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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.

 

Improving your non-dominant foot

Sam Snow

Recently a coach sent this question to me:
 
þ What's the best advice, drill or technique you can offer to players to improve their skills with their off foot?
 
Being able to play the ball with both feet is just as important in soccer as being able to do so with both hands in basketball. It is important for soccer players to be adequately skillful with the non-dominant or ""off"" foot. To become skillful with the non-dominant foot merely requires some self-discipline and mental focus on the part of a player. Some players, especially around 8 to 12 years of age will react with an ""I can't"" response when asked to play with the non-dominant foot. At this point the attitude of the coach is crucially important as the confidence to work on new ball skills and to overcome the fear of failure can be set for better or worse. The coach must respond patiently by asking the player to say ""I'll try"" and then looking for any improvement to praise. Here are some practice ideas:
 
  • When practicing ball skills on your own, such as dribbling through cones or passing and receiving against a wall, do twice as many repetitions with the non-dominant foot as you do with the dominant foot.
  • The two-color sock game is a fun way to develop skills with the non-dominant foot in a match. Pick one day per week as the day when all players on your team wear one light colored sock and one dark colored sock. During a scrimmage all players must play the ball only with the non-dominant foot (light colored sock). If a ball is played with the dominant foot an indirect free kick is given to the defending team. The two sock colors make it easy for the players and coaches to see which foot is being used.
  • With the same idea have goalkeepers wear a different type or color of gloves to distinguish the dominant and non-dominant hands.
  • When practicing ball juggling begin to ask the players to lift the ball from the ground with the non-dominant foot to start juggling. Be patient as often even their body balance will be poor when playing the ball with the non-dominant side.
  • Conduct a scrimmage and put one or two players on their non-dominant side of the field. So righties go on the left side of the field and lefties go on the right. Do this though with only a few players at a time so that the natural rhythm of the game is not diminished.
  • Play soccer tennis where only the non-dominant foot can be used. So you can set the game up on the field using low nets or team benches or a couple of trash cans with tape or rope strung between the two cans.
  • Play a regular volleyball game where only the non-dominant hand can be used to spike the ball or to serve it.
 
The best approach for a club is to have a well designed curriculum for player development. A core principle of the curriculum being that from Under-6 onward kids are encouraged to use both sides of the body for dribbling, passing , receiving, shooting, throwing, deflecting and catching. In this way the actions are natural movements for the growing player. For the older player (Under-17 and older) the goal is to be good with the non-dominant side and ""magic"" with the dominant side.
 

Is coach doing a good job?

Sam Snow

Proper player development leads to good match performance, which often leads to wins.

But there are shortcuts to winning, particularly with players younger than high-school age. Just get the biggest, fastest kids around -- then outrun and outmuscle the opposition.

Play run-n-gun and high-pressure defense against young players who are still learning the game and that amount of pressure can win games. Mind you, it doesn't help those kids learn how to play soccer in any sophisticated manner.

It is certainly the stance of US Youth Soccer to focus more on match performance than outcome; yet this is not to say that players should not strive to win. There's nothing wrong with winning!

But remember, the outcome of the game is not necessarily a measure of whether the coach is doing a good job developing players. Players and coaches should diligently work to improve their performance. This is the drive for excellence as opposed to superficial success.

All right, fine you say. So how do we measure success?

How do parents know if the team coach is doing a good job of teaching soccer to the players? How does the novice coach know if the kids are growing within the game?

These are the goals in measuring success for youth soccer:

SHORT TERM
FUN ... do the players smile and laugh? Do the players look forward to playing? The first question from the player's family should be, "Did you have fun today?"

Fair Play ... does a player demonstrate by words and actions a sense of sportsmanship?

Rules of the Game ... do the players know and follow the rules of soccer?

Health and Fitness ... are the players physically fit enough to meet the fitness demands of the game? Are they developing good nutrition and hydration habits befitting an athlete?

Friendships ... are the players creating new friends within the team and with players from other teams?

Skills ... are the players demonstrating a growing number of ball skills and are they gradually becoming more proficient in those skills?


LONG TERM
Commitment ... how do the players answer when asked at the end of a game, "Did you try your best?"

Roles in the Team ... more important than learning a position, are the players learning about positioning? Knowing where the center forward spot is on the field is important, yet learning how to move tactically within the game is far more important. Do all of the players get exposed to playing all of the positions?

Leadership ... are players being given the opportunity to take on leader roles and responsibilities? Are the coaches and team managers teaching leadership?

Tactics ... are the players experimenting with new tactics in matches? The coaches must teach new tactics to the players in training sessions and then allow them to try out the tactics in a match, regardless of how that might affect the outcome!

Retention ... do the players come back year after year? Retention is recognized as also a short-term measure of success in youth soccer and developing well adjusted citizens is another long-term measure of success in youth sports.

We know that is takes many years to develop into a quality soccer player. Indeed, that continued development can be seen even in young professional players.

Soccer is a long-term development/late specialization sport.

