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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.


Action Plan

Sam Snow

Last night a friend and coaching colleague of mine called to talk about his first Over-40 match. He said the match was going well and was becoming more and more competitive as the minutes ticked by. In the middle of the second half one of his teammates collapsed on the pitch. Everyone stopped and went to help him, a 911 call was made, and people looked for aspirin but couldn't find any. Does anyone know CPR? All hesitated, but finally did act. Before the ambulance could arrive he died of a heart attack.
Needless to say this greatly upset my friend. Seeing a teammate die on the field in front of you has quite an impact. The men in their forties who moments before heatedly contested a soccer game turned in an instant to a collective group working to save a comrade's life. Sports and the win at all costs mentality disappeared and life came into perspective for those adults playing in and watching this match. No matter how deep our passion for soccer may be it is after all just a game. What's most important in soccer are the people in soccer.
As our conversation went on last night my friend said that the man who is his assistant coach with the U14 team they coach was also playing in this match. The situation caused them to talk to each other about what they would do if something catastrophic happened during one of their training sessions or matches. So we discussed having an action plan. Every coach MUST have an action plan for injuries and emergencies. This is both risk management and first aid in nature.
Most coaches are quite good about having a first aid kit at practice and games. Is it checked regularly to be sure it is stocked correctly? Is it always with the coach's equipment? Everyone today has a cell phone and the coach must have his or hers near the first aid kit. It may not be a long run back to the car to use your phone in an emergency, but by having the phone with you on the field you can make the 911 call sooner and you can stay with the players to manage the situation. So the coaches must have a plan. If a serious injury or an emergency occurs who will call and direct emergencies services? Who will be the first aid giver? Who will supervise the rest of the players? Do you have an emergency contact for the injured person? Do the players, coaches, parents, team manger or anyone with the team have ICE in their phone? Where do we go in case of a sudden thunderstorm? What is our plan in case of heat stroke? Obviously there can be more questions to ask and answer in your action plan. The coaches and team manager need to have this discussion and make a plan. Part of the plan is a survey of the skills of the parents of a youth team. Who has medical qualifications of any sort? How might the other adults be able to assist the coaches in a real emergency?
One other thing that came up in our conversation last night is that coaches taking coaching courses may tune out a bit when the presentation is made on prevention and care of injuries and risk management. The thought goes through the head of many candidates of yes, yes that's fine now can we get on with going to the field to work on tactics? The coach is not fully in the moment during the course when crucial information is being presented that will assist the coach when an emergency occurs. So not only should a coach take coaching courses to learn more about soccer but also attend a first aid and CPR course. When that person collapses on the field with a heart attack is not the time to lament not having gone to the course.
The bottom line my friends is to be prepared to the best of your ability and have an action plan!

It's About Having Fun

Susan Boyd

Youth soccer can be a difficult maze to negotiate. Right now under the United States Soccer Federation there are five youth programs: American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) founded in 1964 which has volunteer coaches and leagues all over the U.S. with a core predominately in Southern California, United States Youth Soccer Association (US Youth Soccer) founded in 1974 which is a mix of volunteer and paid coaches with both recreational and select programs, Soccer Association for Youth which is strictly recreational soccer and whose motto is "kid's having fun," US Club Soccer founded in 2000 which provides another venue for registration and for development, and finally the USSF Development Academy founded in 2007 which seeks to create competition among the top clubs in America at the U16 and U18 level which would serve as development for those players and opportunities for National Team coaches to scout for talent. Outside of the USSF umbrella are three other organizations: Soccer in the Streets (SITS) whose goal is to provide soccer and life training for kids at risk, YMCA, and Super Y League, a branch of United Soccer Leagues, which is a league of elite clubs whose purpose is to provide strong competition. And of course there are programs at schools, churches, and other youth venues which aren't under any national oversight.

