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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". 

 

Oh the Gaul

Susan Boyd

When a single soccer goal ends up being argued in publications as diverse as the Huffington Post, India Times, and Wall Street Journal, you know it's a big deal. Add the drama of a David and Goliath story and international intrigue to create a tsunami of blogs, editorials, and irate message boards. Wednesday Thierry Henry, a French player known for his grace on the field and his integrity off the field, clearly used his left hand to control the ball in the box and then play it to his teammate William Gallas which tied Ireland 1-1. Of the three on-field officials all were struck momentarily blind at the exact same moment. None of them saw the handball, and so the goal stood. To add insult to injury a further review of the play also shows that two French players were most likely off-side. So France went on to secure its berth in the 2010 World Cup and Ireland did not. Even Henry admitted that he had "unintentionally" handled the ball, but stated that since the referees didn't call the foul, he continued to play. He says he told the center ref immediately following the goal and let the captain of the Irish team know. He even suggested that a replay of the game would probably be the fairest way to handle the incident.

When Ireland approached FIFA to request several ways of rectifying the situation including replaying the game or outright awarding the victory and the World Cup berth to Ireland rather than France, FIFA's reply was swift and forthright: "The Laws of the Game state . . . The decisions of the referee regarding facts connected with play, including whether or not a goal is scored and the result of the match, are final." Therefore the game stands. There was some precedent for replaying the game. In 2005 Bahrain played Uzbekistan in a World Cup qualifier. There the referee disallowed a successful penalty kick for Uzbekistan because of early encroachment of an Uzbekistan player into the penalty zone. The rules state that the penalty kick would then be replayed, but the referee instead awarded Bahrain a free kick. Therefore FIFA ordered the replay because the referee had not properly interpreted the rules.

All of this controversy leads to the inevitable two questions: What is fair? Should instant replay be introduced to soccer?  Fairness ends up being a relative concept whenever a variety of elements exist in determining fairness. Rules are established as a means of containing controversy by preempting challenges. FIFA says that what the referee sees is what happens on the field. If the referee can be persuaded by fellow referees that he or she missed something the decision can be changed so long as play has not restarted and the game is not over. Clearly (or perhaps blindly) what the referee observed was a legal goal. Since everyone agrees to play by the rules, then the rules have to be followed. Complicating the issue of fairness becomes the overall attitude that FIFA seeds brackets in such a way as to insure that the big guns get into the World Cup and the smaller nations suffer. So when a big gun wins because of an illegal play, the clarions of anger will be louder and more strident than ever.

Could this all have been avoided had there been instant replay? Probably, although the deeper issues of how FIFA conducts the qualifying rounds would still fester. Nevertheless, since YouTube, Huffington Post, and sport outlets all have the video of the handball playing endlessly on the internet, it's clear that proof of the foul exists. Would instant replay serve the game? As one who has tired of the fits and starts added to already fitful NFL games with the replays, I'd hate to see the flow of any soccer matches fall prey to instant replay technology. Considering how rarely the issue of extremely questionable play comes up, it seems an unnecessary addition to the game. FIFA might consider adding two end zone officials to watch specifically for fouls in the box that are difficult to see from behind and by ARs on the opposite side of the play when looking through a sea of legs, bodies, and goal posts. 

But truly I'm more in favor of just letting the controversy flare up, get its day in the light of public opinion and then tuck away in the history books for another two or three years until a new controversial goal snaps everything back into focus. I love watching Judge Judy. She's my guilty pleasure while I fold laundry. If I've learned anything, I've learned that occasionally the law ends up being unfair. The aggrieved party can't prove their case and so the clearly smirking and guilty thug ends up getting away with it. It hurts to lose when you know you should win, but then you move on and let it all go because there are new opportunities on the horizon that have much better outcomes.

