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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". 

 

Only One Instrument

Susan Boyd

My youngest son Robbie ran into the mother of a middle-school classmate the other day. The classmate had played soccer into high school and her younger brother had also been a soccer player. The mom was shocked that Robbie was still playing. "Hasn’t your body worn out?" Seems that Bridget had had multiple knee problems and Connor had a raft of injuries as well. Eventually they just couldn’t play any longer. It’s a story I hear quite often. Both of my sons have avoided major injury. Robbie broke a foot bone in middle school and then had an ankle strain last year. Bryce broke his hand, but was back playing three weeks later (don’t tell his hand surgeon!). So what makes some kids literally wear out and others keep going like a soccer energizer bunny?

Obviously genetics plays a role. Some people are put together with less elasticity and end up tearing, rupturing and breaking without much provocation. There are things they can do to improve their mobility and stability, but ultimately they are prisoners of their construction. Overcoming an unforgiving body may require serious surgeries and long periods of recuperation. Pitcher Chris Capuano had two Tommy John surgeries and is 9-2 this year, but he’s an exception and the jury is still out if he will be able to sustain his good health. For the most part, athletes have to have a lucky combination of skill, game smarts and a willing body. Lots of kids may possess the first two and strike out with the third. It’s one significant factor that prevents excellent players from continuing to play.

Every player needs to respect his or her body early in the process. That means following a regimen that maximizes the body’s health. While most youth players won’t be moving on to college or professional ranks, it never hurts to grow up with a body that will allow for significant activity well into middle age. Since kids aren’t going to independently latch onto healthy body training and upkeep, it’s up to us parents to help the process along. As our kids grow, they will hopefully have developed habits which will maintain their body strength and flexibility. Likewise if they have any injury they will have the ability to heal quickly, minimizing the stress on their body and absence from training.

First and foremost, eating healthy provides bones, muscles, ligaments, lungs and heart to be at their peak level. Starting kids on fruits and vegetables as early as possible means they develop not only the habit of eating them, but also the taste buds that enjoy them. Using fruits and vegetables as rewards teaches kids to associate pleasantly with cucumbers rather than seeing them as the enemy. Focus on protein-rich foods as opposed to carbohydrates. While we need carbohydrates in a balanced diet, most kids eat nearly twice the recommended daily allowance. Make carbohydrate choices which offer some fiber such as whole grain breads, brown rice, oatmeal and whole wheat pasta. Most nutritionists say that a well-balanced diet provides all the necessary vitamins, minerals, and nutrients a child needs. Most supplements are an expensive way to get what a good meal provides on its own. Certain vitamins such as A and D can actually be toxic if the dosage is too high. Eating healthy also means hydrating properly. No matter the temperature, level of exercise, or age, all children need to drink during activity. So be sure to hand that water bottle to your child as she sprints to the field.

Preparing the body for exercise is extremely important in maintaining the proper flexibility, stamina and protection. I rarely see teams of 6 to 9 year olds warming up and cooling down before and after a practice or a game. Older teams will often skip the cool down as everyone is anxious to leave the field and get home. But experts tell us that these two activities do more to protect the ligaments, muscles, heart and lungs of young bodies than any other training. Dynamic stretches in which the players progress in slow controlled movements through the full range of motion were established in research by P. J. McNair (2000) and D. Knudson (2001) to be the most appropriate exercises for the warm up. By contrast, they found that static stretches are more appropriate for the cool down. Warming up reduces stiff muscles, allows for more oxygen in the muscles, brings the heart slowly up to an exercise rate, increases blood flow to and through the muscles, and stretches out muscles and ligaments slowly rather than with sudden movement. Cooling down removes lactic acid from the muscles which helps reduce cramping and sudden contractions, reduces the pooling of blood in the extremities which can lead to dizziness and fainting, allows the heart to return slowly to its resting rate and protects against delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS) which can come from erratic contractions and ultimately injure the muscles. Clubs should require full warm-ups and cool-downs for ALL teams for both practices and games. Appropriate exercises can be found online at a number of websites such as bettersoccercoaching.com, soccerxpert.com, and footy4kids.co.uk.  If your coach doesn’t do these pre-and post-soccer event exercises, then print off a few and bring them to him.

