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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.

 

Fair Play

Sam Snow

Yesterday I was in Milan, Italy at the San Siro stadium. I watched Inter Milan play against Palermo. Inter won the match 2-1 in front of 40,000 spectators. Those watching included the 1993 and 1994 US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program Region I boys' teams and staff. The match was skillful, quite tactical and in the second half it was played at a fast and entertaining pace. Three distinct times during the match the teams displayed an unwritten rule of the game. It is a rule which more of our coaches should teach their players.
 
When a hard injury occurs and it is seen by the players that the injured player or players will not get up then the team with the ball intentionally kicks the ball out over the touchline. Once the ball is out of play then the referee may allow onto the field the first aid staff. They may now attend to the injured player or players. When the match resumes the team taking the throw-in throws the ball back to the other team's defensive third and they do not challenge the ball until the other team has the ball under control. So team A has kicked the ball into touch so that aid can be given to an injury. In a return act of Fair Play team B puts the ball back into play with a throw-in and gives the ball back to team A. Fair Play – be a good sport! This act occurred in a Serie A match where big money is on the line. Inter Milan played the ball out and Palermo gave it back. This was one instance of Fair Play.
 
In the other two cases players had horrific collisions with both players collapsing to the ground and then no movement at all. The referee immediately stopped the match and called on the first aid personnel. When hurt players don't move it's a real red flag; sometimes writhing is a good sign. When play resumed with a drop ball the team that didn't have possession of the ball at the time the match was stopped stood passively at the drop ball and let the opponent kick the ball to a teammate; an act of Fair Play by team A. Mind you too that team B kicked the drop ball back toward their end of the field to a supporting teammate. This act occurred in the Palermo and Inter match.
 
During the same match a second serious collision occurred with again the referee instantly halting play. This time at the drop ball the opponent didn't even stand near the drop ball and allowed the team who had been in possession to play the drop ball completely uncontested. In this last case it was Palermo in possession and they played the drop ball back to a supporting teammate; an impressive bit of sportsmanship for a team that was losing 2-1 at the time.
 
Now if professional teams in one of the best leagues in the world where millions of dollars are at stake can display Fair Play why not our youth teams? So whose job is it to instill Fair Play into our youngsters? First and foremost it's a responsibility of the parents. Then of course the coaches must teach and demonstrate sporting ethics. Once the adults set the right example then it is up to the players to live up to the standard.
 

Once you know it all

Sam Snow

This past weekend I attended the 2nd annual state coaching symposium for the Wyoming State Soccer Association. The symposium weekend included the coaching session, both classroom and demonstrations. There was also a state assignor course for referees, US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program training for the boys and girls and the Annual General Meeting for the state association. It was a weekend packed with wonderful soccer activities and folks from all around the state joined in the fun. This is quite impressive given the geographic size of Wyoming and the distances people must travel to participate in any soccer activity.
 
Two weeks ago, I was in Maryland working with coaches at the Icebreaker clinic. In both cases, and in states that are 1,600 miles apart, volunteers and paid coaches took the time and made the effort to continue developing their coaching craft. I was impressed and pleased by the commitment of these coaches to learn more about the game and how to coach. These are the sort of folks upon whom the game grows. They do not assume they know it all just because they have played the game or coaches for a number of years. They are eager to learn more and actively seek insights from other coaches. The dedication of these coaches to continually improve themselves so that they can coach other people's children is remarkable. They sacrifice time from their own families and jobs to do something good for the soccer community. All of these coaches, especially the volunteers, should be applauded!
 
The experience of the coaching clinics and symposia brings up the question of who's coaching our kids. Too often clubs accept a warm body to coach because they are often in dire need of a coach for a team. Yes, we do need coaches for the teams so that the kids can play, but why do we allow some to continue to coach without any coaching education. As a parent we would not send our children to a school where the teachers had no qualifications to teach. Parents are the customers of a soccer club in that they pay the fees. The players are the consumers of a soccer club as they partake of the services of a soccer club. The players are the ones in the club in order to receive a soccer education.
 
The leaders of a soccer club have an obligation to the consumers to push the coaches in the club to continually improve their craft. The customers of the club should expect and demand this effort from the club. If we raise through education the abilities of the average coach then we directly raise the caliber of play in the USA. We quite likely then also keep more kids playing soccer longer into their teenaged years. So for a soccer club the continuing education of its coaches and administrators means better retention of the consumers and therefore the customers too. This can only improve the health of soccer.
 
