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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.

 

Soccer Savvy

Sam Snow

"Football is a sport made up of individual moments and you have to know how to play in each of them. That means playing short passes when it suits and playing long balls when necessary, the combination of which is beautiful, but always maintain a balance. The most difficult skill is knowing exactly what to do at each moment."

- Vicente del Bosque, Spanish Men's National Team Coach

Knowing what to do in each moment in a match is a long learning process for both players and coaches. Reading the game requires both players and coaches to have a common language. That language is encompassed in the Principles of Play and the Components of the Game. US Youth Soccer is producing a DVD on coaching the Principles of Play in Small-Sided Games for the U-6 to the U-12 age groups. That DVD should be available by the end of 2010.

It is important for players to eventually be able to perform within all moments of the game (keep in mind though that even adult professional players make mistakes in this regard). For all age groups and all levels of play, the most important moment in the game is transition. Transition is the moment in the match when individual players switch their player role in the game from defense to attack or attack to defense. Transition is understood first by an individual player, then a group of players and then the team as players learn to see the tactical cues in certain situations. That ability leads them to reading the game.

This moment of transition occurs first as mental recognition of the situation and then a decision that initiates physical action. The faster the recognition-decision-action connection is made, the more impactful a player's performance will be. Only once individual players are quickly making the transition from one phase of play to the next will it be possible for a team to execute quick and skillful transition from defense to attack or vice versa.

If transition does not happen fast enough for a player or team then they are always a step or two behind the action. The speed of a player's transition is based on their tactical awareness. Tactical awareness is being mindful of where you are on the field, as well as the location of the ball, teammates and opponents. It's the ability to read the game – to anticipate what will happen next and not merely react to what just happened. We refer to this level of mental focus and tactical awareness as being soccer savvy.

Your players have no chance of becoming soccer savvy players if they are simply cogs in the team wheel. Players who are over-coached in matches become robotic in their performance and cannot make tactical decisions fast enough. Slow decision making leads to reaction players instead of anticipation players. The over-coaching comes from not only coaches, but spectators too. They constantly yell out to the players what to do and when to do it. This further hinders a player's decision making as spectators are typically a step behind the action – the pace of the game is quicker than their words can be conveyed. This environment of coaches and parents making soccer decisions for the players during a match has lead to an American soccer weakness in transition. Our goal is to develop anticipation players, those who can read the game. That type of player can see what will happen next in a match. That player is one step ahead of the game. This sort of player evolves in a healthy soccer environment. That environment requires less coaching during matches and better coaching during training sessions. The training environment should lead to self-reliant players who think and communicate for themselves during a match.
 

Foreign Development

Sam Snow

Many soccer fans enjoyed watching Germany play in the 2010 FIFA World Cup. They played some exciting soccer and went quite far in the tournament. Often, when a nation has a good run in the World Cup or they win, as Spain did, then clubs at many levels try to copy the system of play or maybe even the entire developmental process. I believe that we should always look to how players are developed around the world. Let's look closely at what Spain, Germany or others have done, but I do not believe we should ever take someone else's program in whole. The circumstances and developmental stages of the game are different in each country. Few nations have the situation we have with soccer in America. Let's take the best from other nations for our particular needs. But let's not ever copy carte blanche the methods of another nation. Here is the Sports Illustrated article which spurred these thoughts when it was sent to me by a youth soccer coach.

Here's my initial response to the article:

I know there are good ideas in Germany (DFB) for us to copy. Some of the infrastructure they have created is beyond us presently. As the richest Football Association in the world, the DFB can underwrite a lot of the expenses for elite player development. Plus, they have the will to do so.

The question in my mind is, are we doing all we can with our resources? Personally I think we should pour in personnel and resources to Zone 1 (U-6 to U-12) of the U.S. Soccer Player Development Pyramid. When the base of pyramid becomes stronger and broader then the Zones above it benefit.

Furthermore, some interesting insights from Coach Löw are made in the article. I like the direction of playing the game with the emphasis on attack. I know that approach suits our American participants in the game.

Now, the point that he divided the pitch into 18 sections to be clear on each player's job on the field is wonderful for National Teams, pro teams and perhaps for college teams and U-19 select teams. The younger you go though, I think the reins need to be loosened. 

So for the U-6 age group, go ahead and run 'willy nilly' all over the field. Chase the ball to your heart's delight.

With the U-8 age group, instill a more clear idea on the attacking half and the defending half of the field and some general ideas on how to play there.

For the U-10 age group, teach the concept of the horizontal and vertical thirds of the field.

