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Coaches Blog

Sam's Blog is a bi-weekly addition to the US Youth Soccer Blog. Sam Snow is the Coaching Director for US Youth Soccer.

 

ODP Trials in Arizona

Sam Snow

The US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program (http://www.usyouthsoccer.org/programs/OlympicDevelopmentProgram/) is flourishing under the Arizona sun. This past weekend I attended the open try-outs of Arizona Youth Soccer ODP (http://www.azyouthsoccer.org/odp/program_overview.aspx). I was pleased to accept the invitation from Austin Daniels, technical director and Karla Thompson, assistant technical director to attend the trials at the wonderful soccer facilities at Grande Sports World (http://grandesports.com/) in Casa Grande. The visit allowed me to work with the state staff coaches, to observe the players and to speak with the players’ parents.

The weekend US Youth Soccer ODP trials began with a meeting on Friday evening for the state staff coaches. Coach Thompson heads up the Program for the state association. She ran an efficient and productive meeting for a room full of coaches from across the state who work in the clubs, high schools and colleges. Age group assignments, designated fields were noted and the detailed weekend schedule was reviewed. A very good professional standard was set. The staff stayed at the complex hotel and had their meals together. That allowed time and opportunity for the staff coaches to bond, extend their professional connections, review the player evaluations and share their ideas on coaching high performance players.

Saturday morning began with me running the coaches through a session on the field. The training session focused on playing out of the defending third and into midfield. That piece of the American style of play is the foundation unearthed in the US Youth Soccer ODP Coaching Manual. All four US Youth Soccer regions and the 55 state associations use the Manual as a progressive plan to help all of the players in the program evolve to an international level of play. The Manual gives us a uniform approach to develop players in the Program across the nation for both boys and girls. The starting point is how to keep possession of the ball and play our way out of the back third into midfield with good control of the ball and a tactically sound attacking shape around the ball.  Coaches may download the US Youth Soccer ODP Coaching Manual here.

Saturday afternoon arrived and the administrators did an outstanding job of checking in hundreds of players at a time. Each day was divided into three 90 minute sessions with three age groups of boys and girls attending the trials in each session. In the end, over 1,000 players turned up for the open try-outs, which was very impressive on its own account and even more so given the 110 degree days. The coaches and the players handled the climate well with water breaks every 10 minutes, player rotations in the training activities and eating appropriately to meet the athletic demands of the game.

The training activities consisted of small and large groups working on the tactic of buildup play from the back to the half way line. Once the groups were playing 9 vs. 9 at the end of the sessions on Sunday the players were showing real improvement on the tactics for this aspect of attacking play.  Goalkeepers consistently played short distributions, attackers worked to inter-pass to keep possession while penetrating up field and quality soccer ensued.

Each age group had two full sessions, one on Saturday and the other on Sunday. On Saturday once the training sessions began Coach Daniels, Coach Thompson and I met with the parents of the players. Coach Daniels gave a quick overview of the Program and then had Coach Thompson give details pertinent to the age groups for the parents in the room. I then spoke about the national scope of the Program, why there was a particular training theme and the reality of moving up the soccer pyramid which requires the adults to have a long term perspective. I told the parents that they must help their child with the proper balance of short and long term goals to stay on the pathway for high performance soccer. This is a twisting and turning pathway which demands confidence and perseverance from the players and their parents. Success is not instant nor lasting in high performance soccer. Coach Daniels and I then completed each parent meeting with time for Q and A.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. – Winston Churchill

The entire weekend went very well. Even though the challenge of the Olympic Development Program is steep, the players showed their best, learned more about the game and carried on down the path toward the possibility of playing in a World Cup or the Olympic Games. I encourage you as a player, coach, administrator or referee to participate in US Youth Soccer ODP as soon as you can.

Courage does not always roar.  Sometimes, courage is that quiet voice that says...I will try again tomorrow. – Mary Anne Radmacher

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But Does It Pay?

Susan Boyd

Forbes came out with its list of highest earning athletes for 2015. Numbers three and four were Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, earning $80 million and $74 million, respectively. Other than Fortune 500 CEOs and the world’s richest people, no other profession garners such press about what they earn. When a player is signed to a team, that declaration is always followed by a statement on salary and bonuses. Every year the numbers escalate, and we gasp to hear what someone makes for athletic prowess and the transfer fees clubs are willing to lay down for their services. The English Premier League just began its season, and I was watching a match with Manchester City where the announcers declared that Nicolas Otamendi had been purchased from Valencia for $56 million. Double-digit million dollar salaries have become common place in the world of sports, and athletes can supplement their contracts with bonuses and endorsements. It’s no wonder we parents look at our budding soccer player and wonder if he or she will be so blessed.

