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How to be an experienced youth sports parent

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Just so you know where the real writing talent lies in my household, you can check out this Chicago Parent article, written by one Jacqui Podzius Cook (wife of the proprietor of this here blog), titled “The challenges of being an older mom.”

I bring this up not as a way to note my wife’s birthday Nov. 1, which for 27 days will make me the baby adult of the household, but for the cogent points it makes about the realities of how parents freak out less, to everyone’s benefit most of the time, as they have more kids, and how you as the experienced parent can end up looking (and feeling) disengaged as a result.

I was thinking of this story at my 7-year-old son’s final soccer game of the fall. There were parents who, clearly on their first kid in sports, were cheering and coaching and waving and yelling. And then there were parents who, clearly not on their first kid in sports, were reading the newspaper, talking with each other or working toward being the mayor of Oak View Center on Foursquare. (I’m actively running for that post in the closest thing I have to a political career. I’m trying to figure out how I get Foursquare to run negative ads.)

From my wife:

The ritual of Kindergarten Parent Night: A room full of fresh-faced moms and dads, peppering the teacher with questions about snacks and flash cards as they carefully inspect every square inch of the room where their precious baby will begin his or her formal education.

But if you look a little closer at any given group of kindergarten parents, you are guaranteed to find at least one mom hovering near the back, half-listening to the presentation while she furiously composes a grocery list, texts her teenage daughter and tries to conceal the gray hair and laugh lines that tell the world she’s a decade or so removed from the majority of parents in the room.

Whether you call this last one your “caboose baby,” “bonus baby” or-as several of my friends refer to their third or fourth (or fifth) child-your “oops baby,” you’ve probably learned in the past few months that this school experience is just a little different. I certainly have as my final baby, Emily, gets settled into her kindergarten class, while my other kids are making their way through second, sixth and eighth grade.

Emily’s Friday folder? It usually gets emptied Sunday night instead of 3:30 Friday afternoon. School pictures? Let’s see what I can find the night before in that hand-me-down bag at the back of the closet. This began even before kindergarten when I had to program an Outlook calendar reminder for preschool show-and-tell.

This isn’t to say I value Emily’s school experience any less than the other kids’, but the cold, hard truth is being a parent of four kids at 41 is a whole lot different from having one in kindergarten and one in preschool at 33.

Jacqui’s article (I normally use last names on second reference, but I while I might call my wife many things, I don’t call her “Cook.” “Hey, Cook, how about a romantic dinner this weekend?”) talks about how more experienced parents can take steps to find ways in their busy lives to get more engaged with their younger child’s classroom experiences, with valuable techniques that do not include freeing up time by selling your older children into sharecropping.

As for sports, I would say that a more experienced parent did not feel compelled to be involved in every aspect of the athletics lives of his or her younger children. Your children might thank you for it. For me, the difference between my older son and daughter and my younger son and daughter is my own expectations.

With my younger kids, I’m not going into sports parenting with the expectation that this is the first step to a lucrative pro career and/or nervous because my baby is in someone else’s hands, the common reactions of the first-time sports parent. I’m sure enough of myself as a parent that whether my child is a jock or picking daisies, it is no reflection on my parenting skills.

I am concentrating on coaching my younger kids’ teams, because the others in any activity have passed my levels of knowledge and dedication, and also because I feel more at ease with the situation. I don’t have to think to myself to make sure I don’t do anything that seems like I am unfairly favoring my kids over others. I just coach everybody, and if parents think I am unfairly favoring my kids over others, then fuck ’em.

That epithet brings up a reason for the experienced parent NOT to coach his or her youngest children. That would be the too-knowing, been-there-done-that attitude you can bring, having been there, and done that. When I coached my 7-year-old son’s baseball team last spring, I might have handled conflicts with parents better if I wasn’t such a know-it-all douchebag about youth sports, and this baseball league in particular. For example, I might not have said, with such swagger, to a mom who threatened to file a complaint with the league on me that, well, good luck, considering I’ve coached in this league for five years, and I know how desperate it is to find managers.

As Cook’s article (I guess if I’m going to treat my kids like any other athlete when I coach them, I guess should treat my wife like any other writer when I cite her — right, honey?) notes, it is a boon to the youngest child’s education for the experienced parent to get involved in whatever way possible, even if he or she is busy with older siblings.

