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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.

 

Heads Up

Sam Snow

Over the last fifteen years there have been studies conducted on the physical and mental impacts of heading. Nothing is conclusive at this time. Consider this from the U.S. Soccer Sports Medicine Committee:
 
"At Present, there are many gaps and inconsistencies within the medical literature regarding the safety of heading in soccer. The impact of purposeful heading is linear which is less severe than rotational impact. …Head injuries during soccer are more likely to be from accidental contacts such as head-ground, head-opponent, or the rare head-goalpost. …. At this point in time, it is premature to conclude that purposeful heading of a modern soccer ball is a dangerous activity."
 
So most head injuries in soccer are from the head impacting something other than the ball. The human skull is surprisingly tough. Head injuries from the ball occur when the technique is done incorrectly. Here lies the real problem. Many coaches teach heading incorrectly or not at all. So many players head the ball wrong and this could cause injuries or inaccurate or poorly paced headers.
 
When should players start? Introduce heading in the U-10 age group. Teach heading to score and to clear in the U-12 age group both standing and jumping. Teach heading to pass, backwards heading (flicks) and diving headers in the U-14 age group. These recommendations by age group are the average, middle of the bell-curve so to speak. A few players may start some of these techniques earlier, especially if they have older siblings playing. Others will start later, as their confidence grows.
 
Early experiences can be painful if a careful progression in building up confidence is not applied. When introducing the technique of heading the ball for the first time I suggest you start with a Nerf type soccer ball or an underinflated volleyball. Gradually work your way up to a fully inflated soccer ball. Begin with juggling with the head so that the player controls the pace, height, frequency of repetition, movement, etc.   Next go to head juggling with a partner. A good group game for heading is Toss-Head-Catch. In this practice activity the ball is being served from the hands, so the force is less than a crossed ball and is more accurate. The increased accuracy will allow for more repetitions of correct headers.
 
The whole body is used to head the ball. The movement begins with the legs, the movement of the core muscles throws the trunk and upper body forward and the head, from the neck upwards, follows through quickly. The position of the forehead to the ball determines its flight path.
 
The earliest and most elementary lesson about heading is never let the ball hit you. Go out and meet it, and make contact with the front part of the forehead where the skull is the thickest. You must attack the ball! You hit it, not the other way around. The main surface of contact is of course the forehead. The ball must be struck, not cushioned. The neck and back muscles should be rigid to generate power. The part played by the eyes is important! Although it is likely that the reflex blinking action causes the eyes to be closed at the moment when the ball is struck by the forehead, players should be encouraged to watch the ball right onto the forehead. Only by doing so can a player time the actual heading movement accurately. There need be no fear of danger to the eyes since they are well protected by the heavy bone structure immediately above them.
 
There is no better feeling in soccer than beating an opponent in the air to plant a header in the net. Once you have done it, there is a hunger to do it again. It is a spectacular way of scoring goals, or come to that of stopping them. Defensively it is a great thrill in consistently clearing the ball in the air, beating opposing forwards, and establishing control. The young player who adds heading to his or her armory of skills will go far in the game.
 

Besmirching the Game

Susan Boyd

Ugly, ugly, ugly – the only way to describe what I witnessed last Sunday at an indoor tournament. At every step of the way, responsible people could have seen that behaviors didn't escalate and that the kids understood how awful the incident was. Instead, parents and coaches inflamed the situation, police were called and no one learned a valuable lesson.
 
Two teams were playing a hotly contested game. The score remained 0-0 for much of the first half, and for those of you who know the speed of indoor soccer you also know how unusual that is. The teams were not the same age. I would imagine one team was Under-13 and the other was either U-14 or U-15. The older team was obviously flustered and not used to encountering such stiff competition and the younger team had an air of arrogance that showed they were also used to winning. It was a powder keg just waiting for a fuse and a spark. That came in the second half. I should also mention that these were girls teams.
 