Listen to what your kid says about his body. Kids seem to be born with a preternatural ability to be hypochondriacs, but they are the best judges of how they feel. One thing to watch out for in particular is DOMS (see above) which could be a red flag for muscle problems. If your child seems to be fine after a game but one or two days later complains of intense muscle pains it could indicate over training or large muscle tissue damage. This should be checked out by a doctor and the player should stop training. Pay close attention to complaints about knees and ankles. Sometimes kids will talk about how their knees feel like they are weak or could pop apart. That could indicate damaged ligaments and/or tendons. Girls seem to be particularly prone to anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears. However, there are exercises that players of any gender can begin early on to both strengthen the ACL and other knee support material (see livestrong.com and aclinjurypro.com). Choosing the right cleats can also help reduce stress on the ACL when running and turning. Less common but linked to ACL is the medial collateral ligament (MCL). Exercises to strengthen the knee in general will definitely improve the health of both the ACL and MCL. Knee pain during exercise along with a popping or clicking in the knee could indicate a medial meniscus tear. Often once the exercise is over, the pain disappears, although there may be swelling of the knee. Again this needs to be checked out by a physician. Finally, ankles take a great deal of abuse during soccer so heed any ankle pain your child experiences. There are a number of tendons which can become inflamed and then irritated by rubbing over the bones during exercise. The best treatment for this tendonitis is rest and ice treatment which is to put an ice bag on for around 15 minutes, remove, allow the area to warm up and then repeat it three to four times for the first two days after the injury. If the pain persists a doctor’s visit is in order.

Eating right, preparing properly for exercising, doing exercises to strengthen body parts integral to the sport and listening to aches and pains don’t have to wait until a child has decided to focus on soccer. These actions should begin before any player even sets foot on the pitch and continue throughout his or her life. You can’t change genetics, but you can help overcome genetics through some well-implemented lifestyle decisions that we parents have to begin for our children. It will never be enough that our kids have talent because they have to perform through the instruments of their bodies. If their bodies fail them, then all the talent in the world won’t move them ahead. Giving them the opportunity to play has to go hand in hand with teaching them how to maintain the equipment needed to play.

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Clearly Confusing

Susan Boyd

When Jimmy Kimmel placed colanders on the heads of seven year olds and convinced them the apparatus let him know when they were lying, he showed the natural trust and unsophisticated view of the world these youngster had. Such naiveté goes hand in hand with the lack of knowledge that comes from inexperience. While we parents could see immediately that their head gear was not a truth machine but a common kitchen tool, the kids had no frame of reference and readily accepted what the adult they looked up to told them. It’s not really so different with soccer. We parents, even those of us with limited soccer experience, have learned the vocabulary of soccer. But we understand far more than our kids do. So when we try to communicate using that vocabulary, it can lead to some serious frustration and misunderstanding.

 In general, teams don’t deal with the offside rule until U12 or U13. Yet parents continually want to point out to referees that they missed the offside call. Of all the rules in soccer, I think offside can be considered the most confusing, which is why it is all but ignored until players are older. There are two aspects to the offside rule. Most of us understand the first one that you can’t be beyond the last defender when the ball is passed. Of course, we naturally argue about where a player was when the ball was passed. The second aspect of the offside rule we often forget or don’t notice is that a player who is in an offside position and moves to an onside position can’t be the first to receive a pass from a teammate. So what happens when we parents choose to point out offside for our younger players? Total confusion! At one Under-8 game a parent was admonishing his son that he was standing offside. "Get onside," he bellowed. His son threw him a bewildered look, which the parent totally ignored and repeated, "Get onside," as if saying it twice would suddenly provide the young player with an instant definition. Again the boy looked at his father and this time totally deflated with frustration shot back, "I do want my team to win." Apparently the boy felt his dad believed he wasn’t on his team’s side. Or at least that’s the best he could come up with. So dealing with the complexities of actual offside conditions certainly wasn’t yet in his skill set. 

