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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on USYouthSoccer.org every Monday.  A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom". 

 

Settle Back

Susan Boyd

This Memorial Day weekend was spent in a quintessential Midwest setting – a small town park with oak and cottonwood trees, a water tower, pavilion, grills, and eleven baseball fields. It was my grandson's baseball tournament for his 9 and 10 year old travel team. I don't remember either Bryce or Robbie being that good at the game at that young of an age. It was impressive to watch these pint-size Jeters and Brauns school us all in the art of baseball. Other than a smaller field, these kids played with major league rules and occasionally major league expectations.
           
No matter the game, all youth sports share several negatives: the dynamics of parent-child interactions, conflicts with officials, uneven coaching, and reluctance to play on the part of the child. Happily with my grandson's team there seemed to be few negatives. Some parents got a bit intense, especially when the team came close to defeating the state champions, but for the most part parents were either supportive or silent. No one questioned the referees other than an occasional "ooh" when a close pitch wasn't called as we expected. The coaches stayed positive and instructive. Only one time did a player indicate a reluctance to enter the game. Other teams weren't so fortunate with parents making angry demands on the players both during and after the games, coaches who berated the players, and passive-aggressive remarks to the officials. Coming across the best and the worst of youth sports makes me wonder what we can do to smooth out the situation and improve the conditions.
           
The main difficulty is that those of us who have gone through years of youth sports have the wisdom of experience, but most families have just started the process.  Without that perspective of time, it's difficult for parents to realize what could be better. And since most of us have years of participating in and watching adult sports we can only model ourselves after those behaviors. I admit to seeing a fly ball sail past the glove of the left fielder this weekend and muttering, "Oh rats!" knowing that the guy on third was going to score. I'm used to watching Ryan Braun snag those with great confidence and tremendous athletic skill to pull in the impossible ball. Had Braun missed that fly ball, the crowd would have erupted in venomous disappointment. So it's difficult in a youth game to rein in the editorial comments that would spring naturally to a crowd in a professional game. Nevertheless, we parents have an obligation to make that distinction.
           
How do we keep youth sports not only civil but fun? We parents need to set the tone every step of the way.  We need to keep our coaching to a minimum. I know how hard it is to see your child commit the same mistake game after game and not say anything. So pick one big issue to address before each game and only address it once briefly. Keep the majority of remarks upbeat. I also have found that there is peace in numbers. The team parents who remind one another on the sidelines to stay positive do manage to fulfill that behavior. I've watched parents huddle before a game to repeat some variant of a mantra of "Stay positive, no coaching, and respect the referees." The most demonstrative parents know that they have a standard to maintain and that the other parents expect it. As parents we can also help to monitor during the game and issue gentle reminders as some parents get too vocal. I've seen the spectrum from complete decorum to sideline jousting matches between parents on opposing teams. I definitely prefer the former!
           
It's more difficult when it comes to the coaches. We all want the best coaching we can get for our children. No matter how much we may say we only want our kids to have fun playing sports, we can't help having an eye to the future. What if our son or daughter exhibits both skills and passion for their sport? What if they can excel at the sport? Then they'll need strong coaching and a strong team. So we may find ourselves excusing boorish behavior from coaches because we don't want to risk losing those coaches. Remedies aren't easy. I've attended club board meetings where parents turned in letters to complain about a coach's behavior and had their issues belittled and ultimately ignored. Clubs can get very touchy about their coaching staff since it constitutes a portion of the club's reputation. Parents may reasonably feel powerless to act. Often there's no good choice: stay with the coach or leave the team. I would follow my child's lead, although he or she may also feel that options are limited to unhappy choices. My sons had a great coach who conducted amazing practices and taught the players so much, but in game situations a switch went off and he became more concerned with winning not just the game but every call with the referees.  Parents had a hard time reconciling the training coach with the game coach. But we all stuck with him because we recognized that the training he provided our sons ultimately outweighed the sideline behavior during games. And our kids agreed which made the decision easier.
           
