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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.

 

US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program Coaching Manual

Sam Snow

2015 ODP logo

The US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program has contributed to the improvement of players, coaches, administrators and referees since its inception in 1977. No other high performance soccer program has such a long and deep history in growing the game in America. In 2014 we began a process with both the boys and girls programs of helping the players and coaches learn and execute the American style of play. The contents of the accompanying Manual are derived from the information shared with us by the Youth National Teams of the USA to raise the level of performance for international competition. US Youth Soccer encourages all teams participating in high performance soccer to utilize the Manual to its fullest. By doing so clubs will raise their overall level of play and should, in time, produce more players and coaches capable of making their way farther along the pathway toward the Youth National Teams.

View and download the US Youth Soccer ODP Coaching Manual here.

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Savor the Good Things

Susan Boyd

Bundled up in my winter coat, swaddled by a blanket, I sit on the sidelines in wind, rain and cold, although the calendar has barely crept into October. At times like this, I remind myself of the positive reasons for youth team sports, in particular soccer. It’s true that sports can overtake a family’s life with practices, games, travel and team meetings. Likewise, they have an impact on the finances, which can quickly spiral into the stratosphere as kids get better and more involved. Driving through snowstorms to get to an indoor game or sweltering in 100-plus temperatures to cheer on our 8-year-old may seem like an excessive sacrifice for an inconsequential activity, but it’s not. Youth soccer provides some brilliant models for our kids’ social and life development.

Participating in a team sport is well-worth some of the annoyances that come along with the play. Team sports teach responsibility in several ways. Even when young, kids can learn to be in charge of their gear — packing it in their bag and making sure they have everything in there. They take the responsibility of making sure that the uniforms make it into the laundry and then make sure they get washed. They may even learn at some point how to wash their own clothes. As they grow older, they should take on the obligation of keeping their own calendar (we can still keep the family one) and remembering to get to practices and games. They may also organize their own rides to and from events to help us out with the carpooling. Once they can drive, they have the added task of making sure there’s a car available, filling it with gas occasionally, and coordinating school, homework and other activities with the demands of soccer.

Sports require problem-solving. People often talk about having a “soccer brain,” which is really all about anticipating complications and choosing the best outcome, usually in a split second. The tactics of soccer are all about problem-solving: How do I get past this defender? How should I set up a wall? Should I use my right or left foot? Working out situations with teammates requires conflict resolution, which is a specific form of problem-solving. Kids have to figure out ways to approach their coaches if they have concerns about playing time or position. If they have conflicting events in their schedules, they need to figure out how to resolve them and then how to let the proper people know. Problems crop up as they go through soccer, which they will need to address. If we let them solve them on their own, they’ll be that much further ahead in solving life’s other concerns.

Every player has to have persistence to defend, to score, and to advance. Things won’t always go perfectly in practice, games, or off the pitch, so kids need to learn how to set goals and then have the determination to make things happen. When there are setbacks they learn not to dwell on them and to use their reasoning and skills to work through them. The persistence they develop as players carries over to other situations in school, job, and family. Sports teaches them to stick with it, fight through obstacles, and stay focused on the goal. It’s both fact and analogy.

One of the biggest advantages of youth sports is teaching the players collaboration. In the college writing courses I taught, I regularly asked my students to collaborate on tasks. I was amazed at how few could do so successfully. I would observe groups where a single student took over the project while the others stared at the ceiling or fiddled with their phones. Other groups would divide the task into parts, each student working independently until they all brought their work product together without any cohesion or flow. Then there was always the group that simply languished, uncertain on how to proceed and too afraid to ask. When groups succeeded invariably they had at least one member who played a team sport. He or she understood the process of collaboration and helped the others get on board. Collaboration means suggesting options together, openly discussing them without any one person’s opinion being more important than another’s, and then arriving at a joint conclusion through negotiation and compromise. During practices, teammates work with one another to find the best collaboration to achieve the best results. They work through various tactical drills to discover how everyone’s talents mesh and then pick the best combination to bring success. Teams with a weak center midfielder will develop strategies to best exploit all the talents of that center while bolstering with help from other players. The ability to adjust collaboratively is necessary during matches when the opposing team occasionally thwarts the plans. In those cases, collaboration may require a leader, but also requires the unselfish investment of every player in creating an effective action plan. Learning to compromise for the good of the team is an integral part of any collaboration. When players learn to cooperate on the pitch, they can translate those behaviors to the classroom, boardroom, neighborhood and even family life.

