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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.

 

Playing Up

Sam Snow

Fairly often we are asked about players moving up in age group or level of competition. So here first is a check list of questions to be asked by the coaches, parents, administrators and the player to make a decision on whether to move up or stay put. The check list is followed by several of the Position Statements pertinent to this topic from the state association Technical Directors.

If a club is considering moving a player up then several questions need to be answered.
  1. Is the player physically capable of playing with and against older kids?
  2. Is the player socially capable of playing with and against older kids?
  3. Is the player emotionally capable of playing with and against older kids?
  4. Is the player tactically aware enough to play at a higher level of competition?
  5. Does the player have the ball skills to play at a faster and more physically challenging level of play?
  6. Does the player want to make this a permanent move, leaving behind teammates and friends?
  7. Is this what the player's parents want for the child?
  8. Are the two coaches of the two teams in agreement on this move?
  9. Is the move allowed by club and/or state by-laws?
  10. What will happen to the player in the older age group who will be displaced by the younger player moving up?
STATE ASSOCIATION TECHNICAL DIRECTROS POSITION STATEMENTS

Age of competitive play        # 4
While it is acknowledged and recognized that preteen 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 twelve 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 U12
Minimum age for play     # 5
We believe that a child must be five years old by August 1 to register with a soccer club for the soccer year September 1 to August 31. Children younger than five years old should not be allowed to register with a soccer club.

Festivals for players U-10      # 9
We believe that Soccer Festivals should replace soccer tournaments for all players under the age of ten. 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 U10 teams from traveling to events that promote winning and losing and the awarding of trophies.

State, regional and national competition for U-12's # 10
We believe that youth soccer is too competitive at the early ages, resulting in an environment that is detrimental to both players and adults; much of the negative behavior reported about parents is associated with preteen play. The direct and indirect pressure exerted on coaches and preteen players to win is reinforced by state "championships" and tournament "winners." We therefore advocate that, in the absence of regional competition for under 12's, state festivals replace state cups. We also strongly recommend that with regard to regional and national competition the entry age group should be U14.

Playing up       # 17
The majority of clubs, leagues and district, state or regional Olympic Development Programs in the United States allow talented, younger players to compete on teams with and against older players. This occurs as a natural part of the development process and is consistent throughout the world. Currently, however, there are isolated instances where the adult leadership has imposed rules or policies restricting the exceptional, young player from "playing up." These rules vary. Some absolutely will not allow it. Others establish team or age group quotas while the most lenient review the issue on a case-by-case basis. Associations that create rules restricting an individual player's option to play at the appropriate competitive level are in effect impeding that player's opportunity for growth. For development to occur, all players must be exposed to levels of competition commensurate with their skills and must be challenged constantly in training and matches in order to aspire to higher levels of play and maintain their interest in and passion for the game.
               
When it is appropriate for soccer development, the opportunity for the exceptional player to play with older players must be available. We believe that "club passes" should be adopted as an alternative to team rosters to allow for a more realistic and fluid movement of players between teams and levels of play. If there is a concern regarding the individual situation, the decision must be carefully evaluated by coaches and administrators familiar with the particular player. When faced with making the decision whether the player ought to play up, the adult leadership must be prepared with sound rationale to support their decision. Under no circumstances should coaches exploit or hold players back in the misplaced quest for team building and winning championships, nor should parents push their child in an attempt to accelerate to the top of the soccer pyramid. In addition, playing up under the appropriate circumstances should not preclude a player playing back in his or her own age group. When the situation dictates that it is in the best interests of the player to do so, it should not be interpreted as a demotion, but as an opportunity to gain or regain confidence.
Some rationale for the above includes:

Pele played for Brazil in his first World Cup as a seventeen year old; Mia Hamm earned her first call to the U.S. Women's National Team when she was fifteen. An exceptionally talented young player playing with older players has been an integral part of the game since its inception. Certainly, a player that possesses soccer maturity beyond that of his or her peers should be encouraged to "play up" in order that his or her development as a player is stimulated.

The playing environment must provide the right balance between challenge and success. The best players must have the opportunity to compete with and against players of similar abilities. Players with less ability must be allowed to compete at their own level in order to enjoy the game and to improve performance.

In conclusion the development of players and advancement of the overall quality in the United States is the responsibility of every youth coach, administrator and policymaker in this country. It is our obligation to provide an environment where every player is given the opportunity to improve and to gain the maximum enjoyment from their soccer experience and ultimately, what is best for the player.
 

