Thursday, 28 January 2016

It is time to give the game back to the kids

I found myself reading a local soccer blog recently, which I rarely do to catch up on some information relevant to the actual league we find our teams competing in. However, after reading yet more negativity in the local soccer community, it gave me an idea. It is time to shift away from all the opinions, negativity and misconduct when it comes to youth soccer. In this day and age, it seems that no program is good enough, no coach is ever given enough credit, nor the volunteers and the hardest part is that there is a tremendous amount of expertise coming from the sidelines which generally does not involve the highly educated soccer folks who are working very hard to make the game a safe, enjoyable and rewarding experience for youth.

Pressure comes in all shapes and forms. There is the internal pressure from the individual. There is peer pressure and of course pressure from parents. The most difficult part as a soccer educator is to see the conflict in youth who carry a tremendous amount of pressure from home. In fact, the simple beauty and enjoyment in the game, any game and/or sport for that matter is watching youth excel, compete, cooperate, develop lifelong friendships and mature through sport. Call me naive, but the journey for all participants in youth soccer is not solely about making the provincial team, playing for your country and/or making to the professional level. For the majority the game provides an experience, and experience shared growing up with other youth who have similar goals an ambition.

Respect comes in many shapes and forms. For the game, For the team. For the coach, team manager and volunteers. For the community. The game has taken a beating in youth soccer, especially in what is considered competitive youth soccer, which can start for kids ages 11  years an older in our region. Suddenly the game becomes much more serious for the coaches and parents. Some not all. It is the portion of the population who fail to see the negative influence they are starting to make on the development of youth, the game and community this article is being written. It is a very sad and common reality to learn of the number of occassions in which youth soccer officials are constantly criticized and abused from the sidelines because of their ability to influence a game, manage a game, or heaven forbid make a mistake. There is a severe absence of younger soccer referees coming forwards and in speaking with youth who have tried they share a common concern. Many have chosen not to officiate for fear of a coach running up the score in a competitive youth soccer game. Many have walked away for being criticized from the sidelines while trying their best. Far too much emphasis is being placed on the idea the game of soccer does not involve unpredictable movements, moments in the child's life which we do not control which often tend not to line up with the hopes, goals and/or aspirations of an over-concentrated coach and/or parent. The beauty of watching youth officiate lies in the mentorship that may be provided on the field with the player's they may be officiating, as well as the mentoring between officials. In all my years of enjoying the game, the process in which experienced officials nurture, educate, train and help younger/less experienced officials is charming.

Success. How do we chose to measure success? There is the potential for some many ways to measure to success. But let's think back to the first time our son or daughter stepped onto the soccer field. I can only assume we shared thoughts like.... I hope they do not run the wrong way? I hope they do not trip over an untied shoelace? I wonder if they will fit in? I wonder how they will react to being in a new group? What am I going to do if they start crying and want to go home? I can also imagine there would be a tremendous amount of laughter and good times. Let's fast forward to the age of 14, 15 or 16 years and regardless of level and/or calibre of play how much has changed? I can safely assume there is more pressure on the individual, team, parent and coach as the player's get older and play in a more competitive environment. With this in mind, can we stop for a moment and determine how much of the experience is pleasure and how much is pain? There is a severe absence of humor in parents watching their children play as they get older and enter a more competitive training and/or playing environment. Sadly, this pressure comes out in many forms. One of my least favorite is the parent who storms up and down the sidelines telling players what to do whether they have the ball or not. Even better, spectators, who show up and start communicating their wisdom to the player's/team involved in a game that a coach may have implemented a game plan/strategy to which the comments from the parent/spectator may have absolutely no relevance.

How can we give the game back to the kids?

