Preseason for Parents
I’m a big fan of July. It owns Independence Day, Shark Week and, depending on the year, some iteration of quality international soccer. It also happens to be one of the three months when sales for the book ROOKIE – Surviving Your Freshman Year of College Soccer spike. In case you were wondering, the other months are December, in preparation for Christmas, and January, in anticipation of National Signing Day. But back to July…
July is the month when things start getting very real for college-bound student athletes, especially those about to experience their inaugural preseasons. Preseason can be a daunting thing, which is one of the reasons I wrote ROOKIE in the first place – to help players better navigate their way through college soccer’s version of boot camp. I wanted to arm them with every piece of good advice I’d accumulated over a couple decades of running preseasons. In many ways, a player’s first preseason is the most important week of her entire career, and too many players don’t realize that going in. So I thought I’d spread some knowledge and give rookies a little extra ammo as they begin their fight for playing time and a worthwhile college soccer career.
Glenn Crooks, host of Sirius XM’s The Coaching Academy, likes to spotlight ROOKIE on his annual Signing Day episode, but this year, ROOKIE got another nice little boost from Ronnie Woodard, the former head coach at Vanderbilt and a national champion coach for Tennessee SC. In an interview with Soccer America, Ronnie, the 2016 National Coach of the Year and all-around good egg, told readers that every year she buys all of her graduating seniors a copy of ROOKIE. In addition to coaching at Vandy, Ronnie attended Duke, so she’s real smart and stuff, so maybe it might be worth following her example (I’m looking at you, club coaches).
Anyhoo… as preseason is just around the bend, I thought it might be a good idea to tackle this topic from the other side. Since separation anxiety runs both ways, instead of giving advice to players heading off for preseason, I’m gonna offer some pearls of wisdom for parents who are watching their little athletes leave the nest. So rookie parents, here is a survival primer for your first preseason.
My first thought was to tell parents to stay on top of their kids when it comes to summer conditioning, but it took me about four seconds to change my mind. First of all, we’re a little late in the summer for that advice to matter. But more importantly, I don’t think it’s a parent’s job to make sure a player is doing her summer work. If a kid is heading off to play a college sport and hasn’t figured out how to handle the fitness element on her own, well, she’s going to struggle. Keep in mind, I’m not saying that parents can’t or shouldn’t help with the conditioning. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging the kid who is attacking summer fitness, or even partnering with her to a certain extent. I’m all in favor of the dad who goes out there with a bag of balls, some cones and a stop watch. I just don’t think that parents should be the driving force. In other words, it has to be important to the player, not just the parent. There are a few things that Mommy and Daddy can’t do for their kid, and the physical labor is one of them. Eventually each player has to decide for herself whether or not she is willing to make the physical investment.
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s talk about some things that parents can do to help their players have the best possible preseason. I’m going to operate under the assumption that your kid is serious about her college soccer career.
- Eliminate distractions. The closer preseason gets, the more tunnel-vision should take over. You want your little athlete to be peaking physically and mentally when she arrives on campus, and the fact of the matter is that there’s an excellent chance that your kid is going to start stressing out as zero hour approaches. Anything you can do to eliminate unnecessary distractions is a plus. Start by prioritizing. Chances are that your kid wants to focus on two things: Getting ready for college and spending time with the friends she is leaving behind. Let her do that. The week before preseason might not be best the time to take the family out of town. And it’s not the time to burden your daughter with a long to-do list of superfluous chores. It is however an excellent time to encourage her to quit that summer job. Anything you can do to free her up and allow her to focus on the things that matter is going to help to alleviate her stress.
- Enjoy the mother of all shopping trips. Yeah, you’re going to do this anyway. However, you’re probably looking at it through a ‘life in college’ lens. Remember to also see it through the ‘surviving preseason’ lens. During preseason, the one thing your kid will not have is an abundance of free time. She’s going to be spending a lot of time on the field, in meetings, at meals, at more meetings, and on the trainer’s table. Believe me when I tell you that the one thing she’ll crave more than anything else is sleep. Naps are a gold-ticket item during preseason, and you don’t want your kid missing out on naptime or going to bed late because she has to run to the store because of something you didn’t think of buying. You want her room to basically be a self-contained, self-sustaining mothership. It should be a Mecca of comfort and convenience. In theory, if the world ended, your daughter should still be able to survive for a week or more without leaving her room. ROOKIE provides a pretty comprehensive shopping list, but here are a few items I would highly recommend buying before preseason officially begins.