With the U-12 age groups, take the thirds (horizontal and vertical) of the field and really ingrain it into the players' minds. Let's get across ideas on how to play on the flanks and the central channel. Also teach the general tactical ideas for each horizontal third; i.e., less dribbling out of the defending third and more passing.

At U-14, let's work on the outsides of the defending and attacking thirds, the corners of the field if you will, and how to play in those zones.

With U-16 teams, train in detail about playing in the midfield third and how to get into the attacking third with tactics beyond always playing the through ball.

At U-19, by all means break down the pitch into those 18 quadrants.
 

Fairly odd family

Susan Boyd

I have an odd family, but then, to paraphrase Tolstoy, each odd family is odd in its own way. And I can bet that most of you readers know what I mean. We struggle to fit some standard of idealized family perfection and then life gets in the way. In our case, as I'm sure in yours, soccer creates its own bits of oddness throughout each season. The comforting thing is that although we are odd each in our own way, we have bits of oddness in common. And if enough of us have them in common then perhaps that odd becomes the new normal. At least that's what I vote for.    

For example, my sons aren't the only sons who leave their cleats on the garage floor right next to the car door they hop into as we drive away. My husband isn't the only husband who hears "get the grey blanket" and returns with the blue hat. I'm not the only mom who looks up directions for the wrong field so that we drive 20 miles out of our way and nearly make Robbie, and two of his teammates late for the first game of the US Youth Soccer National Championships. We aren't the only family to drive eight hours across the Great Plains with a petulant teenager when his team loses said championship. And we know that we aren't the only family to read the schedule wrong and are sitting in our home in Wisconsin when the team manager calls and asks where we are for a game in Ohio. Or at least we hope we aren't because that last bit of oddness is nothing to be proud of.

I'm sure several of you drive cars that count their miles in the 100,000s. After all you are soccer parents and as such your disposable income goes for trips, gear, more trips, more gear, and fees. It's difficult to consider a new car when the old car works so well and has already been trashed by the muddy cleats, the spilled juice boxes, and the week old soccer socks stuffed under a seat. Just this week we discovered a banana bunch hidden under the seats that had been there long enough to ripen, rot, and petrify. Amazingly no one noticed the smell, or more accurately, no one noticed any different smell. Because the right side speakers are shorting out, we adjust the sound to come only out of the left, but that means that we often only hear one track of a song which could be the melody, the harmony, or the band. In the case of rap, we may get no words at all but have the pulse of the bass clear as a bell. The car would be perfect for committing a crime because if the police ever took soil, hair, and fiber samples they would end up with contradictory evidence and wildly different geographies. 

Here's an oddity that I hope at least one other mother has done. I printed up and laminated roster cards for the parents and left my own son off the roster. It was one of the other parents who pointed it out to me, after I had handed them all out. I redid the cards, but Bryce found out anyway. I had to endure the wrath of a 12 year old who was convinced that I did it on purpose. You would think after 12 years of watching me make mistakes, he'd know better. I'm the same mom who put a red towel in the washer with his white soccer gear. And I'm the same mom who forgot my wallet at work when I was driving Robbie down to practice in Chicago. I discovered it when I was below a quarter tank and had stopped to get more gas. I was able to limp the car to practice on fumes and then borrow some money from normal prepared parents so I could fill up for the trip home. Several of you have done the same, right?

It's no wonder our kids are convinced that they are the only ones trapped in an odd family made more embarrassing when we fill in other people on our quirks and foibles by way of a blog. Arguing that our oddness is what makes us a signature family doesn't really fly because for most kids hiding out in the center of a herd of identical families makes for the smoothest life. However, just like we parents have to discover that our kids aren't the only ones who forget gear, leave important forms sitting on the kitchen table, lose shin guards on the field, and kick balls into the woods never to be seen again, our kids need to learn that their parents aren't the only ones who forget that you lose an hour driving east across the time zones, or neglect to push "submit" on the computer when registering for camp, or sing along with all the Billy Joel songs on the radio. We are all odd in our own way, but we are all odd. Soccer only adds opportunities to express that oddness. And this is the week to celebrate being odd (which is to say, celebrate being a family).
 

Fun doesn't come in sizes - Bart Simpson

Susan Boyd

It's not often I get to quote a cartoon character, much less a perennial 10 year old cartoon character. But Bart makes a very good point. Fun doesn't need to be huge like a trip to Disney World, and fun shouldn't be dismissed because it might be tiny and fleeting. Fun is just fun. And since September is Youth Soccer Month and the first week is devoted to the topic of fun, it seems appropriate to think about how to keep the fun in youth soccer. I've discovered that Bart is not only a philosopher of fun, but he also unwittingly introduced the vuvuzela to us in March of 1997, has a "Soccer Bart" fleece blanket and poster, and joined Ronaldo on the April 22, 2007 episode to teach Homer about soccer. So fun, soccer, and Bart Simpson are not such odd bedfellows.