It's what you learn after you know it all that counts.
-John Wooden
 
 

Momnesia

Susan Boyd

This morning I was made aware by the Today Show that I have a major clinical condition. There's even a scientific study being done of this phenomenon which they have academically termed Momnesia – no kidding – look it up! It seems that once our children are born our brains become a hodgepodge of chemicals which cloud our memory and our ability to organize and carry out many of our day to day tasks without error. 

The feminist in me would take exception to this characterization apart from the fact I fit the diagnosis to a "T". I have a sister-in-law who would be the exception, and I definitely admire her ability to remember the tiniest details and to organize fundraisers where they make more than the gross national product of several small nations. I know that every rule has an exception. And I know I am not it. Case in point: soccer road trips.

We have our first one of the season coming up next weekend to St. Louis. This is about a five hour drive and one that we make at least twice a year for at least eight years now. I'll still manage to screw it up. The last time we drove down, I took out the soccer chairs so I could lay the suitcase flat on the floor of the trunk. When we arrived in St. Louis those chairs were still standing in our garage inches from where our van departed. I forgot which hotel we had reservations at, as well as the reservation confirmation papers, which would have reminded me. I missed the turn off I-90 to I-39 at least twice, and I can assure you that is costly 30-minute error. Once, I loaned our I-Pass to friends for the previous weekend, and despite the fact that the I-Pass sits prominently on my windshield, I neglected to see that I had not retrieved it, and went merrily through the I-Pass lanes without it. Luckily there were only two the entire trip.

When we were going to Des Moines the first time two years ago, I forgot to bring along a map. We ended up taking the long route to Des Moines which is not necessarily the scenic route. I actually did a Lewis and Clark impersonation and used our compass to help get us to the west where I knew Iowa resided. When we got to the hotel I used the internet to locate the route to the fields except I put in the wrong address and we ended up 30 miles to the north and one hour late to practice. The next trip to Des Moines I had more maps than I knew what to do with, but I nearly forgot my computer so I could do the blogs from Nationals. We had to turn around and go back home when a billboard ad for an internet provider triggered something in my fogged-out brain. I usually can count on my sons to remember the computer since they like to keep in touch through Facebook and IMs, but they were all about the video games on this trip.

I spend most of my preparation time before trips making sure that the boys have cleats, uniforms, shin guards, goalie gloves, hydration and soccer bags. I remind the boys to bring underwear, extra clothes, khaki pants, training shirts, homework, iPods, cell phones, chargers for electronics and toiletries. I am always treated with disdain for any reminders I make to the boys, yet invariably once I make a reminder, one or both go bounding up the stairs (although they claim not for something I suggested). 

Once in the car I go through the list again, meet with the same snarls and again one or both leap out of the car and disappear for several minutes into the house. I manage to remember to pack the Dry-Guy (which I highly recommend for spring road trips) but I forget my camera.   I manage to insure that we don't repeat the emergency cleat buying episode of 2000, but I have had to run out and get deodorant for me. One memorable trip, I went to the front desk of the hotel four times in order to get items I forgot: comb, toothbrush, toothpaste (I swore I had that - at least that is what I told the smirking clerk), and pain reliever probably necessary due to my brain imploding. I have reminded the boys to bring swimsuits despite them never wanting to. Of course the one time I don't remind them everyone went swimming, and I was persona non grata for being so lapse in my oversight.

My rule about road trips is that everything has to be in the kitchen ready to go the night before we leave. This means that the boys only go back upstairs to collect missing items three or four times the morning of departure. Bryce packs all his clothes and then pulls them all out on the kitchen floor to find the perfect shirt to wear on the trip. This usually requires testing at least three choices before discovering the right one. I follow my own rule. I have my bags packed and my accessories on the kitchen table ready to put in the car. The problem is that I get distracted by all the other morning activity, the panic over a missing PSP (which should have been located the night before, naturally), the sudden request for a shirt still in the laundry basket, the discovery that a favorite pair of cleats has a tear at the toe and the hunt for a jacket that no one has seen for three weeks. Once, while trying to navigate through all the hubbub, I realized that the dogs were also running about. I had forgotten to get them to the kennel, which didn't open for an hour. What generally happens is that one or more of the items I lay out on the kitchen table are still lying there when we return home. I am so relieved to get everyone and their gear into the car, that once they exit the door, I am close behind to thwart any retreat back into the house with the casualty being my necessities.