This maze of youth soccer options often leaves parents bewildered and pressured. I don't think any other sport besides soccer has such an organized emphasis on development of players beginning at age five with an eye towards national team and professional team play at the end of the road. It's tough to just play soccer for the fun of it when much of the play emerges from programs that encourage commitment to constantly increasing levels of play. Yet recreational soccer remains one of the best programs for players to stretch their soccer muscles and exercise their interest in the game without the pressure of immediate or future success. 

When my oldest grandson was four, I enrolled him in our local Micro Soccer program. Both his parents worked, so it was an opportunity for him to get away from after-school care and play with a new set of friends. The largely teenage staff made the experience so much fun. Still kids themselves they romped with these three, four, and five year olds and even wrestled with them which I don't think is a soccer skill set. Keaton had a blast and although a bit intimidated at first, he jumped in and fully participated. He loved the opportunity to compete when there were races and to giggle and cavort when there was just play. Nevertheless some parents took exception to the program as not being structured enough – i.e. not really teaching them soccer. These parents already had their sights set on a select club and wanted their children to have a leg up on the competition. Since most select clubs use their youth recreational program as a feeder pool for the select teams at U11, parents were savvy enough to understand that they had to get their kids on the "right" recreational team. Since several select clubs have their U10 and even U9 teams play up at U11, select soccer can begin technically at age 8!

While my own sons eventually ended up on the select route of youth soccer, I don't regret keeping them out of a select club until they were U10. Those neighborhood teams they played on created so many fantastic memories without the pressure of succeeding. Robbie in fact didn't take to soccer until he was seven. His early years on his recreational teams were spent in the back field checking out the grass and wandering over to the sidelines to talk to his teammates who were on the bench. When the ball deflected to him from an opponent, Robbie would politely return it. Bryce on the other hand had a killer instinct and had to be restrained from using American football moves on the soccer field. He got plenty of invitations to join a select club, but he benefited by sticking with his recreational team for the first four years of soccer because he could be with his neighborhood buddies, ride to practice together, and enjoy the play. In fact the only reason he finally moved to a select club was because two of his best friends did. Once there, he got on a train that had only one route. It's important for parents to understand that commitment level and how ruthlessly players are booted off the train along the route.   Players need to be ready for the kind of cold-bloodedness that select programs can operate under.

Don't get seduced by the lure of early training. If your son or daughter expresses a real interest in continuing with soccer when he or she is 10 or 11 there's plenty of time to find a competitive recreational or select team. If they express an interest in a multitude of sports, they probably shouldn't do select sports until, as the name implies, they select that sport nearly exclusively, usually some time in middle school years. Soccer dovetails nicely at the youth ages with basketball and baseball with soccer games in the fall and in the early spring. But if players elect to be on a select team then they end up having the winter given over to indoor soccer and the summer over to tournaments. The scheduling crush ends up shortchanging teams. 

Find a recreational youth program that is fun, affordable, accessible, and outside the select soccer borders.   It's so great to see these little tykes in their size 2 soccer cleats and printed jerseys running likes ants across the fields, pig piling in front of the goal, keeping their balance and losing their balance, discussing big plays with their friends, being outdoors, and having something to look forward to each week that doesn't require discipline or pressure.   Whether kids do soccer with their church, with YMCA, with an organized club or with a community team, kids should play youth soccer for the fun of it.   A child should be laughing 80% of the time and so should you. 

While riding the select train all the way to the final station can have its own rewards, remember the realities of the ride: few will make it to the end, the cost to get there is tremendous monetarily, physically, and mentally, and the prize needs to be worth the journey. No one suffered from running around outdoors laughing – and that's where most soccer players will find their haven. Presently there are over 3 million players registered with US Youth Soccer, another 200,000 in AYSO, and probably another 100,000 or more in the other various youth soccer programs. There are around 50 men and women who are in serious contention for the 36 spots on the Men's and Women's Nationalb Teams. That's .0016% or 16/1,000,000.  