The score was 4–2 with the older team behind and five minutes left on the clock. During a fierce battle to the goal, a player from the blue older team checked a player from the pink younger team into the boards. The play was too aggressive and the ref blew his whistle. But before he could do anymore than that, the pink player sucker punched the blue player. And the battle was on. Everyone got involved. Parents from the blue team were screaming that the girl should be ejected (which the ref was in the process of doing) and saying that the entire team should be disqualified. The coaches were engaged in a war of words that threatened to come to blows if not for the impediment of the center scoring table, girls from the pink team were standing in front of the box for the blue team taunting both the team and the coach, and the girl who had been hit was backing up on the field with her arms outspread and gesturing for the girl who had hit her to come and get her so they could finish the battle. I don't excuse the punch, but that's an event which should have remained isolated to the attacker. Instead it became the catalyst to release all the pent up frustrations, bravado and brutishness festering in the players, coaches and parents. And in the meantime, the clock was ticking away.
 
After two and a half minutes of a melee filled with expletives, threats and the blue coach screaming at the girls in pink to ""get the f--- away,"" the referee managed to get the teams back on the field and play continued. The pink team was now a player down, but managed to score a goal first due to the confusion. The blue team valiantly tried to score but the pink team keeper held her own and in the end the score was 5-3.
 
Now the sour grapes began. The manager of the indoor facility was called to the box and with two coaches literally screaming in her ears, she attempted to listen to the referee to ascertain what had happened. The teams refused to leave the area, and in fact, having them in the boxes probably saved a major fist fight from breaking out. In the meantime, parents joined the situation, ostensibly to protect their daughters, but based on the posturing and language I would say they wanted to avenge their daughters. With so many emotions running high, the manager called the police and one sheriff's squad and three city police squads showed up. Eventually everyone was ushered from the facility into their cars and off the property.
 
This all happened on the field next to Bryce's game, which I ended up not watching because of the fracas at the girls game. The boys' game had its share of rough play, but it was missing one element to fuel the fire of an actual fight – outside adults. The boys had no coaches and only a handful of parents. The boys' game also had two referees because it was boys and they were over U-15. So much for stereotypes.
 
This tournament is sponsored by the local indoor facility every Thanksgiving Sunday. It attracts mostly local teams, but a few come up from Chicago or over from Madison. I doubt the tournament is listed anywhere but on the Wisconsin State Youth Soccer Association website. It holds no reputation for being a significant tournament, nor does it carry any weight for team rankings. It doesn't attract college scouts. It is simply an opportunity for teams to play three games for minimal cost in a short period of time. Many of the teams are formed just for the purpose of playing in the tournament. In other words, this tournament is for FUN. But apparently someone forgot to tell these girls, their coaches and their parents. Bryce's team won their bracket and got orange t-shirts with a turkey on the front and the word ""Champions"" on the back that all the boys found funny, since champion is a word that should be used for noble combat, not a few pick-up games on a Sunday afternoon.
 
For these two girls teams this was all about saving face. If the coach of the blue team hadn't spent so much time berating the referee for not stopping the attack and then trying to convince him to make the other team forfeit, his team very well might have had enough time to win the game. Five minutes in indoor soccer is an eternity, and with the other team a player down, eventually the blue team would have had clear opportunities to score. Instead he put his team back on the field with less than two minutes. The pink team coach should have pulled all his girls into their box rather than let them go fight his battle in front of the blue team's box. The referee should have stopped the clock. And the parents should have shut their mouths and let the referee do his job. More importantly, the coaches should have diffused the situation by reminding their players that this was just a game – nothing more, nothing less. Losing to a younger team seemed to devastate the blue team and beating an older team seemed to embolden the pink team. All for total ridiculousness. Everyone loses at some point in their lives. The pink team has probably lost before and they will lose again. The blue team will go on to win the important games and this game for an orange t-shirt that I suspect none of these girls would be caught dead in would have been long forgotten had it not resulted in a near riot.
 
I actually witnessed a similar event with Robbie's Chicago Magic team. It was an indoor adult game, although Robbie's team was U-17 and the team they were playing was in their 20's. Robbie's team was winning and ultimately the older team had their egos bruised enough that one player knocked out one of Robbie's teammates. In that case things were handled properly. The game was stopped while the coach of the older team came on the field and took the offending player off. Our coach pulled all the players off the field and calmly waited for the referee to do his job. The father of the boy who was hit stayed off the field and instead went to the manager's office to report the incident and ask that police be called since it was an assault. Despite the potential for a complete meltdown, the responsible adults behaved reasonably and trouble was avoided.
 
