A Soccer Mom Shares her Strategies for Creating Educational Opportunities Through the Love of the Game
March 22, 2020
When I first began to understand that pandemic quarantines and social distancing were going to be our norm for at least a few weeks, there was a little piece of me that was excited to have my family together. Please don’t get me wrong – in no way do I wish for the human tragedy, chaos, and economic devastation of something like this. I am concerned about both short and long-term impacts, so what is there to be ‘excited’ about?
Naïve Parenting Dreams
I was that nerd girl that did every bit of my homework, including extra credit. It never occurred to me that my kids would be any different. When they were little, we counted cars at stop signs, read books, made up stories, played Blue’s Clues about science. I just thought that would roll into them loving school. I imagined cheerfully working on their homework after wholesome dinners of quinoa and kale. I even had a silly daydream about homeschooling. In my idealized Magic School Bus scenario, as we’d travel around the country making art, history, and science come magically alive. We’d study Georgia O’Keefe and water conservation while hunting for fossils in the Southwest. We’d explore the Great Lakes along with sustainable mining and forestry in the north.
Whose Kids are These?
My dream was crushed about a week into first grade. Homework packets were tearful, painful trials. Using M&Ms to make addition and subtraction fun DID NOT result in happy, joyful Facebook brag videos. I became someone I didn’t even want to know – a crazy lady yelling about bad attitudes and kids in Africa that didn’t get to go to school. Surprisingly, it didn’t work. My boys wanted to be kicking a ball, playing tag, or catching something. They wanted to be outside riding scooters or inside on a video screen. They teased me about being Hermione. It was not a compliment.
I knew that little burst of excitement this week about FINALLY getting to homeschool my youngest (Luke, 14) was pure madness. I fell for it anyway. He’s is more interested in science and math than language arts, so I started planning how we’d study the Erie Canal that’s right down the street. As I happily laid out my ideas, we repeated that soul crushing first grade experience.
The Football Epiphany
Luke loves soccer. He’s happiest in shin guards. It’s a huge part of his identity and our household revolves around practices, games, and travel to tournaments. Vacations are planned to not interfere with tryout weeks and pre-season training. Discussions about homework and grades are encouraged in terms of what it will take to wear a Division 1 uniform.
Finally it occurred to me. There is a way to get what we both want. What if soccer becomes the focus of our homeschool? I don’t mean drills and hours of being Messi on PlayStation FIFA. I mean learning science, math, reading, writing, computers, and other needed skills by using soccer as the focus. Yes, I want him to have a well-rounded education, but right now the ‘what’ he studies can be secondary to the ‘how’ to learn and the foundational skills that he can develop.
Meet TSC (Total Soccer Curriculum)
I tentatively mention this to Luke, not sure if I can relive the pain of first grade yet again. Bingo! He’s suddenly, if begrudgingly, happy about the prospect of what we’re calling TSC (Total Soccer Curriculum). I had some work to do. I am not a teacher and do not profess to be an expert at curriculum development. Thankfully, there are amazing resources now at our disposal. I am pretty confident that kids will actually go back to school at some point. Luke’s teachers have also started ramping up work for him to do. The bottom line is that I don’t have to teach him everything. So, I started by figuring out what I really wanted to achieve and learning how to build on the work of others who have already braved this territory. Less than a week in, here’s where we’re at so far:
The Maths of Soccer
I was ok at math in school, but it wasn’t ‘real’ to me. It was only after I went to school for engineering that I discovered the true beauty of math. It gives us the power to understand the world and the knowledge to make good decisions. That’s what I want Luke to learn – that math is useful and not something to be feared.
In searching for options, I found many resources that outline ways to use sports to teach math. Fractions and percentages seem so much easier to understand in the language of sports. Some of the links that were very useful included Sylvan and AcheiveLearning. There’s even a special version of Madden NFL that teaches math.
For my soccer-crazed kid, using sports analytics to make math more real is something we could both get excited about. (I actually think it could be a great career for him, but that’s another blog!) Statistics wasn’t my thing in school, but I again found some great help. There’s a wonderful blog post from the NYT titled Playing Smart with Data: Using Sports Analytics to Teach Math The article outlines a four-step approach, which Luke and I gave a try.
Step 1: Gather Data.
The article suggests exploring who collects what data and why. I’m a fan of open-ended learning, so I asked Luke:
- If you were to build a Premier League team and you could only look at numbers rather than the names of the players, what stats would be important to you?
- Other good questions could be: How do you define a ‘good’ striker or a ‘good’ defender? What stats would you look at? In what ways are Chelsea’s numbers is better than Tottenham?
Luke built a spreadsheet that captured that data for the four best and four worst teams in the Premier League. He was amazingly chipper and talkative as he found and entered the data. Definitely not the first grade experience! I was a little giddy.
Step 2: Analyze the Data.
The engineer in me loves spreadsheets and data. It’s important to me that Luke knows how to look at information. I honestly couldn’t say that I know how much he’s been exposed to that kind of thing in school. So, I tried to keep it relatively simple but relevant to see where he’s at.
I don’t pretend to know much of anything about soccer strategy, but I wasn’t a fan of the very defensive style of play that one of his coaches used a couple of years ago. The team would play so far back on their side that they would only shoot 2 or 3 times a game. They lost. A lot. So I asked Luke:
- Is the number of goals a team scores a good predictor of how many games that they win?