That siren call of mega-salaries encourages us to see the next Clint Dempsey or Abby Wambach in our children. However, the closest any of us come to any sort of professional sports contract is primarily through a six degrees of separation situation. In our family, my daughters went to high school with the present manager of the Milwaukee Brewers and my workmate at Wisconsin ODP had a son who played briefly for several MLS teams. The left forward to Robbie’s right on his US Youth Soccer ODP team now plays for Columbus Crew. Bryce actually had a one year contract to play professional indoor soccer at $50 a game – double-digits at the wrong end of the pay scale. Most of us have stories about a player we know who went on to play professionally, but it’s rarely our own child. That doesn’t discourage us from keeping an eye on professional salaries and wondering if we have the offspring who’ll make the cut. Robbie and Bryce liked to design villages made out of sponges, cardboard, and glue, yet I admit I didn’t obsess at the idea of them becoming contractors or architects the same way I thought about them advancing in sports. I just took it as part of childhood play. There’s something about athletics which makes us think far more long-term than any other activity in which our kids participate.

That elusive but huge carrot at the end of the stick somehow creates an atmosphere where we expect something tangible from playing sports. It’s not enough that kids have the chance to run and screech, learn some athletic skills, share fun with their friends, and get some exercise. If there is to be youth sports, there has to be wins, trophies, rankings and honors. But most importantly, there has to be a future that kids strive toward – travel team, US Youth Soccer ODP, high school, college, professional. Parents see this as one continuous road that our kids will travel, so we often miss the signs that our child has either had enough of that sport or isn’t up to the next level. We can’t imagine our players quitting or not achieving. The concept of youth sports has morphed into a production line with heavy expectations of the quality and complexity of the final product.

The long-term tangible of sports would be salary, but we also look to the more short-term. This may explain why kids get participation trophies. As result-based as we are in competitions, we seem not to be content with only wins. If you can’t win, then at least you can feel appreciated. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison turned to social media to express his frustration with these awards. When his boys attended a camp this summer they both came home with participation trophies, which Harrison made them return. His argument was that he couldn’t raise his boys “to be men by making them believe they are entitled to something.” He expressed his pride in and support for everything his boys did, but he felt they had to earn their rewards through effort and talent. The argument has raged for decades – some saying these awards help create stronger self-esteem with others saying it promotes a culture of entitlement. When The Today Show reported on this story, it ran a poll asking if kids should receive trophies, medals and ribbons for participation. The results were an overwhelming 93 percent for “no,” a surprise considering how much society values overt indications of achievement. I’ve often felt that these participation incentives were more for the parents than for the child. They provide material evidence that the child is progressing, even when that’s not true. But perhaps the tide is turning.

Parents may actually need encouragement more than the kids. Youth players usually define success in terms that adults don’t use: having fun, seeing friends, running, goofing around, and, yes, even scoring a goal. Adults see success in terms of outcomes: wins, scoring, trophies, getting an honor, playing time, and team standing. Kids become concerned with those things, but they grow into those expectations as they witness their importance with the adults surrounding them. Taking the next step in a sport by elevating a level in competition can be very important to parents, but less so to kids. Youth athletes often just want to be on a team with their friends and have fun doing it. Most youth players rarely hang on to any disappointment over a loss, even a very lopsided one. They have a much different agenda – what are they doing after the game, what’s the snack, can they go out for pizza. The same holds true for a win. Trophies are nice, but after a ceremony I frequently found those ribbons, medals, and trophies stuffed in drawers, packed away in boxes, even left under the car seats. The boys had shelves reserved for displaying the hardware, but because they got so many awards for things that had nothing to do with being champions, the value of everything was diminished. A hard fought victory, even a well fought loss, meant more than the promise of swag.

It’s difficult to hear about highly paid athletes and not feel both envy and ambition. We parents are all well past the point where we could hope to earn those salaries, but our kids possess the possibility. Even manufactured rather than true accomplishment makes us believe the dream could happen. And it may, but only for a few grains of sand on the beach. Kids concern themselves with the process while adults consider outcomes demonstrated by discernible rewards. We focus on progress in the form of advancement in competitiveness, records, awards, and even money. We forget the real reason kids play sports, which has nothing to do with accomplishment. While youth players do enjoy wins and accept a trophy with pride, these aren’t the reasons they participate. For them a participation award is the opportunity to be with friends, play with abandon, and just have fun. That’s something that actually has value.