The problem with what happened Sunday was that everyone behaved badly. These girls witnessed despicable behavior from most of the adults involved. The amount of foul language flying from coaches, parents, and players would have made Eddie Murphy blush. No one took the high road, no one attempted to diffuse the situation and no one realized how truly insignificant this game was. The punch was unforgiveable and needed to be handled. If the coach of the pink team had been a true adult, he would have pulled his player off, reprimanded her, and he and she would have apologized. Instead he attempted to excuse what she did as being a reasonable response to the foul. The swagger of the player who got hit told me that she had probably been nipping at the pink player all through the game, getting in her head and enflaming her on purpose. If so, this would not be the first time she had done it, so the blue coach should have seen trouble brewing and told her to knock it off. The parents expressed their feelings loudly, profanely and unnecessarily. They made an uncomfortable situation worse by converging on the boxes and the tiny area at the end of the field. I'm surprised that some parents didn't come to blows in such a confined space, but luckily that didn't happen.
 
Now, a tournament that didn't matter and would normally hold little space in the memories of these players will become a very big deal. It will be replayed for days, even weeks, tainting the joy these players should feel for soccer. Players from the pink team will argue that they won the tournament but were unjustly denied the victory and players from the blue team will argue that they were cheated out of a win. Everyone will feel justified in whatever behaviors they exhibited. Furthermore, because none of the adults behaved properly, no adult reinforced the proper reactions this event should elicit. Instead of a teachable moment where the adults let the players know that being passionate and driven to win should never override temperance and good sportsmanship, the girls witnessed and exercised boorish behavior. The adults could have modeled the proper response to an explosive situation by remaining calm, encouraging their players to not stoop to foul language, taunting and threats. They could have put the event into perspective and promoted winning with humility and losing with dignity. Instead these girls witnessed the worst of behaviors for an insignificant game. Ugly, ugly, ugly.

Comments (2)

 

Volunteering

Susan Boyd

In July, a nationwide survey of youth soccer clubs was published. The study had been conducted in March and April by Korrio, an organization which is the developer of a youth sports automation platform to help clubs with the day-to-day operations. Therefore, the survey results have to be considered with some restraint, since the questions were designed to point out how Korrio could be helping these clubs. Nevertheless I found the survey telling in several aspects.
 
The primary focus of the survey was to look at the number of and use of volunteers in youth clubs. That makes sense, since Korrio's software is intended to ease the stress on and even eliminate the need for volunteers. But the details illuminate the significant role volunteers play in the operation and success of youth clubs. We've all been part of that volunteer crew. Some of us do our required six hours and that's it, while some of us put in scores of hours serving on boards, coaching and acting as team managers. This dependence on volunteers is a double-edged sword, which the study points out. They discovered that 43 percent of clubs depend on 26 or more volunteers to keep the club running, but that 55 percent of volunteers serve a club for three years or less with only 18 percent remaining on the ""job"" five years or more. Anyone who runs a business knows that turnover makes operations more difficult. But it makes sense that people don't stick around for long. Children don't keep up their interest in the sport or they get cut from a team or they move to a new club. Turnover is inevitable, which leaves clubs constantly recruiting volunteers to fill positions.
 
Along with the revolving door of volunteers, the survey also discovered that clubs do make use of computer software to manage the club operations. Unfortunately they often use two or more programs which don't integrate with one another. In fact only 20 percent of clubs had a single platform, while 63 percent used two or three separate programs. I can attest to that. When I was club registrar I had to use a horrible, unfriendly program to do the registrations and submit them to the state registrar. But our website, which included the initial registration form, was on a completely different system. Therefore I had to re-copy all the information members submitted on our website into the registration system the state had. While Korrio has the ulterior motive to explore this topic and to offer clubs a more unified platform, it also points out the unnecessary hours volunteers have to perform duplicating work. Volunteers like to feel useful, but doing busy work merely discourages them. It's frustrating, for example, to know that all the club members filled out detailed registrations, but that those registrations don't transfer to the registration program the state uses. Likewise, any time volunteers feel their time is being wasted, they are unlikely to continue to volunteer. So Korrio makes a good point. Clubs should look to modernize as best as possible to universal, integrated software for club operations such as payroll, registration, tournament scheduling, practice schedules, field assignments, and referee scheduling to name just a few of the many tasks a club performs throughout the year.
 
