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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.


Consistent Performance

Sam Snow

"My son plays soccer well, when he wants to. The issue is that he is like a roller coaster and has great days, and lackluster days. How do I get more of the great days out of him?"  - Soccer Dad

Consistent match performance is a never-ending effort for players. One can watch a professional team and see dips and rises in the performance of highly talented players. This ‘ebb and flow’ of performance is a natural human characteristic. One must also consider the age and soccer experience of a player. The younger and/or the less experienced player will naturally have more obvious peaks and valleys in game day performance. Research in expert performance, in a variety of fields of endeavor, shows that it takes about 10,000 hours of training and playing to become an expert performer. The clock on the 10,000 hours toward expert performance starts ticking once a basic foundation is laid. That foundation is laid in the U6 to the U12 age groups (Zone 1 of the U.S. Soccer player development pyramid). The expert performance time line begins roughly at the U13 age group; so 10,000 hours is about 10 years of training and playing on a very consistent basis every week. This means a soccer player begins to achieve expert performance in their twenties.

Working toward consistent performance requires a player to go through trial and error as a part of the development process. To an extent ignore poor performance, but praise good performance. This is the behavior we want a player to repeat. Ask the player to replay a good move or a good training session or a good match over again in their head. This will help them imprint the performance in their mind. There is now a chance of it occurring again.

To achieve consistent performance a player must be self-motivated.  Only intrinsic motivation leads to expert abilities!

A soccer club can help establish the right environment for peak performance by continually educating the coaches, administrators and players’ parents on a proper developmental soccer culture, by providing free play (pickup game) opportunities at the club, by hosting skills school evenings, by playing small-sided games, etc.

A parent can help guide a player toward peak performance by teaching and modeling best off-the-field practices; i.e., good eating habits, proper sleep routines, deep hydration habits, personal exercise routines, etc. The parent can encourage the child to practice soccer skills at home. Parents and/or siblings can get out in the yard and play soccer with one another to deepen the passion for the game. Encourage the player to watch soccer on TV and to attend high level soccer matches in person.

But the most important motivating factor for parent to child is for the parent to let the child know that you love watching them play soccer.

Comments (2)


The Coachable Moment

Sam Snow

The questions that I receive from coaches across our nation provide good thoughts for us on the game.  Here are the comments and questions from a volunteer coach and my thoughts in reply.

I am a volunteer coach in a league coaching kids from U7 to U11. I have taken several coaching classes run by my state youth soccer coaching association. These classes have been very useful, but I continue to struggle with identifying the right coaching moments. I want the kids to be able to play as much as possible, but I also recognize that just choosing the right drills is not enough. I have a few questions.

How do I work on choosing the right coaching moments to interrupt? I don't want to interrupt the flow too often, but I often feel like I have spent too much time talking. How do I work on seeing the bigger picture? I often find myself focusing on the ball and fixing the issues around the ball while missing the problems further away that may have caused them.

My reply:

Finding the right coaching moment is an art. A coach will perfect that art when one reflects on each training session and thinks about those coachable moments and how did you interject with the players. With practice and personal evaluation, your skills at using the coachable moment will improve. I also suggest that you follow the steps outlined in the Coach’s Toolkit from U.S. Soccer.  The excerpt below comes from the US Youth Soccer Player Development Model.

When using a games-based approach during training much can be accomplished, through the use of guided discovery and the coach’s toolkit. The toolkit is a vehicle that allows coaches to teach, correct and influence the learning process of a player without taking away their creativity and killing the flow of the game or activity. The following are tools that can be used to progress from individual to group to team interaction:

  • Coaching in the flow – Coach from the sidelines as the training session goes on, without stopping the activity.
  • Individual coaching – One-on-one, pull a player to the side while the activity goes on.
  • Make corrections at a natural stoppage – Free kicks, ball going out of bounds, injury, etc.
  • Manipulation of the activity – For example, a four goal game to teach the players how to look both ways, switch the point of attack or shift defensively.
  • Freeze – The least desired way to teach; stopping the session to paint a picture kills the flow of the activity.

Determining which of these tools is best suited at a certain time of the training session is the key to making the session enjoyable while still being able to teach and learn.

