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Sam's Blog is a bi-weekly addition to the US Youth Soccer Blog. Sam Snow is the Coaching Director for US Youth Soccer.

 

Small-sided games for Under-12

Sam Snow

Surveys of young players over the last few years have shown that the primary reason for players under 12 dropping out of soccer is that they were not having fun. The secondary reason is that they do not like their coaches.
 
Both reasons would indicate that those players were not exposed to an appropriate playing environment for their age and/or ability levels. Too much at too young of an age would cause players to become disenchanted with the sport. Too little activity in practice sessions (drills) and games (too many players on the field) would cause players to become bored.
 
Physiologically and psychologically, the ages of 9-11 are ideal for development. At that age, children have grown out of infant instability but are not yet encumbered by the awkwardness of their early teens. This is ideal for challenging skills practice.
 
This age group also observes the important crossover from "selfishness" to the ability to socialize. In soccer terms, through this age period, children learn to understand the importance of cooperation in team play. Most soccer educators generally accept the age of 13 as the age to begin "11-a-side play". Players must be given time to experience and develop within the "adult game" before exposure to the pressures of tournament play.
 
I am very optimistic that the influence of the National Youth License, which was implemented at state level in 1998, will also help to create a better understanding of the requirements of play between the ages of 6-12.
 
With the cooperation of the states we can dramatically reduce the numbers of players dropping out of our sport before the age of 12 and increase their enjoyment of the game.
 

Accepting Success

Susan Boyd

Eight one hundredths of a second – that was the difference between the U.S. men's 4 X 100 freestyle relay team winning and the French taking second. Both broke the world record, but only one team will be remembered for accomplishing the feat. On the podium twelve men stood, four each for first, second, and third. All most likely trained with the same intensity, the same sacrifice, the same goals, and the same history. On another day, at another time, the fortunes may have been reversed. Such is the nature of competition at that level. Think of the number of swim clubs in the United States. Think of the number of young swimmers at those clubs. Think of the number of swimmers who are close to but not close enough to world class speed. Think of the number of parents who wake up at 3 a.m. to drive to practices and meets. Think of the number of parents who write check after check for coaching, membership and tournament fees, gas money, hotels, equipment, and food. Four young men from all those thousands got to have gold strung around their necks.  Now think of all the other sports where only one or two get to succeed at the international level – tennis, gymnastics, beach volleyball, track, ice skating, golf, weightlifting, boxing, skiing – the list goes on. And only a handful of these sports offer any real money either in college or professionally. Players do them for the love of the sport.

Michael Phelps trains seven days a week about six hours a day. That's beyond dedication. Interviewers talk about his Olympic dream, but a dream is something to muse upon. This is an Olympic goal – something attainable through planning, training, and execution of skills. To achieve his goal he needs the personal drive. No parent, no coach, no fan can provide him with the hunger. I love watching the Olympics because I am humbled by the level of intensity these athletes need to muster even to get to the arena, much less to win. Every heat showcases incredible talent, most who will never get to Olympic medals, or even to Olympic finals. And behind them extends a comet's tail of hopefuls who were hundredths or tenths of a second off the mark or a point or two short or injury inhibited or a skill shy. And behind those athletes extends a universe of other athletes who simply have to play the sport for joy and exercise.

We watch the races and the matches and the competitions and we think that could be my son or daughter. But preceding those few seconds or minutes have come years, even decades of training. The 41 year old swimmer Dana Torres trains every day for six hours and she has been doing that regimen for 35 years. I marvel at that dedication in the face of a regular life when I have cleaned toilets for 35 years, but never for Olympic gold! I admit that I hate cleaning, but even if I loved it I know I could never sustain the dedication of daily long-term training with little more than Olympic medals at the end. I like sleeping in occasionally, slacking off on the beach, and eating at Cheesecake Factory too much. To give oneself over to the training necessary to even hope for Olympic medals without any guarantee of success requires a far more focused individual than most of us will ever be.

Watching the men's gymnastics team finals was truly awe-inspiring. For a short time, the American men held the point lead, but ultimately they fell behind the Chinese and the Japanese teams to capture the bronze. While the Chinese had not only been touted to win the gold, but had also been told by their government to win the gold, the pressure had to have been intense. The head coach was quoted as saying that if his team didn't win gold he would go to the tallest building in Beijing and jump off. The drive to succeed had both internal and external dynamics. The American men on the other hand were not expected to medal especially after losing to injury the only two members with Olympic experience, the Hamm brothers. When the Germans, who threatened the Americans for the bronze faltered on the pommel and the points showed the Americans had won bronze, the celebration by the Americans erupted with the same joy and intensity as if they had won gold. On the opposite side of the gym, the Chinese sobbed and looked completely relieved to win gold – not really joyful. They had had metaphorical rifles pointed at them and finally with the gold they were out of the gun sights. Their celebration had that bittersweet component of having dodged the bullet. I'm sure they couldn't understand the level of exuberance the Americans released, because success could only be measured by winning gold. Anything less would have been both demeaning and failure. But the American's attitude was that any point total that took them to the podium was a success no matter what the level.

