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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THE Day

It was not supposed to go down like this.  There is a bead of sweat rolling down the side of my face as I realize I have made a terrible mistake from which I am not sure I can recover. Staring across the ping-pong table from me is a grim-faced eleven-year old boy who is flexing his knees and taking every shot seriously now.  He thinks today is going to be the day.  He thinks today is the day he takes down his old man.  I have always let him stay close before pulling it out at the end but today I regret that. I have intentionally flubbed a bunch of shots but a few errors on my part (and great shots on his) has left me three points from losing.  He thinks today is the day.

“They” say the happiest and saddest day in every boy’s life is the day that he realize he can beat his father. Video games do not count. It is the day a boy can beat his father at some physical activity.  It is the happiest day because the boy realizes that he is growing up and becoming a man.  However, at the same time the boy suddenly has to face the fact that his dad is not a mythical, invincible deity, but simply a man. A man who is starting to lose the fight with Father Time.  Essentially, the boy kills his hero.

I vividly remember my day. In middle school, I was fast. I was very fast. At an extended family gathering, I mentioned this and my dad made some comment about keeping me in my place.  Not thinking he would ever accept, I challenged him to a race. To my shock, he accepted and my aunts and uncles, and cousins, and grandparents all headed out to the street to watch.  I trudged through the yard already embarrassed because I knew there was no way I could beat my dad. I just never thought he would accept the challenge and now I was going to look dumb. My mom even pulled me aside and said, “Why are you doing this? You know you can’t win. You’re still a boy.”  I knew she was right and I knew that I had put myself in position that I was going to be hearing about for a long time.

At the start line, my dad looked down at me and said, “We are only doing this once. This is you’re only shot. No excuses” I nodded and got ready.  My entire family was out there and my uncle started the countdown.  “On your mark.”  Deep breath.  “Get Set…..” and my old man cheated. He was three strides down the street before I realized I had to move. This was my one shot and I started from behind.

I remember going as hard as I could. I also remember feeling a bit puzzled at how quickly I made up the “head-start.” I was surprised at the half-way point when  I was a couple strides ahead of him and feeling like I had not really even hit my stride. I was in a little disbelief by how much I won by and how I eased up a little at the end because it did not feel right.  Later, I snuck back out there and stared at the street. I was elated because I knew I could out-run grown men and I had beaten my dad. At the same time, there was an odd sense of disappointment and general weirdness. I was too young to put words on it, but later I realized it was the sadness “they ” say every boy feels when he beats his dad. Sad that his hero is really just a man who is starting to get older.

And now Ben thinks today is the day.  I can see it in his eyes. He is not jabbering about Pokemon anymore.  He is not talking about soccer. He has stopped trying to do fancy shots.  The only smile I see is the smile he is desperately fighting to stifle every time he scores. Ben thinks he is three points away from something special.

I know it’s not the day because I have intentionally let him stay close and then made some mistakes. It still takes effort to make the game close without making it obvious that I am tanking.   However, he does not know this. The scoreboard does not know this. The scoreboard says the day is three points away.

I know the day is coming. It is inevitable.  I will feel proud and a little sad.  He will be elated with a weird feeling he can not pin-point.  When that day comes, I want it to be real. For him and me.

I have three points left to make sure I push the day back. Fortunately, Ben is eleven-years-old and is starting to choke. All I have to do is keep the ball on the table and he screws up two points.  On the third point, I put a ton of backspin on my shot and watch his little dreams crumble as he bashes the ball into the net.

He drops his paddle, falls to his knees with a huge smile and yells, “Nooo!”  Ben gets to his feet laughing and gives me a huge hug.  “Dad! I almost beat you!  I thought I was really going to do it today!”

“Yeah buddy. It was close!  You will get me some day.  Today is just not the day.”

The day?”

“Don’t worry about it. You’ll know it when it gets here.”

**Addendum:.  My dad read this blog and recalls our race.  He told me today that he knew the only way he stood a chance was by cheating.

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My Boy Chose Right!

Sometimes you have to let the boy choose. You try to give them the freedom to weigh options and choose, but you secretly pray that he chooses the option that most benefits you.

Ben plays travel soccer and the season starts soon. He loves it. I love it. I love soccer. I like his team. I like his coach. I like watching the games and practices. I have already paid for all the uniforms, ref fees, and equipment. His games are pretty local. His first game is about six weeks away.

Ben also does Destination Imagination. He loves it. I do not. Destination Imagination is basically an event that his team works on for weeks on end. It culminates in a competition that boils down to parents sitting in some random school gym for a couple hours before the kids perform a 5 minute, mumbled and incoherent skit that centers around some project they worked on. Usually a load-bearing structure. Parents then sit in the gym for a couple hours more. Then the kids go to a room for some problem-solving contest. No parents are allowed in. We get more gym time. Then the parent sit in the gym until the awards ceremony. Usually in a gym. It is a slight step above hell but the kids love it. Ben’s team competed last week and again qualified for the State competition which is the first week of soccer. Of course.

Here is the kicker. State Competition is a three hour drive to the town I went to graduate school in. I hate that town. In fairness, when I went there I had just finished my undergrad work. I left my girlfriend back at the college I had spent the last few years drinking my way through and was now renting some lady’s basement and trudging back and forth to a library for a few years. The town did not get a fair shake, but I despised my time up there. All my friends were getting married or getting paid to work while I sat in a library, eating 49 cent Hot-N-Now Burgers and watching my relationship with my girlfriend (now wife) disintegrate. When I left, I swore I would never set foot in that town again. I have driven through that city in such desperate need of a restroom that I was sweating, but refused to stop until I was outside of the city limits. I swore my feet would never touch that soil again. I broke that vow last year for Destination Imagination State.. Here we go again

I had to let Ben understand the commitments he made, weigh the options and choose However, here is what it boiled down to. In the white corner, weighing in as a weekend at home with a couple hour commitment that I enjoy…. Soccer! In the red corner, weighing in as six-hours-of drive time, hundreds of dollars in hotel and food fees, countless hours of sitting in lobbies, and time spent in the wasteland of Mount Pleasant, MI (oops, I said it. Sorry CMU. Oops, again)… we have Destination Imagination.

I can say with all integrity that I let Ben choose and did not push my agenda at all. Today he announced that he made a decision. The last time I felt so nervous and scared was walking alone in the wood after watching the Blair Witch Project. Today, Ben made his choice and I could not be happier. Sorry D.I.