Monday, December 6, 2010

What a girl needs...

Saturday night marked the end of one phase of my life, and the beginning of another. For the last five years, when someone asked me, "So what do you do?" I would proudly respond, "Oh, I'm the head women's soccer coach for a university team." It was easy for me to find pride in my answer because, for as long as I can remember, almost all of my answers to personal interests had often been about athletics in some way. What I could do on a court or on a field has been who I am as a person.

My enthusiasm about team sports is not going away, but I have sensed, in the last few years, a pull to pursue other things. I need to put my energy into creation rather than competition.

The last few weeks and months leading up to the actual "end" of my time as a college coach have been emotionally interesting. I have been working to identify what it is I am going to miss about coaching. I have identified what I am NOT going to miss.

I am not going to miss my hour-long-one-way commute.
I am not going to miss the time spent away from my family.
I am not going to miss the busy paperwork and organizational requirements.
I am not going to miss balancing a budget or planning the details.

What I am going to miss is this:

I will miss the girls. Simply...that's what I will miss. As I swim through the emotions of missing the team, I finally found some words to talk about how I am shifting to my next role. Below is part of the banquet speech. I know it is a cathartic start to my next stage in life, and I know I have made the right decision. Here is what I told the team...

My coaching husband has struggled with my decision to step down probably just as much as I have, but the fact that he is coaching tonight, and unable to be here, is just one example of how divided our family has become with our multiple seasons. He knows how hard this decision has been for me, and he has patiently nodded through my tears.****My disclaimer about what I am about to say is this…I know I have some guys in my house who may feel a little excluded, but sometimes it really is just a girl thing****

I see my daughters in all of you. I hope they grow up to be like you ladies in so many ways. You have big hearts. You care deeply and laugh hard. You manage to create good out of frustration, and I love that about you.

When you coach women…there are tears. There are tears when we’re hurt, there are tears when we are frustrated or angry, there are tears when we lose, and there are tears when we’re happy. When I played, I was better about keeping those tears hidden, but they were always there. It is only when you feel safe, that tears can come so easily. Crying marks those life moments. When something is big enough to make you cry, it’s because you have laid yourself out there, and tears simply happen. You first have to care enough to be moved to tears, and I can hardly express to you how much I have cared about this team. That’s probably a big part of the reason why I know it is time for me to stop this level of coaching for a while. I have been pulled toward a new set of tears. The pair of girls who make up the Frank daughter team are starting to care big enough to cry. The difference between daughter tears and player tears is simple. Players have an entire team on whom to lean…and a team like this one is a safe place to do that. Remember…you can have a team without a coach, but you can’t have a coach without a team.

Daughters, on the other hand, hope to lean on their moms (for a few years anyway), and there is no way to call in a sub for that one. Someone asked me the other day, “Aren’t you going to miss soccer?” My answer is this, “It’s not soccer I’ll miss…I can get to the game of soccer a million different ways, but what I will miss is what happens in the intimate relationships of a team…those tearful, growing moments. That’s what I’ll miss from this group…but I want to have a chance at that intimate relationship with my own girls. I love you girls, I really do…ALL the girls in my life!! The big ones and the little ones.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Even I Can Fall...

Winter Olympians are suicidal, masochistic, insanely talented athletes who have no fear of heights, speed or falling. The part of the brain that turns off logical reservation for most people, fires powerfully for these athletes, and I am awe-inspired because they are not petrified by those fear-filled events. Instead of being scared, they are motivated and joyful. It is a fascinating contrast to my own understanding of the world, and I can't help but to watch it endlessly.

I don't quite relate to today's best athletes because I am cautious and I thoughtfully consider how much something may hurt if I don't execute it perfectly. I don't think I've always been this way. I used to be more fearless and less logical, but the youthful tendencies of my playing days have given way to the conservative body-protecting mechanisms that have taken over as I've gotten older. I am probably even more impressed by the athletic talents of these young Olympians than I was when I was younger, but what blows my mind the most is the level of fearlessness that is regularly displayed.

