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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". 

 

Flattery Will Get You Nowhere

Susan Boyd

If I didn't know it already, I know it now. Coaches notice kids early. Recently I was talking to two college coaches about the state of soccer and one of the coaches started to talk about the youth teams of a club just over the Illinois border. He thought their Under-10 team was phenomenal and had his eye on a few kids. Here's a guy who doesn't even know if he'll have his job next year or in ten years, but he's already getting his 9 year old recruits lined up.

Once a coach approached me after a tournament when Robbie was Under-11 and inquired if Robbie would come play for his club. This was all very flattering except that the tournament was in SW Chicago, we lived north of Milwaukee, and the coach's team was from St. Louis. Geography didn't faze him in the least. He thought I should hand over my 10 year old son to some family in St. Louis to raise so that Robbie could improve this coach's team. Because there were about 8 million things wrong with this plan, I just gave my best Scarlett O'Hara laugh with a toss of my head, said thank you very much, and moved quickly away. 

When we read about the trades and cuts of professional sports players we understand they're commodities. We also realize that college players are to some extent commodities, but at least have the protection of the NCAA to insure that they don't have to risk their education by being pawns in trades. But increasingly, players in high school and on youth teams find themselves the targets of coaches and scouts for one purpose only – to improve the fortunes of a team and increase the reputation of a club. Under the guise of providing a better playing and training environment they encourage parents to make what could be serious life-altering decisions. Without a touch of cynicism, parents can make very poor choices.

It's important to remember that most offers are never altruistic. Any coach who sees something wonderful in your child is thinking (with apologies to JFK), "Ask not what you can do for this player; ask what this player can do for you." This goes for coaches recruiting for their club team, their school, or for their pro team. They will regale you first with flattery and then all that they can do for your child. But all too often they will use your child until he or she doesn't provide any benefit for the organization and the team. I once heard a coach say, "It's club first, then team, then the player." He also touted the need for players to remain loyal to the club while in the next breath cutting six players who had been with the club for five or more years.

Players are approached often. Recruiting can begin when they are eight years old. Figuring out how to navigate this brambled path is difficult.   Having a coach tell you that your son or daughter could be one of the best players in the country is a mind-blower. The trouble is that if your child's promise doesn't pan out the way the coach expects or if another child comes along with more talent or more promise, your child will be sacrificed. No matter what wonderful pastoral tale the coach weaves, the underlying fact is that winning trumps everything. 

It's not that coaches are inherently evil. In fact most coaches do care about their players. But every club depends on revenue to keep the staff of coaches paid, and losing clubs don't attract enough players to offer coaches better pay. So the vicious cycle drives the process. Coaches often don't have the luxury to foster players who can't contribute to a winning team. I have personally been on the receiving end of both the benefits and the drawbacks of such a system. It's difficult to set aside the flattery and make choices based on what is really best for your own child. It's even more difficult to suddenly find your child left on the sidelines without a team.

The dream of national team membership, championships, and college play makes all parents vulnerable to the sales pitch. But players do succeed even if they don't succumb to the come-ons. It's up to parents to weigh more than the flash when considering whether or not to go with a particular coach. What will the choice mean to other members of the family? What are the financial obligations? How will the team's schedule affect school? How committed is the player to the sport and to the upward demands of the new team? (Here's where parents have to take themselves out of the equation – their dreams for their kids can't factor in.) How realistic is the coach's assessment of the player? (Here's where honestly watching other players in the same position from other teams helps keep things in perspective.) 

Since my own son made the decision to play for a team hours from our home, I understand the lure of strong coaching, strong competition, and strong opportunities. For him it has proven to be the best choice. Even this year when he could have played locally, he decided he wanted to remain with his teammates in Chicago. Have there been regrets? Definitely! He does his homework in the car, his weekends are eaten up by travel to practices or games hundreds of miles from home, and he has given up the normal after school life of a high school student. But he has made the choice, which is the most important factor in taking the risk. Robbie understood the possibility of being cut and spent his fair share of time riding the bench. But he was committed to the team and the opportunity it offered.