The toughest issue can be when our kids express reluctance to play. We can have a hard time determining why. For some kids the reluctance comes from transitory issues such as their cleats hurt or someone said something mean. For other kids the issues are far more serious such as not enjoying the sport or feeling uncomfortable with the coach. Kids usually have trouble expressing their real reasons because they can feel our expectations and our pride in their participation. They don't want to disappoint us. Letting our kids know that they do have the option, within certain guidelines, to quit a sport gives them the confidence that they have an out if they need or want it. Most parents expect their child to finish the season. That seems reasonable. It sets up a standard that insures kids don't just quit on a whim and doesn't harm the team to which they made a commitment. Often kids end up working through their concerns as they meet their commitment, and if they don't then we have confidence as a parent that those concerns are serious.
           
Watching our children play sports on a beautiful spring day brings great pride and joy. We need to keep the innocence of youth in mind despite how adult they play. As one of Robbie's teammates told us parents on the sidelines we need to "settle down." And I'll add we need to just enjoy the ride. Whether they win or lose we'll love them just the same, so that should help take the anxiety out of the equation. As the mother of a goalkeeper, I can assure you the less anxiety you feel, the better.
 

Coaching Ball Skills

Sam Snow

I get asked some great questions about our beautiful game and I enjoy the dialog. So, here's a discussion on coaching ball skills I've had with a youth coach.
 
I have been looking at the Skills School: Fundamental Ball Skills document. I have also read that the focus should be on technical, not tactical at the younger ages. How does one use the games and activities method of practice - for example, for U-6 players - and at the same time teach those players shooting, dribbling, balance, running, jumping and movement education? For example, the document says basic running mechanics must be taught and reinforced as part of movement education in the U-6 and U-8 age groups and those motions can be reinforced during warm-up or cool-down activities with the U-10 and older age groups. Do the games teach the skills or should they be coached; if the latter, when and how?
 
I'm glad you've had a chance to read over the Skills School manual, I hope you have enjoyed it. Actually, there is a shared focus on both technique and tactics from U-6 to U-19 that is the essence of the games-based approach. That approach is best learned through reading the material on the website for Teaching Games for Understanding: http://www.tgfu.org/. Now, of course the "tactics" for U-6 are very simple - which goal to shoot at and at which one to block shots. Tactics for that age group also includes where is the field and beginning to understand the concept of boundary lines. The teaching of tactics and how to use ball skills to pull off your tactical ideas gradually progresses to quite complex levels by the U-19 age group. We want coaches to teach ball skills in game context as well as some rehearsal of the body mechanics of ball skills as a separate component of training. The teaching of balls skills when done in game-like activities gives the kids notions on how those skills can be used. The problem for American players over the last 30 years has been that we teach ball skills in an isolated way (drills) and then using them in the right moments in a match eludes many youngsters. Or some coaches have gone too far the other way and only play games and take little or no time to teach skills. As with most things, it is striking the balance that creates the best environment for development.

Part of the idea of using game-like activities is that a novice coach can use just the activity, not say anything, and the activity will teach the players. However, the same activity in the hands of a more knowledgeable and experienced coach can go further with some well-timed coaching points and guided discovery questions.

Now, as to movement education, we can incorporate those movements into warm-up, cool-down and inside many activities during the training session. Our coaches of U-12 and younger players need to accept that they are now the physical education teacher as well as the soccer coach. This is needed for our kids since so many schools have reduced or eliminated P.E.

A good deal more of these methods of coaching and age appropriate training will be presented in the US Youth Soccer Player Development Model.
 
Thanks, I followed everything in your email and I knew and agreed with most of it. One thing you said that I want to understand, should the entire practice be games that teach the kids or is there a part of practice that should involve "some rehearsal of the body mechanics of ball skills as a separate component of training" as your e-mail states? If so, what does that part of practice look like and when during practice should it occur and how much time and how often?
 
There's not really a set formula to each training session. Yes, the majority of training should be within game-like activities and then free play (match). This is especially true for the U-12 and younger age groups. That approach continues to hold true for teenage players but the need for functional training increases.

So- your questions of when during a training session, how much time and how often to rehearse the mechanics of ball skills is not one easy to answer with a set formula. Frankly, deciding when the players need that type of work is the art of coaching as opposed to the science of coaching. That answer though is troublesome to those who think analytically...they feel comfortable with set patterns. I find it interesting that some coaches want a predictable pattern to training soccer players, yet the game itself is organized chaos. When do things go as planned during a soccer match? We must train our players and our coaches to be flexible and to think on their feet - literally and figuratively.