The good news is that most road trips are just a weekend, so missing some things won't kill me. The tough trips are the week long ones – my low point was forgetting to pack underwear on one of those – where I have no choice but to find a Target or a Walgreen's and if possible replace what I didn't bring along. I didn't include those expenses in my estimate of what it costs to have a child in select soccer, but I probably should have. It seems that Momnesia is not only epidemic but without a cure. So I expect many of you suffer from it and many of you have made those trips to unfamiliar malls. I know I have it bad. Let's see if I can remember to attach this blog to my email to US Youth Soccer!!
                   
 

Creme de la Creme

Susan Boyd

When I was little, the one chore my brothers and I used to fight over getting to do was pouring the milk for meals.  Why?  Because this was the old days of glass bottles and whole milk with the cream risen to the top.  Whoever poured the milk could assure that he or she got all the cream, leaving everyone else with skimmed milk.  Eventually my mother got wise and she would shake up the milk before handing it to one of us to pour.  So we would get even wiser and stall pouring it until the cream or most of it rose again to the top.  It was all about the cream!
 
Last year the United States Soccer Federation (U.S. Soccer), the main soccer governing body in America, sanctioned a new youth program called the U.S.S.F. Development Academy (Academy) for boys.  The push for this program came from several national team and elite club coaches who felt that the present structure of youth soccer was not serving the identification and development of top youth players in this country.  The United States, despite some strong success in both the women's and men's program, has lagged behind European and South American programs.  These founding coaches felt that having just one residential developmental academy in Bradenton, Florida was too narrow a pool of players from which to draw for the national team.  Most of those residency players had been identified through the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program and its 55 state associations divided into four regions.  The Academy signed up 64 clubs throughout the United States to participate at ages U16 and U18.  The clubs were divided geographically into eight conferences with eight teams each.  Rosters had to have a minimum of 22 players with no maximum, but all players had to start at least 30% of the games, therefore rosters much larger than 27 players wouldn't practically work. Competition began in fall 2007 with the bulk of the games scheduled in 2008.
 
The Academy emphasizes strong, consistent training and equally strong competition between its member clubs.  It mandates a minimum of three days a week but no more than six days a week for training.  Games cannot be more than one a day or two a week.  Competition is conducted among geographical conferences but they can extend as far as a thousand miles and competition between conferences can go equally afar, so travel is a large component of the program.  In addition the Academy mandates that members may not participate in any other programs including tournaments, Olympic Development Program, Super Y League, State Leagues, and State, Regional, and National Championships.  There are a few exceptions for tournaments over winter and spring school breaks.  In the place of college showcases, the Academy offers their exclusive fall, winter, spring, and summer showcases for member clubs.  Additionally, the Academy offers player profiles on every single member player that college coaches can access and DVDs of any showcase games coaches might want to see.
 
While the intent of the program seems admirable on face value, the construction is top down.  In other words, the real purpose of the Academy seems to be to locate additional prospects for the national team.  Otherwise, if the training system was so broken why didn't the Academy begin with U-13 and U-14 players where it could nip this inadequate development in the bud?  There are approximately 1800 players on rosters in the Academy at each age level.  Out of that number perhaps as many as 50 or as few as one will be identified as National Team material.  What will be the benefit for the remaining players?  If it is training, I have to wonder what have these top 64 clubs in America been doing up to this point?  I would imagine conducting top level training for their players, otherwise how could they win tournaments, state, regional or national championships, and leagues, and how could they contribute players to the national program?  Since the exact same coaches are conducting the training as before, then where is the major shift in developing players?  If the benefit to players is exposure, most of these clubs have on their rosters six or more state, regional, and national Olympic Development Program players and the teams already qualify to attend the most prestigious tournaments and showcases.  If it is locating that player who is isolated, these clubs would already attract that player if he was willing to travel far enough for the training.  The set up of the Academy actually makes this elite level less accessible since the Academy only covers 22 states.  In the meantime, US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program offers opportunities in all states for players to be discovered.   If it is providing college coaches with the material and opportunities to see and judge these players, that already existed through both the clubs themselves and the showcase tournaments they attended.
 