The primary driving force in moving up to more competitive teams should be the player's own hunger for the experience.   Ambition can't come from the parents, otherwise the player won't have the mental, physical, and emotional stamina to deal with the ups and downs of taking those risks, no matter how flattering the invitation may be. If a player has no aspirations beyond high school, then he or she doesn't need to be on an expensive and demanding traveling team. Strong skills and joy can be acquired from most soccer teams. While flattery doesn't grow old, it has to be tempered with realistic ideas about what a player wants out of his or her soccer experience. Flattery can be treasured even if it is never acted upon. After all every player has something to be proud of, so we should flatter them all.
 

Shift changes

Sam Snow

Here's a question from a parent of a young player:
 
"I have a relatively minor question regarding appropriate shift time, not playing time in my daughter's Under-10 Recreation Traveling team (6v6).  My daughter will be nine shortly. With 10 players on the roster, each shift of five moving players is playing about 12 -15 minutes at a time and it seems as though the young ladies are becoming tired quickly.  The last team we played changed shifts about every five to six minutes...By the way, our coach is new and has never coached any organized sport before though she has a local high school soccer player helping out...
 
Is there a recommended time-per-shift at this age?"
 
Shift changes can actually hinder the players learning how to play the game.  Wholesale substitutions change the rhythm of the game and end up with the game being played at a helter skelter pace, often with little in the way of quality tactics.  When the pace of the game is too fast the match deteriorates into kick and run soccer.  For the beauty of the game and to put young players into an environment to learn the game it is better to substitute players one or two at a time.  Since the Under-10 age group is playing halves for the first time (see the Modified Rules for Under-10 at /coaches/RulesSmallGames/) it is a learning experience for the players, coaches and parents.  All of those folks now need to begin learning the rhythm of the game.  The players are being asked for the first time to think about how to pace themselves.  That of course may be impossible to do if the adults surrounding the field are yelling for the players to constantly run at full pace, something which professional teams do not do.
 
The children will naturally become tired, but learning when to run, jog, walk or stand is part of the tactics of the game.  Shift changes do not allow players to learn this tactical part of soccer as they are told to run hard for ten to fifteen minutes and then come off.  That approach can win matches at Under-10 but will cause you to lose them at older and higher levels of play.  It may require a bit more work during the match for the coach to keep track of 50 percent playing time for each child at the game that day, but that is a bit more in tune with the coach's job during a match than telling the players on the field what to do.
 
 
 

Heading

Sam Snow

Recently I had a club director ask for information on the do's and don'ts of heading in the Under-6 and Under-8 age groups. In order to help educate the members of his club he wanted to know the latest thoughts on the subject. These sorts of questions, whether they are on a technical topic such as this one or a tactical question, come up now and then. The tendency from either a coach in a club or parents of players on a team is to want to teach advanced skills or tactics to young players. The logic usually is that well it's part of the game and they will need to learn it. True…but not today.
 
By this approach the logic could be extended to say that since kids will someday be driving a car then you should have your 6-year-old practice driving back and forth in the driveway. This flies in the face of common sense. So to the question of teaching heading to Under-6 and Under-8 players - put simply … DON'T!
 
Soccer players do indeed need to learn how to head the ball. It is an important and unique skill in the game. To execute the skill correctly though requires some developed athleticism and ability to read the flight of the ball in the air. US Youth Soccer recommends that heading be introduced at the earliest in the Uner-10 age group.  Young children have great difficulty tracking moving objects, especially if they are in the air.  Most will duck or throw hands in front of the face if the ball comes toward the head.  Children younger than 10 are very reactionary in their movement behavior.  Anticipating where the ball might be played is a skill that has not yet developed.  This ability does not really develop until age nine or 10.  Prior to age nine visual tracking acuity is not fully developed.  Players have difficulty accurately tracking long kicks or the ball off of the ground.  Beginning at approximately age 10, one's visual tracking acuity achieves an adult pattern.  Even then it will take years to reach a point of being able to precisely determine the height, pace, curve and spin of a ball in the air.  How many high school players mistime headers?  There is no need to be in a rush to teach heading skill to children.  Just like geometry in school they get to it in time.
 