Your issue on focusing most of your coaching to what is happening on or near the ball is not uncommon. You simply need to force yourself to watch the off-the-ball players during a training session. I often tell coaches that if you want to know what a player knows tactically about the game then watch them when they do not have the ball. Where are they positioned on the field? What’s their posture? Does their head move (indicates them scanning the field or ball watching)? You’ll need to also look away from the ball during matches in order to see if the team is staying compact and if the players are reading the game. You need to understand that you cannot watch the game or even a training session as a spectator would. You’ll simply miss too much of what is going on.  You will have a big impact on the players’ performance on and near the ball when you start to coach them off-the-ball.

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Celebration Time

Susan Boyd

The clock is ticking down. With determination and sheer will, the ball ricochets off one player to the next until a player — knowing that time is nearly gone — strikes the ball with blind hope. In legendary “he shoots, he scores” fashion, it sails past the keeper and into the back of the net. The celebration erupts. Players pile on the scorer, and the fans go crazy.             

We’ve witnessed this scenario play out in every sport. Auburn did it to Alabama this season in football, retrieving the ball in the end zone after Alabama’s field goal attempt fell short, then running it back for a game winning touchdown as time expired. Baseball fans love a walk-off home run and love a walk-off grand slam even more. The first post-season walk-off grand slam didn’t happen until October of 2011 when Nelson Cruz of the Texas Rangers hammered one out against the Detroit Tigers in the American League Championship Series. In August 2007, Georgia won with a walk-off home run against Japan in the Little League World Series. In each of these triumphs there was an eruption of joy from fans and fellow players. In other cases, the last second victory takes a bit longer to evolve. Take for example, a first round match at the 2010 Wimbledon tournament. American John Isner met French qualifier Nicolas Mahut in a contest that wasn’t considered worthy of being broadcast until it promised an unprecedented match length of 11 hours and five minutes stretching out over three days. The match began at 6:30 p.m. on June 22. The third and fourth sets went to tie breakers, bringing play to a halt due to darkness before the fifth set could begin. When the match resumed, the eyes of the world were on a pair of battling players. The fifth set began at 2:05 p.m. on June 23 and as the set evolved into another long tie breaker at 59-59, it had to once again be suspended due to darkness. They continued on June 24 and drove the score to 68-69 in favor of Isner. Then, with a passing shot, Isner secured the necessary two point margin to win the tie breaker 70-68, the fifth set and the match. Isner collapsed to the ground and Mahut seemed genuinely glad, despite his loss, to have the trial ended. These squeaker victories encourage wild and rough celebrations by players and prompt spectators to surge onto the field of play to congratulate their team or player and to share in the emotional moment in a stampede of joy.              

Sometimes in the course of a celebration, disaster can strike. Just this September, Georgia wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell leaped to chest bump Todd Gurley after the latter scored a 75-yard touchdown against rival Clemson. Mitchell landed awkwardly after his leap and ended up with a season-ending ACL tear. Rafael Nadal leapt over the net during a practice match for the 2004 Roland Garros tournament, tripped and injured himself enough to have to withdraw from the event. That same year, tennis player James Blake caught his foot on the clay surface, lurched forward into the net post and broke his neck. Despite the rough guy reputation of hockey, Ryan O’Reilly was injured by a hug. Just last week the Colorado Avalanche player was celebrating a goal with his teammates. During the group hug his shoulder became dislocated, and he had to leave the ice missing the rest of the game and the next one. Soccer isn’t immune to celebration injuries. After Steve Morrow scored the game winner for Arsenal in the League Cup final against Sheffield in August 1993, teammate Tony Adams lifted him up in celebration and broke Morrow’s arm. Morrow was out for the rest of the season, including Arsenal’s FA Cup victory that year. In 2010, Kendry Morales of the Angels hit a 10th-inning walk-off grand slam against the Dodgers. The exuberant team rushed to home plate to congratulate their hero and celebrate their win. The ensuing dog pile quickly turned from joy to concern as Morales’ lower left leg suffered a season ending fracture due to players falling all over him after he landing awkwardly.             

Injury shouldn’t be a reason to stifle celebration as those injuries are rare. We do see fewer tennis players leaping over the net as they consider the possibility of catching a toe or foot on the fly. But players will continue to do their chest bumps and the even more risky head butts following a great score or tackle. Baseball players still pile on when a contest is won by a teammate’s great hit or strong defensive play. Players throw their shirts, shoes, sticks, balls and helmets as they experience the exuberance of a victory. While a celebration can result in injury, everyone seems to take it in stride as an unusual but not unheard of outcome from the physicality of these fetes.               