A Dorm Fridge or a Cooler – Your kid is going to need water and ice at all hours and you need somewhere to keep these things cold.
Bottled Water – Lots of it.
Gallon-Size Ziploc Bags – For making ice packs.
Ace Bandages – Use these to tie the ice packs to your body.
Pre-Wrap – Because of its many uses, pre-wrap is the athlete’s version of duct tape.
Snacks/MREs – Any type of food that you can eat without leaving your dorm will serve its purpose. If you can swing it, a microwave oven can also come in pretty handy.
Shoelaces – Shoelaces never break at a good time. Keep a spare pair in your soccer bag so a broken shoelace at training doesn’t keep you out of the evening scrimmage.
Febreeze – Your daughter is going to accumulate some dirty clothes. Febreeze will keep her from choking on the stench of her own laundry.
Dr. Scholl’s Odor X Spray – It’s like Febreeze for your shoes.
A&D Ointment – Ever had swamp butt? Your kid will during preseason. This will help.
Toilet paper – Swamp butt is not when you want to discover the dormitory toilet paper bears a striking resemblance to 60-grit sandpaper. Bring a few rolls of the super soft, top-shelf stuff.
Bug spray – When the trainer runs out of bug spray because twenty people are being attacked by gnats and mosquitoes, your kid will have some in reserve.
Sun-block – Preseason is hard enough without sunburn, and once again, there’s an excellent chance that the trainer’s supply will run out.
Aloe – To soothe that sunburn. Keep it in the fridge.
Newspaper – Stuff boots with newspaper to dry them out. Seriously, don’t forget this one. Pick up a stack of newspapers.
- Take care of the details. There is some grown-up work that needs to be seen to before your kid starts college. Make sure it’s been seen to. Every preseason there is one kid who has to run a gauntlet of red tape because some piece of paperwork was overlooked. Make sure the college has all the money it feels you owe it. Make sure all the medical and academic records have been properly submitted. If you didn’t handle it before you got to campus, and you don’t handle it before you leave campus, your kid will have to handle it once you do. There’s only so much that can be done over the phone. Handling these issues after the fact usually takes some face-to-face. Don’t put your kid in a spot where she has to run from the bursar to the registrar to the financial aid office between lunch and the afternoon field session for three straight days. Dig in and get your ducks in a row.
- Set up the finances. Some problems can only be solved by money. Make sure your kid has access to it.
- Park your helicopter. Are you one of those parents who attended every event your kid has ever been a part of? Were you the scorekeeper for Wiffle ball games? Were you passing out orange slices during kick-the-can? Were you the banker for Monopoly games during summer recesses? Did you manage substitutions during prom? If that was you, your transition may be harder than your child’s. Here’s the thing… Over-involved parenting will likely do your child more harm than good during preseason, and not just on a developmental level. I sought input from other college coaches for this post, and when asked to give advice to parents, to a person they all said the same thing: Cut the cord. And I mean they actually said that. Like literally. Word for word. This is an umbrella topic, so let me give you a few pointers that fall into this column.
Retire as your kid’s coach. It won’t do your child any good to have one coach at college and another at home, particularly if those two coaches have conflicting viewpoints. The only coach your kid needs to please now is the one that isn’t you. Any other way is going to lead to confusion and will stunt your child’s development as a college player. Make a clean break, bite your tongue when you have to, and be your child’s support system, but not her coach.
Encourage your kid to communicate with her new coach. The flight of helicopter parenting has given rise to a generation of kids who use parents as their default method of problem-solving. In the setting of college athletics, this is a horribly inefficient and oftentimes detrimental path to follow. If your kid has questions about her role on the team, those questions need to be directed to the coaching staff. The problem is that it’s just easier to go to you and have a phone call that ends with her feeling better but having gotten no closer to the solution. Your child is now a college student, which means she’s no longer your child – she’s your adult. Again you need to play a little bit of the martyr and remove yourself from the role of rescuer. Encourage your adult to stand up and have an adult conversation with the adult who is running the program. He’s the one who has the answers she’s looking for anyway.