I want to examine each of these aspects more closely:

1. Membership
Membership in the Academy required application and acceptance by the Academy board.  Most of the member clubs are naturally in large urban areas as these are the clubs with the most top players, the highest licensed coaches, and the facilities and tradition to run the practices the Academy expects.  Therefore, despite the Academy's goal to increase the ability to find and train hidden soccer talent, the set-up of the program precludes discovering players far removed from urban centers.  In addition, only twenty-two states and the District of Columbia are represented in the 64 teams of the Academy.   California has ten teams, New York has five, Illinois, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio have four each, New Jersey, Colorado, and Virginia have three each, with the remaining thirteen states and D.C. with two or one team each.  The eastern seaboard and the west coast are well represented and the states bordering the Great Lakes have a fair share, but in the middle of America there is nothing.  If a talented soccer player lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, his nearest opportunity to participate in the Academy would be Colorado or Missouri.
 
2.  Players
The Academy set-up restricts competition to U-16 and U-18 teams for this year at least.  Most U-18 players of talent will have already committed to colleges by the time games begin in earnest.  These players don't want to spend their money traveling to play games.  They want to save their money for college, train, maybe get a final opportunity to win a state, regional, or national championship, and look forward to graduation and college.  As a result many clubs didn't have enough U-18 players who would participate.  In order to fulfill their obligation, these clubs had to include their U-17 players on the U-18 roster.  While the Academy encourages players to play up at their ability level, the difficulty with this situation is that most U-17 players are anxious to participate in the top college showcases in order for college coaches to see them play.  They want to invest their travel dollars in the opportunities that showcases offer them.  So clubs ended up having to require that their U-17 players participate in the Academy in order to assure a roster.  Few U-17 players knew before they tried out for a team that they would be required to be a part of the Academy.  They thought they had a year to wait.  This has lead to some very hard feelings. 

3.  Training/Development
"The focus of the Academy is player development.  Academies provide players with the best possible opportunity to achieve their utmost potential as elite soccer players."  Since the argument for formation of the Academy was that training was haphazard, why have the Academy start with U-18, the one group most corrupted by the broken training system and the one group least likely to improve or even want to participate?  The answer could be that the national team coaches aren't interested in swelling the ranks of the national team pool with younger players.   This means that gifted younger players will continue their development under a broken system until they are old enough to begin the Academy training.  Of course that would only be if they are lucky enough to live within one of the 22 states with an Academy team and/or within a couple hours of an Academy team.  Additionally training continues to be with the same club coaches all these players had prior to the formation of the Academy.  The Academy will offer courses to the coaches at the national team training camp, so coaches can be learning new techniques for training their players but with little follow-up in the implementation of the techniques once they return to their club teams.  Some of these club coaches do have their A licenses, but most have C or B licenses, so the level of their coaching education could be best improved by working towards a higher license, a process already in place prior to the Academy and run by coaches from the national team program.  In the meantime, training and development will move along the same pathways they have up to this point.  Teams not in warm climates are further restricted by the availability of indoor facilities during the winter and early spring.  That means that training and development will have the same barriers as before the formation of the Academy.  Nevertheless, the Academy states that elite players will have "increased connection to U.S. National Team program through enhanced scouting by National Team coaches."  Again, how many players does this practically impact?  While it benefits the National Team program, it realistically does little for the majority of players.
 
4.  College Showcases
The Academy did respond to restrictions on tournament play by creating four college showcase opportunities for Academy member clubs.  The second was this month in Frisco, Texas at Pizza Hut Park.  It did not work out well for two main reasons.  First, the rules of the Academy do not allow for free substitutions.  While this may work for conference games, it doesn't work for showcases where all players should have an equal opportunity to be seen.  Without the ability to sub freely, coaches ended up having to keep players in the game while other good, college material players sat on the bench not being seen by the college coaches.  Second, this sub rule was further complicated by having the showcase games count towards the conference championships.  Since the Academy offers the carrot of a championship tournament at the Home Depot Center, coaches were loathe to sub out players should they risk losing that opportunity for their club.  Therefore, college coaches were invited to attend games by players who either never got enough playing time to be judged or never got playing time at all while the coach was present.  I spoke to a dozen college coaches who had complaints about this process because they had spent a portion of their recruiting budget and hadn't gotten to see one third to one half the players they thought they would.  In addition the Academy restriction about only playing two games in a week means that clubs played only two games in a two day showcase.  Since most college showcases provide three games for every club, this gives coaches more opportunities to swing by a particular club team during a three day tournament and more opportunity for players to get the playing time to be seen.  During the Frisco showcase several games were held later in the afternoon on the second day, yet coaches had left for flights home by midday.  Therefore, players who were promised that they would play most of the game on the second day ended up missing out.  A three day/three game schedule would provide so many more opportunities to be scouted.
 