I like the odds for fun in youth soccer much better!

A Loss of Innocence

Susan Boyd

As parents we try hard to protect our children. Every new foray into independence by our sons and daughters matches equally with parental reluctance to let those tiny hands go. Despite their rush for adulthood, we recognize that our children still have that naivety and innocence we actually long to protect. We are well-aware that all too soon the hard facts of life will bring cynicism, sadness and weariness; so, we seek to extend childhood as long as possible even as we push the fledglings from the nest.

Therefore the tragedy at Northern Illinois University underscores how quickly our children can be thrust into the cruelty of the world even before they are completely armored for such an assault. I was going to write a blog about mini-soccer (also known as micro-soccer, lil kicks, etc.) for those players whose socks reach their hips and whose feet barely know how to stabilize their walk. Then NIU's community faced a few moments of horror that will stain their memories, their lives, their growth and their security forever.Those students are only a decade removed from the players they were in those first soccer games where they ran the wrong way or begged to be the goalkeeper or giggled so hard when they and their teammates fell into a pig pile. A decade will never be enough time to develop the perspective capable of absorbing and understanding what happened in their village. It's far too soon to be introduced so abruptly to the brutality of the world. It's far too soon to have to comfort others when you are unsure of what it all means. It's far too soon to be asked to give up your innocence.

I have a strong connection to NIU, so this incident hit me particularly hard. When I worked for US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program, I had the privilege of visiting the campus two or three times a year for various ODP events. Region II held its Girls Regional Camp at NIU. Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana ODP teams would scrimmage on the athletic fields, and Illinois held its summer pre-regional camp there. I have gotten to know NIU soccer coaches and players through these contacts. My son Robbie has been in communication with the coaching staff about their soccer program and sat in Cole Hall for an orientation. A friend of my boys attends NIU and sat huddled for an hour in the back of a classroom just steps from the tragedy not knowing what was going on outside. So I know the people involved in the community of 25,000. I know that this event touched everyone's life. The school is a beautiful campus nestled on the north edge of DeKalb in the middle of farming land. The pace is gentle, quiet and kind. The school is the hub of activity in DeKalb. Because I have a son in college right now, I feel a kinship with all the mothers who anxiously awaited word of their children on Valentine's Day.
My hulking 6'2" son still possesses an innocence which is belied by his confident swagger and his absolute conviction that he knows more than his parents. He still calls me Mommy and will phone in distress over his account being overdrawn or the bookstore being out of an important textbook. He still believes I can perform miracles in those circumstances where he finds himself in trouble or in need. He will suddenly come over to me while I write at the computer to give me a hug, which I know is as much for his needs as for mine. I also know that he is little different from any of his friends of the same age, away from home for the first time in college. So I can't imagine how convoluted and rocky the students at NIU now find their lives. They have friends dead or injured. They have faced danger and mortality. They have seen horror that children in a country like ours should never have to see. There is no miracle a mother can perform to take away that cruel trial by fire from any child who has experienced such tragedy. So I can understand the hopelessness and agony NIU parents are feeling right now.
When I was at the Final Four in December I had the opportunity to speak to the wife of an assistant coach at Virginia Tech. We were both waiting in the hotel lobby for our respective teams to show up. I asked her how the student body and faculty were coping after their own tragedy. She spoke with pride of their resiliency, not that they rebounded to the same normalcy that existed before a gunman killed and wounded their friends, but of their ability to rise above the horror, to understand how it had blanched every memory of their college life, and to forge the determination to not let the events dictate defeatism in their lives. "They grew up too fast," she said. And now a new group of students has had to navigate this indefensible passage from innocence to stark reality.
Friday morning, following the tragedy, The Today Show was interviewing two young men who were in the lecture hall and witnessed the gunmen's destruction. One of the boys spoke about seeing all the chaos, of not knowing if he should run into a building or stay outdoors and of wondering if there were snipers on the top of Cole Hall just waiting to take out students as they fled. He could not have possibly had those thoughts two hours earlier as he walked to class. He didn't look up to see if rifles were aimed in his direction, or wonder if someone around him might need medical assistance, or stand conflicted as to the relative safety of his position. For the rest of his life those questions and others will run through his mind and will taint how he regards the independence of his own children. 
While parents seek to protect within the parameters of encouraging their children to run ahead to the woods or leap over a fence or ride their wobbly bikes around the neighborhood, this student may oneday find himself clinging to his child because his knowledge of what the world can do is so much more horrific than mine. His final words to the reporter still haunt me, "I saw a girl on a stretcher with towels wrapped all over her head and tons of blood coming out. The EMT was saying, 'Stay with me,' and she was saying, 'I'm trying." These two children had their innocence and their trust stripped from them and as a parent I couldn't do anything to stop it.

