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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.

 

Competitive Coaches in Academies

Sam Snow

What would you expect your competitive coaches to realistically do for the youth/Academy division of a club?

I have had those paid coaches take charge of a younger age group. So, let's say it's the head coach for the U-17 premier division team in the club. I would have that coach also be in charge of the U-11 age group coaches in the club. He or she would provide three sample lesson plans each month to those U-11 coaches in the club. He would also run one demo session per month for all of the U-11 coaches using one of the club's U-11 teams. The team used for the demo session would change each month. I also require this competitive coach to go to the U-11 matches at home at least one time each month to assess not only the play of the U-11 kids, but also the behavior and game management of the coaches.

Another approach is to have the paid coaches work with several different age groups. For example a coach could work with a U-10, U-13 and U-17 team. This gives continuity to the developmental philosophy since the coach lives the need to develop the younger age groups in preparation for an older age division. The approach also gives the coach a broader experience, thus also developing the coaching staff from within the club.

Finally, no matter the club structure and whether the coaches are paid or volunteer, it is best to rotate coaches every two years. The players grow from the varied experiences of being exposed to different coaches with different styles and approaches to playing the game. Both players and coaches get into routines if they stay together for too long. By rotating the coaches, the coaches have the opportunity to work with either gender, several age groups and levels of play. 
 

Time for March Madness!

Susan Boyd

Do we all have our brackets filled out? Have our favorite teams made the bracket? Did we finally hook up cable just so we could get Tru TV and see every game? And in so doing, how many of us are actually intrigued by "Big Brian The Fortune $eller" now that we've seen the promos a hundred times? How much sleep (and/or work) are we missing to watch all the games? College basketball is the real Fortune $eller.

I wonder when we'll have that intensity for November/December Madness. See, right there is the first problem. The College Soccer Cup runs over two months so we can't create some promotional catch phrase like November Nuttiness (too many syllables anyway) or December Derangement that covers the entire event. There is a bracket with the familiar Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, and Final Four. So that part of the equation works. The part that works the least is interest. Sports fans haven't yet caught on to the love of soccer the way they have with basketball or football. At least, briefly, ESPN televised the bracket selection without the major hoopla (pun intended) of the basketball brackets. But there is no tier of cable stations showing "every game, every goal."

Such limited college exposure can make the sport seem forgettable, even useless. It's no wonder that many parents discourage their children from participating past the first few years of youth soccer. They see no future in it. With visions of televised games and possible endorsement deals dancing in their heads, parents can quickly forget why 99.9% of kids play a sport. For fun. That's a novel idea, I know. We are inundated with images of slow motion lay-ups and stadiums filled with over 100,000 fans. That's the college sports experience we want for our kids. Not some field buried on the fringes of campus with rickety wooden bleachers scantily covered by a few hundred fans. We are thinking bigger picture – like the wide screens at the sports bars during March Madness.

The reality, of course, is that only a very small percentage of youth players in any sport advance to playing college sports. My sons' high school this year won three state championships so they had a lot of talent. Out of 600 boys who played varsity sports about fifteen signed letters of intent in all sports. That's 2.5%. And as the NCAA ads declare, most college athletes will go pro in something other than sports. So picking a sport solely with an eye towards any advanced play, even high school sports, doesn't make much sense. I agree the difference between going to a high school soccer game and a high school football game can be depressing. But playing something they love gives kids a great sense of pride, a strong self-image, and satisfaction for succeeding at something they enjoy. Girls have always had the problem of getting the same attention for their sports' prowess as the boys. Therefore they recognize better how important playing for passion can be.

The great thing about soccer is how the sport fits so well with players who aren't on the fringes of the developmental bell curve. Basketball you need to be tall, fast, and big. Football you need to be big, fast, and tall. Baseball/Softball you need to be fast, big, and tall. Soccer you need to be fast, smart, and durable. The problem for all the other sports is that you often don't discover if your son or daughter fits the extreme physical demands of those sports until they hit puberty or even later. Therefore they either invest a lot of their youth training for a sport where they physically begin to fall behind, or they find out too late that they have the physical attributes for the sport. Soccer accepts anyone so long as they can develop a "soccer brain" and have the fitness to endure long stretches of running. It's a perfect sport for an athlete of average build.

Of course if we lived in Mexico, or England, or Ghana there'd be no question that our kids played the number one sport. We'd have no worries about their sport being respected, televised, and endorsed. On the downside, we would have to deal with more competition – every kid wants to be a soccer star in most of the rest of the world. So we should actually count ourselves lucky that our kids were smart enough to choose a sport that still has room to grow and can appreciate the dedication of its players to a sport that isn't rich with fans and money. We may not get a month dedicated to watching the best youth players compete, but we have an entire year to watch our kids enjoy themselves.
 