As an unfortunate bi-product to my wonder, I have found that my expectations are becoming about as outrageous as the ridiculous skills displayed. Just like there is hardly a limit to how fast, how high or how crazy these Olympians can go, I, the spectator, am disappointed when they don't go higher, faster or crazier than the last guy. It is possible that I am simply reacting to the sound bytes in my home because my husband literally gets up and leaves the room if a figure skater has fallen during the program...taking him out of contention. We are not figure skating experts and we only watch it during the Olympics, but my husband was cheering (similarly to how he goads the television during football games) for all the male figure skaters to, "Throw down a quad."

He knows nothing more about the sport than I do, but, as we listen to the color commentators, we learn that a quad is incredibly difficult and dangerous, and we both really hope that they are going to at least try it. My husband gets mad that the young athlete who attempted, and failed, to throw down his quad, was not rewarded in any way. I, on the other hand, think it is a brilliant scoring system by the Olympic committee. Only rewarding landed jumps discourages the athletes who may be more "fearless" but who may not have the skill necessary to complete such a skill thus putting themselves in real danger. Encouraging athletes to do well the elements that they can do safely, is a fair expectation of the scorekeepers, but likely in contrast to the armchair skaters who live vicariously through the adrenalin rush of the crazy athletes. We want more.

While watching the free skate last night, when a skater would barely bobble a triple-lutz or touch a hand after a difficult combination, I was disappointed and my husband verbalized his frustration by saying, "He's not that good...I can do that. Even I can fall."

I laughed at the remark, because of course he couldn't do even half of what these guys are doing on the world stage, but I understand his disappointment. We watch these athletes because we hope they are more than human. We hope they are worthy of the television coverage and the dramatic background music. We hope that they'll do something that has never been done before, and we can at least, for a moment, share the glory of achieving the seemingly unachievable.

I count on the crazy athletes, those among us who will do anything in the name of sport. I will cheer and wonder and find inspiration in their willingness to do what they do...just as long as it is crazier than the last guy, and never performed by a kid in my house!

Monday, February 8, 2010

To Play or not to PLAY

It was the second game of the day for my son's squirt hockey team, so it was to be expected that they looked tired and sluggish.

"What is wrong with you? Move your feet!" One of the dads yelled.
"Skate!" Another screamed.
"Get going...go after the puck...don't just stand there...back check...stop him," similarly appalled parents yelled in succession for the majority of the game.

I got caught up in the emotion for sure, but my frustration was truly not with the was with the parents. It was hard not to be disappointed with the performance of the team, because we had all seen them play better, but I was mostly just disappointed with the expectations of the parents as a whole.

For those of you unfamiliar with the bizarre age-grouping of hockey teams, the squirt level is for kids ranging from ages 9-11 years old. Kids...who most certainly should be parented and directed and guided on a regular basis. Anyway, this particular game was an early evening game after a full day of team "bonding" at the hotel for the one weekend trip for this team. The day started with an 8 am game, after sleeping in the hotel the night before. Some of the families had gone up to Duluth early the day before to take in the slopes for snowboarding and skiing. When I was tucking our son into bed at 8:30 on Friday night, a large group of the boys were headed down to the pool...commenting on how our kid was missing out on the fun. I just knew we had three games in two days and the first game was at 8 am, so it made sense to me to get some sleep. My son reluctantly agreed.

After the win in the morning, some of the team spent additional time in the pool, most of the boys played a few hours of knee hockey, there were video games played in one of the rooms, tag games through the halls, a team movie/ sandwich party for three hours and more knee hockey before the second game of the day at 5 pm.

I admit that I struggled with the assertion of parenting to make my kid take an extra rest before the second game, but I kept in perspective the fact that he was going to be less than sharp for his performance in that second game, and I expected the sluggishness that was our team for that evening.

We lost the overtime...and I was truly only disappointed with the outcome because that meant we were going to have to get up at 8 am the following day for the third game. Several of the parents were visibly upset by the outcome, and one commented that he was so angry with his kid he really didn't have anything more to say about it. I know better than to assume that he really had "nothing" to say to his kid about his performance, and I became even more agitated with the unrealistic expectations.

