to start talking about acts of heroism rather than heroes. We can praise the accomplishment without elevating the achiever to the mythic level of hero. When Brett Favre left the Packers he had been a bona fide hero in Wisconsin and across the nation. After all, his wife had battled breast cancer, his father died the day before a big Monday Night game and 10 months later his brother was killed in an ATV accident. Even his addiction to pain killers and alcohol was framed in the propaganda of him just trying to be pain free long enough to create Packer wins. Poor Aaron Rodgers was seen as a weak substitute for the hero role. Then Favre started talking trash about the Packers and taking photos below the waist and his stock fell as Rodgers’ stock rose. Luckily, kids can be pretty fickle and switch allegiances as frequently as a particular jersey comes into vogue. But we should worry about how they react when someone they considered a hero falls from grace.
 
Certainly, finding sports stars to emulate helps young players develop a passion for their sport and establish goals for their development. But we need to teach them that they should focus their adoration narrowly on the player’s athletic accomplishments and not confuse him or her with Superman or Wonder Woman. While we can hope that superstar athletes recognize their responsibility to their young fans to conduct themselves morally and ethically off the field, in this day and age of camera phones, security cameras, Twitter and Facebook, any of us, and especially those in the public forum, can be caught with our metaphorical pants down. So it does get harder and harder to be the perfect role model that we expect from superior athletes. Then there are those who fly in the face of decorum with vulgar language and actions without regard to any moral compass. Someone like Ty Cobb survived as a "sports hero" because there wasn’t instant press. Reporters kept his boorish behavior on the quiet in order to promote the party line of Cobb as a great baseball hero. As long as his stats sold papers, no one was going to tarnish that image with the truth about his racial intolerance, violence and child abuse. Today, it’s exactly those later attributes that sell magazines and garner TV ratings.
 
In fact, one might argue that the press creates sports heroes because their fall from grace has more punch than their actual on-field achievements. We ate up every tantalizing detail of Tiger Woods exploits and fall from grace for months, and even today he is a huge draw on the golf circuit because we cling to the story of him overcoming the adversity of his past to return to his days of glory — just as the mythic heroes of yore. Unfortunately, this very open reporting gives our kids instant access to the most salacious and terrifying details of players’ transgressions. Therefore, we parents need to have an honest discussion with our children about what constitutes a hero. We can pay tribute to on-field accomplishments while cautioning against making a player a life role model. We can also encourage our children to recognize what they would do faced with the same temptations and choices in their lives. 
 
Ironically, the very thing that creates a sports hero may be the very thing that makes them a flawed human — PEDs. Would Lance Armstrong have won seven Tour de France titles without the boost he got from PEDs? Would Barry Bonds have surpassed Hank Aaron’s home run record without PEDs? Would Roger Clemens have been able to pitch as long and effectively as he did absent his PEDs? These kinds of conundrums set up the real discussion we need to have. Can we tolerate some level of "cheating" in order to see sports’ statistics soar? We don’t allow corked bats, we check soccer balls for the proper inflation, we outlaw helmet to helmet hits, we even have limits on hockey fights, so why can’t we expect that players achieve on the basis of their God-given skills and body strength? So long as players have at their disposal enhancement and short-cut methods to success, they will take them because they also buy into the concept of heroism — and they want to be those heroes. Do heroes possess ego? I would say they do in the world of sports. Real heroes perform selflessly without regard to any post-event adulation or gain. We should let our kids know that there are heroes around us every day who don’t have mega-million dollar contracts and the opportunity to tearfully confess transgressions nationally to Oprah. Those are the heroes we need to recognize and emulate, but for their acts of heroism rather than expecting them to be heroes in every moment of their lives.

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Comedy Pitch

Susan Boyd

Sometimes we just have to laugh even if it is at the expense of someone’s unfortunate actions. That’s why "America’s Funniest Home Videos" continues to be a family favorite. We can’t seem to get enough of people falling off of skateboards, being hit in the groin with a baseball, having someone jump out of a closet or collapsing a table while dancing on it. At least the subjects of these videos made the choice to share them with millions of viewers. So they learned to laugh at themselves with the dangling carrot of a possible $100,000 prize for best video of the year justifying any remaining embarrassment.
 
