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

 

Goalkeeping Begins at U-10 Part II

Sam Snow

Well, I have enjoyed reading the discussion on when the role of a goalkeeper should be introduced in youth soccer. I applaud those involved, as I feel that open debate is a sound educational approach to sharing information.

There are domains of development that all humans go through. Those domains are psychosocial (individual psychology and interaction with others), psychomotor (physical) and cognitive (mental). During childhood, the growth in these three domains are more obvious than at other phases of life. It is important to be aware of these facts since knowing the nature of an age (childhood, puberty, adolescence, etc.) is important-coaches must know whom they are coaching. As a coach better understands these stages of child development, then the how, and when, to apply the four components of the game (technique, fitness, tactics and psychology) become clear.

Knowing the characteristics of the U6 and U8 age groups was the foundation for the decision to hold off on introducing goalkeeping until the U10 age group. Psychosocially the U6 age group is quite egocentric. So, while it looks like they play in a group around the ball, it is in fact simply all of the kids on the field vying for the ball simultaneously. This remains true for the U8 age group, but to a lesser degree. Indeed let's have them all run, dribbling, shooting, passing and receiving the ball. That base of good eye-foot coordination will be invaluable to quality goalkeeping in the future. Consider also the demands of today's game at older age groups, where it is expected that goalkeepers can play with their feet (and sometimes the head too) when dealing with long through balls or back passes.

Cognitively the position of goalkeeper requires a good ability to read the game. That comes into play for positioning, angles and distance from the goalmouth and to the ball. It will also be a factor in helping the positioning of a defensive wall when defending against a free kick or to help teammates with their positioning during the flow of play when the goalkeeper's team is defending. Understanding space (distances and angles) on a soccer field only begins to emerge in the U10 age group. That capability, along with reading the movements of the ball and opponents, is very demanding. For children younger than 10 it is simply information overload.

In the psychomotor domain, aside from the physical power needed to cover the goalmouth (diving), deal with high balls (vertical jump) and the physical contact with the ground and other players, visual tracking acuity is not yet developed to an adult stage until around 10-years-old. Visual tracking acuity impacts one's ability to judge the speed and trajectory of the ball when it's in the air or kicked over long distances. The growth of the optic nerve is a factor in the acquisition of visual tracking acuity. That nerve is still growing for the U6 and U8 age group players. If nature can be patient in their growth then so can we as adults.

Now, lest anyone think that nothing at all is being done that builds a foundation to future goalkeeping with the U6 and U8 age groups do not forget the movement education that US Youth Soccer and U.S. Soccer both advocate for those ages. All of the work on eye-foot and eye-hand coordination helps to build that foundation. Some balance exercises can mimic goalkeeper techniques. Skipping, as another example, leads to proper form for a vertical jump to collect a high ball. The coach who understands the physical and technical demands of goalkeeping can add those base movements into movement education with all of the children in the U6 and U8 age groups.

Finally, please read the passages below from Youth Soccer Insider, a Soccer America publication, distributed on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011.

There are some good reasons why games should be played without goalkeepers until the U-10 level and they're addressed by AYSO's National Coach Instructor John Ouellette and Sam Snow, U.S. Youth Soccer's Coaching Director. Both AYSO and USYS discourage the use of keepers at the U-8 level and below. Snow writes, "The U-8 age group is still in an egocentric phase of psychological development, which tells us that we should allow these children to run and chase the ball, to be in the game –- not waiting at the end of the field for the game to come to them. It is more important at this age that they chase the game. Children this age want to play with the toy (the ball) and they need to go to where the toy is to be fully engaged." Read Snow's article HERE.

Ouellette reiterates that point and also notes that, "In their early experiences with soccer, we want young players to shoot on goal as much as possible because striking the ball is such an important skill for players to master. Young kids are more likely to shoot often when there's no goalkeeper." Read Ouellette's article HERE.
 

Week 4 - FITNESS

Susan Boyd

Certainly youth soccer affords great opportunities for our kids to get fit. That fitness extends to mind, body, and spirit. Players exercise by running, leaping, stretching, juggling, dribbling and occasionally sliding. Most soccer practices consist of a warm up, a constantly active training session and a cool down. Soccer coaches will add life lessons about being supportive, sportsmanship and integrity. Most kids will willingly extend their soccer activity past the end of practice or a game because they are so enthusiastic about playing. And the wonderful thing about soccer is that children of any athletic level or fitness condition can enter the sport and improve their skills. Every child can benefit from the fitness that soccer offers.

But what about us parents? How does youth soccer affect our fitness? I can tell you honestly, and I'm sure many of you will agree, that my fitness improved beginning the day my boys started playing soccer. While I don't make a practice of playing the game and although I'm left-footed I have nothing beyond that to offer to soccer, the game has nonetheless made me healthier.