In my experience working with youth soccer players in North America, it is common for the parents to drop their son or daughter off at the game and/or training session and make their way to the fence surrounding the perimeter of the field. From this vantage point, there are few, not all that take the liberty to holler at their kids, perhaps other players while observing from the outside of the training sessions and/or game at hand. One of my distant but favorite memories involves a training session at a venue in which there was a very large open space of grass, possibly the size of 3-4 soccer fields with no specific dimensions. Amidst the training session being run in a 30 x 40 meter area within this vast open space, the lone parent who was watching came up and eventually onto the field to yell at a player. As the sessions wore on and the parent continued to interfere with the training session, I noticed the parent was now yelling at more than one player. So, I quickly collected the players in and gave them a water break. Immediately walked over the the parent and asked them how they were doing. I then proceeded to advise the parent that if they wanted to communicate more clearly with one of the player's they were yelling at, that perhaps the parent should speak spanish as the player in question was an international exchange student and was not fluent in english. Interestingly, in Europe, when the player's are dropped of at the soccer training session by the parent, the player's enter and environment which is controlled and absent of parental influence.

How can we give the game back to the kids?

Humbleness. I was in conversation with a parent of a very young soccer parent some time ago that was pleasantly refreshing. The young soccer player in question was 8 years old and had not been playing regular soccer over the winter. So, one day, after a 10 week block of training indoors the parent and I were having a conversation. When I was asked how the player was doing by the parent I responded with the following: "Well, you know, the player looks a little rusty having not played since the summer, however, he was very driven and motivated to catch up and match up with the remainder of the players in the program. When they were able to do in the timeframe of the indoor program."
What floored me was the response from the parent, who politely said "thanks, but did he have fun and enjoy himself!" This was coming from a family with a young child who is passionate for the game of soccer, train and play together at home, in the backyard, at the community field on evening and weekends and to this date at the age of  11 years still does not participate in organized or structured club soccer. In fact, the player is playing at or beyond the top of their respective age group, wise beyond their years. This was a pivotal moment for me, as I work with hundred of kids a year coaching, mentoring and inspiring youth soccer players, parents, coaches and volunteers. To this day, each and every time I see this family I think of how few times a parent has ever responded with " did they enjoy themselves and have fun!"

Coaches. By far one of the most enjoyable, transformative and hilarious experienced I have had in many years came while observing a match between two female U18 teams. On this occassion, I walked towards our team, which I would be observing as the technical director and marched right past them on the sidelines to embrace to long standing soccer friends who were coaching against us on the particular day. This would turn out to be the most rewarding and entertaining 15 minutes on the sidelines I have enjoyed on a long time. The two coaches of the opposition whom I was standing with began to address the need to 'have player number 13 taken off the pitch from our team because she was doing and outstanding job and deserved a much needed break!" In fact, in a jovial manner while we were standing together that one of the two coaches hollered over to our team's head coach that they were speaking with me at is was essential that he give the number 13 a break for doing such a great job. As the game wore on the humor flowed, light, positive remarks were made as to how well certain players were playing and how enjoyable the experience was for their players and so on. It will be one of the greatest memories for me, standing with the opponent, laughing with the coaches while the game was being played and complimenting the players/coaches while the game was being played. How often does this happen? Not enough. What has become common. Sadly the exact opposite. There is one rare example of a particular coach who, when visiting our region with their team for a game the moment that the car is parked in the adjacent parking lot to the field the game is being played on you can hear them yelling and screaming at the players. In the warm-up. During the game. At half-time. It is really discouraging.

Volunteers. How many of you are familiar with the saying " there are too few volunteers and far too many critics?" In my experience to date, there is always a need for more volunteers, but few if and available people to fill those roles. So, the workload of many ends up on the hands of the few. Far too common. Even more difficult to digest is the thankless role these people serve, giving, giving, giving and more giving. How often do you as an individual, family, parent or spectator take the time to thank the volunteer for the role they are filling? Sadly, the majority of the time a volunteer is approaches is when there is a prob/em, some deserved of the attention of the organization, but for the most part, generally issues easily resolved without the time and energy of the volunteer. What does it take for the general public to realize and accept the value of these volunteers, there a few new people coming forwards to feel these roles. Even better, what does it take to shift away from the constant criticism from parents who feel that their son or daughter, and/or their team is not being treated fairly? What does it take to turn the negative into a positive action? Importantly, regardless of the outcome, regardless of the presure, regardless of the result how often do we approach the referee, the coach from the opposition, the opposing players, the volunteers in the club/community and say "thank you!"