I loved reading the Irish Herald's editorial about the event because of all the papers talking about this incident this was the one who had the most right to be angry. Yet the editor took the opportunity to point out some hard truths. "Why were we in the position where a disputed goal put us out of the World Cup?   It is not a popular thing to say in the current climate, but shouldn't we have scored the second goal to ensure our qualification? If we had done that there wouldn't be a word about Thierry Henry this morning." Exactly! How often do we tell our kids that they can't blame the weather, the field conditions, the dirty play of the opposing team, or the officiating for losing a game? Instant replay will never provide strong play and the will to win. Fairness will never be achieved 100 percent. So we have to muddle through and not try to achieve some perfect environment for play. Let soccer be what it is – a somewhat flawed arena in which we project our nationalism, our bravado, and our hopes.
 

Battery Park

Susan Boyd

The lead stories on Monday's Today show were, in order, Hurricane Ida, the Fort Hood shootings, and a female soccer player accused of rough play. The fact that in the midst of wars, economic concerns, and health reform, the manner of play in a soccer game would warrant the number three lead story on a national news show instantly piqued my interest.

For those of you unaware of this story here's a short recap. Last week BYU hosted New Mexico's Lobos women's team for a game. One Lobos player overstepped the boundaries of civilized play. Her behavior included kicking a ball full force right in the face of a downed player, punching another player in the back with her fist, and most horrifyingly yanking a player's pony tail so violently that her neck arched back and she collapsed on the ground. Did she ever get a card or at minimum a whistle? She was admonished just once with a yellow over the ball in the face. Otherwise all her actions went unnoticed and unpenalized. When the video of her actions hit YouTube and the national news, her coach suspended her from the team for an unspecified time and many in the public clamored for her suspension from the university. The player in question apologized for her behavior by stating that, "I let my emotions get the best of me in a heated situation." She knew she had chosen to behave badly.

We read stories like this all the time, and worse we personally witness violence in sports. For example, this fall I witnessed a player long after play had stopped stomp on a downed defender's head opening a wound that required five stitches. He was sent off with a red. French player and three-time FIFA World Player of the Year Zinedine Zidane head butted two players in 2000 and 2006 respectively. He also was sent off with a red. Just recently a Rhode Island high school girls' soccer championship game turned into a brawl between the teams. The game was suspended. A club player last year was sucker punched as he walked off the field. The victim ended up in a coma with severe head injuries. Although no card was issued because the game was over. 

Assault and battery are legally defined as "the intentional and unjustified use of force upon the person of another, however slight, or the intentional doing of a wanton or grossly negligent act causing personal injury to another." Assault is also defined as "the threat of violence while battery is the actual act of violence resulting in injury" (Judicial Definitions, State of Massachusetts).   We excuse battery in the course of a sporting event because we accept it as a justifiable offshoot of the aggressive nature of the competition. In reality it's not. Sports have rules that carefully and constructively lay out the acceptable limits of behavior. Most sports don't tolerate excessive aggression or contact between players, and that is certainly true of soccer. Yet players consistently get away with extremely unacceptable violent behavior with little more than a card and possibly a one or two game suspension. Referees have limited ability to enforce anything further than sending a player off. The real police need to be coaches and the governing agencies of the sport. When a player is unnecessarily violent – and those instances should be clear to all who witness them – then a coach needs to exercise swift and serious consequences.

A case in point was a recent event between the University of Oregon and Boise State University football players LeGarrette Blount and Byron Hout respectively. Hout taunted Blount after the U of O lost to BSU and then tapped his shoulder in a mildly aggressive way. Blount retaliated by punching Hout and momentarily knocking him out. The U of O coach and AD both responded within hours of the event with a suspension of Blount from the football team. Blount's behavior was no more dangerous than that of the player who stomped on the defender's head in a soccer game. And at least Blount was directly provoked by Hout. But in the case of the soccer player only a red card was issued, he served a one game suspension, and was back to playing soccer without any further recourse. That's not right. While the letter of the law was followed, the spirit was certainly neglected. Players need to be held as accountable for their on-field actions as they are for their off-field actions. The same weekend as the head stomping incident, a student was suspended from school for kicking another student in the face during the course of a verbal argument. The injury required some stitches and no hospitalization. So it was on a similar level as the injury the soccer player administered. The only difference was that one injury occurred during the course of a verbal confrontation and the other occurred during the course of a sport competition. Both were unacceptable and excessive demonstrations of violence and both were preventable had the aggressor made the choice not to follow through with harm.