Additionally, this survey looked at overall parent involvement and sportsmanship. Of the clubs surveyed, 80 percent reported that parental involvement was higher than it was five years ago. In fact, 75 percent classified parental involvement as committed or highly committed. That bodes well for getting the necessary volunteers to run clubs. In judging parents' sideline behavior, 66 percent said that behavior was either good or excellent. While that leaves room for improvement, it does indicate that parents and clubs are making a unified effort to keep sideline antics at a minimum. On the player side, 42 percent of the clubs reported that sportsmanship had improved over the last five years, 38 percent said it remained the same, and only 2 percent said it had declined. Of course, when parents provide a good example and make it clear to their kids that bad sportsmanship won't be tolerated, it usually spells more mature play from the kids.
 
This study was somewhat self-serving for Korrio, but does offer great insights for clubs. First of all, it shows that volunteers are still the lifeblood of our soccer clubs and that the years of reinforcing good behavior both on the sidelines and on the pitch have succeeded in improving behavior. It also opens the door for even further improvement. Since volunteers are not a consistent and stable work force, clubs need to find ways to create a continuum of organization. Some clubs keep notebooks of procedures and practices which are passed from volunteer to volunteer, however these are only as effective as the volunteer maintaining the records. Keeping detailed minutes of meetings can insure that details of various jobs get recorded as they come up. Following major events such as tryouts, tournaments, and camps, having each volunteer write up a short summary of the event with any suggestions can help a board refine the events to make them more efficient and improve the involvement of the volunteers.
 
When it comes to sportsmanship, it's not a bad idea to have players and parents sign a sportsmanship agreement that outlines behaviors and consequences for violating those behaviors. Various organizations require such agreements with good results. Parents think twice before acting out because the consequences include being banned from attending games. Likewise, kids learn to control their behavior on the field when they know they might have to sit out a game or even a season. Some contract examples are found at http://www.suburbanathletics.com/sportsmanship_agreement.pdf and http://www.mshsaa.org/resources/pdf/Parent percent20and percent20Student percent20Conduct percent20Contract percent20(PDF).pdf. Both our sons had to sign such agreements at the beginning of each high school season, although there was no parent agreement. We all know how disquieting it is to stand next to someone who continually taunts referees and/or players. So I'm sure we would all be grateful if sideline behavior could be confined to positive remarks.
 
Ultimately, the study points out how many support systems exist for youth sports. While Korrio sells software for managing the administration of clubs, there are also groups who provide workshops on promoting good sportsmanship, how to get recruited, coaching issues and fundraising. Your club can look to the major youth soccer organizations who have plenty of resources to make your club function better. U.S. Youth Soccer Association has online resources from coaches and experts that your club can utilize. In addition, U.S. Youth Soccer Association has created an educational platform which will make even more information available (/news/story/?story_id=6302). Presently coaching teaching modules and an introductory course to concussion are available on the platform. If your state association doesn't yet participate, encourage them to join. The National Soccer Coaches Association of America (www.nscaa.com) offers licensing courses, online education, and news about upcoming competitions and events. A number of software products are available for soccer clubs, although I encourage any club to set up a 30-to-60-day trial before purchasing software. Software developers should offer training in the software and the ability to reprogram parts of the software to make it appropriate for your club's needs.
 
Finally, I encourage all of you to give time to your club beyond any time that is required. Each of us has special talents that we can bring to our clubs to make them stronger. The stronger your club, the more it can depend on volunteerism, and the longer it can keep someone on the job, the more competitive it will be and it should help lower costs. Some clubs are now offering incentives for volunteers in the form of reduced dues. Take them up on this. You will find it is a pretty painless way of keeping some dollars in your own pocket.

Comments (1)

 

A tangled web

Susan Boyd

As the recent scandal at Penn State evolves, it reminds us sadly that sports unfortunately have an ugly side. That the scandal involves youth football players makes it even sadder. And it points out the importance of people in positions of power understanding their moral obligation to protect our children. While details are still being revealed, the main point is that an adult offering youth football training and experience to boys from troubled and impoverished backgrounds allegedly abused several of those boys. When it was discovered, and the "when" is still being established fully, it was simply dismissed and the door closed without doing a thing to inform the police, child welfare, and especially the parents. These children must feel so betrayed, and the after-effects will resonate in their lives for decades.
 