For sports parents, that’s a game-time decision. It might be beneficial for youngest children to have their experienced parent coach their team. But the experienced parent’s experience might be better used letting the kids be in the hands of someone else while he or she reads the newspaper, talks to other parents, or does oppo research on the mayor of the field on Foursquare (your reign of terror will end soon, I swear, Staci C.!)

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Written by rkcookjr

October 31, 2010 at 9:32 pm

My 7-year-old has announced his retirement from baseball

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I was out with my 7-year-old son, walking the family Maltese dogs — because there is nothing  more male-bonding-looking than a boy and his son walking these:

So as we are walking, my 7-year-old asks me if baseball signups are coming up soon. I said, yes, probably in a couple of weeks. And I ask him why he’s asking. Because, he said, he doesn’t want to play baseball this year.

I was a bit shocked by this news. I managed Ryan’s team the two years he played, and he seemed very enthusiastic about baseball. He had just mentioned to my wife the other day how he hoped he would be a Phillie again, as he was his first two years:

Given that I write and hear all the time about kids quitting because they had a lousy experience in the sport, I was concerned that my youngest son, once enthused with baseball, no longer had an interest in it. And given that I was his manager, I hoped it wasn’t because of something I did.

So I probed.

“Did something happen last year to make you not like baseball?”

“No?”

“Was it something I did? Because you can tell me if it was.”

“I just don’t want to play it anymore.” (You can see his body stiffening.)

“But why not?”

“I just don’t.” (At this point I’m being as annoying as a 7-year-old.)

“OK, you don’t have to play if you don’t want to.”

“OK, well, maybe I will.”

“No, Ryan, you don’t have to.”

We were heading in a direction in which I would be ordering him not to play if Ryan seemed like he was only playing to make me happy. Because, believe me, with two daughters playing softball in the spring, having one fewer child playing baseball would make my wife and I very, very happy. My 13-year-old son stopped playing baseball after age 9, and I must say, neither he nor we miss it.

Not that I wanted Ryan to quit to make our spring weekdays easier. And I was still feeling guilty. So I asked, “Is there something else you’d rather do?”

“I’d rather do bowling and soccer” — sports he plays now — “and maybe a play, or a technology club. Because I want to be a video game designer.” Like how other kids dream of playing in Major League Baseball, Ryan dreams of being a video game designer. Knowing Japan’s prominence in the video game world, Ryan is joining his school’s Japanese club to learn the language and customs, about 15-25 years before he takes in his first big meeting in Tokyo.

It was a great conversation, especially because my guilty conscience was soothed. (Whew.) My wife and I have tried to make it clear to our four children that we do not mind spending the time and money on something if they enjoy it. But if they don’t enjoy it, we are more than ready to let them quit (at least once the activity is over). I’ll be honest — having four kids, ages 5 to 13, in various activities means we are ready to throw one over the side at any time. But more importantly, there are enough activities out there that it’s not like it’s baseball, or sit at home.

Ryan is fortunate, too, that he’s the third child in this process for us. My oldest son has tried about every sport available, but his interests right now are centered on theater, music, and joining the Marines. My oldest daughter, age 11, looked to have a starring career in softball, but she learned over the summer that she while she enjoys house league she didn’t care for travel ball, and that in her Animal Planet-mainlining heart of hearts she still like horseback riding lessons best. (Horseback riding lessons definitely test our notion that we will gladly pay for an activity if the kid likes it.)

Maybe Ryan will decide after spring 2011 that he wants to go back to baseball, but I’ve learned with my kids that once they’re done with an activity, they’re usually done for good. I feel confident calling his move a retirement, and not just him putting his baseball career on hiatus. Either way, I’m glad Ryan told me that he would rather not play baseball, before he — and we — made another heavy commitment to it. And that he doesn’t mind being seen with his dad, out walking Paris Hilton’s dogs.

Parents search for dislike button after coach’s Facebook rants

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Fellow coaches: I know we all have complaints from time to time about the parents of the children we lead. Complaints like, they’re fucking asshole making our lives hellish and shorter, and filling us with existential dread as we watch their poor offspring take their first steps toward a future appearance on Dr. Phil.