Research by Dr. Istvan Balyi and others provides us this model:

LATE SPECIALIZATION MODEL
1. FUNdamental Stage - ages 6-9
2. Learning to Train - ages 8-12
3. Training to Train - ages 11-16
4. Training to Compete - ages 15-18
5. Training to Win - ages 17 and older
6. Retirement/Retainment - ages: post playing career

Striving to improve individual, group and team performance is more important at the youth level than the score line. Simultaneously, players should play to win.

Coaches should teach and develop the players as they learn how to win. Parents should support the players and coaches. Intrinsic success is by its nature more difficult to measure than extrinsic success.

A trophy is more tangible to an adult than the exhilaration a child feels while playing soccer. The final measure of success for parents and coaches of the children's soccer experience will require a good deal of patience from the adults. That measurement is the free choice of the child to stay in the game!

The full document on this topic, titled Vision, is available from US Youth Soccer. Simply email your request to Sam Snow at ssnow@usyouthsoccer.org.
 

Stormy Weather

Susan Boyd

I know it's a bad storm when I am joined in bed by two whining dogs and I know it's a terrible storm when we are further joined by two teenage boys. Living in the Midwest means living with thunder and lightning most of the spring and summer.    This morning was a doozy, and we awoke to the news of an apartment house being struck and a church spire in flames from lightning. If I want to be reminded of lightning's destructive power I need only look out my living room window to the scorched skeleton of a once proud ash tree in the forest across the street.

According to National Geographic and the National Lightning Safety Institute, lightning kills more people each year than snowstorms, hurricanes and tornadoes. Only floods cause greater fatalities. Most of us don't take lightning seriously because these deaths occur singularly or occasionally two or three at once. But lightning seems benign compared to say a tornado which looks menacing and sounds like death rolling in. We avoid most deaths in natural disasters because we have early warning systems which help us get to safety quickly.    That's why when the tornado sirens go off in our town, we rush to the basement and wait for the all-clear. Yet when we hear thunder, which is nature's early warning system for lightning, we all remain transfixed on the wide open soccer fields as if somehow Mother Nature shouldn't be taken seriously. We live in this imagined cocoon of safety when we are out at a game or a practice. Lightning just can't be that serious a problem. But it is.

Soccer organizations need to develop, maintain, and most importantly, enforce a lightning policy. Just last year Robbie was playing in a game where lightning was ripping between clouds and to the ground all around us, yet the referees kept the game going. I spoke to the AR about halting the game and having everyone seek shelter and his reply was, ""It's not raining, so the lightning isn't that close."" It took a resounding blast into the trees at the end of the field to finally send everyone scattering. It never did rain. These types of misconceptions about lightning and its danger can lead to serious injury or death.

Organizations can purchase lightning detectors which is probably a good idea for the top lightning death states (Florida, Texas, Colorado, North Carolina, and Illinois). These detectors can warn of lightning before it is even seen, and in the states mentioned there were more "first strike" deaths than anywhere else. But, for the most, part nature provides the detector for us in the form of thunder. The National Weather Service motto is: "When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!" In other words, seek shelter immediately and stay there for at least 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder is heard. Shelter needs to be an enclosed space. Covered picnic areas or roof overhangs will protect from rain but not from lightning. Buildings and cars with metal roofs are the best shelter. If you find yourself in the middle of a field, make yourself as small as possible. Don't put up an umbrella or stand under a tree unless you are trying to attract lightning. Culverts and ditches can provide some protection from strikes.

Detecting lightning is only half the battle. Organizations need to be willing to put their activities on hold during a lightning storm. All too often practices and games continue despite the very real presence of danger. I know that if a tornado siren went off during a soccer game, it would not be ignored. So we need to be as diligent about lightning as we are about other natural threats.

The problem is that lightning threats occur several times during a year in the same areas, while tornadoes and hurricanes politely restrict themselves to only once or twice in the same area in a year. So lightning becomes an inconvenience for organizations. With a limited amount of time for practices and games, it's a huge nuisance to have to stop everything, delay a game or practice, and then restart. But the threat is real. 

Recently several advisories have been posted about anchoring soccer goals because of injuries and deaths occurring when they accidentally fall on a player. But those injuries and deaths are but a sliver of lightning's effects. We need a nationwide, enforced policy for soccer organizations. Referees, coaches and parents need to be on board. When my sons played in their high school state championship two years ago, the game lasted nearly five hours because of lightning delays. Frustrations ran high, but I applauded the referees and the oversight committee for insisting on lightning safety.

We need to do the same everywhere. Whatever policies do exist need to be dusted off and resubmitted to all clubs and organizations. Referees need to be reeducated and charged with enforcing the policies. Coaches need to require that the policies be enforced during games and do so themselves during practices. A lightning safety plan should be prepared for every soccer site so that families know where to go to be safe. In general, players and parents should be encouraged to go sit in their cars so long as they have metal roofs. Parents should pack some playing cards, coloring books, reading books, etc. to while away the time waiting out the storms.

Finally, don't be afraid to speak up if you think lightning safety isn't being followed. I gave the refereeing crew at that game last year a few websites to visit and encouraged them not to let a game get to the point where a tree fifty feet from a player has to be struck before anyone takes lightning seriously. I suspect they will lead the clarion call next storm. Check with your coach to see if he or she is aware of lightning safety and ask that safety measures be enforced. Go to your club board and ask them to check out the following websites to see how serious a problem lightning can be and to ask them to also draft and enforce a lightning safety policy. 

