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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.

 

Precious Moments

Sam Snow

Casey Mann, Executive Director of Nebraska State Soccer, shares his thoughts in this week's Coaches Blog:

Youth sports is nuts. Youth sports is out of control. Crazy parents, Obsessed Coaches, and a whole lot of innocent kids simply along for the ride. Dare you try to work in this culture, to administer in it, and to navigate your way through its volatile landscape, and you quickly become forced to build an emotional shell around you in order to survive. Soon nothing excites you, and nothing surprises you. You just keep plugging away, day after day.

Yet every so often, youth sports can remind you of the power and beauty playing games has on all of us, and to do so in a way that stops the crazy and whacked out win-at-all-costs culture dead in its tracks.

My son’s team was short players, so they asked him to play in goal. I was a goalkeeper and my son enjoys goofing around in the back yard every once in a while pretending to be a goalkeeper, but his interest has never gone beyond Butler Avenue. So when coach emailed, he reluctantly said yes. My son is a nervous-nanny as it is, and so the minute he hit “send” and accepted the role, his anxiety exploded. “Is Tayte going to be there? Will I have any defenders? I’m scared!” … and topped all off by the answer he was so fearfully dreading most of all …. “Who do we play?”  St. Wenceslaus. “St. Wenceslaus? They are 8th graders, they are huge!”

Yet, his interest in trying to play goalkeeper “for-real” was evident too, as I went to jump in the car and he was already in his (his dad’s) goalkeeper jersey, with gloves on, spitting and dumping water on the gloves to get them sticky and ready.

I am sure it was an eternity for him until the match kicked off, but when it finally did, it was neat as a father to see his soon look the part of something I used to be. After the mandatory pics texted to family, the game got underway. I will admit that I was prepared for anything, mistakes, confusion, some good and some bad. So when the first attempt on him in the game was a breakaway and he came sliding out in a collision and stuffed it, I was excitedly amused. Not two minutes later, he made a wonderful save on a set piece. Good enough for the coach of the other team to shout, twice, “Nice save keeper.”

At this point, my emotions and interest went from semi-detached and disconnect to hopeful and curious. I went in to the match hoping to sneak in a few moments to read in the car, to not wanting to miss a moment. I wasn’t competitive for him, just excited and engaged and all of a sudden things mattered. There was hope. There were possibilities. I am sure there was a little voice somewhere in my head whispering “Who knows, maybe with a little training…?”

I tried to be reasonable and put things in context. This was a rec soccer game, it was one half of play, and there was a long way between this moment and stardom, but when we are not careful, it is in these moments that we as parents start to project our own emotions, visions, and ideas onto our children’s games. That little voice gets a bit louder, a bit more decisive, and because it is shrouded in the best of intentions, we take that voice as a good thing. Who doesn’t want their child to be successful, to be a star, to succeed?

But here’s where, if we just let it, youth sports can show us that the games are not meant for us as parents to project our visions onto it, but for us cherish and embrace the lessons it gives all if us. The game is wonderful, whether that be baseball, soccer, or football, but the game is wonderful because it is simply the framework for everything else in life. Teamwork, competitiveness, adversity. It’s all there. We can’t control it, but we can learn from it.

And so for son and father, the second half began. A few saves, a few crosses, and my son seemed to be on his way to a shutout in his first match as a goalkeeper. He was all over the place. And as he would come sliding out for a save on a cross, block a shot, or punt the ball downfield, my hopes began to slowly replace my earlier indifference. And then it happened. The moment I won’t soon forget and will forever be thankful for.

With about 2 minutes to go the other team took a decent but routine shot that sailed at Keagan. Seemingly in position, the ball slipped through his hands and into the goal. His team lost 1-0. For a kid who was hesitant about playing in goal, and only sometimes loves the sport, there was still a part of me that knew this was an important moment for him.

In a moment frozen in time for me, he was smiling as he walked off the field and once into the car … started bawling, and all the while, I was loving every minute of this. Not the anguish my son was in, but the moment to be there for him, to connect, to tell him stories of when I made mistakes and dropped balls for goals. For all the dreams, hopes, and futures that youth sports focuses on, this moment with my son was real, it was here and now, it was raw, and it was true. For all the drama I deal with, for all in this business that forces me to put up a shell, this small moment cracked it wide open again.

I am so thankful for it, thankful for a mistake, for a loss, because it gave me a moment with my son to connect. It was what sports are supposed to do. It allowed me to be dad, to support, and to be there for him in HIS moment, and use my past to TEACH him. There was no PROJECTING anything on him, no futures, no glories, just a dad and son in a tough but true moment, a moment we will both be better for and may never have gotten to had he caught the ball.