But, shit, most of us are smart enough to limit our complaints to ourselves, our spouses, or our little-read blogs. Most of us are smart enough not to jump onto whatever social media site is handing to broadcast our pain.

Jason Windsor, recently resigned soccer coach at Royal Oak (Mich.), is not most of us. From the Royal Oak Tribune:

Just a few weeks into the season, Jason Windsor suddenly resigned his position as varsity soccer coach at Royal Oak High School following complaints by parents about his Facebook postings.

Windsor resigned Monday [Oct. 4] because of schedule conflicts [he coaches other travel teams], according to Superintendent Thomas Moline. However, a copy of the coach’s Facebook page indicates there was a conflict between him and some parents, too.

Last week parents confronted school officials about the coach using the social networking site to threaten to penalize players if parents crossed him. Windsor contends his account was hacked and he didn’t make the comments in question.

One Facebook posting said: “3 words my varsity soccer parents will get used to this week. BENCH, JV, CUT. You will all be taught a lesson you sh– stirring pri—!!!!!!!”

In other posts, he is accused of dropping F-bombs and wrote “(certain) Parents are the worst part of kid’s sports” and “great set of results on the field today! shame certain soccer moms make soccer so negative.”

I presume WIndsor, or that mysterious band of hackers, didn’t type hyphens to play what Sports Illustrated’s Steve Rushin once referred to as “obscene hangman.”

Written by rkcookjr

October 6, 2010 at 11:22 pm

Coaching is hard, becoming a certified coach is harder

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On Tuesday night, Aug. 31, I sat through three-plus hours’ worth of videos on youth coaching, and specifically about coaching soccer, to become — for the first time in my six-year youth sports career — an officially certified coach. In the pic at the left, I am holding my official blessing to be a soccer coach, granted by the National Youth Sports Coaches Association, part of the National Alliance for Youth Sports.

I’m not sure I’m any more qualified to be an assistant soccer for 4- and 5-year-olds than I was before I sat through the training, but I could see how it’s valuable to people who aren’t know-it-all youth sports bloggers like myself. The soccer drills were good to see, but the bulk of the training was a video, with breaks for discussion, about the sort of stuff you would run into in the day-to-day management of a team: how to create a positive environment for your kids, the importance (or lack thereof) of winning, how to deal with those fucking asshole parents. I’m paraphrasing.

The National Association of Youth Sports has its heart in the right place, and it’s done a lot to try to teach coaches that screaming obscenities at 4-year-olds is probably not the best way to motivate.

However, as I watched the video, I started feeling intimidated in my role, much as I did the first time I sat through the first pregnancy class with my wife. In each case, my panic was the same: My god, with so much to know, how does any kid survive?

Heck, at least with the pregnancy class, I had that feeling in large part because I had never been a father. I’ve coached numerous teams in numerous sports, and I knew a lot of this stuff going in, yet the NAYS video had me wondering if anybody is qualified to coach kids, beyond the usual qualification of not being on the sex-offender list. I can only imagine what the first-time coaches must have been thinking.

Here is what I learned from the video:

— I hold the FUTURE OF THE WORLD in my hands. And it’s real easy to fuck it up. Do you really want a kid to appear on Dr. Phil because of you?

— If kids don’t want to play a sport after you’ve coached them, it’s because you were such a hopeless asshole that you drove them away. Because kids never quit a sport because they find out they don’t like it. Never never ever.

— If parents have a problem with what you’re doing, it’s clearly because you didn’t make expectations clear and open the lines of communication. It can’t be, ever, that the parent is a jerk. Never never ever.

— You should monitor your players’ hydration and nutrition intake — before, during and after games. That includes ensuring they’re hydrated during the game with a sports drink, which was the helpful advice of the representative from the Gatorade Sports Science Institute. (Being a founding sponsor of NAYS has its privileges.)

— You should know basic first aid, CPR, and perhaps how to perform a tracheotomy with a Bic pen. You probably have a doctor-parent that can help with this. (Alas, all I’ve had were EMT parents, and I lost those when the local fire department said they had to keep themselves and their ambulances parked at the fire house during their shift.)

— And don’t be scared! We know you’ll make mistakes! That’s OK! Try not to think about the lives you’re ruining!