Finally, kids learn the value of sacrifice when playing on a team. The image of sacrifice resulting in some terminal disaster is promoted by the connection with lambs to the slaughter or maidens tossed in volcanoes. In reality, sacrifice is the process of giving up something for the good of others or success in a situation that ultimately benefits everyone, even the person making the sacrifice. A player who holds onto the ball and tries to take on three defenders isn’t realistically going to score, so he or she should sacrifice personal glory by feeding off the ball to an unmarked teammate. Even more significantly, a player may be in a position to score, but the shot is tricky, so he or she passes it off to a buddy who has a clearer line to the goal. If a contest is close, players may need to sacrifice their playing time in favor of a stronger player, yet everyone shares in the victory.

Likewise, players learn to make personal sacrifices, giving up some sleep to take an early morning training run or missing the prom to join the team at a tournament. Too often parents try to minimize the sacrifices kids need to make, but sacrifice helps a child learn how to prioritize, to not dwell on what’s lost, and to realize no one is truly entitled to have the whole cake. Kids who make sacrifices for the things they want end up valuing them more.

These positives of team sports are predicated on parents letting their children learn about and use these skills. We can be helicopters keeping track of everything, doing all the logistics, solving their problems, protecting them from disappointment and doing all the talking. Then what? Sports can help kids mature into extremely capable adults. Any athlete who aspires to the college level has to be able to independently handle the demands of studies, athletics, and possibly even jobs. The same holds true for any child growing up and taking on more and more duties. They can’t just suddenly leap from the cocoon of their parents to life on their own. They won’t learn how in the summer between high school graduation and the first day of college or a job. These skills must develop over time, building on one another. We parents can provide some safety net, but we have to diminish that role over time and we can be assisted by the natural benefits of youth sports. We want to simply become the cheerleaders on the sidelines, in reality and metaphorically, braving the elements to give our kids wonderful opportunities.

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The Ugly and the Beautiful

Susan Boyd

Soccer is called the beautiful game, but sometimes it fails to like up to this moniker. Take the recent ban of two of the highest FIFA officials: FIFA president Sepp Blatter and UEFA president Michel Platini. The two men were sanctioned by FIFA’s ethics committee and banned from representing FIFA or any of its affiliated organizations for 90 days; a ban that can be extended another 45 days. This comes on the heels of Blatter being named in a Swiss investigation for arranging a TV rights deal between FIFA and Jack Warner, former president of CONCACAF, which involved substantial pay-outs. Platini was expected to take over as head of FIFA when Blatter resigned in February, but his own ban puts those plans on hold. Another likely candidate, South Korean Chung Mong-joon, was recently banned for six years. Therefore the role of interim FIFA president has fallen to Issa Hayatou, the head of the Confederation of African Football. Ironically, Hayatou was sanctioned in 2011 by the International Olympic Committee for taking bribes from a sports marketing firm. It seems there is no one with clean hands who can take over FIFA, at least not from the present board. Rumors have long swirled around the organization that members of the board took bribes to give the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Most fans of the game especially questioned the 2022 award to a country that has summer temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. The World Cup is played in the month of July. Just two weeks ago, FIFA conceded the point by rescheduling the 2022 World Cup for the balmy 104 degree days of November – a move that has far-ranging effects on scheduling for national and international leagues and tournaments. It’s been an ugly year for FIFA.