So back to ball skill mechanics, I can teach those within the context of a game-like activity. Using proper questions and some modeling gets the point across to most kids. Another way to help improve ball skills that is underutilized by our clubs is mixed age group training. We are far too sterile in our training environment. We should have more instances of the U-9 and U-10 players training together instead of separately. And the U-10 team should training with the U-11 team now and then. I do not mean scrimmage one another but mix the players together and train. One of the wonderful aspects of player development in the Hispanic soccer culture is teenagers training with and playing with adult players. We need a LOT more of that in mainstream soccer!
 
I appreciate all the time and thinking that went into your response. On the training across age groups, while that may be a good idea, as a practical matter I am less concerned about different ages in organized practices and I would like to see content that helps explain how to create opportunities for free play, supervised but unstructured, street (or park or neighborhood) soccer, that involves a wider age range - and I will want your views on how wide a range is okay.
 
Well, when it comes to pick-up games, the older the players get the wider the age range can be. There was very good logic behind the traditional age groupings in youth soccer of U-6, U-8, U-10, U-12, U-14, U-16 and then U-19. The difference in psychomotor, psychosocial and cognitive development is significant prior to late adolescences and early adulthood. These three domains of human development impact soccer players in technique and tactics. Fitness improves as athleticism develops and under proper fitness training by knowledgeable P.E. teachers and some coaches.   (Most youth soccer coaches are insufficient in their knowledge of physical education to tailor the lesson plan to the needs of an age group, much less an individual. That deficiency is not confined to volunteer coaches.)
Clearly, the differences in the four components of the game and the three domains of development are distinctly different between a 6-year-old and a 10-year-old for example, or a 15-year-old and a 19-year-old. So, a range of two to maybe three years in pick-up games is acceptable from a risk management perspective up through early adolescences at approximately age 15. Once into the late teens and early adulthood the age range can and should expand.

Saying that, having talented adult players, who know how to control their emotions, could play in pick-up games with all of our kids from age 5 to 19. The kids do enjoy it when the adults play with them from time-to-time, but NOT all the time. Remember that one of the core ideas behind having pick-up games is giving the game back to the players. However, having a soccer talented adult play with the kids occasionally can provide great examples for the young player. This is in concert with the theories of Lev Vygotsky. He was a Russian psychologist (1896-1934) who advocated that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition. "Zones of proximal development" defined the limits of learning. So the practical application of this theory in pick-up games is older players participating among younger players.

So, how to fit street/pick-up soccer into clubs? Well, many of them are already doing so. They tend to be the clubs that have had coaches who have gone through the NYL and they take the lessons taught in the course on street soccer and apply them to their team or the entire club. Many of our US Youth Soccer ODP coaches do the same at Olympic Development Program camps - even to the extent of mixing players from different states onto teams.

These clubs have educated the players' parents and the board of directors on the benefit of pick-up games. This is a crucial step so that the adults can understand how they are getting their bang for their buck. Of course, once the kids play and return home fully enthused about the experience all resistance from the adults ends.

In the National Youth License course there is a classroom presentation on "street soccer", which is directly followed by the candidates going onto the field and playing in the set up described. The session on the field ends with a review and critique of the session by the candidates and instructors.
 

Making the Right Choice

Susan Boyd

I like to read the numerous youth soccer forums available online. Several of them are geographic specific and some are general, but all seem to ask similar questions. During these months of tryouts, many of the queries focus on which travel team clubs would be the best choices. The transition from recreation to select has to be one of the most traumatic rites of passage for a child based on what these forums spin out with their threads. Parents see the choice they make as a do or die option that can affect the rest of their child's life, which isn't surprising given the propaganda. Trying to find answers that aren't self-serving for a club or a group of players can be difficult since you can't easily find impartial information out there. As someone who has been through it with two children and now several grandchildren, I can vouch for the brambles on the journey.

If you look on club websites you will read about the number of state, regional, and national championships they have achieved, the number of players who went on to college soccer, the level of the coaching staff, and the testimonials of previous players and parents. The credentials of a club are important to examine, but you need to do so with a critical eye. Clubs ebb and flow, so championships likewise ebb and flow. Achieving a national championship in 1990 isn't necessarily an endorsement of the club's quality in 2011. 