Maybe I’ve let my own anxieties tear away all the positive things that NAYS is trying to impart, and, again, in theory, I’m with it. But most of us coaching youth sports are parent volunteers trying like hell to fit this in with all our other responsibilities, including sneaking away from work so we can start practice at a reasonable hour.

I can understand why a lot of coaches don’t sit through the NAYS training, as valuable as it can be. You know you have a lot of responsibility, and you take it seriously. But sitting through three-plus hours of helpful advice, sometimes that’s not so helpful.

Written by rkcookjr

September 1, 2010 at 11:07 pm

American youth sports system: The root of all evil

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It’s rare you see a newspaper editorial that wraps up all the ills of the youth sports-industrial complex at once, blaming it for poor athlete development, obesity, classism and minivan windows caked with messages like “Go Lightning! Katie #12! Whoooo!”

The Mercury News of San Jose, Calif., uses the recently concluded World Cup to conclude that the way youth sports is run in the USA sucks soccer balls.

The burst of excitement when it seemed the United States might have a chance to get to the World Cup final this year has led to heightened hopes that we’ll make it someday. But without a revolution in how we deal with youth sports, it’s unlikely to happen.

During today’s game between Spain and the Netherlands, on too many playgrounds across America, the soccer goals will be locked up — available only to children whose parents have the money and the inclination to pay for them to play.

Unregulated private clubs are increasingly dominating access to American youth sports. Parents now spend more than $4 billion every year for private sports training for their children, with kids from less wealthy or less sports-inclined families denied equal opportunity to develop their talents.

This is not the way to develop world-class teams in sports like soccer, when in most of the world even the poorest kids grow up kicking a ball around. More important, an over-reliance on pay-to-play sports is not in the best interest of children’s overall development.

I can give you 4 billion reasons why pay-to-play isn’t going to change. It’s not just the athletic companies, travel league organizers, concession stand suppliers and minivan-window marker manufacturers that don’t want to see things change. The problem is that no matter how much you try to equalize things, parents are more than willing to pay big bucks to gain an advantage for their children. I’m not sure how you stop that. “Hey, parents! [Finger wags.] You stop doing what you think is best for your kid!”

The editorial notes that the only sport in which the United States is a consistent world power is basketball, because of “players who primarily develop their skills on public courts, playing pickup games after school and on weekends.” I hate to break this to the Mercury News editorial board, but has it ever heard of AAU ball? Of course, poor kids often only get an opportunity there because they’ve shown some incredible amount of talent and physical prowess early, and some sugar daddy wants to cash in once the first pro contract is signed.

However, I, along with the Mercury News editorial board, would like to think all hope is not lost in giving all kids an equal chance of at least participating in sports, regardless of income, particularly as cash-strapped schools, cities and parks make cuts or ras

America needs a national debate about the direction of youth sports. Educators and health officials at all levels should be discussing whether sports teams should have more defined seasons and whether all children should have more access to fields and teams.

Of all nations, ours should be dedicated to equal opportunity in youth sports and fitness. Besides promoting health, sports can help keep kids engaged in school and get into college.

And as a side benefit, by developing all the American talent available, we’ll also have a better shot at producing world-class teams.

Written by rkcookjr

July 12, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Ottawa league's blowout rule: Making soccer more communist?

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A Soccer ball.

Image via Wikipedia

My Twitter was a-blowin’ up today over a soccer league that is contributing to what is often called the pussification of sports by declaring any team that wins by five or more goals has won by too much, and therefore has officially lost. From what I saw on the ol’ Twitter, the edict from the Gloucester Dragons Recreational Soccer League is infecting America with sports communism, Trotsky and Lenin and no-score leagues and pitch counts and moms as coaches. (No matter that this league is in Canada — close enough!)

When the he-man world discovers the latest threat to youth sports as they should be — a combination of yelling, Social Darwinism and the occasional wedgie — the Internet pattern goes like this:

1. Someone writes a story, full of quotes from perturbed parents and tight-assed sounding league officials. In this example, the National Post in Toronto.

Kevin’s father, Bruce Cappon, called the rule ludicrous.

“I couldn’t find anywhere in the world, even in a communist country, where that rule is enforced,” he said.

