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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.


Versatile Players

Sam Snow

Is there an article, blog post, or statement dealing with the positioning of U11-U12 players over the course of a season, or a year? I coach in a couple of different frameworks, but in one framework I just encountered a clash of sorts with a town administrator. This U12 girls' team plays in a results-oriented league with playoffs in the spring. I stated in an initial email to the team that my approach to playing U11-U12 players is to play them everywhere with equal time, and not just one position per game but one position over several successive games then moving to a new position for several successive games. For example, one player might play left forward for three games, then she will move to right back, for three games, and so on, such that the year ends with her having played in every position for a period of a few weeks. I've already lost this fall 2011 team because of this stated philosophy since the town administrator, overseeing the set of town U12 girl's teams, disagrees with this approach. He feels that, especially in a results-oriented league, with playoffs, and especially with respect to the keeper, that U11-U12 players should not be exposed to all the positions in this way. I feel strongly about playing U11-U12 players in all the positions in the way I stated previously, even in a results-oriented league. However, it occurred to me that I have not read this anywhere as a recommendation or directive from US Youth Soccer. I'm afraid now that I might be taking a stance on something that is without foundation so to speak. If there is any relevant reference material it would be helpful to know of it. I have looked but haven't found any.

I replied stating that I think that with the U12 age group you can have a player preform in all defensive positions before moving that player to the midfield line or the forward line.  So, rather than play right fullback for three matches and then move to center forward, the move could be to center or left fullback.  Once a player has played all positions (roles) in one line on the team (defender, midfielder and forward) move that player to the next line on the team.  For example, a player who has performed all positions in the defender line then moves to the midfield line and later to the forward line.

We believe that through the U14 age group players should be exposed to all of the positions in a team, including goalkeeper.  However, beginning with U12 and then on into the U13 and U14 age groups the players could begin to function 50% of the time in one particular line in the team; i.e., goalkeeper, defender, midfielder or forward.

The intent is to help the players learn about positioning over role specific positions.  By playing all of the positions in a team they better learn the principles of play and the particular tactics that go with each position on a team.  This well rounded approach to development will aid them greatly when they begin to specialize in a few positions beginning in the U15 age group.

Finally, it must be noted that this versatility will aid the players not only in making the cut on future teams (club, high school, college and pro), and it also helps them to be more adaptable to new team formations. Top notch soccer teams can play more than one team formation, requiring adaptability by the players. For example read this article on Barcelona which can change from 4-4-2 to 3-4-3.
"One of the big issues we face in educating coaches--is allowing [their] players to [play] non-position specific [roles]. Here we have arguably the best team in the world--full of flexible midfielders," says Paul Shaw, Coaching Education Director for Virginia Youth Soccer. The article supports, albeit some thought has to be given to make the connection, our approach that  girls U13 - U15 playing for US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program should have a 3-4-3 and the same for the boys in the U13 - U14 age groups.
I have always said that in US Youth Soccer ODP I am looking for two types of players, goalkeepers and field players.  If you are a field player then I expect you to be versatile and be able to play two or more positions.  In my 32 years as an ODP coach there have constantly been center midfielders turned into outside midfielders, defenders and wingers.  Yet another reason for us to continue to teach that kids should be exposed to playing all positions through the U14 age group.

Week 1 - FUN

Susan Boyd

Last weekend I watched my youngest son's team lose a game 4-1 with two of the goals occurring within minutes of one another. The coach left the field first, looking grim, and the boys did their cool downs and then walked slowly across the field with their heads down. The goalkeeper's mother stopped to talk to me and then saw that her son was standing at the railing surround the field talking to his father. "Oh he's talking. I didn't think he would want to talk." We've all been there: the utter dejection of a horrible loss. And in those moments it's difficult to remember that this is all supposed to be fun.

But without the fun, there would be no way to get past the times when we feel let down, disappointed, frustrated, or defeated. It's the fun we experience either watching or playing soccer that keeps us coming back. When kids look forward to playing, to practice, to traveling, and to being with their team, then they are developing the attitudes that will get them over the humps. So how do we make it fun for our kids and, by association, for us?