Hopefully all athletes can find that same inner peace with the successes they achieve. Olympic medals will only go to a small percentage of players in the world.   But the joy of scoring a goal, blocking a shot, scaling a wall, achieving a personal best, attempting a new skill, and all the other individual moments of success exists for every player. As parents we need to remember that every pat on the back, every ""good job,"" every hug, and every sideline cheer are the gold medals our kids want to achieve. While the French team of four swimmers didn't win gold by only eight hundredths of a second, they did get the opportunity to stand on an Olympic podium. While such a tiny fraction of time kept them from gold, all the years of practice, sacrifice, and dedication brought them to the podium. The disbelief and frustration on their faces at the end of the race were replaced by smiles and joking when the medals were handed out. I have to think they realized that despite the loss, they really didn't lose at all.
 

One Size Fits All

Susan Boyd

Bryce returned to college on Tuesday to begin captain's practices and discover how much out of shape he really is. Just prior to departure he decided he needed new cleats, so Monday we went to the local soccer store, Stefan's, to see if he could get a pair. Stefan's earns about 25% of its gross income off of our family. If we don't come into the store for two or three weeks, the manager sends police to our home to check if we haven't all perished in a freak soccer accident. We know all the salespeople so well that we are in their family Christmas card photos. Naturally I exaggerate, but not by much.

So we popped into Stefan's for what I assumed would be about a fifteen minute visit. I had forgotten who I was with. Bryce brings indecision to an entirely new plane that surpasses even Brett Favre's inability to decide if he is retired or not. So I had plenty of time in the store to observe while Bryce pondered his cleat options. I enjoyed watching families come and go purchasing soccer gear for kids from five to fifteen. In all cases certain factors remained constant, bringing me full circle in my soccer experiences.

First factor is style. No matter the level of skill or dedication, players opt for style first when picking any article of soccer gear that the public can see. In addition I have discovered that shin guards have a coolness factor that has to be addressed. So even though shin guards are hidden beneath cool socks, they nonetheless need to be the necessary style since they will be seen by teammates before being inserted in the socks. An eight year old player whined at this mother that the cleats she wanted to buy were ""totally gross"" even though they were kangaroo leather and a great fit. Cleat manufacturers have picked up on this and have added gimmicks to boots in the hopes of snaring players who are looking for that style factor. Most of these gimmicks boost the price of cleats by a hefty percentage that parents pay as part of the kid surcharge assessed to us upon our offspring's birth.

Second factor is conformity. Style is okay so long as it is the right kind of style. Kids will be the first to buy the bright orange cleats, but only if their favorite soccer player wears them as well. Once one pair of orange cleats debuts at a game, the next game will host a half dozen pairs. That is until the dark green pair makes its appearance. And so it goes. Cutting edge works only as long as there are several making the cut.

Third factor is perceived advantage.   Kids will purchase a certain ball or shorts or cleats based on some advantage that the gear offers them. The perceived advantages are also part of the gimmicks manufacturers use (see first factor). Right now one cleat has a compartment in the sole filled with sand. Supposedly the sand shifts when a player kicks the ball, giving the kick extra power. I think it looks like a Salvador Dali hour glass – aesthetically pleasing, but not really practical. One young lady nearly gagged when the salesperson suggested a good, solid, inexpensive soccer ball. "That one doesn't have the extended sweet spot," she huffed, pointing to a $150 ball with an actual bull's eye printed on it. Her mother said the same thing I did when the boys wanted official UEFA or World Cup balls topping $180, "You can lose a cheap ball just as easily as an expensive ball." This is why Stefan's only keeps one of every style of expensive ball in stock. Too many moms with common sense make for poor sales.

Fourth and final factor is need.   When a player is faced with the immovable common sense of a parent, they will play the "need" card. "But I need a green shirt for practice." It just happens to be a $75 official Mexican National team jersey. "I need flat shoes for indoor practice." They just happen to be cool enough to also wear to school.   Need is the trump card of player shopping. What parent can argue against need? While awaiting Bryce's decision on his cleats I heard the word need over a dozen times, and in every case the kids got what she or he "needed." Come to think of it, my trip to Stefan's began with Bryce telling me he "needed" new game cleats.

Did he finally decide between the Vapors or the Total 90s? He did. And I am proud to say that although style nearly won out, he ultimately decided based on the fit and the advantage the particular cleats offered him in his punting. But college or mini-soccer, players aren't really too different in how they select their gear…it's just that some take longer at it than others.
 

Four Steps to Success

Sam Snow

The following four-step formula evolved from interviews and discussions with top performing soccer players conducted over a period of ten years.  Presented here as a first look, it will take on greater meaning for you as your participation in the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program progresses.
 
Step 1: Self-discipline.  Everything worthwhile begins at this level.  It simply means doing whatever you have to do and making whatever sacrifices are necessary to get the job done the best you know how.  It's hard work; it's giving up things you like in order to achieve a higher goal.

Step 2: Self-control.  Self-discipline leads directly to self-control.  As you discipline yourself, you experience steady increases in self-control---control of what you do, what you think, and how you react.  Without self-control, being the best you can be as a player is nothing more than a fantasy.
 
Step 3: Self-confidence.  Self-control leads directly to self-confidence.  What tracks are to a train, self-confidence is to the player---without it, he or she can go nowhere.  Self-confidence, that unshatterable belief in yourself, comes from knowing that you are in control.

Step 4: Self-realization.  Self-realization is simply becoming the best you can be, the manifestation of your talent and skill as a player.  It is the fulfillment and the ecstasy of sport.  Self-realization follows directly from self-confidence.  Once you believe in yourself and feel good about yourself, you are opening doors to your fullest potential.
Spend some time thinking about this simple formula.  Think about how it relates to you within the realm of soccer as well as outside it.