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.

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