Here's my parent fitness report:
            Equipment Aerobics – I have done every kind of crunch, press, and lift while retrieving and servicing soccer equipment. There's the "My Cleat's Untied Squat" that most parents practice at least twice during any practice or game, not to mention at home, leaping out of the car and just before kick-off. The "Soccer Bag Jerk" where you lift bags into and out of the trunk, carry them to and from the field and bend and lift the dirty clothes out of the bag and into the washer. The "I'm Missing a Shin Guard Push-up" where you look under every couch, chair, table, bed and bookcase or commando crawl through a pile at the bottom of a closet.
            Tournament Track - The fittest of us owe our muscle tone to field location during a tournament. "Distance Event"– If the parking lot is located by Fields 3 through 5, your child's team is due to play on Field 32. "Relays"– If the finals are set for Field 3, they will be changed to Field 29. This is of course after you have found the perfect parking place steps away from the sideline and you have already set up your chairs. "Sprints"– Port-a-Johns will always be located ten fields from any place your five year old is standing when the urge arrives. "Steeplechase"– No matter what the weather, the trip to your team's fields will travel across a creek without a bridge, a bog or inexplicable mud zones.
           Gym Equipment Rotation – Until our kids began playing soccer, few of us realized that our lives revolved around some pretty sophisticated home exercise equipment without ordering a Nordic Track or Bowflex. "The Step Climber" – Before every practice we will make at least four trips up and down the stairs in order to hurry along and change into uniform or find the missing shin guard (see above). "Treadmill" – The continual cycle of running we all do in order to get through the calendar of events. I run in my dreams. "Punching Bag" – We stuff clothes into our washers, force that extra pair of socks into a crammed bag, break through the brambles behind the goal to find that $125 ball we bought earlier in the day and shove five suitcases into a trunk that holds four. While you may not strike an actual blow, you definitely are punching.
           
Fitness doesn't always come from a membership and gleaming equipment under fluorescent lights. When we're busy, we have to find our health where we can. Even if the above exercise routine can't completely fulfill your daily quota, some of it can be tailored to work to your benefit. Do a few laps around the soccer field before the kick-off, take a bike ride during practices, find a buddy and walk while the kids train or even jog in place while watching a game. Clubs might even be willing to offer a fitness session for parents while the kids practice. Bringing in an instructor and charging a nominal fee could kick off a fitness opportunity to match what the kids are getting. But with or without a club's assistance, parents can use their kids' fitness time as their own. Youth soccer can bring out the best in us all, even if we have to be a bit creative to discover it.
 

Skills Training

Sam Snow

It is not uncommon for coaches to train young players in one component of the game at a time. This is often seen in a separate training on technique which is accomplished through specific drills. With older players, the training of the four individual components of soccer is seen mostly in fitness training. While there is a place for separate fitness training, particularly from 15 years old and older, most training sessions must be economical. Economical training is working on two or more components of the game at a time. For example; in a 4 v 4 training activity, all four components of the game are taking place but the coach might focus the training on just one component. If that component is technique then the benefit of this approach over other drills is having players connect the skill to the tactical moment in the game. If one attends the "D" or "C" license course, then the coaching of technique and tactics are done simultaneously. Yet decades of teaching skills as a standalone component are still being phased out. Many coaches and clubs are in the process of making the change. That leads us to this exchange with a club coach.

I am struggling to defend a principle that you taught us at the"Y" License course this summer. If I recall, you told us that for U10s - in which I include U9s, the pinnacle of coaching is to have players solve problems in 3s and 4s.

Our technical director has set a curriculum that focuses almost exclusively on technique for the U9 travel players and waits to introduce group concepts at U10. I understand his general approach, but feel that the particular group of boys in our U9 group are especially gifted and have already shown themselves to be ready to solve problems in groups rather than an exclusive focus on technique. During the summer I led them through sessions on defensive transition and pressure-cover activities (using age-appropriate activities and small sided games of course) as well as possession passing and support. The results of the summer training are showing in games. Our U9s are using back passes, to the keeper at times, to relieve pressure and redistribute. In our last game I counted fewer than 3 "clearances" since our boys tend to want to hold possession. I noticed good cover and spacing all over the field. The boys don't know they are doing it; they are just doing it and are enjoying being good at this game that they love.

I am fearful that once the season starts, and the Academy training is focused on technique there will be an exclusion of the principals of play and our boys will not continue to push the envelope. I am not saying that technique is not critical to a U9 player, it is important. What I think I am saying is that principals of play can and should be taught along with technique to U9 players if they are capable of getting the concepts.

I think I am correct, but cannot articulate the reasons why. I'd appreciate your perspective and thoughts on this so I can adjust my own opinions. I would like to better understand the pinnacle of coaching that you support and if your opinion can help me influence our Academy training curriculum I would be grateful.

Well, it sounds like you had a productive and fun summer with the players. I am sure you are all looking forward to the fall season. The situation you describe is actually a 'good problem' in that the need to improve the ball skills of the American player is quite real. However teaching ball skills in isolation from the game is a problem. Even young players need to make a connection to why they are practicing the skills. Yes it is fun to learn how to do things with the ball; it is a toy to them after all. But players 8 and older like knowing how skills can help them play the game.