Best Dressed

Susan Boyd

Spring soccer begins soon if it hasn't already started in your neighborhood.  Even the MLS kicks off this week.  So, after the doldrums of winter, the time has come to pull out that soccer gear and discover what fits and what doesn't.  With kids you never know until you try.  Those expensive cleats that they wore four months ago may now be two sizes too small.   Those fancy practice shorts now fit them like something Larry Bird would have worn in 1981 when players didn't mind showing off their thighs.  And turning the house upside down still only reveals one shin guard.  So, it's time to go shopping.
 
Your options for purchasing soccer gear now rival any other sports options.  Not too long ago, the big box sports stores had soccer sections that looked like an afterthought.  Now you can find just about anything you need, especially for the youth player.  Online options abound that offer everything from the basics to the most expensive international gear.  But I'm pretty loyal to my local independent soccer store, Stefan's, because the staff is knowledgeable both about gear and its customers.  I know I'll get the best advice on cleats and other gear.  They may not have the rock bottom bargains of the internet or the big boxes, but my boys were always fitted well which meant fewer blisters and better foot control.  Plus, if anything went amiss I knew they would help make it right.
 
Because soccer gear is such a big business internationally, the marketing by the manufacturers gets pretty intense, which is not lost on dedicated youth players.  No matter the occasion, these giants create launch dates for new cleats, uniforms, and outer wear.  Along with their tempting images of soccer heroes striking the ball with sweat flying and muscles rippling, these promotions come with hefty price tags. The ads promise "faster," "higher," "smarter," and "sharper."  Black cleats barely exist for these titans; they are orange, yellow, lime green, red.   You can easily spend over $200 for a pair of these "replica" youth cleats for your son or daughter.  Some of us have experienced that they will grow out of them in just months thanks to that unforeseen growth spurt.   It's difficult to fight the urge, especially when a kid or two shows up at practice streaking down the field in her neon blue cleats.   Make sure you set your budget and your limits before you begin looking for your gear so you can resist the doe-eyed pleas for the electric cleats.
 
Our family's biggest expense every year seemed to be shin guards.  The boys managed to leave one or both guards on the bench or on the field.  We orphaned dozens of shin guards until I hit on a plan to stem the madness.  Most players get pretty particular about their shin guards – they have to be the right size, shape, color, padding, and weight.  So once the boys located their perfect pair, they were told that was it for a year.  If the shin guards got separated, lost, destroyed, or wandered off, they had to use the cheap pairs I purchased at the same time.  I'd pick up two additional pairs that cost no more than $10 each and kept them in my soccer box in the back of the car.  Once the only options for shin protection became either their perfect pair or some cheap, embarrassing pair, they seemed to be able to collect their shin guards and store them away after every game!
 
I also learned quickly that I have no memory when it comes to soccer purchases and that my kids believe they have perfect memory.  So this weakness has been exploited on a regular basis. I have been told dozens of times that my kids have had the same pair of cleats or warm-ups for "at least a year" and short of digging through my credit card receipts I have no way of countering.   However, with the convenience of cell phones I now have the perfect response.  I just take a picture of every purchase.  Then with a quick scroll I can locate the exact date AND time that the item entered our home.  I've discovered that "at least a year" actually translates to "about three months."  This one technique has saved countless arguments while sitting in the soccer store clinging to a pair of must have cleats when a perfectly good pair sits at home.
 
Since kids outgrow gear so quickly, most of it remains gently used.  If you can hand it down, then bravo to you.  But usually that won't work.  So consider finding a spot to donate that gear.  U.S. Soccer Foundation has the Passback program (passback.org) which usually collects through local state soccer associations.  Sports Gift (sportsgift.org) collects gear from all sports for both local and international organizations.  Goodwill, Salvation Army, and St. Vincent DePaul are always grateful for good sports equipment since the demand is huge for those items.  If your team is willing, donating their uniforms as a unit will help provide for teams both in the states and abroad.
 
Once you have all the gear collected, you now have to maintain it.  That's not always easy.  Spring soccer means rain, mud, and even snow.  That gear takes a beating and then transfers the elements into your car on the trip home.  There's nothing like an errant sock pressed under the seat against the heat vent to provide fumes that even a Hazmat team fears.  I have long advocated the use of plastic bags to help keep mud and wet in their place.  I also believe in recycling, so you can collect those grocery fruit and vegetable bags and shopping bags to use in your efforts to control filth and odors.  I like to cover my car floors with the 33 gallon garbage bags to contain the dirt.  These can be removed, shaken out, and even hosed down to use again.  Use smaller bags to collect the cleats, uniforms, socks, and even shin guards before they have a chance to contaminate the car or the soccer bag.  In fact, I always keep everything in bags so even the clean is sealed. 
 