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Bon Voyage

Susan Boyd

Don’t kid yourself. Whether your child’s team is labeled recreational, select, or travel, at some point you’ll be taking a trip to compete. So you need to be prepared. Every trip involves expense, discomfort, anxiety and aggravation. These are not possible glitches. These are guarantees. It’s not all gloom and doom when one travels, but to expect things to run smoothly, happily and correctly would be living in a fool’s paradise. You add the pressure of competition to the mix, and things can quickly spiral out of control. This is why we all need to plan carefully and then be willing to throw all the plans out the window. Flexibility, a sense of humor, and some practical survival skills will see you through.

The expense of trip cannot be controlled. It’s wise to budget and it’s also wise to have an emergency stash of funds. When a team travels, you are at the mercy of team decisions, so you don’t get to choose the hotel, the location for team meals, even how free time is handled. You may not get to choose how you travel to the event. It’s analogous to going into a theme park. Every cost has been predetermined, has no negotiation, and holds you hostage for your sustenance and fluids. Everyone is having a good time except your wallet. Before the season starts, be sure to make your wishes known when it comes to travel expenses. If you have a frequent flier or frequent stay account, let the team manager know where those are. Should enough team families have similar programs, then at least you might be able to make reservations where you could get some points. Don’t be shy when it comes to what you can afford. The only control you may have could be preemptive at the first team meeting.

I’ve slept on a king-size bed for decades, but on team trips I might open my hotel door to see two tiny double beds greeting me facing a tube TV, which has 10 or fewer channels. If the team tightens its collective financial belts, it may mean less than desirable accommodations. Even if you get more comfortable queen beds, you’ll still be sharing the room with at least one child who will be muddy, sweaty, smelly and messy. If it’s a teenage boy, you’ll face clothes on the floor, wet towels spread like fall leaves around the room, and stinky cleats and socks always left right under the air conditioner or heater which will waft the scents throughout the room. If it’s a teenage girl, you’ll have triple the wet towels, absolutely no counter space, and the loss of the bathroom for 45 minutes each morning and evening. Those towels on the floor measure on the fabric scale as more gauze than plush. You may not have decent water pressure to fully rinse that shampoo out of your hair. My favorite is the toilet that sits so close to the floor you will wonder if you stumbled onto a day care center bathroom. Forget healthy, organic nutrition low in sodium and high in protein. Pizza will be the primary staple followed by burgers and fries, with chips providing a constant smorgasbord of crunchy mess in the room, your car, and the soccer bag. You may be able to get a decent, albeit expensive, cup of coffee from Starbucks thanks to its proliferation around the globe. On the other hand, a manager may elect to have a team dinner at a three star restaurant where the parents order lots of wine, liquor, and beer although you don’t drink, and then split the bill evenly. The food won’t be discomforting, but the cost (see first principle of travel) will be. Adding to the situation, none of the kids will enjoy their food and so you’re stuck with ordering pizza in the room after dinner. Hopefully you won’t get the noisy cooling unit or the smoke alarm that blinks incessantly all night, but I can pretty much guarantee you will. If it’s a large tournament, then you’ll be sharing your hotel with several other teams, meaning some teams will be disciplined and others will be up most of the night in the hallway outside your door kicking balls, squealing and talking.

Since the reason you’re out of town is to compete, you have instant anxiety without anything else to worry about. Unfortunately, you’ll plenty of other concerns. Things just go wrong. Planes break down and you have to wait four hours for a replacement plane to come from Chicago while you sit in Portland. You can prepare dozens of lists, check the items off, and still arrive at your destination missing one cleat, the dark uniform shirt, or your player card. Airlines lose luggage. Hotels end up to be unreliable. A reservation for a family of four will somehow translate into a single double bed room and all roll-aways are spoken for. After reaching your isolated destination hours away from home, your radiator will blow up. Trying to find someone to repair it on a Saturday without any knowledge of who to trust in the town will be only half of the anxiety. The rest will come from trying to get parts in time from Atlanta on a day most deliveries end at 1 p.m. Navigating in towns you don’t know to soccer fields that don’t have actual addresses creates a very special level of anxiety. Fields will be changed at the last minute without a clear GPS pathway to find them. The hotel desk clerk tells you it’s a 10 minute drive, but it’s actually 30 minutes. You not only have to cope with the mood swings of your own 13-year-old, but you are now part of pack of hormones with feet. And I’m not just talking about the kids. This is a mix of high anxiety parents all trying to deal with their own angst and in so doing ramping up the group tension. Bring on the Zoloff.