It's just not fair

Susan Boyd

Yesterday I picked up my 2006 VW Jetta GLI from my mechanic for the third time in six weeks. That's just the latest in a series of mechanic visits for this car which we've owned two years and for around 36,000 miles. Problems include(d) a burned out clutch (after 6000 miles), the evaporation system, the cam shaft, the fuel pump, the ignition coils, constant and unresolved electrical issues, a key that no longer locks or opens the doors remotely, dashboard illumination working only fleetingly, the right front parking light that has to be replaced every three months, and no AM radio in the car (meaning no Brewer's games). Naturally according to VW none of this is under warranty except the latest mechanical failure on the manual fuel pump – which reared its ugly head 206 miles after the warranty expired. Long discussions with VW customer care yielded nothing more than apologies and the offer of a $750 credit for me to buy or lease a new VW! That's like saying "I know the last batch of pizza sent you all to the hospital, but we'd like to offer you a $5 coupon to get more." After over $5000 spent in repairs in two years, we're ready to sell – anyone interested? I can offer no assurances and obviously no warranty, but I will knock off $750 from the sale price. That's got to be as good as buying it directly from VW.

While I can stomp my foot, hold my breath, and mutter "It's just not fair" the fact is I've run into The Rules. Rules exist for many reasons – to insure safety, to protect one party's interest, to provide a framework for conducting business and social responsibilities, to mitigate lawsuits, and to give referees something to do and fans something to shout about – but rules can't create fairness. This fact doesn't stop people from expecting fairness especially when it comes to youth sports. As one with lots of experience with rules, I can vouch for their inherent unfairness in many cases. For example, at the Under-14 US Youth Soccer State Championship Bryce's team was in the finals. Bryce had played a great game, stopping every potential goal. Unfortunately the opposing GK was equally adept. Near the end of the game, a blasting shot from the opponents deflected off the crossbar, sailed straight up into the air, and while everyone was doing pirouettes in the box trying to locate the ball, it descended onto the forearm of Bryce's teammate. The ref declared a hand ball in the box and awarded the team a PK. Despite Bryce going the right direction and actually getting his fingers on the ball, it crossed the line and proved to be the winning goal. Was that fair? No way. Did it follow the rules? Absolutely since calling a hand ball is at the discretion of the referee.

That kind of agony can be found at tryouts where dozens of rules won't help when your son or daughter is cut from the team of friends he or she has been on for three years. How often have we asked either ourselves or out loud "What does that kid have that my kid doesn't have?" Or "Why should that kid from outside of our town get to be on the team and my kid who has been loyal gets uninvited?" Anyone who actually reads a club's rules about tryouts will read a rule patterned along these lines: The coaches have the final say about who makes the team and who doesn't. That decision is made at the coaches' discretion and is based on which of the players coaches feel will make the best fit and provide the best chance at team success. That rule overrides loyalty, friendship, and potential hurt feelings. The ephemeral quality known as talent absolutely trumps every bit of quantifiable fairness. 

The "what ifs" of life guarantee that no rule is fair. When I'm not writing blogs I'm a college writing teacher. Every semester I design a syllabus which sets forth the guidelines for issues such as grades, absences, assignment deadlines, and extra credit. I can guarantee that my first hour of class is spent listening to the "what ifs" of the students because they have located a loophole in my "rules" which doesn't account for whatever event they feel challenges the fairness of the class. I think I could put down as my guidelines "everyone will get an A, you can miss all the class you want, assignments are due whenever, and extra credit points will be awarded for breathing" and I would still have hands raised, "what if I do all the work – can't I get a higher grade?" or "what if I die?" or "what if I have someone else do my work?"  We've all stood at a team meeting and either witnessed or been a part of the "what i" discussion. "What if my son has an ACT test during a scheduled game?" "What if I can't find white socks with red stripes? Can I just get white socks?" "What if my daughter can't come to Tuesday practices?"   "What if we can't afford to go to a tournament in Florida?" "What if piano lessons don't end in time to get to practice right at 5:30 p.m.?" Even Hammurabi couldn't write a set of rules to fairly cover all those circumstances.