As a parent selecting a club, you need to do the same research you would do to find a good day care or school. You need to visit practices, talk to parents on the sideline, and watch how players interact with one another and the coach. Are practices well-organized and controlled? Do the drills seem to be busy work or have a purpose? Is there a good balance among fitness, individual skills, and team tactics? Does the issue of winning come up often? Is the coach respectful and firm? Does the club have a history of significantly changing the teams' rosters year after year? What are the coaching credentials of the staff? How many teams are they each responsible for? Do they have an assistant coach? How often do they miss coaching the team because of conflicts?
           
Remember that clubs are in the business of surviving. Survival depends on two things: money and reputation. For most clubs, reputation means lots of wins, lots of championships, connection to major programs such as US Youth Soccer's National League or USSF's Developmental Academy, and lots of players going on to play college soccer.   The better the reputation, the more money the club should be able to make, which can translate into attracting better coaches, creating better facilities, and receiving invitations to top tournaments and competitive leagues. 

Parents looking for a top soccer experience for their children should consider these factors as significant and beneficial. However, parents should also keep in mind that maintaining that reputation means that most clubs won't value their loyalty towards their players as more important than attracting even better players at their expense. Choosing a club at U-11 doesn't necessarily translate into a long-term, harmonious relationship with that club. And being rejected by a club at U-11 doesn't mean that three years later the club won't welcome your child in with open arms.
           
Teams also dissolve, so that, through no fault of you or your child, you may need to find a new club at U-15 or U-16 because your club no longer has a viable team at that age level. Therefore, your determination of a club team can take into consideration what the club will offer many years hence to your player, but shouldn't be the only consideration. Robbie was lucky enough to play on a team from U-9 through U-14 which stayed together as primarily the same group for those six years with the same coach for five of those years. I credit that team and coach with developing Robbie's strong team tactics and his abilities to play off the ball. Having the same group meant that they could develop both trust and strong interplay. Stability of a team creates wonderful opportunities for a child and I would encourage parents to put a strong emphasis on clubs which attempt to maintain a team's stable roster since they are placing importance on development of both individual and team skills.
           
Ultimately, the success of a soccer player won't be based directly on his or her team's success. Certainly winning teams attract the best players and the best competition which serves the development of a player well. But if the club constantly shifts the roster to "collect" the best players in the hopes of creating a mega-team, then the emphasis is on winning and not on development. As I've often mentioned, the future success of a player is in his or her ability to fit in with a team of players who understand the dynamics of playing on a team. As a player moves up the ladder of competition from club to high school to college to professional, the worth of a player isn't just his or her ability to score goals or run fast down the field. A player has to be able to be a cog in a well-oiled team machine and to understand his or her role as the coach instructs it.   So, finding a club that focuses on both individual and team development will be important for your child's future development.
           
Parents need to understand that players can advance without being on the "it" team. And even more importantly, that being on the "it" team doesn't insure that the player will advance or want to advance. Robbie played for four years on a team that was ranked in the top three in the country. Out of that roster only 1/3 of the players now play college soccer. Some players didn't want to play past high school, some tried college soccer and found it wasn't to their liking, and some were cut from their college team. 

We can't predict if our children will find college sports to their liking and we certainly can't predict if injury or other limitations will affect their opportunity. Therefore, choose your team with some eye to the future, but primarily with an eye to the present. Let the team be a comfortable and happy fit for your child. Make sure you don't overextend yourself financially and time-wise. Keep all your family members and commitments in perspective. Most importantly, remember that it really isn't an irreversible decision. If things aren't working out, make a change come next year's tryouts. Your child's own determination to succeed will ultimately be the biggest factor in any future accomplishments along with your support.
 

U-10 Travel Soccer?

Sam Snow

Travel soccer at the U10 age level?

So often it is the questions and comments I receive from members of US Youth Soccer that provide useful content for this blog. Here's one more and this time we talk about the U-10 age group.

Our local youth soccer association is dealing with a youth development conundrum with which we hope you can assist. During the past years, we have read many US Youth Soccer technical papers regarding youth development recommendations. Although the assortment of subjects about which advice is given is vast, some of the basic principles, for the younger ages, that we have gleaned from many of these papers are:

1.)    At the "in-house" (i.e., games only against teams within the community) ages (U-6 to U-10) minimize the emphasis on winning, emphasize fun, and teach through fun games, small-sided scrimmages, etc.

2.)    At these in-house ages, emphasize comfort with the ball (i.e., dribbling ability, good touch, etc.).