Despite these dark incidents, soccer still has the power to inspire. My faith that soccer, in particular youth soccer, can survive the machinations of some powerful, corrupt leaders comes from the joy I see at every youth game I attend. In the last few weeks I’ve come across three truly amazing stories in which soccer plays an important and inspirational role. These few vignettes I think are far more indicative of what soccer has to offer our kids and our families than the sordid backroom dealings of some men who don’t really see soccer for what it is – a beautiful game played for enjoyment.

In Thailand, there are large communities of fishermen and their families who live on floating man-made islands off the coasts. Kids in these villages were limited to the sports they could pursue due to their restricted neighborhood. They raced boats and swam, but what many loved to do is watch soccer. In 1986, in one such village, Panyee, a group of kids decided to form a soccer team and build a floating pitch on which to play. This was uneven, undersized, and roughly constructed with tiny goals, but it provided some benefits as well. The small size meant that the players had to concentrate on footwork and the fact the pitch was floating in the middle of a sea meant it got wet and slippery, teaching the players how to handle adverse surfaces. They decided to enter the top Southern Thailand youth tournament called the Pancha Cup. They advanced to the semifinals despite a lack of training facilities and coaching. Behind by two goals at halftime, they managed to fight back and even the score in the second half, but lost on a last minute goal. Disappointed, they were nonetheless happy to have accomplished what they had, and the village was so proud of their efforts that they constructed a new pitch that was full-sized, smooth, and even. The kids continued to practice and to enter tournaments over the years, eventually rising to be one of the premier youth clubs in Southern Thailand becoming youth champions 2004 through 2010. They accomplished all of this without fancy equipment, expensive coaches and limited competition. Their story demonstrates the role of passion in development. Their love of soccer informed their desire to play even if it meant playing under the most unusual and adverse conditions.

Here in the United States, another island soccer program proves the significance of teamwork and passion. A 12-year-old player, Luc Gandarias, on Whidbey Island, northwest of Seattle, plays soccer despite being legally blind. Luc suffered from late on-set hydrocephalus when he was 7. This condition creates excessive fluid build-up in the brain, putting pressure on the organ leading to loss of functions and possibly even death. Luc ended up losing all sight in his right eye, can only see shadows out of his left eye, and lost 50% of his hearing in his right ear. But he was determined not to be defined by his disabilities. He fought to return to soccer, and his teammates were supportive. Because he has a shunt above his ear to release fluid from his brain he wears a head gear that looks a bit like a 1920s football leather helmet. He uses his hearing to find his way on the field counting on his teammates and occasionally his father to give him direction. His coach agrees that besides being an inspiration he has also provided his team with a reason to talk to one another on the pitch, a skill many players never fully learn. More importantly, Luc wants kids with disabilities not to dwell on them, but to push through and find ways to achieve whatever they want in life. "This is my way of showing everybody — all the blind kids out there — that they can do what they want,” he said. “If you set your mind to it and you put your best foot forward, it is all possible.”

In Pittsburgh, a high school player, who is still learning English, performs as goalkeeper — without legs. Emmanuel Hilton plays on the JV team and has excelled in the position. He was born without legs in the Congo, where his mother, appalled by his birth defect, threw him out into the middle of a busy highway. Luckily, a motorist stopped and rescued him before he was hit. He ended up in an orphanage where he lived until he was adopted by the Hilton family a year ago after seeing his smiling picture in a brochure. This story touches me particularly because I have two adopted sons who came to our home when they were 3 and 1-and-a-half years old. I know the traumas that abandonment and abuse can cause, and I also have seen the healing power of playing soccer. Both our sons have seen soccer as a form of salvation from their pasts, and I’m sure Emmanuel feels the same. He goes by the name “E-man” and has been fully accepted by his teammates. He had been reluctant at first to try out, but he exceeded all expectations, according to his coach, and gets the team motivated from the back. Likewise, he feels uplifted because he has a community of friends who support him and depend on him. As he says, “They like me, they’re happy, so I feel comfortable…” He energizes the team, which energizes him. “It (missing legs) doesn’t matter to me. I can do anything. I can do anything right now.” 