When ordered by her coach to get in the goal mouth, a player looked with complete confusion. After some thought, she moved herself right in front of the keeper and put her hand over the keeper’s mouth. If she couldn’t get inside it she would be darn sure no one else could! The coach had a moment of his own confusion and then burst out laughing realizing what the player had heard. In the meantime, the keeper slapped the player’s hand away, precipitating a howl of indignity. So the game had to be halted while everyone got some quick education on basic soccer terms, and some hurt feelings got pacified.

When we see some obvious plays that could improve the efforts of our child’s team, we tend to shout out instruction. Naturally we shouldn’t, and naturally we do. It’s hard not to resolve the problems we see that could be helped by a simple adjustment. Nevertheless, we should leave all that to the coaches. One game a player was constantly losing the ball to the defender the moment it arrived on his foot. Parents, seeing this happen time and again, decided to helpfully point out to him, "Screen the ball." When these admonishments did nothing to change the player’s behavior, the parents began to demonstrate on the sidelines by turning their bodies, spreading their arms and looking down at their feet. This odd behavior coupled with continued pleas to "Screen the ball" left the poor player totally perplexed. When he next received the ball he jammed his arm out right into the stomach of the defender, which pushed the defender off the ball, but also earned the player a foul. When the referee told him he couldn’t use his arms to push a player away, he looked immediately at the parents on the sidelines with total venom, "Hey! Screen the ball is a penalty."  

I’ve told this story before, but I think it’s a great example of how easily miscommunication can occur when parents posses a far more sophisticated vocabulary than their tiny players. A team got a free kick just outside the box, so the coach of the defending team called over two of his players and told them, "Macy you protect the near post and Brittany you protect the far post," and he sent the girls onto the field. Macy trotted up to the goal, but Brittany quickly ran across the field to the goal at the opposite end of the field which was, of course, the "far" post.

When a player was getting several passes in the air, he was having trouble controlling them. The passes would often hit him on the chest or stomach and bounce away to a defender. Watching this happen again and again eventually gave way to uncontrolled frustration on the part of the coach. "Teddy, you’ve got to trap those air balls." With a look of total relief, Teddy nodded to his coach with a complete "thumbs up" attitude. We all awaited his immediate improvement and watched with baited breath as a pass soared overhead straight to Teddy who promptly clasped the ball against his chest with his hands, dropped it to the ground and kicked it away. When the whistle blew, Teddy was dumbfounded. This really difficult game that required him to develop skills with his feet had just gotten easier, and now the referee insisted that in fact he couldn’t use his hands to "trap the ball." Frustration had given way to relief, and now gave way to even worse frustration with tears. "I did what you said." It would take a long, consoling sidelines conversation to rectify this miscommunication.

In the end, we parents need to keep it simple. Pass, kick, run and score should be the basic and for up through Under-9 necessary soccer vocabulary. Before you try a phrase, be sure you and the players are on the same page; that you’ve introduced the phrase to them and they understand what it means. Otherwise you all may find yourselves totally frustrated. The definition you know may not be the definition the kids create in their own minds. I once spent twenty minutes arguing with my first grade daughter that women could be doctors. She had had a career day at school and came home excited because she wanted to be a nurse. I mentioned that she could also be a doctor like her daddy, to which she stomped her foot and said, "No. Only men can be doctors and only women can be nurses." I reasoned with her, cajoled and even found myself getting angry, but she couldn’t be shaken from her conviction. Finally I pointed out a female doctor in a book and Deana responded, "She’s not a doctor; she’s called a nurse." And that’s when the light bulb went off in my head. She thought the profession was the same, but that men were called doctors and women were called nurses, just like actors and actresses. We all know how frustrating it is not to understand what’s being said or to have what we’re saying misunderstood. Our kids have enough to handle during a game just figuring out how to pass while running and how to keep from falling down while dribbling. They don’t need the added frustration of constantly feeling out of the communication loop. So if you can’t find common ground, you may end up unable to effectively shout any soccer instruction from the sidelines. Then again, you probably should leave that up to the coach anyway. 