Mr. Cappon said the organization is trying to “reinvent the wheel” by fostering a non-competitive environment. The league has 3,000 children enrolled ranging in age from four to 18 years old.

“Everybody wants a close game, nobody wants blowouts, but we don’t want to go by those farcical rules that they come up with,” he said. “Heaven forbid when these kids get into the real world. They won’t be prepared to deal with the competition out there.”

Club director Sean Cale said he is disappointed a few parents are making the new soccer rule overshadow the community involvement and organizing the Gloucester club does.

“The registration fee, regardless of the sport, does not give a parent the right to insult or belittle the organization,” he said. “It gives you a uniform, it gives you a team.”

Mr. Cale said the league’s 12-person board of directors is not trying to take the fun out of the game, they are simply trying to make it fair. The new rule, suggested by “involved parents,” is a temporary measure that will be replaced by a pre-season skill assessment to make fair teams.

2. The story gets posted on the likes of Fark and Deadspin, followed by lots of snarky comments, some of which rail about pussification, and some of which just make smart-aleck jokes.

3. The presence of the story on the likes of Fark and Deadspin gets people a-Twitterin’.

4. That’s where I come in to float above it all and tell you what to REALLY think.

So here we are at step No. 4.

As usual, what the Gloucester Dragons league did was a well-meaning combination of thoughtful and stupid. As the league name says, it’s a recreational league, i.e., for fun. There’s no better way to drive away players who are there for the fun of it by putting them on a team that consistently gets their ass kicked. Hey, we’re playing for fun, but we’re still keeping score, and it’s not a lot of fun to get your ass kicked.

The league has the right idea by having a tryout camp to try to ensure teams are equal. But to tell teams that, in the interim, winning by a lot means that they’ll actually lose — it’s not communism, but it is dumb. It’s insulting to have teams fart around for the sake of increasing the margin to six. There are a lot of ways to stop a blowout: slaughter rule (ending the game when the margin is too high), having the leading team play with fewer players, a running clock. Not telling the winning team they’ll actually lose.

If having a blowout is that worrisome, just don’t keep score. As you can see by the National Post story, the whole idea of blowout prevention came from parents. The great upset about blowout prevention is coming from parents. Well, some kids, too. But like in my 7-year-old son’s no-score baseball league, if the kids want to keep track, that’s fine. The reason for no-score leagues is so parents won’t lose their shit over a game.

It’s not pussification. It’s parent pacification.

Written by rkcookjr

June 3, 2010 at 1:05 am

Assistant soccer coach pulls gun on complaining parent

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If you’re ever coached youth sports and dealt with what you felt were unreasonable parent complaints, you might have thought, “Wouldn’t it great if I could pull out a big-ass gun and tell those whiny parents to shut up?”

“Now, ask me again about your son’s playing time.”

Like most questions that begin, “Wouldn’t it be great if…,” the answer is, “No.”

Just ask Fruitport Soccer Club assistant coach James Sherrill, arrested after a game May 15. From WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, Mich.:

Police said several parents confronted James Sherill on the field after witnessing the coach yelling and swearing at the boys, ages 8-10, that were playing the game.

After the initial confrontation was broken up, it continued after another parent approached Sherill as he was leaving.

That is when police said Sherill pulled a concealed 9mm handgun from its holster. “He said, ‘If you don’t back off I’m gonna shoot you,'” said Fruitport Public Safety Department Chief Paul Smutz.

Police said Sherill then drove himself to the police department to report what happened. He was then arrested for felonious assault.

Hey, at least when he pulled out the gun, Sherrill didn’t swear.

It’s possible Sherrill — who the soccer organization said was not a “rostered coach” (no indication whether he is a parent of a player, or a buddy of the head coach helping out for the day) — could face less punishment than you’d think. He had the gun registered, and it’s unclear whether Michigan’s law banning guns from sports arenas and stadiums applies to parks where youth games are played. Of course, there is the matter of pointing the gun at someone, which is probably not legal anywhere in Michigan, unless the parent confronting him was a deer, and it was in-season.

Another note on this story that might interesting only me, as a person who spent part of his childhood in the Muskegon, Mich., area, where Fruitport is located: Do kids from other towns still call it Fartport?

Written by rkcookjr

May 17, 2010 at 12:47 pm