What should a travel weekend for sports look like for a youth team? If the team is there for the fun parts that are the hotel, and the pool, and the friend time and the skiing and the snowboarding, I truly have absolutely no problem with that. My problem comes when there is an acceptance of the "fun" off the ice but frustration with the inability to perform. They are young boys who are supremely affected by how much they rest, by what they eat, by what they are told and by how much energy they expend. If the goal of a team is to "perform" for the weekend, then the expectations of life in the hotel needs to be drastically different than what this team was able to do for their weekend.

Youth coaches need to follow some very simple guidelines in preparing the team and their parents for a weekend trip to a hotel:

Lay out very clear expectations. Poll the families and the kids and determine whether they are happy to just compete or if they really want to perform at their best. As long as all the families, players and coaches are on the same page for expectations, the weekend can be enjoyable and productive.

If the team hopes to perform well, the expectations should be as follows:

Clear curfew, and possibly a suggestion for rest if there are multiple games in a day. Guidelines for the best foods to eat and when. There needs to be a designated time for fun (one hour in the pool, one hour of knee hockey, down time in your room, etc.) When coaches direct such an itinerary the kids will respond, and performance will improve.

Both kinds of weekends are memorable and fun for all members of the families involved, but when each family comes with their own individual goals for their kids and for the group as a whole, there are going to be discontented parents, and unfortunately, many of the kids will have a negative taste of something that should be nothing more than positive and fun. It is never fun to be yelled at by a disappointed parent, and I wonder what those boys who have an intense fan for a parent will remember more for the entirety of a travel weekend. The fun in the pool or the disappointed yelling of his dad or mom?

Friday, January 15, 2010

We Aren't a Football Family and are You Sure you Want to Figure Skate?

We are a sports family and there is no doubt that my husband and I promote active and busy kids. We allow them one sport per season, per kid and we claim that they can play any sport they want. I know we are lying, and every parent on this earth who says that the choice is up to the kids, well they are really lying too. Parents decide the sports their kids play, and I admit, through clenched teeth, that we are the same way.

One of my friends told me that she didn't want her boys to play hockey, so she was not going to get them on a pair of ice skates until they were in at least fifth grade.

"I know that if they do not skate early enough, they will never be competent enough to compete, and they will never play."

When I first heard her say that, I bristled at the thought that any kid would be denied a chance to play such a great game, but the deeper I dive into the youth sporting world (as a parent) the more I understand how imperative parental support is for the experience of the kid.

They need us to register them, to pay for them, to drive them to practices and games, to cheer for them and to encourage them when things don't go well. It is always, no matter how you cut it, a family affair. She was wise enough to know that she did not want her family committed to life in a hockey arena (she had grown up in northern Minnesota and knew all too well the commitment level), so she guided her family along another path.

Our nine-year-old wants to play football next fall. He weighs 60-pounds soaking wet and he has not yet played in this league where the kids have been tackling since 3rd grade. I fear he'll be pummeled and my husband is not keen on the idea either.

"We are not a football family," he calmly explains, and it is usually followed by a kid storming upstairs.

We may not be a football family, but we are a hockey family. I think that makes it hard for us to be anything else.

Our youngest still says that she is going to be a figure skater, and as we agree to help her pursue that dream, we have yet to sign her up for specialized lessons. I am sure that if she is persistent enough, we will let her try it, but she will quickly discover that she is alone in her pursuit, and it will take an incredibly aggressive dream to keep her motivated all alone. I know that we are ultimately the deciders for the sports our kids play.

Is that okay, though? I want to expose our kids to plenty of activities so that they find value in simply being active. I may push us to entertain football next fall, and I will support our youngest in her quest to be a figure skater, but I am noticing that the pull of the family is a strong one, and in all likelihood...all three of our kids will play hockey and golf (if I have anything to say about it) and the girls will likely play soccer. It is not that I am opposed to other sports, but there is a reality to the shuffling of kids from place to place, and it just seems to be the order of things. I do hope that I will recognize the needs of each of our children, within the confines of our family, but as separate and unique people who deserve a chance to explore what might make them happiest.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Why I Hate that He Hates Youth Sports...But I Can't Blame Him

A response to the Why I Hate Youth Sports article (listed below)

I get it. I get all of it. Hating the intensity, the cheating, the pressure and the grueling physical demands. I understand the disgust with overzealous parents and disappointment with a system of beliefs that leaves once-sports-hungry kids burnt out and hating the sports that define them.