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Delicate Etiquette

Susan Boyd

We are what we learn. So what we teach our children becomes an essential part of their development, character and behaviors. Based on some of the remarks and conduct of players in the professional ranks and fans watching them play, we’ve forgotten that we can be passionate while still being polite. Don’t even get me started on political discourse, which has degenerated into name calling and smear attacks. I would be happy just to see some good manners on the sidelines, on the pitch and in the stands of a soccer game. Who knows, it might transfer into other areas of life.

Last week, during a Euro Cup match against Croatia, Mario Balotelli, who is of Ghanaian descent, was allegedly subject to racial abuse. Monkey noises were heard coming from Croatian fans, and a banana had to be removed from the pitch. This follows a similar allegation from an earlier game against Spain. These charges are being investigated by UEFA, but are not isolated. Theodor Gebre Selassie,who is Ethopian but a Czechoslovakian national, was racially heckled by Russian fans during a match. Italian national team forward Antonio Cassano in a press conference stated that he hoped there were no gays on the Italian team, only to apologize for his remarks after a backlash in the press. And John Terry is due to stand trial in July for a racially charged comment he made to Anton Ferdinand of Queens Park Rangers. Until the issue is resolved, Terry has been stripped of his captaincy of the England National team.

All of these fans and players were once children who obviously didn’t learn the lesson of "if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all." Prejudice and homophobia are ideas we can hope to eradicate, but everyone has deeply held personal beliefs, which are often dictated by a particular experience or religion. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t be expressing those thoughts as attacks on another person. Can you imagine someone making monkey noises on the sidelines of a youth game? We all recognize that it would be both inappropriate and possibly illegal. Yet my sons, who are biracial, can attest to the huge amount of racial slurs they have endured on the soccer field beginning as early as eight years old. These come from their peers, who either learned them on the knees of their parents, or didn’t learn that they shouldn’t express them or both. No matter our private opinions, we all know that expressing racial or sexual attacks isn’t proper.

There’s an etiquette we can all adhere to which provides for civility on the field and in the stands. Attacking players for their race, religion, sexual orientation or gender is outside the boundaries of the game. If someone wants to get inside a player’s head by calling into question his playing ability, his focus or his temperament, then that’s fair. Trash talking has become an important part of strategy. However, it should never stray into attacks on personal beliefs or on characteristics someone is born with. As parents we need to teach our children both self-control and decorum. This isn’t about stifling First Amendment rights. It’s about recognizing that exercising those rights requires some responsibility to do so at the right time and place.

Last week my grandson played a baseball game during which the opposing team began to taunt the pitcher mercilessly. This wasn’t just normal, occasional razzing about not being able to pitch a strike or being blind. This became very personal. Yet the coaches and the parents did nothing to curb and contain the behavior. In fact they seemed to relish it, even encouraging it. They say victory is the best revenge. So my grandson’s coach, after first trying to appeal to the opposing coaches and the referees, decided to play some small ball and generate as many runs as possible. They won 25-4 after a shortened game. What saddens me most about this experience is that the adults, who should have stepped up and been leaders, failed their responsibility. The umpires should have stopped it, and if it didn’t stop, should have issued sanctions. But everyone seemed to either feed into it or ignore it. That poor kid standing all alone on the pitcher’s mound had to endure it.  And for what? It didn’t help the team win. It didn’t make the team better people. It didn’t make the night a positive memory for anyone. Someone should have stepped up and been mature enough to call a halt to the behaviors.