So I will grieve for those who died, I will grieve for the students who were wounded, I will grieve for the families who will never be the same, I will grieve for the community whose eyes were seared by ugliness, I will grieve for the loss of innocence and I will grieve for us who frolicked in soccer matches, who cheered with pride, who pulled our children back from approaching traffic, who tested food to see if it was too hot for them to eat, who knew dangerous consequences but who assured our children it would all be OK, who set limits and then let our children test them, who breathed a sigh of relief every time they saw those bikes or cars round the corner for home, who didn't let their children see R-rated movies because they shouldn't be exposed to violence and sex, who loved well and safely and openly. I pray that all our children will be safe, even as I know that can't be possible. I pray for the people at NIU that they may find support, love, and healing.



Short- or Long-Term Solutions

Sam Snow

I spent the morning here on Presidents Day watching some good Under-18 and Under-16 matches. Overall the level of play is good, although there is still too much run and gun style of offense. In all I saw 15- and 17-year-olds play like…well like teenagers. There's nothing terribly insightful about that except that they play an awful lot like the teenagers of 15 years ago. Our style of offense over the last 15 years has settled into a linear game; lots of passes north/south or east/west. Straight line passes…not many diagonal passes or diagonal dribbles or diagonal off the ball runs.

Consequently, the defending tends to be one-on-one or recovery runs onto through balls. Not a whole lot of block defending or team defending tactics is being demonstrated. And all of this is from some of the best club teams in the country that I watched today. This is not to say that it was all high level kickball. A few matches, and a few moments in other matches, were good soccer. But why is that we are no more sophisticated in our skills or tactics than 15 years ago?

Why is it that now considerable effort is being focused on level 2 of the U.S. Soccer player development pyramid? Well certainly these players deserve the attention and effort being put into their development as future professional and national team players. This is fine as it helps strengthen the fabric of our game in the USA. Yet it seems to me to be a short-term solution to a long-term challenge. Trying to considerably improve the game of a 17-year-old may be a little too late in the player development timetable. Even for a 15-year-old the odds are beginning to lean towards what you have now in playing tendencies is what the player will have five years from now.

The energy and money should instead be poured into level 1 of the player development pyramid. These are the childhood and pubescent players. If we considerably improve their soccer environment then the odds improve for us to develop talented players. This will take time though to see the fruits of the labor. Ten years? Twenty years? A generation? This means the adults must be patient. That's quite a challenge for some and doesn't always fit into a political agenda. However the only way the USA will produce truly world class soccer players is with long-term player development. So the money and effort should go into raising the standard of coaching at the recreational level. Parent education on player development within a team sport must be delivered every season in every soccer park in the nation. If we are truly serious about competing internationally then get the best coaches we have working with preteen players now. When we improve the early soccer experiences of these young players then more of them will stay with soccer. If we reduce the drop-out rate then our number of participants increases and the odds then improve for us to produce more high caliber players.

Ask any house builder and they will tell you that the walls and roof are quite important but that the single most important part of the building is the foundation. With a solid foundation we will support our game for generations to come.