I am not sure that I have an adequate response to the argument that sports are worth hating sometimes. It is the one area of life where we literally have permission to get pissed off. Fans hate to watch their teams lose, and players hate to lose even more. Athletes hate being told they are not good enough and parents hate to hear that the kid they have invested so much money and time developing is A) never going to achieve a high level or B) doesn't really want to keep going.

Sports are big business, and until, as a society, we are willing to admit that it has infiltrated the youth sports scene to such a degree that the sport is gone, more and more kids are going to abandon the marketplace well before their bodies should be done competing.

Times have changed since I competed, but I do feel that I was on the leading edge of the sports mania. I played soccer and basketball in college, even achieving the coveted "athletic scholarship" for the last two years I played. My sister and my husband achieved even greater successes, garnering full Division I scholarships for their entire four years. We are all in our 30's and none of us play anymore. Not even for fun. I blame my knees, my husband blames the bitter taste that was left in his mouth by the end of college hockey, and my sister admits that she is just plain burnt out of soccer.

I can tell that it's getting worse. After college, I coached an extremely competitive, premier-level soccer team. We traveled all over the country showcasing the players to college recruiters. In my playing days, our youth teams had traveled, and college coaches had been in attendance, but the feverish pace with which the club was working to stay in the market, was much more intense when I was part of it as a coach. As a result, the parents were more and more overbearing and the players were so intent on scholarship opportunities that they never really played well together as a team. The mounting pressure of team and individual success, coupled with the irrational opinions of parents who hoped that I would tell them what they wanted to hear and/or follow their instructions because they were paying my salary, eventually forced me out of coaching youth sports entirely.

I now coach a Division III women's soccer team, and I see more and more that the talented high school-aged athletes...when given a chance to make the choice their longer want to play. These able-bodied, well-skilled and talented players just don't want to play any more...not even for fun. My guess is that it stopped being fun for them a long time ago and they just finally made the decision not to continue playing.

So I get it, and I am deeply saddened by the voice of the young man who wants to give up on sports altogether. He is speaking for too many athletes. He hit it on the head when he said that he knows it is ridiculous that he should even care that he is never going to go pro. He must have believed that for a long time, because that was what got him out of bed to go to 5 am practices and to continue to subject himself to something that was not positive. Youth sports have failed him. No matter what the objective was supposed to be: his soccer teams, his hockey teams, his coaches, his parents, his teammates and everyone who never gently reminded him that sports are for fitness and sports are for fun, and sports are for life lessons that can hardly be taught any other way...they failed him.

I do wonder what this young man will do in ten to fifteen years when his kids are starting to run and catch and skate and play. When his kids ask to play on a youth soccer team or to race down a hill skiing. People are built to compete, and when kept in perspective, I think that the pendulum can start to swing back toward the ideal that was "youth sports" at its conception.

We have kids who are in the belly of the youth sports beast right now. Our son is 9 and plays hockey, primarily. Our middle daughter is 7 and she too plays hockey, but she also plays soccer, and our littlest is not yet old enough to get on the pitch. We are a sporting family, and that is where we spend our time and our money. Some of the politics and competition has started, in full force, at our son's level, and as appalling as some of it is, we really are just letting him take the lead. We encourage the things that he enjoys about sports, and we gently guide him through some of the pitfalls. It is not easy all the time, and I catch myself, sometimes, being that fanatical parent. I can see how the hype starts, and I am just grateful that both my husband and I know what a flash in the pan a high-level athletic career can be, so we can keep in perspective the importance of all of this.

The chances of our kids playing in college in a sport are approximately less than 10%, and the chances of any of our kids getting paid to play sports is less than 0.5%. Not great odds to get all bent out of shape about.