Another frustration for me is when I hear parents swearing on the sidelines. As the kids get older they begin to swear during the game feeling vindicated by their own parents’ behavior. We can only solve the problem if the kids learn early on that swearing doesn’t have a place on the soccer pitch. They can learn this by observing their parents’ decorum on the sidelines. I used to work in the world of theater, both as a production manager and a stage manager. Swearing is part and parcel of any rehearsal or evening performance. I have to really work not to swear, and I’m not always successful. My husband has never sworn in his life, which I find both wonderful and abnormal. So he’s not any problem. Yet for most of us, putting a sock in it can prove difficult, especially as frustrations grow during a difficult game. But we owe it to our kids not to pollute the atmosphere or their brains. Yes they’ll hear swear words. Even PG movies contain them. Commercial TV now leaves very little to the imagination as they bleep out words we never would have heard on their channels ten years ago. But letting our kids know that you have the self-control not to blurt them out, will help them develop their own self-control. We won’t get perfection, but just lowering the level of ugly language and raising the level of civility would help.

I really charge referees and coaches with a huge responsibility in this area. When Bryce and Robbie would complain to the refs about racial language, most refs shrugged it off. I’m sure they feel they have enough to handle with fouls, sideline calls and keeping up with the play, but maintaining a diplomatic game can help insure fewer problems in other areas. Someone enduring racial or sexual taunts throughout the game may lash out, or someone who is allowed to express those taunts may feel entitled to add physical violence. Coaches need to have a zero tolerance for any racial or other slurs. They need to make that zero tolerance clearly known and enforce it. Parents need to openly tell their players that they can’t use derogatory language on or off the field. Clubs should likewise support their coaches by issuing a written policy concerning prejudicial language.

Years ago, kids actually went to classes to learn etiquette. They then exercised that etiquette at a cotillion. We need to reinforce some of those proper manners for our soccer players. It’s not as old school as you might think. Learning to deal with one another with some rules of social engagement can’t be all that bad if it helps us to stay civil and controlled. We have the chance to help the up-and-coming generations of players and fans understand how to immerse themselves passionately in a game without resorting to personal attacks, racism or swearing. Miss Manners would be so delighted!

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Stressing Out

Susan Boyd

Tryouts can be beyond stressful. Everyone wants the validation that winning a spot on a prestigious team can give. But spots are few and far between, and earning one may not be in the stars. How we parents set up tryouts for our players can make all the difference in how our kids handle the ups and downs of the experience. We need to do three important preparations in order to make tryouts, if not a pleasant experience, at least a tolerable one. First we need to research the clubs in the area. Second we need to take our kids to several tiers of tryouts. Third we need to carefully consider any offers made to our children.
 
Probably the most important thing we can do before tryouts is to research the clubs around the area. Don’t just go on the obvious factors, such as winning records or parents declaring it the best club around. Clubs ebb and flow. Therefore, making a choice can’t just be on status, since that status can change in less than a year’s time. I strongly suggest you attend practices and watch how coaches conduct themselves. Look at the players to see if they are having fun. Talk to the parents on the sidelines and pick their brains about what they like and don’t like about the club. There’s a club in our area which has the reputation for being the best club for girls, but when parents rushed to transfer their young ladies to that team, they discovered that the main coach was verbally abusive and the girls were miserable. This is something the parents would have realized had they actually visited the club to watch practices instead of looking solely at reputation. Along with visiting practices, parents will want to research the coaching staff as it looks on paper. What licenses do they hold? How long have they been coaching? What professional/college experience do they come from? Do they have an objective statement online? Finally, what part of coaching do they consider most important? Don’t be afraid to directly approach the coach of a club you are considering transferring to and ask these questions. 

Parents also need to research if the club is a strong match for their child’s developmental level and position. Going to the top club may not create the growth your child needs. Often clubs will attempt to "poach" the best players around to make a super team, and therefore don’t invest a lot of time in developing their players. They accept them as is, work with what they have and if a better player comes along, replace a weaker player. I don’t recommend a team like that for your child, except possibly in the later years when their visits to college recruiting tournaments will help your player get noticed by college coaches. Also if a team is loaded with center midfielders, and that’s the position your child plays, then even if they take your child, they may not play him or her. They may even move your child to a new position that he or she has to learn, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing to add to the resume, unless the team just throws him in without training and development. Finally, parents should consider costs. Going for the status club may not give you the biggest bang for your buck. At the younger ages, going to lots of tournaments doesn’t really develop your child and ends up costing too much. So parents should carefully consider if their money is going to development, or to trips to Florida to play other teams spending unnecessary funds. At around the age of 15, if your child is interested in being recruited by colleges, that’s when you want to find out which tournaments a club attends and consider trying out there. Until you make that decision, save your money.