Anxiety begets frustration because too often you can’t eliminate any of the troubles. The more you plan, the more you find yourself dodging the balls of trouble. In our lives, we’re used to solving problems and being in control. That control flies out the window when traveling. You’re at the mercy of TSA agents, airline scheduling, weather, unexpected referee shortages, hotel staff, limited restaurants, traffic jams, illness, personality clashes, even mini-scandals. These are not problems solved with cool thought and planning. Naturally, you’ll get aggravated. The more you feel aggravation, the more you feel discomfort and anxiety, which further aggravates. Your only solution may be to throw more money at the problem – more expensive hotels, restaurants, and airfares to get the best schedules. If the team is doing well, then your frustration may ebb some, comforted by the joy of good play and success. However, most teams will either do average or awful, so you need to be prepared to accept that annoyance along with everything else. You can’t expect a balance – time, money, and emotion won’t necessarily be rewarded by triumph. You have to be prepared for the final frustration of a week or a weekend or a day that ends with a whimper after all the investment.

All of this being said, I have to admit that our family’s memories of the soccer trips we took are very special. The team won sometimes, which was wonderful, but often went home without much accomplishment. Nevertheless, we managed to find enjoyment and positives within every journey. I don’t even want to think what we spent on travel, especially when I am still working in the kitchen I thought would be updated in 1999 and be ready for another update last year – neither of which I have money to do. So I have to dismiss the expense of travel because there is no equivalency. It just is what it is. Living in a hotel room with three 14-year-old boys on air mattresses wasn’t comfortable or hygienic, but I did get to know them so much better in the three days we bunked together making the following years warm and special through our connections. Robbie remembers a tournament in Florida where my husband drove four members of the team to the fields. They got lost and were late, so apparently Bruce stepped it up, racing around corners, throwing the boys against the doors, and even squealing the tires. It made a big and special impression. I’m glad I wasn’t there to witness the actual moment. During a long rain electrical storm delay, we went to a seafood restaurant in Clearwater where we only ordered odd appetizers like rattlesnake, conch, alligator, frog legs, and buffalo sliders. We spent an hour laughing, grimacing, cheering on the more timid to give something a try, and relaxing. It cost something, but there was a return with a group of boys shedding their anxiety and bonding over some cautious nibbles of rattlesnake “coins.”  Despite everything horrid and distasteful about travel, we need to be more holistic in our view. While we may not have a triumph on the pitch, we can experience other successes and other joy. We can’t completely quell our discomfort, anxiety and aggravation. We have to spend money. But we can push that as far back in the experience as possible and focus on other aspects. If you drive to an event, find bizarre things to visit on the way that aren’t the big tourist traps like the biggest rocking chair or a date farm. If you fly, give the kids pamphlets or print outs of the destination while waiting for the flight so they can find things they might want to see or do while there. If the room is tiny, plan to spend as much time out of the room as possible, whenever kids shower ask housekeeping to send up clean towels and get rid of the wet, smelly ones, and create “clear” zones where no one is allowed to dump clothes, shoes, or bags. Sometimes there is a sink counter with nothing under it which is a perfect spot to store suitcases. If possible, open a window or take uniforms outdoors for an hour to “refresh.”  And get together with other families to do a group wash of uniforms at the end of every day. Little things can make a big difference. Team dinners don’t have to be at a restaurant. Olive Garden, for example, will do a portable “feast” with everything you need to serve a healthy dinner that can be set up in the lobby of a hotel, especially a hotel that serves breakfast because it will have an eating area. Just be sure to be considerate and clean up after your meal. There are ways to diminish the unpleasant part of travel and the difficulty of being out of your comfort zone. Embrace the fact that things just won’t be perfect and elevate the best while dismissing the worst. Travel won’t be ideal, but it can still be fun. You just have to be open to the moments when they appear.

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The Language of Losing

Susan Boyd

There’s no argument that winning is a pretty fantastic state of affairs. We celebrate wins, praise winners, catalog victories, and create statistics to measure the awesomeness of wins. There are winning percentages, winning streaks, largest and smallest margins of victory, shutouts, wins in a season, wins in history, and number of wins against various opponents. There is of course the darker B side of those figures: losing percentages, losing streaks, largest and smallest margins of defeat, being shutout, losses in a season, losses in history, and number of losses against various opponents. We have to take the yin with the yang. Wins can inspire confidence, but they can also make us nervous because we are just waiting for an inevitable loss. All of us have witnessed the momentum of a game shift when a team scores or is scored against. There’s a psychological component that affects not just individual players, but the entire team and the fans. We don’t know what to say in those circumstances. It’s easy to cheer and stay engaged when our team is winning; less so when our team is losing. As a society we are all about winning, so it’s not surprising that our kids buy into the “win” mentality early on. They see how depressed we are following a Packer loss and how elated we can be when LeBron pushes the Cavs to yet another victory. They hear the language we use when we talk about victories and defeats. They were all flies on the wall across the country when we lambasted Pete Carroll’s decision in the waning seconds of the Super Bowl. They have heard the language of losing.