Goal Setting. Realistic Goal Setting. There are so many distorted values placed on youth in this day and age. There are 2,000 players ages 6-18 years in the region we call home, one of which trains more than any young player I have ever met. Yet, each and every player, parent and family have goals. This one particular player has elevated the concept of drive and determination to new levels. Each time I speak in front of a group of youth soccer players familiar with this particular individual I ask them directly "how many of you are willing to work as hard as you know who?" The reality of the situation is that very few, if any will have similar drive, passion or determination. However, in other parts of the world, Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America this is how and where the dream is created. There is a massive gap between where we are as a soccer culture and where the rest of the soccer rich cultures exist. There is a massive gap between expectations and performance.

Expertise. When I hire a contractor to build a house, do I hover over them and instruct them along the way? When we send our children to a teacher for piano lessons, do we interrupt the teacher and tell them how they should be teaching our child to play the piano? What in the world is going on with youth soccer. In fact, each and everytime I have a conversation with a parent about a soccer match, inside myself I sit and wait until they express an opinion about what was wrong with the game, how the team failed to play up to par, which players underperformed and so on. In fact, there are a few special parents who will invade your space during a halftime speach to the players by instructing you from the sidelines as per what they feel the team requires to improve. Absolutely hilarious. When I envision myself attending an event my child participates in, specifically none which i will know nothing about, I simply cannot imagine advising anyone directly involved about what they should be doing differently, However, the moment my child steps away from the activity the first question will be "did you have fun?" Once an awhile it is a pleasure to see parents who observe their children participating, not expressing opinions to the coaches, not yelling instructions to any of the players, simply watching their child excel. Through the years there have been many examples of proud parents enjoying their children training on a friday night, acknowledging how nice it is to see them working hard at something they enjoy and staying out of trouble. It simply amazes the amount of expertise in youth soccer from highly uneducated sources. Did you know that soccer coaches with more than 30 years of experience in the game as players and.or coaches sometimes have an understanding of the greater good for your son or daughter? Why is there so much negativity towards these people who step forward to help make your son or daughter a better person? We have been running residential camps as a family on a remote rural island for almost 20 years. There have been youth soccer players and coaches attend from all across Canada. Many of the players and coaches have been involved with the national team system, the provincial team programs and even the professional clubs academy model. However, when they come together for the week with players they have never met do you know what they measure of success is? How well they get along, trust, respect, laugh and motivate one another. There is a natural cycle of mentor coaching embedded in the culture of these camps, rotating through groups as they graduate from the program as players and return to work with the next generation as mentor coaches. There is no experyise with regard to the level of coaching these mentor coaches provide at this early stage of their career, however, they do have an amazing understanding of the program goals and work hard to ensure the next generation of your attending these camps follow the same path.

Community. Once and awhile the game presents moments which make you go hum. Recently, I received a letter from a parent. Inside was a note and a check for $1000. The note read like this. "Recently, we came into some unexpected money that I wanted to share with you. Thanks to you, your family and your coaches who always made my son feel special. For all those years you let him come to camp for free I anted to share this donbation with you so that you can provide another opportunity for another young person. Thank you so much for your guidance and passion through the years- my child is a better person thanks to your program!" Instant tears streaming down my face. Why? Because this is not about a gold medal, a championship game or award- this is about people. We are here to build a better community, all of us. Like it or not, beyond the results lie a more important detail that seems to be lost. What happened to the days when youth played soccer in large groups mixed with all ages and genders. When children played soccer without instruction and/or officials. They still do this in many parts of the world with tremendous success. Have you ever driven through a remote latin american fishing village and noticed a field turf soccer field? Have you noticed in this same community that all shapes and sizes of people young and old are wearing soccer gear all over the place? Have you ever noticed how this soccer field brings the community together for the sport they are passionate about? Have you ever noticed what is it like in your community? Do all players, parents, coaches and volunteers work toward a common good? I sure hope so, but I can assure you there is a small part of the population picking out what is going wrong with your community development regarding the game of soccer. The next time one of these people try to inform you of what you know, or even better, the next time on of you try to write more negativity on a blog try to find something POSITIVE. It is time we gave the game back to the kids.