Once the tryout process begins, you need to pick two or three clubs at different levels for your child to visit. It’s often difficult to do this because clubs have first dates that they can hold tryouts, which are dictated by the state association. Most clubs begin that day so everyone in the state has the same tryout dates and times. Additionally, clubs will try to bully players into not attending other tryouts. Don’t take that as any indication that the club is dying to have your son or daughter join their teams. They just want to keep the available pool of players away from other clubs until they have a chance to pick them over. Therefore, if you choose to attend tryouts at one club on one day and at another club on another day, don’t panic. There isn’t a coach on earth who won’t choose the best player he or she can find. I’ve watched clubs for 15 years attempt to manipulate parents with the fear that their son or daughter won’t be considered if they don’t attend all days of tryouts, only to have kids who didn’t return get a slot and kids who stayed loyal get aced out. Do what is best for your child. The clubs will do what is best for its program. So if your child is best for that club, he’ll get recruited. By taking your child to different levels, you insure that he or she will get selected and have a positive experience with tryouts. Instead of watching much better players around him or her for two days and being panicked, he or she will be able to attend a tryout where your child one of the better players and feel more in his or her comfort zone.

If you are lucky enough to get more than one offer, don’t just accept the top one right away. Most states have rules that you have three days to consider any offer your child receives. Once again, clubs will try to pressure you into making a decision right away. They will say that if you don’t accept, they’ll move on to the next player, but they can’t. Check your state association rules by visiting their website or calling, but you should have time to think before you have to commit. Clubs don’t want to lose their backup players while you take time to consider the offer, but that’s their problem, not yours. Talk to your child to find out how comfortable he or she is with the club. Consider things like friends who will be playing there, amount of time commitment and costs. Obviously you can do some of this before an offer comes in, but there’s nothing like a phone call to make things real and therefore more difficult.

Whatever you do, don’t set up high expectations, and then show disappointment when those expectations don’t materialize. Be positive about every opportunity. It can be hard to be rejected, especially if your child watches friends getting a chance on a team he or she didn’t make. But every opportunity has pluses. At the age of 15, Bryce didn’t make any of the teams he tried out for. He’s a keeper, and teams just had enough keepers that year, and his team had dissolved. With some networking for two months, we finally found a slot on what was a very questionable team. The coach wasn’t licensed, they barely got a slot in the 1st division and the players all came from weaker high school teams in the area. But we were stuck and gladly embraced the opportunity. It turned out to be a fabulous year. The team had needed a strong keeper, so Bryce helped them to feel stronger defensively, so they played stronger offensively. They ended up being promoted to Premier League, going to a great college recruiting tournament where Bryce was scouted and it only cost $150 plus the cost of tournament travel. Bryce made great friendships with the boys on the team, which still exist today, and the parents were wonderful. On paper it looked like we had had to settle but in reality, Bryce learned leadership, developed his goalkeeper skills with a bit weaker defense in front of him and built soccer relationships we can call on still today. So no matter what happens, there will be a team that will want your child, and that opportunity will be what you make of it.

Doing what you can to minimize stress before even getting to tryouts can make the experience far more fun. Then accepting with a smile whatever opportunity opens up can set the stage for a great soccer season. Don’t give in to the pressure that clubs try to exert during this time. If it is stressful for the players and parents, it is probably three times as stressful for the clubs. They depend on putting together the best teams they can for their financial survival and their reputation in the area. Therefore, they do whatever to assure that they collect the best players, defend those players from other clubs getting them and retain them for as long as they provide value to the club. Clubs are trying out for us as much as our kids are trying out for them. So be assured that your child will be seriously considered by every coach who sees your child play. You can take comfort in that and stop stressing out.

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