First, be supportive. No matter what happens on the field, begin your conversation with your child with a positive statement. If kids feel that their efforts are being appreciated, they are far more likely to want to continue in an activity. After all, who wants to stop watching "SpongeBob" to hit the pitch if all you hear is what you're doing wrong. Being supportive also means showing that you're happy your kids are playing soccer. I know some parents just don't like soccer. We weren't raised on the sport, so it can seem confusing and occasionally boring. This is all the more reason to sit down together as a family and watch a game on TV together. Talk about which players have your child's position, watch how they play and cheer for a team. Watching a game together validates your child's choice for a sport and can be a great way to bond. Don't show your discomfort with soccer, if you have any, and develop an enthusiasm for the game. The most important thing is for your child to feel your pride, which will give them the joy they should feel.

Second, make going to soccer fun. Before a game, make it an event by blasting game song as you pull into the parking lot. Let your kids spray their hair with team colors or put on some face paint. Bring signs to the field cheering the kids on the team. Establish points for doing certain things well during practice, which can include listening and following instructions, not just soccer skills. After a certain number of points they can be redeemed for an ice cream or a fancy sports drink. If your child feels he or she is missing out on a favorite TV show to attend practice, maybe recording the show will help. If your child becomes reluctant to play or practice, make sure he or she goes to the scheduled event, but don't force them to participate. Let them warm up to joining in, but make sure they understand that they have a commitment to fulfill, so they have to at least show up.

Third, do fun things together as a team. Arrange a barbecue after a practice, have a parent-child soccer game, attend a local high school, college, or pro soccer game, arrange for the kids to be ball boys/girls or even to scrimmage on the field during half-time, hold a parents' practice where the kids watch the parents get coached, and do a team news email that let's everyone know what's going on and mentions each player with some tidbit. In youth soccer, teams can range from groups of close friends to a blend of far-reaching players. Finding ways to keep camaraderie alive will also keep fun alive. When kids feel included in the family which is their team, they find themselves enjoying the experience more. The same goes for the parents, so be sure to get all the parents involved as well.

Finally, don't pass up an opportunity to have fun. If it's raining, turn the umbrella upside down and see how full you can get it. If it's cold out, have a foot stomping, hand clapping fest. If it's a blow-out game, then cheer for things other than the goals your team isn't making. If the field is a mud bowl, then have a cleanest/dirtiest uniform contest after the game or the practice. Attitude is everything. The older your kids get, the more fun will elude you. So set the bar high and keep aiming for it. Fun will see you through the tough times, the low moments, and the set-backs. I love watching professional players during a hard fought contest and see the joy on their faces no matter the score. Sure they are working to pull a victory out of the moment. Sure they hate getting penalties or missing a goal. But they can't disguise it when they feel that rush of joy at a great pass, an amazing shot, a breath-taking save, or a well-placed tackle. That joy began when they first touched the soccer ball. We can help our kids find the same fun, and in so doing, we'll get to share in the joy.

It's All Politics

Susan Boyd

Debt ceiling debates, taxes, entitlement programs, and campaign promises can't hold a candle to the politics parents experience in youth sports. From tryouts to playing time, to position on the team, parents witness the power of politics. We all have our war stories – the time our son didn't make the all-star team, the year our daughter sat on the bench, the season our son's team got demoted a level. We know how painful it is to experience the sting of a political action against our child or our child's team. I hear it on the sidelines all the time, "I'm okay with Ben not making the 'A' team because his skills aren't good enough, but I'm not okay with him not making the team because of politics."
Where does this insidious cloud arise? How do we get from having fun learning a new sport, to cut-throat decisions that impact our families with frustration and sadness? More importantly, how do we eliminate as much of the politics as possible? We need to look at three factors: coaches, club policies, and league decisions. There are solutions out there to improve the situation, but we first have to understand what creates them.
Youth sports could not exist without volunteer coaches. They provide the opportunity for thousands of youngsters to participate in and learn about a wide variety of sports with minimal initial expense. Most youth players can be part of a team for an entire season for $100 to $200 and sometimes even less. Many of these volunteer coaches are former players, but just as many can be helpful parents with little experience in the sport but lots of enthusiasm. Both types bring much needed support, management, and dedication to the players. Volunteer coaches are the bedrock upon which youth sports are built. In the early years of most youth sports, and in particular in youth soccer, coaches don't make decisions about who makes a team, playing time, and assigned position. Teams are usually randomly formed or built from a group of friends who register together. Playing time is mandated to be equal for all players, and in most leagues coaches are directed to rotate players through all of the possible positions. So the elements that breed politics aren't there. But trouble brews once some of these restrictions are either lifted or loosened for coaches. Now, volunteer coaches have power to make decisions that will affect kids' futures. That power translates to families as political.