We can get caught up in the “what’s next?” part of soccer, and forget to enjoy the beauty of our kids playing. Reading these stories, I understand that when we get so entranced by the glory, we forget the pure joy. The Panyee FC, Luc and Emmanuel have overcome some tremendous odds, so they provide inspiration. However, we need to also note that none of them feel they are extraordinary. Instead they are part of a team, enjoying and appreciating the efforts of others, and contributing to whatever roles their team asks. That’s something every kid can do. It’s a philosophy that the leaders of FIFA might better embrace.

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Inherent Risks

Susan Boyd

Two weeks ago, a New Jersey high school quarterback, Evan Murray, got injured and died following a game. He took a hard hit, seemed in distress, but then got up and left the field on his own power. This was not a concussion, rather a body strike that lacerated his spleen leading to critical internal bleeding. The media picked up this story immediately and it appeared on the Today Show, CBS Evening News and CNN. Additionally, the press also covered this story, most notably USA Today’s Kristine Meldrum with her article, “Are abdominal injuries the next concussion story?” This was essentially a repeat of a story on NBC News that appeared in August, one month before the New Jersey quarterback’s death. The story followed an incident that happened in 2008 when Brian Haugen went up for a pass and got “sandwiched” between two players. He wobbled off the field and was rushed to the hospital, but his liver had been crushed and he died. In the wake of this tragedy, his parents began a foundation in his name that is one of dozens throughout the United States dedicated to addressing internal injuries for youth players.

As parents of preteen and teen players, we hear about the dangers in playing contact sports yet have a desire to put our heads in the sand. None of us want to be the parent who knowingly places our child in harm’s way, while we also intuitively understand that we have to weigh risks against benefits in everything we do. We regularly drive our kids to practices and games knowing full well that people die or are severely injured in car accidents. We fly to our vacations with the understanding that occasionally planes crash. Our kids bike ride (sometimes without helmets), run around with pointed sticks, climb trees, eat unusual foods, wrestle with friends, and play dodgeball. All these things have inherent risks that we accept and try not to think too much about. So how dangerous are youth sports?

The Center for Disease Control estimates that 30 million people under 20 years old play organized sports in the United States. Safe Kids Worldwide reports that in 2013, 1.24 million of these players were seen in emergency rooms with sports-related injuries; the largest percentage, 37 percent, are players in the 13-to-15 age range. That translates into nearly 460,000 kids – a rather staggering number. However, according to Youth Sports Safety Statistics, there were only 120 sports-related injury deaths of young players in 2008, 49 in 2010, and 39 in 2011, showing that education and preventive measures have been helping, creating a reassuringly miniscule .00013 percent of players dying due to sports in 2011. In comparison, the CDC reported that 895 children ages 5-to14 were killed in car accidents in 2010 and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recorded 2,524 deaths for teenagers. That means that a child is far more likely to be die on the trip to a game than in the game itself, though even those numbers aren’t scary. Somehow we don’t depend on statistics basing our fear of serious injury or death during a game on stories played out in the evening news. Everything – cars, planes, bikes and sports – can be made safer, but calamity can’t be eliminated. The question is how much risk we will tolerate in various activities.

Statistics should set our minds at ease. Although the results of catastrophic injury during sports activity are tragic, they are infrequent. We do need to keep in mind that youth players (those under age 19) have less developed musculature around their rib cage and abdomen to resist hard hits, and the younger the player, the more vulnerable his or her brain is to injury. Adults fare much better. Despite their larger size and power when making contact with one another, they have the advantage of natural body protection, longer training in avoiding serious injury, and access to protective wear that has been traditionally only been available to college and professional players. In fact, most high schools don’t offer any specialized protective gear, but many schools are now providing educational programs that give parents the option to learn about and purchase protective gear choices. In fact, Brian Haugen was given this option a day prior to his accident, but that information wasn’t passed on to his parents, who stated they would have bought the gear in a heartbeat. Now the Haugens have provided 1,500 EVO Shields, also known as “rib shirts,” which protect against internal torso injuries, to high school players and hope to double that amount this year. More importantly, they are funding research at the University of West Florida (UWF) into how often serious internal injuries occur in youth players, what those outcomes were, and whether the injuries could have been mitigated or decreased in severity through preventive measures. As John Todorovich, chair of the UWF health, leisure and exercise science department states, “We now have national…concussion data, but we just don’t have the same type of information around the torso area.” Safety gear is available in all sports, but making parents aware of what’s available and getting kids to wear it can be difficult to achieve. At Robbie’s soccer game last weekend, the opposing team’s goalkeeper wore a protective head gear, which is the first I had seen at a recreational game. These aren’t regularly sold at soccer stores, so parents may not know they are available or how they protect. Likewise, kids might feel shielding equipment makes them look dorky, which is why it’s difficult to get them to wear bicycle helmets and knee and elbow pads. However, the more kids do it, the more players there will be who find it cool to follow the trend.