My favorite story about fairness occurred with my husband and our youngest son when Bruce was the coach of Robbie's 10 year old baseball team. There were no umpires, so the coaches served as such, and on this particular occasion Bruce was the home plate ump. Robbie hit a long ball which was bobbled several times in the outfield. Robbie, who can lay claim to great speed, rounded the bases quickly, salivating over the possibility of an inside the park home run. As he neared home plate, the opposing team finally scooped up the ball and threw it into home. Robbie crossed the plate, the catcher caught the ball, tagged Robbie, and Bruce shouted, "Out!" Robbie was clearly safe. Both teams knew he was safe. The parents knew he was safe. There are satellite photos showing he was safe. But Bruce, not wanting to show favoritism, saw him out, so out he was. The rules in baseball state that the umpire is always right even if he is your dad. There is nothing like the stone cold silence of a 10 year old on a car ride home continuing through dinner into breakfast the next morning to make you question the very nature of fairness.

When we run into the immoveable force of The Rules, we quickly lose our innocence. We learn that rules can't insure fairness because they favor one point of view, and in many cases that's not ours. All we can do is take a deep breath and hope that the next time the scales will tip in our favor. It's also a lesson we need to teach our children. Things won't always go their way and no amount of rules can prevent disappointments. In the end, each unfair circumstance eventually fades in the face of successes which will probably elicit "It's just not fair" from someone else.  
 

Tips for Coaching Directors

Sam Snow

The jobs of state technical directors and club directors of coaching have many similarities. Here are a few tips about the job from some former club and state directors.

Tip 1

A successful director of coaching is innovative and very visible, reaching out to all levels of the game. A successful director of coaching connects the different levels of the game diplomatically, from recreation to the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program, helping each level to recognize their importance and the importance of the other levels.

Tip 2

Even though it has been said in many situations before, I believe that 'pick your battles' is a great tip for state technical directors. My advice is to think carefully and choose which issues really effect what should be your focus: coaching education and player development and selection. Let your board of directors do what they want on issues such as state budgets, player registration, office staffing, newsletters and many other such business related topics. I realize that some of these issues may impact your programs, but I suggest saving your voice for issues such as how players are being trained, coaching development, competition and player selection. When these important issues come up at board meetings, calmly remind the board why they hired you and then state your professional expertise as to what is best for the players and coaches you oversee.

Tip 3

The process for making the decision is as important as the decision itself. Involve critical parties in the decision making process.

Soccer people are everywhere. Passionate individuals and kids who care about the game deserve respect regardless of their title, position or background in the game. Reach out and involve anyone who desires a positive soccer experience for each individual player. 

Someone once said that great things could be accomplished if you don't mind who gets the credit. Be sure to give others, including board members and volunteers, credit for their courage and initiative.

Tip 4

Be patient, educate, persuade and then stand your ground on the issues that truly matter.

Tip 5

Coaching directors must attempt to forge positive relationships with state executive board.

Embrace the fact that a director of coaching must be successful on several fronts: communication, organization, technical and dedication to the task.
 

One strike and you're out

Susan Boyd

Despite a century long history of limited professional soccer in America, the game remains a fledgling in the world of U.S. sports.   The latest incarnation, Major League Soccer, was founded in 1993 with the first competitions in 1996. Over the past five years the league has begun a rigorous expansion program growing from ten teams to eighteen by 2011. Following in the European tradition 10 of the teams have "shirt front" sponsorship with a floor of $500,000. In addition the league has gotten larger TV contracts, a sure sign that TV executives recognize the growing interest in the sport. Like any struggling franchise, the teams are still trying to boost their bottom line. This past year only two clubs saw their financial statements in the black: Toronto (a team from a supportive soccer community) and Seattle (who benefits from a partnership with the Seahawks and shameless promotion from minority owner Drew Carey). Overall, even for the successful clubs, revenues lag far behind those of other professional sports. This translates to very unglamorous salaries. The average MLS player's annual earnings sit at $80,000 to $90,000, but when I looked at the salary chart for all players in 2009, I saw a majority of players sitting below the $40,000 mark. David Beckham's $5 million salary definitely skewed the numbers along with a few other foreign players and some American stars who also earn seven figures. The league and soccer in general dodged a bullet last week when the players and owners came to an agreement and a players' strike was averted.