Thinking Behind the Back Four

Years ago while watching a U21 soccer game with a close friend, colleague and soccer educator I noticed there were two goalkeepers working together at the halfway line (which was especially odd). When goalkeepers warm-up for a game they generally stick to their own goal and warm-up with their team in their own end of the field. Not on this day, what I noticed was in fact both goalkeepers involved in the game actually warming up each other. Really? Preparing to do battle for the elusive 3-points for the win and they are warming each other up? This does not make any sense. As we discussed how great this was and looked deeper into the meaning behind this the story came out as follows:

- the two goalkeepers were now 18 years of age playing at the U21 level
- the two goalkeepers had met at a training camp for goalkeepers at the age of 11 years and had trained together in this program for 6 years
- the two goalkeepers attended a school soccer academy in addition to the goalkeeper development program from grades 9-12
- the two goalkeepers had never played on the same team, in youth soccer, school soccer and now U21 soccer

Importantly, as the two goalkeepers continued to warm-up one another and while I was speaking to my colleague who had been working with them since the age of 11 he quickly stated that this was a common practice for the keepers in the community who had participated in the goalkeeper development program which tied them together. Which got me to thinking, you know, I recall a similar situation years prior that was shared with me. Some time ago there was a group of teenagers who shared a common passion. They were committed to training, working hard and learning. When this crew came together in a similar fashion as to the two goalkeepers mentioned above at the age of 10-11 years, there was instant chemistry. This chemistry stayed with the core of the group into their eventual departure from youth soccer and eventually gave away to post-secondary education which took them to separate geographical locations. While this group of talented young goalkeepers were growing up together, around the age of 15-16 years they started showing up at each other's game to warm each other up prior to the start of the game. Not playing against one another, but helping each other. This same talented and aware group of individuals went on to become legendary at the residential camps we run each summer on Denman Island. Mentoring the next generation of youth to work hard both on and off the soccer field- showing them how to work hard and have fun!

I still recall the day when it came to me that these kids will have to be replaced, as mentor coaches, as an instrumental part of the residential camp experience. It was rather nerve racking to imagine not having them around, to help each other, to guide the kids, to create the lively intense and humorous atmosphere around the camps. You know what happened? The next summer several candidates were selected from the residential camp program to replace this crew who had been watching and learning- there was instant success and hope. The torch was passed and the stories continued.  In fact, as I re-read this while writing this makes me realize there have now been several generations of young goalkeepers who have travelled the exact same path. A journey which starts with a passion, willingness to work hard, improve and deal with setbacks.

The first group of goalkeepers I started to work with was in the early '90's and there are some familiar names for who emerged from this program. Raegyn Hall. Bob Stankov. Nic Stankov. Nicci Wright. Sian Bagshawe. Each of which has inserted themselves back in the game as goalkeeper trainers at the professional level, the national level and the community level. From there the seed was planted. Goalkeepers who trained under the influences of our initiatives have made a global impact. There are professional goalkeepers playing in Europe, played for Canada, the provincial team program, CIS and College Soccer, there are goalkeepers competing in a a variety of leagues for Adults that would be competitive and/or recreational. In fact, there is one family we have worked with through the years who had all three children pass through the program at different times.  To this very day, I am honored to observe the next generation, perhaps the 7th or 8th generation of young goalkeepers to move through our programs aspire to achieve the same dream we all share. Several years ago in the Comox Valley we started a player development academy, which produced a handful of talented and devoted young goalkeepers who now compete in the local competitive league. This all came about because as we started the player development program there was one hard working, kind and motivated mentor coach who was fueled by the same passion we have all shared for goalkeeping. This young lad infused another generation of talented young goalkeepers to train hard, learn and wake-up thinking about goalkeeping. It is a long time ago, but I recall a very similar experience when I grew attending the Team Sales Goalkeeping Clinic in Victoria, however, I will share this story for another time.

