Youth Soccer Players – Knock it off!

I was attending my son’s U14 soccer match last week. After about twenty minutes I had seen two players rolling around on the ground grabbing their ankles before jumping up to take a free-kick. Two others clutched their heads in anguish after getting knocked down but were miraculously healed by the sound of a whistle.  So when one of our players cracked an opponent with a pretty heavy (and admittedly late) tackle, I rolled my eyes as the kid thrashed around on the ground clutching his leg.

He stayed down and a parent asked me, “Erik, do you think he’s hurt?” I shrugged and said, “That’s the fifth kid that’s grabbed his leg and the second time that one’s stayed down. I doubt it.”  However, he stayed down. Their coach came to the field and started to check him out. When he took the shoe off, the kid slammed back onto his back, started slapping the ground and screamed.  The place went silent. A parent whispered, “Oh my God,” and I felt like a jerk.  A few seconds later, the player arched his back, leaned his head back and screamed again. I start scanning the the parking lot to see where an ambulance could most easily get access to the field as I assumed this was a broken leg. I swore to stop being so cynical and was embarrassed by the thoughts that went through my head when somebody’s child went down.  However, two minutes later the young man hobbled off the field. Four minutes later he checked back into the game. He played another 30 minutes with no sign of a limp.

Youth soccer players – Knock it off.  This is not about “looking like a man,” changing soccer’s image in America, toughening up, sportsmanship or anything like that.  It is about not scaring the hell out of your parents and the adults charged with keeping you safe.  The faking, or dramatizing, injuries has to stop. This was just an example, but I swear I have seen more kids thrashing on the ground and/or holding their heads.  Their are three people who can stop this.

Players

I know you see the professionals doing this act every night and want to be like them. I get it. I really do.  Professional players reactions are not going to change. I wish they would, but they won’t.  Here’s the thing though.  You are not professional players.

I know you see Neymar, Renaldo, or Mbappe rolling around in anguish in front of tens of thousands of die-hard soccer fans who are glancing up at the giant replay to see if the player has a sliver or has, in fact, been smitten by one of Zeus’ lightning bolts. Those fans get the “drama” of professional soccer. Your parents do not.

There are not tens of thousands of fans. There are maybe 20-30 parents.  There is no Jumbotron for them to see what happened to you.  Most of them are sitting 50-80 yards away in lawn-chairs with impossible sight-lines.  They do not get the “drama” of professional soccer. In fact,  most of them do not even truly understand the off-sides rule. They do not see a multi-millionaire laying on the ground selling the foul. They see their son or daughter that they once rocked to sleep laying in the grass in apparent agony.  It is terrifying.

I am sorry but your parents are probably not die-hard soccer fans. Even if they have a good view of your foot getting stepped on, they may not have been watching. The odds are that Mom was talking about Book Club and Dad had his face in his phone trying to manage his fantasy football team when they heard the whistle blow.  They did not see your foot get raked but looked up to see you crumpled on the ground holding your head.  It is 2018 in America. They do not see an expression of agony. They see a potential concussion and it freaks them out.  Please stop grabbing your head when your ankle is twisted.

Your parents love you and have committed an enormous amount of time, money, and energy to your sport.  Your safety is their number one priority.  Do not toy with that. If you are the 0.1% that makes it pro, go ahead flop around on the ground. Until then, remember you are somebody’s child.

Coaches:

I get competitive advantage, especially as kids advance through the higher leagues.  Players are going to dive. They are going to flop for fouls. Some of you teach/encourage it.  If I am being honest, when I played I had no problem going to ground if I thought I could get a free kick from it.  Like it or not, it is going to happen.

However, there is no need for children to fake or dramatize injury.  Players will need to leave the field when they get banged up. That’s sports. However, if you have someone acting like they are hurt, make them sit for a period of time.  If they are screaming to the heavens, do not put them back in the game.  Again, I am not asking you toughen anyone up or make anyone learn to play hurt.  I am asking you to help stop the stuff the scares parents.

Kids are going to be kids. They are going to panic when something hurts and may need to come off the field. That is no big deal.  You talk to them about concussions.  Tell them from Day One that you take head injuries seriously and anyone suspected of a head injury will not play.  That’s common sense and league policy. Personally, I would tell them that if they are grabbing their head for drama, I am going to treat it like a head injury.  Maybe I am wrong.  You can set the bar for acceptable behavior.

Parents:

We are the ones that can stop this.  We can end it. This is a very simple conversation and one I have had it many times with Ben.   We have talked about “hurt vs injury” from a very young age. He knows that if he thinks he is injured, he is to stay down and I am fine with that.  He also knows that he is never to fake an injury or to engage in injury theatrics.

Ben knows that if he has to check out of a game and re-enters later, I am fine with that. I trust him and his coaches.  He also knows that if he fakes an injury, I will not let him back on the field. I am not doing the “tough-dad” act, but we have had conversations and he knows that if he fakes an injury I will walk across the field and insist that the coach does not let him re-enter.  He knows that if he thrashes around holding his head and pops back up, I will ask his coach to treat it like a concussion and remove him.  It has nothing to do with playing hurt at all. It has everything to do with not cheapening the concern for and the reaction to the next player who might actually be injured.

As parents, we can stop this. We can let our children know that our families do not engage in these behaviors. We can make those rules and we can enforce them. It can be stopped.

As we drove home from the last game, I talked to Ben about the player who was screaming. We talked about how we do not act like that, how it’s bad for the game and just how ridiculous it was. We discussed how there is nothing wrong with being hurt but making sure your respond appropriately. I said, “Beyond looking foolish, can you imagine what the player’s mom and dad felt like when he was laying there screaming? I felt horrible for his parents.  If that was you, I would have been terrified and probably would have climbed the fence to get to you.  Please, do not ever do that to your mom and me.”  He gets it.

We can stop this if we do not accept it.

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