If youth sports are a fast track highway to some glorified future, I am glad for the moments on the off-ramp where things slow down and you can enjoy life with your child.

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Player Development - General Tactics

Sam Snow

I encourage all coaches to take advantage of the free documents and newsletters on the US Youth Soccer website. Here then is an excerpt from the US Youth Soccer Player Development Model – Spatial Awareness.

Tactics in General

Tactics may be defined as the art of planned and rational play, adjusted to meet game situations in the best way possible. Tactical awareness, to some extent, is a matter of talent (mental and physical); it can be developed to a considerable degree by suitable activities, coaching and age appropriate training.

A player’s tactical ability and experience can be judged by the extent to which the player can use both practical and theoretical knowledge in match play. Tactical experience is relative to age, individual characteristics and the soccer environment in which a player grows.

As players grow through the zones in the player development pyramid they internalize game concepts. Understanding soccer has a lot to do with recognizing and using space on the field, whether attacking or defending. Tactical examples are given throughout the document of how players can learn to utilize space on the field. Using space on the field requires intelligent movement and positioning. It is said that 98% of the game at the top level is spent without the ball -- various ‘locomotor’ movements, etc. Off-the-ball movement is at the heart of quality soccer.

Soccer players need to learn when to run and when to not run. There are times when it is tactically correct to not run. They also need to learn at what angle to run. Far too many American players run constantly in straight lines on the field. Coaches must teach players when to make straight runs and when to make diagonal, square and bent runs. Of course these runs could be forward or backward on offense or defense.

Players must also learn about the timing of runs, when to start and when to stop. With a novice player most off-the-ball runs start too early so the player is marked up once he or she arrives in the space where he or she hopes to meet the ball. Directly incorporated to the timing of runs is the pace of the run. Recovery runs on defense are probably going to be all out. Tracking runs on defense will have to match the pace of the opponent being marked. Many, but not all, attacking runs without the ball will start off slow or at a moderate pace and then accelerate at the last moment darting past an opponent to meet the pass.

Two factors must evolve for youth players to intentionally use off-the-ball runs. Psychosocially they must grow out of the ego-centric phase. Additionally, they must mature in their ability to estimate distance and angle. Over time, these factors improve with players thus leading to the possibility of meaningful off-the-ball runs.

You can download the full document here: http://www.usyouthsoccer.org/us_youth_soccer_releases_spatial_awareness_coaching_guide/

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Player Development - Measuring Development

Sam Snow

This entry will continue with excerpts from US Youth Soccer documents that address player development. The Vision document is a good overarching statement and philosophy that is worthwhile for any youth soccer stakeholder to read. It begins with this simple question…

How do we measure the development of a single player?

Indeed how do we measure player development? Too often in America a professional sports model is used in measuring youth sports success. Youth soccer is not immune to this misapplied standard. For soccer the situation is made worse by a desire of many adults to use measuring tools from other sports. In fact it is maddening to many adults that soccer is not as black and white as with some sports in judging successful play. Many team sports played in our nation are statistically driven and coach centered. Soccer is neither of those!  Indeed just like the Laws of the Game our sport has many shades of grey within it  As a player centered sport some coaches become disillusioned as they learn that they are the ‘guide on the side’ and not the ‘sage on the stage’. Too many soccer coaches bring a “Pattonesque” attitude to the youth sport environment. This coach-centered perspective has been handed down to us from other sports and coaching styles of past generations.

In many sports the coach makes crucial decisions during the competition. In soccer players make the primary decisions during the match. The coach’s decisions are of secondary importance. The ego-centric personality will find coaching soccer troublesome. The other significant group of adults at a youth soccer match is parents. They too often have their view of the match colored by the professional model and by a view of "coaching" that is portrayed in the sports media  Although it is changing, the majority of parents watching their kids play soccer have never played the game.  In fact the statistics show that most of today’s parents never played any team sport. So their only exposure on how to measure sporting success is gleaned from the sports media. The sports media predominately report on adult teams at the college and professional levels. These adult measurements of team performance should not and cannot be applied to youth sports.

The analogy can be made to a youngster’s academic development in preparation for work in the adult business world. While the child is in primary and secondary school the corporate world measurements of success are not applied. Those business assessments are not yet appropriate because the school-aged student does not yet have the tools to compete in the adult business environment. The knowledge and skills to be a competitor in business are still being taught and learned. This holds true in soccer as well!

Soccer is an adult game designed by adults for adults to play. Adults enjoy the game so much that we have shared it with our children. Yet adults err when we bring our adult performance and outcome based thinking into the developing player’s world.