Our current problem has to do with our U-10 in-house age group. We strongly feel that, at this age, winning should still be de-emphasized and skill development and fun emphasized. In the past 5-7 years, there has been a push to start to "travel" (i.e., travel to play against other communities) at this age U-10 group. In fact, we see that there is a drive, nationwide, to travel at even younger ages! We feel that when teams begin to travel and play against other communities, the emphasis to win is also increased; whether a coach willingly does this, or not. This simply is because of greater pressure from the parents, players, coaches, etc. to beat other communities. Because of this, we also believe that short cuts are more apt to be taken to win a game (i.e., booting the ball up field to the big forward rather than trying to dribble or work the ball up field). Therefore, we have continued to argue against travel at the U-10 level so that our kids can continue to develop during the U-10 level in an environment where winning is not as much of an importance.

The other side's counterpoint is that in-house soccer at the U-10 level is not fun (i.e., not as exciting because of the lower emphasis on winning) so we are losing some kids that are quitting as a result. In order to attempt to address this concern, we have tried to make the U-10 age level more fun by entering the US Youth Soccer Kohl's American Cup, conducting an end-of-season U-10 in-house tournament, bringing in the Pittsburgh Riverhounds or Classic/Cup team DOC's to conduct about half of the U-10 trainings, etc.

Would you please comment and let us know whether we are on the right track and whether we need to modify what we are doing? 

You are indeed on the right track. While travel for the U-10 age group outside of the club is not forbidden, if travel does occur it should be to events that focus on player performance first and outcome of the match second, or even not at all. One such program I suggest you look to for ideas and methods is being run by North Carolina Youth Soccer.

Please also note the directive from the US Youth Soccer Board of Directors from their meeting on March 5, 2011.

2.         The Board encouraged the Coaching Committee to continue to develop an outline for implementation of "academy" programs for players at U-10 and that focus and information regarding skill development be included.

Here too, are a few of the Position Statements from the 55 state associations Technical Directors which pertain to the question.

Age of competitive play

While it is acknowledged and recognized that pre-teen players should be allowed to pursue playing opportunities that meet both their interest and ability level, we strongly discourage environments where players below the age of 12 are forced to meet the same "competitive" demands as their older counterparts therefore we recommend the following:

1.            50% playing time
2.            no league or match results
3.            8 v 8 at U-12

Festivals for players under 10

We believe that Soccer Festivals should replace soccer tournaments for all players under the age of 10. Festivals feature a set number of minutes per event (e.g., 10 games X 10 minutes) with no elimination and no ultimate winner. We also endorse and support the movement to prohibit U-10 teams from traveling to events that promote winning and losing and the awarding of trophies.

Finally here's an excerpt from the soon-to-be released US Youth Soccer Player Development Model.

"NO U-10's should be involved in competitive tournaments or tryouts. Play Days, Jamborees or Festivals where U-10's all get a participation award are fine.

U-10 players should –

1.      Not be exposed to tryouts
2.      Not be labeled 'rec' or 'competitive'
3.      Not be allowed to go to tournaments where there is a winner"

Thank you very much for the feedback, very informative. The problem at our youth association is that our parents are pushing hard for our U-10's to travel in the state league where there are league and match results.  We feel this is unnecessary and causes coaches to take short cuts to win instead of placing more of the emphasis on player development. For that reason, we would like to keep our U-10's playing in our in-house league.

The biggest push to travel is not so much from the players, but from the parents who want to see their kids play like little pros. Little do the parents realize that they are doing more harm than good by ramping up the competitive pressures at such an early age. We feel that there will be plenty of time, in the kids' older years, when we can play to win championships. Any further information you might have on the subject would be very welcome.

You are absolutely right that it tends to be more the adults than the kids who want to push the results oriented environment sooner than later with 10-year-old children. That is contrary to the approach taken by U.S. Soccer and US Youth Soccer. It is also contrary to the research in sports sciences and specifically Long-Term Player Development (LTPD). Take a look at the magazine Olympic Coach, Spring 2004, Volume 16, Number 1 from the U. S. Olympic Committee for the details on LTPD. Also read on the US Youth Soccer website an article that speaks to this topic of too much too soon. Since many adults do not know the timeline for the development of a soccer player they want to push the matter too quickly. To develop a player properly requires patience on the part of the adults.