Let your kid call you. In other words, not the other way around. This is your kid’s time. Let it be her time. Your daughter is going to be excessively busy – busy playing soccer, treating wounds, sitting through meetings, building relationships and sleeping. She’s going to be exhausted – a lot. She’s going to be dealing with all types of new pressures and she’ll be figuring out how to deal with them. You won’t help the situation by asking for status updates every three hours. Give your kid a chance to devote her focus to the really big task at hand. Your kid is probably going to call you at least once a day as it is. Let that be enough. And if she misses a day here and there, it doesn’t mean she stopped loving you. It just means that she’s making new friends, fighting new battles and figuring stuff out and oftentimes, just sleeping. My advice is to tell your kid something like, “I know you’ll be really busy during preseason, so just call us when you can.” Incidentally, if you need another incentive to throttle back on the phone calls/texts, just imagine your kid sitting in a team meeting, the coach is at the front of the room saying something he feels is deathly serious, when your daughter’s Moana ringtone blows up because she forgot to turn off her phone and you couldn’t wait for your third update of the day. No bueno. No, no bueno.
Have two good pep talks ready. There comes a time when your daughter will need a shoulder to cry on. Don’t confuse that for the time when she needs a kick in the ass. Preseason is hard. College soccer is hard. But they’re supposed to be hard. Every player is told that before she goes in, but few of them have any idea how to cope when actual adversity sets in. Right now there is somebody reading this post who, on the first or second night of preseason, is going to receive a phone call from a crying child saying how hard things are and how miserable she is and please come and take her home. And it will be one of the most difficult phone calls you’ve ever received, and for some parents, the urge to rush in and play the rescuer will overpower the more rational response of making your kid stick it out.
Yes preseason is hard, but let’s face it, your kid is a soccer player, not a P.O.W. It’s not that hard. She will survive – just as long as she doesn’t quit. I’ve coached plenty of kids who went through this, and thankfully, almost all of them stuck it out. And of the players who shared their experience with me, every single one of them was so very thankful that they chose to hang in there.
Here’s what you need to know: Your kid isn’t the only one going through this bout of homesickness. Some of her rookie teammates surely are as well. The kids who survive are the ones who learn to lean on their teammates and let their teammates lean on them. If your daughter can prioritize her teammates; if she can make it her mission to get the other rookies through preseason, that sense of purpose will get her through as well.
It’s your kid so it’s your call, but I highly encourage you to think big picture. Let your daughter face some adversity. She will never regret finishing preseason. But if you let her quit, that’s something she may very well regret forever. If she gets through that first preseason, then there’s an excellent likelihood she’ll play four seasons of college soccer and be forever thankful that she did.
Okay, let’s talk about the second difficult phone call you might get.
As preseason progresses, the starting line-up will begin to take shape. If your kid is used to being a star and playing every minute but now finds herself on the outside looking in, she might panic. That’s when your phone will ring again. And again, it’s up to you to impart the value of long-term vision.
The worst thing a player can do is to check out when the pieces don’t immediately fall into place for her. And it’s astonishing how quickly some players check out. Instead of digging in and fighting the good fight, they start mailing in their effort because they feel they are championing a lost cause. And at that point, they really are.
You know you’re kid better than I ever will, so you’ve got to figure out which talk to break out for any given moment. But if you think your kid is on the verge of checking out, it might be the ideal time for some tough love. Don’t let her wallow in self-pity. Don’t let her starting throwing her teammates and coaches under the bus. Love your kid, but remember why your family chose that college and that soccer program. It wasn’t because the coaches promised your kid that it would be easy and that the universe would cater to her every waking desire. If your daughter wants to improve her station in life, it won’t happen by engaging in self-destructive behaviors. Everybody wants what they want. Sometimes the only way to get there is through hard freakin’ work.
I guess what I’m really saying with this whole cut-the-cord section is that there is a fine line between being supportive and being a crutch. For your kid to be strong, you may have to be strong first. When your daughter reaches college soccer, it’s time for her to take ownership of her athletic career. I suggest that you don’t impede that process. Jumping in to play the rescuer might make you feel useful, but in the end you’ll do more harm than good. Your daughter is about to take on the greatest job she’ll ever have; she needs to own that; she needs to make that real. You can’t do it for her, no matter how badly you might want to. It’s time for your kid to stand on her own two feet and demonstrate why she deserves to be taken seriously as a college athlete. Make sure she knows that.
College soccer is just around the corner. Best of luck to all the players, coaches and officials and yes, even the parents. May you all go undefeated.