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On My Way

Susan Boyd

I love the ambiguity of this title. It could mean “farewell” or it could mean a reflection, as in “on my way, I saw a rainbow.” This will be my last blog. I have had the pleasure of observing, participating in, researching, and enjoying soccer for several decades, and I’ve had the opportunity to bring some of those experiences and discoveries to you for nearly 13 years. Along the way, I’ve interacted with amazing coaches (some who instructed my sons, but most who managed opposing teams), all of whom displayed a deep knowledge of the game, a passion for passing on that knowledge, and a desire to nurture every player they taught. I have met parents from around the world, on occasion needing to converse in pantomime and broken high school language skills, but we all shared a love of soccer that serves as the universal language. I remember meeting a group of parents at Dallas Cup several years ago from Trinidad-Tobago. It was their first time off the island, and they could not get over the expanse of mid-Texas, where one mother said she felt like she was flying she could see so far. Seeing the world through others’ eyes has given me fresh perspectives I would otherwise have missed. I have been continually impressed with officials at the games I attended, 99 percent of whom genuinely wanted to call a fair game and kept their cools despite cat-calls, threats and derision hurled at them on a regular basis. I have worked with a strong staff at US Youth Soccer, but I especially wanted to highlight Todd Roby, who discovered my articles posted on the Wisconsin Youth Soccer Association website and asked me to write nationally. He left US Youth Soccer this summer to take a new job. I count him more as a friend than as my boss. Before I say farewell, I also wanted to reflect on five things about youth soccer that I think are the most important lessons I have learned.

One) Soccer is a portal.

Beyond the obvious benefits of soccer in terms of fitness, developing friendships, learning how to work collaboratively, and acquiring leadership skills, soccer provides opportunities for families and players to share in a sport that is enjoyed around the world. If you take a ball to any open space in any country and begin to kick it around, you will soon attract a crowd. You may not be able to speak the language of the country, but all of you can speak the language of soccer. When Robbie went to do a study seminar in Kenya, he took along his soccer ball, and in every town and village he visited he played with kids as young as 4 and as old as 44. The pictures from this adventure are priceless. In many cases, the fields were overgrown and the ball was nearly invisible in the tall grasses, but it didn’t stop play. When we were in Israel sitting at an outdoor café, there was a soccer game being played in the town square in front of us. Suddenly, the call for prayers came out from a nearby mosque and play stopped. Several of the boys knelt down and prayed, while others stood patiently waiting. We only realized at that moment that the game was with a mixed group of Jewish and Moslem boys, a true moment of successful diplomacy in a world filled with suspicion and hate. Soccer is the language that bridges divides. Additionally, soccer can be the means to explore the world. Our children have the opportunities to play soccer internationally with trips organized by scores of tour groups. They don’t have to be expensive or exotic. My boys both played in an international Croatian tournament in Canada — only a 10 hour drive away — but with teams of Croatian players from around the world. The festive occasion included crafts, food and music from Croatia, giving us all a taste of country far across the earth. Using soccer as a means for learning about and experiencing more global contact makes it a sport that expands boundaries.

Two) Youth players do best when parents support them rather than direct them.

It begins with that first foray onto a field, when they are 5 or 6 and hesitate to participate. It’s intimidating for a child to see kids, many of them strangers, cavorting loudly around, with little understanding of what it all means. I’ve seen parents carry a screaming child out into the melee and dump them there in an attempt to get them to join in, and I’ve seen angry parents berating their child as they head to the car embarrassed that it was their kid who staged a tantrum. Then there are the parents who sit calmly on the sidelines with their children and let them watch and see what all this hubbub is about. They may end up doing it throughout an entire six-week session, but generally I’ve seen that most kids eventually can’t resist being part of the fun. That spirit of support should continue throughout the term of any child’s soccer life. One significant element of becoming a strong soccer player is the ability to develop a passion for the sport and then to be able to advocate for him or herself throughout the experience. Parents can’t force that on a child. In my family, we all hoped my grandchildren would become soccer players. I paid for lessons, took them to practices and attended games. Not a single grandchild is a soccer player. I provided the opportunity but if their uncles weren’t enough motivation to dive head first into the sport, there was little chance that my admonitions would have any impact. The greatest compliment my boys ever paid their father came after a particularly disappointing high school game. Many of the dads were walking with their sons expressing their frustrations and giving advice on how to be better next game. We passed one father who was bent over his son yelling and the boy was obviously upset and embarrassed. Robbie turned to his dad and said, “I’m glad you never tried to tell me how to play soccer.” And Bryce laughed and said, “Yeah I have enough trouble with my coach.” By the way, they never said that about me because, unfortunately, periodically I couldn’t help myself and gave advice, which was rarely welcomed!