That is the key point. Any contact sport will have violent moments. It comes as a matter of course from heavy, moving objects flying about. But when the violence comes from an action outside the boundaries of play, then it is a choice made by a player. I'm talking about intentional infliction of injury by one player upon another and not those injuries which might be intentional, but come about due to reckless play such as tripping or sliding cleats up. Intentional injury, for this argument, comes when an aggressor has time to consider his or her actions and then decides to proceed.

The video of the Lobos player showed that all of her actions were a matter of choice and didn't arise from the flow of the game. For that reason and no others, she needs to be held accountable. Luckily nothing she did resulted in injury, but it could have. She was a poor representative of her team and played with poor sportsmanship not to mention the potential for injury. Better she got caught now rather than later with more serious results. Coaches need to be willing to address those actions and to let it be known that they won't be tolerated. Should injury occur they need to institute serious and extended consequences. We can't eliminate violence on the field, but we can certainly make sure that it is dealt with swiftly and seriously.  Knowing how gravely a coach will react might give a player extra pause in that moment he or she considers an attack. At least it will erase the false protection of the pitch as a place with different societal rules.
 

Seasonal Planning

Sam Snow

Good Games Can Be Planned. Great Games Just Happen.

The three main phases of seasonal planning are preseason, season and postseason. The youth soccer coach must also take into account other activities in which the player is engaged. These include school and extracurricular functions, other sports, the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program, family and social functions, religious events, Youth Soccer Month, etc. These activities will influence the player's soccer experience in one fashion or another.

The Game is the Best Teacher – MAYBE

The game does indeed teach players by showing them their strengths and weaknesses. However, too many matches in the player's schedule becomes a hindrance to development. You must strike the right balance between the number of matches played per season, the number of training sessions per season and time off.

As a coach, you need to have a schedule for the season. A seasonal plan should begin at the end. So devise your schedule from the last possible event the team could attend in that soccer year. For the U-8 team, this is likely an end of the year jamboree or soccer festival, or perhaps just the last play day on the schedule. For the U-18 team the last event could be the finals of the US Youth Soccer National Championships. Whatever the last event is plan from there back to the beginning of the season. In this way you can now see the scope of the steps you will need to take to develop the players to culminate at the final seasonal event.  Take into account match days, training days, regeneration training days, specialty training, holidays, major school events (final exams for example), planned days off and tournaments. The schedule must also reflect the rhythm[1] of training. Following are one month schedule samples that could apply to childhood, pubescent and adolescent teams.

Planned time off is vitally important to avoid over-scheduling and the fallout of overuse injuries and mental burnout. Both the players and the coaches need time off to 'recharge the batteries' and come back to soccer reinvigorated; it's possible to have too much of a good thing.
Club and high school coaches need to work together for the sake of the players on dovetailing their seasons. A week or two off between seasons for the year-round players will avoid burnout. After a little rest and relaxation you will get back a player fully charged and ready to give 100 percent. If this formula is not followed then players giving a fraction of their full potential will become the norm.

Clubs and coaches must plan a reasonable soccer year calendar for each age group. Certainly the U-6 schedule should not have the same intensity, duration and frequency of activity as the U-16 schedule. Beware of the too much too soon syndrome[2]. A symptom of the syndrome is the more is better mentality[3]. For positive player development that will last for decades, a balanced approach must be taken to the soccer calendar.  The list below covers the areas within the planning concept for which you are responsible in preparing a team to compete. All four components of soccer - fitness, psychology, tactics and technique - are incorporated into these areas and some will overlap from one area to the next.