Is this an article about friendship? Comradery? Support? Mentorship? Perhaps this is a story that combines all of these qualities. The one thing that is certain, the game is a beautiful place to learn, to live, to love, to laugh, to develop new friendships, to grow and reflect on. Throughout my entire adult life I have been very lucky to travel the word several times over thanks to the game of soccer. But, you must know, one of the most enjoyable part of the experience at this stage of the game is getting together with my childhood friends, my team-mates from youth soccer each summer for a recreational 7-aside soccer tournament. It is a weekend full of laughter, teasing, humor and of course trying to make our aged bodies do what we did in our twenties and watching the little ones play as we reflect on the memories we shared growing up together and playing for the Gorge Soccer Association. Thinking back, finishing second in the world at the 2002 FIFA Women's Youth World Championships was AWESOME! Finishing fourth at the 2003 FIFAWomen's World Cup was AWESOME Playing in front of 60,000 at the age of 18 years in Morocco, Africa and eventually winning the gold medal at the 1988 Jeux De La Francophone Games was AWESOME!  The game has been good to me, thinking back and reflecting on the people and the experiences who were a part of the joureny is an absolute pleasure.

The Journey of a 1000 miles......

1975. The London Boxing Club wins the Canadian National Amateur Men's Soccer Championship, taking home the prestigous Jubilee Trophy from the tournament in Winnipeg. This would serve as one of my earliest soccer memories, I was in fact too young to be there, however, my father was a goalkeeper for the team and there has been a photo hanging in our TV room for years that made a lasting impression. Before the London Boxing Club won the national amatuer championship in 1975, there was a group of miner's from Cumberland, BC who won the trophy in the early 1900's. In fact, the next time you are in the Village of Cumberland drop by the Waverly Hotel for a game of pool, there is a black and white photo of this team. Back to the photo hanging in our TV room, which for years served as a momento for my father, and a source of inspiration for myself.  The London Boxing Club experience formed a lot of my earliest experiences in the game, which to this day inspire my passion for the game.

The locker room. The smell of linament in the locker room at Beacon Hill Park in Victoria combined with Juicy Fruit Gum were deeply embedded into my childhood thanks to the London Boxing Club. To this day I can still recall the feeling of walking into the changeroom pre-game, at half-time and post-game to the smell of heat rub and the abundance of Juicy Fruit. The mood or atmosphere was generally lively and full of fun. At least from my perspective, there was lots of teasing and of course, the weekly ritual of wearing my own replica of the team jersey.

The colors. The photo on the TV Room wall shows a team in burgendy long sleeved polyester jerseys and a goalkeeper with a long sleeved powder blue jersey smack dab in the middle of all that polyester and long hair. I had my own version of the long sleeved burgendy polyester team jersey, which, to this day might explain my love for polyester. It is a fairly common occurence around  the household to have my wife look at me and say "oh no, not polyester again!" What can I say, I love the feeling of a pair of polyester trackpants, a dry-fit t-shirt and matching top! I wore that London Boxing Club long sleeve jersey for years to come. To games, to training, to school, to the clubhouse. In fact, in my grade two school picture I am wearing a long sleeved gold polyester jersey that came from the Lansdowne Evening Optimist, but we will save that story for another day.

The clubhouse. The weekly ritual after the game was to go back to the old brick building which housed Nelson's Music for many years in the late '90's and is now a trendy condo complex in downtown Victoria. The afternoons were spent tearing around the building, watching the boxers train in one area, hanging out with my parents in another area and preparing for the McDonald's order. The list was prepared and I was off, running down the road to the nearest McDonald's to load up on food for the hungry soccer players, and of course sneak in a burger or two with fries for myself. Oddly enough, years later when the club folded and became the Victoria Athletics the clubhouse they inherited was even closer to another McDonald's!

