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Soccer Poet


Preseason for Parents

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Set up the finances. Some problems can only be solved by money. Make sure your kid has access to it.

  1. 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.

By the way, there’s still time to read ROOKIE. You can buy it on the Books Page of this site or at Amazon.

A Good Pencil

A Good Pencil

Before Facebook and YouTube, if something went viral, it went there via email – like the ten ways to amuse yourself in an elevator (passing out name-tags was my favorite); or the Darwin Awards, which recognized people who had removed themselves from the gene pool with acts of terminal stupidity; or this one:

When NASA first started sending up astronauts, they quickly discovered that ballpoint pens would not work in zero gravity. To combat the problem, NASA scientists spent a decade and $12 billion to develop a pen that writes in zero gravity, upside down, underwater, on almost any surface, and at temperatures ranging from below freezing to 300 degrees Celsius.

The Russians used a pencil.

A quick Google search tells me that story isn’t actually true. But for today, let’s pretend it is. We’ll come back to it later.

About a month ago, the website published an article called ‘The US Development Academy Player – The Fighter Who Has Never Been Hit.’ The post references a pair of games where the losing sides got manhandled by the opponents.

The theme of the article is largely that in our effort to produce better, cleaner, more technically gifted players, we have ignored the responsibility to create competitors. And when these squeaky-clean players we've engineered square off against players who aren't so... sanitized, they lose. Instead of accepting the reality that winning soccer embraces a variety of styles - and not all of them pretty - we decry the injustice of an attractive style losing out to a meat and potatoes one. Instead of creating players who can adapt to a physically combative environment, we blame the environment.

It was a fascinating piece – fascinating in a Well I’m glad somebody finally said it out loud sort of way. Due to pressure from the federation, the piece has since been pulled from the site, which, ironically, sort of mirrors the very problem the article sought to address.

The article begins with a story of a U12 State Cup match between a team relatively rich in resources visiting a team that was anything but. The author’s team, in spite of its superior training facilities, gear, talent and commitment to attractive, possession-based soccer, was put on the back foot by a group of no-nonsense grinders from Northeast Philly. The Philly boys won in PKs.

Following the match, the author heard what he refers to as “typical elite level responses” from players and parents “to losing to a team from a rougher section of town, who somehow managed the result without two uniform kits, backpacks and turf facilities. ‘That wasn’t soccer’ was the message.” The author notes a “Country club mindset that is beginning to plague soccer in the US at the elite youth levels,” and how this mindset is undermining the effort to produce players who can compete against players from around the world – players who don’t enjoy the embarrassment of riches bestowed upon the American club player.

The article spurred me to write about something that has been bugging me for years. I never mentioned it, mainly because I just wasn’t sure, and to be honest, I’m still not. I haven’t spent enough time with boy’s soccer to have absolute clarity, and certainly not enough to justify an indictment against the development system in the US. And as much as I agree with the sentiment of The Away End’s blog post, it isn’t exactly overwhelming, empirical evidence of a system gone wrong. So I’m going to say what I have to say, fully prepared to be proven wrong. And yelled at.

My main exposure to boys’ soccer over the past decade has been through camps, but this spring I got to watch a U-16 boys team play on several occasions. Maybe it was a case of confirmation bias, but the U-16 teams I saw did nothing to dissuade me from a suspicion I had developed during camps. I see two clear distinctions between the boys playing today and those of yesteryear. First, today’s players are way more technical than their predecessors. I mean it’s just crazy how much more skillful the American player has become. The things they can do with a ball, well, it’s just ridiculous. And secondly, if I had to choose, I’d take their predecessors in a heartbeat. From what I have witnessed, there is an astonishing shortage of competitive grit in the modern American player. Where the technical has flourished, the combativeness has gone virtually dormant. There's a surplus of sizzle but a dearth of steak.

This is my image of the modern-day, U-16 boy’s soccer player: He’s wearing Nike cleats and a jersey from Barcelona or Real Madrid that he’ll shed at the first opportunity to show off his six-pack abs. And he is crazy good with the ball at his feet – as long as no one is challenging him for it. He knows three dozen ball lifts. His love affair with the ball has arrested his ability to develop any tactical clue about the game’s bigger picture. And, most disturbing of all, he doesn’t compete. He doesn’t know how to put his shoulder into an opponent. He won’t go to ground. He won’t risk his legs to win a fifty-fifty. He has no interest in doing the dirty work. For all intents and purposes, he is a decoration – pretty to look at, but serving no practical purpose.

For years coached bemoaned that their players didn’t watch enough soccer on television. Now it seems they watch plenty of soccer – and a lot of it is on YouTube. Today’s players aren’t obsessed with winning; they’re obsessed with collecting tricks. They see a trick that looks cool and, because they want to look cool themselves, they devote their time and energy to mastering that trick because no one told them that, in a game, there would be no reasonable circumstance in which attempting a Homie Jay Around The World would do any practical good. These YouTube players don’t understand how to make a bending run to stay onside, but they can juggle the ball like circus performers. The digital age has replaced footballers with freestylers who seem more excited about the pregame group-juggle than the game itself.