I’ve seen enough soccer games to know that odd and hilarious actions often pop up. In youth soccer, that can be nearly every game as kids possess a natural sense of wild abandon when it comes to taking the ball down the field. Their unintended quirks create some entertaining moments. Luckily, kids carry immunity against humiliation. They get so focused on the task at hand that what we witness on the sidelines as comical becomes just a momentary interruption in their real quest — a goal.
 
The classic moment is the ardent dribble down the field, a goal, and high fives all around but, unfortunately, in the opponent’s net. Who cares? A goal was scored and a celebration was enjoyed. Twists abound on this scenario. When my youngest son was 9, he played a downtown team on a small field under a viaduct. Since the field was used by several different aged teams there were three different sized goals surrounding the pitch. My son received the ball and began a fervent run down the field, let loose a sharp kick and GOALLLLL! — in one of the nets not in play. During a grandson’s game when he was 4, his team was rushing toward the goal. The opposing team’s coach admonished his team to "Stop them from scoring any way you can." Like a tsunami, the four kids threw themselves en masse in front of the portable pug goal with legs and arms extending out as if they were two intertwined octopi and sending the goal toppling out of bounds. My grandson’s team ignored the loss of the goal and sent in a barrage of shots, none of which made it past the barricade of bodies. Everyone, including the coaches, was laughing too hard at the scene to end it. It was a classic case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.
 
Throw-ins look easy, but not in the hands of young players. During one game, players tried again and again to throw the ball over the side line. Kid after kid heaved the ball down the outside of the side line, lost it backwards over their head, stepped onto the field as they threw the ball, had the ball slapped out of bounds, and in one case, actually heaved the ball clear across the field. Each team alternated in the attempt to complete a legal throw-in. Whistles were frequent. But what started out as frustration eventually morphed into a truly funny scene. Even the kids began laughing as attempt after attempt failed. Eventually someone executed a proper throw-in, which resulted in an eruption of applause from everyone: players, coaches, parents and especially the one ref who probably had developed chapped lips as he whistled each infraction.
 
Balls often fly from one field to another. Occasionally, players have to wait patiently to retrieve their ball because the field it escaped to hosts activity that can’t be stopped. But those extra balls can add extra entertainment. In one game two players picked up the two balls rolling across their pitch and scored goals in opposite nets at the same moment. The confusion was further complicated by the fact it was a tournament and all the balls were the same. Of course the ref solved the problem by discounting both goals which resulted in a battle by the coaches arguing that their team’s goal was the one that should remain in force. Parents bitterly argued what the rules should be in this case. In the meantime, the kids oblivious to the conflict continued to play with both balls, scoring goal after unchecked goal. The team that had lost its ball pleaded to get one of the balls back since its play had completely stopped. This French farce continued for at least five minutes until the adults realized that the chaos was continuing, got the ref to blow a whistle and agreed to just start over. Oh, and they returned one ball to the team on the adjoining field. In some cases, players don’t wait patiently and streak onto the field to get the ball. Parents under the guise of being helpful will hop into the fray to rescue a ball, even if in one case it was the wrong ball. This parent "helpfully" took the ball being dribbled down the field by his child’s opponent to heave it over to the neighboring field without regard to the real orphaned ball sitting forlornly untouched near the sideline. Pleading ignorance, he defended his move while the kids kept playing the ref shook his head unable to figure out what rule applied in this case.
           