There are a lot of things that are wrong with youth sports, but as long as the things that are right can be the longer conversations at our dinner table, we will continue to encourage participation for our kids.

I hate some parts of youth sports too, but I love watching my 7-year-old gain confidence both on and off the ice. I love watching my 9-year-old play outside for hours during throw-together pick-up games. So far youth sports have provided the base with which our kids will continue to navigate through both sports and life. I don't know where it is going to go, but as a parent, I can at least make the effort to help them love the process without worrying too much about the end result, and maybe, just maybe...they'll be fans of sport for life, and they will actually still be playing when they are older. Especially, just for fun!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

First topic of discussion...

Here is a recent article about why youth sports is ruining kids. My next blog will be my reaction to this piece.

Why I can’t stand youth sports anymore
By Scott Martin
Ihate sports. I hate everything about them — the politics, the commitment, the late practices, the early practices, the hard work, the running, the skating, the tryouts, the sprints, the ladders, the boring drills, the overly enthusiastic parents, the cheers, the mascots, the jerseys, the screaming, the injuries, the repetition and, more than anything, the competition and pressure.

Yes, I’m the same child who grew up on soccer fields, the very same boy who played competitive soccer and hockey, and the same adolescent who, in less than three months, will try out for varsity lacrosse, but I’ve suddenly realized I loathe everything remotely associated with sports.

There was a time when I would diligently attend 5 a.m. hockey practice before school. There was a time when I would walk into class dripping sweat and reeking. There was a time when I dreamed big.

What caused this drastic change? Last year, a high school football player in Kentucky was allegedly “practiced to death,” although his coach was acquitted in September. Just before school started this fall, two young teens from St. Louis collapsed during practice and died. Since the season started, two high school seniors in California and Chicago collapsed during games and died.

I realized that we as a society take our children’s sports too far. Excessive parental involvement, ridiculous coaching policies, and programs built toward only victory have created a purely competitive, commitment-based sporting environment, turning kids off the games they love and distracting younger generations from the important humanizing elements that sports can teach.

American kids traditionally are enrolled in soccer by the age of 5 or 6, before many can proficiently read and write. We live in an age when the athletic scholarship overshadows the academic scholarship, where the sport you play determines the money you make. It’s a time in which the only way to get where you want to go is if you start early and never stop.

“Kids’ sports have become much more competitive,” says Dr. Jordan Metzl, medical director of the Sports Medicine Institute for Young Athletes. “In general, high-level competition for young kids is not a great thing.”

Sadly, children are helpless in the cultural labyrinth of sports. At the early age when most kids begin their sporting careers, the average child has no perception or experience with commitment, and parents, in hopes of breeding the next Michael Phelps or A-Rod, force their children into highly organized and unhealthy competitive lifestyles. When children reach the point to decide for themselves, many simply burn out, overwhelmed by the commitment and competitive atmosphere.

This high level of competition is also taking its toll on the bodies of young athletes. According to a 1999 study, kids 5 to 14 years old had the highest injury rates — 59.3 cases per 1,000 — and most of these injuries were a direct result of competitive sports and recreation.

Once a symbol of cooperation, leadership and sportsmanship, sports have become nodes of intense competition and immaturity— markedly beginning with adults. USA Hockey, in response to “unsatisfactory” parental behavior in ice rinks, began hanging posters emblazoned with the slogan, “Relax. It’s just a game.”

The real tragedy, though, is that many kids are missing out on the true importance of sports. Winning in most organizations overshadows virtue, sportsmanship and the game itself. Overbearing coaches drill young players into submission, resulting in a loss of self-esteem and confidence in the kids, and brewing a general distaste toward the game itself.

I love hockey, but I can’t stand the system and the ridiculous cultural values that coincide with athletic competition. It’s disheartening to know that despite all the hard work and time I’ve sacrificed, I still won’t go pro. And it’s ridiculous that I should even care about that. Something must be fundamentally wrong with the system when a boy dies merely training for the sport he loves — and if that is the case, I definitely

have better things to do with

my time.
Scott Martin is a senior at Cherry Creek High School and lives in Centennial.