While it's an uncomfortable topic, it's also an unfortunate reality in youth sports. Predators gravitate to activities that offer lots of kids who look up to them and parents who trust them. So we all need to have some vigilance without panicking and without overprotecting. We can take three important steps to help reduce the likelihood of our children being put in a dangerous or compromising situation. Working in tandem with our clubs and our state associations, we can help ensure the safety of our children.
 
The first step is to confirm how your local association vets coaches and referees. You want to be comfortable that the environment your child is participating in is safe and has proper protocol in place. A primary driver in the vetting process is a background check. These checks do work. I had been involved in the process several years ago, and I was surprised at how often a basic background check revealed histories that required further investigation. In all, every year we would screen hundreds of volunteers and professionals, and occasionally we would have to inform clubs of persons that the state association could not license to work with youth players. The purpose of these checks is to reassure parents that any questionable adult has been identified and blocked from working with our children.
 
The second step involves doing your research. Make sure that your club follows through on these background checks and the information they receive. It can be difficult to tell a mom or dad who has given hours of volunteer time to the club that they have been identified as an at-risk adult. But clubs need to be diligent while being discrete. The protection of the children in the club has to take precedence over the protection of a friend of the club president. While not every potential risk can be identified, it's very important that those who are get removed from working with kids. Clubs must also make it clear that they will not tolerate any abusive behavior from anyone, including but not limited to verbal, physical, bullying and sexual acts. They should issue a code of conduct for parents, coaches, and administrators that make the limits clear as well as the consequences for crossing the line. I'm sure we've all witnessed our share of sideline abuse from overeager parents who feel that belittling players will somehow make them work harder. We've also experienced that coach whose idea of motivation is to scream obscenities and demeaning comments. While not as egregious as the alleged actions at Penn State, such behavior can still have a lasting and serious impact on our kids. So be sure that your club takes this conduct seriously and has provisions in place to deal with it. Even older teenagers can be negatively impacted by being debased. So don't tolerate a board's attitude that the kids need to toughen up. You pay the club good money to teach your kids soccer not to lower their self-esteem.
 
Finally, we need to support our children through education, intervention, and love. Be sure that they know they can tell you anything and that you will listen. That also means educating our children without alarming them on situations which can arise. There are several good organizations and websites with information you can use. Parents.com, for example, regularly addresses this issue. There's a book called "The Right Touch" for very young children. But the main thing is to let children know that they should never accept a gift or a ride from any person (friend or stranger) unless they get your permission first. While the evil threat of some roving sex offender haunts us, the more real threat is what allegedly happened at Penn State. A person in authority who has control over children and the trust of the parents uses that authority and trust to commit harm. Teach kids what boundaries they have the right to maintain, and if those boundaries are ever crossed, they need to tell you immediately.
 
Once you are aware of a concern, you need to act. If the problem is a parent on the sidelines or a coach who seems to have it out for your child, then find a time to talk to the offender calmly. If your intervention doesn't do the trick, then approach the club board with your concern. If that falls on deaf ears, then it's probably time to switch clubs. No prestige is worth your child's self-image. If the problem involves physical or sexual aspects with strong proof, then you need to inform the police and child welfare. Let the professionals sort it out. They know how to discretely investigate and what questions to ask. The Penn State situation hopefully shows the deep pain, harm, and repercussions to which covering it up can lead. The child victims come foremost, but there are adults who must face harsh consequences for ignoring the seriousness of the crimes and protecting a friend instead of doing the right thing. Their judgment was clouded by loyalty to the accused, which we parents should never tolerate.
 
When all is said and done, the most important support you can offer is your love. Children who have the confidence that their parents will stand behind them and who have the tools to recognize inappropriate or damaging behaviors will not so easily fall prey. And if they should, your immediate unqualified love will go a long ways to healing them and mitigating the effects. Most of our children will thankfully never face as horrible a fate as the boys in the alleged Penn State situation. For most of our children they will need to deal with verbal abuse. Despite the "sticks and stones" adage, words do hurt, so verbal abuse needs to be treated as seriously as any other kind of abuse on our children. Words will sting less if a child's self-esteem is high and experts tell us that children who feel secure in the love of their parents have higher self-esteem. So keep those hugs and kisses coming on a regular basis and listen carefully to what our children are telling us. We shouldn't approach every situation with suspicion, or worse, alarm, but we can be savvy. Keep your eyes and ears open along with your open arms.