Three) No matter who plays soccer, it can still be an entire family activity.

I don’t mean simply bringing the family to sit on the sidelines and cheer, although that’s always nice. I’m talking about involving everyone in the fun of soccer. When you go to games, let non-players select where to go for lunch or dinner afterward or where to grab a treat. On soccer trips, everyone should be involved in the planning. Checking out activities in the tournament city that the family can do in between games will add an extra special dimension to the event. Having each child select a movie or a game to play on the road trip gives them an investment in the experience. If you can afford it, offer to take friends of the non-players along so the kids can have company while the game is going on. At my grandson’s baseball game, his younger brother rotates wheels on a small board that keeps track of strikes, balls, outs and runs. He loves being an important part of the game his brother is playing. The parents ask him what the count or the score is, and he is delighted to tell them. Finding similar engagements creates an atmosphere where children don’t feel left out and siblings who play don’t become the sole center of attention. Make up a team roster and let a child keep track of substitutions and the score or let them create posters to encourage the team and show them off. Siblings can hand out snacks. Participating in soccer doesn’t have to be on the pitch.

Four) Soccer isn’t just learned during practice.

Kids need an immersion in a sport to develop not only a passion, but also a sense of validation for the sport they chose. Youth players often look up to the stars in their sport, take pride in wearing their jerseys, and cheer them on during televised games. For years, soccer in the United States languished in this area because there were so few media opportunities to watch matches. Now, however, kids can sit with the family and enjoy a game featuring their favorite player or team. Being able to watch top-level soccer players and matches will give youth players a boost in understanding the complexities of tactics and team formations. Likewise, kids can follow a particular player in order to scrutinize how he or she responds to a pass, moves off the ball, or creates space for him/herself or another player. Coaches can talk about how to do it, but watching it unfold at the highest level provides a significant tool for any soccer player. When a youth player can share a televised match with a parent, it gives strong validation for the choice of sport. Increasing passion for soccer comes from both feeling confident in a decision and in how one plays — confidence that can come from watching matches. As parents we can also foster the passion by taking our kids to see live soccer at the high school, college and professional level. Attending a game has an atmosphere of excitement and intimacy that kids participate in. And it ties into No. 3 above by involving as many or all of the family members in attending. Kids can get extra coaching, read books on the topic, and watch videos, but truly the time spent with their parents and their siblings sharing the sport will give them a special reason to focus on learning and improving.

Five) Enjoy the journey.

My sons played peewee, recreational, select, US Youth Soccer ODP, college and professional soccer. They had incredible opportunities, most of which they created and pursued on their own. Still, my greatest regret is that all too often I focused exclusively on the next step and didn’t just take the time to appreciate the moment. We parents can often find ourselves worrying more about whether a team is right for our kids or will be the best step up in their “career.” All of which underscores how important it is to relish the days as they unfold. Frequently, we parents find ourselves anxious when it comes to our children’s play, worrying about playing time, wins, ability to move up, and even things like procuring a college scholarship — all of which intrude on just gleefully concentrating on a match and wholeheartedly supporting our child. I will absolutely confirm that the times I let loose of expectations and just gave into the game were the best periods in my boys’ soccer lives, awarding me with far more lasting memories than any of any “plans” ever did. When I knew that Robbie had chosen going to medical school over playing professionally, I understood that once college was over, so too would be the time I could share in his activity. Having that knowledge released me from all my anxiety about “what happens next.” Instead, I dove into what I could do to make those four years special. I and a few other mothers provided dinner after every home game for the players, which gave us an extraordinary invitation after matches just to get to know the boys, laugh, and enjoy the community of players, parents and coaches. I realized those times when I let go of expectations and just immersed myself in the moment were things the boys and I remembered fondly. Ultimately, all my concerns about the boys “future” distracted from what I really should have been doing — being happy to share the journey with my sons. They controlled their destiny, and it was simply my job to support their decisions as best I could emotionally, financially and logistically (see No. 2). So I pass that epiphany on to you readers. Don’t be so concerned about getting your child moving along the trajectory to higher play that you fail to take time to savor what they are already doing.

I have so enjoyed this time writing the blogs, hearing from readers and keeping my finger on the pulse of soccer. I have been a soccer fan since I lived in Germany in the late 1960s, so I imagine it will always be a part of my life. However, now it’s time to pass the “pen” and for a new parent who is beginning the journey to carry on this conversation. Soccer is amazing. See you on the pitch.

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