Following any game, kids are encouraged to line up and do the "handshake snake" in the spirit of good sportsmanship. This tradition has led to several comical moments. In one game, a young lady refused to shake the hands of any of the players. Her coach was visibly upset with her and began to reproach her for her improper behavior. The poor girl burst into tears, which we all assumed was her realization that she had been rude. Instead, she wailed at the top of her lungs, "My mom told me not to touch people’s hands. They have flu germs!" After a gasp of recognition that we had all made similar seemingly innocent comments to our kids, we burst into laughter. The coach gave the girl a hug and sent her over to her protective mom. At another post-game ceremony where the kids got trophies, the players triumphantly held their awards over their heads ala an FA Cup victory, kissed the trophies and otherwise mugged for the camera. It was an exuberant and silly celebration. Once the pictures were over, the entire team headed to the nearest trash can and threw their trophies away. We parents were shocked. What was that all about? As one young man revealed, "Coach told us it doesn’t get any better than this." We retrieved the trophies, laughing the entire time, realizing that a comment meant to praise the kids was understood to mean something completely different.
           
All this shows that without the proper context, kids can clearly misinterpret what we are saying to them, which also leads to some comical moments. I’ve told the story of the young boy who was instructed by his coach during a corner kick to "move goal side." The poor player looked panicked — which goal? Which side? How far to the side? As the coach pleaded over and over with the kid, he finally ran as fast as he could to the opposite goal and bravely stood on the left side, obviously hoping he had made the right choice. There was the coach who told a player to "pick up the ball" as it passed her, so she did. Phrases such as "tackle the player," "shield the ball," "clear the ball," "cross the ball" and "mark your man" make sense to us adults, but they are a foreign language to our kids. As they struggle to do what they are told, they can do some pretty funny things. Tackle the player has led to several Clay Matthews-worthy sacks. Shield the ball ended up with a player throwing his body over the ball. Clear the ball resulted in girl picking up the ball and wiping it "clear" with her jersey. You can imagine what a child might infer "cross the ball" to mean, especially a child preparing for her Catholic Confirmation, and that’s exactly what she did. With deep conviction she made the sign of the cross over the ball, which certainly couldn’t hurt except that an opponent kicked the ball out from under her devotion. Mark your man can lead to double confusion. Players may wonder if they are supposed to keep a Sharpie close at hand, and if so, where should they make their mark? Female teams end up confused because the only men around them are referees, coaches and dads. Why should they mark them up?
           
When approaching any game, we need to maintain a sense of humor. Our youngest players offer us the opportunity to never take a contest too seriously. After all, it is just a game that should first and foremost be fun. We should also try to carry that good spirit into the later years of soccer. Even in the most tension-filled and significant games, there are moments of great humor. Seek out those moments and relish them. Laugh with your children. When all is said and done, those humorous events make such better memories than the bitterness of an unfair foul or a stinging loss. It is reported that children laugh 150 times a day while adults laugh as few as five times a day. Of course, if you choose to watch any recent Adam Sandler movie you cut your laughter in half immediately. I hope we can all rediscover that wild abandon we had as children and spend more time laughing even if we end up laughing at our own foibles.

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Interview with Liberty Mutual Responsible Sports and the Positive Coaching Alliance

Sam Snow

Dear Reader,
 
For this installment of my blog, I hope you’ll enjoy this Liberty Mutual Responsible Sports interview with the Positive Coaching Alliance.
 
 

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U10 Tournaments

Sam Snow

"I am a coach struggling with recreational U9/10 soccer parents and kids wanting to go to tournaments. According to the US Youth Soccer Development Manual [ed. note: Player Development Model], tournament play for U10 is discouraged (and I get that). Then why does almost every tournament out there offers U10 (some even U9 and U8) brackets?"
 
There are indeed many clubs and leagues around the nation that run tournaments for the U10 age group. For those folks it provides an additional revenue stream. Tournament organizers will go as young as they think they can get paying customers. That revenue stream is there because the parents of the U10 players either think that the tournament environment and the focus on outcome of performance develops the players and/or they want it as a sport spectator event for themselves. In fact, much of the challenge in providing a balanced environment of development and age appropriate competition for the U10 age group is impacted by the desire of the adults associated with the teams for a spectacle, as if they were watching a MLS match.
 
So what’s the solution? On the short term look for festival formats for your team rather than outcome based tournaments. Then work with the parents of your team to collectively address the matter as one of age appropriate player development with your club leaders. On a slightly longer term look to set up a U10 academy as is done in Ohio, Indiana, Florida, Montana, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana and North Carolina.
 
 

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