Volunteer coaches often coach their own children, so conflicts of interest crop up continually further aggravating the impression of political bias. Even more frustrating can be that these same coaches hold positions of power in the clubs or league organizations that govern their behavior. Therefore these coaches can wield a great deal of power when it comes to our children. No matter how much expertise a coach may have, it's hard to overcome an impression of bias in parents' eyes when they feel it's directed towards their children. Just as each of us wants the best for our children and their future, coaches have the same desires. But they have more latitude to make things happen. So, no matter what their motivation, parents will read political intentions in their decisions.
Once kids make the move from playing recreational sports to playing select sports, issues of politics will arise. Now decisions that outsiders make affect our children directly. Parents who enjoyed a friendly and significant relationship with their club may find themselves and their kids pushed out. They feel betrayed by a club that they supported through many volunteer efforts, and sometimes, ironically, as volunteer coaches. But clubs feel the need to nurture winning teams rather than relationships because clubs need money to survive. Players won't flock to losing clubs, especially high paying players, so clubs need a winning reputation to draw members in. Their decisions can seem ruthless for a family that has been with a club for years, part of that club family, and comfortable in their routine. There is definitely a loss of innocence, and parents see politics behind their pain.
Even leagues can make political decisions that negatively impact our children. Some leagues will firmly limit the number of teams that can play in each division so that teams that have the same records end up in different levels. Since the factors to separate those teams go beyond win-loss records and competitors, they may seem fickle and therefore politically motivated. When leagues have board members whose children play on teams that appear to receive favored treatment, accusations of politics are sure to follow. When all-star leagues have coaches from teams that field more than the average number of players, then parents will cry foul, and whispers of politics will flood the sidelines. 
As youth players grow and improve, the distance between strong players and capable players will widen. As the rules and regulations on playing time and playing position relax, some players will benefit and some will suffer. Therefore, it's not always politics, but certain behaviors by authorities that can lend a political air to even the most innocent decision. One way to avoid personal involvement in important team decisions would be to hire professional coaches after a certain age level. But this diminishes the powerful and significant role volunteer coaches can play in a sport. Even volunteer coaches can be "professional" in terms of teaching the sport, behaving with integrity, and promoting good sportsmanship. Coaches should be licensed which will assure a minimum level of knowledge and skill. U.S. Youth Soccer Association offers a National Youth License and most state associations require that coaches be licensed through U.S. Youth Soccer, U.S. Soccer Federation, and the National Soccer Coaches Association. Additionally clubs may limit volunteer coaches from coaching their own children especially once rules that demand equality in play and position are relaxed.
Parents need to be aware that despite lectures about loyalty and willing acceptance of hours of volunteer work, clubs will drop a player if another one they perceive as a better player comes along. Clubs have restrictions on them for recruiting. So, you can watch and be diligent that your club is not violating those restrictions since that can negatively impact your child. Sometimes a player is recruited whose family has the means to pay the club dues and fees, but they get those waived by club in return for agreeing to play. That can really sting, especially if your family is struggling to pay the dues and if the "scholarship" player hops out of a late-model Cadillac when he comes to practice. There is little you can do to protect yourself from these situations except to understand that they happen and you have little recourse when they do. Additionally, when playing against clubs that play fast and loose with the rules, your team may be the victim. For example most youth teams up to age 12 are not to be "select" teams with handpicked players. But clubs looking to develop stronger teams at the older ages will begin that development early with younger players. Parents can quickly see the handwriting on the wall and gravitate towards those clubs with the hopes of giving their kids a jump-start on the process. It's a situation brewing with political overtones. Loopholes in the rules and passive enforcement allow these situations to continue, not to mention that many soccer authorities will argue; creating ""super"" teams allows the best development of top players. 
The best solution to keep politics at a minimum is to insure that those who have the power to make decisions don't have any conflicts of interest. Parents should not be deciding if their child, a relative's child, a child's friend, or a neighbor's child are worthy of being on a team. Parents and clubs should insist upon a clean process. So, even if a parent is coaching his or her child, another coach should be brought in to help with the try out process. If a parent serves on a board for a club or a league, that parent has to stay out of any decision that directly impacts his or her child, club, relative, neighbor or friend. As a parent you need to insist on this type of integrity in the try out process and in the coaching process. If you are sure that playing time issues and positions are decided in a political way, then you should probably look for another team for your child for the next season.
We will never wipe out the cloud of politics in youth sports. We get to enjoy a few years free of that stain and then we have to face the reality of how sports get promoted in America. But we can try to keep the innocence and joy of the sport alive for as long as possible. Don't make your opinions about political behavior known to your children. Talk to them about what they could improve upon to get on that all-important team, increase their playing time, or win the coveted position. After all, politics or not, each child must learn not to rely on sour grapes and the scapegoat of politics if they want to improve and get ahead in youth sports, school, jobs, or life. Use the opportunity to teach those life lessons and leave the politics to the politicians.