1. www.lightningsafety.com 
2.  www.weathermetrics.com/news/weatherFun.htm
3. www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/overview.htm.

We would run to safety if we saw a tornado approaching, or flood waters oozing over a field, or a forest fire blazing a few miles away, so we should do nothing less when we hear thunder and know that lightning lurks nearby. It strikes too fast to jump out of the way – prevention is the only protection.
 

The Circle of Life

Susan Boyd

"The Circle of Life" resounds as the opening number of "The Lion King," but could equally serve as the chant for most soccer families: "It's the Circle of Life and it moves us all through despair and hope . . ." Whether the circle forms over a year of soccer or during generations of soccer, we all experience the déjà vu of muddy uniforms, goals, wins, losses, and after game traditions. I'm moving through my second generation of soccer, and I find it reassuringly similar to what I already went through with a few surprising twists.

This past weekend I attended my oldest grandson's first soccer game. The weather was overcast, the temperature hovering just above freezing, and the wind howling: perfect Midwest spring soccer conditions!  Keaton's particular soccer program has its U8 boys playing 9 v 9 on a U10 field. The game was played in 12 minute quarters and the kids rotated at the goalkeeper position and through the field positions. His team has ten boys, so each quarter somebody rotated out. All the players have the same uniform: black shorts, black socks, and a reversal jersey with gold on one side and maroon on the other. So, all the fields stretched out in gold and maroon waves.
 
Confusion is the name of the game at this age. First, because of the cold, several boys were wearing jackets over their jerseys. So it was difficult to differentiate between sides. Further confusion ensues since the boys all know each other from school and the neighborhood.  At this age there isn't the killer instinct that allows them to steal the ball from or block a best friend.   Add to this mix the fact that for most of these players this game was the culmination of only a few weeks of practices. While the coaches knew their stuff, the kids were often clueless. They definitely weren't jargon savvy. When Keaton took to his midfield position in the second quarter, the coach tried to indicate his role with the following instruction: "You have a split personality." Keaton looked at him dumbfounded. Staying goal-side also seemed to be beyond their comprehension. Every kid told to stay goal-side ran dutifully to the side of one goal or the other without regard to which one they were defending, while the coach tried in vain to get them back to their original positions at least. The other stumper appeared to be ""marking"" which drew plenty of stunned expressions and no movement. Without a Sharpie, marking seemed impossible. Nevertheless they managed to play a rousing game of soccer filled with all the elements of the game: headers, crosses, overlaps, corner kicks, goal kicks, but mercifully not penalty kicks. In fact there were only two fouls called.           

When Keaton got his chance in goal in the 4th quarter, my daughter muttered, "Oh no." She felt the pressure of his position – the last stance against a score. Her brother is a goalkeeper, and she's amazed that I don't get more worked up. I tell her it gets easier . . . eventually I realized that goals will go in. Otherwise it would be a boring game. But I think I was the same way when Bryce was seven and had his chance in goal. I didn't want him to have to be responsible for a loss. Keaton had a very interesting goalkeeper technique. Whenever he got the ball, he heaved it over his head onto the field like a throw in, which meant it traveled about three yards, or he saw plenty of action in that quarter, but had some good saves.

On the whole the parents were supportive, rather than critical. My daughter told me that the parents had to be part of a "circle of affirmation," not to be confused with the circle of life. They seemed to have learned the lesson well as the only criticism of any sort I heard was from my own husband who when a foul was called turned to my son-in-law and said, "They call that?" Then he quickly corrected himself for not being affirming. This came from a man who rarely says anything critical at a game – he is famous for being positive. I think being cradled in such an upbeat group of parents left him with no alternative but to turn evil!

Despite their positive attitudes, the parents couldn't stop being coaches. Keaton wasn't the only one experiencing a split personality.  These poor kids didn't know which way to turn. They would hear "push up" from their coach and "look out behind you" from their parent; "pass the ball" from the coach and "dribble it" from their dads; "get wide" from the coach and "go to the ball" from their moms.   While the coach is focused on the team, the parents are focused on their child. It's tough to be the recipient of so much conflicting instruction. In frustration, one kid just stopped and put his head in his hands.

At the end of the game, two dozen kids with chapped faces rushed the sidelines to get their treat. I saw absolutely no swagger in the kids who won and no dejection in the kids who lost. Everyone focused on getting their treat and getting into their warm cars. It's too bad it won't stay that way. Eventually winning will matter, losing will feel bad, and body language will play a part in how kids leave the field. But Saturday it was just fun to be outside, fun to play, fun to get a treat, fun to get warmed up, and for about half of them fun to move on to baseball practice. As a side note, I only lasted 40 minutes at baseball practice . . . at that point my idea of fun was a mug of cocoa in a house with central heating.   But I loved experiencing the unspoiled joy emanating from each boy on that field and coming full cycle back to the first moments of the circle of soccer.