- How many shots would a team generally need to take to score that many goals?
In the end, we stayed relatively simple with our analysis. I showed him how to build charts in a spreadsheet. We charted wins against goals scored. I had to adjust to his Google preference vs. my Excel, but we did it. We also calculated the percentage of goals scored per shots taken for the best and worst teams. He was genuinely interested in the information, but was also really happy to learn how to quickly do charts and calcs without having to build them by hand. The nerd girl lived the dream of having a happy, learning kid for a full five minutes. It was awesome.
Step 3: Visualize the Data.
There are all kinds of great ways to do this. The NYT blog references an article that incorporates really interesting infographics about the US women’s offense vs. Germany’s defense in the 2015 World Cup.
I had Luke read it (Ha! Incorporating reading while studying math...He didn’t even realize it was happening! 😊 ) Despite himself, he was really interested. We did skip making heat maps. I didn’t want to push my luck, but at least he does know what they are.
Step 4: Report.
Ah-ha! Another way to integrate language arts and math. Again, things were going so well that I braved the last step. I had him write ONE paragraph describing if he were a coach how he’d use what we learned to select his own team. I didn’t know that eyes could roll that far back and still be useable, but we have one extremely short summary of results. I will call it success.
Science, the Magnus Effect & A Knuckleball
The following day, we tackled a little science. There are so many cool science experiments and lessons that can be coupled with soccer. Searching for soccer science gives a wealth of options, including several videos. The web site Sciencing.com has some great science fair ideas that can also be done as homeschool lab experiments. I’m interested in biomechanics, but a mention (and explanation) of that doesn’t yield any interest from Luke. So, we decided to try some physics. Ok, I decided and he got more interested as we went along.
The Davidson Science Institute has an informative post entitled “The Science of Soccer Kicks”. Among other things, it explains the science of curved shots, which is really interesting to Luke. We found a separate video nicely explaining the concept.
Luke informs me that it is not ok to call them ‘banana balls’. We learned that the right term is actually the Magnus Effect, but I am apparently not allowed to call them Magnus balls either. The whole thing did interest him enough that he wanted to know why/how soccer knuckleballs worked. I had a little shiver of happiness because I was living my dream. My kid was curious enough about something to ask that we learn together! A quick Google search took us to an explanation from the American Academy of Physics on the science of soccer knuckleballs, complete with a Ronaldo video.
I could have gotten really excited about doing experiments with curving balls, calculating trajectories, etc., but I am a little wiser than I used to be. We wrapped it up for the day while he was still relatively happy and we were on good footing.
The Language of Football
We’re still early into this homeschool thing, and it’s really just an enhancement to what Luke’s teachers are sending him. But, I’m not ready to give it up. He doesn’t know it yet, but the next few days will be super fun! He’s learning French in school, and I’ve found several soccer-oriented French videos. He’s going to love it! This one teaches French soccer terms.
There are similar versions for Spanish and multiple other languages. Rocket Languages also offers a free session on sports. For younger students, there are free spelling games, crossword puzzles, and word searches. Some good examples can be found at Scholastic.
For Luke, I’ve come across writing prompts. They seem a little young for him, but then again, writing isn’t his passion. I’m thinking that we may try a paragraph or two in French. What I really think would be good is to have him read a book (several available on Amazon Kindle) or at least do some research and write a paper about either a soccer player he really admires. Where are they from? What is life like in that country? (Geography, social studies, and language arts! So fun!). I’m not entirely certain that my excitement will spill over to Luke. I guess we’ll see how it goes.
The World Cup of History, Social Studies, Geography, etc.
For younger kids, there are a lot of worksheets that can be done that are soccer themed. Match the location and flag to the World Cup team, etc. (That may still work for us. However, just a little bit of investigation, yielded another treasure trove of things to learn. The History Channel has several short videos on the history of soccer. Even more exciting, apparently there’s a bit of a controversy about the actual origins of the game. Maybe we’ll do some research?
Stamford Bridge and the Architecture of Football
This one may be a bit of a stretch, but I know how much Luke always liked building things. It occurs to me that studying actual soccer stadiums would be kind of awesome. Equally awesome – Architectural Digest has already done the research! I also remember that there’s a 3D stadium puzzle in his closet from last Christmas. That should keep him off a screen for at least an hour.
Playing Hard While Practice is Cancelled
We’re located in New York state where the news isn’t yet getting better. Schools and practices are cancelled for at least another three weeks. There’s no way that I can come close to giving Luke the excellent education that he gets from the teachers at his high school or coaches. But that’s not my goal. I want to teach him that learning is exciting and fun. It doesn’t have to originate with a homework assignment. I’m not above exploiting his passion for the beautiful game to get him there!
To all of the other aspiring athlete parents out there — let me know what you’re doing and what is working for you. Stay tuned for future blog posts as we ride out these unprecedented times as a soccer community.
Katie Ellet is an engineer and soccer mom. She co-founded SOAKS - undersocks engineered to protect soccer athletes from shin guard dermatitis while providing a comfortable, performance-enhancing experience. Designed by those who understand the trials of soccer life, SOAKS are also designed to eliminate odors! (www.silversoaks.com)