Besides shamelessly using the Simpsons to add Google search keywords that might bring more readers to my blog, I also wanted to make the point that we often get way too serious about soccer and forget the fun of it all. At the adult professional level soccer can have all the fun of a runaway train – that is to say none. In Europe they have to put demilitarized zones in the stands to separate the opposing fans lest a fist fight breaks out. At the Community Shield game a few years ago, one of Robbie's friends applauded a good play by someone not wearing the jersey of his seating section. The poor kid was nearly muffled by a dozen burly men before security swiftly escorted him out to safety and out of the game. That's serious soccer! Unfortunately I've seen the same serious attitudes at games for kids as young as six. People need to get their Bart on and discover the fun of youth soccer. Here's a few ways to do just that.

One: Practice saying only encouraging things and only cheering for good play. You'll discover it's not that easy because as parents we are naturally inclined to "teach" which often translates into criticizing. So we find ourselves saying encouraging things like, "you can beat that kid," or "next time look before you pass." That's not the kind of encouragement I mean. Try starting every shout out with the word "good" or "great." It's amazing how hard it is to change your habits, but it's also amazing how wonderful your shout-outs will become. Do I practice what I preach – are you kidding? I'm about as fallible as it comes when being a soccer parent. But when I remember, usually after an evil eye look from one of my kids, I find out I am having a lot more fun watching them play. I can laugh at a lot of stuff and it relieves me of having to intently "coach" the game.

Two: Find something fun to do during the game. I hated the vuvuzelas during the Confederation games and the World Cup. But at least those tooting their horns looked to be having a great time even in the face of defeat. The horns hopefully deflected anger and frustration and offered the participants some celebratory joy no matter what the results on the field. While I'm not advocating bringing a bee buzzing plastic instrument to a U8 game, I am saying you might want to have pom poms for everyone on the sidelines or dress in the team colors. I went to a game for a group of 9 year olds where the parents had brought signs like you might for a pro game where they had written "Billy Bends it Better than Beckham" and "Josh Knows Soccer". They jumped around on the sidelines cheering and shaking the signs the entire game. I had fun just watching the parents.

Three: Remember why they play. We spectators have been conditioned to believe that if you lose, it wasn't fun. We're so used to turning off our TVs in disgust when the Brewers are down five runs in the bottom of the ninth. We feel the bitter taste in our mouths from disappointment. Kids on the other hand still find fun just in playing. The more we make games like the adult version, the less fun the kids will have. How many games have you gone to where they don't keep score, yet everyone seems to know what the score is, including the players. The idea is to not have winners or losers. I've come to the conclusion we have this "deception" for the sake of the adults not the kids. Because kids like to know who won and kids forget about it moments after knowing.   It's just a fact they want to know, but it doesn't affect how they feel about themselves, the game, or their participation. To be honest I think they just want to know because that means the game is over and they can go get snacks. At my grandson's last baseball game he won (no one was keeping score of course) and his delight at winning was a mere blip, but his disappointment in not getting a snack lasted all the way to the car and all the way home. "The other team got snacks," he pouted. So they play for fun AND food.

Four: Discover what makes it fun for your child and promote that. When the boys were really young they liked to get pumped up by Smash Mouth's "All Star." We would crank up the volume in the car and rock out as we pulled into the parking lot of the fields. It became an essential ritual. If they won the game, it was due to the song, and if they lost it was due to the volume not being loud enough. Rewards can bring some added zest to a game, although be careful because you may end up paying out a lot. My daughter and her husband promised their 6 year old an ice cream if he got an unassisted double play. The first game he got two! I also saw a girl trot over to her gramma in the middle of a game to claim her dime for not crying when she got knocked down. But of course everyone had a good laugh, which means everyone had a moment of fun.

Five: Fun doesn't come in sizes, so don't discount the smidgens of fun that peek out even in the most serious of games. Last night we went to a college game where Bryce's former teammate was on the opposition. I knew his parents well and told everyone they were in for a treat. Mom is a petite soccer parent with lungs a lion would envy. Her shouts to the team come from deep and are propelled forth with what must be the tautest diaphragm in history. Heads snap round when she belts out her encouragement. And it is always encouragement, never criticism or anger. But there are those who try to shush her, I suppose out of embarrassment. She always laughs and brushes it off. I remarked that her vocalizations were her way of bringing joy to the game. She said I was right. So even though her team lost, she had fun.   And I think she had it super-sized.