That is until a few weeks ago. A Little League coach has sued one of his players for injuring him during a celebration. The Sacramento area team needed one run to win their game. The runner rushing towards home plate realized he would score the game winner and couldn’t contain his enthusiasm any longer. As he crossed the plate, he threw off his batting helmet. Apparently the helmet bounced off the ground and then struck the coach in the heel rupturing his Achilles tendon. In most reports, doctors agree that the bouncing helmet wouldn’t have caused the injury, although moving to avoid the helmet and turning his ankle in the process probably snapped the tendon. Nevertheless, the coach felt his injury was entirely due to the player’s actions and filed a lawsuit two weeks ago asking for $100,000 for medical costs and lost wages and $500,000 in punitive damages for pain and suffering. When he was served, the boy’s father at first thought the suit was a joke but quickly discovered the coach meant business. I suspect that a clever lawyer found out the family’s home owner’s insurance allowed for exactly the amounts in the suit for a plaintiff. In a sense, the excuse will be that only the insurance company will suffer. But naturally that won’t be the case. The costs will be passed on in the form of higher premiums for the family and other insured. Possibly, the family will have their policy canceled and be unable to secure a new policy putting their mortgage in jeopardy. Even if the boy’s family should win the case, they would have been put under the financial stress of paying for an attorney and the emotional stress of dealing with a trial. I can’t even begin to think how much guilt this young player will feel if his family suffers some form of financial consequences due to his actions. I’m also certain that any joy he found in playing baseball has been sucked out of him.              

I’m not unsympathetic to people suffering medical problems at the hands of others. Two summers ago, I contracted a rare bacteria at an expensive seafood restaurant. I suffered from a serious loss of fluids leading to extremely low potassium far below that which can cause the heart to seize up. Luckily, I got great care and survived with no ill effects. My health insurance covered all my hospital costs and the doctors’ care, so I had no out of pocket expenses. The recuperation also kept me from returning to teaching that fall semester. But I made the decision just to be sure that this restaurant improved its hygiene and acknowledged that it had created the situation so that future patrons would be protected. I do think people can be made “whole” without going to excess. If this coach had out of pocket medical expenses, it might not be unreasonable for the boys’ family to cover those if it can be established that there was a direct link between the toss of the helmet and the injury. More than that is, as the boy’s father said, “absurd.”              

Beyond the issue of the injury, I take another exception to this lawsuit from a coach. When people agree to the position, whether volunteer or paid, they are accepting the job of being mentors and role models. Teachers, coaches and caretakers experience some form of abuse during their careers and occasionally are injured, yet few will sue the kids seeking some windfall from these circumstances. They understand that part of the job includes some minor risks. This coach could just as easily have slipped while teaching a drill spraining his ankle, or breaking his leg, or tearing his Achilles’ tendon. I would expect a coach to put this incident in perspective and look to the more significant moral role he should be playing. There was no intent or belligerence. This player didn’t attack the coach because he was angry about playing time or the coach’s style. He was a 12-year-old caught up in a moment where he felt suddenly significant. I’m certain that when he realized the coach was injured he felt terrible in sudden, huge emotional nosedive. A good coach would recognize that he or she needs to bolster a child in that circumstance. The coach is the adult who by the nature of his or her commitment has agreed to be a teacher, not just of the sport but of life’s lessons.             

The injury was definitely painful as anyone who has had an Achilles’ tendon rupture knows. But it’s not a life-threatening injury and has a good long-term outcome after healing. I understand that we don’t know all the facts in this case, but the excessive amount asked for in the suit doesn’t lend itself to a positive point of view from outsiders. I’m worried that if this coach wins anything more than unreimbursed medical expenses that it will set a serious precedent for further suits by coaches, referees, fellow players and spectators. We’ve watched basketball players who crash into photographers, cheerleaders and fans behind the basket, sometimes causing physical damage and property loss. The same holds true on the sidelines with football players and soccer players sliding into team benches and referees. Baseball players regularly send line drive foul balls into the stands occasionally striking a fan. Pitchers can seriously injure a batter with a misplaced throw. We don’t even need a celebration to have injuries occur during a game that are accidental. But when these injuries come as a result of a celebration we need to take a step back and view them in the light of good spirits and unintentional fallout. I fault this coach for not taking his role seriously enough to overlook a possible financial bonanza from his player in favor of making this a teachable moment of forgiveness. He could have asked and expected the player to apologize and offer support like volunteering to mow the coach’s lawn until he can get around on his own. Celebrations should be a way to validate a player’s and team’s performance, giving them a sense of self-worth and pride. They also should be a way to teach players to learn humility in victory. But they shouldn’t turn into a lesson in crass materialism. I don’t see that behavior as anything to celebrate.