Passback Tour

Sam Snow

This past Saturday I had the pleasure to work at a U.S. Soccer Foundation Passback clinic in Dallas. Here's some background on the program in case you are not familiar with it.
The U.S. Soccer Foundation's Passback Tour, brought to you by Nestle Pure Life, features a series of free soccer clinics for youth in underserved communities.

The Passback Tour provides:
-Soccer clinics that emphasize the importance of healthy lifestyles
-Interactive health-hydration booths for families of youth participating in the soccer clinics
-Connections for families with local soccer programs that will help children achieve the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity daily

Through the Foundation's Passback Program, new and gently used soccer gear is collected by organizations, teams, clubs and individuals, then redistributed across the globe to help underserved communities play the Beautiful Game. Soccer is a unifying force that brings together people of all ethnicities and has the power to open doors, hearts, and minds of those who play.

Since its inception, the Passback Program has collected and distributed over 750,000 pieces of soccer gear. However, there is always more that can be done. We hope that you can help us reach our ultimate goal of collecting and distributing 1 million pieces of equipment.

The dedication to the Passback Tour has allowed us to enrich lives through soccer and provide desperately needed equipment to hundreds of people who don't have the means to get equipment on their own. We truly appreciate all of our "Passback Stars" hard work and dedication to the Program. Find out how you can jump on board to this unique opportunity that allows people to reach out and connect to their community. Share the Equipment, Share the Game!

Dr. John Thomas spearheaded the event along with the help of David Edwards, Health Educator for the Diabetes Health and Wellness Institute – An Affiliate of Baylor Health Care System and Brian Gonzales, Founder & President of Good Football, a Sport & Development Group, The clinic was held at the facilities of the Diabetes Health and Wellness Institute. Many thanks go to their staff for making the facility available for free, as well as having several of their staff members assist with registration and service to the attendees.

The boys and girls who attended the clinic ranged in age from 5 to 12 years old. Some had played the game before and some were new to soccer. We laid out 10 grids and then split up the kids by ages with appropriate age groups in each grid. The clinic was conducted in two 1 hour sessions. At the first session, while it was still below 100 degrees, we had 125 kids attend. At the second session, as the temperature rose to 100+ degrees (that it has been in Dallas all summer long), we had 80 kids out playing the game. Helping Dr. Thomas and me with the coaching was Tom, a North Texas State Staff Coach and quite a few North Texas State Soccer ODP players. 

The ODP players were paired up and each pair was given a grid to run training activities and small-sided games with the kids. It was fun watching the ODP players, who are quite accustomed to being on the other side of the ball as players, in a training session now taking on the coaching role. After they got their balance in their new role, several of them did quite well. I can tell you that there are a few future coaches among them

Dr. Thomas and I ran the ODP players through how to conduct the training activities before the kids arrived. A few of the ODP players worked both sessions and thus committed themselves to a three hour stint at coaching youngsters in 90+ degree heat. In fact, it got hot enough during the day that 10 balls popped. I can honestly say that I had not seen that happen before – soccer ball spontaneous combustion!

Outstanding training activities were provided by Vince Ganzberg from his Human Development program for Indiana Soccer which has the goal of "Raising the Bar for Indiana's Youth through Soccer." If you would like to have a copy of the booklet with the activities we conducted and more, just contact the Indiana Soccer office or me and a copy of the booklet will be E-mailed to you.

Thanks go out to Charles Dickson for the photos of the North Texas State Soccer ODP players coaching the kids during the two sessions. Impressively, another 900 pictures were taken of the kids. The US Youth Soccer marketing department also, provided premium give-away items for both Youth Soccer Month and Soccer Across America.

If you ever have the chance to be involved in a Passback clinic or any Soccer Across America event, I urge you to do so!