The unfortunate fall-out from the heavy media focus on anecdotal cases is that people see them as far more inclusive that they actually are. As a result, schools have begun to have discussions about ending football programs and other sports based on injury concerns. This alarmist approach isn’t responsible or reasonable. Certainly, if you are the parent of a child who suffers severe injury or god forbid death while playing, then the statistics just fly out the window. Nevertheless, we don’t all stop driving because we read about a fatal crash. We don’t even ban teen driving even though the clear statistics show that 15 and 16-year-olds have the highest percentage of driving accidents and fatalities. With far less disastrous outcomes in youth sports, it’s a bit surprising to see the reaction encouraging throwing the sport out. But it’s happening. Ohio football dipped from a high of 55,392 players in 2008 to 45,573 in 2013. Michigan football participation has dropped 10.5 percent since 2007, this year recording its lowest numbers since 1995. Nationally, high school football numbers have dropped 250,000 in the last five years. Individual high schools across the country have abandoned football for fears of injury and under pressure from parents who encourage their children to choose less “dangerous” sports. Soccer has substituted for these programs including being the center stage for homecoming celebrations. However, as football declines and soccer increases, so too will the concerns about injuries suffered by soccer players. In a decade, we may see the same arguments being put forth for the dissolution of soccer as has been forwarded for football. For example, concussion risk among female athletes is highest in soccer with 6.7 incidents per 10,000 athletes. Soccer is also where the highest incident of ACL injuries occur among females, which are not life-threatening, but can be career-ending.

Interestingly, another reason for abandoning some contact sports is a fear of lawsuits. Despite the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) being hit with a concussion lawsuit this year, only one high school football program has dropped out, but if the IHSA lose, it may be more inclined to reduce football state-wide. The lawsuit charges that the IHSA didn’t do enough to protect players from concussion, and the next court hearing is set for Oct. 16. Statistics on injuries will play a large part in how the case is decided. It will be interesting to see how the court rules concerning the IHSA’s responsibility, if any, in concussions suffered by players. As schools come under threat of lawsuits, they do a cost benefit analysis and decide to eliminate the things that lead to suits, primarily contact sports such as football, soccer, rugby and hockey. Naturally, there are risks to playing sports, and some of those risks are serious, though occur minimally. However, it may be more cost-effective to institute greater safety precautions and provide safety equipment which reduce injury. Schools may choose to require headgear for soccer players and rib shirts for football players. Coaches and trainers will need to be up to date on protocols not only for concussions but also for internal injuries, being able to detect the symptoms and severity of those damages. When a child is hit in the chest by a fast pitched ball and his heart is ruptured, he might have been saved by a “heart guard” which is a pad many leagues are now requiring baseball players to wear. However, the more protection that is available, the more parents may believe that their player can avoid injury. So when a child dies or gets a catastrophic body blow, the parents want to sue, believing the school or league could have done more to protect them.

The truth is that no magic solution exists. Injuries and fatalities will occur in cars, sports and household accidents. Unless we envelope our kids in bubble wrap, tie them to a feather bed, and keep them isolated from all germs and bacteria, we can’t protect them from everything. It’s good for them to get out and play, and parents can continue to educate ourselves on ways to make that play safer, though never free of risk.

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