¤ 
Periodization
          o   Peak at championship time
¤ Short-term and long-term development goals
¤ Rhythm of training [4]
¤ Over-training or under-training
¤ Tournaments – must be few and far between; you need to be very selective about when your team participates in a tournament and why
¤ Burnout – mental and physical
¤ Overuse  and chronic injuries

There are two principles of learning in physical education that you should consider in the seasonal plan for skill improvement. Your plan for training sessions each month should reflect these principles:

Principle of Distributed Practice -
In general short periods of intense practice will result in more learning than longer, massed practice sessions.

Principle of Variable Practice -
Block practice aids performance while variable practice aids in learning. Variable practice causes an increase in attention.
 
Plan your practice and practice your plan.


[1] A training session should go from low to medium to high to medium to high to low in the physical exertion demanded from the players – once exhausted little learning occurs.
[2] The misguided notion that if beginning soccer at age 5 is good then 3 or 4 is a head start. The same flawed logic often is used in beginning try-outs too soon.
[3] The misapplied idea to increase training from one hour to two or double the number of matches from fifty to one hundred.
[4] The rhythm of a season should have a balance to the level of competition – peaking with the most challenging matches at season's end.
 

Final Three Position Statements

Sam Snow

Here are the final three Position Statements of the State Association Technical Directors.

The Professional Link    No. 15

We believe that the professional level plays a necessary and vital role in the growth and development of youth and amateur soccer. In all soccer cultures, the professional level serves to provide for the vertical movement of top players and creates the conditions for national heroes to emerge. The professional influence also accounts for much of the indirect education that permeates soccer societies. Television ratings and paid attendance have a significant local and national impact on media perception and civic response. We feel that promoting professional soccer is foundational to all professional coaching positions.

Active Coaching               No. 16

We believe that top-level coaches, particularly those in administrative positions, such as club and state directors and national staff coaches must remain active practitioners. In order to gain respect and proactively affect change it is essential that coaches in leadership positions are current in their knowledge and constantly evolving their craft. In addition:
  • Soccer continues to evolve rapidly and nowhere more dramatically than at the youth level in the United States. Coaches must have practical contact with the newest trends and be well positioned to proactively test new theories against existing models.
  • Many coaching directors in the United States are in their 20s and 30s and are still developing their personal philosophy and pedagogy. If these talented young coaches are removed from their fertile learning environment before gaining the lessons of experience, the short- and long-term impact on the next generations of players will be sorely felt.
  • Personal growth stagnates without constant challenge. Each new training session is an opportunity to reaffirm or reassess existing soccer knowledge, beliefs and pedagogical skills. Each level of play provides unique coaching challenges and, in order to service the needs of players and coaches at every level, practical and ongoing contact with players of all ages and abilities is essential.
  • Top club coaches are influenced by actions, not words. To gain the confidence and respect of these coaches, it is important for the coaching director to demonstrate their knowledge and skills as a field coach. Without respect, the possibilities for positive growth and evolution within the top leagues and clubs are severely hamstrung.
  • The director of coaching is often uniquely placed to vertically integrate the technical, tactical, physical and psychological insights gleaned from the regional and national teams programs. Often, these messages can only be delivered through contact with players; this is particularly the case at the area and state US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program (US Youth Soccer ODP) levels.
  • One of the most important messages in the coaching education process is that coaching skills evolve with use and erode through inactivity. This message is true of both experts and beginners. Coaching directors must be seen to practice what they preach.
  • The motivation for coaches to administrate can be found in the rewards of the field.
  • The vast majority of soccer coaches within the United States are parents with no formal background in the sport. The coaching director must serve as a role model and inspiration for this population by conducting clinics and workshops, and by learning to appreciate and focus the unique challenge of the parent/coach experience. This process is practical, ongoing and very demanding.
  • The director of coaching must remain connected and sensitive to the balance of competitive pressures that influence those players striving to reach the top level and those coaches making a living from the game. Competition is a necessary and important element in sport and society. Without periodic re-exposure to the stresses of intense competition, coaches in leadership positions can easily lose touch with the balance between the theoretical and the practical: X's and O's must always be grounded in the reality of the playing level.

Playing Up                          No. 17

The majority of clubs, leagues and district, state or regional US Youth Soccer ODP 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.