5.  Restrictions
The restrictions on Academy players to forgo all other soccer programs, leagues, and tournaments means that even players at this cream level of soccer will end up missing out on opportunities.  While coaches are watching players from teams outside of the Academy compete at the top showcases and having the chance to see them player two or three times at those showcases, players in the Academy are sitting on the bench at Academy showcases for entire games.  The benefit of being in one of the top programs and being amongst the top players quickly becomes a yoke preventing many players from achieving the future success they are capable of pursuing.  I can't help but feel that the restrictions were more for the benefit of the Academy than for the benefit of the players who they felt might be overtraining or overplaying.  By restricting clubs and players from participating in other programs, the Academy can carve out a very nice monopoly on the elite soccer scene.

6.  Growing Pains
While the Academy may prove to be the right direction for youth soccer once many of the problems are addressed, it seems that the vision is top down looking only at the crème de la crème and throwing out the rest of the cream with the milk.  The frustration becomes that this year's participants are guinea pigs in an unproven format.  While U.S. Soccer works to get it all right, a significant year for the U-17 players hobbles along.  The vast majority of the players in the Academy have no hope of making the National Team.  Therefore, under this top down model, their purpose seems to be to provide teams on which or against which the handful of prospective national players can play.  The Academy needs to figure out quickly what it is going to do for the majority of the players whose goal is to make a good college team.  Since the Academy prevents these players from participating in the primary college showcases in the country, it needs to step up and reformat the college showcases it does hold.  That one correction would go a long way towards resolving the frustration of players, parents, and coaches who are hamstrung by the Academy policies. 

7.  Advantages
I ask again:  What is the Academy providing for the soccer player that the player didn't already get with his club team?  These member clubs were already the top clubs in America and as such provided training, exposure, and opportunity to their players before the Academy.  What they didn't do was gather in places where national team coaches had the opportunity to see the players in a comparative environment.  That certainly serves the top level of national soccer, but again doesn't answer what the Academy does differently for the majority of the players.  I will admit that the conference competition under the Academy is stronger than Robbie's club faced in league and in Super Y, but his team sought out competition in other venues to provide that higher level such as Dallas Cup or other elite tournaments.  In addition, the Academy needs to figure out how elite it can afford to be.  With the Academy devoid of teams from 28 states, national coaches still have to rely on programs like Super Y League and US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program to identify players in these states.  If the United States wants to build a strong national program, it won't be able to do it on the back of just 22 states.  If the present membership of teams remains the same, then the program is ignoring a raft of excellent players.  If the membership expands, the Academy risks diluting the program with weaker clubs.   I think it is telling that the quotation page for support of the program from coaches only contains one coach from outside the U.S. Soccer Developmental program.   If the emphasis is on development, than the program should have begun with the younger players who can still be molded; not those who have already learned for years under what these coaches argue is a lousy system.

While I want to embrace this Academy, I can't.  I try to find justification for such a shake-up in new advantages for the players, but I don't see it.  The founders of the Academy state that with so many disparate and competing programs, players were being pulled in too many directions.  Their training was suffering by being too much or too little and the clubs' focus on playing games across the boards of these various soccer programs resulted in players being over-stressed mentally and physically.  The only serious conflict I ever saw for a player's time and skills was between club practices and Olympic Development practices which occurred on a parallel schedule.  Most clubs would release their ODP players to participate in those practices knowing that players were getting coaching from top level coaches.  Otherwise all other programs dovetailed into one another nicely.  Economics usually have provided the best restraint on overdoing.  There are only so many travel dates a family can afford.  Since the clubs I have observed and spoken to have the same coaches, the same training facilities, the same training schedule, I can't really figure out what the Academy adds to this.  Perhaps I am missing something in my research, my observations, and my interviews.  What I come across is no understanding of what has changed in terms of training and a lot of frustration for how this Academy has negatively impacted the college recruiting process for member players.  Perhaps some adjustments can be made in the coming months to improve that situation.  Since the impetus for beginning the Academy was to improve the development of players and the identification of players, it seems more reasonable to me that it would have begun with the younger ages, rather than older players who have already been seen dozens of times through ODP and are approaching the end of their club training time.  For now, I feel tremendous frustration with and restriction from the Academy without any evident payoff for the change.  If many players are to be guinea pigs to afford a few players the chance to go national, it's a dangerous option without a reward in the important scouting years of their soccer lives.