The talent. There are players like Bob Bolitho, Brain Robinson, Garnet Moen, Dean Stokes, Ted Reading, Ron Thompson, George Pakos, Ash Douglas, Kenny Ross, Steve Carroll, Howie Anderson, Danny Lomas and Frank Woods who would all become a larger part of my life in many different ways. Through the years these figures became friends, mentors, coaches and heroes. Bob Bolitho went on to play for Canada and was a professional in the NASL. He would also be the general manager for the Victoria Vistas when I played in the early '90's. He would also be a player I observed for years, even in over '30's that could strike a ball with relative ease, great technique, confidence, powerf and control. Brian Robinson also went on the play for Canada. Garnet Moen played in the NASL and visited us at our home in the '70's to share some of his stories. Dean Stokes always had a laugh and a smile. Ted Reading lived with us for years in Fernwood when I was growing up. Ron Thompson could always be found close to the game willingly sharing his passion and genuine love for the game. George Pakos, or the water-meter reader who played for Canada and scored a remarkably import goal to qualify Canada for the 1986 World Cup in Mexcio. If I am not mistaken he played Division 1 in the VISL in his 20's, 30'', 40's and maybe even his 5-0's. To this day you can still see George officiating games. Frank Woods. We had the priviledge of playing together with the Victoria Vistas in the early '90's and even though he had played with my dad in the '70's he was quite a player. Perhaps the only player to play both with my father and myself in the same career. To this day, I know Frank is coaching youth soccer and having a great time. Lucky kids, they have a coach who shares a tremendous amount of passion for the game, loves life and laughs alot!

The team parties were such a big part of growing up. It was all about being together. I loved that and learned a lot about belonging.

The comradery carries on to this day. Look around at the impact these people have made on the game of soccer in their respective community. Coaches. Managers. Volunteers. Politicians. Fans. Motivators. Fundraisers. We are surrounded by a wealth of knowledge, experience and success on Vancouver Island. Pioneers? Perhaps, but there folks have stories about who inspired them to play dating back to the '6o's and the '50's. Team names like the Victoria Royals- well before my time.
The commitment. To one another, To the team. To the club. To the community. There was no other club growing up for me. Who was I going to play for when I was old enough? There was only one answer, until the club folded and became the Victoria Athletics in the '80's. Oddly enough, the Victoria Athletics replaced the London Boxing Club and became our main nemisis when I started playing for the Gorge Molson's in the VISL. In fact, I recall a match at Blanshard Street Park against the A's around the age of 15 or 16 years, it was a nerve racking experience playing against men of all ages. There was a ball played through the backline along the ground which is slid out to gather in my hands. As I started to slide I notice a player from their team lunge forward at the same time to slide into the ball and tackle me as I was coming forward along the ground sideways. I managed to collect and keep the ball, however, there was a gash up the inside of my leg from the cleats this player was wearing-ouch! That one hurt and stayed with me for a long time- when you go to the ground as a goalkeeper you are vulnerable and must find ways to protect yourself. It was at this very park, in fact at the same end of the field and goal that I was protecting that I remember getting beaned by a ball during a shooting practice with the London Boxing Club. I loved to watch my dad play goal. I loved to watch others play goal. I loved to play goal. However, this one day I was standing far to close to the goal and got smacked during a shooting practice that knocked me over and brought instant tears!

The stories. There was a goal scored on the London Boxing Club during the 1975 tournament from a kick-off on a very windy day. I never attended the game, or saw the match but I heard the stories. I also have had some embarassing moments. One time we were playing a game on TSN against the North York Rockets when Cosimo Comisso cracked a shot from 20+ meters that dipped and dropped and fumbled into the goal between my legs. It was heart-breaking and on National TV. There are others, like the time I let a ball accidentally roll under my foot in my first indoor game with the Tacoma Stars and into the goal from a much greater distance than 20 meters. The game has taught us all many things, how to deal with setbacks and recover is essential to success in life, both on and off the field.

Coaching Opportunities come in all shapes and sizes. During a youth national team camp I was involved with as a goalkeeper we were playing an exhibition game at Naden. I recall observing a moment that was nerve racking for a close friend from Winnipeg, Manitoba, who was scored on from the kick-off. Our immediate reaction on the sidelines was that the coaches were going to let him have it. When in fact, the coaches used this moment as a very powerful learning moment for all of us- be sure when you step on the field to train and/or play you are ready and concentrated. Through the years I would have dinner with my friend when we played in Winnipeg and we always had a chuckle at how scary this moment was for him!

The memories. The changeroom at Beacon Hill Park is not longer in use. The field at Blanshard Street is more commonly used for baseball. Juicy Fruit is no longer sold in sticks. The art of goalkeeping still moves me, however, the art of coaching, community and developing the game also play a large part in my involvement with the game. I could never imagine being able to recognize and thank each of the powerful influences along the way, however, it feels like it is time to start sharing some of these stories.

Stay tuned!