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For All the Right Reasons

Susan Boyd

Lionel Messi returned last week to playing soccer after a torn muscle sidelined him for two months. This was his third injury of the season and fifth in 2013. At just 26 years old, Messi has suffered through several torn muscles and hamstring injuries. Nevertheless, his accolades continue to pile up. This year, he became the first player to score four hat tricks in the Champions League, and he has scored 24 hat tricks in his career. He has scored the most away goals in league history. He may be the best player ever, and he will certainly be in the top 10 no matter when his career ends. He plays for FC Barcelona, but he is Argentinian and led the Argentine national team to an Olympic gold in 2008. His list of individual honors totals 101 between 2005 and the present, meaning he averaged 14.5 awards a year. That list doesn’t include 28 team league victories in La Liga, the Olympics, Copa America, Copa del Rey, UEFA Champions League, and several others. His contributions to his teams in particular and the popularity of soccer in general can be measured both in boosting fan interest and the incumbent financial benefits for his clubs and opposing clubs. Barcelona’s investment in the player (as legend has it, sealed with a contract written hastily on a napkin) when he was just 13 has been repaid a hundred-fold.             

So how did he come to play for Barcelona as a youth player? Messi had been clearly identified as one of the best youth players in Argentina by age 8. Argentina’s powerhouse club River Plata took an interest in him. However, it soon became obvious that Messi was lagging behind his peers in growth and size. While soccer definitely offers opportunities for smaller players, clubs often shy away from them. When he was diagnosed at age 11 with growth hormone deficiency, his parents made the decision to embark on nightly hormone injections. The therapy soon strapped the family financially. They asked River Plata to take on the expense as part of their investment should they sign Messi as a youth player, but the club refused. Through relatives in Spain, the family made overtures to teams there, and FC Barcelona agreed to take the young player on and pay for his hormone treatment. Even with the growth hormones, Messi grew to just 5-foot-6, not necessarily small for a professional soccer player, but certainly smaller than most. Nevertheless, he proved to be a tenacious and skilled striker. What plagued him were injuries.              

Weak muscles and thin bones are common in children diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency, so in general the treatment improves both muscular and skeletal conditions. The treatment stimulates the liver to release a second hormone called insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). Together, growth hormone and IGF-1 tell the bones, muscle and tissue to grow by adding more cells. This results in bones that are strong and long and can increase a player’s size up to 2-3 inches a year until the end of puberty. The known adverse effects are a possible increased risk to develop diabetes, stimulating already existing cancers to grow dangerously, and to expedite colon-rectal cancer later in life. Studies on what happens to rapidly growing muscles and bone growth plates have not established a link with serious injuries. In fact, without the treatment children can suffer with thin, weak bones as they move into adulthood. Because levels of human growth hormone fade as we grow older (because we are done growing!), some people believe that increasing the levels in adulthood can delay the aging process. Despite no proof, many adults use it for that purpose, while other adults use the hormones to help muscle development and definition. These are not approved uses.              

Overall, Messi just seems to be prone to injury. But those injuries, while keeping him sidelined for a period of time, heal, and he comes back with the same skills and power he had before the injury. The question is will those injuries eventually catch up to him. At 26, he has the injury history of older players with a longer playing career than he has had. In 2013, he suffered through five injuries of which four related to his hamstring. His latest injury was a torn muscle.           