So for the U10 age group, which clearly includes the U9 age group, the ball to player ratios that should occur in training sessions throughout the soccer year are 1:1, 1:2 and 1:3/4. The player combinations could be 1v1 up to 4v4 and then odd number combinations such as 2v3 or 4v2. These variations of player combinations, still having a maximum of four players on the ball, puts the kids into situations they can comprehend – in time. Now they are seeing the game from both an individual and teammate perspective. While working the players up to meaningful play in a small group the need to practice in pairs and individually continues. The skills and principles of play done on their own or with a partner are crucial building blocks to small group play.

For example, they are at an age when they can learn how to do a wall pass. Now working on inside of the foot passing makes better sense to them. Tactically they can see how a teammate can help them in the situation. Coaching technique and tactics (execution of the principles of play) do not have to be done separately.

I recommend that you sit with your Club Director and have the conversation. Yes, you can indeed teach a lot of ball skills in the U10 age group, but don't exclude their practical application in the game.

I suggest that you also involve the Technical Director from your state soccer association as he or she can give you a good deal of support on the plans for player development.

Finally, it must be said that too often coaches try to compartmentalize the process; i.e., learn the technique first, and then play the game, however as Nater and Gallimore (2006) comment on the teachings of the late John Wooden, "… stressing fundamentals is not enough. Coach teaches that the purpose of being fundamentally sound is to provide a foundation on which individual creativity and imagination can flourish. It is a false dichotomy, he insists, to claim that one must either focus on fundamentals or on higher-order learning and understanding. One rests on the other, and both should be properly taught concurrently from the onset".
 

Week 3--FRIENDS

Susan Boyd

When the boys were young our family was oblivious to the existence of youth soccer teams in our town. But we soon discovered that soccer played a key role in the social networking of both children and adults. I got a phone call asking me to put in an application for Bryce to play soccer. The parents were collecting these applications to submit together for a team of friends. And thus began our soccer journey.
 
I'm sure many of you have similar stories that include a group of childhood friends. Around our house are team pictures from those years with the sweet faces of young boys who are now young men. Because these teammates went to local schools, belonged to the same Cub Scout dens, swam at the same city parks, and attended local houses of worship, we managed to stay in contact over the years. While some teammates continued with soccer, others opted to switch to football in the summer before 5th grade. As the boys grew and developed, some showed more athletic skills than others and tried out for select soccer teams. Eventually over the years that core group of friends splintered choosing different activities. The boys kept some of the connections they had created in those early soccer years and lost others.
 
When I was administrator of the soccer club and it came time for tryouts, the real nervousness for the girls' parents wasn't if their daughters would make a team, but if they would make the team of their friends. Friendship, rather than athletic skills or team strength, became the overriding factor. Girls would be devastated if their friends moved on to a different team, and some girls would opt for a less competitive team just to stay together with a group of girls. I would get phone calls from parents hoping I could intercede and get their daughter on a particular team that all her friends had made. I would hear the real anguish in their voices because they saw this exclusion as extending to their daughter's entire social experience. These parents understood that friendships may bend or break when one friend has a different schedule than another friend.
 
But with every new experience come new people. As our lives expand and shift, we lose contact with some friends and come in contact with new friends. Playing soccer offers both kids and parents the opportunity to meet new people and form bonds. While the boys began playing soccer with friends they saw every day in all kinds of social settings, they grew to play soccer with kids who came from outside the community. Their connection became solely soccer. Nevertheless some friendships transcended that single bond. Bryce had a friend from his Under-14 soccer team, who due to illness had to quit the team. Bryce moved to several different teams over the next few years, and then went to San Francisco for college. But he and his friend kept in contact. When Bryce transferred to our local state university his friend was already there, and they reconnected. Robbie has many teammates playing in colleges all over the United States and remains in contact with all of them even though they haven't played soccer together for several years. While soccer drew them together, true friendship kept them involved.
 
And what happened with those players from that first packet of applications?  Bryce remains in contact with several of those boys, and one has been a good friend all these years despite having only played soccer with Bryce that first year and then at U-18. While soccer formed the friendship, the endurance of that friendship came from sharing other interests. Throughout my own soccer journey I have made the acquaintance of people that I consider friends even if we don't converse regularly. I have also had the privilege of watching dozens of boys grow up into young men who continue to play soccer both at the college level and professionally. Sharing in their careers makes soccer more personal and exciting.
 
Friendships can spring out of any organized activity or even the most mundane experience. But we all cherish those first friends our children have. My favorite picture is one of Robbie's third grade class sprawling across the new colorful playground equipment at the school. I know each child by name and many of them I still run into today. We can't always maintain the purity of those early friendships, but we can be sure to memorialize them. When you get the team pictures ask each player to sign his or her name under their face and write out full names on the back of the picture. Take pictures with small groups of players so you can have memories of specific friends. When Robbie graduated from high school a friend's mother put in the year book a picture of four twelve year old soccer players smiling with arms across one another's shoulders. Next to this photo was a picture of the same four boys celebrating their senior year state championship in soccer. Side by side these pictures showed four boys enjoying their sport together over the span of six years. What an amazing tribute to friendship!