I suggest keeping all soccer related clothing and gear in one spot.  I bought a cheap five drawer dresser at Target and set it in the garage.  One drawer holds uniforms and warm-ups, one holds gloves, hats, socks and undergarments, one holds peripheral gear like shin guards, goalie gloves and head bands, and two hold cleats.  I hung a rack with hooks over the door to hold jackets.  They set their soccer bags on top of the dresser and so it's really easy to load up the bags before a game.  The added bonus of being already in the garage helps insure we don't forget much before a game.  When I wash the uniforms I put them in the drawer.  The boys clean off their cleats and put them in the drawer.  It becomes an easy and helpful set of routines that prevent most, but not all last minute panics.  It also helps at the end of one season to insure that several months later at the beginning of the next season we know where to locate everything.  Once the boys expanded to club, high school, and indoor soccer teams we expanded to two dressers to accommodate all the additional uniforms.
 
Getting new soccer clothes and gear can help boost enthusiasm for the game.  Even just adding a new pair of socks can bring enough pizzazz to a new season to give it extra fun.   Keep all the purchases at a reasonable cost.  Consider one special item each season if you have the money – a jacket, a backpack, or a professional jersey.  But these aren't necessary to playing the game, so don't feel obligated to spend more than you can afford just to keep up with the soccer Joneses.  Once they get out onto the field and score a goal or make a great pass or defend successfully against a rush, they'll be so happy to be playing it won't matter what you did or didn't spend.   
 

Build Culture Excellence

Sam Snow

Occasionally I am asked questions about the club environment. Most of those questions are about problems such as dealing with belligerent coaches or the blind eye that club administrators turn when a team is winning but deeper life lessons are not being taught.

Sometimes though, the question is about how can our club improve what we are doing? Here's one such question that came across my desk.

How would you help build and create a culture of excellence? E.g. training, uniforms, standards, expectations?

I think the culture begins with the leaders in the club.  That will be the top administrators and coaches, and certainly having the full board of directors on board is a major plus; they must walk the talk, so to speak, when it comes to the club's mission statement and philosophy.  The next most important group to get on track to create a culture of excellence is the parents.  There is no doubt this is challenging and a never-ending aspect of the culture, but in the end it is the most important.  The parents influence all others in the club; players, coaches and administrators – in that order.

Working with the parents regarding the sporting experience of children though is an area still largely ignored by clubs. Most still believe the priority for their efforts is player development. That once was the case, but not today. The reality is that the number one priority is education of the soccer parent. That education is not necessarily about the tactics of the game or the rules for the age group. It certainly isn't about how to raise children. No, it's about the environment at matches, the either positive or infamous ride home, the understanding of the long term goals of youth soccer participation and it's about the management of adult expectations of the return on investment. It is about being a supportive group for the youth soccer experience. Clearly the majority of parents fall into exactly that category as evidenced by the large numbers of young people playing the game all across our nation. The Parents section of the US Youth Soccer website has quality resources for clubs and parents: /parents/. I encourage you to take advantage of the free materials and guidance there.

For a culture of excellence then to be understood and embraced by the club members the leaders must LEAD. Begin that endeavor by following these objectives of leadership. An interesting way to think about leadership in a succinct manner:

Leadership Characteristics:
-           Take accountability for results
-           Create direction and focus
-           Set the bar high
-           High energy level
-           Always willing to try new things
-           Unleash energy and talent in operations
-           Self-driven
-           Prioritize speed

Some of these elements become challenging when they are out of our direct control.  For those that are in our control, we can embrace them as they help us make forward strides and have significant impacts.

I'll close with one of my favorite passages from a quality sports leader which is taught in the National Youth License coaching course.

"There are many people, particularly in sports who think that success and excellence are the same thing and they are not the same thing. Excellence is something that is lasting and dependable and largely within a person's control. In contrast, success is perishable and is often outside our control… If you strive for excellence, you will probably be successful eventually… People who put excellence in first place have the patience to end up with success… An additional burden for the victim of the success mentality is that he/she is threatened by success of others and resents real excellence. In contrast, the person fascinated by quality is excited when he/she sees it in others."

Joe Paterno – Penn State football coach – 1990