My youngest son always measured in the lower 5 percent on the growth charts, but he eventually grew to be as tall as Messi without the addition of growth hormone therapy. My husband was 4-foot-8 when he entered high school and grew two inches after we got married. His short stature kept him from playing the high school sport he most wanted to play, baseball, but he found a niche in wrestling, although each year he had to change weight classes as he slowly grew. Robbie is adopted, so he didn’t get his abbreviated height from our genes, and his half-brother is 6-foot-3, so genetically tall growth was possible. They both had the same birth mother who was only 5-foot-3. We never even considered having Robbie tested for growth hormone deficiency, and I suspect he never had the condition. But as parents we often need to consider the issue when faced with an athletic child who doesn’t seem to be sprouting. In this age of hormone abuse by athletes, growth hormone therapy for children falls in a completely different realm of empowerment. On the other hand, parents must be cautious about wanting to improve their child’s chances of competing in sports at the teen years and beyond by subjecting them to a treatment they may not need. The condition should be carefully tested for and evaluated by an endocrinologist since the child must endure daily shots for possibly as long as four years.              

Some people have accused FC Barcelona and Messi’s parents of attempting to create a “super-athlete” by having Messi treated. Since none of us are privy to his medical records, we can only hope that the treatment was appropriately prescribed for an actual condition. However, I do know of parents who have consulted doctors that they hoped would agree to the treatment, even using some bullying techniques to ensure it for their child. The thin line between necessary treatment and desired treatment can easily be crossed by zealous parents and coaches, especially when a child shows promise in a sport. Treatment for growth issues can be and has been done with anabolic steroids, a serious and potentially dangerous decision for any child. In addition, insulin has also been used to stimulate growth. With some diligent doctor hopping, parents can always find someone to prescribe questionable treatments. Therefore, it’s important to keep things in perspective. If a child is growing slowly, like my husband, and an endocrinologist says her growth is normal, no parent is doing their child a favor by insisting that something be done to speed up or augment that growth. Even though slow growth can prevent some kids from participating in certain sports, we sometimes just have to accept that our child isn’t going to be that athlete we had hoped for. The world is made up of so many other wonderful professions and skills, we can’t just fixate on sports.            

While medical solutions can be drastic steps which most of us wouldn’t even contemplate unless clearly indicated, we can consider other ways to boost our child’s abilities.  Good nutrition would be an admirable option to help our child achieve his optimal performance, but again we have to avoid zealousness that leads us to rely heavily on supplements and vitamin regimens that haven’t been proven to be either beneficial or even safe. No one regulates these supplements. In April, the FDA issued a warning that several nutritional supplements contained dimethylamylamine or DMAA, which is a stimulant and causes rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure and even heart attacks. You can actually overdose on vitamins and minerals, especially since so many foods are now enhanced with things like calcium and vitamin C.  You may take a safe dose of a vitamin in the morning, but because your cereal, juices, yogurts, and other foods have boosted their vitamin and mineral content, you could be giving yourself or your child toxic levels of these. Even more worrisome is how some supplements can interact with prescription drugs in a dangerous way. “All natural” isn’t always “all safe;” arsenic and digitalis are also natural products. We can also provide extra condition training for our children. Again we need to be cautious. Training should be age appropriate for the musculo-skeletal developmental level of the child and shouldn’t be over-strenuous. Muscles, tendons, and ligaments need time to relax after any workout. Keeping them in a constant state of exercise can cause tremendous and, on occasion, irreparable damage, certainly not the result anyone is looking for. Find an educated and credentialed trainer, not just someone at the gym with a great physique and a loud voice. Be watchful for signs of stress on joints, muscles and tendons. Always have a medical physical before augmenting any sport activity and get your physician’s approval for the program you’ve selected for your child.

While Messi adds to his string of honors, he also adds to his hamstring problems. Most likely his growth hormone treatment helped to make him taller, but more importantly improved his bone and muscle strength. Without the treatment, he might well have already had a career-ending injury. For some children, medicine can promise a stronger body and a healthier life. As parents, if we suspect some insufficiency in our child’s well-being, we need to seek out the best medical, nutritional, and physical help we can find.  What we shouldn’t do is pin our hopes for a superior athletic child on any treatment. Instead we should simply be looking to improve the child’s health. Messi was an amazing player before his treatments, and for all we know may have been just as amazing without the treatments. The problem is there is no way of knowing unless we can borrow Mr. Peabody’s Way Back machine and replay history without growth hormones. Therefore, we must pursue what is right for our child based solely on sound medical reasons and advice, not on our dreams of her becoming a stronger competitor. Messi may eventually be completely incapacitated by his injuries, but he was given an opportunity to overcome a serious medical condition and, for whatever period of time, shine.

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