So what does a backroom deal have to do with youth soccer? Quite a bit actually. The U.S. has struggled to get a profitable, sustainable professional league going. The National American Soccer League (NASL) existed from 1968 to 1984 with its indoor soccer branch lasting another decade. US Youth Soccer was founded in 1974 in a World Cup year and the NASL expanded bringing soccer further into the media spotlight. The high point for the NASL came with the addition of Pele to the New York Cosmos' roster in 1976. One of his bicycle kick goals featured prominently in the opening credits of ABC's Wide World of Sports giving every American sports fan an exquisite albeit brief taste of soccer. It also brought young fans into the sport giving them a recognizable role model. Unfortunately over the course of the next 10 years, American professional soccer took a nosedive and so too did interest in the sport. Rescue came in the form of the 1994 World Cup being awarded to the United States. Everyone had a reason to be proud of America and proud of American soccer players whose names were now known by a greater percentage of the population. When the MLS began its first competitive season in 1996 it rode the coattails of that World Cup recognition. In 1996 the number of registered US Youth Soccer players had risen from 100,000 to over a million.

The popularity of a sport depends greatly upon the name recognition of the players and the accessibility of competition for the general public. Kids want to emulate their sports' heroes and to dream about one day following in their footsteps. Their interest in playing a sport grows from their interest in who plays the sport. Had the MLS players struck, it would have been a terrible blow for the growing U.S. interest in our own home teams. Coming in a World Cup year, it would have further ramifications by curtailing some of the crescendo wave rolling into June and carrying fans into World Cup fever. Obviously the diehard fans wouldn't be affected, but those novice fans upon which the growth of professional soccer in America depends would have had their interest disrupted. We finally have a generation of soccer players who have grown up not only knowing American professional soccer, but having the international experience through television channels like Fox Soccer Channel and Gol TV. Interrupting their burgeoning interest in American teams and American players could result in years of having to re-establish that interest. All but one of the teams, Real Salt Lake, exist within an hour of other major sports teams, especially baseball whose season parallels that of the MLS. A family looking for a summer sports experience may turn their discretionary income to baseball if soccer didn't exist due to a strike. 

Another serious factor affecting youth soccer is the close relationship between the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and MLS teams. While the Academy doesn't include but a handful of the more than 3 million youth players in America, it is presently one of two conduits to the highest levels of soccer in America. The possibility of playing at the top level keeps youth players motivated and hungry. The Academy attempts to follow the European model of having youth teams for each of the MLS teams where the players are supported by the professional team with facilities, access to coaches, financial support, and name recognition. With the MLS players on strike, the affect on the Academy could be serious. While the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program functions outside of the professional system, it could also suffer residual effects from fan defection and a depletion of interest.

I have great sympathy for the MLS players. The league can't attract the best players because they can go to Europe where salaries in even the fourth tier of competition can exceed what they earn in the MLS. A semi-professional player in the Conference National, the fifth tier and primarily amateur league, makes around $800 a week which just about equals what the meat and potato MLS players make. For many American players the choice to sit on the bench in Europe or play in the United States comes down to what they can make over the course of a contract. So, American players have a legitimate beef with the league about pay and about their ability to move to other more lucrative contracts without league approval. But now is not the time for a strike. The league has at least another five years to go before it can claim the fan loyalty and revenues strong enough to weather a season disruption.   This interdependent circle of fans and games needs to be nurtured a while longer, particularly as it relates to youth fans. If the league hopes to be as successful in the longterm as the NFL, the NBA, or the MLB, it has to bring more and more youth fans into the circle. Those who play the game now, follow the MLS, and hold American soccer players as their heroes are those who will become the season ticket holders of the future and the parents who sign their kids up for soccer perpetuating a larger fan base.

The MLS and youth soccer need one another for the sport to grow in America. While I loved attending Columbus Crew games for under $80 for my family when my daughter lived there and driving the two hours to Chicago to see the Fire, my interest would wane should there have been a strike. Who wants to put that much effort into going to games when you can't count on the games occurring? That means my kids and my grandkids wouldn't be going to games as well. With so many sports competing for their interest and soccer still considered not as "cool" as the other sports, it's hard to convince kids to play if there isn't a professional component that lends the game some validity in their eyes. Someday I foresee a time I'll complain about the ridiculously inflated MLS player salaries and the high cost of tickets, but that's the price we'll pay for soccer earning its legitimate permanent place in the professional sport ranks. I just hope one or both my sons will be playing for the MLS so I can get in for free!