Outside of the US, soccer is the working-class sport. Players like Neymar, Yaya Toure, and Luis Suarez all grew up poor – and I mean like dirt poor. Ironically, so did the poster boy for soccer flair – Cristiano Ronaldo. Zinedine Zidane grew up in the ghetto. Football was the way out of poverty for these world-class players. Their motivation wasn’t to be cool – it was to feed their freaking families. Football was their way to not be poor. When your options are to keep climbing or go hungry, you adapt and climb. You quickly learn the upside of desperation. You learn that there is a place for the player will do anything to win, even if that means chopping someone in half.

In America, soccer is an upper-middle class sport. Teenage players have spent their lives enduring the upper-middle class struggle, which, ya know, isn’t actually a struggle. Soccer might be their passion, but it’s not their lifeline – because they don’t need a lifeline. They aren’t desperate to escape anything. They come home each day to their cul-de-sac and their PlayStation 4s and they check their Instagram accounts. All in all, it’s a pretty good life.

If there’s an argument to be made against the US ever becoming a legitimate contender for a World Cup, this is it: We’re trying to groom players. Outside of the US, the best players cannibalize their way up the pyramid. Soccer may look like the beautiful game, but in the trenches, it’s a freaking bloodbath.

When I was getting one of my coaching licenses, a staff instructor told us a story about Jovan Kirovski – the American who signed with Manchester United in 1992.

As the story goes, in one of his first training sessions with Man U., Kirovski was matched up in a 1v1 tunnel with Ryan Giggs. Giggs passed the ball to Kirovski and moved out to defend. Kirovski received the ball, ran at Giggs, deftly nut-megged the Welshman and had a clear path out of the tunnel. Just before reaching the tunnel’s end, Kirovski began to coast. A step before the finish line, Giggs magically reappeared to swat the legs out from under Kirovski and send the American into orbit.

There are a number of valuable lessons we can take from that story. First of all, don’t meg Ryan Giggs. Seriously though, nobody likes being megged, least of all a pro. Secondly, if you want to make someone look like a fool, be prepared to pay the price. And most importantly, Ryan Giggs was playing for his paycheck. Soccer was his livelihood and he was fully aware of that fact long before he was nut-megged by an American. He wasn’t too cool to do the dirty work.

In the US, bite isn’t cool anymore. Tackling isn’t cool. Being an enforcer isn’t cool. Taking a hard foul, or God forbid, a yellow card, to send a message isn’t cool either. Being cool now requires a ball lift, a nutmeg and a side-volley all in rapid succession. Blue collar role models like Roy Keane have been supplanted by remarkably acrobatic avatars generated by some computer whiz in a graphics studio. Form is outdueling function. Soccer players are becoming less like competitors and more like performance artists.

Today I watched a soccer video that is making the rounds on Facebook. It’s a collection of 1v1 moves. It’s not a match video; it’s just a demonstration video – a video produced specifically with the aim of getting hits and likes and shares and whatever else that earns one the label of ‘viral.’

The video’s objective is ostensibly to demonstrate the most complex ways imaginable to get around an opponent. Apparently the lunge – the simplest, and still most effective way to dribble by an opponent, just isn’t fashionable anymore. Nor is the scissors. Those moves are dinosaurs in the age of the YouTube player. To be cool these days, merely beating an opponent on the dribble isn’t enough. Now you need a move that could get you into the cast of Cirque du Soleil.

In that video, one of the moves takes literally six touches, with four of those touches keeping the ball off the ground and – wait for it – two of those juggling touches done with a blind back heel. It’s not a move; it’s a freaking magic trick! It’s like Rodney Dangerfield’s Triple Lindy - except more difficult.

And you know what? I bet that today a few thousand American boys are trying to learn that move, not because it will make them more effective players, but because somewhere along the line they became convinced that they need a freaking pen that writes in space.

Look, I am all for producing more technically proficient players. We’re going to need that to compete on the world stage. But to be a world class team, we also need world class competitors. And that’s not something you learn on YouTube. To rise to the top, you can't be just an artist; you also have to be part soldier, and I'm wondering if we've lost sight of that. As the aforementioned article states, "We never expose our players to the mayhem and chaos that soccer can be... by coddling and protecting them in an academy structure that discourages physical play and competing. In comparison, we are training fighters who never get punched in the face."

Like I said earlier, I'm not even certain this problem actually exists. But if it does, I don’t know how to fix it. Our priorities in youth soccer seem creature-comfort driven. We want smoother pitches, shinier uniforms, more gear and a darn fine brochure. Function takes a backseat to form.

If this ship is going to right itself, it has to start with coaches and parents accepting the reality that soccer isn’t a country club sport. Soccer is not just about what your feet can do with a ball. It isn’t just about playing pretty. The result has to matter. Competitiveness has to matter. And there has to be an understanding that no matter how pretty you want to play, the opponent is under no obligation to accommodate your style – regardless of how much you pay in club dues.

There will be games when talent and style carry the day, but sometimes, in order to win, you just have to out-grind the opponent. And if a player doesn’t have that club in his bag, somewhere along the line he will become obsolete.

The next time that dribbling video crosses my Facebook feed, I’m going to respond by linking this video of the aforementioned Ryan Giggs.

Don’t underestimate a good pencil.

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