Heading the ball is a difficult skill to learn. When should players start? Introduce heading in the Under-10 age group. Teach heading to score and to clear in the Under-12 age group both standing and jumping. Teach heading to pass, backwards heading (flicks) and diving headers in the Under-14 age group. These age groups recommendations are the average, middle of the bell-curve so to speak. A few players may start some of these techniques earlier, especially if they have older siblings playing. Others will start latter, as their confidence grows.
 
Players who can make exact passes with the head, who can save dangerous situations at their own goal by heading the ball away and who can make use of chances at the opponent's goal by means of lightning quick headers are indispensable to their team. The ball can be headed from a standing position, on the run or by jumping up to the ball with one or both legs; the ball can be headed forwards, i.e. in the direction the player is facing, to the side and even behind.
 
Early experiences can be painful if careful progression in building up confidence is not applied. When introducing the technique of heading the ball for the first time, I suggest you start with a Nerf type soccer ball or an underinflated volleyball. Gradually work your way up to a fully inflated soccer ball. Begin with juggling with the head so that the player controls the pace, height, frequency of repetition, movement, etc.   Next go to head juggling with a partner. A good group game for heading is Toss-Head-Catch. In this activity the ball is being served from the hands, so the force is less than a crossed ball and is more accurate. The increased accuracy will allow for more repetitions of correct headers.
 
The whole body is used to head the ball. The movement begins with the legs, the movement of the stomach muscles throws the trunk and upper body forward and the head, from the neck upwards, follows through quickly. The position of the forehead to the ball determines its flight path.
 
Here are the key coaching points for the basic header:
 
Head: chin tucked in, neck stiff, never close the eyes. It is important to watch the flight of the ball until the moment of impact.
 
Upper body: brought back early into the curved position – and then snapped forward. Contact is made with the ball when the body is perpendicular to the ground.
 
Legs: bent at the knees to support the forward thrust.
 
Area of contact: middle of the forehead, sometimes the side of the forehead, never the temples or the top of the head.
 
Among young players there is a physical barrier to overcome when talking about heading and that is simply fear. The earliest and most elementary lesson about heading is never let the ball hit you. Go out and meet it, and make contact with the front part of the forehead where the skull is the thickest. You must attack the ball! You hit it, not the other way around.  The main surface of contact is of course the forehead. The ball must be struck, not cushioned. The neck and back muscles should be rigid to generate power. The part played by the eyes is important! Although it is likely that the reflex blinking action causes the eyes to be closed at the moment when the ball is struck by the forehead, players should be encouraged to watch the ball right onto the forehead; only by doing so can a player time the actual heading movement accurately. There need be no fear of danger to the eyes since they are well protected by the heavy bone structure immediately above them.
 
There is no better feeling in soccer than beating an opponent in the air to plant a header in the net. Once you have done it, there is a hunger to do it again. It is a spectacular way of scoring goals, or come to that of stopping them. Defensively it is a great thrill in consistently clearing the ball in the air, beating opposing forwards and establishing control. The young player who fails to add heading to his or her armory of skills will never go far in the game.
 

Turning Over a New Leaf

Susan Boyd

Outside my windows a mountain of leaves cascades down on our lawn and deck. Every year we face the same dilemma: How to get the ridiculous number of leaves raked out to the street for leaf pick-up while still participating in the state championship run. I don't exaggerate when I say that our house dwells in a maelstrom of leaves. We have fifteen deciduous trees directly on our property and live downwind from another fifty trees. While I celebrate the glory that autumn brings in brilliant golds, yellows, reds, and oranges, I am loathe to figure out how to manage them once they depart their limbs and descend in a mass to our lawn.   Raking and blowing takes up hours of time which we never seem to have because the boys, the worker bees, are still at practice or at games.