Kids naturally want to please, and what better way to please than by a win. They don’t want to fall in the dark abyss of a loss. Yet fifty percent or more of our player’s matches will be losses. Most of us, myself included, don’t really know how to speak the language of losing other than to be angry, defeatist, and blaming. For professional teams we don’t have the constraints of personal interactions so it’s easy to yell at the TV, call into question coaching decisions for our major league teams, point the finger at a player who let the team down, and generally spit venom afterwards. No child wants to be at the receiving end of that judgment, so it’s not surprising youth players take losses hard – they know how we react. They see a loss as a failure of performance both from the team and from themselves. Spoken or unspoken they know how a loss is regarded. Therefore we need to learn what to say following losses both with our professional teams and with our kids so that we don’t automatically set up the discouragement. A loss doesn’t need to be synonymous with failure, defeat, disappointment, and catastrophe if we know the proper language to address the situation.

Youth sports contests should be about development, not about wins or losses, which we translate into success or failure. Learning to talk to our kids about losses means shifting our thinking from how we view most sports. Anger, even rage, are not appropriate reactions even though we have been conditioned to that response all our lives. We need to temper our language. Some games end up in losses, some end up in shutouts, and some end up in routs, but all games are intended to teach our kids valuable lessons about soccer. It’s those lessons we should be addressing. Was there improvement? Did the team display good sportsmanship? Did kids create opportunities? When kids win, it’s easy to find ways to express ourselves. There’s no need for criticism and plenty of room for praise, but those same principles should be on display win or lose. Avoid critical remarks because they are far too easy to slip into something ugly and personal. Leave those statements to the coaches who will decide when and what to highlight. Refrain from blaming anyone for the loss. It won’t change the outcome, won’t ensure a win in the next match, and can only adversely affect the players’ self-esteem. Instead find moments in the game to illuminate with approval. A loss shouldn’t illicit depression and resentment as it usually does. A loss is a bitter pill, but as Mary Poppins says, “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”   If we parents rise above despondency, then so can our kids. If they understand that we aren’t disappointed in them, then they can be freed to take risks in their matches which is how they develop.

Losses are never fun. We build ourselves up for victory, rather than prepare ourselves for defeat. Retaining that positive outlook will go a long way in helping our kids accept the roller coaster of playing youth sports and move forward no matter the result. We should always be building ourselves up for whatever gems our kids bring us instead of focusing on outcomes. We can use the same language for losses as we use for wins so long as we look for the good points. Of course kids can tell if we’re being disingenuous, so I’m not suggesting false enthusiasm. We need to work on readjusting our way of dealing with losses whether with our kids or with our favorite college or pro team. We should speak of effort, improvement, special moments, and support. When a team loses, we don’t need to immediately go to the darkest place even if it is the World Series, the Super Bowl or the Champions League final. With our kids watching, we need to temper our responses otherwise they will expect the same outrage when they lose. It’s not easy to stay positive but we must learn how to do it.

I’m not suggesting that losses are the same as wins, and kids do need to learn how to handle losses because they experience several of them. Some losses will be more painful than others – big championships, games we expect to win, and embarrassingly lopsided outcomes. We shouldn’t discount the loss, but we should also learn to talk about it with a language that isn’t harsh, critical, and accusatory. We can acknowledge the loss and even acknowledge the pain of the loss, but we should also bring the experience around to a positive teaching moment. That’s why we need to find value in a loss and point out that value to our kids. That’s why we can’t make someone on the team a scapegoat because that merely diminishes the trust our player will have in his or her teammate. And that’s why we can’t be so angry that we make our kids fearful of losing desperately wanting to avoid the pain of being the object of fury. We can sidestep the knee-jerk reactions of losing and develop a more constructive approach so that our children understand loss is just a part of the journey towards wins. They can be disappointed that they lost just as we can be disappointed, but no one should evoke discussions of failure which is a far more final and unredeemable piece of language. Acknowledging a loss isn’t the same as wallowing in it. We should help our kids put losses in perspective which means finding the way a loss will help them improve their skills and future outcomes. It all depends on the words we use to deal with it.

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