It's a nice to dilemma to have trying to balance a high school championship season with the leaf blowing season. But nice or not it still has to be resolved. We have resorted to raking at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night or trying to do a little each day for a week hoping that our smaller piles won't disintegrate in a wind storm before we can coerce them into larger piles. While people who know our home wax poetic about the beauty of living in the woods, we have grown to view fall colors as a curse. We would never pay to travel to Vermont to see what we regard as "the enemy." So as people drive by the house oohing and ahhing over our glorious ceiling and carpet of leaves, we are outside exercising our freedom of speech in colorful ways.

Now we are one leaf raker/blower short since Bryce is away at college. And Robbie, who even said he was looking forward to raking, has proven to be a no-show since his school keeps moving along in their journey to the state championship. With our deck now literally calf high in oak leaves, I have made a bold decision. I had a landscape service give me a quote on doing all the raking of the leaves this year. And shocker – they weren't really all that expensive. Now I wonder why I spent all those years with numb fingers from hours of maneuvering the blower around the lawn. Why did I attempt to rake swaths of leaves to the curbside only to find them back on my lawn the next morning due to a cruel northwest wind? Why did I ruin a perfectly good comforter collecting and dragging leaves from the back of the house because I couldn't find the plastic tarp we always used? I can't believe I probably could have had the entire lawn raked for the cost of a comforter! I won't make that mistake again.

So now I can concentrate on cheering for Robbie and his team. Tonight is the last game ever for Robbie at his home field, so it will be a bittersweet evening. Having sat on the bleachers for six years now, I am already starting to miss all that those games represented. Just like autumn moves from brilliant glory to winter's grey, so too does soccer in the Midwest. These wonderful, crisp evenings and afternoons sitting on the sidelines soaking up friendships and competition will now give way to smelly, claustrophobic indoor soccer. Of course those of you in the south or California are probably looking forward to winter soccer, so I admit I'm writing from a Midwest and Northeast bias.   For those of us in states with four distinct seasons, winter spells a dark, smaller game on surfaces that often only approximate grass because they are green. 

My goalkeeper son loved indoor soccer because he got a good workout. Instead of touching the ball two to six times in a game, he would have to make a save every few seconds. He also got to occasionally dribble the ball down and take a shot. So by his thinking indoor soccer rocked. But Robbie usually ends up with rug burns, stress injuries to his joints, and aggressive attacks. Since indoor soccer ends up being a mixed bag of competition level, Robbie's team ends up playing adult teams many of which have older players with too much testosterone and too little skill. Since the indoor game runs on speed with only a handful of players on the field, everyone but the goalkeeper rotates through every two minutes or so. With balls and players bouncing off the walls, the game has an entirely different sound. Robbie's indoor league has now switched to a straight forty minute game without a half-time so that the facility can fit in more games in an evening. Oh, I should also mention that many of the games are after 10 p.m. at night, which used to be my prime leaf-raking time.

I'll miss high school soccer. I'll miss the tradition that high school sports foster.  I'll miss the victories cheered on by scores of the team's peers. I'll miss the alumni who come to share the experience and relive their own pasts. I'll miss teachers and administrators who attend regularly to support the players. I'll miss the camaraderie that parents share. I'll miss witnessing the brotherhood (or sisterhood) the team develops over the course of the ten week season. I'll miss everything which created the memories I'll hold for years to come. High school sports provide a special experience for all involved. For most players, high school will be the final opportunity to be a player rather than a fan contributing to the school's history. Winning a state championship is the ultimate goal, but sharing in the experience of playing with friends from school for the pride of the school remains the real reason to play high school soccer.

So this year I'm savoring these final high school games. Since it is Robbie's final year, it makes the prospect of indoor soccer even less appealing. There are only two pluses I cling to: one – Robbie will play college soccer and two – someone else is raking my leaves from now on!